Has Naturalism Put Reasoning in a Bind?

Has Naturalism Put Reasoning in a Bind?

19 minutes reading time

Disclaimer: Throughout this essay, I have used the terms “naturalism” and “materialism” interchangeably. While there are differences, the subjects and argumentation apply to both views, which although not identical, remain similar.

I think I think… I think?

You find yourself in a pivotal scene from “The Matrix,” assuming the role of Neo. Seated before Morpheus, he paints a startling picture of the real world – a reality that’s both intimidating and revealing. Then comes the moment of decision. Morpheus presents two pills to you:

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

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Here’s the twist – you’re not just any Neo. You’re a robotic Neo, programmed to always see the blue pill as the preferable choice. Moreover, your programming convinces you that your decision is entirely rational. It’s a bittersweet realisation, as your robotic nature dictates your choice, bringing an abrupt end to what could have been an extraordinary journey.

Consider this: our brains might just be hardwired to think in a certain way. When we use our brains, we naturally trust that its internal mechanisms are functioning correctly. We absorb new information, compare it with existing knowledge, and make judgements. However, the reliability of this process hinges on a crucial question: Are our perceptions accurate? How can we be sure our cognitive ‘wiring’ is not fundamentally flawed? Our journey to understanding begins with a potentially flawed perception, and we continually refine this through experience, gradually constructing a more refined understanding. This is a logical process, akin to the principles underlying scientific inquiry. In science, an idea or hypothesis prompts us to investigate, test and analyse, helping us determine if we’re on the right path.

I suspect we all agree that the human mind is frequently prone to cognitive biases, emotional interference, memory confabulations, perceptual limitations, and other shortcomings that hamper our ability to interpret reality as it truly is. To circumvent these inherent flaws, we employ the scientific method and depend on peer review. Singular minds cannot reliably discern truth; it is only through rigorous verification and repeated failed falsification that we can identify what is most likely true.

But to view science as a flawless lens revealing reality “as it is” would be an oversimplification. This perception overlooks a crucial aspect: science is not just a collection of facts and figures; it’s a construct deeply embedded within human culture, shaped and limited by our cognitive processes. It’s through these very human minds that we conduct experiments, observe phenomena, and document findings. While science is a powerful tool for understanding, it’s essential to recognise that it operates and is interpreted within the bounds of human perception and reasoning.

For instance, if your ‘logic chip’ is programmed to believe it’s thinking logically, how can you be certain of this using logic alone? This leads us into a paradox: to validate the reliability of our reasoning, we must employ the very reasoning we’re questioning. It’s an endless loop, a catch-22 situation where the tool we’re testing is also the tool for testing.

This dilemma brings us to a broader, more philosophical contemplation. Understanding any truth, whether via science, philosophy, or other avenues, involves using our reasoning to analyse and interpret the data. This process presupposes that our minds are, to some extent, capable of grasping and evaluating objective reality. When it comes to the tools we use to understand our world, we must place a certain level of trust in our cognitive abilities. You can never truly know if your capacity for reason is itself reasonable, as this realisation depends on the very reasoning in question.

So, here’s the crux – we inherently believe we can discern truth, an implicit faith driving every intellect. Science, for instance, is predicated on the belief that nature is comprehensible and that our minds are equipped to understand it. We research and experiment, driven by the conviction that true knowledge is attainable.

Albert Einstein famously remarked that “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility… the fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle,” and the mathematical physicist Eugene Wigner opined that “the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” As these remarks highlight, the intelligibility of the universe to the human mind requires explanation in two respects. The first is ontological: Why is nature ordered in such a way that it can be understood? The second is epistemological: Why is the human mind able to gain understanding of the natural order? 

Rebuilding the foundations of truth

In the past, a theistic worldview provided satisfactory answers to these questions (both the ontological and epistemological). There lied a deeply entrenched society-wide conception of the universe as the free and rational creation of God’s mind so that we, as rational creatures made in God’s image, are capable of searching out and understanding a divinely ordered reality. Theism, which understands the universe as the product of intelligent design, was for a long time held as the metaphysical context in which the existence and intelligibility of nature has an explanation. In this sense, science and theism were intimately connected, with theism providing the metaphysical foundations for the scientific enterprise, as Albert Einstein famously hinted:

“Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Theism has provided us with a basis to the presupposition that our thinking can and could be valid (given we use the right tools). According to the Christian worldview, since nature had been designed by the same rational mind who had designed the human mind, the early modern scientists who began to investigate nature also assumed that nature was intelligible. It could be understood by the human intellect, since the human intellect, however corrupted, is the product of a rational creator. Modern science was specifically inspired by the conviction that the universe is the product of a rational mind who designed the universe to be understood and who also designed the human mind to understand it. As one philosopher of science put it: “Western science was grounded in the belief that the natural order is the product of a single intelligence from which our own intelligence descends.”

