Naturalism’s Touchstone Proposition

In his book, Faith & Reason, Ronald Nash introduced what he calls Christianity’s “touchstone proposition.” A touchstone proposition, Nash explained, is the “control-belief or ultimate presupposition” that encapsulates the “fundamental truth ” of a worldview. [p. 46] Nash followed with a quick introduction to Naturalism as “the major competition to the Christian world-view” [p. 47]. He then explained what he considers Naturalism’s touchstone proposition to be. I will disagree.

Nash declared that Naturalism’s touchstone proposition is that

Nothing exists outside the material, mechanical (that is, nonpurposeful), natural order.

We see right away that in phrasing this, Nash put his Christian thumb on the scale. He made sure to throw in “mechanical” and “nonpurposeful” because that provides something juicy to attack. But how are they fundamental to Naturalism? In fact, I would argue that if Naturalism is true, then the world can not be mechanical. Mechanism and determinism are Trojan horses Christians like Nash try to give to the Naturalist camp, but which in fact are incompatible with it, as we shall see.

If Nash hadn’t had his pro-Christian thumb on the scale, naturalism’s touchstone proposition would have been simple and far-reaching:

Nothing exists outside the natural order.

Which means, quite simply, there is no supernatural order: no God, no heaven, no place for souls to survive death and depart to. One thing that might be added to the touchstone proposition, I suppose, is that the most reliable way to learn about the natural world is to apply the scientific method. In that case we would have

Nothing exists outside the natural order, and the most reliable way to understand that order is to apply the scientific method.

though I’m not sure what is lost in conciseness is worth the addition.

What is natural?

But I think there is a problem with using this as naturalism’s touchstone proposition. For in essence it defines naturalism by saying that everything is natural. But what does it mean to say that everything is “natural”. Does it really mean anything?

It might make more sense to say “everything is physical” rather than “everything is natural” — but even here we are burdened with the difficulty of explaining exactly what “physical” means. Well, we might declare that “physical” means whatever the physical sciences can study. Scientists are able to study what we routinely call “the physical world” because that world does things, and it leaves evidence of its doings. It is almost as if we are saying that if it doesn’t do something, if it doesn’t leave evidence of its existence, it doesn’t exist. Existence = Evidence.

But is this right? Certainly we can’t know of a thing’s existence if there is no evidence for it, but does that rule it out of existence?

It can’t. We had no evidence for the existence of neutrinos two centuries ago, yet neutrinos existed 200 years ago as certainly as they exist today. Even in 2007, things undoubtedly exist of which we currently know nothing.

Ah, but even if we were ignorant of it, neutrinos were doing things two centuries ago. Evidence logically requires an observer, and there were no observers of neutrinos then. However, in 1807 neutrinos were nonetheless doing things that in theory were observable. Existence = Possibility of Evidence.

But there is a problem with defining what is physical by its potential to produce evidence. God, according to theists, also produces evidence (the big bang, they claim, is one such example of God’s doings). That’s a problem because it means our definition of “physical” as anything whose doings are potentially observable is too broad: it doesn’t exclude clearly non-physical hypotheses like God.

It might be countered that God is excluded from being physical by His definition. After all, God is specifically “non-physical”. But the whole point is that we are trying to identify what distinguishes “physical” from “non-physical”, and the claim that physical things are those that yield evidence (or at least potential evidence) doesn’t work for making that distinction.

Of course, God can’t be detected directly. Yet neither can many things we definitely consider physical. We have no direct detection of the sun, only of its effects (photons, gravity etc), and this goes for a host of other “physical” entities.

What makes the God hypothesis different is how God is claimed to interact with the world. God’s way of doing things is not by moving but by thinking. God’s relationship to the world is that of a mind making things exist and happen by imagining what he wants. This gets us to the heart of the difference between naturalism and supernaturalism. The latter postulates mind before matter; the former matter before mind.

In other words, the difference between the two lies in a fundamental disagreement about when mind comes into the picture. According to naturalism, mind — intelligence, ideas, information — doesn’t exist in the beginning, and only comes into existence when organisms evolve with brains capable of creating sensations of thought. Supernaturalism tears the mind away from the brain and declares that mind was there in the beginning and created all. That is the crux of the disagreement.

Hold this thought. We’ll come back to it.

The Trojan Horse

Although I’ve identified the real distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism as a disagreement about when mind enters the picture, this has not been the usual approach to distinguishing the two worldviews. The typical approach has been to concentrate on naturalism as the belief that everything is physical or material. However, though it seems like we know what we mean by words like “physical” and “material”, as we saw earlier it is difficult to define them in a way that excludes what we don’t mean.

