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Naturalism & Theology

The only ontological conception that is supported by any sound evidence is naturalism, the doctrine that everything can be explained as natural phenomena.  Nothing is supernatural.

Table of Contents

What Exists?
Perhaps the most basic subject that falls within the realm of metaphysics is ontology, the study of what exists.  Our five senses inform us about the natural world, which appears to follow certain natural rules or laws that govern the behavior of all things.  We intuitively know, for the most part, what is “normal”, and what would be considered “magic” or “a miracle”.  Since the natural world follows the normal “laws of nature”, anything that violates these laws, anything that is truly magic or a miracle, would need to have a supernatural cause.

It is the belief that magic is possible, and/or that miracles do happen, that causes people to believe in the existence of a realm that is distinct from the natural world.  In particular, most people hold a belief in a supernatural deity of some sort.  This supernatural realm would be entirely distinct from the natural realm, and would presumably operate via rules or laws that are entirely different from those of the natural world.  Nonetheless, entities in the supernatural realm must be capable of affecting or changing the outcome of processes in the natural world.

If you believe in the natural world, you believe in realism, the doctrine that something exists independent of any mind that is perceiving that existence1.  Supernaturalism extends realism by positing that a supernatural realm does indeed exist independent of the observable, natural universe2.  Does the natural world exist?  Outside of the ivory towers of philosophy, it would seem to be a truism that it does.  To deny realism is to deny that the earth, sun, moon, cars, tigers, televisions, MP3 players, not to mention our physical bodies, exist3.  The more difficult question is whether or not a supernatural realm exists.

Rigorous scientific studies of alleged supernatural phenomena consistently and uniformly produce little or no evidence of such phenomena4.  In addition to this lack of evidence, there are numerous philosophical problems with the concept of a supernatural realm.  For one thing, it is not at all clear how the supernatural realm can selectively interact with the natural realm.  If the supernatural really exists, then why aren’t miracles commonplace?  Why is it that we can supposedly see ghosts, but pass right through them?  If humans have a soul that is separate from our bodies, what is so special about our bodies that makes them the only viable host for a soul?  Why can’t a soul be captured and stored elsewhere?

The much more likely explanation is that nothing supernatural exists, but that many people just maintain the false belief that it does.  There is plenty of evidence that this is the case.  For most of human prehistory and history, our knowledge of the workings of the natural world (science) was extremely limited or non-existent.  Humans hate states of ignorance, so we invented spirits and demons to explain the workings of nature.  Indeed, even as late as the time of the Hellenic Greeks, the prevailing belief was that everything, or a least every living thing, had souls or spirits that guided its actions.  This is reflected in Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics, in which every living thing was believed to have an innate purpose or goal5.

However, as science has taught us more and more about the actual workings of the natural world, the need for supernatural explanations has greatly diminished.  Indeed, the only area of scientific inquiry that is still so much in its infancy that our understanding of it is extremely poor is the study of consciousness and the mind6.  Perhaps this is why there is still a strong belief in the existence of a human soul.  But if historically every single supernatural explanation has proven to be false, and since there is also no evidence whatsoever for a human soul, does it really make sense to believe that this is the only exception, that this time there really is something supernatural at work?  I think not.

One might also say that cosmology, and in particular, the origin of the universe, is a phenomenon that requires a supernatural explanation.  However, clearly cosmological science has made huge strides in explaining the history of the universe, having found convincing and consistent evidence that the universe began in a “big bang” some 13.8 billion years ago, is expanding everywhere, and is destined to expand forever.  While questions still remain, to me it is astounding that we have learned so much just from observing photons that happen to hit the earth, an object that is miniscule in cosmic terms.  It is also legitimate to ask what caused the universe to exist in the first place.  The usual belief is that God created the universe, but there are problems with this that I discuss in the next section.  Leonard Susskind offers a fascinating alternative explanation in his book The Cosmic Landscape7 based on string theory.  I should stress that his theory is pure speculation, and does not have any more evidential basis than the God creation myth.  My point is that it offers a naturalistic explanation for the origin of our universe rather than a supernaturalistic one.

The majority of the world’s population adheres to some form of religion.  While all religions preach belief in some form of the supernatural such as reincarnation (and thus the existence of the soul), the vast majority also believe in a supernatural, supreme being or beings.  Over 50% of the world’s population practices one of the Abrahamic religions, and thus believes in a single God.  But how does the concept of God stand up to objective, logical, and scientific scrutiny?  Unfortunately, not well.

