Varieties of Naturalism


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                   The Current Debate between Naturalism and Supernaturalism

The current debate between naturalism and supernaturalism is very active on a handful of issues. Some of them are perennial issues, looking now very much like they did in medieval times, and still shaped by ideas from the ancient Greeks. Other issues are modern, arising from newer perspectives on nature and humanity that are only a couple of hundred years old at most. All of these issues have fresh life and vigor, because current science tells us amazing things, about the origin and evolution of the universe in general, and of life on earth in particular. The select issues that we can briefly discuss here include the origin of the universe, the fundamental laws of the universe, the evils that humanity suffer, and the moral rules of humanity. Naturalism disagrees with supernaturalism about how to best explain these issues, and their debates continue to grow more complex and interesting.

Naturalism is essentially the philosophical view that the only reality is nature, as gradually discovered by our intelligence using the tools of experience, reason, and science. Naturalism keeps pace with science's knowledge in order to describe what nature is like, and what place humanity has within nature. Supernaturalism can also try to keep up with science, and the most important kinds of supernaturalisms do take science carefully into account. Supernaturalism basically is the theological view that nature cannot be all that exists, because religious knowledge tells us about a divine reality and about humanity's relationship with it.

A simplistic theology dismisses scientific knowledge with the attitude that religious knowledge is always far superior. For example, a theology based primarily on priviledged religious experiences or exhalted religious authorities can too easily dismiss scientific knowledge entirely. Naturalism shouldn't respond to such simple theologies by dismissing either experience or authority, since naturalism starts from experience and has respect for scientific authorities. However, naturalism tests experience using principles of reason and methods of science, and could never priviledge any experience elevated away from intelligence. Similarly, naturalism respects scientific authorities for their commitment to intelligence, and could never exhalt any scientist admired for genius or wizardry.

Sophisticated theologies go beyond mere experience or authority to offer intelligent compromises with knowledge of nature, and some even rely on scientific knowledge to support their kinds of supernaturalism. The temptation for a supernatural theology to deal with science is very strong, because the burden of proof in the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism is on supernaturalism, and supernaturalism ultimately needs all the help it can get. Why is the burden of proof on supernaturalism? Consider the basic argument for naturalism:


First, Nature exists.
Second, There are insufficient reasons to believe that the supernatural exists.
Conclusion: Only nature exists.


Supernaturalists could try to defeat naturalism by claiming that nature does not exist. Most supernaturalists have never tried this tactic. The obvious reason for their reluctance is because any definition of the “supernatural” depends on already possessing a conception of, and belief in, the “natural.” Otherwise how could the supernatural be contrasted against anything, and how could the supernatural be given credit for creating the natural world? The paradigm supernatural religions (western religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) require belief in both the natural and supernatural worlds. The less obvious reason why supernatural religions are not skeptical towards nature is because those other religions (such as some varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism), which do argue that nature is not real, still try to explain the illusion, by giving ultimate spiritual reality the credit for generating the illusion of nature. By treating nature as a by-product of genuine spiritual reality, these religions actually bring nature and spirit into close relationships, tending to result in theologies that look more like pantheisms. Instead of sharply dividing spirit from nature, many of these eastern theologies tend to unify them. Genuine supernaturalisms instead depend on sharp dichotomies between the supernatural and the natural. For example. the supernatural has no physical properties, need not obey natural laws, is not constrained by space/time, etc. The natural only has physical properties, must obey natural laws, is contained within space/time, and so forth. We are already familiar with the natural world and what much of it is like. What can religion additionally teach us? Sophisticated theologies accept the burden of proof and formulate various arguments that the supernatural exists in addition to the natural. There are three main types of theologies which pursue distinct strategies.

Theology Close To The Edge: According to this kind of theology, religion has similarities with science and even can share much of scientific method because supernatural hypotheses should compete with naturalistic hypotheses for rationally explaining the features and events of the natural world. If hypotheses about the supernatural are better able to explain some things going on within nature, belief in the supernatural would be reasonable. This theological strategy seemed plausible during medieval times, but it has now been driven close to the edge of extinction. Modern science and its naturalistic hypotheses have proven far more successful. Naturalistic explanations have been plausibly established for so many features of nature, from the origins of galaxies, stars, and planets to the evolution of life, intelligence, and human culture. Now near the brink of elimination, Theology Close To The Edge can survive only on lingering mysteries in the universe. Even if the supernatural is no longer needed to explain the origin of the earth, or the evolution of life, there still are some mysterious things that science has not yet fully explained. Science hardly denies or ignores mysteries -- indeed, scientists are driven to explore nature by their fascination with mysteries. Supernaturalists close to the edge take comfort in the resistance of consciousness to scientific explanation, for example, and argue that only supernaturalism can account for the mind. On this issue, we presently observe a standoff. Supernaturalism really doesn't offer an explanation of mind, since it doesn't explain how mind can interact with matter. Naturalism, for its part, can only raise the hope that scientific progress will explain consciousness someday.  Still, the track-record and momentum of science is so impressive that theologies rarely try compete so close to the edge anymore. Where can theology retreat to?

