Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Essay: The Failure of Naturalism by Richard Gerhardt

The Failure of Naturalism by Richard Gerhardt
Though I have come to the same recognition from each of several independent perspectives, today I’ll argue that science leads me to embrace Christianity. My arguments will address the leading alternative scientific view, scientific naturalism; my primary purpose, then, will not be to affirm Christianity vis à vis Islam, Hinduism, or other world religions.  The perceptive reader may apply some of these arguments against those other worldviews, but space dictates that I adhere to the primary task of debunking the ideas that (in the words of the late astronomer Carl Sagan) “the Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be” and that modern science has somehow proved this metaphysical claim. (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)

My conclusion as a biologist, historian of science, and philosopher of science, is that Christian theism—which sees the universe and everything in it as the creations of a transcendent, intelligent eternal Being—does a far better job than does scientific naturalism of accounting for the evidence that science provides.

Modern science has discovered and elucidated much about the physical make-up of the universe, its building blocks, and the natural laws that govern its behavior. Science has eliminated diseases, put men on the moon, and made life more comfortable in innumerable ways. But the success of science in describing the way things behave does not justify claims by modern biologists about questions of how things originated.  And where philosophical questions concerning the God/no God debate can now be addressed by scientific discoveries, it is the theist whose view is invariably supported.

For centuries, astronomers have progressed in understanding the processes of star, galaxy, and planetary formation, events that proceed (largely, if not entirely) according to natural laws.  But only within the last hundred years did they come to understand what the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have declared for 3500 years—that the universe itself is finite, that space and time and the processes and natural laws that we describe all had a beginning not long ago.  Einstein’s discoveries so clearly supported Judeo-Christianity (and undermined naturalist assumptions) that the 20th century was characterized by attempts to find alternative cosmologies to the ‘Big Bang.’ Those attempts served instead to solidify general relativity as the most rigorously tested and verified principle in all of physics. While natural law may be sufficient for explaining the behavior of matter, energy, space, and time, the origin of these things and of the natural laws that govern them require for their explanation an Originator.

Cosmology is just one example. All of the big questions for science—and philosophy—are likewise best explained in theistic , not naturalistic, terms. These include the design of the universe (for intelligent life on earth), the origin of life on Earth, the Cambrian explosion (as representative of the fossil record generally, in which every living thing has appeared suddenly, fully formed and adapted for its time on earth and its role in the ecology of its day), the origin of the information in the universal genetic code, and the origin of human consciousness.

In all of these most important cases, abductive reasoning—arguing to the best explanation from the available evidence—leads to a theistic understanding of the universe and a denial of metaphysical naturalism.  This being the case, the naturalist project depends upon the logical fallacies of reductionism and circular reasoning. The only way to keep theistic conclusions out of the debate is to deny their consideration a priori—before the evidence. But that, of course, is not objective science but a theological perspective masquerading as science.

This is but one example of the logical problems for modern scientific naturalism. It is a matter of history that it was Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries that birthed modern science. And this was not mere coincidence. Rather, it is the Christian worldview that uniquely provided—and provides—the philosophical assumptions that make science worthwhile.  Though some two dozen such assumptions have been identified, I’ll mention just two.

The Christian founders of modern science expected order in the universe because they understood the universe to be the product of a rational Creator. Whereas modern scientific naturalists depend upon that order, naturalism cannot account for it, explain why it is characteristic of the universe. Likewise, since they believed humankind to be created in God’s image, science’s founders expected that our senses and reasoning would be reliable for discerning the order in the universe. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga and others have persuasively argued that naturalistic evolution is self-refuting in this regard—that if the human brain is the product of a random process whose goal was merely survival and reproductive fitness, then there is no reason to trust the conclusions of such a brain.  

Agnostic physicist Paul Davies has summed up this problem this way: “So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.” Plantinga wrote, “Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.”

Much of science deals with elucidating the natural laws that govern ongoing processes; the resulting conclusions are theologically neutral and non-controversial.  But by claiming that questions of origin are equally susceptible to natural explanations, scientists betray themselves as philosophically and historically naïve and incapable of keeping up with or understanding the implications of the latest important scientific discoveries.

Christianity makes sense of the facts most in need of explaining—the origin and design of the universe, the origin of life on Earth, of information in DNA, and of human consciousness, to name a few. In addition, Christianity provides the logical assumptions that make science worth doing.  Naturalistic science neither accommodates the latest scientific discoveries nor logically grounds its own existence. With C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

11 comments :

Ken Pulliam said...

Richard,

Thanks for your article. You say: While natural law may be sufficient for explaining the behavior of matter, energy, space, and time, the origin of these things and of the natural laws that govern them require for their explanation an Originator .

