why naturalism is false [or irrational]


This is a follow up post to the five challenges to the atheist I wrote a while back. I want to first make an amendment to the previous post to add that a secularist can be religious to the extent in which she believes church and state should be separate. It appeared to me the word secular and atheist were used almost alternately as if they mean the same thing.

I have been asked why do I keep writing about atheism and gods since I already lack a belief. I have given different answers to this question and today I will add another one. Why does a human rights activist write about FGM and they already know it’s bad? One is to create awareness and to be an agent of change. I write to create awareness and to offer an apology as to why I know atheism is true.

Having said all that, I will start by commending Carson in this instance for he seems to me to either have done his research well or did an extensive quote mining in order to explain what naturalism is and I think all of us can agree that we can use those definitions as starting points for our discussion on the matter. It saddens me that his post was a talk presented to student organisations of Harvard! and Boston Law School as fact. I have not seen any comments on the posts, I don’t know if he allows any so it is hard for me to asses how the talk was received and the opinion of the general public that have since read the post.

One wonders how after getting the definitions or the general idea of naturalism right, he ends up with his conclusions. We shall briefly look at his claims and attempt a refutation of each.

First and foremost, I don’t have to provide new arguments for naturalism in the same way I don’t have to find a new argument for the non-existence of gods. It is sufficient to show that arguments for theism are false or unsatisfactory and my work here will be done.

He gives as his first point against naturalism as

There are no good arguments for naturalism

In the beginning of this post, I had given Carson for doing some good work in looking for definitions of naturalism. In order to deal with his first premise, let us look at the definitions of methodological and philosophical naturalism once more to see why there need not be any arguments beyond the statement of what naturalism is:

Philosophical naturalism is the doctrine that the observable world is all there is.

Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method.

and then consider this

If a philosopher or social scientist were to try to encapsulate a single principle that yoked together the intellectual process of civilization (sic), it would be a gradual dismantling of presumptions of magic. Brick by brick, century by century, with occasional burps and hiccups, the wall of superstition has been coming down. Science and medicine and political philosophy have been on a relentless march in one direction only — sometimes slow, sometimes at a gallop, but never reversing course. Never has an empirical scientific discovery been deemed wrong and replaced by a more convincing mystical explanation. (“Holy cow, Dr. Pasteur! I’ve examined the pancreas of a diabetic dog, and darned if it’s NOT an insulin deficiency, but a little evil goblin dwelling inside. And he seems really pissed!”) Some magical presumptions have stubbornly persisted way longer than others, but have eventually, inexorably fallen to logic, reason and enlightenment, such as the assumption of the divine right of kings and the entitlement of aristocracy. That one took five millennia, but fall it did.

Is there need to say anything in way of argument beyond this if we are to maintain methodological and philosophical naturalism as true? Science is atheistic, whether done by a theist or non believer. There is no scientist who in his calculations or hypothesis have a divine figure to help in explaining the facts. In fact were this the method employed by scientists, we would not have progressed to where we are now for how would we know this divine fellow will act in the same manner in the future? Think about it just for a moment…. where would such a way of studying take us?

Carson tells us

 I also note in passing that naturalism cannot explain either the existence of the universe nor its design. Why is the universe law-like?

Which is as, tidleb would say OOGITY BOOGITY! How does saying god explain the existence of the universe? To prove design, one must know the end to which the designer had in mind. When I see a car, I can infer design because I know the function to which the engineer had in mind, same is true when I see a gun. To infer there is design in the universe before you can tell us the aim of the supposed designer is ridiculous in the least and outlandish at worst. We are asked why is the universe law like? But how else could it be? The universe is as is. Unless the theist can demonstrate the existence of a universe un-law like, he has no argument against naturalism.

His second point is

if theism is true, then naturalism is false.

I will just say here theism is false.

In the previous post that I link at the beginning of this post covers five areas that Carson thinks invalidates naturalism. I do not intend to cover them here and request that you look at that post for a brief coverage of each.

And isn’t Carson ingenious! He says there is a science of the gaps argument and offers five points why ‘science will answer some day’ should be refuted. Allow me to let him speak for himself. He writes

There are at least five reasons to reject the “science will explain this” response:

First, this is a “science-of-the-gaps” explanation. Structurally, it is an argument from silence. What reasons do you have that science will explain it?

Second, if science does explain some of the features I mention, that will be a self-defeating exercise

Third, many if not most of the scientific discoveries have no bearing on whether or not theism or naturalism is true

The past performance of science to validate naturalism does not imply that it will always do so

 Why not say, “one day science will prove the theists right?” We can argue, ‘Theism has rightly predicted the start of the universe, the uniformity of nature, the existence of consciousness, the trans-cultural nature of morality, and so much else, that surely science will continue to validate theism.’

These arguments are very lame. No scientists I know has ever said his answers are definitive. The method of science is definitive. We may get inaccurate answers, but the method has so far been shown to be valid. For the first argument to stand, Carson must first show where the method of science has been found wanting. The religious mind is trained to believe on absolutes. There can be no improvement to an infallible statement. God says “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” and with an infallible bible, this statement then has to be true now as it was when it was first uttered by the deity.

