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.
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
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
Naturalism cannot explain why the natural universe exists.
supernaturalism can offer hypotheses for why the natural
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
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.
hypothesis of the megaverse, as a necessary being, satisfies
the demand of sufficient reason.
Supernaturalism is not the only option for explaining the
existence of our natural universe.
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
“Fine-Tuning” Argument for Supernaturalism
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.
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
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.
Naturalism more easily explains so many evils in the world.
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.
“Morality” Argument for Supernaturalism
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
The “Humanist Ethics” Counter Argument for Naturalism
is a type of practical reliable knowledge for growing and
communities interact and intersect, a humanist ethics of
toleration and respect is the wisest way to manage conflict.
ethics explains why communities use diverse yet objectively
true moralities, and explains why moralities should be
changed for better managing conflict.
The objective truths of morality can be best explained by
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.