227 Scrutinizing Naturalism


Plato’s dialogues persistently probe the essence of the good society, and his final treatise, The Laws, insists cosmology and theology serve as the necessary “prelude” to it.  Should a people embrace the “heresy” that the cosmos has “been framed, not by any action of mind, but by nature and chance only,” Plato said, social chaos inevitably ensues.  Thus the history of philosophy reveals an unending struggle for goodness, truth, and beauty—truly a “cosmic struggle” pitting theists (e.g. Plato) against atheists (e.g. Epicurus), shaping and setting forth divergent worldviews.  There are big questions to address:   Where did I come from?  Why am I here?  Where am I going?  Does life have any meaning and purpose?  Is there any Design to Reality or is all there is a random collection of subatomic bits of matter?  

The most vile characters in C.S. Lewis’s space fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; That Hideous Strength) consistently espoused what he labeled “scientism,” the philosophical commitment to empiricism (holding that all knowledge comes from the physical senses) as the only valid epistemological strategy, reducing all kinds of inquiry—literature, history, philosophy, et al.—to rigorously material means.  Regarding his first story, Lewis noted that it was clearly “an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called ‘scientism’—a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularization of the sciences” (Of Other Worlds).  Consequently, reviewing That Hideous Strength in the New York Times, Orville Prescott judged it “a parable (concerning) the degeneration of man which inevitably follows a gross and slavish scientific materialism which excludes all idealistic, ethical and religious values.”  

Still more, insisting that our minds can be reduced to material brains typified the stance of scientists like Lewis’s fictional physicist Weston, who shared the view of an atheistic Marxist Professor, J.B.S. Haldane, necessarily assuming that:  “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms” (Possible Worlds).  Such scientism, furthermore, assumed a metaphysical materialism that Lewis often labeled “Naturalism.”  Addressing this phenomenon, Lewis made a simple generalization that was neither simplistic nor hasty, differentiating Naturalism from Supernaturalism.  He insisted (in Miracles) that thinkers like Carl Sagan, who declared that “the cosmos is all there is or ever will be” and take the philosophical position that only Nature exists (ontological materialism) and irrationally restrict the realm of Reality to atoms in space.    Consequently, it makes sense to believe in a Supernatural Reality, namely God.  Apart from and above matter there must be Mind.  

Lewis’s concerns permeate The Nature of Nature:  Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science, ed. Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski (Wilmington, DE, c. 2011), a 1000 page collection of 41 essays by noted scholars (both atheists such as Francis Crick and theists such as William Lane Craig, philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and scientists such as Steven Weinberg) who attended a conference at Baylor University in 2000.  What Lewis sensed, as Steve Fuller writes in his Foreword to this volume, is “the inadequacy of an unreflexive naturalism to explain the aspirations” of science itself.  In particular, the hard-line, reductionistic materialism so espoused by many in the past has increasingly proved “problematic” (p. xiii), for “it is clear that we have moved a long way from the idea that nature can be understood as if it were the product of no intelligence at all” (p. xiv).     

Leading off the book’s essays, Bruce Gordon provides, in “The Rise of Naturalism and Its Problematic Role in Science and Culture,” 60 pages of extensively documented historical details needed to understand the subject.  “Philosophical naturalism,” he argues, “undermines knowledge and rationality altogether, ultimately leading to the instrumentalization of belief and the fragmentation of culture” (p. 1).  He emphasizes—as have Richard Weaver and other noted historians—the influence of Medieval nominalism (which rejected logical realism) in shaping modern science, giving impetus “to empiricism and an explanational preoccupation with material mechanism” (p. 7).  William of Ockham, subordinating God’s intellect to His will, denied He “has an essential nature, and opened the door to divine arbitrariness and universal possibilism, the view that there are no necessary truths, not even logical ones, constraining divine action” (p. 7).  Nominalism also supported empiricism’s attention to particulars rather than universals, leading to an anti-essentialism which incubated philosophical naturalism and the many varieties of relativism that now dominate the intellectual scene.   

