"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates

The Worldview of Naturalism (& Atheism): Matter Only

-by R. Totten (c) 2013

Historical Background

In the year 1610, the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) wanted to find a good starting point to argue for the existence of the human spirit and, therefore, also of God and his power over material things. Descartes figured that the reality of everything he sensed, could be doubted, except the fact that he was doubting. His conclusion, "I think, therefore I am," was basically a religious affirmation. This demonstrated the existence of the human spirit, and from there he went on to affirm God's existence. From Descartes perspective, spiritual things are in essence separate from matter, and matter is completely "passive", with no rationality or creative powers, which are fundamentally attributes of God. Years later in the Enlightenment period, ironically, people forgot the main point of Descartes' philosophy, but instead emphasized that human reasoning had become the foundation of knowing, and that the universe was a vast and impersonal mechanism of matter operating by fixed laws, without the possibility of miracles.

Similarly, the great physicist Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a Christian who felt that nature and universe was a finely tuned "contrivance" or mechanism which operated passively according to mathematically precise laws and principles established by God, however, he also felt that there were supramechanical or "active" principles constantly operative in nature, which were produced by the intentional activity of spirits ---especially God. Newton felt that some of those active principles included magnetism and gravity, which seemed to be God acting on matter at a distance without physical contact between the masses. So, gravity served Newton as an argument for the governing work of God in the universe, and the presence of orderly structure in nature and the solar system were evidence of intelligent design. But again, as with Descartes, the main goal of Newton's apologetic was forgotten by most people, and eventually matter was thought of as having all the forces inherent in itself, existing independent of God. Ironically, a mechanistic, materialistic philosophy such as Newton had actually tried to refute, had come to be known as the "Newtonian" world view. This world view gave objective, real existence only to mass, weight and the three dimensions, but not to mind or spirit. The popularization of this "Newtonian" world view was accomplished, not by scientists, but by literary writers and philosophers such as Fontanelle and Voltaire.

The ideas of Descartes and Newton, distorted by people in time, became the core of a new philosophy of the "Enlightenment" period, which said that the power of human "Reason" was the foundation of all knowledge. In addition, all human sensations and thoughts were a mechanistic result of the atoms in the brain. --- J.O. de La Mettrie asserted, "Let us conclude boldly then, that man is a machine," and further, that "the existence of a supreme being ...is a theoretic truth with little practical value." With the growth Enlightenment philosophy, naturalism emerged.

The Basic Propositions of Naturalism - (see the six worldview questions on our Home Page)

1. The Prime Reality: Matter/Energy is all there is for eternity, and no supernatural God really exists.
To the naturalist, reality does not include any "spirit" beings or supernatural God "above nature", ...but the basic reality is only the material cosmos (possibly in the form of energy) with all its forces, functioning according to unalterable "laws" of physics and chemistry. Naturalism is actually Atheism.

2. The universe is a closed system which functions only by cause and effect.
Seeing the universe a "closed" system, means that it is never changed or acted upon by anything from the "outside". So, to the naturalist, there is no such thing as a transcendent being, or "God", above or outside the cosmos ----there is no "supernatural"---- nor does man transcend the material/energy universe in any way, but he exists totally within the realm and reality of that universe of matter.

3. Man is a "machine", whose personality and thinking are only a result of matter's properties.
Man does not "transcend" the material cosmos by possessing a "spirit"; rather, all that man is, comes from the properties and forces of matter, evidently organized by the processes of natural evolution. Man is basically a highly evolved animal.

4. Human death is merely the ceasing of biological life, including the extinction of personality.
In this view, no human spirit, personality or mind continues beyond the death of the body. At death, human existence ends totally, except perhaps figuratively in the memory of others, and in genes passed down to offspring.

5. Ethics and morality ---any sense of right and wrong--- are only inventions of man's thinking.
All values are self-determined by man, and only exist in the mind of man. There is no natural moral law, and no absolute standard of right and wrong. Instead, as the Humanist Manifesto II states: "Ethics isautonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest." Perhaps human survival defines what is "good".

6. History is an unrepeated line of events related by cause and effect, without a real purpose.
Exactly how or if the universe came to be, is unknown, ...and it will apparently go on forever. There is no overall purpose or meaning to the course of history, and no goal to which it is heading. History and human events only have whatever meaning humans may give to them.

Evaluation of Naturalism

It's Success:
Many people feel that naturalism seems to be very rational and objective, not gullibly assuming any god or spirit beings to explain the unknown, and not assuming there is any life after death. Many think that naturalism is quite logical, in view of solid, empirical facts.

It's Failure:
Although many people are content with the worldview of Naturalism, many others have concluded that it is self-contradictory and inconsistent, it does not fit many facts of science and human experience, and it is not lived out by those who hold it. In several ways it fails the (Truth-Tests.) we've outlined.

