“[R]ejection of the supernatural should not be a part of scientific methodology…. [S]cientists should be free to pursue hypotheses as they see fit, without being constrained by a particular philosophical account of what science is…. If science really is permanently committed to methodological naturalism, it follows that the aim of science is not generating true theories. Instead, the aim of science would be something like: generating the best theories that can be formulated subject to the restriction that the theories are naturalistic… [S]cience is better off without being shackled by methodological naturalism… [Intelligent design] should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific….”

Bradley Monton

I’ve blogged about philosophy of science before, and I’ve even read some arguments by Christian philosophers (such as Norman Geisler) arguing that intelligent design should be considered a scientific theory. At first, I was unconvinced, but Professor Monton’s thoughts forced me to reconsider my opinions, not just about intelligent design, but about Science in general. What is “Science”? What are its limits? Where does it end (and begin)?

I think everyone has a rough picture of what Science is, and I also think that our rough pictures tend to agree. Lab coats, graduated cylinders, complicated math: the markers of Science are pretty obvious.

But what, fundamentally, unites chemistry, physics, and the other sciences (while excluding, for instance, the study of literature)? It’s hard to say.

The first problem is that there’s an ambiguity in the definition of “Science” (which my friend CDK pointed out in his comment on my aforementioned blog post). Science, it seems, consists both in the gathering of empirical data through observation and in the theoretical extrapolation from that data toward a more generalized understanding of the world around us. Except…how is that different from a posteriori reasoning in general? I don’t see an immediate answer. To me, the boundaries of Science appear blurry and arbitrary.

Let’s take intelligent design as an example. A lot of people believe that ID is pseudoscientific because its hypothesis cannot be tested. But I could easily argue (and have argued) that many evolutionary claims cannot be tested. For example, we know (or have very good reason to believe) that there are extinct species that left no fossil record, but we have no means of testing putatively scientific claims about how these species evolved.

The point isn’t that ID should be considered scientific, or that a systematic and coherent formulation of what constitutes “Science” is impossible. Rather, the point is that “Science” may be an arbitrary category (at least in the popular mind), whose exact definition depends more on the historical development of particular disciplines than on anything else.

Maybe Monton (and ID theorists) are wrong and Science should be grounded upon some sort of methodological naturalism. But we should at least ask why. Why should philosophers and theologians have the freedom (that is what it is) to consider ID as a potentially viable (if ultimately untenable) option, while scientists preclude it as “unscientific” from the get-go? Why assume methodological naturalism if we are not explicitly advocating metaphysical naturalism – or if we are explicitly arguing against metaphysical naturalism?

There may be good answers to these questions, but I am not sure they will amount to much more than pragmatic answers. And, if that is the case, it may behoove us to remove Science from its cultural and epistemic pedestal.

(Hat tip to CR; his blog is where I found the post that motivated my own thoughts.)