The Most Egregious of Naturalism’s Deficiencies


A straw man can be very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting – even a little luxurious – to imagine that belief in God is no more than a belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheists would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the new atheists – which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men – might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise……… The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelieves in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection………..

Regarding the ultimate nature of reality, at least, neither the general consensus of a culture nor the special consensus of a credentialed class should be trusted too readily, especially if it cannot justify itself except by reference to its own unexamined presuppositions. So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history…....... If we examine the premises underlying our beliefs and reasoning honestly and indefatigably enough, we will find that our deepest principles often consist in nothing more – but nothing less – than a certain way of seeing things, an original inclination of the mind toward reality from a certain perspective. And philosophy is of little use here in helping us to sort out the valid preconceptions from the invalid, as every form of philosophical thought is itself dependent upon a set of irreducible and unprovable assumptions. This is a sobering and uncomfortable thought, but also a very useful reminder of the limits of argument, and of the degree to which our most cherished certitudes are inseparable from our own private experiences……..

……..I have to admit that I find it impossible to take atheism very seriously as in intellectual position. As an emotional commitment or a moral passion – a rejection of barren or odious dogmatisms, an inability to believe in a good or provident power behind a world in which there is so much suffering, a defiance of “Whatever brute and blackguard made the world,” and so forth – atheism seems to me an entirely plausible attitude toward the predicaments of finite existence; but, as a metaphysical picture of reality, it strikes me as a rank superstition. I cannot imagine how it is possible coherently to believe that the material order is anything but an ontologically contingent reality, which necessarily depends upon an absolute and transcendent source of existence. To me, the argument for the reality of God from the contingency of all composite and mutable things seems unarguably true, with an almost analytic obviousness; and all philosophical attempts to get around that argument (I am fairly sure I am familiar with all of them) seem to me to lack anything like its power and lucidity. And the same is true in only slightly lesser degree of the argument from the unity, intentionality, rationality, and conceptual aptitudes of the mind, or the argument from the transcendental structure of rational consciousness.

Even so, I must ruefully admit, I would be deceiving myself if I did not acknowledge that my judgments follow in large part from a kind of primal stance toward reality, a way of seeing things that involves certain presuppositions regarding, among other things, the trustworthiness of reason. Ultimately, though, I know that if the materialist position is correct, there can be no real rational certainty regarding ontological questions, or regarding anything at all; so the very assumption that what seems logically correct to me must in fact be true already presumes part of the conclusion I wish to draw.

There, however, my generosity of spirit on the matter is exhausted. True enough, all of us derive our pictures of the world from certain fixed principles that we take as self-evident but can neither prove nor disprove, either empirically or dialectically. If, however, there is any legitimacy at all to the elementary categories of logic or the discriminatory powers of the intellect (and I think we have to believe there is), we can certainly say which perspectives on reality possess greater or lesser relative logical strength and internal consistency. So it is more than fair to point out that philosophical naturalism is among the most irrational and arbitrary visions of reality imaginable. This much is clear simply from the arguments typically made in its favor, all of which tend to be nothing more than catechetical assertions. Consider, for instance, the very popular but also purely doctrinaire claim that the principle of “the causal closure of the physical” precludes all possibility of supernatural agency in the world: an entirely tautological formula, warranted by neither reason nor science. It is indisputably true, admittedly, that any closed physical system that might happen to exist is by definition both physical and closed, but there is no compelling reason to think that our reality is such a system. And, anyway, a “closed” physical system still could not be the source of its own existence, and so would be truly closed only at the mechanical level, not the ontological; its existence would still have to be explained in “supernatural” terms. By the same token, claims that ………….the physical order is demonstrably devoid of final causality, and so on, are all just so many empty assertions masquerading as substantive arguments. As for the asseveration that naturalist thought has proven its cogency in the success of the modern sciences, this is simply a confusion of issues. Between the triumphs of the inductive, empirical, and theoretical sciences of modern age (on the one hand) and the metaphysical premises of naturalist thinking (on the other), any association is entirely a matter of historical accident and nothing more. Empiricism in the sciences is a method; naturalism in philosophy is a metaphysics; and the latter neither follows from nor underlies the former.

The most egregious of naturalism’s deficiencies, however, is the impossibility of isolating its supposed foundation – that strange abstraction, self-sufficient nature – as a genuinely independent reality, of which we have some cognizance or in which we have some good cause to believe. We may be tempted to imagine that a materialist approach to reality is the soundest default position we have, because supposedly it can be grounded in empirical experience: of the material order, after all, we assume we have an immediate knowledge, while of any more transcendental reality we can form only conjectures or fantasies; and what is nature except matter in motion? But this is wrong, both in fact and in principle. For one thing, we do not actually have an immediate knowledge of the material order in itself but know only its phenomenal aspects, by which our minds organize our sensory experiences. Even “matter” is only a general concept and must be imposed upon the data of the senses in order for us to interpret them as experiences of any particular kind of reality (that is, material rather than, say, mental). More to the point, any logical connection we might imagine to exist between empirical experiences of the material order and the ideology of scientific naturalism is entirely illusory. Between our sensory impressions and the abstract concept of a causally closed and autonomous order called “nature” there is no necessary correlation whatsoever. Such a concept may determine how we think about our sensory impressions, but those impressions cannot in turn provide any evidence in favor of that concept. Neither can anything else. We have no immediate experience of pure nature as such, nor any coherent notion of what such a thing might be. The object has never appeared. No such phenomenon has ever been observed or experienced or cogently imagined. 

 Once again: we cannot encounter the world without encountering at the same time the being of the world, which is a mystery that can never be dispelled by any physical explanation of reality, inasmuch as it is a mystery logically prior to and in excess of the physical order. We cannot encounter the world, furthermore, except in the luminous medium of intentional and unified consciousness, which defies every reduction to purely physiological causes, but which also clearly corresponds to an essential intelligibility in being itself. We cannot encounter the world, finally, except through our conscious and intentional orientation toward the absolute, in pursuit of a final bliss that beckons to us from within those transcendental desires that constitute the very structure of rational thought, and that open all of reality to us precisely by bearing us on toward ends that lie beyond the totality of physical things. The whole of nature is something prepared for us, composed for us, given to us, delivered into our care by a “supernatural” dispensation. All this being so one might plausibly say that God – the infinite wellspring of being, consciousness, and bliss that is the source, order, and end of all reality – is evident everywhere, inescapably present to us, while autonomous “nature” is something that has never, even for a moment, come into view. Pure nature is an unnatural concept.

End quote.

David Bentley Hart “The Experience Of God

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