Must Science Assume Atheism?
by Lenny Esposito
I recently listened to an interesting conversation between Alister McGrath and Jim Al-Kalili on the Unbelievable! podcast. Both guests have an extensive science background and had a very thought-provoking exchange. While McGrath is a Christian apologist Al-Kalili is a theoretical physicist, radio host, and president of the British Humanist Association.
One key point that McGrath mentioned on the program is the assumptions people take from the scientific enterprise. For example, I’ve spoken with many atheists who say in order to “do good science” one must assume atheism. They then conclude that science is itself an atheistic enterprise and they believe science and faith are then set against one another. But this is actually sloppy thinking, as McGrath pointed out, and it misses a key distinction.
Methodology versus Ontology
McGrath makes the point that science does adopt a certain methodology in its discipline, what is known as methodological naturalism. In other words, science approaches its exploration of the world as if the answers can all be found by uncovering various natural laws and functions. Scientists take this approach because it forces them to dig deeper; asking the “why does this thing function in this way” helps us investigate the natural world more completely.
However methodological naturalism is just that: a methodology. It’s an assumption the scientist makes as he approaches his work. This assumption, just like any other, has limitations and cannot inform us of other questions which may be equally relevant. As an illustration, think of a forensic scientist. A forensic pathologist can study a body and determine the cause of death. Perhaps the victim’s heart gave out under extreme stress. What the pathologist cannot do is say whether the person was under stress because…
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