The term 'worldview' has been defined in various ways, but essentially it has to do with beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality and one's place in it. It's a bit like 'religion,' but doesn't necessarily include divine spirits, and worldviews may be significantly different among people in the same overall religion. The idea that the world is getting better would be part of a worldview, as would the idea that the world is getting worse...or the idea that these labels are inappropriate. Worldviews may include both descriptive elements (the way things are) and normative elements (the way things ought to be). It's a very broad and loosely defined term that's used to indicate major differences in people's views of the world.
What relationship does science have with worldviews?
Let's look at two popular answers in western culture...
[T]he Christian worldview, which believes that God created the world with natural "laws" and orderliness, is what undergirds the entire scientific enterprise. For example, inductive reasoning and the scientific method are based on the assumption of the regularity of the laws of nature. This means that scientists assume that water will boil tomorrow under the identical conditions that it does today. Without this kind of regularity, we could not learn from experience, including the experiences of scientific testing. This also helps to explain why in cultures where creation is said to be an illusion or disorderly chaos because it was not created by an orderly God, the sciences have not historically flourished; indeed, the scientific method depends on the kind of underlying worldview that a creating and providentially ruling God of the Bible provides.1And...
Science in general does not so much reject the supernatural as ignore it. Science cannot incorporate the supernatural into its methodology; it could not function if it had to contend with occasional violations of natural law, but must instead assume that nature is regular and repeatable. This assumption is known as methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism is not a choice; science cannot function if it is not empirical, that is, ultimately based on experiment and observation. Science necessarily restricts itself to purely naturalistic explanations.2So in one answer, science must assume a certain kind of God created and rules over the physical world. In the other, science must assume everything that happens in the physical world has a non-supernatural explanation. I contend — along with Gauch — that both of these answers are wrong.
Necessary and Unnecessary Presuppositions
Instead of focusing on the differences in the two answers above, consider the common ground: an orderly physical world in which experience counts toward understanding how it functions. Sound familiar? This common ground matches the fundamental presupposition of science featured in Part 6 of this series:
The physical world is orderly and comprehensible.Both answers above make the mistake of adding a reason why the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. The physical world could be orderly because an orderly God made it that way, or because an orderly nature explains it all. Either worldview can supply the necessary precondition.
In fact, most actual worldviews can. The real enemy to scientific method is not any popular worldview; it's radical skepticism. This might come in the form of philosophical worries about sense data being systematically unreliable, a religious conviction that God planted intentionally misleading evidence 'to test our faith,' or any other variant which goes against the fundamental scientific presupposition above.
In an excellent journal article on the topic, Gauch summarizes the dangers of putting worldview-specific restrictions on science:
Unnecessary presuppositions of science can hinder discussions of important issues from progressing, erode the proper influence of evidence, blur the distinction between presuppositions and conclusions, undermine science's status as a public endeavor, and pick needless fights regarding religions and worldviews.3But methodological naturalism IS worldview neutral!
...or so the argument goes, usually from those who hold a naturalistic worldview. Since my own worldview is naturalistic, let me share a few considerations which changed my mind on this point.
- If Deism were true, i.e. if God created an orderly physical world and doesn't intervene further, there wouldn't necessarily be any way for us to find out. The world might be completely indistinguishable from a naturalistic world. Therefore, 'methodological Deism' could serve just as well as 'methodological naturalism.' Would naturalists accept this terminology as non-biased toward 'philosophical Deism,' the belief that Deism is true? I sure wouldn't.
- Conducting science under an 'as if' methodology produces 'as if' results. Anyone who doesn't accept naturalism — most of humanity! — would rightly question whether scientific results are true, or merely would be true if naturalism were true.
- It is more sensible to understand science's wariness about supernatural explanations as a matter of historical experience, not an in-principle exclusion. I highly recommend Boudry et al.'s paper on re-construing methodological naturalism in a defeasible role, rather than as a hard restriction on scientific method.4
1. Driscoll, M. and Breshears, G. (2010). Doctrine: what christians should believe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. p. 80
2. Young, M. and Strode, P.K. (2009). Why evolution works (and creationism fails). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 40
3. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Science, worldviews and education. Science & education, 18(6). Also see the book of the same name.
4. Boudry, M., Blancke, S., and Braeckman, J. (2010). How not to attack intelligent design creationism: philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. Foundations of science, 15(3). [copy here]