In Defense of Naturalism

I recently came across a peer-reviewed article, “In Defense of Naturalism,” by Gregory Dawes, a member of the departments of both philosophy and religion at The University of Otago in New Zealand. He is also a Biblical scholar. The piece presents an excellent defense of philosophical naturalism. (I am a philosophical naturalist.)Below are a few excerpts along with some of my own comments.


History and the modern sciences are characterized by what is sometimes called a “methodological naturalism” that disregards talk of divine agency. Some religious thinkers argue that this reflects a dogmatic materialism: a non-negotiable and a priori commitment to a materialist metaphysics.

In response to this charge, I make a sharp distinction between procedural requirements and metaphysical commitments. The procedural requirement of history and the sciences—that proposed explanations appeal to publicly-accessible bodies of evidence—is non-negotiable, but has no metaphysical implications. The metaphysical commitment is naturalistic, but is both a posteriori and provisional, arising from the fact that for more than 400 years no proposed theistic explanation has been shown capable of meeting the procedural requirement.

I argue that there is nothing to prevent religious thinkers from seeking to overturn this metaphysically naturalistic stance. But in order to do so they would need to show that their proposed theistic explanations are the best available explanations of a range of phenomena. Until this has been done, the metaphysical naturalism of history and the sciences remains defensible.

Dawes begins by noting that historians considering the causes of the American Civil War, for example, “do not even consider the possibility of divine action; the only causal factors they will look for are natural causes.” So historians reject the suggestion that the cause, for example, was that God wanted to punish the South for their support of slavery. That just isn’t the kind of explanation that historians look for. Quoting the Christian historian Herbert Butterfield,

the historian must play the game according to the rules. Within the
scholarly realm that is here in question he is not allowed to bring God into
the argument, or to pretend to use him as a witness, any more than a
scientist, examining a blade of grass under the microscope, is allowed to
bring God into his explanation of the growth or decay of plants. (Butterfield
1979: 134; cf. 1950: 19–20)

Nonetheless, religious thinkers have increasingly rejected this idea, arguing instead “that the exclusion of divine agency … is based on an a priori and non-negotiable commitment to a godless metaphysics.” In short, modern historians “have simply decided in advance that human history cannot be the sphere of divine action.” Similar charges have been leveled against the natural sciences who also “eschew talk of divine action.”

Dawes replies by citing numerous examples of historians not being motivated by hostility toward religion or a penchant for materialism. Still, the opponents of naturalism argue that whatever their motives, “historians study the world … as if there were no God” instead of admitting God might explain certain events.

Dawes responds by distinguishing “the (non-negotiable) procedural requirement of history and the sciences and their (provisional) metaphysical commitment to natural explanations.” The procedural requirement demands

that any claims about human beings or the world they inhabit should be supported by reference to some publicly-accessible body of evidence. This procedural requirement, does not, in principle, exclude reference to divine agency. It would permit a theistic explanation if that explanation could be supported by the right kind of evidence. I shall argue that while the procedural requirement is a non-negotiable stance, it is also a relatively uncontroversial one, even among Christian thinkers.

The provisional commitment to metaphysical naturalism, Dawes argues, is

justified by reference to the history of these disciplines. It is provisional in that it is defeasible: it could (in principle) be overturned … if the theologian were to present a series of successful theistic explanations of the kinds of facts in which scientists and historians are interested. Such explanations would conform to the procedural requirements of history and the sciences, in that they would appeal to publicly accessible bodies of evidence. They would posit the existence and action of God as the most adequate explanation of the facts to which they appeal. But until religious believers do this, the metaphysical naturalism of modern historians and scientists requires no defense beyond the practice of their disciplines.

In conclusion Dawes states,

I have argued that we should make a clear distinction between the procedural demands of history and the sciences and their (provisional) commitment to natural explanations. Their procedural demand is nothing more than the requirement that claims be tested against a body of publicly-accessible evidence. While I have suggested that this procedural demand is non-negotiable, I have argued that it is also relatively uncontroversial.

What is controversial is the metaphysical naturalism of history and the sciences, which excludes talk of divine agency. This naturalism, I have suggested, rests on the fact that historians and scientists operate with a working ontology, a sense of what kinds of entities are likely to exist. This is drawn from both common sense and the results of historical and scientific enquiry. This ontology is merely provisional, in the sense that it could be revised given appropriate evidence.

But appropriate evidence is needed. Religious thinkers who fail to offer publicly-testable evidence that their proposed theistic explanations are the most adequate
explanations on offer have no reason to complain if the rest of us continue to
ignore them.

Brief Thoughts

It is rare to find such accessible writing in an academic piece—Dawes’s argument is clear and concise. Here’s how I would explain it to my college students.

The procedural aspect of science excludes gods, ghosts, goblins, and gremlins as explanations. If you want to know why earthquakes happen the “God is mad at Japan or gay people” is not a scientific explanation. If you want to know why bread rises in hot ovens, the “excited, invisible gremlins jump up and down and puff up the bread” isn’t a scientific explanation either. That’s just how science works, and boy does it work. Just look at the world around you.

Metaphysical naturalism, which rejects the existence of supernatural entities, is a philosophical position open to revision if the evidence warrants it. If the existence and action of gods provide the best explanation for something a historian or scientist is studying, then science will change its mind and begin to accept those explanations. If prayer was shown to cure disease then by all means pray. (Of course multiple studies have shown this not to be true.) But until then, I’d take the antibiotic the doctor gives you and skip the praying.



Butterfield, Herbert. 1950. Christianity and History. London: G. Bell and Sons.
――――. 1979. “Does Belief in Christianity Validly Affect the Modern Historian?”
In Herbert Butterfield: Writings on Christianity and History edited by C. T.
McIntyre, 133–50. New York: Oxford University Press.

This draft paper is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. You are free to cite this material provided you attribute it to its author; you may also make copies, but you must include the author’s name and include this license.

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of Naturalism

  1. “a posteriori and provisional”

    Evolutionary epistemology in just 2 adjectives! I need to use this more often. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Right Ed! Compliment that with conjecture and refutation, to draw on Popper.

    Thanks John.

  3. naturalism would be challenged if one could show the existence of an agent, that is, if it could be shown that at least one of the four premises of the problem of evil argument are true. That agent might be God perhaps like the one described in the first three premises. That agent may also be the one causing any evil that might exist in the world.

    It is easy to dismiss God who can be viewed as transcending empirical evidence, but perhaps it is not so easy to dismiss evil that some find more evident. One would have to convert anything evil into an event causation that neutralizes it and claim that those who see evil in the world are deluded just as they are deluded about their free will.

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