I’ve always been perplexed by how scientists can be religious. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey of religious belief among scientists in the U.S. As might be expected religious belief was significantly lower among scientists than among the general public. Yet, fifty-one percent of scientists are theists or what could be called spiritual. That is a significant number.
So, how do you square the circle? How do you reconcile the fact that scientists are professionals in rational disciplines that demand high standards of evidence, yet, on the other hand, have this area of their life where they suspend their critical thinking skills?
Enter methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism as the explanation. In philosophy of science, proponents of metaphysical naturalism argue that everything can be reduced to the material. Everything that can be said to exist has a physical form. Advocates of methodological naturalism on the other hand assert that science can’t speak about everything that exists because there are things, for lack of a better word, that aren’t material. Science can’t tell us about the metaphysical–only the physical.
Translation and implication: I’m sure many of the fifty-one percent who believe in god(s) are able to be scientists as a result of their methodological naturalism. They break their lives into different compartments. In their professional compartment they exercise reason and investigate evidence. In their personal compartment they entertain their desire for mystery, or whatever it is that leads to belief in the supernatural.
I happen to agree with the implications of methodological naturalism as it relates to the practice of science. I happen to agree with the implications for different reasons though. Science can’t explain the metaphysical because it doesn’t exist. Or, at most, the metaphysical can be said to exist as a figment our imagination, err, our brain, its structure and biochemistry. Science can certainly study that.