How does explaining something become a self defeating exercise?

Please and be honest, list for me just three scientific discoveries that prove theism. Just three not more.

How does his fourth reason invalidate the truth of naturalism. If science fails in the future, a new method could be developed to better explain naturalism.

I laughed when I read his fifth argument. Seriously, when did theism make predictions or develop hypotheses about this current world? If so far as we can tell, science has swept the rug under theism, how would this change in future? Science as a matter of principle concerns itself with the knowable, religion with the unknowable. Where do these two things meet?

As I have said above, I don’t intend to cover the five areas he mentioned in his other post that I already covered in order that this post does not get to be very long but allow me to just mention something on morality. He writes

What is an objective moral fact? It is a truth about right and wrong that is independent of human perception.

Is there such a fact independent of human perception? Is it right or wrong in the ant perception or lion perception? Whose perception please tell!

To confirm our author is confused, he gives the following example to explain a moral fact

For example: Even if no human being thinks it wrong, it is objectively wrong, as Joseph Kony does in Uganda, to order child soldiers to bite to death another child who is trying to escape. Think about being a ten year old who is using your mouth to tear the flesh off of another child in order to kill him. To use the fear of a similar death to coerce children into committing murder is objectively wrong, even though Joseph Kony would disagree with us

In what way has he managed to show us this is wrong independent of human perception?

He writes in conclusion,

If the universal human experience of consciousness, free will, purpose, reason, and objective moral facts are all illusory, and are explained away by a deterministic, naturalistic, ‘scientific,’ explanation of who we really are, we must ask ourselves: how can we trust that our brains are giving ‘us’ the ‘true’ and ‘reasonable’ answer in this one particular domain of scientific research, but failing us in every other domain that we depend upon for all of our lives, including when we are doing science?

Our senses don’t judge, they are non discriminatory. They report to the brain what they see. It is the function of understanding employing reason to judge what data it has received. Walking in the hot sunny afternoon on a tarmac road, it appears to me there is a pool of water ahead but I never get to it. Does the pool of water keep moving or is it absent?

When I stand in the field and look about me, the world appears flat not spherical. Is it flat or spherical?

We have every reason to trust our reason that it can guide as to the truth about reality. What we see to be apparent might be false and it is a mistake to confuse what our senses transmit and what our reason can determine.

I hope I have managed to briefly show why the arguments put forth against naturalism don’t pass muster and must be dropped or better ones provided.

In conclusion, I have no qualms in accepting we are biological automatons not withstanding how bad this seems to be for some people.

I rest my case.

why naturalism is false or irrational

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

30 thoughts on “why naturalism is false [or irrational]

  1. Mordanicus says:

    The so-called “laws” of physics, aren’t laws in the sense we talk about judicial laws. The laws of physics are just descriptions of what scientists observe, not imperatives how the universe ought to behave. Nothing would prevent the universe from violating its “own” laws, in fact those laws only exist as human made approximations of natural phenomena, and we as humans could be wrong about those models.

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    • makagutu says:

      You are quite right. It is important for people to understand that these laws are our way of explaining observed phenomena.
      They are called laws because they have been observed to be regular like clockwork.

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      • Mordanicus says:

        Indeed, but our observations might be incomplete and hence “our” laws might be wrong. This was the case with Newtonian physics, which seemed to describe anything until the Michelson-Morley experiment, which ultimately lead to Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

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        • makagutu says:

          Agreed. Is it our observations that are incomplete or our interpretation of the data that maybe inadequate or both at different times?

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          • Mordanicus says:

            I think it’s a combination of both. But scientists are aware that they might be wrong, therefore they try to find evidence that would disprove their ideas. Whilst on the other hand the theist only looks for things that would support his believes, regardless how far fetched that evidence might be.

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        • exrelayman says:

          “…hence “our” laws might be wrong.”

          Got a nit to pick here. The old law is less precise, not ‘wrong’. It is incorporated within the new law, and is used for most mundane applications of physics. As science moves forward, it mostly refines rather than overthrows old models. The canard that the old science has been shown to be ‘wrong’ is a rallying cry of creationists that is itself wrong and we should not let them get away with it.

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          • Mordanicus says:

            No, you’re absolutely right about this one. Less accuracy would be a better way to phrase this than “wrong”. Of course, I don’t want to give any credit to creationists.

            However, the point I wanted to make is that in empirical science we can’t be sure that our models are 100% accurate, that there might be better models to describe reality. Hence we cannot dogmatise the “laws of physics”.

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  2. You cannot prove theism without proving a god. period. Theism is the positive claim that there is a god. Without proof of the god, the claim is just wishful thinking.

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  3. keithnoback says:

    Wow. I looked at the original post and I think I’ve never seen anything so confused. Dangling assertions, arguments that start and just drop off – you showed enormous control stopping where you did.

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    • makagutu says:

      He has arguments that drop off even before you can get a grasp of the nonsense he is spouting.

      He’s consistent one thing though, wherever he reaches his knowledge limit, his next answer is so god!

