Scientific Materialism/Naturalism an article by John Oakes, PhD

Apologetics and the Christian World View Part II

Scientific Materialism/Naturalism

In the previous essay we looked at why people ought to think carefully about their view of the world, and at the importance of forming and holding to a consistent world view.  We have considered a reasonable set of criteria for what might make for a "good" view of the world.  In addition, we have given a bare bones description of the Christian world view.  The first alternative world view we will contrast with that of Christianity is Naturalism; also known as Scientific Materialism.  This is probably the simplest to understand of all the world views we will cover in this series.  Let us consider several statements defining Naturalism:

          The only reliable or valid instrument to deciding the truth or even the value of any proposition is the scientific method.

          The only reality is that which is observable by physical means.  There is no spiritual reality, no moral truth, no God, no life after death, no soul, no spirit, no consciousness, except perhaps as an epiphenomenon.

Consider that of Richard Lewontin:

          "We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of material relations among material entities." In a word, the public needs to accept materialism, which means that they must put God in the trash can of history where such myths belong."

The following are not definitions of Scientific Materialism, but represent obvious implications of this philosophy.

A statement of Naturalism from Richard Dawkins; world-famous atheist and evolutionist:

In the universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt and other people are going to get lucky: and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice.  The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.  Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.  DNA neither knows nor cares.  DNA just is, and we dance to its music.

From Thomas Huxley, known as "Darwin’s bulldog":

We are as much the product of blind forces as is the falling of a stone to earth, or the ebb and flow of the tides.  We have just happened, and man was made flesh by a long series of singularly beneficial accidents.

            Consider for a moment the implications of this rather depressing world view.  If it is true then my personal concept of "I" is a delusion.  My perception of consciousness is simply the accidental result of neurons firing and chemicals moving around in my brain (ie consciousness is an epiphenomenon).  When I say to my wife or my children "I love you," what this means in reality is that when I think about them my neural pathways light up in a particular way and certain neurotransmitters change their level of activity.  Love is not a thing in itself (and of course the biblical statement that God is love is sheer nonsense).  If the naturalist is correct then there is no purpose to life whatsoever, except perhaps the evolutionary "purpose" to procreate and create as many copies of my particular genetic material as possible.  If the naturalist is right than my personal belief that murder, lying and stealing are wrong has no basis whatever in absolute truth, but is simply one person’s particular opinion-one dictated not by truth but, if anything, by a genetic predisposition toward thinking that way, created by a kind of cultural natural selection.

My personal experience tells me that virtually no one can accept this world view with all its implications.  Despite this fact, in many intellectual circles it is the publically accepted world view and those who do not hold to it are laughed at.  Educated people who believe that there is a spiritual reality which supersedes the physical reality are treated derisively as holding to an immature, outmoded and silly idea about the world.  In fact, materialists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens publicly declare religionists to be the enemy human progress and directly or indirectly the cause of all evil in the world (this despite the fact that they do not believe that evil exists).

What is the genesis of this world view?  To discover the source of Naturalism, one must turn the clock back to the Scientific Revolution.  The fact is that the creators of the Scientific Revolution-Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo and others-were all believers in the Christian world view.  In fact, their belief in science followed directly from the Christian world view.  Belief in the God of the Bible led Bacon and others to conclude that there must be a single, unchanging set of laws governing the physical universe.  These theologians also concluded from their biblical world view that a personal God of love must have made the physical universe to be intelligible to human reason and analyzable by mathematical analysis.  All of these "Christian" assumptions turned out to be true (as far as we can tell) and thus science was invented.

However, in the process of discovering how nature worked, scientists such as Isaac Newton discovered that the universe works according to what seem to be entirely mechanical laws-laws which are so regular and predictable that it seemed God could be removed from the equation.  In fact, French mathematician and physicist Pierre-Simone La Place, when asked by Napolean, "Where is God?" in his theory of mechanics replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."  Scottish philosopher David Hume questioned whether we can know anything absolutely and especially whether belief in God had any empirical validity.  The rise of deism in the late eighteenth century led to scientific materialism/naturalism by the nineteenth century.  Although Darwin himself was not a strict materialist, his work certainly provided fodder for scientism.  Only in the twentieth century did we begin to see aggressive scientific materialists such as Bertrand Russel and Carl Sagan beginning to publicly attack all other world views as infantile and foolish. 