This need not have happened, Gordon says, if scientists had retained the transcendent basis for their inquiries that characterized many of the great Christian scientists who reverently read the book of nature.  Contrary to many popular presentations which dismiss (in accord with Edward Gibbon and Carl Sagan) the “Dark Ages” and conjure up a millennium of conflict between religion and science, diligent historians such as Rodney Stark insist we understand and celebrate the remarkable achievements of Medieval Christians, who “provided fertile metaphysics, epistemic, sociocultural, and economic ground for scientific theorizing and experimentation” (p. 20).  The highly vaunted “scientific revolution” of the 17th century was less a revolution than a “continuous logical outworking—derived from developments in scholastic philosophical theology and medieval technological invention—that reached its consummation in this historical period” (p. 22).  

The “problematic” aspects of these developments clearly appear, Gordon argues, in Darwin’s “theory of universal common descent, which purports to explain speciation in the history of life solely by means of natural selection acting on random variation in populations.  ‘Random,’ of course, means exactly that:  objectively undirected and therefore without discernible purpose” (p. 24).  Thus Richard Dawkins rejoices “that ‘although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist’” and “Daniel Dennett describes Darwinism as a ‘universal acid’ that ‘eats through just about ever traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world view’” (p. 25).  Rightly evaluated, Gordon insists:  “Darwinism—as an expression of metaphysical purposelessness—has been an indispensable contributor to the spread of secularism in Western society, an undeniable force in our sense of cultural and existential arbitrariness, a logical antecedent to our inevitable embrace of moral relativism, hedonism, and utilitarianism, and a prodigious catalyst for the broader cultural experience of meaninglessness, especially among the younger generations” (p. 26).  If true, quite an indictment!

Gordon’s essay clearly draws important distinctions separating the contributors to this volume.  Some (e.g. Christian de Duve and Francis Crick) are devoted to the scientism and reductionistic naturalism C.S. Lewis attacked.  Others, notably David Berlinski, espouse an agnosticism open to the possibility of a Cosmic Mind.  Still others, including the book’s editors (Gordon and Dembski), Stephen Meyer, J.P. Moreland, Dallas Willard, and William Lane Craig, make the case for Intelligent Design as a viable way to understand the totality of Reality as eminently understandable (Mind-Designed) to rational minds.  

Christian de Duve, a Nobel Prize winner, declares there is no ultimate immaterial “mystery” beyond empirical calculation.   “Science is based on naturalism, the notion that all manifestations in the universe are explainable in terms of the known laws of physics and chemistry.”  This is the “cornerstone of the scientific enterprise,” without which there can be no real scientific research (p. 346).  Scientists such as he have made incredible progress explaining the world in accord with rigidly naturalistic presuppositions.  “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that we have come to understand the fundamental mechanisms of life” (p. 347), and though there remains work to be done “nothing so far has been revealed that is not explainable.”  Consequently:  “There is no justification for the view that living organisms are made of matter ‘animated’ by ‘something else’” (p. 347).  Admittedly there is as yet no explanation for the origin of life.  Perhaps organisms drifted in from outer space (“directed panspermia”)—or perhaps “spontaneous chemical processes” in primeval slime spit out living cells.  But never fear, says de Duve, keep the faith—in time researchers will explain it all in strictly “naturalistic terms.  The fact that the details of this long history have not yet been unveiled is hardly proof that it could not have happened” (p. 350).  So long as it is not at all supernatural, any conjecture is allowed!  

David Berlinski, however, finds dogmatic positions such as de Duve’s less than persuasive.  One of the most gifted advocates of Intelligent Design, Berlinsky, a Princeton-educated mathematician, is an unobservant “secular Jew.”  His genial agnosticism extends to both theology and science, and he espouses a sustained commitment to evidence and reason.  Above all he detests illogic and has deftly defused assorted atheistic arguments in The Devil’s Delusion:  Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions.  An astute scientist, he acknowledges his discipline’s limitations and thinks atheists who declare their religious faith under the pretense of scientific certainty demonstrate little more than their own confusions.  His essay, “On the Origins of Life,” recounts the various failing proposals advanced during the past two centuries (most notably the Miller-Urey hypothesis), to explain how life began on planet earth.  Recent developments, unveiling the mysterious roles of DNA and RNA in producing proteins and transcribing information, have injected novel perspectives into the discussion.  