However, the Christian doctrine of “The Fall of Man” significantly shaped the approach to understanding in early scientific exploration. This doctrine, centred on the original disobedience of Adam and Eve – the first archetypal humans / priests – suggests that sin, disorder, and suffering became inherent/fixed in both humanity and nature. All creation now exists in a fallen state, a deviation from what was originally intended by God, leading to inherent disorder.

Given this theological context, early scientists undertook their pursuit of knowledge with considerable caution. They understood that while human reasoning had the capacity to unravel the complexities of the natural world, it was also prone to errors such as self-deception, fanciful thinking and premature judgements. This recognition highlighted the importance of adopting a meticulous and systematic method in scientific research, acknowledging the potential flaws and limitations of human cognition.

In this sense (among many others), it was the Christian worldview that finally gave birth to modern science.

If you take a thorough look at the history of science, you will find that belief in a rational and intelligent creator inspired the development of modern science, providing it with its philosophical presuppositions, and gave rise to what we call the scientific revolution ranging from approximately 1550 to the 1800s. Most scientific pioneers were theists, including prominent figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and Max Planck (1858-1947). The great fathers of modern science were often theistic and referred to their theistic views as great inspiration and motivation for their scientific enterprise. They even saw their scientific work as revealing the wisdom and power of God – an “act of worship.” Kepler, who is a key figure in the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, wrote that “the chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” Newton even believed his scientific discoveries offered convincing evidence for the existence and creativity of God. 

Then something changed.

From the eighteenth century, an entirely different philosophy of science emerged. Just as scientists were beginning to formulate the origin and evolution of life on earth, the worldview of scientific materialism gradually began to dominate thinking about the meaning of science. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection stands out particularly. In ‘On the Origin of Species,’ published in 1859, Darwin argued that living organisms – previously considered a powerful example of God’s creative power – only appeared to be designed. Darwin proposed that the concrete material mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation could explain the adaptation of organisms to their environment without invoking an actual intelligence or directing agency. If the origin of all biological organisms could be explained naturalistically, as Darwin argued, then explanations invoking a creative intelligence were unnecessary and even vacuous. Gradually, atheism supplanted theism and began to replace science’s theistic origins with a new philosophical grounding – materialism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scientists had turned to entirely materialistic theories for everything from the origin and development of life, including human life, to the origin of the earth and solar system. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the worldview of scientific materialism began to pick up traction as it claimed to offer a comprehensive materialistic answer to the prime-reality question. Under materialism, scientific explanations are limited to suggesting only materialistic entities or natural processes in scientific explanations. In the mind of the materialist (or naturalist), the universe is a closed system. Positing creative intelligence as explanations for the history of life and the universe would violate the materialistic worldview. And so since philosophical materialism had begun to claim sole control over science itself, any explanations pointing to an immaterial mind, idea, or plan did not, in principle, qualify as proper scientific explanations. Atheism had now controlled the scientific arena.

The materialistic assumptions about what scientific theories must look like influenced the way many scientists conducted their work, including Darwin. These new materialistic theories suggested that the whole history of the universe and life could be told as a nearly seamless unfolding of the potentiality of matter and energy. The default cosmology of the nineteenth century – which wrongly assumed that matter and energy were eternal and self-existent, reinforced this materialistic perspective, since it seemed to eliminate any need to consider the question of the ultimate origin of matter. Not surprisingly, the rise of scientific materialism altered the way many intellectuals conceptualised the relationship between science and theistic belief, so that many began to perceive science and theistic belief as standing in overt conflict with one another.

So, although the founders of modern science saw the testimony of nature and science as actually supporting belief in God, by the beginning of the twentieth century, science, despite its theistic origins, seemed to have no need for the God hypothesis. By the end of the 20th century, science was predominantly viewed under a materialistic/naturalistic umbrella, and so any thought of God had been deemed unfit and even heretical for the field of science.

But in science, arguments shouldn’t be dismissed without serious thought. Naturalism—the self-contained character of nature and the denial of supernaturalism, is often taken as the context for science. This new metaphysical presupposition imposed on modern science still has to make sense of human reasoning. The question is this: according to naturalism, is the notion of free-thinking still justified? If not, then the human intellect, with which we understand science, is left in the dust. Science itself then necessarily falls. The stakes are high.

Is our thinking valid?

