Science and Naturalism
I recently had the pleasure of having an intellectual conversation with a friend who I had a disagreement with. It’s a rare pleasure to be sure, and the fact that it is rare probably says more about me than anything else. Most of my friends agree with me on the matters I care most about, and if there is disagreement we would rather not bring up the subject. This is, I think, typical of most Americans (or perhaps I should say most white Americans; African-American culture is more accepting in general of honest conflict between friends and family which is to their credit). The only reason I came into open argument with this friend was the fact that he repeatedly aired his contrary views on Facebook and it is infinitely easier to get into an argument over the internet than it is in person. On the internet I have all the time in the world to spare, and I’m looking at words on a screen instead of a person. Face to face I often have better (read: easier) things to do and instead of words face a person with whom I’d much rather talk about video games or movies than anything that might cause a fight. Perhaps it is divine providence that just when the culture has produced a generation of meek creatures like myself the internet has come along to take away our inhibitions and make us bold again (though often bold fools). Whatever the case may be, I responded to my friend’s posts with my own rebuttals and after weeks of on and off fighting he finally suggested we sit down and talk things through civilly in person.
The principal disagreement we had been fighting about is a little hard to summarize neatly. I would say (though I am biased and don’t doubt that my friend would put it differently) that the problem was as follows: my friend believed that it was possible to be a Christian and an atheist at the same time (again, I must emphasize that I am probably butchering his thoughts; this is merely my own limited perspective). I replied, essentially, by saying that to be a Christian atheist was to be intellectually hypocritical: if you believe in God, then you cannot honestly be an atheist, and if you do not believe in God then you cannot honestly be a Christian. He responded (again, I’m summarizing) by saying that just as we do not use a hammer to brush our teeth we must use different tools for different aspects of our lives. We should answer scientific questions with scientific perspective, and answer spiritual questions with a spiritual one. This of course led to extended argument, which eventually landed us face to face in a quiet room. We had a fine discussion but didn’t seem to accomplish anything for quite some time. We seemed to be talking past each other without ever finding the heart of the issue. Finally, somehow, I stumbled onto the problem. We both meant very different things when we used the word “science”. I think this is a problem that is widespread in our culture so it merits a blog post or two.
I will have to define some terms. When I say “science” I mean the scientific method. Science is (as I’ve said in previous blog posts) organized and methodical learning. Science is about asking questions, performing experiments, and then asking more and better questions based on the results. Science is tool, and it is a tool that is open to anyone who can think. Whether you are Hindu, Christian, or an atheist you can perform science. A scientist only needs to believe two things on faith; that nature is reasonable and that nature is understandable.
If nature is not reasonable then it we do not have any reason to believe that it will behave the same way today that it did yesterday. If a scientist observes that something is behaving completely contradictory to everything that we have learned so far he must conclude that his knowledge is incomplete and that somewhere, hidden to him at this time, there is a perfectly reasonable and logical series of events behind the phenomenon he observed. He must not conclude that everything just works randomly and there are no principles behind anything in life. If everything has a reason then science as a concept will work; if everything just happens for no particular reason, if there are no “laws” defining how things work, then science is only an illusion.
A scientist must also believe that it is possible for humans to understand the reasons behind things. This does not mean that humans must be capable of understanding everything there is; it is possible to be a scientist and believe that there are some things that the human brain is not capable of comprehending. What it does mean is two different things. The first is that if a human mind is not capable of understanding something then it is not because that something is unreasonable or unknowable but only because we are not great enough to understand it. For example, I do not understand the forces that hold atoms together. However I believe that somewhere out there are scientists that do understand it; and if there are no scientists who truly understand it than I believe that God understands it. Now you can substitute God with “a higher mind” if you want: the essential concept is that the universe is understandable even if we do not personally understand it. Now the second thing that is meant by saying that the world must be understandable is that humans are capable of understanding anything at all. We humans must be capable of understanding truth if science is to have any meaning. In order to perform science you have to be able to reason correctly. If humans are incapable of reasoning correctly then science is useless to us.
These two beliefs are the only ones required to use science. To be a scientist you do not have follow any particular creed. That is why there are excellent scientists both past and present who are Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Muslims, Christians, etc. However this fact is not immediately apparent to all people. For many (and this was the case for my friend) if you are to be a scientist then you must also be a naturalist. Naturalism, summed up, is the belief that nature is all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be. A naturalist believes that nothing exists that it outside or independent of nature. Nature is the self-existent Fact on which all other facts are based. Naturalism is not necessarily opposed to the idea of a god existing; but only a god that can be explained as being produced by nature, a god with a clear beginning that came about through a series of logical events inside nature itself. Naturalism rejects the idea that there could be a God that is outside of nature, which created nature and is master over it.
Now it is understandable why so many people, if only unconsciously, believe that you must be a naturalist to be a scientist. That is because of the limits of science itself. Science can only tell us about things inside of nature; things we can observe and test. If there is a God outside of nature then science cannot prove his existence. You can’t do an experiment on something that can’t be observed and measured. That is its limitation, and it’s a fine limitation. As my friend aptly said, you cannot brush your teeth with a hammer. No tool can do everything. Science is a fantastic tool for explaining why water boils, what light is made of, and how to build a computer. It is a completely useless tool for telling us whether there is anything outside of or above nature. Since science can only understand nature we can see why naturalism and science has become conflated in people’s minds. Still we must understand that naturalism is a belief and science is a tool. Science is incapable of telling us whether naturalism is true or false. If there is something outside nature then science by definition cannot see it; just because science cannot see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
It is important to remember that you don’t have to be a naturalist to be a scientist, or to be a scientific person. Believing that naturalism is a prerequisite for science is the cause of much grief and doubt among those who are not naturalists. When my friend used the term “science” he meant (though he was not totally aware of this) “naturalism”. For him the two concepts were wedded together. To be scientific was to be naturalistic. Now science was obviously good, useful, and rational. On the other hand he is a Christian and his life has been greatly enriched by God. So God is also good. The only solution is to somehow find a way to be both a naturalist and a Christian; to be a “Christian atheist”. But this is a false choice. Science can tell us why water boils, its chemical composition, and why it is necessary for human life. Our beliefs tell us why water exists and all, and what meaning (if any) it has.