In sum, Berlinski says:  “On the level of intuition and experience, these facts suggest nothing more mysterious than the longstanding truism that life comes only from life.  Omnia viva ex vivo, as Latin writers said.  It is only when they are embedded in various theories about the origins of life that the facts engender a paradox, or at least a question:  in the receding molecular spiral, which came first—the chicken in the form of DNA, or its egg in the form of various proteins?  And if neither came first, how could life have begun?” (P. 281).  Indeed, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, Francis Crick, despite his atheism, grants that “‘an honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that, in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle’” (p. 281).  Earlier “conjectures about the pre-biotic atmosphere were seriously in error” (p. 283), and speculations concerning how various inorganic elements could combine to form organic life-forms remain precisely that—speculations akin to invoking magic or the “evolutionary biologist’s finest friend:  sheer dumb luck” (p. 286).    

Dumb luck, however, looks most improbable to Berlinski, whose mathematical mind grasps the odds against a chance-ruled universe.  As of now, no laboratory has produced a self-replicating RNA ribozyme, basic to life.  We know, however, as geochemist Gustaf Arrhenius explains, that “the minimum length or ‘sequence’ that is needed for a contemporary ribozyme” involves some 100 nucleotides.  Consequently, “Arrhenius notes, there are 4100 or roughly 1060 nucleotide sequences that are 100 nucleotides in length.  This is an unfathomably large number.  It exceeds the number of atoms contained in the universe, as well as the age of the universe in seconds.  If the odds in favor of self-replication are 1 in 1060,  no betting man would take them, no matter how attractive the payoff, and neither presumably would nature” (p. 286).  In short, the “just so” stories told by all too many scientists are rooted in unsubstantiated assumptions and most likely untrue!  

Stephen C. Meyer, in “DNA:  The Signature in the Cell” (recently expanded into a book entitled Signature in the Cell:  DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design), shares Berlinski’s critique of the “just so” stories pervading mainstream biology and sets forth a meticulous argument for Intelligent Design as the best explanation for the mystery of life.  He points out that though “the most common popular naturalistic view about the origin of life is that it happened exclusively by chance,” most “all serious origin-of-life researchers now consider ‘chance’ an inadequate casual explanation for the origin of biological information” (p. 304).  The more we understand the amazing, information-laden complexity of living organisms the more doubtful it appears that they could be the simple result of chance chemical reactions.  “The odds of getting a functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by drawing a compound of that size from a pre-biotic soup is no better than once chance in 10164.   In other words, the probability of constructing a rather short functional protein at random becomesso small . . . as to appear absurd on the chance hypothesis” (p. 307).   Given the astronomical odds, it takes truly astronomical (or blind) faith to believe in an accidental world.  Importantly, Meyer insists, there’s information embedded in all that lives, and we inevitably attribute information to conscious, intelligent minds, and “what philosophers call ‘agent causation,’ now stands as the only cause known to be capable of generating large amounts of information starting from a nonliving state.  As a result, the presence of specified information-rich sequences in even the simplest living systems would seem to imply intelligent design” (p. 323).  

The philosophical differences between the contributors to The Nature of Nature stand revealed in a section devoted to ethics and religion.  Michael Ruse is an amiable philosopher who was reared as a Quaker but turned agnostic in his 20s.  He appeared as a major witness arguing against allowing “creation science” to be taught in public schools in the 1981 case (McLean v. Arkansas), leading the federal judge to declare it unconstitutional.  In 2001 he joined other scholars in delivering the Gifford Lectures (published in The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding), applying Darwinism to epistemology and ethics.  He finds much to admire in Christian ethics but rejects all theological claims and deplores any notion of Intelligent Design.  Above all he devoutly believes in Evolution and endeavors to apply it to ethics.      

In “Evolution and Ethics” Ruse argues:  “Ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators” (p. 855).  He admires much of the “normative ethics” espoused by theists but insists they can be justified along the purely naturalistic lines he assumes without supporting it with any metaphysical or theological “substantive ethics” (p. 855).  Rejecting the “Social Darwinism” of earlier evolutionists such as Herbert Spencer, he embraces such maxims as “love your neighbor as yourself” as “precisely” what he would “expect natural selection to have promoted” (p. 856).  “Morality is an adaptation like hands and teeth and penises and vaginas” (p. 858).  All we can actually say about morality is it is what it is!   Rather than the “selfish gene” famously celebrated by Richard Dawkins, Ruse gratuitously postulates an “altruistic gene” driving the evolutionary process.  We can hardly refrain from loving our neighbor since it’s the natural thing to do.  Any higher source for our ethical convictions, any “substantive morality is a kind of illusion” genetically ordered to facilitate our social needs (p. 858).  