A Response to Scientific Materialism

Any claim that Scientific Materialism is a superior world view to that of Christianity ought to be analyzed according to specific criteria.  Let me begin by quoting a comment on materialism as a world view.  (I apologize that I can no longer find the source of this quote.)  "The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and the end-all-that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing-is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own.  For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise, but an all-inclusive world view.  This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism.  To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it."  In the first part of this series I proposed a set of criteria for a "good" world view we can use for consideration.  A superior world view will be one which:

1. Is true  (in other words consistent with reality on various levels)

2. Answers the questions and solves the problems human beings really care about.


3. Causes the person who holds to this world view to be a "better" person.

            I reject Naturalism because it is patently false, it does not answer any of the problems and questions human beings as a whole care about and it does not tend to help its believers to be better people than they would have been if holding to alternative world views.

Naturalism is self-defeating.  It is based on circular reasoning and for many reasons it produces assumptions which are simply not in agreement with common human experience.  Therefore it is not "true" (criterion #1 above).  The scientific world-view presupposes that the universe is ordered and essentially unchanging.  It assumes that the laws which govern the universe are inviolable and that the universe is observable and understandable to human beings-that the human mind has a one-to-one correspondence with the way reality is.  The naturalist then proceeds to apply these assumptions to rule out all other world views.  The spiritual or supernatural are, by definition, not real.  This is circular reasoning.  None of the assumptions made as the foundation of science can be proved by experiment or by observation.  In this sense, at its most foundational level, science itself is not scientific.  It is not that the discoveries of science are wrong.  Not at all.  Clearly science has given us access to reliable knowledge about how the physical world works.  If limited to its proper sphere, science works.  It is the belief that science is the only valid view of the world and the only legitimate means to acquire knowledge about reality which is based on circular reasoning.  At a recent forum held in the UK a famous chemist/naturalist was asked how he knows that ALL phenomena can be explained by physical laws.  After being re-asked a number of times and attempting to get around the question, in the end, this naturalist was forced to confess; to quote "I simply believe it is true."  In other words, the reason the scientific materialist knows that "We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of material relations among material entities." is because he or she assumes the conclusion before the investigation.  This is a very slim basis on which to build a world view.

There are a number of reasons I simply have to reject naturalism as patently false.  I will supply a brief list here without taking the time to provide my evidence for such reasons.  I will leave to reader to decide the truth of these claims-each of which, if true, make naturalism patently and demonstrably false.

1.  Morality is real.  Some activities are inherently wrong.

2.  The existence of good and evil is not just an epiphenomenon.  Evil is real.

3.  Justice is not just a concept.  Some behaviors are just and some are not just.

4.  A human life is inherently more valuable than that of a cockroach.

5.  God exists.

6.  The universe was created.

7.  Life was created.

8.  Beauty is real and not discoverable by any scientific means.

9.  The Bible is inspired by God.

10.  Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.

            This list can be made much longer.  In the final analysis the concepts of right and wrong are not just a human invention.  I have found that even those who claim that there is no right or wrong-no evil or good-are not consistent with their own belief.  It is ironic to me that I have witnessed atheists expressing moral outrage over the things done by "religionists."  The naturalist may protest it is not true, but I say that "I" exist.  I am not just a sack of chemicals moving around, with nerve synapses firing off according to patterns guided by my genetic makeup; determined by my environment.  I am a person with a reality apart from my chemicals.  Naturalism is just plain not true.

Point number two of the argument for why naturalism is not a "good" world view:  It does not answer any of the questions or solve any of the problems human beings really care about.  Science is good at answering questions such as When?  How much?  Where?  How long?  It can answer provisional questions of why, such as why does it rain or why do stars form, but it cannot answer any of the fundamental/ontological/teleological why questions-even about the natural world.  For example, science is not helpful at all for answering such basic questions as "Why is gravity as strong as it is,"  or "Why does the electromagnetic force exist,?" or "Why does the universe exist?"  If science cannot answer these questions, it certainly cannot even hint at an answer to a single one of the questions people really care about (as listed above) such as: "Why am I here?"  "What is my purpose?"  "Does God exist?"  "What happens to me when I die?"  "How should I act?"  "How should I treat other people?"  "Why is it possible for humans to understand how the universe works?"  "Why is there evil in the world?"  Bottom line, scientific materialism does not even give wrong answers, it gives no answer at all to these questions (There is one exception.  Science provides offers an answer to the question What happens when I die?  The "scientific" answer is that life simply ends and entropy takes over.)  It says that these are nonsense questions.  My experience tells me that ignoring important questions and pretending that difficult problems do not exist is a bad way of dealing with such questions and problems.  I do not mean to imply that Naturalists do not ask these questions or that they do not on an individual basis try to help solve some of the important human problems.  It is just that their world view is not at all helpful for these things.

