An argument against naturalism

Photo by hosein zanbori on Unsplash

Naturalism is a very popular position in contemporary philosophy. A good number of philosophers identify as naturalists, as do many of those who study philosophy at the university or else on their own. But I am not very sympathetic to naturalism at all, although I can understand why it is so charming in the minds of some. In what follows, I want to give what I consider to be a basic but strong argument against naturalism. In a later post, I will write about why naturalism is so appealing to many.

As I understand it, there are two fundamental convictions which inform naturalism. These are:

(1) Materialist ontology: At its most fundamental level, reality consists of interacting material objects describable entirely in terms of primary qualities.

(2) Scientific epistemology: The picture of the world put forth by well established sciences is the true one by which all others should be measured.

The problem with naturalism is that these two commitments are actually in tension with one another. “Materialist” naturalism and “scientific” naturalism, as we might call them, are not so obviously compatible as one might think. And depending on which commitment the naturalist prioritizes, naturalism either becomes a bias or else nothing in particular.

Suppose the naturalist prioritizes the commitment to scientific epistemology. This means that the “scientific” naturalist is committed first and foremost to the picture of the world put forth by the well established sciences (assuming that there is any such picture). But one clearly could not limit one’s commitments to the picture proposed by contemporary well established sciences, since science is incomplete and always subject to revision. For all we know, there could be a significant paradigm shift which would totally undermine the picture of the world which the well established sciences put forth today. Naturalism must therefore be a commitment to the picture of the world put forth by a future ideal science.

But if naturalism is the commitment to the picture of the world proposed by a future ideal science, then naturalism is not a philosophy with any definite content. This is because we do not know and cannot know ahead of time what the proposed world-picture of a future ideal science would look like. We cannot simply assume that it is anything like what we have now, since paradigm shifts happen and there is no way to tell how close our present scientific world-picture is to the ideal. For example, perhaps the future ideal science will posit the existence of God. One could not say a priori that the future ideal science would not make such a supposition. In the first place, one cannot know that future ideal scientists will work according to the same standards as contemporary sciences. And in the second place, even if future ideal scientists work according to the same standards as contemporary scientists, one cannot know that they could not find a way of making theism compatible with these standards. The point is that we cannot simply take for granted that the future ideal science is like contemporary science. Therefore, if one opts for “scientific” naturalism as a commitment to the picture of the world proposed by a future ideal science, then naturalism is nothing in particular and does not exclude anything.

On the other hand, suppose the naturalist is committed first and foremost to a materialist ontology. This commitment to “materialist” naturalism would then influence what it considers to be proper science. No scientific theory which understood the fundamental level of reality in any other terms but material would be acceptable for this sort of naturalist. But putting prior limits on what can and cannot count as proper science is precisely a bias. The goal of proper science is not to fit things into a preconceived box, a kind of materialist Procrustean bed. Proper scientificity means allowing the object of knowledge itself to dictate the terms in which it is known and described. If one simply begins from the assumption that everything must be ultimately material, then one has set aside the scientific task and has committed oneself to an ideology.

The argument could thus be summarized in the following thought experiment.

Suppose a member of the future ideal scientific community time travelled back to us. All the people of the world gathered around and asked questions about what picture of the world is posited by the future ideal science. This scientist, to everyone’s shock, says that the future ideal science posits a theistic conception of the world. At the basis of reality is God. How would a naturalist react to this revelation?

The “scientific” naturalist would become a theist precisely in order to remain consistent as a “scientific” naturalist. And of course, it is not just a matter of theism. The future ideal scientist in the thought experiment could in principe have said anything. That is because we do not and cannot claim to know what a future ideal science will posit. This means that “scientific” naturalism makes no firm commitments and excludes nothing. It is just a commitment to whatever will eventually be established as true.

The “materialist” naturalist would reject theism, of course. This is because she is committed to a materialist ontology. But this commitment would also mean rejecting the picture of the world proposed by a future ideal science. The “materialist” naturalist is thus committed to materialism even at the cost of rejecting future ideal science. But the commitment to a picture of the world even in the face of a future ideal science could be nothing other than ideological. This shows that “materialist” naturalism is an ideology and a bias.

In conclusion, then, depending on whether one prioritizes its materialist ontology or its commitment to the scientific picture of the world, naturalism either becomes a bias and an ideology or else nothing in particular.

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.