As defined by philosopher Paul Draper, naturalism is “the hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system” in the sense that “nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.” More simply, it is the denial of the existence of supernatural causes. In rejecting the reality of supernatural events, forces, or entities, naturalism is the antithesis of supernaturalism.
As a substantial view about the nature of reality, it is often called metaphysical naturalism, philosophical naturalism, or ontological naturalism to distinguish it from a related methodological principle. Methodological naturalism, by contrast, is the principle that science and history should presume that all causes are natural causes solely for the purpose of promoting successful investigation. The idea behind this principle is that natural causes can be investigated directly through scientific method, whereas supernatural causes cannot, and hence presuming that an event has a supernatural cause for methodological purposes halts further investigation. For instance, if a disease is caused by microbes, we can learn more about how microbes interact with the body and how the immune system can be activated to destroy them, or how the transmission of microbes can be contained. But if a disease is caused by demons, we can learn nothing more about how to stop it, as demons are said to be supernatural beings unconstrained by the laws of nature (unlike natural causes).
In utilizing methodological naturalism, science and history do not assume a priori that, as a matter of fact, supernatural causes don’t really exist. There is no conceptual conflict between practicing science or history and believing in the supernatural. However, as several of our authors argue below (e.g., Augustine, Fales, Forrest, and Oppy), methodological naturalism would not be as stunningly successful as it has in fact been if metaphysical naturalism were false. Thus the de facto success of methodological naturalism provides strong empirical evidence that metaphysical naturalism is probably true.
An often overlooked religious criticism of biological evolution focuses on the alleged ethical consequences of accepting it, particularly increased immorality and harmfulness. In this essay Michael D. Reynolds describes and critiques one such criticism, that provided by biblical literalist John MacArthur and his historical forebears documented in Charles Sprading’s Science Versus Dogma and Maynard Shipley’s The War on Modern Science. MacArthur makes seven chief assertions about the ethical consequences of accepting evolution: (1) that naturalism and its acceptance of evolution removes the foundation of morality and causes immorality; (2) that accepting evolution prevents belief in spiritual things; (3) that acceptance of evolution entails that humans are no better than animals; (4) that conceding evolution robs human life of meaning or purpose; (5) that naturalism and its acceptance of evolution leads to nihilism; and that evolutionary concepts laid the groundwork for (6) Communist and (7) Nazi ideology. Reynolds concludes that MacArthur’s assertions exemplify the rejection of rational, evidential thinking in favor of unquestioning credulity.
In Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga maintains that any apparent conflict between science and classical Christian theism is superficial at best, and that the real conflict lies between science and the “quasi-religion” of naturalism. In fact, because there is evidence of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning,” he claims, science may even provide evidence that God exists. In this review Richard M. Smith critiques what Plantinga has to say about three main topics: design arguments that purport to show a deep concord between science and theism, scientific challenges to theism from biological evolution and divine action in the world, and Plantinga’s frontal assault on naturalism—that thinking would be impossible and cognition would be unreliable if naturalism were true.
In his recent opinion on the legality of teaching intelligent design in the classroom (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board), Judge John Jones correctly found against Dover, but did so by employing mistaken premises. Two unsound arguments appear in Section 4 of Kitzmiller, “Whether ID is Science.” The first argument seeks to establish that ID is not a science by showing that it invokes supernatural causes outside of the purview of science. The second argument purports to show that even successful criticisms of Darwinism do not constitute evidence for ID. Neither flaw enhances the scientific credentials of ID, but each bolsters the erroneous perception that Darwinists assume as a matter of faith that either supernatural causes do not exist, or else cannot be investigated scientifically. A natural implication of this erroneous perception is that Darwinism is simply an alternative kind of faith, but in fact both Darwinism and many supernaturalistic hypotheses are amenable to empirical test.
