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What is Scientific Naturalism?

J. P. answers the question we should ask before we criticize scientific naturalism.

In 1941, Harvard sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin wrote a book entitled The Crisis of Our Age. In it, Sorokin claimed that cultures come in two major types: sensate and ideational. A sensate culture is one in which people only believe in the reality of the physical world we experience with our five senses. A sensate culture is secular, this-worldly, and empirical. By contrast, an ideational culture embraces the physical world, but goes on to accept the notion that a non-physical, immaterial reality can be known as well, a reality consisting of God, the soul, immaterial beings, values, purposes, and various abstract objects like numbers and propositions.

Sorokin claimed that a sensate culture will eventually disintegrate because it does not have the intellectual resources necessary to sustain a public and private life conducive to human flourishing. After all, if we can’t know anything about values, life after death, God, and so forth, where can we find solid guidance toward a life of wisdom and character?

Sorokin’s claim should come as no surprise to students of the Bible. Proverbs tells us that we become the ideas we cherish in our inner being and Paul reminds us that we transform our lives through a renewed intellectual life. Scripture is quite clear that our worldview will determine the shape of our cultural and individual lives. Because this is so, the worldview struggle raging in our modern context has absolutely far-reaching and crucial implications.

The dominant worldview in western culture is scientific naturalism. In this article and the one to come, I intend to examine scientific naturalism and its central creation myth — evolution — in order to accomplish two ends. First, I want to explain why it is that so many people accept evolution when the evidence for it is far from conclusive, even quite meager. Second, I want to issue a warning for Christians who think that theistic evolution is a benign option for believers attempting to integrate science and theology. To accomplish these ends, I will answer the question, “What is scientific naturalism?” Then, in my next article, I will argue that evolution is embraced with a type of certainty that goes well beyond the evidence for it and close with a plea to Christians who advocate theistic evolution.

What is Scientific Naturalism?

Just what is scientific naturalism (hereafter, naturalism)? Succinctly put, it is the view that the spatio-temporal universe established by scientific forms of investigation is all there is, was, or ever will be. Brains and buffaloes exist (for instance), but minds and moral values must not, because they are invisible to the five senses and therefore invisible to scientific inquiry.

There are three major components of naturalism.

First, naturalism begins with an epistemology. In general, a theory, idea or sentence is epistemological if it has to do with knowledge — if it has to do with good vs. bad manners of believing. Put another way, a theory, idea or sentence is epistemological if it tells us what sorts of things we should believe and what sorts of things we should not believe. — a view about the nature and limits of knowledge — known as scientism. Scientism comes in two forms: strong and weak. Strong scientism is the view that we can only know things that can be tested scientifically. According to strong scientism, scientific knowledge exhausts what can be known; if some belief (for instance, a theological belief) is not part of a well established scientific theory, it is not an item of knowledge. Weak scientism admits that some claims in fields outside of science (like ethics) are rational and justified. But scientific knowledge is taken to be so vastly superior that its claims always trump the claims made by other disciplines. The first component of naturalism, then, is the belief that scientific knowledge is either the only kind of knowledge there is or an immeasurably superior kind of knowledge.

The second major component of naturalism is a theory about the ultimate cause of things, a story that tells us how everything in the universe has come to be. The central components of this story are the atomic theory of matter and the theory of evolution. According to the atomic theory of matter, the smallest parts of the ordinary physical universe (i.e. the chemical elements listed in the Periodic Table) originate in the combining of protons, electrons and neutrons, and larger chunks of the physical universe (everything from rocks to planets) originate in the combining of chemical elements. According to the theory of evolution, lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!) originate in the combining of organic chemicals, and this is also true of you and I. The details of this story are not of concern here. But two broad features are of critical importance. First, explanations of macro-changes in things are always in terms of micro-changes — causation starts at the bottom and works its way up, small to large, micro to macro. Second, everything that happens, happens because of earlier events plus the laws of nature. The second component of naturalism, then, is a story telling us that everything that’s ever happened can be exhaustively explained in terms of earlier events and the laws of nature, and each particular event can be exhaustively explained by the combining of chemical elements, which in turn can be exhaustively explained by the combining of electrons, neutrons and protons.

The third major component of naturalism is a theory about reality in which physical entities are all there is. God and angels are just imaginary fictions. The mind is really just the physical brain, free decisions are merely the results of prior events plus the laws of nature, and there is no teleology or purpose in the world — i.e., life is ultimately meaningless. History is just one ultimately accidental event following another. The world is simply one big cluster of physical mechanisms affecting other physical mechanisms.

To briefly review: The three major components to naturalism are 1) scientism — the belief that scientific knowledge is either the only form of knowledge or a vastly superior form of knowledge; 2) the belief that the atomic theory of matter and the theory of evolution explain all events; and 3) the belief that non-physical things don’t exist and that the world isn’t here for any purpose.

So far, I have been using the term “evolution” without defining it, but in reality, it can be used to mean three different things: the fact that organisms go through minor changes over time, the idea that all life has a common descent, and the blind watchmaker thesis. It is the third notion of evolution that is crucial to the naturalist. And it is precisely this sense of evolution that has far less evidence in support of it than is often realized.

The blind watchmaker thesis declares that the processes and mechanisms of evolution are solely naturalistic, meaning that they occur without the specific involvement of any deity. According to the blind watchmaker thesis, our “creator” is not a conscious designer like a watchmaker designing a watch. Rather, we have been created by a set of accidental physical processes that are not the result of intelligence and do not have any purpose behind them. So understood, a theistic evolutionist could accept the blind watchmaker thesis, but only if he limits God’s activity to that of a first cause, the being that tipped over the first domino, not knowing what would happen. For the theistic evolutionist to be both a theist and an evolutionist, he must believe in God, but think of God as no more than a being who sustains the world’s existence as history unfolds accidentally, according to natural law and “chance.” (I will say more about this in my next article.)

Whether or not you agree with these statements, one thing seems clear. The certainty claimed for evolution and the ferocity with which belief in it is held go far beyond what is justified by scientific evidence and empirical testing. No one could digest Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (InterVarsity, 1991), Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1986), or The Creation Hypothesis (which I edited, InterVarsity, 1994) without realizing that a serious, sophisticated case can be made against the blind watchmaker thesis even if one judged that, in the end, the case against the blind watchmaker thesis is not as persuasive as the blind watchmaker thesis itself. The problem is, most intellectuals today act as if there is simply no issue here and presume that if you do not believe in evolution, then you must believe in a flat earth or something equally absurd.

Why is this? Why do so many people, including some well-intentioned Christians, heap so much scorn on creationists (young-earth and progressive) who reject the evolutionary story, and why do so many people act as though no informed, modern person could believe otherwise? I believe the answer lies in two directions, neither of which is purely scientific or subject to verification by our five senses.

Can this really be true? Can it really be the case that intelligent, well-informed scientists often don’t know what they are rejecting when they reject creationism or intelligent design? And is it really true that the fervency and dogmatic acceptance of evolution is the result of factors that have nothing to do with scientific evidence? If so, what are those factors? I’ll answer these questions next time!

Copyright 2004 J. P. Moreland. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life.

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