The Case Against Naturalism

A Review of Reason in the Balance by Phillip E. Johnson (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1995) 245pp.

The subtitle of this book is: "The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Education, and Law." Let's begin then with a definition of Naturalism. Carl Sagan summed up the philosophy in these words: "The Cosmos is all there is, all there has been and all there ever will be." A naturalist believes that nature is the whole show. There is no "super-nature" (God). For sure a naturalist could talk about a pantheistic "God" who is Life Force or Energy or even the Ground of Being, but not Creator. There is no place in a naturalist scheme for a God existing independent of nature, who created it and on whom it depends.

From this basic belief flow some logical conclusions:

1. The world and any life within it is meaningless. The universe has no design and no goal. It has an origin but no Originator and it is destined to just peter out.

2. Free will is an illusion. All events are pre-determined by the interlocking system of causes and effects which nature is. That you are watching a computer screen at this instant was programmed in the first nano-second of the Big Bang.

3. Right and wrong are meaningless categories. It is totally subjective to say one action is good and another is bad. As G.B. Shaw stated, "the Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule." The only sin is calling something a sin, that is being judgmental or intolerant.

4. We can only know appearances not reality (truth). We may speak about "my truth" and "your truth," but to claim any objective truth is pure arrogance. After all, consciousness is merely a chemical reaction.

In Reason in the Balance Johnson demonstrates how this philosophy of naturalism has become identified with "science." As such it dominates our legal and educational system from universities on down. Those who hold an opposite belief (theism) can win acceptance by saying their faith is a private matter, it gives them personal comfort and they would never think of "imposing" their subjective beliefs on anyone else. If naturalism and theism come into conflict (Johnson describes recent court cases where it has) the argument is framed as "science vs. religion," and the latter by implication is irrational. Sagan squeezes that point hard in Demon Haunted World but comes across like a man who gets a lot of rind in his orange juice because he does not know when to stop.

I remember once discussing an aspect of sexual morality with a university student. He became nervous when I asked about the honesty of his actions. Wishing to bring the conversation to an end he said, "Father, that is OK for you because you believe in God. I base my life more on science." What he meant was that "science" pushes aside the question of God's existence and teaches that conscience, the sense of right and wrong, is one more oddity evolution has produced.

Johnson argues that this belief (evolution equals naturalism) has become the reigning "orthodoxy" at our universities. It is not only taught at that level, but as some striking court cases show, it is actually imposed at lower levels of public education. Johnson describes naturalism as our society's de facto religion complete with its own set of dogmas. Four of them are mentioned above altho they would usually be expressed more ambiguously.

Before saying what is wrong with naturalism as a philosophy, let me briefly mention Johnson's critique of the Darwinist (naturalist) theory of evolution. He develops the critique in his two other books: Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. He shows how the scientific data (fossil remains, microbiology and the complexity of organs such as an eye or appendages like a wing) cannot really be accounted for by the kind of gradual process envisioned by evolutionists. Neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould recognize that and have tried to construct more subtle theories. As a result there is today no one theory of evolution, but several widely differing approaches. (The pope picked up on that point in his address to the Academy of Scientists.) While Dawkins and Gould disagree with each other they do agree on the importance of a naturalist interpretation*. For that reason they find someone like Johnson disquieting, even vaguely dangerous.

Johnson argues that intelligent design is a more adequate theory for interpreting the data of evolution. I had the opportunity to hear him expess his controversial view at the C.S. Lewis Centennial here in Seattle last month. He shared the podium with Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, Ph.D., a young science professor who presented some amazing evidence for intelligent design. It was encouraging that the naturalist philosophy is being resisted from within the scientific community itself. Johnson's hope is that young people will begin approaching science with an openness to a different paradigm. The scientific method which has yielded so many benifits need not destroy our basic humanity. The challenge is to separate the method from the reductionist philosophy of naturalism.

