Naturalism’s Question

What fits within a naturalistic worldview?

Naturalism is the worldview that is both the basis and fruit of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Naturalism is the worldview that is both the basis and fruit of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Naturalism, the worldview which pervades and undergirds most universities today, takes the stance that everything arises from natural laws or causes, thus excluding any supernatural phenomena or spiritual forces. Naturalists simply do not ask or consider whether god(s) acted throughout history—either in nature or in society. Thus as they look at the events of first century Palestine, and the newly formed Jewish cult known as Christianity, they ask, “What fits within a naturalistic worldview? What social, political, economic, and religious forces lead to the growth of Christianity?”

In other words, naturalists presuppose the absence of—or at least the irrelevance of—supernatural, miraculous events when analyzing the past. Put another way, they assume a materialistic, non-spiritual explanation will provide the most useful understanding. They make a special claim to science in general and to evolutionary theory in particular, believing that their presupposition makes them more objective scientists and scholars. Therefore, as Dr. Richard Lewontin, research professor at Harvard University, explains, naturalists cannot tolerate the possibility of God.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that Miracles may happen.” (Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” a review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review of Books, p. 31, 9 January 1997.

They cannot allow a divine foot in the door, so they presuppose the absence of God and simply ask, “What fits the naturalistic view?” Regarding the life of Jesus, they assume that nothing miraculous happened.

Minimizing Presuppositions

But let us consider an alternate stance that minimizes presuppositions. Let us consider just the possibility (not the assumption) that God is self-evident—that we can know with absolute certainty that he exists. Not that we have a lot of evidence for his existence (though we might), such that he is an astronomically high probability; rather, let us consider the argument that we can be as sure of his existence as we are sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that 2+2=4, or that George Washington was the first president of the United States.

Dr. Lewontin and other naturalists may call this stance another “patent absurdity”; nevertheless, it is undeniably more objective than starting with their presupposition. The notion that God is self-evident does not mean that God has to be loud; indeed, he may speak very gently. Nor does it mean that we will necessarily like him; in fact, we may not. Nor does it mean that we could always understand him well; again, we may not. Nevertheless, is it possible that he speaks to us—just as surely as the sun shines?

After all, we do know that the sun will rise tomorrow. Put another way, it is impossible for us to doubt whether it will rise (or, strictly speaking, whether the earth will continue spinning while orbiting the sun). Some philosophers may effectively pretend to doubt such knowledge; nevertheless, they can only pretend. They cannot truly doubt it, for the word “doubt” only has meaning in the context of the broader reality that we do not doubt. If someone doubts absolutely everything, then “doubt” would lose all its meaning, as would that person’s identity. We would reasonably label them crazy and send them to a psychiatric hospital.

Consider another comparison: we also know that two plus two equals four. If it did not, if arithmetic were not objective an objective truth, then not only economics but also all of science would evaporate, for all science depends entirely on the belief that we can count and measure and learn objective information. For example, astronomers don’t author information about the stars; instead, they observe it and translate it into English (or any other language). Likewise, chemists don’t create chemistry and author the periodic table and chemical processes such as photosynthesis; instead, they discover these things and, again, translate them into English. (Who wrote them?)

Again, we can pretend to doubt such things, similar to how we can enjoy make-believe worlds like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, it is absolutely impossible to coherently doubt them. Furthermore, when we discover uncertainty (which is different from doubt) in the universe, that uncertainty only makes sense in the broader context of things which we are certain about—such as the fact that four equals two times two, or that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

Let us consider another comparison—one from history. We know that George Washington was the first president of the United States. How do we know? Well, we have thousands upon thousands of eyewitness accounts about it, as well as documents and paintings and such. We also have circumstantial evidence, for the same processes that allegedly put Washington in office later put Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and all our other presidents up to the present time, into the same office. For these reasons we know that Washington was the first president.

Nevertheless, we know this by faith. After all, none of us actually saw Washington serve as president. Similarly, none of us can actually see the numbers two and four; we can only translate and articulate and use them. Nor can we see the future; nevertheless, we know that the sun will rise. To the extent we know anything at all, to that same extent we know these things. That is to say that we know all these things not by blind faith, but by an abundantly reasonable, grounded faith. They are not presuppositions, but reasonable beliefs.

Are you listening?

But you must be willing to ask good questions, and to listen. For example, we could ask why rationality governs the universe. If science has taught us anything over the past two thousand years, it has taught us to expect the universe to make sense, to have rational explanations. Why? Why are scientists always able to discover, if they listen carefully enough, rational sentences and paragraphs in nature—such as the process of photosynthesis, or of RNA replication, or of general relativity?

Or we could ask how we know that morality defines us—making us angry at injustice in the world. A great deal of human activity on the planet focuses on matters of justice, fairness, and judgment. We could never describe humans without these words, much less could we remove them from our vocabulary. Yet we also know that any review of history will testify that self-​righteousness never, ever works—whether on a corporate or individual level. We simply cannot be the authors of morality. So who is?

Perhaps the rational, creative, moral author Author of life has made himself abundantly well known—so well known that our only alternative would be to begin with the presupposition of his absence and then insist on it. We would have to blindly hold to such a stance, in Dr. Lewontin’s words, “in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.” They cannot allow a divine foot in the door so, with extreme stubbornness, they absolutely refuse to ask or listen.

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