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Reason, Personal Responsibility, and Naturalism’s Counterintuitive Claims: Response to Dawkins, Part IV

Naturalism takes for granted the following tenets:

  • Nature is all there is.
  • All reality is comprised of or rooted in matter.
  • There is no supernatural—no Creator, no miracles, no souls,
    no angels, no life after death.
  • Science becomes the only (or best) means of knowledge. 

Richard Dawkins is a four-point naturalist.  Such a position, however, defies our most basic intuitions and assumptions about human experience. Naturalism’s logically leads to:

  • the impossibility of knowledge;
  • the unreliability of reason;
  • the denial of free will and personal responsibility;
  • the undermining of human rights and dignity

I’ve already touched on the first two points (on the impossibility of knowledge and reliable reason) in a previous post, but let me review before addressing the matter of free will/personal responsibility.

Knowledge is warranted true belief.  It’s not enough to have true belief, since you can believe something that’s true but in a totally fluky way.  And Dawkins is right—that we just dance to the music of our DNA—then he himself is dancing to his own DNA.  Dawkins has accidental true belief, but that’s not knowledge. If our beliefs are determined and we believe that determinism is true, then this is just a lucky coincidence—again, not knowledge.  Those who reject determinism are still determined to believe what they do.  Yet Dawkins claims to know his view is true and that he is more rational than the theist.

Naturalistic evolution is interested in survival, not truth. As naturalistic philosopher of mind Patricia Churchland puts it: 

“Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive….Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”[1]

The late atheist philosopher Richard Rorty echoed Churchland’s analysis of the implications of Darwinian theory: “The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own uncreated prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass—a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck.” [2]

If naturalistic evolution is interested in survival rather than truth, I may believe a lot of things that help me to survive—human dignity and worth, human rights. But these beliefs may be completely false.  On the other hand, if we are truth-seeking beings (a reflection of what the Bible calls “the image of God”), this makes a lot better sense if a rational, intelligent being created us to think or reason—to have genuine knowledge. Being made in the image of a rational God means we have good reason to trust our minds as generally reliable rather than malfunctioning or systematically misleading us.

So much for review.  Another implication of naturalism is that it must deny free will or personal responsibility.  If matter is all the reality there is, how could free will emerge?  Our beliefs are the necessary result of certain physical inputs.  It’s like a prism of colors that is inevitably formed when sunlight is refracted through mist or rain.  Certain physical inputs lead necessarily to certain outputs.

On naturalism, there is no self that makes decisions, and no “decisions” really matter.  The buck doesn’t stop with the agent since “no one” is making those decisions.  “Choices” are not up to me.  They are the product of material forces that impose themselves on each of us—forces over which we have no control.

Atheist philosopher of mind John Searle of Berkeley makes this quite clear.  “Physical events can have only physical explanations, and consciousness is not physical, so consciousness plays no explanatory role whatsoever. If, for example, you think you ate because you were consciously hungry, or got married because you were consciously in love with your prospective spouse, or withdrew your hand from the flame because you consciously felt a pain, or spoke up at a meeting because you consciously disagreed with the main speaker, you are mistaken in every case. In each case the effect was a physical event and therefore must have an entirely physical explanation.”[3]

If you look at the website, www.naturalism.org, many noted atheists like Daniel Dennett are on its advisory board.  This site claims:  “From a naturalistic perspective . . . [h]uman beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental. We do not have the capacity to act outside the causal connections that link us in every respect to the rest of the world. This means we do not have what many people think of as free will, being able to cause our behavior without our being fully caused in turn.”[4]

Naturalist Michael Ruse tells it to us straight:  we merely think morality is objective and binding upon us—but that’s totally false.[5] We believe the illusion of moral realism and moral obligation; without this strong impulse, Ruse declares, we would disregard or disobey morality. “If you think about it, you will see that the very essence of an ethical claim, like ‘Love little children,’ is that, whatever its truth status may be, we think it binding upon us because we think it has an objective status.”[6] This is a corporate illusion that has been “fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”[7]

When we are assessing a worldview and whether we should accept it, one of the criteria we should use is whether the worldview can be lived out consistently or if we have to systematically live at odds with it.  Does our worldview disallow us to practice what we preach?

Richard Dawkins confesses: “As an academic scientist, I am a passionate Darwinian, believing that natural selection is, if not the only driving force in evolution, certainly the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature. But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.”[8]  Why, if Darwinism creates the illusion of purpose, has Dawkins been able to see clearly?  Why isn’t he under the illusion of purpose?

