The Naturalist Dilemma and Why Christianity Supports a Better Science by Peter Blair (The works of thinkers like prominent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins have fueled widespread belief in the incompatibility of science and religion. In The Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins)

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The Naturalist Dilemma and Why Christianity Supports a Better Science

Peter Blair

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The works of thinkers like prominent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins have fueled widespread belief in the incompatibility of science and religion. In The Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins comments,

Are science and religion converging? No. There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who straightforwardly call themselves atheists…To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham.1

In The God Delusion, Dawkins supports his claim by citing a 1998 study showing that only seven percent of the scientists in the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God.2According to Dawkins, the evidence indicates that naturalism is the only acceptable and consistent worldview for a scientist to have.The philosophical underpinnings of theistic and naturalistic worldviews, however, indicate that the true conflict is not between science and religion, but rather between science and naturalism. A naturalist (also known as a materialist) is Somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles.3 For the naturalist, there is no afterlife, no soul and no supernatural being. As scientist Carl Sagan put it, naturalism is the belief that The Cosmos is all there is, has ever been or ever will be.Many people would argue that such an idea is a critical component of the scientific worldview.

Contrary to that popular belief, naturalism actually undermines scientific inquiry. If naturalism is true, then rational thought is the product of purely nonrational processes. According to a strictly naturalistic worldview, our beliefs and thoughts come solely from physical reactions in our brain. Alvin Plantinga, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, puts it this way:

According to materialists, beliefs, along with the rest of mental life, are caused or determined by neurophysiology, by what goes on in the brain and nervous system. Neurophysiology, furthermore, also causes behavior. According to the usual story, electrical signals proceed via afferent nerves from the sense organs to the brain; there some processing goes on; then electrical impulses go via efferent nerves from the brain to other organs including muscles; in response to these signals, certain muscles contract, thus causing movement and behavior…Now this same neurophysiology, according to the materialist, also causes belief.5

If reason is the product of nonrational forces, why should we treat its dictates as reliable? We would not, in any other area, associate physical processes with rationality or meaning; in fact, we typically consider beliefs that arise from nonrational causes to be unreliable. Consider tasseography, the process of divining the future from the patterns formed by tea-leaves at the bottom of a cup. Although tea-leaves settle in the bottom of the cup according to physical constants, we do not consider information thus divined to be reliable, because the physical process, which determines the pattern, is nonrational. From the naturalistic perspective, all of our beliefs are formed through the same type of physical, nonrational processes that create seemingly meaningful patterns for the tasseographer. Hormones and electricity are merely settling in our brains to form patterns that we then interpret to create meaning.
Therefore, in naturalist thought or any other worldview that explains reasoning in terms of nonrational causes, reason is potentially unreliable. Paradoxically, like any other philosophical system naturalism is a product of reason. Therefore, by demonstrating that human reason is not necessarily reliable, naturalism undermines itself. Furthermore, scientific theory depends upon the reliability of our observations and our ability to draw logical conclusions from those observations, so naturalism undermines science as well.

Some philosophers and evolutionary scientists have responded to this argument by suggesting that evolution makes naturalism compatible with science because human beings’ cognitive faculties would have evolved to be reliable. They hypothesize that the ability to use reason to draw correct conclusions about reality helps mankind to survive, so natural selection favors reliable cognitive faculties and disfavors unreliable ones. For example, the philosopher William Ramsey argues:

A cognitive system that generates the belief that tigers are large, cuddly pussycats or the belief that the best way to get near something is to run away from it…will, down the road, get you into trouble. If your cognitive system is prone to these sorts of errors, then you aren’t going to be around for long.6

Therefore, because true belief helps our survival and false belief hurts it, our mental faculties would have evolved to enable us to reach true conclusions about reality. And indeed, this response is superficially compelling. It is advantageous for our survival to believe in, for example, the existence of the external world and in certain scientific laws like gravity, and there is good reason to think these beliefs are true.The question becomes “Have our cognitive faculties produced any beliefs about reality that, while false, help us to survive?” According to the naturalist, the belief in God is necessarily false. Yet historically, the majority of people have believed in the existence of at least one god. How would a naturalist account for this phenomenon? One might say that people have historically believed in God not because God exists, but rather because that belief helped them to survive. Evolutionist David Sloan Wilson has written that the belief in God is so widespread because it makes people happier and more unselfish, enabling them to get better mates and helping their families to survive longer.7 Similarly, Richard Dawkins has argued that we believe in God because certain traits that promote survival also tend to cause one to believe in agents and actors that don’t actually exist.8

