Science and the Supernatural

An important issue in the intersection of science and religion is whether science should include supernatural explanations. A good post on this issue is What is Science? by Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog. Jason starts by saying

Science is best viewed as an activity undertaken with a specific goal in mind. That goal is to understand the way nature works. We measure our understanding by the extent to which we can make nature’s phenomena predictable and controllable. Any investigative technique that brings us closer to this goal can reasonably be considered part of science.

All of the standard pieces of the scientific method we learned about in high school – experimentation, hypothesis testing, inductive reasoning and so forth – have their role to play in bringing us closer to our goal of predictability and control. By contrast, hypothesizing the actions of ill-defined supernatural entities such as ghosts or poltergeists do not help us move closer to our goal. Consequently, the actions of supernatural entities play no role in modern scientific discourse. The day someone finds a way to use such an hypothesis to bring clarity to some confusing aspect of nature is the day scientists will embrace the supernatural.

Another relevant quote is:

I have had many religious people present to me the argument that science tries to discover the truth about nature, God is part of that truth, therefore God should be part of science. This fundamentally misses the point. Science isn’t really about ultimate truth. It’s about a more practical sort of truth.

This is an important point. The method of science excludes supernatural explanations for practical reasons, and this is called methodological naturalism, it does not mean that science is based on the position that supernatural explanations cannot be true, which is called philosophical naturalism (although scientists and anybody else are free to believe this). It is true that philosophers of science show us that there is no clear definition of what science is, the demarcation problem, but this does not mean that deciding whether something is science or not is always difficult and that we should do away with the distinction. Maybe it is in a tiny fraction of cases, but with supernatural explanations, I think the argument is clear.

Those who say that science ought to allow any explanation of reality are free to define this concept under another name, and free to develop a rigorous method for building confidence in any explanation, but they cannot automatically take the credibility of science without accepting the boundaries of science that allow it to have that credibility.

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