Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science

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The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, eds. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, 2011.


With thirty eight contributors writing 41 essays encompassing a wide range of views, it’s unlikely this 963-page tome on naturalism in science will be surpassed for many years. The brief editors’ Introduction goes to the heart of the issues discussed by asking “what are the metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions that justify scientific activity?” (p. xix)

Part I, “Naturalizing Science: Some Historical and Philosophical Considerations,” includes Bruce Gordon’s and Ronald Numbers’ excellent historical surveys of the emergence within a Christian matrix of the natural sciences from the medieval period on. They show how, with the breakup of a homogeneous Western Christian culture at least by the time of the French Enlightenment, God became progressively excluded, less by science than by an increasing naturalism, that itself took on the role of an ersatz religion. I would add that due to Christianity, the dedivinization of the natural world freed it for investigation by what became the natural sciences. And I would further add that naturalism is itself a myth-like redivinization of that same world, in complete forgetfulness that the divinized matter can be technically understood in philosophy only as contrasted to what is not matter.

Gordon insists that methodological naturalism–the view that the sciences carry out their investigation separately from theological considerations, and metaphysical naturalism–the view that would exclude God from all rational consideration–are closely allied. He notes the heightening of tension due to Darwinian naturalism, and argues against an accommodation with biology that would exclude consideration of external design, since “presupposition of the metaphysical framework of transcendent intelligent design is essential to the very possibility of science as a rational and truth-conducive enterprise . . . .” (30) Ronald Numbers would disagree with this conclusion, noting that “scientific [i.e. methodological] naturalism . . . flourished among Christian scientists who believed that God customarily achieved his ends through natural means.” (75)

Part II, “The Epistemological and Ontological Foundations of Naturalism,” opens with Alvin Plantinga’s argument against naturalism. While not objecting to the theory of evolution, he argues that naturalism, since it presupposes a materialist reduction of all reality to matter, has to deal with what Darwin’s “horrid doubt . . . whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals. . . are at all trustworthy.” (139)

Because of this doubt, Plantinga points to a conflict, not between “Christian belief and science” but “between naturalism and science.” (148) The philosophical closure to the questions of existence represented by naturalism goes unrecognized by philosopher Michael Williams who persists in framing the debate as one between science and Christianity:

“The disenchantment of nature, while perhaps not entailing anti-supernaturalism, certainly encourages it by making appeals to the divine seem otiose. To conceive nature as a realm of law is to conceive it as a self-sustaining causally closed system that has no need of divine supervision and no obvious room for divine intervention.” (251)

In Part III, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Emergence of Biological Complexity,” Stephen Meyer argues that “intelligence is the only known cause of specified complexity or information” (323) such as can be found in a living cell. This is particularly clear for Meyer in the question of the origin of life, where the most likely answer to the question “What actually caused life to arise on Earth?” would be: “Life was designed by an intelligent agent that existed before the advent of humans.” (331)

In his Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, (New York, Harper Collins, 2010, p. 443), Meyer is prepared to accept that:

“it is at least logically possible that an immanent (within the universe) intelligence rather than a transcendent intelligence might have designed [the first living cells].”

And here he notes that “a designing intelligence from a time prior to the advent of humans on Earth does not have a qualitatively different epistemological status than other design inferences that critics already accept as legitimate” (340 n141). Placing the intelligent designer within this world, even hypothetically, would seem to repeat William Paley’s mistake of a merely intramundane origin, unnecessarily exposing himself to Richard Dawkins’ jibe, who designed the designer?

Christian de Duve asks whether “the stage has been reached where all scientific avenues have been exhausted? Should such be the case, are we to enlarge our notion of what is natural? Or have we met the authentically supernatural?” (346) He suggests that the discovery from the late 1980s on of homeotic genes “may disclose unexpected ways of reducing” the “irreducible complexity” which Michael Behe and others have seen as inexplicable without the notion of an immediate intelligent designer. While defending the view that “purely naturalistic factors . . . determine biological evolution,” he still accepts that we “are part of a cosmic pattern that is only beginning to reveal itself.” (357)

William Dembski and Robert Marks note that “theistic evolutionists” like Francis Collins:

“think that an intelligence (for Collins, the Christian God) set up the conditions that make it possible for the Darwinian mechanism to bring about biological information . . . . for Collins and other theistic evolutionists, God’s hand is nowhere evident in the evolutionary process. Atheistic and theistic evolution join hands in proclaiming that purposeful design in biology is scientifically undetectable.” (365)

On the other hand, the authors “are challenging the claim that evolution can create information from scratch where previously it did not exist.” (389)

In Part IV: “Cosmological Origins and Fine-Tuning,” William Craig concludes his discussion on the origin of the universe by remarking that the “beginning of the universe, of space and time themselves, reveals the contingency of the universe . . . [which] is evidently not necessarily existent, as Hume suggested, since it is not eternal, and therefore its existence does cry out for explanation.” (527)

Bruce Gordon, closing his critique of multiverse cosmology, quotes Lewontin’s notorious justification for taking the side of science “in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs . . . because we have a prior commitment to materialism . . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” Gordon remarks that:

“in the absence of any causally sufficient story, blind luck is invoked as a deus ex machina for naturalistic explanations. Intelligent design, by contrast, provides an argument from what we know intelligent causes are sufficient to produce and, furthermore, only intelligent causes are known to be sufficient to produce: structures incredibly rich in complex specified information.” (584)

Part V has two essays on “Mathematics” and its relation to naturalism, followed by Part VI, “Evolutionary Psychology, Neuroscience, and Consciousness.” From quite opposite viewpoints, David Berlinski and Francis Crick & Christof Koch can both agree on a remark of the latter authors: “An important problem neglected by neuroscientists is the problem of meaning.” (760) Symptomatic of that neglect is Crick’s and Koch’s blasé presumption regarding consciousness that “If one could understand the mechanism for one aspect [of consciousness], then, we hope, we will have gone most of the way towards understanding them all.” (747) So they concentrate on “visual consciousness”–which is intrinsically material, making it possible for them to avoid facing the kind of data explored in, say, Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding.