That philosophy has grave internal inconsistencies. Reason in the Balance highlights them with many examples. I would like to use just one naturalist to illustrate some of its contradictions.

The late Carl Sagan gave the definition of naturalism I began with. But he himself did not treat the cosmos like some meaningless absurdity. Instead he rhapsodized about the its immensity ("billions and billions...") and marvelled at its mysteries. Dying of cancer, he hoped for a few more years to learn more about it. All this is strange if it has no meaning and his knowledge is just a temporary rearrangement of some atoms in his brain. He gave the definite impression that he could tell us something true about distant galaxies, primitive man, subatomic particles, etc. He did not preface his Cosmos series with the warning that it was all personal opinion and had nothing to do with what was really out there. On the contrary, he simply assumed the immense authority of "science" stood behind his pronouncements. Because of that authority it was a spellbinding performance.

Sagan not only spoke as if he knew something about what was true, but also about what is good. He encouraged us to preserve the planet, protect endangered species, avoid pollution, support scientific research, etc. His passion sounded a lot deeper than, "I like sharp cheese and you like mild so let's agree to disagree." On the contrary he was exhorting us to do something because it is right even tho it might involve personal sacrifice. This also is odd after telling us that morality, our whole sense of right and wrong, good and bad, was thrown up by the same irrational process that made dinosaurs and slugs.

That, as Johnson brings out so strongly, is the dilemma we face today. If we accept a naturalist interpretation of evolution, on what basis do we say something is right or wrong? In spite of some valiant efforts by men like Stephen Gould and Richard Rorty, naturalism is a dead end. We can see that regarding the most basic questions: the value of human life and the meaning of our sexuality. Faced with abortion and same-sex marriages the only guiding principle we as a society have left is respect for each individual's free choice. We should note that there are still a wide range of issues where we do not apply the pro-choice principle: racial bigotry, wife abuse, drunk driving, killing animals for fur, female circumcision, even "fundamentalism". But naturalism gives no basis for restricting any of those activities. If I cannot say something is good or bad, what business do I have imposing my morality on a racial bigot, a wife beater or a tobacco company looking for teenage customers?

Reason in the Balance goes a long way toward answering such a crucial question. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus say this book "makes a convincing case for the liberation of nature and of human nature from naturalism's claim that reality is less than we know it to be." As I showed above, even such a thorough-going naturalist as Carl Sagan betrays the fact that he knows reality to be more than his philosophy tells him it is. That is the fundamental point we need to keep returning to if we are not to sell out our very humanity. Phillip Johnson has done a great service in calling us back to that rationality.

Other Recommended Books


Footnote: Reason in the Balance is clearly written and could even be described as "entertaining." After reading it, I encourage you to read or re-read the greatest book on the difference between theism and naturalism: C.S. Lewis' Miracles

Also if you are trying to understand why this issue is so central to our world today--and the need for people of faith to work together--I invite you to read Ecumenical Jihad by Peter Kreeft. He was also in Seattle for the C.S. Lewis Centennial and gave a brilliant talk on the important of Lewis for us today.


*Over 40 years ago, C.S. Lewis noted the tendency of scientists to rally around naturalism, not because of the evidence, but because they fear the alternative:

"The Bergsonian critique of orthodox Darwinism is not easy
to answer. More disquieting still is D.M.S. Watson's
defense. "Evolution itself," he wrote, "is accepted by
zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or...
can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true,
but because the only alternative, special creation, is
clearly incredible." Has it come to that? Does the whole
cast structure of modern naturalism depend not on positive
evidence but simply on an a priori metaphysical
prejudice? Was it devised not to get in facts but keep out God?

                             --C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Beyond the Secular Paradigm

Accident or Design (Correspondence with NYU student Alex Olivier)

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (A Review)

Secular Humanism in Popular Culture: Nothing Sacred

Did the pope endorse evolution?

Homily on the Moral Law

Hawking, Galileo and the Pope

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church