Scientific Naturalism and Its Discontents

In this paper, I want to argue that atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s subjunctive conditional (which is shared with William Lane Craig (WLC)[1]) “If God does not exist, life is objectively meaningless” is true. So, I want to begin this paper by defining key terms and thereafter outline Rosenberg’s thesis with respect to the status of naturalism and its implications. Then, I will display eight arguments against scientific naturalism given by WLC in his debate with Rosenberg and how, if they are right, scientific naturalism is false and leaves open the possibility of theism as the best explanation for the data of human experience.

I will now define many key terms which I will be using throughout this paper. I take the term ‘naturalism’ to metaphysically denote the view according to which only nature exists [2]. As such, I shall take the epistemological theory ‘scientism’ to be the view according to which only science can provide knowledge. Thus, I will take ‘scientific naturalism’ (Rosenberg’s position [3]) to be conjunction of ‘naturalism’ and ‘scientism’. The term ‘theism’, as I will be using it, is the belief that God exists. The ‘God’ I am referring to is minimally a monotheistic conception of God as a Personal, omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent Creator and Designer of the universe. With clear terminology, I shall now proceed to explore Rosenberg’s conception of scientific naturalism as entailing the objective meaninglessness of life.

In Rosenberg’s book The Atheists Guide to Reality (2011), he specifies very early in the book his central conception of the entailments of scientific naturalism in the form of a series of questions and answers:

Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.” [4]

So, while this picture of reality may be unfavorable (and I agree it is), it is the honest implication of scientific naturalism. The hardest, most pressing questions of human existence are easily answered, says Rosenberg, once scientific naturalism is adopted. In my view, he gets every question wrong; but, what is significant is that theists and atheists alike agree on the same subjunctive conditional: If God does not exist, life is objectively meaningless. Rosenberg’s list faithfully attests to the truth of that subjunctive conditional. Given these implications, though, the question becomes the following: Is scientific naturalism true?

While the literature on this question is seemingly endless, I believe that scientific naturalism is plausibly false and thus I believe the questions of human experience receive, contra Rosenberg, a quite different answer. I shall reiterate, then, WLC’s eight arguments against Alex Rosenberg’s scientific naturalism in his debate with him here:

“First is the argument from intentionality:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I cannot think about anything. That is because there are no intentional states.
  2. But I am thinking about naturalism. From which it follows,
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

So, if you think that you ever think about anything you should conclude that naturalism is false.[23]

Second is the argument from meaning:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then no sentence has any meaning. And he says that all the sentences in his own book are in fact meaningless.
  2. But, premise (1) has meaning. We all understood it.
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

Third is the argument from truth:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then there are no true sentences. That is because they are all meaningless.
  2. But, premise (1) is true. That is what the naturalist believes and asserts.
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

Fourth is the argument from moral praise and blame:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I am not morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for any of my actions because, as I said, on his view objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. But, I am morally praiseworthy and blameworthy for at least some of my actions. If you think that you have ever done something truly wrong or truly good then you should conclude:
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

Fifth is the argument from freedom:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I do not do anything freely. Everything is determined.
  2. But, I can freely agree or disagree with premise (1). From which it follows:
  1. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

Sixth is the argument from purpose:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I do not plan to do anything.
  2. But, I planned to come to tonight’s debate. That is why I am here. From which it follows:
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

Seventh is the argument from enduring:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I do not endure for two moments of time.
  2. But, I have been sitting here for more than a minute. If you think that you are the same person who walked into the room tonight then you should agree that:
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.

Finally, the argument from personal existence – this is perhaps the coup de grace against naturalism:

  1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I do not exist. He says there are no selves, there are no persons, no first-person perspectives
  2.  But, I do exist! I know this as certainly as I know anything. From which it follows:
  3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.” [5]

 

 

These are eight arguments against Rosenberg’s metaphysical naturalism (what I call “scientific naturalism”) which, if true, show that “metaphysical naturalism is absurd.” Further than that, metaphysical naturalism “flies in the face of reason and experience and is therefore untenable.” However, if God exists, He is the source and foundation of objective meaning and the fundamental questions of human existence receive a wholly different set of answers than Rosenberg imagines. On theism, there is a God, a soul, objective morality, freedom of the will, an afterlife, love, purpose, meaning (both of human lives and history), value and so forth. Life becomes entrenched and infused with meaning. For many, this conclusion sounds like wishful thinking; I suggest that the data of human experience, the arguments for the existence of God and against scientific naturalism all suggest this to be an objection without any content. Minimally, though, the implications of Rosenberg’s thesis is two-fold. First, if Rosenberg’s thesis is right (that if there is no God, life is objectively meaningless) it is a significant question as to whether or not God exists. Secondly, if Rosenberg has accurately listed the implications of scientific naturalism, refutation of a single implication of scientific naturalism constitutes a reason to deny scientific naturalism. For instance, if one thinks that persons do have freedom of the will and that history has meaning, one ought to think that scientific naturalism is false. Or, to take a different example, if one thinks that love has more to do with the metaphysics of persons and the God who is love (John 4:8) than the evolutionary history of human beings, one ought to conclude that naturalism (of any sort) is false too.

In this paper I have displayed Rosenberg’s scientific naturalism and its implications, shared eight arguments against it by WLC and hopefully have shown both that scientific naturalism is false and that the question of God’s significance is infused with meaning inasmuch as He is the ground of all meaning.