I think that science is outside of its realm when it tries to explain the ultimate origin of things. As you say, it can explain the "what" of how things operate but not the "why", in any ultimate sense. While some scientists have been overly zealous for their philosophical views, the same is true of many Christian scientists who think that science proves the existence of God. The fact is that there are some questions that science is not well-equipped to answer.

To argue that things that are currently unexplained by science such as the complexity of the DNA code, abiogenesis, and so on, demand that we must postulate a deity is misguided. So far in the history of the earth, there have been many things that were once thought to be explainable only by an appeal to the supernatural that have since been explained in purely naturalistic terms. However, there has never been a case where something that was explained by naturalistic means has subsequently been explained by the supernatural--not one that I am aware of. Thus, I tend to think that many of the questions which science can't answer yet, will be answered one day. In the meantime, I am willing to be agnostic rather than opt for the artificial certainty of faith.

You say: The only way to keep theistic conclusions out of the debate is to deny their consideration a priori—before the evidence. But that, of course, is not objective science but a theological perspective masquerading as science . I would argue that if one inserts supernaturalism into the equation, then the methodology of science is compromised. Unless the supernatural can be identified and studied in the laboratory, then it has no place in science.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Dr. Gerhardt,

The universe is "finite?" Depends on what you mean by "finite." We can't see beyond what our telescopes can detect. There could be other cosmoses outside our particular space-time bubble. There could be other dimensions, including multi-verses even inside our cosmos. There could be cosmoses that existed before ours and may exist after ours. (The most prevalent modern day hypothesis of how our cosmos will end is called the Big Rip, based on the fact that the expansion of our cosmos is accelerating and billions of years from now time and space may simply tear apart at the seams).

At any rate, astrophysicists are quite sure that based on present evidence the stars in our cosmos will continue burning for billions of years, and that new stars are seen arising in places, and old stars are seen exploding or burning out. Not exactly what Genesis 1 describes when it says "God made the stars and set them in the firmament on day four," which left off the added miracle that God is making them still, as noted in astronomy journals.

You also wrote that "the Cambrian explosion (as representative of the fossil record generally, in which every living thing has appeared suddenly, fully formed and adapted for its time on earth and its role in the ecology of its day)" Apparently you have not studied the Pre-Cambrian as many paleontologists have and found multi-cellular organisms there as well, worms and even things that look like precursors of trilobites. Neither do you seem aware of the fact that some phyla arose later than the Cambrian. Also, all of the specific modifications for land animals and plants also arose later, amazing modifications in fact. Also, in the Cambrian the earliest "fish" or "phylum chordata" were so simple as to lack jaws and eyes and vertebrae, having only an eye spot at the end of a notochord. Not exactly a "fully formed fish" as we know them today. More like an evolutionary variant of a larva-stage sponge, or worm.

How much "science" did you say you had studied? Have you seen the new BIOLOGOS website? Christians who are also leaders in science, such as the former head of the Human Genome project, write articles there, discussing Genesis and also I.D. and reject a literal interpretation of Genesis and also question I.D. I suggest that you, and others on this blog engage your Christian brethren over there on topics of both science and Scripture.

inchristus said...

Hi again, Ken.
Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful responses.

Simply because "many of the questions which science can't answer yet, will be answered one day" does not mean science can answer ALL questions. That is, science has its limitations. While it is the quest of all scientific inquiry to seek objective truth about an actual state of affairs in the empirical world, it cannot answer why this inquiry is important or how it is that "the starry heavens above" (Kant) inspire us. In fact, truth itself has an enduring quality that science cannot give account for. Speaking about Pascal Adamson notes:

"Whatever the weight of antiquity, truth should always have advantage, even when newly discovered, since it is always older than every opinion men have held about it, and only ignorance of its nature could [cause one to] imagine it began to be at the time it began to be known." See Donald Adamson Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist and Thinker About God.

Shelby Cade said...

Hi Ken,

I will just make two quick points, and then head to bed. First, I think you misunderstand Richard when he speaks of DNA. He is not trying to say that DNA information is scientific proof, but mearly that information is best explained if there is one who is an informer (God).

Secondly, and most importantly, I see you as having a very different view of how science operates or is defined. You seem to believe that science operates purely on a naturalistic level. You said, "if one inserts supernaturalism into the equation, then the methodology of science is compromised." For me this sounds a lot like scientism. John Post holds this view and states, "all truth is determined by basic scientific entities." There is a different view of science, however. This view sees science as being interested in following the evidence wherever it leads. This view is held by the former atheist Anthonly Flew. It was the DNA info. that lead Flew to make that statement. In fact, Del Ratzsch said, "If part of reality lies beyond the natural realm, then science cannot get at the truth without abandoning the naturalism it presently follows as a methodological rule of thumb.”