The first proposition we've listed for naturalism states that "Matter/Energy is all there is for eternity,..." and if this is true, then the totality of man is only matter. If there is some degree of consciousness and thought in the brain of man, that thinking is still only a result of matter's properties. Why would these "thoughts" produced by matter (the chemical brain of man) correspond to the truth of reality? Matter has no known interest in truth. Why should chemicals be able to distinguish illusion from reality, since there is no rational and purposive cause for the existence of man or his mind,? ...Of course, naturalists may appeal to scientific inquiry and the laws of logical thought. But this begs the question, because it is the chemical brain which is "thinking" and using the scientific method and the laws of thought ...all of which might still be an illusion, and not reality. C.S.Lewis quotes Prof. Haldane as saying, "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms" ("Miracles", p.18). This may be like the motion of atoms to create "thoughts" in a computer ...what is to determine whether those computer "thoughts" are true or not? If naturalism is right, and matter is all there is, then even our "thoughts" about thinking and the brain and everything else may be nothing but illusion.

Epistemology is the study of the basis and validity of knowledge, ---and it is because of its inability to know anything for sure, that the worldview of naturalism is self-contradictory, and fails the first truth test. Naturalism logically creates an epistemological vacuum, in which man can never know anything for sure. Informed and consistent naturalism results in epistemological nihilism.

The philosophical naturalist (who is consistent) cannot know anything for sure, and yet the first proposition of naturalism makes statements as if they know that "matter is all there is" and that "no supernatural God exists". So, even though the philosophical naturalist does not know that his thinking bears any relationship to reality, still he often audaciously declares that he knows so much that he can categorically rule out the existence of something spiritual. The inconsistency and illogic in such assertions are obvious.

The second "Truth-Test" we've established for Worldviews, states that "an adequate worldview must fit virtually all the relevant facts and data of reality and human experience." In this regard, naturalism also has major problems. For example, there is excellent evidence for "intelligent design" in living things, which is skillfully brought out by Dr. Michael Behe of Lehigh University, in his book "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution." This evidence of intelligent design in nature, indicates beyond a reasonable doubt that there is some sort of super-human intelligence which has engineered at least some sophisticated molecular machines on the cellular level, such as cilia, flagella, DNA, many proteins, etc. The evidence shows that the material universe is actually not a "closed" system unto itself, but rather, it has been acted on from the outside. Naturalism has no good answer for these things, because Darwinist evolution has totally failed to explain how such molecular mechanisms could have developed gradually by any naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms. Even worse, is the naturalistic attempts to explain the origin of the first form of life, as Behe says, "a choking complexity strangles all such attempts" (p.177). In this regard, naturalism is a dismal failure.

In addition, naturalism has no adequate explanation for the fact of a large number of fulfilled prophetic predictions in the Bible, which clearly indicate the "knowledge" and "management" of the course of history by a super-intelligence. Also, there is the life of Jesus Christ, along with all the claims that he made, as well as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was seen by more than 500 people who lived to verify it for 40 years, and it was reported in writing by more than six individuals who recorded the history independently of each other.

With regard to the third "Truth-Test" concerning the "livability" of a worldview, if the universe is a "closed" system, being only governed from within, then every event and everything else is caused as a necessary result and effect of what came before. Though we may be incapable of predicting what will happen in the future, the future is absolutely certain, and totally determined by the present state of matter in the universe. Man may "think" he is an agent of free choice, but any notion of free agency is actually a self-deception. There cannot actually be any meaningful sort of "free will" in the worldview of naturalism. As a result, there is no logic to thinking that man could possibly be responisble for his actions. Man is basically a highly evolved "bacteria," in essence, and it is nonsense to say that a bacteria "ought" to do one thing as opposed to something else. But people don't live their lives this way, since everyone, including naturalists, has expectations of how people ought to live and treat one another. In addition, man in naturalism also could not do or be anything which is significant, valuable or meaningful. What is there to convey that significance or value? If no spiritual part of man survives his physical body, he will not care or be aware of anything done in life, whether "good" or "bad", which are meaningless terms in the naturalist worldview. But this is not how people, including naturalists, live their lives. They reveal that naturalism fails the third "Truth-Test".

What is the final outcome then? If a person is consistently a naturalist, he proceeds into nihilism. Nihilism says that no one can know anything for sure, so no statement can be valid ...and nothing has any value, meaning or significance, good or bad. Regarding this, Dr. James W. Sire writes, "One of the awfulest consequences of taking epistemological nihilism seriously is that it has led some to question the very facticity of the universe. To some, nothing is real, not even themselves. When a person reaches this state, he is in deep trouble, for he can no longer function as a human being. Or, as we often say, he can't cope. ---We usually do not recognize this situation as metaphysical or epistemological nihilism. Rather, we call it schizophrenia, hallucination, fantasizing, daydreaming or living in a dream world. And we "treat" the person as a "case," the problem as a "disease." (Ref. "The Universe Next Door", J. Sire, Inter-Varsity, Downers Grove, p.87). So, some people who take their naturalism absolutely seriously and to its logical conclusion, have proceeded into mental and emotional breakdown.

Although most people with the worldview of naturalism do not take it to its logical end, obviously, they still prefer to remain in that failed philosophical system because they are uncomfortable with another alternative ...especially the option of considering God. However, it is the hope of this web page to challenge people to reconsider.

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NOTE: ...You, dear reader, are valuable and loved by God, . . .and that's why Jesus Christ came. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [Jesus Christ], that whoever believes (trusts) in him shall not perish but have eternal live." (John 3:16)

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