The Pseudoscience of Naturalism: A Popperean Analysis of Biology’s Most Dangerous Assumption

[Note:  The following was a paper I wrote about the  an undergraduate course on Historiography when I was a student at the University of Southern California in 2002 on the subject of Intelligent Design.  I had thought the paper long lost, but in my research I was able to uncover it, as an example of some early research work of mine on the history of science.]


When one writes about the subject of scientific naturalism, that is, the assumption that there was no intelligent direction of any process of the universe, it is inevitable to have some kind of bias. As the title makes clear, I am a believer in the theory of intelligent design, which is a wondrously rich and diverse field of theistic science. My paper is not so much about that, though. Scholars such as Michael Denton, Michael Behe, and Phillip Johnston, among others, have made their careers writing books about the problems in evolution and bringing forward a robust theory to account for how life was really created.
This paper, more narrowly, is about one aspect of this very large problem, the nefarious idea of naturalism. This idea has become so ingrained into scientific thought that it is impossible, even with a theory so full of gaping logical holes as any kind of evolution (in all its broad and contradictory forms), for scientists to realize the error of their ways. This makes it impossible for scientists to recognize the results that can clearly be shown empirically to those with an open mind about the veracity of evolution.
It is my hope that this paper will not be too polemical, and I intend on focusing narrowly on an analysis of what Karl Popper’s ideas of science and pseudoscience have to do with modern thought in the theory of biology. I will examine both sides of the issue, bringing together sources from a philosophic tradition, and both the naturalistic and theist camps of the scientific tradition. It is my hope that the issues of naturalism and pseudoscience may at least be shown clearly enough so that others with more time and resources may use it as a starting board in their own surveys of this subject.


Despite what scientists claim about the clear and convincing evidence of evolution, and its lack of controversy among intelligent human beings, little could be further from the truth. While evolution used to be left as a vague and rushed over concept in high school biology, a subject of little importance until college for a small amount of students, now biologists have foisted this theory into the forefront of science education. This is a regrettable choice on their part, for it exposes their theory and all of its logical holes and contradictions to the harsh light of day. While California has led the way in forcing students to learn about evolution starting from the earliest life science classes, people who do not believe in evolution may yet have the long term victory as time goes on.
The idea of naturalism is so engrained into scientific thought that it has become part of the definition of what science is. In so defining science, philosophers of biology have blinded themselves to the truth, and have put science to work in a most dangerous type of teleology. After all, if there is no God, there can be no purpose to the Creation, and there can be no absolute moral standards for human conduct. While some people may rejoice in this, the nightmares of the twentieth century make an amoral existence appear much more hostile to those with enough historical perspective.
Very simply, naturalism is the idea that processes in nature have natural causes. While this may be true over a shallow causal analysis, this idea fails when applied to ultimate causes. When one looks at life, one sees that its complexities, discontinuities, and its narrow tolerance levels over all aspects of life demand either extremely good luck or some kind of intelligent design. Since scientists preclude intelligent design, they have no choice but to accept evolution, for all of its horrendous flaws. The Importance Of Naturalism To Science:
The language of science is highly charged with naturalistic overtones that are unmistakable. All language in science that smacks of intelligent design is being purged from active use or labeled as merely metaphoric language. The problem that one cannot talk about life without assuming something made it is insoluble, though scientists would prefer to ignore that. In fact, there are three interesting terms that philosophers of biology focus on with obvious displeasure: genetic program, blueprint, genetic code, and information content (Bunge & Monner 282-283). While they labor to obfuscate the point by use of computer language and other weak arguments, it appears that their chief problem is that use of terms such as these implies that there is a driving intelligent force behind programming, coding, and creating information, something that these scientists cannot support.

According to these same scientists, there are various factors that are essential in the definition of science. I will include the following definition of science in the appendix because it gives a lot of insight about the various biases of these scientists and the community they represent.  I feel it is important to show the whole quote so that I can analyze the problems with the definition. While the two authors apparently felt justified enough by their wordy and complicated definition of science to claim that Scientific Creationism is pseudoscientific, this is simply not the case. Scientific creationism would satisfy parts (I), (ii), (iii), (v) (vi), (vii), (viii), (ix), (x), and (xii), that of naturalism itself does survive unscathed except by the biased viewpoint of the authors which is representative of a systemic bias in biology. After all, naturalism is not something that has changed gradually over time, nor is it something tolerated by society nearly as much as they would like to believe, nor is it up-to-date or well confirmed, except by those who already believe in naturalism. Even the definition alone, and the slap in the face at scientific creationism, or intelligent design, seems to reflect more of a knee jerk reaction than a serious study of the facts at hand.

