Is Supernatural Causation Compatible with Science?

Is Supernatural Causation Compatible with Science?

When defenders of naturalistic evolution state their case, they frequently begin with the claim that their theory is “scientific.” Alternative views, especially those that would invoke supernatural causation, are pejoratively dismissed as “pseudoscience,” pseudo because they falsely claim to have scientific legitimacy. Given science’s respected status, this becomes a powerful rhetorical device to marginalize Christian claims that life on Earth involved the supernatural intervention of God.

This view played a critically important role in the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.1 Attempts to require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” (ID) were opposed by many parents who claimed it was a subterfuge for bringing religious teachings into the classroom. Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Judge John E. Jones of the District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania concluded that ID should not be taught in the public schools because, among other reasons, “ID is not science.” Why? Because it “violates the age-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation.”

But are there any such “age-old ground rules”? Can science not legitimately consider the possibility of supernatural causation? It turns out this so-called “age-old rule” has been discredited, leaving science no basis for excluding supernatural causation.

Development of Science’s “Ground Rules”

When thinker Francis Bacon conceived of what we now call the scientific method in his Novum Organon (1620), it is correct to say he believed any testable hypothesis must be derived from our physical sense experience. This is what we call the method of induction. One starts with data and generalizes toward a hypothesis from the data, then tests the hypothesis. It is a methodology that would, indeed, seem to exclude supernatural causation.

During the next two centuries the notion grew that science, grounded in this methodology, could purge humanity from the distortions of religion and superstition. In the nineteenth century, this idea took the form of positivism, a view vigorously embraced by a group of like-minded scientists and philosophers in the early twentieth century known as the Vienna Circle. Positivism is based on the claim, following Bacon, that the only source of positive knowledge of the world is information we derive from our physical senses. No scientific hypothesis is valid, on this view, unless it is derived from data that can be directly observed, measured, or reproduced. These ideas, having been stirred through much of the nineteenth century, were influential enough that as they spread during the early twentieth century, “an intellectual hegemony of positivism was beginning to be established” in American universities.2

By the mid-twentieth century, however, it became clear that the positivist model was running into problems. It was neither defensible philosophically, nor did it accurately describe how scientists function in practice. As philosopher Richard Bernstein wrote in 1976: “There is not a single major thesis advanced by either nineteenth-century positivists or the Vienna Circle that has not been devastatingly criticized when measured by the positivist’s own standards for philosophical argument.”3 In commenting on Berstein’s remarks, Donald Schon observes “[a]mong philosophers of science no one wants any longer to be called a positivist.”4

The underlying problem goes back to Bacon’s assumption that science operates exclusively on the principle of induction, the idea that any testable hypothesis must be derived from our sense experience. It doesn’t. Induction is certainly one way to form a hypothesis, but it is not exclusive. In practice there is no prescribed method scientists use for developing hypotheses—they are often products of our imaginative and creative minds.

The alternative to induction is the method of deduction. Here one starts with a generalized hypothesis and works toward specifics. Philosopher Karl Popper, a critic of induction, argued “[t]here is no logical method of having new ideas . . . every discovery contains an ‘irrational element’, or a ‘creative intuition.’” He reinforced his argument with quotes from Einstein: “There is no logical path leading to these . . . laws. They can only be reached by intuition, based upon something like an intellectual love of the objects of experience.”5 Popper’s assertion is that the hypotheses scientists test are not products of some disciplined method of organizing data, but rather products of the creative human mind.

Bertrand Russell expressed the issue more pointedly:

Bacon’s inductive method is faulty through insufficient emphasis on hypothesis. He hoped that mere orderly arrangement of data would make the right hypothesis obvious, but this is seldom the case . . . so far no method has been found which would make it possible to invent hypothesis by rule.6

The Essence of Science Is Testing Hypotheses

Science does not really care about the source of the hypothesis. It is concerned about testing ideas once they take the form of a hypothesis. The hypothesis is then tested by the rigid standards of science to determine if it fits what we observe in the surrounding universe. These methods cannot always prove the hypothesis is true—science cannot prove God, for example. But testing can determine if a particular hypothesis is false.

Yet old ideas die hard. In his historical review of positivism, the late German philosopher Oswald Hanfling writes:

… even if the parent plant is dead, many of its seeds are alive and active in one form or another. In an interview in 1979, A.J. Ayer, a leading philosopher of our time, who had been an advocate of logical positivism in the 1930s, was asked what he now saw as its main defects. He replied: ‘I suppose the most important . . . was that nearly all of it was false.’ Yet this did not prevent him from admitting shortly afterwards that he still believed in ‘the same general approach.’7

Thus positivism remains a foil, if a flawed one, used by defenders of naturalistic evolution to discredit Christian views of creation.8

When Reasons to Believe offers its testable creation model, the “test” is a scientific one: is the model consistent with that which we observe in the universe? If it is not, the model can be said to be falsified. If it is, it does not mean the model is proven (verified), but it does mean it cannot be discarded as inconsistent with that which we observe through legitimate science. The more tests the model passes, the more one can say it is grounded in good science.

When advocates of naturalistic evolution offer their model, they too are operating in this realm. They propose a hypothesis then test it by comparing its predictions with that which we observe in the universe. Both approaches employ sound science in the way we want science to operate—as a tool for finding truth and testing truth claims against observations of the natural realm. To be sure, that process itself is fraught with its own complications as philosophers of science debate what ultimate truths can or cannot be asserted once one forms a hypothesis.9 But the starting point is always the hypothesis.

Naturalistic evolution and the RTB creation model are two competing hypotheses that differ in many fundamentals. Science, functioning properly, can and should be willing to test both hypotheses against our observations of the universe in an effort to understand which model better explains the whole of reality. To discard the RTB model because it permits supernatural causation is both irrational and “unscientific” in that it excludes possible answers to big questions with no justification in science for doing so. Perhaps it’s time to discard the “age-old ground rules” of science in favor of a new ground rule for testing all hypotheses.

  1. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
  2. Donald A. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 32–34.
  3. Richard J. Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 207, quoted in Schon, The Reflective Practitioner, 48–49.
  4. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner, 49.
  5. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002, originally published in 1935), 8–9.
  6. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge Classics, 1996, first published in 1946), 529.
  7. See Oswald Hanfling, chap 5, in Routledge History of Philosophy, Volume IX: Philosophy of Science, Logic, and Mathematics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stuart G. Shanker (New York: Routledge, 1996), 193–94.
  8. The misuse of positivism is not exclusively a problem for Christians. See Allen S. Lee, “Positivism: A Discredited Model of Science Still in Use in the Study and Practice of Management,” SSRN (September 1987), doi:10.2139/ssrn.2622718.
  9. See Kyle Stanford, “Underdetermination of Scientific Theory,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017), ed. Edward N. Zalta,