Naturalism and fishing nets
Trying to argue with someone who is using circular reasoning can be very frustrating. Quite often, evangelical atheists will defend their philosophical naturalism by pointing to science. There is often a hidden assumption of Scientism too, whereby only empirical proof counts as something to be accepted (this is not dissimilar to the way in which “there is no evidence” generally means “there is no evidence which I find persuasive”). But there is a major problem in pointing to science in a defence of philosophical naturalism, and that is that it is rather circular. You see, one cannot use a methodology which has a particular working assumption and scope and then claim that this assumption and scope are therefore the limits of reality. The notable geneticist Francis Collins, in his book ‘The Language of God’ gives the following analogy, borrowed from the renowned astrophysicist Arthur Eddington:
Science is not the only way of knowing… Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider limits of their own tools… [Eddington] described a man who set about to study deep-sea life using a net that had a mesh size of three inches. After catching many wild and wonderful creatures from the depths, then concluded that there are no deep-sea fish that are smaller than three inches in length! If we are using the scientific net to catch our particular version of truth, we should not be surprised that it does not catch the evidence of the spirit.
It is at this point that a number of philosophical naturalist I’ve spoken with will try and dodge the point by not demanding scientific evidence, but ask that I show ‘some other’ method of ‘knowing’ – a rose by any other name? Apparently, it doesn’t have to be science, it just needs to do exactly what science does, which, as is rather obvious, is simply begging the question.
Nobel prize-winner Sir Peter Medawar, in his book ‘Advice to a young scientist’ writes:
There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and on his profession than roundly to declare- particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for-that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that the questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way nonquestions or “pseudoquestions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer. … Philosophically sophisticated people know that a ”scientific” attack upon religious belief is usually no less faulty than a defense of it. Scientists do not speak on religion from a privileged position
As Oxford mathemetician and philosopher of science, John Lennox, puts it:
The point is that in cases where science is not our source of information, we cannot automatically assume that reason has ceased to function and evidence has ceased to be relevant.
If the question is about meta-physics, then expecting physical evidence or evidence via a physical methodology is as circular as expecting to find two-inch fish with a three-inch net.
- analogy | fishing net | francis collins | john lennox | naturalism | philosophy | science | scientism | sir peter medawar