POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Retelling an old, old story - Naturalism as overarching meta-narrative

In part one of my mini series on the new atheism I thought it best to give some background to the narrative underlying atheistic thinking. For we all know that every worldview tells a story, a story which serves as the ground for understanding from within the worldview. Though its adherents may deny this, the new atheism of our day holds a large philosophical story as an interpretative framework for all its views and teaching. In other words, itt holds to a certain a meta-narrative. A meta-narrative is an overarching story by which everything else is interpreted and framed. Let me give an example for the readers of Power of Change which we would be familiar.

The Christian faith has a large over-arching story by which we build other areas of knowledge. The Christian meta-narrative is at times described with the following terms: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. We believe that God created the world in pristine goodness. He then made human beings in the very image of God (imago dei) and as such our creation was a very good thing. We also believe that human beings sinned and rebelled against their creator resulting in this present world being under a curse. In such we see both goodness and evil in the world, both design and disruption, teleology and disteleology. In this age we hold that God has pursued creation by making covenants and entering relationships with his creatures. Then, in the fullness of time, God’s eternal plan culminated in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, to finalize the work of God to redeem a people to be his own possession. The work of Jesus redeems us from the curse and we now await the consummation of the age with the restoration of all things. Creation will no longer groan and be in upheaval. Humans will be under the divine rule of King Jesus, the new heavens and new earth will overtake this present age reality and an eternal state of peace and blessing will commence. All things will then be fully reconciled to God and his people will rule and reign with him in his Kingdom. From within this story we interpret reality. It is how we see. From it we believe several things:

  • The universe was created by a reasonable God. The created world is therefore both real and intelligible to the human mind
  • Scientific study is discovering how the world is designed and created by a rational, purposeful mind…namely God. By reason, we may discover and learn true knowledge about the universe
  • Human beings have immense intrinsic value as creations of God
  • Human beings are uniquely responsible to their creator for their actions, be they good or evil
  • Humans are separated from God, creation, and each other due to their sin which must be remedied. Our hearts and actions are by nature bent towards evil and we necessarily are under the wrath of a just and holy God.  The implications are that we are separated from God, alienated from one another, with our very souls living with self-deception and fracture.
  • God has graciously dealt with sin and death through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 
  • Human flourishing is found in being reconciled to our Creator and then using our lives to reflect his designs, desires, and decrees on the earth

Just an example.

Likewise, the atheistic worldview also has a story to tell by which they make their truth claims. Here is an example from a recent article in the New York Times.

The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe. As people opened their eyes, religion (equated with ignorance and superstition) gave way to science (equated with fact and reason). Parochialism and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science. The story provides a blueprint for how to remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West’s secular elites.

Atheists Agonistes By RICHARD A. SHWEDER New York Times Published: November 27, 2006. (Also available here without subscription

This story is the reason we see things like the war between science and religion propagated by those from the enlightened crowd. The story is one of scientific, secular man fighting ignorance and superstition on behalf of the good of all mankind; kind of sounds like caped crusaders when you think about it. This is far from the truth. The reality is that science emerged from a people who held deep religious beliefs about the world. In fact many have made the argument that it is precisely the beliefs of Christian monotheism in Europe, which allowed scientific progress to be made. This is beyond the scope of this post so I’ll refer you to the works of Jaki, Duhem, and Pearcy/Thaxton for that discussion. Back to the atheistic metanarrative. Much of the ground for a worldview is “believed in,” it is a philosophical dictum held by all true believers. The grand story believed by the atheist is that of philosophical naturalism. If we do not understand this, we will not be able to understand our atheistic friend’s claims, arguments, and allergies to the very idea of the supernatural. So let us take a walk into naturalism as a philosophy.