The attempt to get around this difficulty has led a good many thinkers to define “physical” as equivalent to our scientific knowledge of the world. The physical then becomes the same as the causal relationships found in our scientific theories — or at least those theories and laws which will be eventually found by scientists to be true. That scientific theories are “models” of the universe rather than the universe itself gets missed.

The resulting confusion is a boon for naturalism’s foes. To see how this works, let’s return to Faith & Reason. Nash quotes William Halverson, an advocate of naturalism, as follows,

The world is, to use a very inadequate metaphor, like a gigantic machine whose parts are so numerous and whose processes are so complex that we have thus far been able to achieve only a very partial and fragmentary understanding of how it works. In principle, however, everything that occurs is ultimately explicable in terms of the properties and relations of the particles of which matter is composed. Once again the point may be stated simply: determinism is true. [Halverson, Concise Introduction to Philosophy, p 394, quoted by Nash p 47]

Halverson accepted the Trojan horse. Indeed, he embraced it.

To put it bluntly, he is wrong. Both in his understanding of the nature of the world and in his understanding of Naturalism, Halverson is mistaken. The last sentence above encapsulates his error. He jumps from the observation that “in principle . . . everything that occurs is ultimately explicable” to the unwarranted assumption that such explanations control the world they explain and therefore “determinism is true”. The fact that a certain species can create extremely useful explanations of the world doesn’t mean that those explanations control the world or constitute its blueprint.

If we understand that the mind is the product of biological evolution then we are forced to accept that our understanding of the world can not be of the same nature as the world itself. The most useful explanations, for us humans, are of course deterministic explanations, but it is a mistake to assume that deterministic explanations can ever be perfect matches with the world (that is, that they can be “True”). To make that assumption is to fall for the supernatural fallacy that there exists some kind of “intelligence” embedded in the nature of existence. It is to map human knowledge against the physical world and then confuse the knowledge-map with the world, without realizing what you have done.

Meanings and relationships are, quite simply, created by the brain when it creates “objects” out of what is perceived. Knowing the world in such a fashion is useful and valid — if it weren’t our brains would never have successfully evolved as they have. But the crucial observation here is that our “minding” works perfectly well regardless of the actual nature of the world — one might almost say it works in defiance of the nature of the world. What physical reality inherently “is” doesn’t matter to the process of knowing which evolved in us. At any rate, what the world “is” will always remain ultimately unknowable. What we “know” is not the world but our knowledge of the world.

I don’t blame Nash and other Christians for applying the determinist tag to Naturalism: like Halverson, too many 20th century advocates of Naturalism have done the same. They are wrong, as an effort to understand intelligence in terms of biological evolution makes clear. The Trojan horse should be rejected.

The End of Knowledge

Another quote from Halverson is quite revealing.

If the theoretical goal of science — an absolutely exhaustive knowledge of the natural world — were to be achieved, there would remain no reality of any other kind about which we might still be ignorant.

I gather that Halverson may see practical limitations that will prevent this so-called “theoretical goal of science” from being achieved, but it is clear that he finds such a goal achievable in theory.

I do not. Halverson misunderstands the nature of human knowledge and, as a consequence, the nature of nature. Nevertheless, Halverson may at least have managed to progress a step beyond Bertrand Russell, who did in fact aver (in Has Man a Future, I believe) that someday science would discover absolutely everything there was to know about the world. In that book, Russell did not even see practical limits to complete knowledge.

Other naturalists have gone several steps past Halverson. They will tell you that science will never have complete knowledge, not just for practical reasons, but additionally because at the quantum level existence is random. At the quantum level existence doesn’t match up with the human desire for deterministic explanations, physicists have concluded.

A New Touchstone Proposition

The philosopher C. D. Broad observed,

If you start with a sufficiently narrow and inadequate view of nature you will have to postulate a God to get you out of the difficulties in which it lands you. E.g., if you insist that living organisms are mere machines, you have to postulate God to construct them out of unorganized matter.

Machines are unavoidably artifacts, the deliberate creation of some intelligent being or beings. But why should nature or anything in nature be considered a machine? It can only happen by confusing blueprints and maps. Machines follow a blueprint — a design — which was invented. But the natural world was not invented: it has a design which scientists can describe and map, but not a blueprint. The “design” observed by scientists is in fact an explanation, not a blueprint. If you get confused about this you end up with the mistaken assumption that design we observe in the natural world is of the blueprint variety.

Knowledge is a simulacrum of physical existence. Human knowledge stands in for the physical world in a very useful way, one which enables us to make intelligent decisions. But no description of the world controls or encompasses the world itself. If naturalism is true, it would be silly to think otherwise.

