Naturalism and Science Don’t Mix

I think I missed a cog.

Today I’ll be continuing my series of posts on religion, science, and naturalism. If you haven’t read them already you can find the first two posts here and here.

Last week I discussed whether Christianity is opposed to science because it depicts a world that is fundamentally unreasonable, and found that was not the case. Christianity and naturalism both pass the test of believing in a reasonable world. Now let’s look at the second belief that is required to perform science: the belief that humans are capable of understanding the world. As I pointed out in my first post, if humans are incapable of understanding truth then science is a waste of time on a practical level. There’s no point in trying to work out the laws of physics if we are doomed to failure. If we can’t understand the world around us then science will give us incorrect observations or nothing; and it is here that a belief in naturalism is inconsistent with a belief in the validity of science.

Remember, as we talked about in the second post, all philosophies which believe that the universe is reasonable must also believe in a First Cause that has always existed. Christians believe that this First Cause is God. He has always existed and he is the ultimate cause of everything that has come into existence. Naturalists believe that nature is the First Cause. Nature has always existed and everything that has come into existence has been caused by the laws of nature. There is nothing outside of nature. Everything comes down to atoms, energy, and the laws that regulate how atoms and energy behaves.

Now this belief leads to some very interesting inferences. If everything is made up of energy and matter behaving according to the laws of physics then everything that happens must happen by necessity. When a cue ball ricochets off a wall it doesn’t get to decide which direction it wants to go: where it goes is determined by the laws of physics. As long as the cue ball is hit in exactly the same way across exactly the same surface with all other variables being consistent it will always end up bouncing off the wall in the exact same direction. In the same way every atom, every molecule, and every photon of sunlight can only follow the path that the laws of nature demands it must follow. If a scientist had perfect knowledge about the variables involved then that scientist could predict exactly how any atom in the universe will react to any event. Since human beings (according to naturalism) are made up of nothing but atoms and energy then we are no different. We are nothing more than a very complicated chemical reaction, and everything we do or think is a result of the atoms in our body reacting with themselves and the atoms around us. If I meet you in the street it may feel as if I have a choice about how I react to you: I could shake your hand, or ignore you, or punch you in the nose. However I am only a collection of atoms, and all my thoughts and decisions come out of the reaction of neurons in my brain firing according the to the laws of nature. If I shake your hand instead of punching you in the nose it is only because all the events and reactions leading up to this moment have made it so that shaking your hand is the only possible thing that could have happened. You can never say “This event could have gone one way or the other” but instead you must say “There was no other way this event could have turned out, and if we were wise enough to see all the variables we could have predicted it.”

I will not delve into the philosophical or moral implications of this belief, though there are many. The question I set out to answer is not whether naturalism is a good or enjoyable philosophy. I did not even set out to particularly see if it was true or false. My only concern right now is whether naturalism is consistent with science, and it is here that naturalism fails. Science requires a belief that humans are capable of understanding the world around us: naturalism only allows us to react to it. For if my mind is nothing more than the byproduct of chemical reactions in my brain, and if those chemical reactions must follow a certain inevitable path due to the laws of nature, then I cannot really understand anything. My thoughts are not thoughts at all but reactions. It may seem that I come to my beliefs due to a careful consideration of the evidence and by reasoning things out logically: but in actuality I had no more choice about my beliefs than I had a choice about the color of my hair. It was inevitable that I would come to believe the way I do. Nature is ultimately non-rational in the sense that it does not reason. Apples and atoms behave the way they do because of the blind laws of nature necessitate that they do, not because the atoms reasoned out for themselves what the logical thing to do is. Now if I can explain a belief as being completely caused by non-rational forces then the belief itself is irrational and we have no reason to believe that it is true. That belief is just a chemical reaction like wood burning or acid corroding metal. Fire and corrosion isn’t about anything; it just is. In the same way our thoughts and understandings are about anything in particular; they just are.

