Julian Baggini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction the meaning of an atheist’s commitment to naturalism: “What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values — in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life”…An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist 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 — except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston: First Mariner Books, 2008, Kindle Edition, page 34).
This is the first of many posts on atheism I look to write here at The Essential Church, as we seek to take the ministry given to us by our Lord to the world. The Lord Jesus loves the world, died for the world (John 3:16), and we’re to love the world because every soul in the world is a soul the Lord loves and wants to be saved. We don’t dare to presume we’re to care any less about humanity than God does.
Today’s post concerns the quote above from esteemed scientist and zoologist Richard Dawkins. In it, Dawkins sets the record straight about philosophical naturalism and that naturalists are not religious as Christians view the nature of “religious.” While philosophical naturalists love the world and its grandeur and mystery, they don’t presume that God made it because, to them, God doesn’t exist. To the philosophical naturalist, God is a mythical, imaginary character dreamed up by people on earth who desperately want something or someone to believe in to make sense of the vicissitudes of life. This is why Dawkins says that there’s no “supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles.”
While Dawkins clarifies what naturalists mean by their admiration and appreciation for nature, he doesn’t quite understand the problem that minds, emotions, and moral values pose for philosophical naturalism.
Remember, philosophical naturalism is, as Dawkins describes it, the belief that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world.” This view is labeled “philosophical” naturalism because it goes beyond scientific naturalism and the study of nature in the laboratory, under the microscope and test tubes, to making claims about the origin of life — a subject that parts ways with scientific naturalism. The job of scientific naturalism is to study that which can be seen and observed on the earth.
Scientific naturalists, however, are not in a position to speak of the metaphysical because science can’t observe it (and thus, can’t speak about it). Does this mean that Dawkins considers himself to be an expert on philosophical naturalism when he is a scientist who is charged with studying nature, not contemplating the metaphysical about it? I think Dawkins is stretching his abilities here. If he doesn’t believe in the metaphysical, then why mention it here?
Regardless of what you think about the oddity of Dawkins talking about philosophical naturalism when he is a scientist who performs scientific naturalism every day, I also find it interesting that he uses the definition of the atheist commitment to naturalism, that “there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical…” I was following along with Dawkins’ quote of Julian Baggini until he goes into how, “out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values.”
How can minds, beauty, emotions, and moral values come from the physical? If we’re going to believe scientific naturalism is “the standard” we should all follow, as atheists and skeptics would tell us, then the physical can only birth the physical. Are minds “physical” in the same way that rocks, sand, trees, and grass are physical? No. There’s not a scientist in the world that can put a “mind” under a test tube or microscope and examine it. The scientist can examine a brain, a cranium, but the mind is not just the external casing but also the internal processes and the reasoning faculties of the individual.
The superiority of human intellect: nothing in nature can match it
The mind of a human being is something that isn’t found in any other species on earth. Name one animal that has “a mind” (if you find one, let me know.). Evolutionists have been using chimpanzees and monkeys for years, putting them up to the task of typing a Shakespearean play — but no such luck. No other species on earth has a mind except for humanity. At the very least, that elevates humanity above the rest of what we see on earth, including the animal kingdom.
C.S. Lewis says in his work on Miracles that the human ability to manipulate and mold nature to our own ends (to take wood and make paper, for example) shows that humans have a power over creation, while they’re also a part of it. Since we didn’t create what we see, something outside of humanity, something above humanity, made all that exists — an Intelligent Creator.
The Greek conception of the mind is that it is the soul, the psyche, from whence comes not only thoughts and ideas but also emotions. And emotions, like the mind, can’t be subjected to the Scientific Method. The same can be said for moral values. We can’t measure it like the Law of Gravity and say, “See, moral values just ‘work’ and have worked this many times, so it’s a Law like the Law of Gravity.” Even when a criminal knows that it’s wrong to rob someone, he or she will still attempt to do it and avoid getting caught. Moral values aren’t as natural as breathing in our world; if they were, there would be no robbers and lawbreakers.
How can a scientist, charged with observing the world, go from testing the observable world to providing expertise on whether or not something lies outside the observable world? Don’t you think the scientist assumes too much to make a case that, since science is all we can observe, since science is all that he or she can measure in a laboratory, “that’s all there is to life”?
I think so. Is the intellect “physical”? Have we ever been able to examine it under a microscope? No. And yet, scientists assume every day that we have an intellect by which to conduct scientific experiments. To assume something that isn’t empirically verifiable under a test tube or microscope is to have something we call “faith.” Yes, atheists, like Christians, use their faith every day to conduct scientific experiments. They trust that something that shows the same result 100 times is true — without questioning whether or not that verified “rule” will be broken with the 101st try.
It is often said that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian because atheists continue to “hope” that we’ll find the answers to the origin of life (see Dawkins’ quote above that “we don’t yet understand” all the natural phenomena we see) while Christians point to Jesus, a historical figure, whose earthly life is documented by religious and secular sources.
Scientific Naturalism points to Supernaturalism
Even within nature, however, there are things that point to something beyond naturalism. Take the wind, for example: we can’t see the air molecules that comprise the wind, can’t catch the wind in a jar or our fingers, but we feel its effects when it beats against our faces. The same goes for Gravity: we can’t physically measure Gravity as we would a magnet, but we know that Gravity pulls objects to the ground as opposed to upwards in the air. These are effects, though, not the exact nature of the items themselves. Gravity doesn’t have a physical appearance or a design layout; thus, we base our view of its existence on its effects rather than its “design.” We can’t draw a diagram of what wind looks like, but we know the effects of cold air on a blistery day in The Big Apple.
But are Christians not saying that God is like that, that God is invisible though His effects, creation, are clearly seen? This is the argument that Paul makes in Romans 1:20 when he says “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” While God is invisible, “His invisible attributes are clearly seen.” He may be invisible to the human eye, but His creative power, the effects of His Almightiness, are seen in all that our human eyes behold: the mountain peaks, the sun, clouds, sky, stars, moon, and other natural phenomena are a visible expression or manifestation of the invisible God.
And then, there’s the claim that Jesus is, as Hebrews 1:3 says, “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power.” God the Father has never made an appearance among men, but Jesus has revealed what God is like to us. As John says in his prologue,
18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:18, NKJV)
Scientific naturalism is a law of science, but naturalism applied to philosophy is another story, entirely. Shouldn’t we turn to philosophers to tell us if there’s more to life than just science, not scientists who operate within a restrictive field that says “you can only observe nature and speak about nature”? And what about miracles? Should we just believe miracles can’t occur because scientists tell us so? Why should we believe them when the Scientific Method can’t verify the probability of miracles because it can only verify something that happens multiple times, repeatedly — not one isolated event that can’t be explained, such as The Virgin Birth or a revelatory dream about the divine nature of Mary’s pregnancy?
A scientist who tests the physical world and says “the physical is all there is to life” is like a food critic who samples food and says “food is all there is to life.” It takes an awful lot of moral superiority (and naivete) to make such a claim in the face of contrary evidence.