The best book that describes the problems with the concept of God is The God Delusion, but Richard Dawkins8.  If you have an open mind about religion or are just curious about the problems with the concept of God, then I highly recommend this extremely readable book.  I will list here a few of the reasons why I do not believe in any god:

  • As with the supernatural in general, there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God.  In fact, the use of God as an explanation for unexplained phenomena just perpetuates the mistake of our ancestors.  God in this context is a theory, a proposed explanation, and not a very good one given the lack of any scientific evidence for His existence.
  • An extreme example of this is the creation myth: One might ask, how did something as complex and as wonderful as the universe come to be, except via some divine creation?  Well, we don’t know, but saying that God created the universe is not a very good explanation.  For, if this is true, we can then ask, how did God come to be?  If God had the ability to create the universe, isn’t He even more complex and wonderful than the universe itself?  If we need God to explain the universe, don’t we need some super-god to explain God, and a super-super-god to explain him, and so on ad infinitum?
  • There is plenty of evidence that God is a delusion, albeit one that humans are genetically programmed to embrace9.
    • There are numerous documented cases of new religions and gods springing up in cultures when faced with some new, unexplained phenomenon.  This happened again and again, for example, with the formation of cargo cults in the South Pacific during World War II10.
    • No single religion comes close to having a majority of the worlds population as adherents. The closest one is Christianity (if you take the charitable step of lumping all of the different forms and denominations of Christianity into one religion), which according to Wikipedia11 is followed by 33% of the worlds population.  If God really exists, why has He chosen to deceive at least 67% of the population?
    • Studies in cognitive psychology have actually found some areas of the brain that when stimulated invoke religious feelings and beliefs12.
  • Many people argue that God is necessary as a basis for morality.  However, a little objective reflection easily disproves this myth.  For one, objective scientific studies have been inconclusive as to whether or not there is any correlation at all between religion and morality13.  An anecdotal example of a negative influence of religion on morality is fact that many criminals are very religious and pray for forgiveness in order to be absolved of guilt for past and future crimes14.  Furthermore, anyone who has read the bible knows that it is full of egregious moral prescriptions.  For example, in numerous places a father is instructed to kill his son if he is disrespectful.  Most of these passages occur in the Old Testament, but in fact Matthew 15:4 states “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’.”

The best explanation for the universe is naturalism, the doctrine that what we can observe is all that there is.  Science has over the centuries chipped away at supernatural beliefs and proven them wrong.  Three historical periods in which science and naturalism made great advances in replacing the prevailing supernatural view were as follows:

  • 1500’s: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and later Isaac Newton proved that the earth was not the center of the universe, and that the motions of the heavens could be predicted from simple formulas
  • 1800’s:
    • Charles Darwin (and independently Alfred Russell Wallace) demonstrated that life could evolve from more primitive forms without being created by God
    • Geology & paleontology demonstrated that the earth is far older than our creation myths would have us believe
  • 1900’s: Einstein and numerous others demonstrated with relativity and quantum mechanics that the universe is not even intuitive15

It would appear that science has at least two more important naturalistic discoveries to be made:

  • As mentioned above, I expect some day that we will be able to prove that consciousness is a completely natural phenomenon, although we may never fully understand it.
  • I also expect, perhaps sometime very soon, that astronomers will be able to demonstrate that there is life on other planets.

The supernatural flows from our imaginations, but the natural provides us with the truth, and as history has shown, it is capable of firing our imaginations as well.

End Notes

  1. See “Philosophical realism”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_realism>.  There are numerous philosophical stances that are opposed to realism.  The most notable is idealism, which posits that reality exists only in our minds.  One of the most famous idealists was George Berkeley, who argued that reality ultimately existed in the mind of God.  The extreme form of idealism in which reality exists only in your own mind is solipsism.
  2. “Supernatural”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernatural>.
  3. This statement is not entirely accurate.  To be precise, idealist do believe that these things exist, but that they exist only in our minds, not independent of these minds.
  4. The journal Skeptical Inquirer is devoted entirely to the scientific study of paranormal phenomena.  This includes not just supernatural phenomena, but also phenomena that are claimed to be natural but for which there is little scientific evidence, such as psychic powers.
  5. This is most prevalent in Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul.  For a synopsis see “On the Soul”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Soul>.
  6. For more information on this see my essay on Consciousness.
  7. Susskind, Leonard, The Cosmic Landscape, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.
  8. Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Mariner Books, New York, 2006.
  9. For a background on the evolutionary evidence for religion as a human phenomenon, see “Evolutionary origins of religion”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions>.
  10. See for example, Dennett, Daniel, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2006, pg. 98-100.
  11. “Religion”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion#Religious_groups>.
  12. See for example the Wikipedia article on Neurotheology (“Neurotheology”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotheology>).
  13. “Morality and religion”, Wikipedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality_and_religion>.  See the section on “Religion and crime”.
  14. Didonato, Nicholas, “How criminals use religion to justify their crimes”, Patheos: Science on Religion, June 3, 2006, URL=<http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/06/how-criminals-use-religion-to-justify-their-crimes/>.
  15. For a detailed description of the revolutionary discoveries in physics and mathematics made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, see my essay on 1879-1931.

November, 2013

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