Naturalism, as a worldview has come to dominate western thought in recent decades. This is most evident within the academy, particularly the sciences, but naturalism pervades pop culture, and its ubiquity is evident in subtle and not so subtle ways so much so that it is hardly recognized at all. TV shows, movies, pop/pseudo-science, the media, politics, etcetera are all saturated with it. Most people catch a worldview the same way one catches a cold. Nowadays, naturalism is easily caught. Indeed, many of its presuppositions are assumed to be incontrovertible fact, the disputation of which is a result of sound ignorance and/or superstition. But, when carefully considered, naturalism proves to contain internal incoherencies, which negate it as a logically possible explanation of the way things are.
It is important to begin by stating what is meant by naturalism. Here, naturalism is the view that the ultimate reality, what lies behind it all, is matter and energy only in a closed system. In the beginning, there was a bang, a big one, and from that flowed all the matter and energy that ever would be. These elements, governed by the laws of physics have been arranged and rearranged over thirteen or fourteen billion years until one arrives at the present state of things as they are. While the naturalist view is often atheistic view, there are pantheistic possibilities as well, which come with their own issues of coherence that can be considered elsewhere. It is atheistic-naturalism that is the point of discussion here. If naturalism is true, how are the questions that arise from considering this universe as it is, questions of meaning and purpose, reason, freedom, morality, and even the existence of real persons to be answered? Should such questions even be possible in such a universe?
In a naturalistic universe of matter and energy governed only by physical law, what is simply is. The question of why is a nonsense question. Meaning and purpose cannot be found within such a universe. From the far-flung galaxies, down to the child born this very moment and every other particular in the universe, existence is arbitrary, the present sum of a cosmic equation that self-created itself, according to Stephen Hawking, because of the law of gravity. What is the conclusion of such a view? Albert Camus (1913-1960), an atheist existentialist, summed up the answer quite nicely in the opening of The Myth of Sisyphus saying, “The only serious philosophical question is suicide.” Is there any reason one ought to not kill himself or herself? “To be or not to be, that is the question…” Anything that exists owes its existence the fact that the universe just happened to be this way. It is completely arbitrary with no significance, and, therefore, no ultimate meaning or purpose for that existence.
Another issue arises out of the reductionism that naturalism entails. Reductionism seeks to reduce all things to the basic scientific elements and processes. One observes a phenomenon and endeavors to explain it by reducing its complexity to the simplest level possible. The brain, for example, is a physical organ, and produces ‘thought’ through the firing of synapses across neural connections. This process is based on biochemistry. Take religious belief. Molecular Geneticist, Dean Hamer has concluded that a person’s – whatever a person is – capacity to believe in God is linked to his or her brain chemicals, and it is the same with something like homosexuality. Hamer refrains from stating that one’s capacity to believe in biochemistry itself is based out of these same brain chemicals for obvious pragmatic reasons. What is called thinking and reasoning, then, are illusions. And, as Alvin Plantinga puts it, naturalism leads to doubt about the veracity of our cognitive faculties. Darwin himself, and more recently Thomas Nagel, have come to similar conclusions.
If thoughts are determined by brain chemicals that obey the laws of biochemistry, then those thoughts are not free. Just as an unsupported body of mass well accelerate towards the center of the earth at a predictable rate, so too does one brain-state flow from its immediate predecessor and to the next. They are determined. As such, thought and whatever actions they might bring about, are determined. Determinism, in some form, seems to be the conclusion of many if not most naturalists including Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has commented that “The late Christopher Hitchens [also an Atheist and Naturalist], when asked does he believe in free will, replied, “I have no choice.” Quantum Mechanics, some might argue, is a way out, but it doesn’t alter things much. At best, it simply states that one cannot possess all the data needed to predict future brain states. At worst, things are still determined, but there is a random element that is possible. But that is a rabbit that can be chased elsewhere.
There are, then, profound implications for considerations of ethics. On one hand moral agency is negated by thoughts and actions being determined. But on a deeper level the arbitrariness of the particulars existing within the universe, whatever they may be, removes any quality of intrinsic value. Richard Dawkins put it this way, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Value, for what it is worth, is assigned. Who, and on what authority, assigns the value? The answer is society, either by a ruling elite or by majority assigns value, and it does so on no greater authority than itself. As such there is no evil or good that is for all time and in all places. Slavery and the Holocaust may run contrary to contemporary preferences, but that is all. One cannot say that they are wrong. What is simply is, neither good or bad, and nothing further can be said.
These points are all centered around one primary conclusion of naturalism. That is, one cannot arrive at personal, conscious beings, from an impersonal, non-conscious beginning. If naturalism is true, then the whole of the universe is one great mechanism consisting of smaller machines. Evolution, within the naturalistic framework, cannot account for consciousness or real persons. This is Nagel’s conclusion in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False where the presence of consciousness and conscious beings, he argues, presents an incoherence in naturalistic-evolution. However, Nagel remains sold out to atheism, and he refuses to allow for a metaphysical option. The mechanism of a naturalistic universe leads to it being meaningless and purposeless, bereft of free, moral, personal agents. It is a cosmic do-nothing machine without anyone to be amused by it.
So, what? If the universe is a meaningless, purposeless, determined mechanism, then, one may say, so be it. There are a couple of issues with that position. First, C.S. Lewis once said, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning…” The very fact that one is capable of thinking and conscious of his or her own thoughts as such is incoherent with naturalism. Secondly, Francis Schaeffer spoke of the “mannishness” of man and that it was inescapable. One may believe that the universe is mechanical bereft of meaning, purpose, free will, and morality and that humans are just machines, but it is not possible for him or her to live as though these things were really true. There is an internet discord between the conclusions of naturalism and human experience. One must either borrow from a worldview that contains such things and hold them romantically by a leap of faith into the area of non reason or accept their non-existence and risk some form of madness. The point here is that, when observing the universe, including one’s self and place within it, there are certain characteristics and features. The question is what accounts for things as they are coherently and correspondingly. Naturalism doesn’t provide such an answer.