This is, Ruse admits, “just a statement rather than a proof” (p. 859).  But it is a statement that squares with his commitment to “Darwinian metaethics,” rooted in the conviction that “evolution is a directionless process, going nowhere rather slowly” (p. 860).  Consequently, just as there is no Cosmic Designer there is no ultimate reason (no Logos) that we should love our neighbor rather than abuse him other than the fact that we have evolved with altruism rather than vindictiveness in our genes.  “In other words, my position is that, if you stay with naturalism, then there is no foundation, and in this sense substantive ethics is an illusion” (p. 862), a matter of psychology (as David Hume insisted) rather than metaphysics.  In sum:  “I regard my position as that of David Hume—brought up to date via the science of Charles Darwin” (p. 862).  

On the contrary, Dallas Willard, a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California, insists, in “Naturalism’s Incapacity to Capture the Good Will,” that without an Ultimate Supernatural Source there can be no ethical standards.  Philosophical “naturalism as a worldview lives today on promises,” assuring us that in time scientists will “show how all personal phenomena, including the moral, emerges from the chemistry (brain, DNA) of the human body” (p. 876).  “But after three hundred years or so of promises to ‘explain everything,’ the grand promises become a little tiresome, and the strain begins to show” (p. 876).  Carefully analyzed, naturalistic positions that insist only physical entities are real cannot be philosophically justified.  Indeed, “even if we regard naturalism as merely a human proposal” (such as, I would add, adumbrated by Michael Ruse), “we must still raise the issue of whether straightforward physicalism (the only version of naturalism that makes sense) can deal with ethical phenomena or provide an adequate interpretation of the moral life and moral principles” (p. 869).  Manifestly, says Willard, it cannot!

What’s needed instead is a robust recovery of the great ethical tradition of Western Civilization, imbued with both classical and Christian perspectives and marking the works of “late nineteenth-century thinkers such as Sidgwick, Bradley, and especially T.H. Green” (p. 873).  Sadly enough, during the 20th century, as Alasdair MacIntyre said in After Virtue, “‘we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality’” (p. 872).  Due to the intellectual coup of Hume and Darwin, Ruse and Crick, we now live in a society “where there is no moral knowledge that is publicly accessible in our culture, i.e., that could be taught to individuals by our public institutions as a basis for their development into morally admirable human beings who can be counted on to do the ‘right thing’ when it matters” (p. 877).  To cultivate such persons, only a return to Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas will suffice.  

The final essay in The Nature of Nature is William Lane Craig’s “Theism Defended.”   One of the most erudite evangelical scholars now writing, Craig has focused his studies on the intersection of science and theology.  He begins by noting a recent, remarkable intellectual transformation—“a veritable revolution in Anglo-American philosophy that has transformed the face of their discipline” (p. 901).  It became clear, in Quantum physics especially, that “physics is filled with metaphysical statements that cannot be empirically verified.  As philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen nicely puts it:  ‘Do the concepts of the Trinity [and] the soul . . . baffle you?  They pale beside the unimaginable otherness” of such purely postulated realities as quarks and strings and dark matter (p. 902).    Metaphysics, consigned to the dustbin of history by logical positivists, suddenly sprang to life, accompanied by “a renaissance in Christian philosophy” (p. 902).  Academically respectable Theists stepped forth in major universities and publications.  As an atheistic philosopher, Quentin Smith, lamented:  “‘God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments’” (p. 903).  Such philosophers (including Craig) have reconsidered, rephrased and revived traditional arguments for the existence of God.  

Craig then leads readers through these traditional arguments—contingency, cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological—and explains why they are as valid as ever.  Though natural science has radically changed since the 13th century, the philosophy of that century’s greatest thinker, St Thomas Aquinas, remains amazingly astute and Supernaturalism remains an eminently viable Weltgeist.   Adding a healthy component to modern science, Plato and C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard and William Lane Craig stand comfortably positioned as persuasive witnesses to what’s really Real.  And it’s more than mere matter!