Theism doesn’t have to resort to such metaphysical hypocrisy. The theistic context—of a personal agent who freely creates—affords a setting to anticipate or expect creaturely agents who can freely make decisions.  Even if environment and genetics influence choices, they do not determine them. Unlike Dawkins and his naturalistic views, we can be passionate theists both in theory and in practice.


[1] Patricia Smith Churchland, “Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience,” Journal of Philosophy, 84 (October 1987): 548.

[2] Richard Rorty, “Untruth and Consequences,” The New Republic (31 July 1995): 32-36.

[3] John Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness (New York: New York Review of Books, 1997), 154.

[4] “Tenets of Naturalism,” at http://www.naturalism.org/tenetsof.htm. Accessed March 10, 2008.

[5]Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Ethics: A Phoenix Arisen,” in Issues in Evolutionary Ethics, ed. Paul Thompson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 236.

[6]Ibid., 235.

[7]Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. J. E. Huchingson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310–11. For discussion on this, see Matthew H. Nitecki and Doris V. Nitecki, Evolutionary Ethics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 8.

[8] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 10-11.

16 Responses to “Reason, Personal Responsibility, and Naturalism’s Counterintuitive Claims: Response to Dawkins, Part IV”

  1. the naturalistic argument recalls to my mind Voltaire’s quip that if there were no God, it would be necessary to invent Him!

  2. Paul, I think you have clearly identified the irrationality of belief in naturalism. It requires one to believe that there is purpose (or a mind, or consciousness, etc.), but these are all illusions. However, it is somehow possible to tell that these are illusions and to decide not to believe them after all!

    And naturalists say theirs is the more rational view!

  3. So basically, even if the conclusions of the naturalist managed to align with reality, it could only be by accident, and there would be no grounds to actually accept it as true.

    If two people achieve very different conclusions, ie the theist and the atheist, then… it’s not that one or the other has better considered the evidence, it’s just how they’re wired?

    Biological determinism is pretty lame isn’t it?

  4. John Sailhamer has an interesting take on the creation account in his book Genesis Unbound. John Piper and Greg Boyd are both favorable towards his interpretation, which is really an accomplishment in and of itself! There’s a lengthy analysis of it on Piper’s blog here

    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/science-the-bible-and-the-promised-land

  5. Good thoughts (no pun intended). Consider the above discussion in view of an honest assessment from atheist Thomas Nagel, I hope there is no God, http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/i-hope-there-is-no-god-thomas-nagel/

  6. Good summary of many of the contradictions of naturalism.

    I believe the determinism/rationality dichotomy can be stated even stronger. The issue of human freedom from physical causation extends deeper than just the repudiation of moral choices / responsibilty. Even Searle has admitted, inconsistently with his naturalism, that rationality presupposes free will. To state it briefly: Naturalism cannot even account for the illusion of rationality. There would be no “reason.”

    On the materialist view there is no room for abstract laws of logic, no basis for absolute ethics, no human autonomy from material causation and hence no free reasoning (rationality), and no goal oriented (teleological) actions. (The coup de grace is that the absence of human autonomy from physical causation precludes the possibility of even utilitarian morals).

    Again materialism/naturalism cannot even account for the illusion of such.

  7. Speaking of Dawkins he does believe in miracles — those of the irrational order.

    I forgot to add this link. Hope this adds to the discussion.

    http://theophilus-defendingthefaith.blogspot.com/2010/09/atheists-miracle.html

  8. Well, said, Theophilus! Have you read or heard Angus Menuge on the Ontological Argument from Reason? It very nicely complements Plantinga’s epistemological Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). Wintery Knight has an excellent write-up on Menuge’s presentation at EPS. It’s worth the $1.99 to hear his talk, but you can download his 11 page paper and his PowerPoint from Wintery Knight’s links.

  9. Hey Bob, Thanks for linking to that. I attended his EPS talk and it was amazing! I rally recommend that everyone download his slideshow and the paper. The slideshow is easy to understand, the paper has more details.

  10. The irrationality of naturalism is not as important to the Marxist as the concept of obedience to the state. At all costs, the Marxist must induce the individual to reject the precepts of Judeo Christianity with it’s emphasis on a transcendant morality. Naturalism is the only way to compel complete obedience to the state. If naturalism is not true, it doesn’t matter. After all, “What is truth”, the atheist would ask.