Naturalism defined

Many people in our culture would see the Naturalistic worldview, that nature is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be, as a new development. Yet the historically informed know well that human history has been populated by naturalists as well as those with their eyes set upon deities. Though the “nature is all there is crowd”, has never held sway in large number on any culture, it is nevertheless not a new idea. The naturalist lineage of ideas traces back to the Ancient Greek atomists and experienced a rebirth during the renaissance in Europe much in the rediscovery of ancient Greek Skeptics such as Sextus Empricus. The view holds that our world is a closed system of cause and effect with nothing existing "outside" of nature and therefore nothing acting upon the world. No gods, devils, angels, demons, immaterial human souls, or real universal ethical truths existing at all. This is the story from which the new atheists spin both their rhetoric and scholarship. They simply see anything outside of matter/energy/space/time as silly, ridiculous, and misinformed. You can see this exemplified by the recently and cleverly created Flying Spaghetti Monster (if you have a good sense of humor, it is a clever deal - wrong, but clever). The Spaghetti Monster is the creator behind the “intelligent design” of the universe. The claim is that saying “God designed the world” is just about the same as saying “Flying Spaghetti Monster designed the world.” For those who by default cannot accept any sort of supernatural being, the concept of “God” is just silly and indefinable. You would need revelation from God to know his being, works and character. But of course if their can be no God in your story, this is of course just ridiculous. Naturalism has a very strong appeal and has grown in influence in Western culture over the last several centuries. Let us look at a few of its strengths to see why it has so powerful appeal on some people.

Naturalism – the exaltation of empiricist epistemology

One of the reason naturalism is so compelling is that it exalts empiricist epistemology. An epistemology is a theory of knowledge, or how we come to know things in the world. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, empiricism is defined as follows:

We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience.
See Rationalism and Empiricism at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/ 

In other words, empiricism holds that knowledge and truth about the world is acquired through empirical investigation and the scientific method. In order to come to knowledge about something, we form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis with an experiment whose results are observable with our senses and is repeatable by others who can verify the truth. With this method in hand, many great things have been brought to the world by the minds of men. Let’s look at the real strengths claimed by proponents of naturalism.

Strengths of the Naturalistic Worldview

It has produced great goods for human kind – the examples of the great things brought to the earth from scientific and empirical research are astounding. Advances in health, medicine, communications, transportation cannot be overlooked. The scientific method and engineering have extended life spans, eased burdens of suffering, and given us really cool MP3 players to play with. In all seriousness, science is a great good to mankind.

It is accessible to people of all cultures – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, etc. can all use this method to study things in the world and arrive at a shared knowledge of many things. No one argues over what we observe in a test tube. Well, maybe you do, but after a while consensus arrives in the process of good science. For instance, no one will argue today that water is a compound that is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. Whether you believe Muhammad is the final messenger of Allah or not does not disqualify one for understanding basic chemistry.

Though these strengths are present, naturalism has gross weaknesses as a philosophy and it is my opinion that its strengths are actually stolen goods from another worldview. It is a worldview in which scientific realism is a distinct and expected view of the created world…but I am jumping ahead of myself. Smile. To a few weaknesses of naturalism/empiricism

Weaknesses of Naturalism

It is is self-refuting – Empiricism by nature is self-refuting. It is embarrassingly evident to all today that the claim “the only things that count as true knowledge are verifiable by our senses” is itself not verifiable by empirical investigation. Many in philosophical circles recount the embarrassing verification principle of the logical positivists of the early 20th century. The system simply logically eats itself. Its own primary truth is not verifiable by the theory. There is a good article available on the Vienna Circle and its logical positivism for those interested.

It is incomplete view of reality – It is accepted based on beliefs which cannot be demonstrated by naturalism. Some theistic philosophers have done some devastating work on the reliability of reason from “within a naturalistic framework.” Based upon naturalistic presuppositions our minds are nothing but the bumping together of atoms in the brain of a complex and specified ape. If our minds are the result of a random process, what right do we have to “believe” that our thoughts and logic have anything to do with reality? Philosopher Richard Taylor gives a fascinating example in his story of the “Road To Wales.” Let me summarize:

If we were traveling by train and looked out upon the hillside and saw an arrangement of rocks precisely configured to convey the message “Welcome to Wales!” what would we think? If the rocks were lying in that configuration by a completely random, unintelligent process, we would be fools to believe that it was communicating something “true” to us. In other words, if you thought you were actually going into Wales based on a random falling of rocks, you would not be rational to believe this. But, however, if the rocks were arranged by an intelligent agent, one would be right to believe the message found in the configuration of rocks.

If our existence is a random movement of atoms by the chance laws of nature, one is not justified in “trusting their messages” to tell us the truth about reality. If naturalism is true, we are completely unjustified in thinking our thoughts somehow tell the truth about reality. It is arrogant and ungrounded for us to believe the electrochemical machinations of the brain are arriving at anything remotely related to “truth.” However, if our minds are not the result of random, unintelligent processes, we would be justified that we have been designed to understand, think and process reality. This of course is a variation on the Argument From Reason put forth by many thinkers over time. For those interested, you can see the following.

