Metaphysics in Science Education: Balancing Between Religious and Physicalist Extremism

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education, Mallinson Institute

First Advisor

Dr. William W. Cobern

Second Advisor

Dr. David G. Schuster

Third Advisor

Dr. David W. Rudge


Our current understanding of the nature of physical entities and interactions is so explanatory and predictive that we have grown quite confident in our inferential abilities regarding observable phenomena. The reliability of these scientific models is rooted in the fortuitous consistency and causal coherence of the behavior of matter/energy/spacetime as discerned from the human perspective. This apparent stability and predictability of the physical universe impresses most of us into holding certain justified scientific beliefs, yet it fails to persuade many others to teach, learn, and adopt those scientific beliefs, especially when contradictory religious tenets are involved. Thus, the remarkable scientific explicability of the observable world is often disturbingly underappreciated. On the other hand, science is often portrayed as material support for the sweeping metaphysical claim that only physical things exist and that spiritual dimensions of existence are precluded. This portrayal not only interferes with widespread public acceptance of science, it is demonstrably incorrect. Science makes humankind’s most valid claims about the aspects of reality that it studies, and science makes no claims about aspects of reality that it does not study.

There are good reasons to emphasize metaphysical neutrality in science and in science education, well beyond the patronizing accommodation of religious beliefs, or the assuaging of atheist ire toward religious constructs. This philosophical investigation attempts to uncover and discuss such reasons; it gathers, explores, and critiques a wide array of relevant perspectives on science, religion, and philosophy, and considers certainty, evidence, abstractions, and values. What makes people undervalue and overlook the support/evidence for scientific knowledge, distrusting and disbelieving so much that we have learned via methodological naturalism? What makes people overstate and extrapolate from our physical science models, contending that they support and defend metaphysical naturalism and materialist/physicalist beliefs? The zealously anti-science religious person is tending to over-describe and concretize proposed/theoretical/abstract/alleged spiritual aspects of reality, sometimes to the detriment of actual living persons, and at the expense of recognizing important knowledge about physical reality. Meanwhile, the confident antireligious physicalist arguably tends to under-describe the full range of human experiences and “reality as a whole,” at the expense of acknowledging the nature and effects of mind, meaning, learning, creativity, purpose, and the power of ideals.

The goal of describing and defending a broader, more balanced, more philosophical perspective on metaphysical matters in science education is timely and important. Science and organized religion are two widespread and highly influential constructs of human culture, with immense effects on the world and on human lives. While science educators seek to spread vital, critical thinking skills along with scientific knowledge, to whatever extent religions encourage people to be kind, honest, fair, and forgiving, we might hope that science will be “used” in accord with similar principles. I will present arguments toward and elucidate one metaphysically neutral conceptual model for science instruction that balances between unjustifiable extremism of any ilk, and also between hubris and humility, and that aims at enriching careful and critical thinking at any learning level, inside or outside of formal education.

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