The third criterion from my personal list of qualities which make for a "good" world view is that holding to this view of the world must cause a person to be "better" than he or she would otherwise have been if not holding to this world view or if holding to alternative world views.  Admittedly, this criterion is fairly subjective, but there are a number of measurements of goodness to which virtually all humans would subscribe.  I believe that Naturalism is not a good world view if judged by this criterion.  Let me state before entering this area that I have a number of friends who are Naturalists.  This is only "natural" because I am a scientist by profession.  Some of my scientific materialist acquaintances are rather arrogant and hold to ethical and moral ideas with which I cannot agree.  However, others have strong ethics and are some of the nicest people I know.  No world view has a corner on the goodness market, including the one I hold to. 

With this qualification in mind (and please do not forget it!), let us consider the motivation for doing "good" under the Naturalist world view.  In theory, the Naturalist believes that there is no purpose to life and no inherently correct morality.  Even ethics is extremely difficult or impossible to derive from this world view.  Like I already said, some materialists do good deeds.  If so, it is probably not because they are motivated out of their world view.  Something else must be operating here.

At the risk of offending some, I will make a bold statement here.  I believe that scientific materialism is potentially a dangerous world view.  According to this view, human beings have no definable value, except as a source of genetic material for subsequent generations.   Of course, the vast majority of atheists are not violent people and value human life, but there is no moral imperative against murder or rape or robbery or any other of activities that the Christian and other world views hold to be morally wrong.  Where does one find the moral compass?  Any category of sexual behavior is acceptable as long as no one is hurt.  Lying may be advantageous to survival and therefore "good."

A lot of evil has been done in the name of religion.  Anyone who denies this is not looking at history or is altogether denying the existence of evil.  The difference with the Christian world view compared to that of Naturalism, however, is that a Christian who is prejudiced or who lies or who wages war on another for reasons of greed or power is violating his or her world view and is subject to being shown to be doing wrong.  There is accountability and justice under the Christian world view.  To the Christian there is an imperative to help our fellow mankind.  Jesus commanded that those who follow him must "Do to others what you would want them to do to you."  Such altruism flies is the face of Naturalism as a philosophy.  In the Christian world view, as exemplified by its creator Jesus Christ and as taught by its scriptures, there is a strong imperative to love others, to be honest, to serve others, to shun violence, greed, arrogance and so forth.  Many Naturalists follow a strong and admirable personal ethic, but what is the imperative toward these "good" behaviors under the Scientific Materialist world view?  If there is one, I have not yet seen one, although some materialists have made the attempt.

Having admitted that much evil has been done by believers, let us consider the small but significant number of societies which have publicly avowed an atheist or an anti-God world view.  Examples of this sort which come to mind are France immediately after the French Revolution, Communist Russia, Communist China, Cambodia under Pol Pot and North Korea.[1]  Inspection of this list of regimes speaks for itself.  In each of these societies individual souls were treated as if they had little value, with tragic results.  The empirical fact that a societal commitment to belief in no God has such a poor record in producing human good is not proof that it will never do so.  However, the track record is something we should not ignore.

What about justice and human rights?  In the United States, many subscribe to the idea that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal."  Does this idea come from scientific inquiry?  Based on their DNA, some are more fit than others.  The Christian ought to believe that all humans are infinitely valuable as they are created in the image of God.  I am happy to report that almost none of the Naturalists I have met are racially prejudiced.  Hopefully the scientifically-inspired Eugenics movement in the early twentieth century will remain an anomaly, but what is the inherent source of human dignity and value if, as Huxley said, "man was made flesh by a long series of singularly beneficial accidents."?

To summarize, the committed Naturalist believes that the only truth in the universe is that which can be discovered by the scientific method-through experiment and rational analysis of the information derived from empirical evidence.  This world view fails miserably at the three criteria proposed in this paper for deciding what world view is best.  Its support is circular and its conclusions are patently false.  It cannot answer the most important questions or solve the fundamental problems that human beings care about.  It does not, in and of itself, tend to cause those who hold to it to be "good."  I believe that the Christian world view is vastly superior to Materialism on all these counts and, for that matter, on any other reasonable measure I have seen of what makes for a good world view.

John Oakes

[1] There has been considerable debate about whether the Nazi regime was atheist or Pagan or agnostic.  Some have even tried to place it in the Christian camp.  Because this is debatable, I have left Nazi Germany from the list.

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