One of the problems with those who describe themselves as naturalists (by which I mean as adherents to naturalism, not to be confused with outdoorsy types) is found in a persistent confusion as to what constitutes evidence for naturalism. In “See No Supernaturalism…” I made the following comment on the issue:
When people stop explaining direct divine action to explain lightning and started explaining it in terms of a discharge from an electrical field, that doesn’t get counted as an explanation for “naturalism”.
Ray Ingles then replied: “Forgive my bluntness, but why the hell not?”
Sorry, I should have warned you about the vulgarity. But it seemed cumbersome to replace the offending word with “h-e-double hockey sticks”.
So anyway, why not?
Of course a knotty problem presents itself immediately: what is this thing called naturalism that we’re talking about? Fortunately we can avoid that whole problem by identifying one minimal commitment of naturalism. Then we can ask how a natural explanation for lightning constitutes evidence for this minimal commitment.
Here’s the minimal commitment:
MC of naturalism (MCN): God does not exist, or if he does he does not interact in the universe at all.
This is minimal, and many naturalists would want a much more robust claim than this. But we want to stay focused on the minimal, because if the discovery of the natural origin of lightning does not constitute evidence for MCN it will not constitute evidence for a more robust form of naturalism either.
So why doesn’t it provide evidence for MCN? Let me give you an illustration. (You know me, I got a million of ’em.)
Here’s the scenario. Suzy is considering buying a pitbull so she asks the advice of two friends.
Her first visit is to Ray, the old bachelor who lives in an old school bus on an acreage. Ray advises her as follows: “Don’t buy a pitbull. Them’s dangerous creatures! They’s all ravenous beasts, I tell you!”
Her next visit is to Randy, a respected professional working in the nearby city. Randy says: “If you buy a pitbull be advised that they can be dangerous if they’re not trained properly.”
Suzy decides to buy a pitbull. She doesn’t train it well and six months later it eats her beloved Siamese cat and then attacks her, leaving her with severe bite marks on her hands.
Does Suzy’s misfortune constitute evidence for the truth of Ray’s advice? No, it doesn’t, for the simple reason that both Ray and Randy offered advice fully consistent with this unfortunate outcome.
By the same token, discovering the natural genesis of lightning does not constitute evidence for MCN because the natural genesis of lightning is fully consistent with the existence of God and his action in the world. (Indeed, to assume that there is such a thing as special divine action entails that there is such a thing as regular action in which natural processes are operative, including the discharge of lightning under the right conditions.)
Now to sum up. I am not actually going to try to answer the question that provides the title of this article. I’ll leave it to the naturalists to figure out how to do that relative to their favorite definition of naturalism. Suffice it for my purposes to have established that the expansion of scientific knowledge in nowise constitutes evidence for MCN or, by implication, for naturalism itself.