Essay: The Failure of Naturalism by Richard Gerhardt
The Failure of Naturalism by Richard Gerhardt
Though I have come to the same recognition from each of several independent perspectives, today I’ll argue that science leads me to embrace Christianity. My arguments will address the leading alternative scientific view, scientific naturalism; my primary purpose, then, will not be to affirm Christianity vis à vis Islam, Hinduism, or other world religions. The perceptive reader may apply some of these arguments against those other worldviews, but space dictates that I adhere to the primary task of debunking the ideas that (in the words of the late astronomer Carl Sagan) “the Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be” and that modern science has somehow proved this metaphysical claim. (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)
My conclusion as a biologist, historian of science, and philosopher of science, is that Christian theism—which sees the universe and everything in it as the creations of a transcendent, intelligent eternal Being—does a far better job than does scientific naturalism of accounting for the evidence that science provides.
Modern science has discovered and elucidated much about the physical make-up of the universe, its building blocks, and the natural laws that govern its behavior. Science has eliminated diseases, put men on the moon, and made life more comfortable in innumerable ways. But the success of science in describing the way things behave does not justify claims by modern biologists about questions of how things originated. And where philosophical questions concerning the God/no God debate can now be addressed by scientific discoveries, it is the theist whose view is invariably supported.
For centuries, astronomers have progressed in understanding the processes of star, galaxy, and planetary formation, events that proceed (largely, if not entirely) according to natural laws. But only within the last hundred years did they come to understand what the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have declared for 3500 years—that the universe itself is finite, that space and time and the processes and natural laws that we describe all had a beginning not long ago. Einstein’s discoveries so clearly supported Judeo-Christianity (and undermined naturalist assumptions) that the 20th century was characterized by attempts to find alternative cosmologies to the ‘Big Bang.’ Those attempts served instead to solidify general relativity as the most rigorously tested and verified principle in all of physics. While natural law may be sufficient for explaining the behavior of matter, energy, space, and time, the origin of these things and of the natural laws that govern them require for their explanation an Originator.
Cosmology is just one example. All of the big questions for science—and philosophy—are likewise best explained in theistic , not naturalistic, terms. These include the design of the universe (for intelligent life on earth), the origin of life on Earth, the Cambrian explosion (as representative of the fossil record generally, in which every living thing has appeared suddenly, fully formed and adapted for its time on earth and its role in the ecology of its day), the origin of the information in the universal genetic code, and the origin of human consciousness.
In all of these most important cases, abductive reasoning—arguing to the best explanation from the available evidence—leads to a theistic understanding of the universe and a denial of metaphysical naturalism. This being the case, the naturalist project depends upon the logical fallacies of reductionism and circular reasoning. The only way to keep theistic conclusions out of the debate is to deny their consideration a priori—before the evidence. But that, of course, is not objective science but a theological perspective masquerading as science.
This is but one example of the logical problems for modern scientific naturalism. It is a matter of history that it was Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries that birthed modern science. And this was not mere coincidence. Rather, it is the Christian worldview that uniquely provided—and provides—the philosophical assumptions that make science worthwhile. Though some two dozen such assumptions have been identified, I’ll mention just two.
The Christian founders of modern science expected order in the universe because they understood the universe to be the product of a rational Creator. Whereas modern scientific naturalists depend upon that order, naturalism cannot account for it, explain why it is characteristic of the universe. Likewise, since they believed humankind to be created in God’s image, science’s founders expected that our senses and reasoning would be reliable for discerning the order in the universe. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga and others have persuasively argued that naturalistic evolution is self-refuting in this regard—that if the human brain is the product of a random process whose goal was merely survival and reproductive fitness, then there is no reason to trust the conclusions of such a brain.
Agnostic physicist Paul Davies has summed up this problem this way: “So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.” Plantinga wrote, “Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.”
Much of science deals with elucidating the natural laws that govern ongoing processes; the resulting conclusions are theologically neutral and non-controversial. But by claiming that questions of origin are equally susceptible to natural explanations, scientists betray themselves as philosophically and historically naïve and incapable of keeping up with or understanding the implications of the latest important scientific discoveries.
Christianity makes sense of the facts most in need of explaining—the origin and design of the universe, the origin of life on Earth, of information in DNA, and of human consciousness, to name a few. In addition, Christianity provides the logical assumptions that make science worth doing. Naturalistic science neither accommodates the latest scientific discoveries nor logically grounds its own existence. With C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”