It is without a doubt that naturalism is important to scientists and their view of their discipline. While scientists are aware of the large anti-evolutionary mood in certain parts of the United States, it seems that a siege mentality prevails in science when it comes time to talk about evolution. Considering that evolution, and what it means for humanity and for scientists, is the lynchpin of modern scientific thought, this may come as no surprise. However, in terms of the view of science as impartial and guided by facts rather than preconceptions, the tenacity of scientists to the dubious notion of naturalism strikes me as more of a religious issue to them than merely a scientific one.
Natural selection, though an important concept to evolution, has some problems in its definitions. After all, selection implies choosing, and choosing must be done by an intelligent agent. Unless nature is seen as an intelligent agent of Creation (which is ironic, considering that evolution is opposed to intelligent agents involved in the formation and preservation of the physical universe), then the idea of natural selection is no more than a metaphor of science (Nissen 95). Indeed, evolution itself can be seen as no more than a metaphor, for how can something that is so broad that it can refer to gradual change brought about by intelligent beings, small amounts of unguided change sorted by the physical environment (microevolution), and large amounts of horribly unlikely and massively directed change (despite claims to the contrary), be of any use at all to scientists unless some deeper metaphysical cause was at stake. Next we shall look at Popper’s views of science and pseudoscience to further determine on what ground naturalistic claims rest.

Popper And Pseudoscience

Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher of science, focused much of early career on epistemology. Among these early studies, some areas are of great importance to the topic of scientific naturalism. The first is the claim that Popper makes that scientific methodology is a metaphysical claim, one that cannot be tested by the history of science. This claim is interesting because it is one of the key defenses that supporters of evolution use-they claim that evolution is good science because they define it as the only possible scientific method, and then claim that their work is objective because it is scientific. Interestingly enough, though, Popper fought against the idea of absolute objectivity of science, though, because often the omnipotence of scientific thought (in theory) conflicted with the actual practice of scientists to justify their own works often on less than empirical grounds. Needless to say, the issue of Creation and evolution is one in which bad science has often been practiced, for by claiming omnipotence in terms of the role of random mutations and natural selections they deny the existence of the omnipotent God. Also interesting is that Popper railed against the idea that what cannot be fully known does not exist (Corvi 19-20). After all, such hedging about of science to prevent any sort of theistic solution smacks of this type of metaphysical claim-that since the mind of God is beyond our ability to experiment, therefore theism is not scientific, and therefore God does not exist, since what is not scientific is mere fantasy. Indeed, Popper is less of a friend to dogmatic evolutionism than most scientists presume.

Popper himself was deeply bothered by the uncritical claims of Freudian and Adlerian psychology, and a large part of his focus against the often-seen quest for justification among scientists was because of the tenancies of people to only consider positive confirmations of their pet theories. Popper supported theories that were highly precise, and thus easily falsifiable. Theories that had too little precision (like evolution, in particular natural selection and mutation) tell us little about the world. On the other hand, theories that were based on probabilities were too inductive for Popper. While the analysis of falsifiaility is difficult and sometimes two competing claims cannot be compared this way, it is a helpful way to frame theories as rigorously scientific. Nonetheless, Popper was ambivalent about the importance of metaphysical claims in science. Since metaphysical claims cannot be tested, they are not falsifiable, but their importance to science is undeniable, for any study of any subject demands that we make initial conditions, which reflect a metaphysical background. The tension between the ubiquitous nature of metaphysical claims in science and their unscientific nature is one that science often struggles with. Since theories, according to Popper, should be cast aside once evidence mounts against it, and yet claims that in the early stages theories should be held dogmatically (something that humanity needs no urging to do) there is still more tension between conflicting worldviews. What one side sees as falsification of an existing theory is seen by the other side as anomalies that will be cleaned up later as the theory is further refined. The problem with this idea is that it precludes the possibility that the theory is flawed at the core and does not truly explain the physical universe. The fact that Popper, despite being a rationalist, believed that rationality, in the end, rested on an irrational faith demonstrates the problems of labeling theism as irrational and claiming that evolution is rational, for both rest on irrational metaphysical claims about the state of the universe. In order to compare, them, therefore, we must look at the evidence, and see which scientific theory does a better job (O’Hear 26, 93, 107, 147).

