The recent court ruling in the United States against the teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) as an alternative to evolution in biology classes (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Jones 2005) has sparked public interest and has been hailed as a victory by the scientific community. One of the reasons given for the verdict is the notion that science is limited strictly to the study of natural phenomena and therefore that ID and other claims involving supernatural phenomena are outside the proper domain of scientific investigation.
While the verdict is widely viewed as correct for other reasons cited in the court’s opinion, that particular rationale upon which it is based is questionable. Indeed, is science limited to the study of ‘natural’ phenomena? Does science presuppose Naturalism and thereby exclude supernatural explanations by definition? Are claims involving ‘supernatural’ phenomena inherently untestable and therefore outside the province of science? The present article argues that this is not the case. Science does not presuppose Naturalism and supernatural claims are amenable in principle to scientific evaluation [see Monton (2006) and Stenger (2006a) for a similar critique of Judge Jones’ verdict]. Indeed, science does have implications for the probable truth of supernatural worldviews (Gauch 2006, defends a similar thesis).
To exclude, a priori, the supernatural would validate the complaint voiced by some ID adherents and other creationists that science is dogmatically committed to Naturalism and thus opposed in principle to considering supernatural explanations (Johnson 1999; see Stenger 2006a). On the other hand, if there is no fundamental barrier preventing science from evaluating supernatural claims, then to declare the study of supernatural phenomena out of bounds to scientific investigation imposes artificial constraints on scientific inquiry, which potentially would deny science the noble task of purging false beliefs from the public sphere or the opportunity to discover aspects of reality that may have significant worldview implications.
Fishman, Y.I. (2009) Can science test supernatural worldviews? Science and Education 18:165-189. [doi: 10.1007/s11191-007-9108-4
Fishman, Y.I. and Boudry, M. (2013) Does Science Presuppose Naturalism (or Anything at All)? Science & Education (published online January 7, 2013) [doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9574-1]