Theology At The Edge: According to this kind of theology, religion is continuous with science, and tries to helpfully supplement science, because supernatural hypotheses are necessary to explain the very existence of nature itself and to explain the most general features of nature as a whole. The cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument, which we will examine soon, stay alive at the edge by relying on science's current knowledge of the Big Bang and the universe's fundamental laws. According to Theology At The Edge, supernatural hypotheses should not try to compete with natural hypotheses for explaining things within the universe. Even if the supernatural is no longer needed to explain anything in nature, there remain dark mysteries surrounding us when science's knowledge stops at the very edge of known nature itself. Here at the edge, theology always seems to have the competitive advantage, since no matter how far science goes, there will always be more questions and more darkness. While science must admit its natural limitations, naturalism does not have to admit defeat here at the edge. Supernaturalism claims to hold the only remaining explanations for the universe's existence and its overall design. However, if naturalism can expose flaws in supernaturalistic explanations while offering possible alternative explanations, naturalism can keep its advantage. Is there anywhere left for theology to retreat to?

Theology Over The Edge: According to this kind of theology, religion does not have to be reasonable or compatible with science, but just faithful. For theology over the edge, it is entirely irrelevant whether any supernaturalistic hypotheses successfully explain anything. Theologies Over The Edge are designed to be immune from all possible counter-evidence, and its theologians proudly claim that their supernaturalism cannot be proven false. Some extreme examples of Theology Over The Edge proclaim that the best religious faith is precisely a faith in the irrational and absurd. Theologies resting on alleged miracles or revelations are not worried about defying rational explanation. Theology Over The Edge refuses to accept the burden of proof and instead tries to shift the burden onto the naturalist. “Prove me wrong,” this theology taunts naturalism, assuming that this is the smart way to win the debate. Does theology at last have a safe foundation here, over the edge? There is no general all-purpose argument that the naturalist could use to prove that nothing supernatural exists. It is impossible to search such a transcendent “space” beyond nature. No reasonable person should claim to be certain that nothing supernatural exists. However, the naturalist does not have to be certain that the supernatural doesn't exist -- the naturalist simply finds that there is no good reason to believe that the supernatural does exist. And that's enough to be a reasonable naturalist. Debating "the evidence" with a Theology Over The Edge is pointless and profitless, since this kind of theology doesn't have to worry about evidence. However, a theory that cannot be refuted by any evidence enjoys no help from any evidence. Making a theory that can't be proven false does not make it true. Besides, there are potentially endless irrefutable theologies, and they can't all be true, so it is far more reasonable to be skeptical towards all of them. If naturalism can force supernatural theology not only to the edge, but entirely over the edge, then naturalism remains standing as the only reasonable view, and the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism is effectively over.

So far, we have surveyed from a great height the respective positions of naturalism and the three kinds of supernatural theologies. In our remaining time, we can look more closely at a few current arguments and counter-arguments that are generating the most interest and intellectual energy from both sides. Each argument for supernaturalism has an opposite counter-argument from naturalism. We will begin with “The Existence of Nature” argument for supernaturalism, and the “Megaverse” counter-argument. Then we proceed to the “Fine-Tuning” argument for supernaturalism, matched by the “Problem of Evil” argument. Finally, the “Argument from Morality” favoring supernaturalism, and its counterpart “Argument for Secular Humanism” from naturalism.


The “Existence of Nature” Argument for Supernaturalism

 1. Naturalism relies only on science for explanations, yet science cannot offer hypotheses about why the natural universe exists.

2. Naturalism cannot explain why the natural universe exists.

3. Only supernaturalism can offer hypotheses for why the natural universe exists.

Conclusion: Supernaturalism is more reasonable than naturalism.


This argument depends on the point that as soon as science explains something natural in terms of some other natural thing, science has simply enlarged our knowledge of the natural universe, but has not explained its very existence. Suppose science establishes the existence of some earlier universe, from which our own universe emerged. Now nature has expanded, but its very existence has not been explained. No matter how much more nature science discovers in the future, it can’t explain nature’s existence itself. How should the naturalist reply to this argument?