According to a Popperian analysis, the metaphysical claims of naturalism can be seen as pseudoscientific, though that determination depends on what view about God one has at the very beginning of one’s search of the evidence. Those who are set in the belief that God either does not exist or plays no active role in Creation will refuse to change their mind regardless of the facts. The same can be said of those who have an absolute belief in the Creator God. Only those who have no particular stake in any viewpoint can really objectively look at the evidence. Sadly, I do not know if any such individuals exist, as the existence of God is such a high-stakes issue that there is no escaping some kind of bias. Nonetheless, if empiricism is to be our guide, like it should be for all scientists, it is the evidence that needs to be explored. I will briefly try to do that next.

A Brief Look At The Evidence

As this is a short paper, I cannot detail all that is wrong about the theory of evolution and its assumptions about the Creation. For those who are interested in a more complete picture of the scientific support for intelligent design theory vis-à-vis Darwinian evolution, several authors have made their livings in this area, including Phillip Johnston (author of Darwin On Trial), Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box, which I will use shortly), and Michael Denton (author of Evolution In Crisis and Nature’s Destiny: The Case For Intelligent Design), among others. My purpose here is just to briefly make the case against the monopoly of evolution on science and to demonstrate how evolution has become dogma rather than scientific theory.

In Darwin’s Black Box, Behe relates the following quote made by a scientist named Richard Dickerson: “Science, fundamentally, is a game. It is a game with one overriding and defining rule: Rule No. 1: Let us see how far and to what extent we can explain the behavior of the physical and material universe in terms of purely physical and material causes, without invoking the supernatural.” This rule is interesting, because it defines the fundamental problem of intelligent design to most scientists. By rejecting out of hand any kind of explanation that invokes a God, no matter what His or Her nature, scientists are blinding themselves to the very possibility that such a scenario could exist (Behe 238). This causes major problems, though it gives evolution (whatever theory de jour that involves, whether it is genetic drift, the molecular clock theory, prebiotic soup theory, punctuated equilibrium, or whatever) a virtual monopoly on scientific thought. As a side benefit to naturalistic science, it sets the debate in scientific circles as a debate of which mechanisms were responsible for evolution (where they all fall short) instead of on the greater problem of whether evolution was the reason for the beginning and diversification of life in the first place.

The idea that science is a game does not stand up to inquiry by scientists who are serious about their work or by taxpayers footing huge bills for scientific research. Nonetheless, science is a rule-based activity (Behe 240). The rules are an important issue, though. Why is it that God cannot be invoked in science (or history for that matter)? For those who invoke God recklessly, ridicule is deserved. However, there are some unique historical events that do lend themselves to belief in the supernatural, and why should they be banned a priori? We must look at the evidence and follow where that leads if we are to be serious about objectivity. Sadly, regardless of philosophical bent, the vast majority of people in any field will slant their research (at least inadvertently) to match their theories. The very act of observing has some kind of effect on what is seen. The results that do not fit with the theory are simply ignored. This appears to happen a lot in biology with regards to the origin of life.

The evidence is simply lacking for scientific naturalism. Pathways for vision, flight (in birds, insects, and bats), blood clotting, antibody formation, formation of proteins, formation of nucleic acids, are all lacking in the canon of scientific literature. What remains is often overly simplified guidelines in place of detailed mechanisms (Behe 152). Since evolution makes claims that there are natural pathways (that need no overseeing and design) that lead from one step to another and from one organism to another, the failure to come up with logical pathways is a failure of the theory. By denying even the possibility of design (something that scientists routinely do to modify forms of life to suit their purposes), scientists are promoting dogma rather than science.

After all, science is not diametrically opposed to religious beliefs. The vast majority of scientists in Western Civilization have been religious, and many early scientists were clerics. Even most scientists today will say they believe in God, even if they want God to have nothing to do with science. Science should not be enthralled with naturalism, but rather with empiricism. It is the evidence that should determine the theories, not the other way around. Unfortunately, though, scientists are no less dogmatic than human beings in general, and even though the evidence is against evolution (as one can read with an unbiased and critical eye in the scientific literature if one chooses), scientists have a belief that there is no purpose in the universe. This belief prevents them from seeing the evidence of design in the universe. It is at last time to make a verdict on whether the faith in naturalism is scientific or not.

The Verdict

As we have seen from several sections, it is not evidence but faith that prevents scientists from allowing the possibility of intelligent design of the universe and of life. It is this same faith in natural processes to the exclusion of supernatural intervention that has even become inserted into the very rules of science. However, one can see that nothing in science itself prevents there from being a Creator, and indeed the very complexity and intricacy of biological systems leads one to believe that they were designed by a very intelligent Creator. The fact that we, being intelligent designers (most of the time) ourselves cannot duplicate (yet) many of the exact components of life, such as the eye, the bird’s wing, and things like that, would seem to indicate that these components came about through careful planning and design.