Earlier we identified the dispute between naturalism and supernaturalism as a dispute about when mind enters the picture. The supernaturalist maintains that mind — in the form of God — is there from the beginning, and essentially thinks the world into existence. The naturalist puts the world first and sees mind evolving later on. The supernaturalist says mind before matter; the naturalist says matter before mind.

As I wrote in “Can General Atheism be Proved?“,

Naturalism maintains that intelligence is a product of brains and that brains are a product of evolution. It follows from this that intelligence did not exist anywhere in the universe until organisms with brains evolved into being. Supernaturalism maintains the contrary: that intelligence existed well before brains were created. Intelligence (whether personified in a being or not) necessarily lies behind and prior to physical existence, according to the supernatural canon.

This brings us to my proposal for naturalism’s touchstone proposition:

Intelligence is a product of brains and brains are a product of evolution; therefore intelligence did not exist until organisms with brains evolved into being.

Defined this way, naturalism is a falsifiable hypothesis, which can be evaluated (as I argued also in “Can General Atheism be Proved?“) by

. . .investigating the world to determine whether the evidence we find fits better with the notion that intelligence existed at the beginning of the universe (before brains existed), or whether intelligence appeared with the evolution of organisms with brains. I maintain that such an investigation can be done, and that doing it is a rational process which will lead to a rational answer.

Summary: intelligence is a biological phenomenon caused by brains, and its existence is due to the evolution of organisms with brains. Everything else in the natural worldview follows from that.

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6 Responses to Naturalism’s Touchstone Proposition

  1. Matthew says:

    Fantastic post. Very insightful, and a pleasure to read. Thank you for the explanation.

  2. Your Daughter says:

    Is existence truly random at the quantum level, or is it that we are unable to predict behavior at that level? I have read arguments from physicists on both sides. My physics professor does not take a side on the issue. I am rather confused about the whole matter.

  3. Rastaban says:

    Good question on what is definitely a very confusing subject. This is my answer (for now). First, I’ve studied too much history to wager against scientists coming up (eventually) with useful deterministic explanations for quantum behavior. Still, that leaves open the question of whether existence is inherently random at some basic level.

    The question “Is existence truly random at [whatever] level?” carries with it the assumption that knowledge reveals (or can reveal) the inherent nature of physical reality. It seems to me it never can. Whatever formulations of thought our brain discovers to be most useful for predicting the behavior of things, we deem “true” — until we find a different formulation that is more useful. That’s the only kind of “truth” human knowledge ever unveils about the world outside of us.

    From an evolutionary perspective, what an organism “cares about” is predicting how things in the world will behave, so that it can make good decisions for its survival. It makes sense for a brain system to evolve which invents and remembers knowledge based on the usefulness of that knowledge for predicting activity in the organism’s environment. It does not make sense for a brain system to evolve which is geared for determining the “inherent nature” of physical reality — and it seems to me that our human brain-system is not geared that way and is incapable of that kind of knowing.

    (Still, I think we can determine what the inherent nature of the world is not. I think we can determine, reasonably well, that the physical world is not mental in essence. It is not of the same stuff as knowledge.)

    But back to your question. Right now we are unable to predict behavior at the quantum level. From that nothing else follows. It seems to me that when we say that something is “random”, all it means is that we are unable to predict its behavior in a useful way. Saying something is “random” is all about us and how useful our state of knowledge is. It doesn’t tell us anything about the fundamental nature of the physical world itself. Nothing ever will.

  4. Your Daughter says:

    Thanks. Your argument makes more sense to me now.

  5. Pingback: Atheology » Let’s Make a Deal

  6. Tim Bunch says:

    One supporting argument for the supernaturalistic, mind before matter, and “designed universe” worldview comes from history. In the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the New Testament of the Bible, he referred to the early Hebrew texts which maintain a supernaturally designed universe. See for example, Matthew 5:17-20, Luke 16:16-31, and Luke 17:20-37 (and at least ten others). In referring to these texts in the manner in which he did, it is reasonable to infer that Jesus was granting them credibility and reliability. The premises of the argument, then, look like this:
    The New Testament of the Bible is a credible and reliable historical document;
    Jesus was a credible and reliable teacher;
    In referring to the early Hebrew texts in the manner he did, Jesus was granting the texts credibility and reliability.
    Fortunately, each of these premises is falsifiable in the same way that any other historical claim is falsifiable. If the premises are demonstrated to be “true” (that is to say, accurate according to the best available evidence) through scientific historical research, it is reasonable to conclude that supernaturalism is a credible proposition.

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