Imagine that jinn (or ‘demons’, as Guessoum calls them) are like germs. They are out there causing illness, but we have so far been unable to detect or observe them under controlled conditions. In this case, consideration of jinn as the cause of mental illness is not conducive to devising treatments (though it may be conducive to using treatments that we could not devise ourselves but have been informed of by other means). So it is a ‘supernatural’ explanation, in that respect. But if, in the future, we develop the means of discovering and studying them systematically, and find that some mental illness is demon possession, is there any remaining principled reason to call this a ‘supernatural’ explanation? It would be no more ‘supernatural’ than explaining a crime scene as the result of human agency. Elsewhere in his paper, Guessoum asks us to consider seriously the prospect of hitherto undiscovered non-human intelligent life, presumably of the extra-terrestrial sort. Would an explanation of disappearances as alien abductions, then, be less supernatural than that of mental illness as demonic possession?
Imagine then, that we scientifically discover that extra-terrestrial demons exist and have been causing mental illness by abducting people and possessing them. (As an aside: if they landed in a spaceship and introduced themselves, would they then count as having been ‘scientifically’ discovered?) At any rate, space-demons would be far less useful than germs, as an explanatory factor, in relation to the objective of curing illness, since they presumably would have a complex psychology, and as such their behavior would be at least as difficult to predict and manipulate as that of a human being. This, of course, is the reason questions have been raised as to whether the social sciences and economics can ever attain the status of the ‘hard sciences.’
But clearly, it is a mistake to judge the explanatory factors operative in these sciences by the same standards that we judge those of physics or biology, because the objectives of these sciences are quite different. As such, the kinds of phenomena that are epistemologically useful as explanatory factors are different in each field. Therefore, what is admissible as ‘natural’—in this sense of methodologically correct—will differ from discipline to discipline. The alternative would be, for example, to classify the social sciences as given over to ‘supernatural’ explanations and therefore ‘pre-modern,’ which is implausible.
On the other hand, it might be suggested that we define what counts as ‘natural’ specifically in terms of what meets the epistemological requirements entailed by the objectives of physics, biology, and the like. Then we would have reasonable grounds for not classifying the human and social sciences as ‘natural sciences’, in virtue of not operating under a naturalistic methodology so defined. But that would not also be grounds for labeling them as ‘supernatural.’ It would just mean that the ‘natural’ is not to be understood simply in a binary opposition to ‘supernatural.’ Not all that is not natural is ipso facto ‘supernatural.’ This would include human behavior and culture, as well as any hypothetical space-demon behavior and culture. It would also mean that identifying methodological naturalism as the essential characteristic of modern science would effectively exclude the social sciences from modernity.
Furthermore, the objectives within a given scientific discipline itself are not constant, but have undergone, and most likely will continue to undergo, historical development. If then, our conception of methodological naturalism, understood as the defining feature of modern science, is fixed to a specific set of epistemological requirements, then we will either have to deny the possibility of any further development in the objectives of our sciences as they currently are, or to acknowledge the possibility that science itself might outgrow ‘methodological naturalism,’ and therefore, modernity.
But at bottom, one might insist, certain fundamental objectives are universal. And this is correct. The objective of science is to ascertain the truth, and that of technology is to achieve our goals. The necessary relation between the two is clear. But these are universal to both the ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern.’ Methodological correctness as a norm, in the most abstract sense, is not then sufficient to distinguish the modern. That would have to be based on the specific nature, of the objectives understood as ‘modern,’ and of our ideas about the correct methods of achieving them. But are these not subject to critique and development?
So long as we are defining methodological naturalism as a provisional acceptance of only ‘natural’ explanations, for certain methodological purposes, then the clearest way forward is to define ‘natural,’ in this context, as just the sort of explanatory factor that lends itself to those purposes. And yet, a degree of specificity in our conception of those purposes and the epistemological desiderata they entail is necessary if anything interesting and useful is to be inferred with respect to methodology. And yet again, it should be a conception that is stable and universal enough to render a general methodological prescription applicable to the range of scientific disciplines, and open to critical development with regard to their most basic objectives and presuppositions.
To that end, let us return to the basic ontology of Creator and creation, and the heuristic of tying the camel, as representative of our epistemic and practical relation to creation as such. In this case, our purpose is to understand creation in terms of itself, insofar as that is possible. From here, we recall the important point, which emerged in the classical encounter between Islamic kalam and falsafa, that if creation were not sufficiently ordered, it would be naturally unintelligible, and thus impossible to understand on its own terms, and to accomplish our goals therein. If there is simply no telling what God will bring about if I do or do not tie my camel, then action in the world is futile. The problem of induction may show us that we can never know how orderly things really are. If so, then it is a problem precisely because if nature is not orderly enough knowledge of nature is impossible. That is, knowledge about the world cannot be rationally pursued except under the assumption that things are sufficiently ordered. And this will be true irrespective of how our scientific objectives and basic suppositions might develop over time. Are there other specifications we can make?
Scott Tanona has recently proposed an interesting formulation of the natural, in terms of the epistemological desiderata of intersubjectivity and predictability. “A phenomenon is natural if it involves regularities between intersubjectively definable aspects of the world,” he writes, “where those regularities constrain the possible values of those intersubjective aspects to allow for predictions about them, including, if applicable, under interventions.”
An ‘intersubjectively definable aspect’ is simply any aspect that we describe and measure in a way that is accessible to more than one subject (or observer). The supernatural, on the other hand, is “beyond any such intersubjective predictability,” such that it “is not merely contrary to currently-understood physical theory, but is beyond our ability to incorporate into any future theory of empirically testable physical regularity or law.”
Tanona agrees with Guessoum that methodological naturalism does not entail ontological naturalism. In fact, he makes it explicit that his own motivation is to defend the distinction from charges of unsustainability. He couches this distinction in terms of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ naturalism, where the former is the application of naturalism within the domain of science alone, while the latter refers to its universal application.
Internal methodological naturalism is based on the minimum requirement of any scientific account that it make specified contact with intersubjective data, and that with that contact it makes specified, predictive claims about other intersubjective data. It says neither that such accounts will be successful (never mind everywhere) nor that they must be exclusive.
This formulation of methodological naturalism, in other words, does not amount to the positive position that everything in the natural world is explicable in terms that lend themselves, in principle, to intersubjective predictability. It is simply the practice of limiting one’s considerations to factors that do so lend themselves, for the specific purpose of bringing as much of nature that does, in principle, to do so in actuality. This is perfectly consistent with the awareness that there are some things that, either contingently or in principle, do not so lend themselves. It is also perfectly consistent with the awareness that nothing of the order that has hitherto been discovered can eliminate the real possibility that in the next moment, it will be radically altered. So as the Prophet ﷺ advised, if you are planting a tree and the Day of Judgment arrives, then continue planting.