Do scientists ever concern themselves over terms like ‘materialist,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘supernatural’? I don’t think so – at least those scientists working at the coal face. I have never heard any scientist posing the question – “is this phenomenon ‘natural’ or ’supernatural’?” before investigating something.
Yet today science is attacked by some people for limiting itself to only ‘natural’ phenomena. Intelligent design (ID) proponents (and they aren’t the only ones) rail against the ‘materialism’ of science. They demand that science should be changed to include ‘supernatural’ explanations.
These are attempts to introduce dogma into science.
Dogmatism within science
On the other hand some defenders of science fall into a trap set by these people when they talk about science being ‘limited’ to considering only ‘natural’ or ‘materialistic’ phenomena. Or when they claim the ‘rules’ of science prevent consideration of the ‘supernatural.’ This description also has the danger of introducing dogma into science.
The fact is that scientists investigate reality – not the ‘natural’ or ‘materialistic.’ And scientists don’t have a rule book defining what is, or isn’t, permissible to investigate.
A science which placed such limits on itself would become a dogma. After all, anything non-intuitive, outside common experience or conflicting with current knowledge could be defined as ‘supernatural’ and therefore excluded from scientific investigation.
Fortunately humanity has not restricted itself in this way. The lack of such restrictions has enabled acceptance of the non-intuitive Newtonian concepts of motion in the absence of force or action at a distance. Similarly we accept special and general relativity, and the non-determinism of quantum mechanics. Our acceptance is based on evidence – not any ‘natural’ – ‘supernatural’ classification system.
Evidential testing of claims
At a more mundane level we are often confronted with weird and wonderful claims by manufacturers, advertisers and religions about the properties of their products or the underlying mechanisms of their advertised effectiveness. Sometimes these claims are freely presented as ‘supernatural.’ It’s a knee-jerk reaction to reject these claims out of hand on the basis of current knowledge which is always incomplete. The real test of such claims is objective scientific evaluation – based on evidence. Of course, this might be the last thing the pedlars of such stories desire, and there is always the problem of who finances such research. But it is dogmatic to make claims either way without proper evaluation.
The real test of any idea is not whether it is ‘supernatural’ or ‘natural’ – after all what criteria does one use to make such a classification? The test is how well it stands up to testing in practice. This requires proper formulation of hypotheses, collection of data and testing the hypotheses against experiential evidence.
Those who wish to introduce ‘supernatural’ explanations into science are not interested in improving science. Their desire is to win acceptance for ‘pet’ ideas for which there is no justification or which they are not prepared to submit to experiential verification. When they say ‘supernatural’ they mean ‘without supporting evidence.’ Ken Miller characterized these sorts of demands as wishing to create “an intellectual welfare for an idea that can’t make it on its own.”