Books, Chapter 2 - Naturalism in Ronald Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, CS Lewis’ Miracles, Victor Reppert’s CS Lewis’ Dangerous Idea. 

Web Sites: Robert Koons, Lewis on Naturalism, Doug Grouthis’ The Great Cloud of Unknowing, Victor Reppert’s The Argument from Reason

It does not see itself as the faith-story that it really is: Using a bit of  sarcasm, let me demonstrate with a short myth I crafted some years ago:

A long time ago, longer than any of you can comprehend there was the nothing. The nothing was infinitely small and infinitely dense, a mathematical concept called a singularity. This nothing just exploded “by chance” and went from nothing to a lot of things really fast. These things, mainly hydrogen, quickly began to combine. Overcoming the strong repulsive force, the weak gravitational force drew all this stuff together into stars. Everything came from these stars. Some of these eventually exploded in supernovas, further spreading and reorganizing the nothing. Eventually our own planet earth came from this nothing. This earth was really lucky. It would be the perfect distance from, the right kind of star to support intelligent life. It would be tilted at exactly the right angle to create seasons for growing and harvesting food. Luckily there was a soup, and there were some inorganic elements in that soup that got feeling a little frisky. They started to jump together to form amino acids, and luckily some of these were of the proper orientation and fell into the precise order to form proteins. These proteins were lucky to be folded in such a way to be useful to form all the machinery necessary to form cells. From these cells, combining and reproducing over a real long time, more complex life came about. Mutations and death and we end up with you. I’m glad we were smart enough to figure all this out. Instead of the world and life being designed and fused with meaning and purpose (which it appears). We are the result of blind chance plus matter plus time; there is no other meaning to life. And we all lived happily ever after because we are all good and nice blobs of reorganized nothing (except for the possibility of atomic bombs, terrorists, religious wing nuts, comets smashing into the earth, global warming, and swarms of nano-bots forming a gray goo that kills us all.)

Now I am having a bit of fun here to show a point. I know some secular folk are a bit red in the face for me doing this. I do want to say that I once believed this meta-narrative – the lucky star dust story. I just want everyone to agree that even the stories many of us accept as true can seem a bit far-fetched when we look at them at face value. We all need to know how our worldview sounds to those who are not true believers.

It is stealing capital from theistic worldviews - To give life meaning and value, atheists have to steal from other worldviews in order to give life meaning. They readily accept that life has no “ultimate meaning” and Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, have all affirmed the absurdity of life and its meaninglessness. Because nihilism is literally unlivable as a philosophy, many atheists today choose “local meanings” to create meaning for their lives. My life is meaningful because “W, X, Y, Z” where one might choose “Family, Success, Music, Sports” or whatever to give life “my meaning.” I will cover this in a coming entry, but I want to say here. Local meaning is not meaningful unless one denies what he already knows about ultimate reality. I do think this is done daily by many people – just don’t think about the big picture – that will bum you out. Just have sex, eat food, laugh, love and try to enjoy life before you die. Such daily distraction and self-deception must be the case if atheism is true. The problem is you must, in practice, deny the implications of your own worldview to do so. Some have even gone as far to say, that as a society, we need to tell ourselves Noble Lies to get by. I personally, prefer noble truths to noble lies. (No hat tip to the Buddha here; for a look at the Noble Truths of Buddhism, see my post – Buddhist Insight and Christian Truth)

It is arrogant and full of pride – Not that this is indicative of just one worldview, but just take a quick read at Stephen Pinker’s recent comments in the Harvard Crimson to see the “we are smarter than you” sort of view that gets contagious among the new atheists.

In conclusion, this first post was written to remind us of something as we go to several other topics surrounding the new atheism. It is important to remember that “Naturalism” is their story and they are sticking to it. This will help us understand why they teach, believe, and at times spew vitriol towards faith. There is a more excellent path – neither blind faith in believing nonsense, nor acting as if there is a “faith-less or story-less” worldview out there. It is an ancient path set forth by the prophets, the apostles, and men such as Augustine and Anselm in days past.

Fides Quaerens Intellectum – Faith (in God) seeking Understanding

That's my song...at 11:30 on Tuesday, December 5, in the year of our Lord 2006.