[1] See Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig’s debate at Biola University in 2013 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhfkhq-CM84 Retrieved April 12, 2016. As a side note, I present in this paper WLC’s eight arguments against scientific naturalism with no corresponding rebuttals from Rosenberg. I do not do this out of confirmation bias; rather, this paper is not designed to give a full scope of the debate, rather, the paper is designed to give my thesis and to defend it. For a full view of the debate (which really is a great debate), see the video (above) and/or read the transcript (in Footnote 5).

[2] This is, philosophically, a very vague definition—I am fully aware of that. However, for spatial considerations, I will leave terminological debates aside and refer the reader to the work of Tyler Journeaux who has dealt with this definitional issue. See his “Naturalism and Supernaturalism” at https://tylerjourneauxgraham.wordpress.com/ Retrieved April 12, 2016.

[3] WLC has characterized Rosenberg’s view as both ‘epistemological naturalism’ and ‘metaphysical naturalism.’ In my view, ‘metaphysical naturalism’ can be taken synonymous with ‘scientific naturalism’ (but the latter entails scientism—so it entails both Rosenberg’s theses into one, not two theses).

[4] Alex Rosenberg. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. Print.

[5] This quote was retrieved from the official transcript of the debate found at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/debate-transcript-is-faith-in-god-reasonable Retrieved April 12, 2016. Footnote [23] (footnoted by WLC) reads “1:05:00”.

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4 thoughts on “Scientific Naturalism and Its Discontents

  1. Well, if there is no god, than nihilism must be true because there was no intended purpose to life.
    You are correct in stating that the existence of metaphysics (and their corresponding emotional states) implicates scientific naturalism as false.

    The issue really is that any argument against theism cannot be argued.
    Theism is an act of believing in something more than observable reality, whereas philosophy is based on reasoning-Reasoning is objectively grounded in observable truths (unless you’re arguing metaphysics), and thus redundant, as it cannot prove or disprove something it cannot grasp.

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    • Nam H Nguyen, thank you very much for your response to my paper.

      I would like to clarify what I said to assure that you are not attacking straw man. So, I will take your comment piece by piece and share some thoughts about them.

      “Well if there is no god, than nihilism must be true because there was no intended purpose to life.”

      This I definitely agree with. But it is when you continue that I begin to worry about misunderstandings:

      “You are correct in stating that the existence of metaphysics (and their corresponding emotional states) implicates scientific naturalism as false.”

      A bit of misunderstanding on your behalf. This was not my argument. Although it is a sensible thesis to think that metaphysics does imply the falsity of scientific naturalism (see, for instance, the work of Tyler Journeaux in his essay “Mlodinow’s Euclidean Equivocation” https://tylerjourneauxgraham.wordpress.com/) concerning metaphysics. Also, I am not sure what you mean by ‘corresponding emotional states’ (this is unclear).

      “The issue really is that any argument against theism cannot be argued.”

      This I also find implausible. For instance, the problem of evil, the incoherence of theism and so forth, are all objections to theism which are to be taken seriously—not written off as insignificant objections. In fact, contemporary (and historical) analytic philosophers of religion have worked on each of these problems and have shown how these arguments against theism all fail. For instance, see the work of William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and so forth.

      “Theism is an act of believing in something more than observable reality, whereas philosophy is based on reasoning-Reasoning is objectively grounded in observable truths (unless you’re arguing metaphysics), and thus redundant, as it cannot prove or disprove something it cannot grasp.”

      There are a few claims which are being thrown together here and so hopefully I will be able to clarify and disentangle your notes. First, “Theism is an act of believing something more than observable reality”. Fair enough, theism is the belief that God exists. “philosophy is based on reasoning-Reasoning is objectively grounded in observable truths”. This I am worried about. You are presupposing what has been called empiricism, the view according to which the only truths which exist are those which can be empirically verified i.e., David Hume. The problem is that you have presupposed empiricism without justification and there are, in fact, prominent objections to empiricism and good arguments for rationalism (which allows for knowledge conceptually prior to experience). You then qualify “unless you are arguing metaphysics”; if by this you mean that if scientific naturalism is false then rationalism is true, then I would tend to agree (although it wouldn’t be a necessary truth). But, if I take the sentence fully

      “Reasoning is objectively grounded in observable truths (unless you’re arguing metaphysics), and thus redundant, as it cannot prove or disprove something it cannot grasp”

      then I am worried that you are saying something like “reasoning can only be about truths in this reality and not outside of it” which is just inherently question begging against theism. In fact, C.S Lewis at one point gave an argument for the existence of God from reason (and it is reiterated in J.P Moreland and William Lane Craig’s Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology).

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      • I think I’ll explain myself in more detail.
        I was never formally acquainted with rationalism, but I did study David Hume and his Empiricism. Because I was never introduced to rationalism, I was operating under the belief that Empiricism was the accepted by modern philosophy.
        Corresponding emotional states by metaphysics I intended as a branch of a being’s identity – Emotions being separate from a physical sense of self.
        I never read CS Lewis essays.
        So that’s why I was under the impression that theism and philosophy was incompatible. Thank you for clearing that misunderstanding up for me.

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  2. Nam H Nguyen,

    I am surprised you did not learn rationalism alongside empiricism. Empiricism is by no means held by all modern philosophers; modern philosophers have tons of views regarding knowledge (and just about every other topic!) and I think you would profit from visiting William Lane Craig’s website (he is a philosopher and theologian): reasonablefaith.org. Another suggestion I would make, if you are interested, is reading a very small and simple book called “Mere Christianity” by C.S Lewis (Lewis was very good at unifying philosophy and theism).

    And no problem at all, always nice to talk about these ideas 🙂

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