I would love to share in a series of posts here some of Jerry Coyne’s paper, Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America, for those who do not have online access to it. (It is available through a paywall only — see the link for details.) Jerry Coyne’s blog post certainly assures us he would like it to be shared widely.
Not a matter of anti-supernatural bias
I am singling out here one short section in the paper in which he addresses the claim often heard among the faithful that scientists (and by extension we could also say historians) approach their studies with a bias against the supernatural.
The idea that deities don’t affect the universe, then, is not an unjustified a priori assumption, as theologians often claim, but a conclusion born of experience: the experience that only a naturalistic attitude — -that is, a scientific one — has helped us understand nature and make verified predictions about it. As our confidence that science helps us understand the universe grows, so wanes our notion that immaterial and supernatural forces exist.
So what leads to this conclusion?
Beyond this incompatibility of methodology and outcomes is a philosophical incompatibility: the scientific view that supernatural beings aren’t just unnecessary to explain the universe (“methodological naturalism”), but can be taken as nonexistent (“philosophical naturalism”). Forrest (2000, p. 21) explains the link between these two forms of naturalism:
Taken together, the (1) proven success of methodological naturalism combined with (2) the massive body of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a comparable method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of any conclusive evidence for the existence of the supernatural, yield philosophical naturalism as the most methodologically and epistemologically defensible world view.
This is where philosophical naturalism wins — it is a substantive worldview built on the cumulative results of methodological naturalism, and there is nothing comparable to the latter in terms of providing epistemic support for a worldview. If knowledge is only as good as the method by which it is obtained, and a world view is only as good as its epistemological underpinning, then from both a methodological and an epistemological standpoint, philosophical naturalism is more justifiable than any other world view that one might conjoin with methodological naturalism.
Tim Widowfield posted his own take on this in Leap of Faith Or Failure of Reason