First, premise 3 may be true, but the conclusion does not follow from these premises. Offering a hypothesis and offering a reasonable hypothesis are two different things. Any supernaturalist hypothesis must actually succeed in gaining sufficient reasonable support for itself, irrespective of the perceived failures of naturalism.

Second, the conclusion does not follow from these premises because this argument relies on an additional unstated premise or two, which may be false. In this argument, supernaturalism demands an explanation for the existence of nature. Many theologians make this demand because they are applying a “principle of sufficient reason” which declares that every event or entity requires a reasonable explanation for its existence, or for the way that it is. Now, supernaturalism offers the existence of supernatural being(s) to explain nature. But what explains the existence of such supernatural things? Who made God? Confronted by this question, the supernaturalist usually then abandons the principle of sufficient reason (or modifies it to only say that every event requires a reasonable explanation -- as God is not an event), and retreats to the theological notion that God is precisely that being whose existence and/or essence does not require further explaining. What sort of being is this? The theological answer is typically that a “necessarily existing” being, whatever that is, does not require further explaining. Even if the idea of a “necessary being” could be made clear (dubious in itself, since we encounter no such being in ordinary experience), and even if rational argumentation could prove the existence of a “necessary being” (even more dubious, as the history of such arguments embarrassingly displays), we can still wonder whether such a necessary being would have to be a supernatural being. In other words, the naturalist might admit that only a necessary being could supply an ultimate explanation for everything, and then the naturalist can go on to hypothesize that this necessary being is in fact the entire natural reality. On this naturalist hypothesis that nature is necessary, the big-bang start to our universe was NOT the beginning of all reality -- our visible universe is only one small part of a large and possibly infinity number of multiple universes (collectively named the “megaverse”). Many cosmologists are taking the “megaverse” theory seriously, and someday this hypothesis might be reasonably established by new evidence and scientific testing.


The “Megaverse” Counter Argument for Naturalism

1. Naturalism can offer alternative hypotheses for the existence of our natural universe. 

2. The hypothesis of the megaverse, as a necessary being, satisfies the demand of sufficient reason.

3. Supernaturalism is not the only option for explaining the existence of our natural universe.

Conclusion: Supernaturalism is not more reasonable than naturalism.


Some supernaturalists try to block this naturalist hypothesis of the infinite megaverse by claiming that an infinitely existing megaverse violates reason. Such a natural infinity is paradoxical and impossible because there has to be a beginning to the universe, since nothing could really ever happen if an infinite number of preceding events had to happen first. This objection is the “Kalam Cosmological Argument,” and it concludes that God must have created the universe at some point since the natural universe could not have already existed for an infinite amount of time. The naturalist can reply that even though conceiving an infinite amount of time is humanly impossible, the notion of an infinite past violates no rules of mathematics or logic, and therefore an infinitely old megaverse remains an ontological possibility. Besides, most supernaturalists anticipate that this problem of conceiving infinity can be turned around and aimed at their God, so theologians usually do not want God to exist in ordinary time, but to instead exist in some eternal time or timelessness. However, it is inconsistent and hypocritical for the theologian to complain about the difficulty of conceiving an infinitely old megaverse, when the sort of “timelessness” supposedly enjoyed by God is just as difficult for humans to conceive.

Other supernaturalists try to block the megaverse hypothesis by arguing that the megaverse might be infinite, yet still need explaining, because non-existence is easier for reason to accept than existence, so the naturalist still hasn't explained why only natural existence really exists instead of nothing at all. The naturalist can reply that no supernaturalist has yet given a good argument why non-existence or nothingness is easier for reason to accept than natural existence, so that natural existence must require explanation but nothingness does not. Quite the contrary -- since absolute nothingness is really difficult or impossible for the human mind to conceive (what exactly would you be thinking about if you tried?), therefore natural existence is far easier to think about. We are evidently far better acquainted through experience with natural existence, after all, and reason has a far easier time thinking about the relations between existing things. The naturalist remains free to hypothesize that the megaverse is all that has existed and all that ever will exist, and thus the naturalist does not need to explain why only the megaverse of nature exists instead of nothing at all.

In conclusion, although the supernaturalist may rightly complain that the infinite megaverse is mere speculation. And it is mere speculation. However, the “Existence of Nature” argument for supernaturalism only works if supernaturalism is the only logically possible explanation. But it isn't, and the mere fact that the naturalist can propose the necessary existence of the megaverse successfully blocks the supernaturalist argument.