A family of theistic arguments contends that the human ability to reason is to be expected under theism, but is surprising under metaphysical naturalism, and thus provides evidence favoring theism over naturalism. One common line of argument is that unguided evolution favors traits that aid in survival and reproduction, rather than traits conducive to discovering the truth. Thus, evolutionary naturalism provides us with no reason to expect our cognitive faculties to be reliable, whereas theism does provide us with reason to believe that God would have created human beings with cognitive faculties aimed at discovering the truth. Several naturalists have responded with arguments that there is in fact significant survival and reproductive value in having accurate cognitive faculties, but in this paper Aron Lucas takes a different tact. Namely, Lucas argues that even if the general fact that human beings can reason favors theism over naturalism, nevertheless the more specific fact that human reasoning suffers from a variety of cognitive biases favors naturalism over theism. If this is right, then arguments from reason can only be deemed successful by understating the full extent of our knowledge concerning human reasoning, thereby committing what Paul Draper has called the fallacy of understated evidence. After fully outlining the available data concerning human reasoning, Lucas concludes that the existence of human cognitive biases does not merely neutralize the evidential significance of the human ability to reason, but in fact overpowers it, tipping the scales in favor of naturalism (all else held equal).
Reppert argues that the existence of human reason gives us good reason to suppose that God exists. If the world were as the materialist supposes, then we would be unable to reason to this conclusion. This contention is often challenged by the claim that mental and physical explanations can be given for the same event. But a close examination of the question of explanatory compatibility reveals that the sort of explanation that would have to be given for the events of inferring that atheism is true, for example, is incompatible with the event being explicable as a purely physical product of a physical universe.
C. S. Lewis’ argument from reason is perhaps his most famous argument because of the legendary debate that it inspired. In a response to it at Oxford University’s Socratic Club, G. E. M. Anscombe reputedly demolished the argument, causing Lewis to withdraw from contributing to apologetics ever again. Many disagree that Anscombe actually demolished Lewis’ central point, but grant that the encounter destroyed Lewis’ confidence as a philosopher. In this paper (originally presented as a talk) David Kyle Johnson argues that Lewis’ encounter with Anscombe should have reduced his confidence as an apologist because his argument rests on an embarrassing fundamental misunderstanding. In particular, after outlining the exchange between Lewis and Anscombe, Johnson aims to show that Lewis severely misunderstood both naturalism and evolution, and that this misunderstanding permeated Lewis’ argument from reason.
“In C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (InterVarsity: 2003), Victor Reppert has contributed what is surely the most extensive defense of the so-called ‘Argument from Reason’ yet to appear in print. In this critique, I will point out what I believe are the most important conceptual flaws in his arguments, and explain in detail how his arguments are ineffective against my own personal worldview.”
C. S. Lewis’s argument from reason (AfR) claims that the process of inference by which consideration of premises causes us to adopt a conclusion cannot be coherently conceived of in terms of physical cause-and-effect alone. In C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, Victor Reppert maintains that the argument still poses a strong challenge to naturalism. However, Richard Carrier has attempted to refute Reppert’s version of the AfR by invoking developments in cognitive science and computational theory. In this essay Darek Barefoot argues that advances in cognitive science do not affect the AfR since there is an absolute conceptual divide between rational mental causes and physical computational ones. Furthermore, if the AfR is successful, it reveals that rationality is fundamental to the universe, not simply a by-product of physical cause-and-effect; and this, in turn, is readily explicable on theism, but problematic for naturalism.
This is a rebuttal of Rea’s claim that naturalism “is without rational foundation.” This essay shows that adopting the “research program” of basic empiricism is universally appealing, and since naturalism as a “worldview” follows from adopting basic empiricism and applying it to the facts of the world, naturalism has a rational foundation. Rea’s conclusion that naturalism must abandon materialism and realism about material objects and other minds because naturalism cannot “discover” intrinsic modal properties is also disproved.
In a popular article about general arguments from evil against the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God, William Lane Craig raises objections to such arguments that are consistent with those he earlier raised against Paul Draper’s evidential pain-and-pleasure argument from evil in an oral debate with Draper in 1998. In this article Jeffrey Jay Lowder considers whether Craig’s points have any force in rebutting Draper’s writings on his pain-and-pleasure argument, ultimately concluding that they leave Draper’s argument unscathed.