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  4. mixedupmeme says:

    I don’t have anything to add or comment about the assertions and your comments. Above my understanding. 😦

    So will just say something. I used to be ok with religion and the religious if only they kept it to themselves. No harm there I would think. But I have changed 180 degrees. I read an article explaining why religion is harmful no matter if kept to oneself. Don’t know where or when. Maybe the article was here or in a blog. Are you familiar with such? I would like to reread the reasoning.

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  5. john zande says:

    “Why Naturalism Is False (or Irrational)” is a talk given to student organizations at both Harvard University and Boston College Law School in April 2013.”

    Ooooohhhhh…. might he perhaps tell us WHICH “student organisations” heard the talk? Perhaps it was the three member bible club? What a patently ridiculous appeal to authority! He fails to be credible in the first sentence! Impressive.

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    • makagutu says:

      You know John I asked myself, Harvard and Boston Law School? What happened to the students in these Ivy League colleges. He should have said it was at a bible study, it could pass.

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      • john zande says:

        If a person has to be so deceptive he’s not worth listening to. Dropping the name Harvard then just saying “student organisations” is pathetic. Tell us which “student organisations.” It’s a pity he doesn’t allow comments… but i can see why he doesn’t. He’s a deceitful dickhead.

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      • fojap says:

        Just to nitpick a bit, Boston College is not an Ivy League school. It’s a Jesuit institution. Many of the older schools in the U.S. were founded as theological seminaries. Harvard was founded by Congregationalists and there’s still a Divinity school there.

        Of the Ivies, I believe the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin, was a secular school from the outset. I think Cornell was founded by the state of New York and would also, therefore, be secular.

        Brown is Baptist. Columbia’s founding was associated with the Church of England. Dartmouth was founded by Puritans to “civilize” Indians. Princeton is Presbyterian. Yale is Congregationalist.

        That’s one of those finer grained details of U.S. history that I wouldn’t expect anyone from another country to know. For most of today’s students, the religious affiliation of the schools is almost completely irrelevant for the Ivies, unless a student is studying theology. Not, however, for Boston. The Catholic institutions have kept a much tighter grip on their schools. I got pregnant after having sex with a guy who was attending Georgetown. Earlier that evening, we’d gone to buy condoms at the little store on campus and we were surprised that they didn’t have any. He did, however, get cigarettes there. (I don’t know if you saw the Sandra Fluke incident from a year or two ago.)

        In the mid-nineteenth century, the Federal Government passed a law that encouraged the states to found colleges. They’re sometimes called “Land Grant schools” and, I believe, none of them have a religious affiliation.

        The Morrill Acts funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to the states for them to sell to raise funds to establish and endow “land-grant” colleges. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on an abstract liberal arts curriculum. (Wikipedia)

        Although the Ivy League schools are better known outside of the U.S., these Land Grant schools probably played a more important role in turning the U.S. into a prosperous, powerful country with a large middle class.

        Sorry, if I’m being a pain, but the tendency for the far right to want to rewrite U.S. History makes me a bit of a stickler for these details.

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    • fojap says:

      Yesterday, on a U.S. political site, I came across a link to this article in the Boston Globe about an anti-Semitic article published in a Christian journal published by Harvard College undergraduates, and I remembered this exchange.

      One boyfriend I had who had some of the craziest New Age ideas I’d ever encountered was also one of the smartest boyfriends I’ve had and he went to Harvard, starting two years early at the age of fifteen. Attending Harvard doesn’t preclude having some pretty stupid ideas in some areas.

      Furthermore, giving a talk doesn’t imply approval. My brief flirtation with Libertarianism started when one of my high school teachers had someone come in and give a talk. I’m not sure of the teacher’s political views, but I would guess they were center-left, not far right. Still, it’s worthwhile to at least know what Libertarianism is. Actually, when the guy went off into conspiracy theories, I think she was a bit appalled. Which is another thing – people who give talks don’t always say the things the people who engage them think they will say. My sister’s company sent someone to talk to teenagers about birth control and the woman, who has worked with teenagers in other capacities, told them, “Now, you don’t need to know any of this because I know you’re all good kids who believe in Jesus and you’re not going to have sex.” The first time she did this, she was warned. She did it a second time and she was fired.

      Also, my mother’s school hired a group that supposedly gave presentations to students about sex. Unlike what the school expected, there was a strong push towards abstinence and a heavy dose of Judeo-Christian morality. The school wound up apologizing to the students.

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      • makagutu says:

        Indeed making a presentation doesn’t translate to acceptance.
        It is true one can be smart but at the same time hold very absurd ideas and I though I have met a number of such.
        I have read that Harvard article and its appalling that there is still anti-Semitic talk 2000 years after this madness began. Do we ever learn?

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  6. Sonel says:

    I just want to thank you properly for your lovely visits Mak. You are so sweet. 😀

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  7. fojap says:

    Great post.
    “To infer there is design in the universe before you can tell us the aim of the supposed designer is ridiculous in the least and outlandish at worst.”

    I laughed when I read that. I never thought of it that way. Have you ever seen Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s talk about “Stupid Design.” What engineer would put an entertainment complex in the middle of a sewer system?

    If you haven’t seen it before, it’s great.

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