I came across an interesting post on the Saganist bog. Entitled Why I trust science it is a response to a discussion between a ‘philosophical naturalist’ and Christian radio hosts. The discussion was mainly around how we acquire knowledge so is relevant to some of the recent discussion on this site.
I prefer not to use categories like ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘naturalism’ because they are usually not defined, can mean different things to different people and can impose unwarranted assumptions. (There is, after all, just one reality so why divide it into meaningless ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ parts). These problems also occurred with the concepts of ‘matter’ and ‘materialism’ during the podcast referred to in the post. (Cartoon from xkcd).
Despite these qualifications I think the post makes a good argument for trusting scientific knowledge above the religious alternatives. It says in part:
“Particularly bad was their [the Christian radio hosts] assertion that the best worldview is the one that explains what others cannot, and therefore scientific naturalism is inferior because it cannot explain the supernatural. So how about the assertion, “I believe science, reason, and evidence are the best way of understanding the world. I accept the scientific consensus on all matters pertaining to reality. Also, I have an invisible dragon in my garage.” Is this a more correct worldview because it explains something supernatural that pure naturalism cannot explain? If my friend says that my garden is beautiful, and I say, “Yes, but did you know there are also fairies at the bottom of it?”, does that make my point of view superior? I don’t think so, because the addendum of “God did it” doesn’t really explain anything. There is no value in arriving at an explanation via Making Stuff Up.
If you’re going to compare worldviews, you need to examine them against the evidence. The evidence for scientific naturalism is that science works. The space shuttle flies, and vaccines work, and the reason they work is because science allows us to make testable predictions about the universe. Our understanding of reality has increased by orders of magnitude in the past, let’s say, 2000 years. We know that we are progressing in understanding because we are able to make successful predictions that we weren’t able to make before. Science is the tool for doing so, and it is also the tool for measuring our progress. That is the evidence.
How has our understanding of reality been increased by Christianity? How would we even know? Does Christianity make any testable predictions about the world? In a way, you could say that prophecy is a testable prediction. Unfortunately, most prophecies in the Christian tradition are so vague that they can be interpreted in dozens of ways. Even prophecies that are specific are not falsifiable, because any failures can be conveniently explained away with “God works in mysterious ways” or “I guess the people weren’t faithful enough” or any other rationalization you can come up with. Would the space shuttle fly in a Christian universe? Sure, probably. Did God tell us how to make the space shuttle fly? No.
Does the practicality of science prove that matter is all that exists? No, but it certainly suggests that it is a very valuable approach to assume that we live in a natural universe. As Steve said during the interview, asking for proof that “matter is all that exists” is really asking for proof of a negative proposition. One can no more disprove the existence of God than one can disprove the existence of the invisible dragon in my garage. It is the onus of supernaturalists to demonstrate a single counterexample to the proposition of naturalism. It is not the onus of naturalists to disprove every conceivable example of anything that would fall outside the realm of naturalism.”