The argument that evolution produces false beliefs to aid in survival directly contradicts the argument that evolution produces reliable cognitive faculties. In the service of survival, evolution has no regard for the truth or falsity of a statement. Philosopher Patricia Churchland writes:

The principle chore of [the brain] is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it…enhances the organism’s chances for survival. Truth, whatever it is, takes the hindmost.9

If evolution cares only to promote that which helps an organism survive, and potentially false beliefs like religious faith can do this, then evolution will favor a mental system that produces both true and false beliefs. In other words, it would produce untrustworthy cognitive faculties. Charles Darwin himself, recognizing this problem, wrote to a friend The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.10 Evolution does not provide an answer to the initial problem. Naturalism, even evolutionary naturalism, still undermines our rational trust in the reliability of our cognitive faculties and consequently in any disciplines, including science, that depend on that reliability.Christianity on the other hand, far from conflicting with science, actually provides both a motivation and a solid epistemological basis for scientific endeavors. Christianity holds that God created everything, including our reason, our senses and the natural laws that govern the universe.11 Therefore a Christian can look at science as an attempt to learn more about God and His works.12 This viewpoint endows scientific endeavors with great significance and purpose; it consecrates and dignifies intellectual life.

Furthermore, the Christian worldview teaches that God is not deceptive, and therefore Christianity provides all scientists with a reason to trust their cognitive faculties on a general basis. Christianity asserts that the world is fundamentally rational and meaningful, and that our thoughts are not just the product of nonrational processes. Christians believe there is purpose in life and there is knowable truth which, when fully grasped and understood, brings people closer to God.13 For these reasons, a Christian can be motivated to study science and justify doing so.

The history of Western science is partially the story of faith’s enriching influence. Theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer writes:

The rise of modern science did not conflict with what the Bible teaches; indeed, at a crucial point the Scientific Revolution rested upon what the Bible teaches…because the early scientists believed that the world was created by a reasonable God, they were not surprised to discover that people could find out something true about nature and the universe on the basis of reason…scientists could move with confidence, expecting to be able to find out about the world by observation and experimentation…without this foundation, Western modern science would not have been born.14

Schaeffer goes on to discuss the major scientists of the Western tradition and their relationship to the Christian faith. Francis Bacon,The major prophet of the Scientific Revolution, Johannes Kepler, the man who showed that the planets’ orbits are elliptical, Sir Isaac Newton, a scientist who later in life wrote more about the Bible than he wrote about science, Blaise Pascal, maker of the first successful barometer and Michael Faraday, discoverer of the induction of electric current were all practicing Christians, as were the majority of early members in the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.15

These men believed Christianity justified their scientific work. Francis Bacon wrote:

Let no man out of weak conceit of sobriety, or in ill applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word [the Bible] or the book of God’s works [nature].16

Bacon thought science was important precisely because of his Christian faith; he believed that the study of nature was the study of God. Schaeffer points out, furthermore, that even those few founders of modern science who were not Christians Were living within the thought forms brought forth by Christianity, especially the belief that God as the Creator and Lawgiver has implanted laws in his creation which man can discover.17C.S. Lewis gives a beautiful summary of Christianity’s foundational and illuminative power: 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.18 Naturalism, because it leads us to doubt our cognitive faculties and our ability to reason, darkens and obscures science. Christianity, however, succeeds where naturalism fails. Illuminated by the Christian worldview, science makes sense. Through Christianity, we are able to see science in its proper and natural place as a valuable pursuit with a solid foundation.

1 Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 146.2 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 84.3 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 14.4 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 1.5 Evolution vs. Naturalism, Books and Culture. July/August 2008.6 Beilby, James (ed.), Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), 21.7 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 136.8 Ibid.9 Ibid, 137.10 Ibid, 138.11 Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth12 Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.13 As Romans 1:20 states.14 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005), 132-134.15 Ibid, 134-138.16 Ibid, 142.17 Ibid, 138.18 C.S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry? The Weight of Glory and other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980), 140.Staff writer Peter Blair ’12 is from Newton Square, Pennsylvania. He is a Government and Philosophy double major.

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