    Hence, it is Judeo Christianity which is the primary target of organized atheism. No other religion on earth would seek to seperate man from servitude to the state. In fact, all other religions ultimately compel the surrender of free will to the collective. That is the essence of their falsity.

  11. Thanks, everyone. Some excellent points here! What some of you have picked up on is how naturalists themselves nicely reinforce what theists have been saying all along.

    I’m actually in the midst of crafting a book proposal on the naturalness of theistic belief and, by contrast, how counterintuitive naturalism is. A group of us will be highlighting some of these themes. The naturalness of theism is reinforced by scholars like Justin Barrett (Oxford) and others, who have discovered through their research that children throughout the world are “intuitive theists.” (See Barrett’s book *Why Would Anyone Believe in God?*) The idea that religious belief enhances survival is certainly not an argument against its truth, but it actually reflects the fact that God has set eternity in our hearts: http://www.equip.org/articles/does-religion-originate-in-the-brain-

  12. Amazing discussions of all these intellectuals!
    I have a question for all of you: WHAT IS LIFE?
    Scientist have realized that everything is nothing but a unified field, but they cannot explain what holds all the atoms together of anything. The life force-spirit that is in the bodies of all cannot be seen with the regular eyesight, nor can it be measured by scientific ways. The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran Khalil wrote; there are two kinds of men of God, those that talk about him/her, and those that experience him/her. Just because you haven’t visited the north pole, you can’t denied its existence, in the same way just because you haven’t experience a miraculous healing doesn’t mean that they do not happen. Read the scientific research done by Michael Talbot in his book “the holographic universe,” as well as Dr Gabor Mate’s “when the body says no,” then revisit the Dhammapada and the Sermon of the mount. Keep in mind that Buddha and Jesus were not instituting religion, nor…

  13. Although I totally agree, I must point out that naturalism doesn’t have dibs on determinism – many Calvinists come dangerously close to (or actually embrace) the exact same view. And in this case, cannot the same arguments be applied to them? i.e. if God determines everything how can we be said to be truly culpable? I realise that this is addressed in Romans – it’s just that if we are happy to roast the naturalists for this we have to be prepared to examine our own views about it as well…
    Does that make any sense?

  14. Greetings Saskia,

    Your question does make sense. I am a 5-point Calvinist, and in my case I try to delineate between the types of determinism. The determinism of material monism, in which all of reality is just matter-in-motion determined by Newton’s three laws (plus some irrational chance in the quantum mechanical view), cannot account for laws of logic, rationality, ethics, teleological actions, and so on. In material monism, at rock bottom, every action is the result of a mindless impersonal determinism channeling quantum chance. Also, in this case “free-will” is absent since there is no autonomy from physical causation. Some atheists are true to their presuppositions and admit as much. Additionally, in material monism there are no explanations for personality and personal identity either… no soul/spirit, etc.. . . man is just a sequence of determined and random “brain states.” No volition in that bare cabinet. But I digress a little.

    In the Christian view of determinism, the personal, rational Triune God is behind the decrees, yet we as creatures are reasoning and acting according to the dictates of our volition, our true selves, our immaterial rational minds, souls and so on, created by God. This is why we are culpable, even though decreed/foreordained vis a vis God. In short, part of being – our immaterial soul – is independent of the material order — but not independent of God. This is Christian compatibilism as Paul writes in Romans 9.

    In summary, the issue is not the presence of determinism in both worldviews, per se, but the type of determinism. The Christian view may be puzzling in the single area of culpability, but it is a rational view. It is culpability that Paul addresses in Romans 9. There is no logical contradiction. Christian theism provides a rational account of rationality and ethics. These are things the determinism of atheistic material monism will never explain — material monism is impossible.

  15. It is good to have naturalists. Otherwise how could we contemplate and extrapolate, ‘analogysize’ the so countless ways flesh menace s us in embracing the One.

    • Thanks, Mutax. I have written an essay about how naturalists actually assist the theist in making his case for the existence of God:
      “The Naturalists Are Declaring the Glory of God: Discovering Natural Theology in the Unlikeliest Places,” in Philosophy and the Christian Worldview: Analysis, Assessment and Development, eds., David Werther & Mark D. Linville. New York: Continuum, 2012.

      Not quite sure what you’re getting at when you say “the so countless ways flesh menace s us in embracing the One.”

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