Is naturalism ideology or science?

It’s almost always a simplification to point to a single ideology as being “what the culture believes.” With that caveat, however, it is not inaccurate to say that the opinion-makers of America–academia, media, scientists, etc.–have nearly unanimously embraced the naturalistic worldview. While even its supporters struggle to define naturalism precisely, at its heart is the simple idea that everything in the world (both what exists and what happens) can be explained through purely mechanistic cause and effect. Everything from planets to animals to ideas is ultimately the product of a chain of exclusively material “dominoes” stretching back into the unknowable past. The theory really came into its own in the 19th Century, as Darwinian evolution purported to fit the diversity and apparent design of biological life into that same impersonal progression of cause and effect.

Naturalism matters to a Christian because it is what is left over when theism is discarded. Throughout history, humans have assumed there are two fundamental sorts of “stuff” in the universe: mental/spiritual existence (things like gods, angels, ideas, and values) and material/physical existence (things like elements, molecules, and atoms). Christianity and most other theistic worldviews assume that the spiritual existed before and was the cause of the material: “In the beginning was the Word… All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Atheism, on the other hand, by definition cannot accept a preexistent and creative Mind. This leaves the atheist with a world in which everything begins with impersonal, material being; naturalism, in other words.

Once accepted, naturalism has tremendous implications. It leaves any possibility of knowledge and morality on very shaky footing (as we’ll consider in a later article), elevating creaturely concerns like survival and pleasure above anything transcendent or spiritual. Our culture’s elevation of sexual experience into a nearly absolute deity makes perfect sense in a naturalistic world. Most importantly, it eviscerates the gospel by stripping away anything supernatural, leaving the historic Jesus merely some sort of enigmatic guru.

When trying to understand naturalism, it’s critically important to realize that its foundation is made of quite different stuff from that of Christianity. Grounded in revelation, experience, and reason, the Christian faith claims that certain facts are really, objectively true–that God actually exists, that Jesus actually came as Savior, that He actually died and really rose again, that the offer of salvation through faith is as objective as gravity or George Washington. Press the Christian for an explanation of their faith and they will likely end up echoing Peter in John 6, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Put aside for a moment the question of whether Christianity is actually true. At the very least, a Christian thinks that it is, and that, most fundamentally, is why he is a Christian.

In contrast, when you read naturalist writers or talk to someone who is thoughtfully committed to the worldview, their defense tends to be much more instrumental and pragmatic. They do think the naturalistic perspective is true, but that’s not where they end up when pressed. Instead, the naturalist will talk about how naturalistic assumptions work. They are necessary for science, we are told, and we can see their validation in the success of the sciences in recent centuries. Defending naturalism becomes a matter of defending science. We see this subtle shift in the debate over intelligent design versus evolution, where any hint of a creator is treated as not merely false, but dangerously unscientific. (One could be forgiven for wondering why the science that can study fixed natural laws which are simply there would suddenly be struck with severe indigestion if those exact same laws were ordained by God.)

This difference in perspective matters because usually, for the naturalist, naturalistic assumptions are science. Attacking the one is attacking the other. It is unlikely to occur to the Christian to clarify that he has no quarrel with science qua science, but it may be a necessary first step to ensure that the naturalist is hearing what we are saying. The assumptions and procedures of science are not the problem; the problem is the idea that because physical science is an unparalleled tool for revealing truth about what falls within its field, therefore all reality must fit into that field.

It is that assumption which may puzzle the Christian. Why are so many naturalists so assured that all reality must be empirically accessible to physical science? That everything–even including human consciousness, moral intuition, or appreciation for beauty–must ultimately be reducible to an impersonal and mechanistic cascade of cause and effect? Leaving aside religious faith, merely surveying past scientific advances would seem to caution against overconfidence in drawing boundaries between the possible and the impossible in the realm of the unknown.

What must be understood is that, logically, atheism precedes naturalism. While not every naturalist would consciously root their views in atheism, the naturalistic worldview is absurdly dogmatic about what might or might not be discoverable in the future–unless one has an a priori commitment to a world without the supernatural, in which case naturalism becomes not only plausible, but almost tautological.

This raises an important point: while naturalism is presented in scientific terms, it is really rather unscientific in its desire to exclude certain lines of inquiry (those which hypothesize something more than physical reality) from the very start, for ideological rather than empirical reasons. Science cannot prove that naturalism is true, because naturalism is the proposition that only that which is detectable by physical science is real–a proposition which physical science itself is spectacularly incapable of verifying. (Imagining a blind man inquiring into the existence of color may help to clarify the point.) We are simply told that naturalism must be assumed for the sake of scientific progress. Whether or not that is true, it is an ideological commitment rather than a scientific principle.

The debate is not between ideological Christianity and scientific naturalism. Rather, it is a debate between two ideologies: a theistic perspective which says that an accurate picture of reality will include both mental/spiritual and physical/material existence, and an atheistic perspective which says that reality must be reducible to physical/material existence alone. Both sides offer metaphysical theories which may be tested in various ways, but restricting the inquiry to the domain of physical science is simply begging the question.

Let us return to what I said earlier, though; that science cannot discover that naturalism is true. As a matter of logic, that’s indisputable. Negative propositions cannot be proven. However, as a matter of logic, we also cannot prove that fairies don’t exist, yet it is unlikely that many of us would be sympathetic to the establishment of a Department of Fairy Studies at our alma mater. To the naturalist, while we cannot prove that only the physical is real, those who believe in mental or spiritual reality are simply chasing fairy dust. If we really want to engage the naturalistic worldview, it’s helpful to begin by noting its ideological foundation, but the real question of naturalism isn’t whether it is provable but whether it is plausible. It’s that question which I will consider in another, upcoming article discussing the challenges posed to the naturalistic worldview by human consciousness and morality.


Update 6/16/14: Naturalism and morality: The only thing that’s wrong is everything you know

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