In the first part of this essay Augustine discusses what naturalism entails for one’s ontology, considers various ideas about how to define the categories “natural” and “nonnatural,” and develops criteria for identifying a potentially supernatural event. In part 2 he presents a persuasive empirical case for naturalism based on the lack of uncontroversial evidence for any potential instances of supernatural causation, particularly in our modern scientific account of the history of the universe and in modern parapsychological research.
A brief essay explaining the mission of the Internet Infidels, especially our focus on Metaphysical Naturalism. Includes a reading list of books on Naturalism and a discussion of our values and how the Secular Web is fulfilling its mission.
Lowder argues that the physical dependence of minds upon the brain, along with the argument from evil, can be used to construct an empirical case for metaphysical naturalism.
In the closing chapter of Warrant and Proper Function Alvin Plantinga claims that the combination of naturalism and evolutionary theory is epistemologically self-defeating. As Robbins points out, however, Plantinga’s argument only applies those who hold a “generically Cartesian” picture of the mind, not to those who hold a “generically pragmatist” view of mind. What Plantinga has shown to be self-defeating, if anything, is the generically Cartesian view of our minds. While generic Cartesianism generates the problem of knowledge of the external world, the generically pragmatist view of mind dissolves it.
This is a critical rebuttal to Mark Steiner’s book The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem (1998). Steiner argues that naturalism appears to be false because nature is fundamentally mathematical. Carrier argues otherwise.
God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence (2007) [ Index ] edited by Paul Draper
The Great Debate, God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence, aims to bring together nine distinguished philosophers in a series of four debates, each with a different focus on evidence for and against naturalism and theism. The first debate addresses evidence concerning the nature of the mind and the will as it relates to the truth of naturalism and theism. The second debate introduces an argument from evil informed by evolutionary biology and considers whether evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating. The third debate appeals to the physical sciences, alternatively providing a cosmological argument against theism on the one hand and considering design arguments against naturalism on the other. The final debate revolves around why, if God exists, he remains hidden from so many people, and whether we should believe in God for practical reasons even in the absence of compelling evidence for his existence.
Some Christian philosophers and apologists have vigorously mounted a moral argument for God’s existence made apart from the standard nonmoral grounds. The moral argument is based upon the idea of natural moral law (fundamental moral principles and norms apprehended as such by persons of good will as universally binding and not based upon supernatural revelation or divine positive law). In this expanded version of a talk given to the University of Colorado Theology Forum, Arnold T. Guminski aims to show why those naturalists and theists who hold that the natural moral law obtains should conclude that the moral argument for the existence of God is unsound. Particular attention is given to the writings of J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Paul Copan.
Forrest argues that philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism is supported by (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism; (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by methodological naturalism; (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural; and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural.
Orthodox rabbi Moshe Averick’s Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused World of Modern Atheism is in many ways typical of that niche of recent popular books that attack modern “atheism.” The errors that plague Averick’s own thinking are often found in other authors of similar works. For example, Averick repeatedly makes assertions without providing any arguments to back them up, fails to engage relevant research on the issues that he touches on, and misrepresents the views of his opponents. He also spills a great deal of ink critiquing idiosyncratic views of his opponents as if they were typical of nontheists as a whole, uncharitably attaches false meanings to his opponents’ statements, and takes their words out of context. He both mischaracterizes how science is done and twists cherry-picked scientific findings to create the appearance that they support his own religiously informed positions. Projecting his own unwillingness “to consider anything that presents a challenge to his dearly held belief system” on to his opponents, Averick steadfastly advocates the existence of spirits and their frequent interaction with our world, that human minds involve a spiritual component, and that the Supreme Spirit sustaining the physical world has handed down rules for us to follow, dismissing naturalistic accounts of mind, meaning, and morality for the flimsiest of reasons.