So, I agree with Richard (suprise, suprise) that many who hold to a naturalistic view, do so while rejecting God a priori, and thus handcuff any possibility of discovering truth. It is past my bedtime, so I hope some of what I said makes sense. :-)

Ken Pulliam said...

InChristus,

Thanks. Note I said: many of the questions which science can't answer yet, will be answered one day. Not all . I agree that some questions are outside the realm of science which I also said in my comment. That is one reason why I find Gerhardt's contentions dubious.

Ken Pulliam said...

Hi Shelby,

The problem with inserting supernatural hypotheses in the science lab is that supernatural activities, if they exist, cannot be seen in the lab. Science has to operate on what can be observed.

The postulation of a deity or a designer is a philosophical postulate not a scientific one. Within the realm of philosophy or religion, its perfectly fine to argue for a deity.

inchristus said...

Ken,
Thanks for the corrections and precision. Apologies for not being more careful.

Richard said...

Ken:

Thanks for your response.

You are correct. Science cannot prove the existence of God any more than it can prove the non-existence of God. Indeed, if we scientists had a little better education, we would all be aware that while scientific theories can be disproven, they cannot be proven. Having understood this, you have realized my most important point--that many moderns are wrong to believe that science has somehow (or ever could) prove metaphysical naturalism.

The rest of my (word-limited) argument sought to merely make the additional points that 1) considered objectively, all of the latest important discoveries from science fit better within a theistic than within a naturalistic metaphysic, and 2) the philosophical assumptions that birthed modern science and that make it a reasonable enterprise are theistic (and specifically Judeo-Christian), that scientific naturalism is at best logically unjustified and at worst self-refuting.

Rick

Richard said...

Edward:

Thanks for your response. Each of your points can easily be answered, but I haven't the time right now to answer each in depth. Further, when you offer such a barrage of counterarguments, I 1) don't know which you really feel to be most in need of a reply, and 2) suspect that you may not really be interested in hearing the truth. (This may not be the case with you personally, but this sort of 'steamrolling' is classically exhibited by those interested only in arguing and not in daialoguing. Our original essays were limited to 1000 words, and thus could not go into great depth with any of the premises involved.)

I am familiar with the complexities of the issues involving the Cambrian explosion and the multiverse concept (and am quite familiar with the BIOLOGOS site). Regarding the former, let me say only that biology is such a complex discipline that people will go on believing whatever they wish with regard to the available evidence.

Astronomy and physics, on the other hand, are very simple, mathematical disciplines, and it is very much harder to kid oneself about where the evidence leads. The history of 20th-century astronomy/physics was a series of failed attempts to disprove general relativity and big-bang cosmology because they so clearly supported an understanding of the universe much like that of Genesis 1. (Your hyper-literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is a straw-man argument; while many American Christians use a very superficial hermeneutic, I do not, and so have no difficulty in reconciling the Bible's creation accounts with modern astronomy.)

Throughout the centuries of the God/no-God debate in Western civilization, the main issue has been whether the universe is eternal and static (supporting "no-God") or had a beginning (God). The evidence has come down solidly on the side of the latter, as the astronomers and physicists who sought to disprove big-bang cosmology understood.

The only way out now (for the naturalist) is to postulate a multiverse. But this, too, is inadequate, and that on two counts. One, it only pushes back the issue, as a cause for the multiverse needs to be explained (or explained away). Secondly, there's the recognition of the extreme fine-tuning for life found in the universe (and galaxy and solar system). For those who understand this evidence, the issue becomes not only the postulation of multiple universes but an infinite number of other universes, among which we happen to live in the one that exhibits the characteristics for life. Besides committing the 'gambler's fallacy,' this route requires a whole lot more faith than that needed to embrace theism.

Probably more words than my original essay, but that's all I can spare you now. Blessings,

Rick

Ken Pulliam said...

Rick,

You said: that many moderns are wrong to believe that science has somehow (or ever could) prove metaphysical naturalism.

I agree but then you seem to argue that science can prove or at least almost prove Christian theism. This seems contradictory to me. If the supernatural is outside of the realm of science, then it cannot be used to prove any particular view of metaphysics.

One could say that the evidence produced by science leads me to conclude that theism is the overall best explanation or one could say that it leads me to conclude that naturalism is the overall best explanation. Neither view is without problems. Theism says that what we can't explain through science right now leads to the conclusion of supernatural activity, whereas naturalism says that everything that can be explained by science so far leads to the conclusion on no supernatural activity. It seems to be a wash.

David said...

"Every living thing has appeared suddenly, fully formed and adapted for its time on earth and its role in the ecology of its day."

Every living thing? All known species, both extinct and alive today? No possibility that a given species descended from another ancestral species? Maybe this is an example of people continuing to believe whatever they wish with regard to the available evidence.

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