Friday 4 March 2011

Naturalism vs nihilism, brimstone and fire

In the fourth chapter of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, titled "Naturalism — A Worldview", L. Russ Bush III begins by defining naturalism, and contrasting it with the pre-enlightenment view of origins, but couched in distinctly transcendent phrasing, such as:
"'Naturalism' is the belief that in the final analysis, nature is all that there is, and that 'nature' is essentially unmodified by anything other than itself. In other words, nature itself is thought to be the ultimate reality."
"Naturalism affirms no God except the god of impersonal, nonliving, undesigned physical chemistry."
See what Bush does there? He characterises the naturalistic worldview as belief in a god of some kind. I've seen this tendency before* — it's as if the theistic mindset cannot conceive of a worldview that doesn't contain some ultimate thing, which even if it's not a god, is certainly god-like.

There's an unsophisticated creationist slant to this chapter. Bush asks how personalities can arise from something essentially impersonal, how life can arise from non-life. "Energy dissipates," he says. "Complexity changes by simplifying." He argues for the improbability of abiogenesis, and the improbability of the evolution of simple cellular life into complex multicellular life — using the word random rather more often than the phrase natural selection. He also diverts unnecessarily into an irrelevant concern about how — in the naturalistic view — reason was not present in the beginning, and yet it is present now. Next, of course, he gets tied up in an argument about intrinsic truth, illustrating once again the theistic obsession with absolutes.

Truth, however, is not something that exists in some transcendent realm, in and of itself. Truth is merely a description applied to facts and knowledge. Like reason and logic (and indeed morality), truth has no existence of its own.

Bush's argument against naturalism is basically that it's self-refuting, because in the naturalistic worldview, he says, nothing can be known as objectively true, and therefore that must include naturalism itself. Bush ends his piece in typical fire-and-brimstone fashion, quoting Genesis and decrying naturalistic nihilism.

But he's missed the boat. Naturalism doesn't have to be objectively true (in fact nothing does). It only needs to be true in practice. Notions of absolute truth, once discarded, leave open the possibility of determining what hypotheses about the natural world fit with what we already know, and testing them. This is how science progresses. So far, it seems to be working.

A version of this chapter is available online:

*The Alpha Male Monkey — Matt Arnold: