In “When is a medical anomaly a miracle?” I recounted the case of Victoria, a young girl who suffered from the potentially fatal condition of aplastic anemia. Suddenly on the day before she was scheduled to undergo a bone marrow transplant she went into remission. Without offering a technical definition of miracle, I argued that her parents are fully justified in believing this was a case of divine intervention and a miraculous response to prayer. This was based on the fact that they were Christians who were praying fervently that God would heal their daughter and that she was healed.
That jaded skeptic Silver Bullet was unconvinced. (What a grinch. No doubt if he had been Francis Church he would have written “No Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus. Now get over it!”) Here’s part of what he wrote in that thread:
“History is replete with humans attributing the unexplained to the divine and supernatural. Time and time again, the divine and supernatural explanation has been replaced with a natural one. This has been a zero-sum game. Let’s not forget about the spectacular success of methodological naturalism.”
There are all sorts of problems with this statement. Let me focus on one which arises with this sweeping reference to the “spectacular success of methodological naturalism.”
Let’s begin with definitions: what is methodological naturalism? Silver Bullet refers to “nature” and “supernature” here and to the exclusion of the latter, but that introduces enormous problems. You see, there is no adequate definition of either of these terms in the philosophy of science literature. If Silver Bullet would like to offer a definition of methodological naturalism along these lines he is free to do so, but first he’ll have to define what he means by nature and supernature so we know what he is talking about.
Fortunately there is another option: drop the distinction between nature and supernature in favor of a distinction between efficient and final causes. On this definition methodological naturalism is the rejection of final causes in favor of efficient causes alone. Fine, except what are final and efficient causes? An efficient cause is the means by which an effect is brought about. A final cause is the purpose for which an effect is brought about.
We can illustrate the difference between final cause and efficient cause with an example. You’re watching TV when you hear a thump in the next room. Your first thought is “Something fell off the shelf.” But what explains the falling? You might say the precarious position of the item on the shelf combined with the force of gravity led to the object falling off the shelf. This is an efficient causal explanation for the item’s falling off the shelf and thus for the sound you heard.
But there is another type of explanation: a final cause. In other words, you could say an agent pushed the object off the shelf. And if there are no human agents in the room you might appeal to a non-human agent like a poltergeist. That is a final causal explanation and it is a very different kind of explanation.
Note that the distinction between final and efficient causes is not a “zero-sum game”. No matter what, I appeal to efficient causes in explaining the object falling off the shelf. But I may or may not also appeal to a final causal explanation. The two are emphatically not exclusive.
We appeal to final causes all the time in our understanding of the world. For instance, over the months I have received posts on my blog from “Silver Bullet”. I could explain these with appeal to efficient causes alone (e.g. as randomly generated due to a virus). But I don’t. Instead, I surmise that there is a final cause to each of these posts. (That is, I assume that there is a mind intentionally communicating with me and my readership.) And I do so based on their content which is highly specified for the context. (By contrast, if every Silver Bullet email was of the type “asda daga” or “hey, great stuff!” then I would probably not bother invoking a final causal explanation to explain them.) Should I think that explaining these posts with respect to final causation constitutes a violation of methodological naturalism? Now that is truly an absurd suggestion.
Now back to the healing. I don’t expect Victoria’s doctors to appeal to final causes when they attempt to understand her recovery. They are working at the level of efficient cause alone. And it is an effective method. But does that mean that it is inappropriate for others, including Victoria’s parents, to appeal to final causal explanations to explain her healing in the same way that I appeal to final causes to explain Silver Bullet’s posts? Of course not.
Silver Bullet’s attempt to exclude in principle final causes as having any explanatory role in Victoria’s recovery is merely scientism run amok. What is more, since Silver Bullet invokes final causal explanations on a regular basis, including every time he reads one of my posts, his is a woefully inconsistent scientism run amok. And that, I fear, is the worst kind.