Angus Menuge on methodological materialism and the search for truth

Dr. Angus Menuge
Dr. Angus Menuge

Methodological materialism is the view that requires scientists to explain everything they observe in nature using material causes and never intelligent causes.

And now, from the Evangelical Philosophical Society blog, an article entitled “Is methodological materialism good for science?”. The article is written by Dr. Angus Menuge, whom I wrote about before.


Should science by governed by methodological materialism? That is, should scientists assume that only undirected causes can figure in their theories and explanations? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there can be no such thing as teleological science or intelligent design. But is methodological materialism a defensible approach to science, or might it prevent scientists from discovering important truths about the natural world? In my contribution to The Waning of Materialism (OUP, 2010), edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer, I consider twelve of the most common arguments in favor of methodological materialism and show that none of them is convincing.

Of these arguments, perhaps the most prevalent is the “God of the gaps” charge, according to which invoking something other than a material cause is an argument from ignorance which, like a bad script writer, cites a deus ex machina to save our account from difficulty. Not only materialists, but also many Christian thinkers, like Francis Collins, worry that appeal to intelligent design commits the God of the gaps fallacy.

As I argue, however, not only is an inference to an intelligent cause not the same as an inference to the supernatural, it is a mistake to assume that all gap arguments are bad, or that only theists make them. If a gap argument is based solely on ignorance of what might explain some phenomenon, then indeed it is a bad argument. But there are many good gap arguments which are made both by scientific materialists and proponents of intelligent design.

So how do you make an argument like that?

As Stephen Meyer has argued in his Signature in the Cell, intelligent design argues in just the same way, claiming not merely that the material categories of chance and necessity (singly or in combination) are unable to explain the complex specified information in DNA, but also that in our experience, intelligent agents are the only known causes of such information. The argument is based on what we know about causal powers, not on what we do not know about them.

Since the inference is based on known causal powers, we learn that the cause is intelligent, but only further assumptions or data can tell us whether that intelligence is immanent in nature or supernatural. It is a serious mistake to confuse intelligent design with theistic science, and the argument that since some proponents of design believe that the designer is God, that is what they are claiming can be inferred from the data, is a sophomoric intensional fallacy.

Basically, you identify what material processes have been OBSERVED to be capable of, and then you show that the effect you are trying to explain is beyond the reach of those powers. For example, think of a Scrabble board left alone in a locked room with an open window from morning till evening. It’s summer, so the air conditioner is working hard all day. If you come home and enter the room and find a sentence on the Scrabble game board that says “IF YOU LEAVE YOUR WINDOWS OPEN THEN YOU PAY HIGHER ELECTRICITY BILLS” then does it make more sense to attribute that effect to the wind, or to an intelligent intruder?

If you are a materialist, then you can only appeal to matter, chance and time (and not much time, too). By ruling out intelligence, you are really confining yourself to an obviously wrong answer. But suppose you came home and found that that the tiles were scattered all over the board and on the floor and the only sequences spelled out “AN” and “ZYKDSFGOJD”. I think a better inference there is that the wind blew the bag open made a couple of nonsense sequences. Of course the idea that wind could blow open a bag of Scrabble letters at all is very unlikely, but if you rule out intelligence, that’s all you have left, no matter how strained the inference. You have to believe nonsense.

But what about the design theorist who can rule nonsense out as impossible? Well he hits on the correct explanation of the effect – intelligence.

As the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes says:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

But if an intelligent design theorist comes along and rules out material causes as an explanation of the effect by showing that the effect is beyond the reach of matter, time and chance, then the explanation of intelligence must be, however improbably, true. The important thing is to rule out materialism by evaluating what material causes can do. We don’t want to rule it out by pre-supposition, because that’s what the naturalists do when they rule out intelligence as an explanation. Ruling things out by pre-supposition is how you get wrong answers to questions. Everything has to be on the table that we have experienced. And every human knows what it is to sequence Scrabble letters into meaningful words and phrases

By the way, the publisher of the book, OUP, is Oxford University Press. Angus Menuge doesn’t mess around.

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