Tuesday , 27 June 2017

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Task Force Essay: Islam, Science, Methodological Naturalism, Divine Action, and Miracles


How does the world really function, in its most fundamental way? And what is God’s role in it?

These are two “big questions”, among the biggest that there are, and one may wonder whether we

humans could possibly reach any satisfactory and consistent answers that would not just be “sophisticated views” but have solid ground underlying them. After all, humans deciding what God’s role is supposed to be, what He can and cannot do, will certainly seem presumptuous, as one may recall the well-known Qur’anic verse: “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does, and they shall be questioned (for theirs).”[1] (Q 21:23)

The first question, however, about how the world functions, seems much more within reach of human effort and purview, and indeed, on one level at least, that is what science has been doing, to greater and greater success. Science has identified many (most?) of the essential processes underlying phenomena in nature. Most importantly, it has identified “laws of nature”, or at least “laws of science”[2], that seem to regulate the observed order and regularity in the world. And the huge progress that humans have made on that first question is indicative of the validity of that quest. This then lends encouragement to the pursuit of the second one.

Critics or skeptics might promptly retort that this line of thinking is tantamount to “jumping the gun”, for it implies that nature follows some “laws”, that the latter are “real”, that in the previous paragraph God was not even mentioned or been given any place or role in the scheme of things other than perhaps to have created the world and its laws. Thus the two questions above are actually intimately related: we won’t be able to describe how the world really functions without deciding what God’s role is, and vice versa.

Moreover, looking down into our agenda, we won’t be able to say something about divine action and miracles without having addressed the concept of naturalism, as presupposed by modern science. We thus understand why Philip Clayton (in the above quote) regards this as the central issue in the mutual dialogue and quest for harmony between theology and science.

Methodological Naturalism

The concept of methodological naturalism (MN) is a crucial and largely under-appreciated pillar of modern science, one which explicitly or implicitly leads to conflicts, or at least to difficulties, in the “harmonization” with Islam/Religion. It is important to distinguish it from “philosophical” or “metaphysical” naturalism, which is the atheistic claim of non-existence of supernatural entities altogether, what is often referred to as “materialism.” The latter is a position that many philosophers and scientists adopt, but it is not a principle of Science.

As Phil Stilwell explains, “MN is a provisional epistemology and ontology that provides a framework upon which to do science… MN [entails] that science begin each particular inquiry with the assumption that any explanation will fall within the existing matrix of established material definitions and laws… MN also implies that, if a natural explanation does not immediately emerge from the inquiry, we do not default to a declaration of a supernatural cause.” (Stilwell, 2009, 229)

MN has become a pillar of modern science for reasons of pragmatism and efficacy: MN has proved itself efficient in advancing scientific exploration and discoveries, and it is a reasonable, minimalist assumption, in accord with “Occam’s razor”, which then makes it superfluous to call upon supernatural agents when material causes can explain the phenomenon. Indeed, supernatural explanations were soon identified as “science stoppers”, an end to the explanatory process, thus a non-productive or even counter-productive approach for progress in finding further truths about nature and devising useful applications.[3]

Clearly such a framework for Science poses a challenge to at least some Islamic conceptions of the world and nature, as Muslims often claim and insist that God acts physically and directly in the world, in cases of miracles or in everyday events, either at large scales (earthquakes, floods, etc.) or small, individual, personal scales (in responses to prayers, in particular). More generally, methodological naturalism keeps God “out of the picture”, looking at the world and nature as if God does not exist or does not act. This “cutting off of God’s hands” is indeed the main issue that Seyyed Hossein Nasr has regularly brought forward in rejecting the current naturalistic philosophy of modern science.

Other thinkers, however, from Ibn Rushd to Polkinghorne, have insisted on the regularity that God has put in the world (God’s “faithfulness”, or “reliability” or “consistency”), without which we cannot make predictions, nor even trust any knowledge we construct.

Even opponents of methodological naturalism, most notably Alvin Plantinga, have seen in its universality an important advantage for science (common to all, regardless of anyone’s beliefs, thus permitting more progress). None of the critics and opponents of methodological naturalism propose its full rejection. Draper (2005, 296) tells us that “even William Dembski (1994, 132), a leading critic of methodological naturalism, claims that one should appeal to the supernatural only when one has [very strong] reason to believe that what he calls one’s ‘empirical resources’ are exhausted.”

It thus becomes clear that Muslims, in attempts to harmonize Islamic theology today with modern science, must either fully take methodological naturalism onboard or present solid proposals that go beyond it. I, for one, have made the first choice – with its consequences.

Indeed, is there a contradiction between adopting both a theistic worldview and a thoroughly naturalistic methodology for science? I believe not. Methodological naturalism, as explained above, is a neutral standpoint and approach, and it has proven to be fruitful, appearing to correspond to how the world functions. Theologies that are fully consistent with modern science and methodological naturalism are far from trivial and require some sophisticated work. But they can be constructed.