This is a problem if you want to perform science because science depends on our thoughts and inferences to reflect physical truth about the world around us. A scientist must be able to say “Phenomenon X works in way Y because the experiments I have devised and performed show us results B and C and reason shows us that Y will logically give us B and C.” But if naturalism is true then the scientist actually came to conclusion Y not because of logic and observation but because of a reaction of blind and non-rational atoms in his brain. His theories are all the result of the laws of nature working on the atoms that make us his body and we can’t expect the laws of nature working on matter to result in insight into truth. C.S. Lewis said that believing unthinking forces can produce actual truthful information is “like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.”

So, in the end, naturalism fails at the second belief required for performing science: the belief that humans are capable of understanding the world around us. From a naturalistic point of view we are only capable of reacting to the world around us. Naturalism and science are incompatible; if naturalism is true then science should be impossible. This of course causes a problem for naturalists because science as we know it works very well. Scientists behave as if they really do have an understanding of truth about the universe, instead of merely carrying out the results a series of inevitable chemical reactions. Dr. Gregory A. Boyd put this more succinctly and completely then I ever could. In Letters from a Skeptic he wrote “If our minds are simply “chemicals in motion,” then any truth we think we may discover amounts to nothing more than brute chemical reaction, and thus can have no more truth than, say, a burp. Chemical reactions are all equal on this score, regardless of how complex they are. So Einstein was just giving a complex burp with all his theorizing. But why then does his theory work? The success of his formula, and all of science, confirms our instinctive assumptions about the mind: Our mind is more than a network of chemical reactions. (pg. 68-69)”

Now what about Christianity? Does it have the same problem as naturalism? To put it simply, no. How do Christians know that our own minds are rational and capable of understanding truth? Because Christians believe that God is rational, and that he created us in his image.  The ultimate cause of everything is not unthinking nature but instead a thinking and rational mind. An effect cannot be greater than its cause; rationality can never come from a non-rational First Cause. But if the First Cause is itself rational then if follows that it can cause rational beings to come into existance. Christians believe that our minds are made up of more than our brains; that it partly consists of something outside of nature, namely a rational soul. Our minds are something outside of nature yet connected to it. It is similar to how an electronic signal traveling through the air is connected to a television that receives it. People argue that the brain and the mind must be the same thing because if we damage or manipulate the brain then the mind is affected as well. This is true, but it is also true that if I mess with the wiring in my television I will get an image that is a warped and corrupted version of the signal traveling to it. It’s true that if you give me alcohol my thinking will be impaired, and if you bash my brains to bits my thinking will disappear; it is equally true that if I change all the settings on my TV to something outside its normal bounds the image will change hue and perspective, and if you heave a brick though the television you won’t get any image at all. This is just a simple analogy for what Christians believe about the brain: that it is receiving and is affected by a rational soul outside of nature. I could write an entire post on that subject, but this one is long enough already and it would be off topic. The point is that the Christian worldview has no problem believing in the ability of humans to understand the world around us. We can take scientists at their word and really believe that there are thinking and rational minds behind their theories and statements, rather than non-thinking chemical reactions.

So, in the end, which philosophy is more hostile to science? Naturalism, or Christianity? I hold that if you are a naturalist then you cannot honestly believe in the validity of science, but if you are a Christian (or a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or believer of any other religion that acknowledges the existence of rational forces outside of nature) then you can believe in science without problem.

Now of course Christianity and “science” do come into conflict on some subjects such as the age of the Earth, the extent of evolution, etc.  But I have found that if you look closely most (if not all) of the areas where Christians disagree with science is actually a conflict between Christianity and naturalism. As I said in my first post our culture often confuses the two. Christianity has no problem with theories that are provable with repeatable experiments, such as the potency of penicillin or the boiling point of water; it does have a problem with improvable and untestable theories that rely on the naturalistic assumption that there is no God who had a hand in creating the universe.


About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at

Posted on January 15, 2013, in Apologetics, Christianity, Science! and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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