Nancey Murphy entitles her view of human consciousness “non-reductive physicalism,” and while “denying the complete reducibility of the biological level to that of chemistry and physics,” she argues that “just as life appears as a result of complex organization, so too, sentience and consciousness appear as non-reducible products of biological organization.” (771) She appears to agree with the views of “most philosophers of mind and neuroscientists” who “hold to an ontologically reductionist view of the relation between the mental and the physical,” drawing on Francisco Ayala’s definition of ontological reductionism as “the denial of non-material ontological entities such as vital forces and souls.” (776)

James Moreland takes Nancey Murphy to task in his discussion of “The Physical Sciences, Neuroscience, and Dualism.” He faults her with ceding too much to neuroscience, remarking that invariably the issues peculiar to human consciousness are discussed in philosophical terms, with nothing added to understanding by the contributions of the natural sciences. (837) He mentions two principal forms of substance dualism:

First, there is Cartesian dualism, according to which the mind is a substance with the ultimate capabilities for consciousness and is connected to its body by way of an external causal relation. Second, there is Thomistic substance dualism, one important version of which takes the soul to be broader than the mind in containing not merely the capacities for consciousness, but also those which ground biological life and functioning. On this view, the (human) soul diffuses, informs, unifies, animates, and makes human the body. The body is not a physical substance, but rather an ensouled physical structure such that if it loses the soul, it is no longer a human body . . . (838) For Moreland, Thomistic substance dualism is grounded in the data of human consciousness rather than “a theoretical postulate.” (841)

The book closes with Part VII: “Science, Ethics, and Religion.” Michael Ruse heads his piece on “Evolution and Ethics” with a quote from an essay he co-authored with Edward O. Wilson, “Ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators,” a sentiment which Ruses’ chapter never recovers from. He continues, “Substantive morality stays in place as an effective illusion because we think it is no illusion but the real thing.” (859) Presumably the “we” here doesn’t include himself, Edward Wilson, or the readers of his essay, who, no doubt will heroically bear the burden of the truth that there is no moral truth.

The title of Dallas Willard’s companion article provides the critique Ruse invites: “Naturalism’s Incapacity to Capture the Good Will.” Readers of Richard Dawkins’ self-contradiction at the end of his eminently naturalist Selfish Gene, will remember his hapless assertion that, despite his argument for determinism, we can rebel against our genes. Willard notes the effect of naturalism:

“the primary structures and properties of the moral domain–those involved in the good (or bad) will–are lost sight of. His challenge to Darwin, Dawkins, Dennett, Ruse, Searle, and Wilson goes to the heart of moral existence: “Let them tell us . . . how to become persons of good will, reliably guided by moral obligation to do what is right and honourable.” (877)

If I had some criticisms of the essayists, it would be that neither sides of the argument–for and against intelligent design–seem to have hit metaphysical bottom.

Ernan McMullin, whose “Varieties of Methodological Naturalism” is in Part I, ruled out what he called “strong methodological naturalism” which holds that “the only valid source of knowledge of the natural world is the natural sciences.” (83) Such an approach would restrict divine action in the world, including the action argued for by some proponents of intelligent design. But McMullin introduces two versions of what he calls “qualified methodological naturalism.” I’ll have to limit myself to the first version, which proposes a presupposition of the sufficiency of methodological naturalism, allowing philosophy or theology to pronounce on “topics like cosmology or the mind-body problem.” (86)

The long history of the natural sciences and the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of nature grounded in the creative and conserving action of the Creator leads to the distinction “between two sorts of causality here: a primary sort pertaining to the action of the Creator holding each thing in being, and a secondary sort governing the actions of the created natures themselves as they interact with one another.” (87) He contrasts the Thomist tradition with that of Reformed theology, where such an endorsement of nature could be seen as limiting the Creator’s freedom, and McMullin opines that this difference might “explain why ID [intelligent design] finds so much more support on the side of evangelical Christians than on that of Catholics.” (87)

At one stage, McMullin notes that discussions on these matters tend to focus on the distinction between the natural sciences and theology, while philosophy gets only passing mention. (90) And the lack of an extended discussion on the nature of existence as such, even in discussions about the origins of the universe or the existence of God, seem to thin out the narrative unduly. Whatever one thinks about Martin Heidegger, his lament about the forgetfulness of being in modern discourse seems well founded.

Perhaps allied to this, in those discussions which moved directly into philosophy, is the presupposition that analytic or English-language philosophy as an enterprise is adequate to the tasks set by the title of the book. Widening out the dialogue to other voices–like those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Marion, Voegelin, Lonergan, and Jaki–might have left the more swashbuckling but at times provincial analytic tradition a little less confident of its presuppositions.

But these are partial complaints. The Nature of Nature provides a dynamic and inspiring overview of an issue that has never been explored in such detail. Far better than a final settling of the argument for intelligent design, what the editors in their honesty and generosity have done is to open up all the key questions for lively debate. No course in the philosophy of science, in cosmology, or philosophical biology, will be complete without it.

Brendan Purcell

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Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).