In an earlier critique of Orthodox rabbi Moshe Averick’s Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused World of Modern Atheism, Michael D. Reynolds pointed out that Averick’s book is typical of recent popular works attacking “atheism” in leaning on various informal logical fallacies. In this follow-up critique Reynolds focuses specifically on what Averick has to say about the “failure” of naturalistic accounts of the origin of life, which comprise forty-eight percent of the text of Nonsense of a High Order. Reynolds finds that Averick is ignorant of the nature of science and its principles, that he either does not know, or else fails to understand, the standard scientific explanations of the topics that he addresses, that this ignorance or incomprehension causes him to invent odd notions that completely misrepresent the standard scientific view, that he arbitrarily rejects standard scientific explanations without providing any substantial argument against them, and that he repeatedly asserts that something is true without offering any argument for its truth, among other things.
Naturalism vs. Theism: The Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006) [ Index ]
In this online debate between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick, Carrier opens with a discussion of method followed by 5 arguments for naturalism and 2 arguments against theism, while Wanchick opens with 9 arguments for theism. In the first rebuttals, each debater criticizes the arguments offered by the other in the opening statements. In the second rebuttals, each debater defends their opening arguments against the criticisms of the other in the first rebuttals. Both closing statements focus on the purported deficiencies of the other debater’s overall case.
Kirby explains what naturalism means to him and why he is a naturalist.
Plantinga’s Probability Arguments Against Naturalism and Evolution (1997) by Branden Fitelson and Elliott Sober (Off Site PDF)
In Chapter 12 of Warrant and Proper Function, Alvin Plantinga constructs two arguments against naturalistic evolution, suggesting that (unlike traditional theism) it is self-defeating. Both arguments hinge on the idea that naturalistic evolution cannot account for the reliability of human cognitive faculties. Fitelson and Sober conclude that neither theism or naturalism has an answer to hyperbolic doubt, as neither can construct a non-question-begging argument that refutes global skepticism.
Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis (1986) [ Index ] by Keith M. Parsons
This thesis examines various attempts to construe theism as an explanatory hypothesis and to defend it with arguments similar to those employed in the confirmation of scientific hypotheses. It is the aim of this work to show that such a construal fails to confirm theism and in actuality leads to its disconfirmation.
In Chapter Four of Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis, Keith Parsons defends the dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as part of a general critique of miracle claims which aims to defend naturalism as a rational operating philosophy against potential defeaters. In this defense of miracle claims Don McIntosh argues, first, that for any unknown the burden of proof falls equally upon naturalists and supernaturalists; second, to repudiate all miracle claims in one fell swoop with a mere presumption of naturalism renders naturalism unfalsifiable and unscientific; and third, estimating the prior probability of miracles introduces an element of subjectivity that makes any general probabilistic argument against them suspect. These points leave open the possibility of confirming specific miracle claims on the basis of historical evidence and eyewitness testimony.
In this greatly expanded version of his contribution to The Antipodean Philosopher, Raymond D. Bradley uses H. L. Mencken’s classic “Memorial Service” as a jumping off point to explain why he is an atheist, and not an “agnostic,” about the existence of any members of the category “gods.” Since which gods happen to predominate in the society into which one was born depends upon accidents of birth, how can anyone justifiably have confidence that any of the gods on Mencken’s list actually exist? Turning to our own Western monotheistic tradition, Bradley goes on critique the intellectual and moral defense that believers have mounted for the biblical God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with particular emphasis on “intelligent design” and “fine-tuning” arguments and how the pastorate feign ignorance about what their own biblical scholarship has uncovered about the all-too-human origins of their “revealed” sacred texts.
Both the teachings of old time and Jesus’ new teachings are predicated on the same profoundly mistaken views of human nature, lodged in an egregiously mistaken mythology, a mythology of enormous importance for us because it is one of the wellsprings of Western culture.
In this explanation of why he is not a Christian, Richard Carrier outlines the top four reasons why he rejects Christianity: God’s silence, God’s inactivity, lack of evidence, and the overt conflict between discovered reality and Christian theory. Though a lay exposition geared at a general audience, the essay appeals to a variety of atheistic arguments, including the argument from religious confusion, an evidential argument from evil, divine hiddenness, the argument from biological evolution, and the argument from physical minds. In an interesting twist on the argument from design, Carrier turns the fine-tuning argument on its head, noting that several features of our universe–features predicted by naturalism–are highly improbable if Christian theism is true.