The “Fine-Tuning” Argument for Supernaturalism

1. If certain fundamental properties of nature (the “key life-permitting properties”) were slightly different, life would never be possible in our universe.

2. If mere chance or some ultimate natural law is responsible for the fundamental properties of nature, then the probability is quite low that the “key life-permitting properties” would be as they are.

3. If an all-knowing and all-powerful supernatural being is responsible for the fundamental properties of nature, then the probability is quite high that the “key life-permitting properties” would be as they are.


Conclusion: An all-knowing and all-powerful supernatural being controls the fundamental properties of nature. 


How should the naturalist reply to this argument?

First, there is very little reason to suppose that premise 1 is true. It is true that if certain fundamental properties of our universe (such as the electromagnetic force's great strength compared to gravity's force, or the mass of the neutron compared to the proton and electron) were slightly different, then the type of earthly organic life that we presently understand would not be possible. However, for all we know, other kinds of life could flourish under quite different fundamental properties of nature.

Second, the naturalist can accept premise 2 as probably correct, and view life as a lucky accident of an uncaring universe. The naturalist can appeal to the notion of the megaverse in order to make it easier to understand that among the many (infinite?) diverse universes, we happen to live in one hospitable to life, so our luckiness appears less mysterious. If so many diverse universes have been created, the existence of a universe like ours becomes far more probable.

Third, there is very little reason to suppose that premise 3 is true. It has already been pointed out that quite different forms of life may be possible, for all we know. The theologian could refine premise three by supposing that a supernatural being has an overriding aim to ensure the existence of forms of life just like us. This refined supposition would need much additional argument to support it, and such argument eventually resorts to suspiciously religious dogmas for premises, since there is no obvious reason why a very intelligent and powerful god would bother creating life like ours. Perhaps life is an accidental by-product of the creation of what this god really wants. Carl Sagan pointed out that from an objective perspective, the universe seems far better designed for rocks. The naturalist can also point out that many sorts of gods could equally be hypothesized as responsible for controlling the existence of life in our universe, such as a committee of powerful but indifferent gods that enjoy experimenting with life, or a god that is quite evil. In any case, there is no need for the supernaturalist hypothesis to explain a universe that happens to support life. The naturalist can simply return to the notion of the megaverse. If so many diverse universes have been created, the existence of a universe like ours becomes highly probable, so that the “Fine-Tuning Argument” fails to be compelling.

Furthermore, this natural universe is actually quite inhospitable to life as we know it, since locations favoring organic life seem to be very rare. We tenuously cling to existence on the surface of an unpredictable planet lost among countless solar systems where earth-like planets seem scarce. Perhaps there is a good deal of life scattered across the galaxies. Yet our universe is not designed for long-term habitation, since it will either eventually surrender to gravity and collapse back into a “Big Crunch,” or it will expand forever into a thin soup of useless energy that compels life to succumb to the law of entropy. It is not hard to imagine a far more hospitable universe for life, and we can easily imagine a better life for us, which in turn raises the problem of evil.


 The “Problem of Evil” Counter Argument for Naturalism

1. If God exists, then God would not permit too many evils in the world.

2. Too many evils exist in the world.

3. Naturalism more easily explains so many evils in the world.

Conclusion: God probably does not exist.


This “Too Many Evils” argument asks whether the universe's design can reasonably suggest the existence of a good, powerful, and intelligent god. After all, any bad flaws in the design must be attributed to the designer, even if the supernaturalist prefers to emphasize good aspects of creation. Naturalism is at least as plausible as supernaturalism for explaining the world's design, since naturalism has little difficulty accounting for both the good and bad aspects to nature. Only a perfect design can establish the existence of a perfect creator -- lots of little evils can quickly add up to a less-than-perfect god.