So the verdict is guilty as charged. Naturalism is not science, but pseudoscience. It is a metaphysical claim about the purposelessness of the universe that has the same kind of scientific truth as the saying that the moon is made of blue cheese. However, naturalism is part of the definition of science according to many people. This means that science, rather than being based on empirical claims, has a strong external value system that screens certain unpleasant facts from view. If scientists were content to allow intelligent design as a scientific theory and then debate about which theory was more likely to cause which changes in nature, then there would be no need to write a paper such as this one. Since both the existence or nonexistence of a Creator is a metaphysical claim, both positions are equally scientific or nonscientific when taken at face value. However, science has not acted so impartially, since it has banned the action of an intelligent designer (read God) in nature despite the evidence, scientists are practicing an atheistic belief when it comes to scientific processes, regardless of their religious opinions in their private lives.

As naturalism itself is pseudoscientific, more work must be done to separate naturalism, which is a metaphysical claim, from the status of scientific law, which at least can be verified empirically in theory. At least this way scientists would be honest with themselves and with everyone else about what naturalism truly is. However, by according evolution status as science (when it has done little to deserve this position except for its appeal to those who do not believe in a Creator), biologists have done science a great disservice. While I was not able to go into as much detail about the evidence against evolution as I would have liked (that is too lengthy of an ordeal, one that fills several excellent books), at least I hope to have shown that by using Karl Popper’s definition of science as purely empirical claims without inductive justification, the pseudoscientific nature of evolution is obvious.

Works Cited

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge To Evolution.  Touchtone: New York. 1996.

Bunge, Mario & Mahner, Martin. Foundations Of Biophilosophy. Springer: Berlin.  1997.

Corvi, Roberta. An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper. Routledge: London. 1997.

Nissen, Lowell. Teleological Language In The Life Sciences. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc: Lanham, Maryland. 1997.

O’Hear, Anthony. Karl Popper. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. 1980.

Appendix A: Definition Of Science

We start by defining basic (factual) science in general as a family of scientific research fields (or disciplines), where a family of particular disciplines is a collection every member s of which is characterizable by a 10-tuple s={C,S,D,G,F,B,P,K,A,M}, where, at any given moment, (I) C, the research community of s, is part of the scientific community in general and is composed of persons who have received scientific training, hold strong information links among themselves, and initiate or continue a tradition of scientific research; (ii) S is the society that hosts C and encourages or at least tolerates the activities of the components of C; (iii) D, the domain or universe of the discourse of s, is a collection of (actual or putative) concrete or real things and their changes, past, present, and future; (iv) G, the general outlook or philosophical background of s, consists of the ontological, epistemological, axiological, and moral principles that guide the study of D. More precisely, G comprises a naturalistic ontology, a realist epistemology, and a system of internal values, an endoaxiology, which is particularly characterized by the ethos of the free search for truth. The internal value system of science includes such logical values as exactness, systemicity, and logical consistency; semantical values such as meaning definiteness, hence clarity, and maximal truth or adequacy of ideas to facts; methodological values such as testability and the possibility of scrutinizing and justifying the very methods employed to put ideas to the test; and, finally, attitudinal and moral values such as critical thinking, open-mindedness (but not blank- mindedness), veracity, giving credit where credit is due, and so on. The endoaxiology of science is often called the ‘ethos of science’. Basic science is value-free only in the sense that it makes no value judgements about its objects of study or referents-except perhaps about their suitability as objects of study with regard to a certain technique at hand. That is, basic science has no external value system or exoaxiology; (v) F, the formal background of s, is a collection of up-to-date and mathematical theories that are (or can be) used by the components of C in studying the members of D; (vi) B, the specific background of s, is a collection of up- to-date and reasonably well confirmed knowledge items (data, hypotheses, and theories) obtained in other scientific disciplines relevant to s; (vii) P, the problematics of s, consists exclusively of cognitive problems concerning the nature, particularly the laws, of the members of D; (viii) K, the fund of knowledge of s, is the collection of up-to-date and reasonably well-confirmed knowledge items (data, hypotheses, and theories) obtained by the components of C at various times; (ix) A is the collection of aims of the components of C with regard to their study of the members of D, in particular the discovery of the laws of the members of D as well as their description, explanation, and prediction; (x) M, the methodics (often misnamed ‘methodology’) of s, is the collection of checkable and explainable methods utilizable by the components of C in the study of the members of D; (xi) s has strong permanent links with other scientific disciplines; (xii) the membership of every one of the last eight coordinates of s changes, however, slowly, as a result in s as well as in related fields (Bunge & Manner 185-187).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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