Tag Archives: naturalism

The Naturalist’s Fairy Tale

don-quixoteBertrand Russell, like the New Atheists, supports much of his attack on Christianity with an almost total ignorance of the history of science:

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts.

It seems that it can’t be pointed out often enough that science and theology are different subjects. At least, the New Atheists seem to have so much confidence in the idea that science is theology (and metaphysics) that they feel no need to give any reason for the strange conclusion that science answers questions about God’s existence.

But it’s not only theology of which such people are ignorant. Any real respect for history would at least acknowledge the facts of past as it actually occurred. Far from forcing itself onto Christianity, the earliest science was developed by Christians, and sponsored by the Church.

Almost no culture has believed that the universe would have regular patterns which could be observed by the kinds of experiments science uses as its stock and trade. The west is so saturated in science that we never think to question this fact, and, therefore, never notice that most of us can offer no reason why reality would be this way.

Naturalists, for instance, can give no explanation as to why the universe should have this surprising consistency. David Hume famously pointed out that belief in science, as far as the naturalist can see, is based on a logical fallacy.

It was Christians, and other monotheists, who invested the effort in developing modern science because they held the conviction that a rational creator would make an ordered universe.

For Russell to claim, four-hundred years after the fact, that the Christians who invented, supported, and sponsored science somehow have a less scientific worldview than those atheists who blindly trust this inexplicable Christian invention is simply astonishing.

None of this precludes the idea that naturalists can be great scientists; the tools of science can be used by anyone. But to say that the success of science somehow refutes the belief that predicted it would work strikes me as deeply irrational thinking.

The Sugar-Coated Nightmare

chernobyl-the-destruction-of-the-nightI don’t usually agree with the philosophy I hear out of the atheist novelist Terry Pratchett.

I agree with this:

Rincewind stared, and knew that there were far worse things than Evil. All the demons in Hell would torture your very soul, but that was precisely because they valued souls very highly; evil would always try to steal the universe, but at least it considered the universe worth stealing. But the gray world behind those empty eyes would trample and destroy without even according its victims the dignity of hatred. It wouldn’t even notice them. (The Light Fantastic, p. 256)

On a Christian view, this is the core of all evil–nothingness, the tearing apart of reality, the end of things. And, given naturalism, this is exactly what all things will become, and what much of what we care about already is. The forces, not of evil in the fairy-tale sense, but of unthinking indifference will rip us apart, and rip apart everything we’ve ever known.

Not that I think most naturalists view life this way, and that is my point. Most prefer to avoid the topic of our ultimate fate, proposing instead that we focus on more short term thinking. I have to say that, like most philosophers, I find it hard to accept a position that answers fundamental questions with a kind of denial. It seems both more honest, and more courageous, to face them squarely.

Years ago, I found myself unable to turn away. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name a piece of writing that reminds me so much of the last months before I became a Christian than the paragraph quoted here. At that time, even more than now, I would have been appalled at the pleasant glosses being put on naturalism. In fact, I was appalled when I was first accused of raising the subject disingenuously–as if the years I spent horrified by this prospect hadn’t actually happened.

But none of this is to say that naturalism isn’t true. It may well be that everything and everyone we’ve ever loved is being slowly destroyed by something that can’t understand the value of life and won’t remember us once we’re gone. But only a failure to face up to the reality of the situation, to stare into the darkness without blinking, could lead one to think that naturalism is anything but bleak.