The theologian must try to explain how God's grand good plan for this world must require so many evils, since we can easily imagine worlds with fewer evils. The theologian must explain why the evils in the world are just the right amount of evil, such that no lesser amount of evils would have been sufficient to carry out the divine plan instead. This effort to justify such an explanation why this world is the “best of all possible worlds” is called “theodicy.” If the theologian cannot make this theodicy explanation plausible, then monotheism is exposed as a religion grounded on mere blind faith. Furthermore, there is a grave danger to supernaturalism even if a theodicy succeeds. Suppose a religious person can be confident that God has sufficient reason to permit all evils. The danger is that evil and good begin blur together. Consider: the theologian is saying that God has sufficient reason to permit everything that happens in the grand design -- no event happens without God's approving permission. What about human sins which cause great suffering (Hitler's evil decisions, for example)? The theologian can reply that God either (a) permits human free will to make evil decisions, for the greater good of people having free will (so they can freely choose God, for example); or (b) God directly causes Hitler's actions so that God controls all events for the grand design. On this theological dilemma, either letting people sin is no big evil, or controlling people's sin is no great evil. If sinning is no big evil, or God's sinning is no big evil, what then is the big difference between good and evil, from our limited human perspective? The moral argument for God (which we will discuss next) claims that we know absolute moral truths about good and evil, so we need to postulate God. But if God is ultimately responsible for all sin, our capacity to figure out any big difference between good and evil is radically undermined. Now the theologian is now trapped in a trilemma: either no one knows what really is good or evil, or God authorizes evil, or God performs evil. All three options lead to this conclusion: humans cannot really know what God believes is truly moral, so no moral argument for God can work.


The “Morality” Argument for Supernaturalism

 1. There are moral truths that are absolute: both universal (true for everyone) and eternal (must always be true).

2. For any moral truth, there must exist something that is responsible for making that moral truth true.

3. Nothing in the natural world, such as human beings, human societies, human life on earth, or the wider universe can be responsible for absolute moral truths.

Conclusion: The truth of absolute moral rules requires a supernatural reality to explain their truth.


How should the naturalist reply to this argument? Premise 3 is probably true because there is nothing permanent about human beings (their bodies and minds keep changing) or human societies (they gradually change their moral standards over time) or human life on earth (survival strategies of the human species gradually change over time) or wider nature (which is always changing). Since it is very difficult to see how something that can change can be responsible for something universal and eternal, this argument suggests that we have to look beyond humans, human societies, and nature itself to explain absolute moral truths.

Naturalists usually do not believe in the existence of absolute moral truths, holding that their existence has not been sufficiently established by either experience, reason, or science. Many religious people very much want to believe that there are absolute moral truths, and do believe in them, and feel afraid of a world in which many people don’t, but these facts about people cannot prove the existence of absolute moral truths. Furthermore, finding any substantive moral rule that most religious people believe, or even a substantive moral rule that most people in the same religion really believe and consistently live by, is a very difficult task. Consider how all religions have modified their moral rules over the centuries, and how they have all broken apart into sects and denominations when they cannot agree on serious moral principles. Religion is a poor place to go looking for allegedly universal and eternal moral truths. Can naturalism offer an alternative account of moral truths?

The most plausible sort of naturalistic account of human morality is humanist ethics.


The “Humanist Ethics” Counter Argument for Naturalism

1. Morality is a type of practical reliable knowledge for growing and maintaining communities.

2. As communities interact and intersect, a humanist ethics of toleration and respect is the wisest way to manage conflict.

3. Humanist ethics explains why communities use diverse yet objectively true moralities, and explains why moralities should be changed for better managing conflict.

Conclusion: The objective truths of morality can be best explained by naturalism.


There is a simple naturalistic explanation for the capacity of cultural/religious traditions to contain wisdom about what makes a good life and various practical moralities. Morality is essentially social in nature: morality is a type of practical reliable knowledge that aids the purpose of growing and maintaining social relationships in communities. Morality is therefore a kind of objective knowledge: moral rules do not subjectively depend on what any single person happens to think. But no morality is absolutely independent of humanity entirely, either. A community's moral truths are objectively valid, in the same way that a country's laws are objectively valid. Moral truths are not absolute because they can be changed by communities. Moral truths should be changed when ethical thinking concludes that they should be changed.

Ethics was born as intelligent thinkers pondered how people could better manage cooperative social relationships within communities, and across social and cultural boundaries. Humanist Ethics seeks ethical principles acceptable to all humanity regardless of their cultural beliefs, starting from the realization that each culture and society is a minority viewpoint when contrasted with the rest of the world's cultures. Minorities first and foremost desire protection from majorities, so minorities want the moral right to their own convictions and lifestyle without social penalty, and the political right to live in peace without government penalty. Humanist Ethics therefore mostly consists of principles designed to promote “live and let live” moralities, and humanist ethics is a kind of moral relativism. However, Humanist Ethics is not an ethical relativism, since the point of any ethics is to rationally defend one system of ethical principles for all humanity. The principles of Humanist Ethics permit many moralities to flourish so long as they all peacefully tolerate each other. Finally, Humanist Ethics supplies the foundation for progressive democracy.