Graham Oppy explains the ways in which his reasons for rejecting Christianity differ from those offered by Bertrand Russell in his famous paper of the same title. In section I, Oppy considers how Christianity should be characterized, the best way to build a case against theism, and the nonrational reasons why people believe in God, among other things. In section II, he offers an account of his journey to unbelief and the philosophy of religion. By section III, Oppy explains why he is not a Christian, as well as some of the things that he does believe. Here he pines in on appeals to contingency and causality in theistic arguments, the problem of evil, free will, the mind-body problem, the history of the universe, human history, and the historicity of the Gospels–outlining his “supervenient naturalism” along the way. Oppy wraps up by considering the meaning of life and whether virtuous behavior relates to Christian belief.
Enterprising Science Needs Naturalism (1997) (Off Site) by Wesley Elsberry
Elsberry argues that scientific method excludes appeals to supernatural causation because naturalism is a corollary to the scientific presumption that the universe is comprehensible. Even if supernatural causation occurs, the presumption of naturalism is valuable because naturalistic explanations are often correct and “are the only known variety [of explanations] that produce an increase in scientific comprehension.”
In Tower of Babel, Robert T. Pennock faults the new creationists for failing to realize that science is committed–not to ontological naturalism (the view that only natural processes or events exist)–but rather to methodological naturalism (a position which, although it does not deny the possibility of the existence of the supernatural, assumes for the sake of inquiry that it does not exist). Martin considers how one can reject ontological naturalism while justifying methodological naturalism as an appropriate stance in the context of science.
Paper rejecting the claims that methodological naturalism leaves no room for appeals to the supernatural in science and that scientists must be methodological naturalists to fulfill the aims of science, as well as the claim that scientists should abandon methodological naturalism.
Naturalism is an Essential Part of Science and Critical Inquiry (1997) by Steven Schafersman (Off Site)
Our modern civilization depends totally for its existence and future survival on the methods and fruits of science, naturalism is the philosophy that science created and that science now follows with such success, yet the great majority of humans believe in the antithesis of naturalism–supernaturalism. This paper proposes to show that naturalism is essential to the success of scientific understanding, and it examines and criticizes the claims of pseudoscientists and theistic philosophers that science should employ supernatural explanations as part of its normal practice.
Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science (1997) by Robert T. Pennock (Off Site)
Paper presented at a conference on “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise,” March 20-23, 1997, at the University of Texas, Austin. Pennock disputes the soundness of Phillip Johnson’s proposal for “Theistic Science” in this detailed paper, which expands and draws on material from Pennock’s book Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism.
The problems with J.P. Moreland’s defense of a ‘scientific’ theism in the book In Defense of Miracles are examined. This brings up relevant issues of how science is done, and involves a defense of compatibilism against Christian notions of ‘libertarian free will.’
The problems with Ronald Nash’s defense of Christian theism over naturalism in the book In Defense of Miracles are examined, which includes discussion of what naturalists “must” believe and why they really believe what they do, and why the Argument from Reason (and the similar Transcendental Argument) does not refute naturalism.
The editors of this collection claim that its essays aim to: (1) show that naturalism “fails to deal adequately with a number of desiderata”; (2) establish that a “consistent” naturalism must be a strong form of reductive physicalism; and (3) showcase “the contemporary resurgence of philosophical theism.” While the volume clearly accomplishes the third objective, it doesn’t get anywhere near accomplishing either of the other objectives.
The anthology Reason for the Hope Within aims to mount a broad defense of the Christian faith, in part by explaining how it can be reasonable for Christians to accept puzzling or paradoxical Christian doctrines, and in part by persuading nonbelievers that all of the core claims of Christianity are true. Oppy explains why he thinks that the book utterly fails to accomplish one of these aims, and thus fails to do much to advance the standing of Christian apologetics. Along the way, Oppy argues that science adopts methodological naturalism because metaphysical naturalism is probably true.