Isn't it interesting that theists love to tell atheists that their metaphysical beliefs are incoherent, but they can't accurately describe what those beliefs are? I'm following two different blog posts currently where this arrogant attitude is displayed by theists. One is about metaphysical naturalism, and the other is about methodological naturalism. In both cases, the theist presents a straw-man version of naturalism, and then argues that it is illogical or incoherent. The straw man is apparently due to a lack of understanding the naturalist's position.
Let's start with metaphysical naturalism. On CADRE Comments, Don McIntosh has posted an article called Why I Am Not a Metaphysical Naturalist. It contains a number of statements about the supposed incoherency of naturalism, mostly based on the implicit assumption of theism. For example, the dualistic notion that mind is immaterial in essence, and can't emerge from or be supervenient upon the physical is taken for granted, and used as a basis for dismissing monistic materialism as a coherent worldview. This kind of circular reasoning is pervasive among theists, and I have come to expect it.
But what irritates me is that a theist arguing against naturalism wouldn't bother to understand what naturalism entails. McIntosh does this with his pronouncement
Per the epistemology of naturalism itself — that only scientifically rigorous beliefs are justified — naturalism is therefore an unjustified belief.Where does one get the idea that naturalism entails such a thing? As I explained, the epistemology of a naturalist is likely to be empiricism, which is one of the oldest forms of epistemology in philosophy. Thomas Aquinas once said "There is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses." It is not something invented by modern scientists to provide justification for their beliefs, as "reformed epistemology" has been invented by modern theists to provide an air of legitimate epistemic justification for emotionally-based theistic beliefs.
A proper epistemology provides a foundation or grounding for knowledge, and empiricism does that, with the basic assumption that the evidence of the senses gives us justification for knowledge. Note that this is not the same as the notion that all beliefs must be scientifically verified, including the belief that all beliefs must be scientifically verified. That is obviously incoherent, as McIntosh correctly notes, but it is a straw man. It simply doesn't represent the actual epistemological views of real naturalists. In using this as an excuse to deny metaphysical naturalism, the theist may leave us with the impression that he is searching for reasons, and will grasp at any straw, even if he has to invent his own straw man.
And then there's methodological naturalism. This concept is perhaps even more broadly misunderstood by theists (and to be fair, by some atheists as well). Robert A. Larmer has presented a straw man argument for metaphysical naturalism that amounts to circular reasoning by misrepresenting what it is. The argument is given as:
1) If one is a metaphysical naturalist then one should be a methodological naturalist. i. e. refuse ever to postulate nonphysical entities as the cause of a physical event.We can see that this does indeed present a case of circular reasoning, but it doesn't present any kind of realistic understanding of the concept of methodological naturalism. In fact, it seems to conflate metaphysical and methodological naturalism, or at the very least, it doesn't distinguish between them. The dialog that follows (on page 118) falsely depicts the naturalist as religiously dogmatic in his insistence that there can't be any non-natural entities. In this manner, Larmer attempts to turn science itself into a dogmatically anti-immaterialist worldview - one that would "refuse ever to postulate nonphysical entities as the cause of a physical event."
2) One should not believe in nonphysical entities without good evidence.
3) There is no good evidence for nonnatural entities.
4) Therefore one should accept metaphysical naturalism, and by logical extension, methodological naturalism.
The trouble is that it's not true that science refuses to postulate nonphysical entities. There have been numerous scientific experiments designed to determine whether nonphysical or non-natural explanations are borne out by observation. It is possible that experimentation like this would indicate something other than natural law as an explanation for observed phenomena, but so far, all such experiments have failed. It is observation, not dogma, that excludes supernatural explanations. As it is, all observable phenomena remain subject to scientific investigation, precisely because they exhibit the kind of behavioral regularity that indicates natural law and not supernatural intervention.
Methodological naturalism is concerned with the reliability and repeatability of results. Science can only proceed on the basis that phenomena under observation behave in a consistent and repeatable manner, as natural laws would dictate. Methodological naturalism is not an epistemology. It is not a metaphysical stance. In fact, there are many Christian scientists who adhere to methodological naturalism, as scientists must necessarily do. As Lawrence Lerner describes it:
Methodological naturalism is not a "doctrine" but an essential aspect of the methodology of science, the study of the natural universe. If one believes that natural laws and theories based on them will not suffice to solve the problems attacked by scientists - that supernatural and thus nonscientific principles must be invoked from time to time - then one cannot have the confidence in scientific methodology that is prerequisite to doing science.The amazing thing is that a PhD philosopher like Larmer, who holds the chair of philosophy at New Brunswick University would think that science dogmatically excludes supernatural explanations. This is nothing more than a gross misunderstanding of science and methodological naturalism. And this misunderstanding is common among theists who should know better, like Victor Reppert, who repeats this rubbish without question.
These are the same folks who bash people like Richard Dawkins as being philosophically ignorant for asking the question "Who made God?" But when it comes to matters of science, they couldn't hold a candle to any kid who graduated from a high school STEM program. Yet they are convinced they understand it better than the scientists do. Yeah, right.