The discussion around atheism and naturalism often centres on the concept that there is no transcendent reality beyond the observable universe or multiverse. In this worldview, nature, encompassing all matter and energy within spacetime, is self-contained and self-referential. Atheism, aligning with this naturalistic perspective, rejects the existence of anything supernatural, including a deity, positing that reality consists solely of natural elements and forces. We are simply and entirely material. No soul, no mind. Just a body, just a brain.

Within this framework, our mental faculties and consciousness are seen as purely natural phenomena. This perspective implies that human beings are entirely material, with no distinct soul or mind separate from the physical brain. If this is the case, it leads to a deterministic view of the universe, where all events, including mental events, are the results of preceding natural causes, bound by the laws of nature. This concept of physical determinism suggests that every action, thought, or belief is predetermined by a chain of events that began long before our birth.

Now, it’s worth noting that not all naturalists ascribe to determinism, since debates on the subject of quantum mechanics have meant that naturalists are often divided on whether our world is fully deterministic. For example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a law in quantum mechanics that limits how accurately you can measure two related variables. Measuring one property restricts the accuracy with which you can measure its conjugate property. This principle demonstrates that there are inherent limitations to how precisely we can predict certain physical properties, thereby introducing an element of indeterminacy at the quantum level. Quantum theory has the consequence that no small-scale events are fully determined, and therefore nature is not totally predictable. However, whether we are determined merely by predictable laws of nature or by random fluctuations in the quantum field, the point still stands in either scenario that our lives are wholly determined by something outside ourselves, making determinism still the only causal theory consistent with naturalism, hence why most naturalists are determinists.

The link between atheism and determinism is noteworthy. While not all atheists subscribe to deterministic views, determinism is compatible with, and often arises from, atheism. If we accept physical determinism, it follows that all mental phenomena, including our beliefs and intentions, are the outcomes of natural causes and events. This raises a challenging question: if nature is truly an interlocked system where all causes are non-rational (if any rationality is emergent, not primitive), can any thought be really considered valid?

This critical dilemma emerges more compellingly when we consider that if our thoughts are merely the outcomes of impersonal physical processes, their validity becomes deeply questionable. In this scenario, thoughts are not the product of a conscious, deliberative process but rather the inevitable result of biochemical reactions and neural pathways. The fundamental issue here is that these physical processes, governed by laws of chemistry and physics, are indifferent to truth, logic, or reason. The processes that give rise to thoughts are not concerned with the validity or reliability of these thoughts; they simply occur as a part of the natural functioning of the brain. How can we assert the veracity of our beliefs, the correctness of our conclusions, or the soundness of our judgements if they are the unintended consequences of processes that have no inherent relationship to truth-seeking? Philosopher J.B.S. Haldane put it this way: “if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

Our trust in what others say is grounded in the assumption that their words reflect their intentions and beliefs. However, under the premise of universal epiphenomenalism, this understanding is fundamentally challenged. In this view, the words spoken by an individual are not the product of deliberate intent but are instead the end result of a chain of prior brain events, each triggered by a preceding physical occurrence. This implies that any perceived intentionality behind speech is merely illusory. The words we hear are shaped by complex neurological processes, devoid of any conscious purpose or design from the speaker. In essence, under epiphenomenalism, speech is stripped of intentional agency, reducing it to a mere byproduct of physiological activity.

This leads to a further conundrum regarding the verification of physical determinism. To prove that all thoughts are determined by nature, a scientist would have to demonstrate, through a series of logical steps, that each thought is a result of preceding natural events. However, in doing so, the scientist must also believe that their mental processes are influencing their physical actions, which contradicts the assumption that only physical events cause other physical events. Therefore, to validate physical determinism, one must paradoxically assume its falsehood.

Ultimately, if physical determinism is true, it implies that reason itself is an illusion, casting doubt on the very concept of determinism. This presents a significant challenge for naturalists: to substantiate physical determinism, they must rely on evidence that presupposes its inaccuracy.

For an atheist who might lean towards determinism, it’s crucial to confront a fundamental inconsistency in this worldview. Determinism suggests that all our beliefs and decisions are preordained by prior causes, not subject to our control. However, if this is true, then the very act of offering intellectual reasons for our beliefs seems contradictory. If we adopt a deterministic perspective, the very acts of discernment and evaluation become mere illusions—outcomes of a predestined mental process, devoid of free will.

This paradox presents two challenging alternatives. First, one could abandon naturalism in favour of a worldview that accommodates free will, acknowledging that our decisions and beliefs are not entirely predetermined. Alternatively, one could embrace a more stringent form of naturalism, accepting that free will is an illusion and that our beliefs and choices are not genuinely our own. This latter perspective would mean accepting that our sense of agency and rational deliberation are illusionary – merely the outcomes of predetermined processes.

Many naturalists find both options unpalatable, leading to a certain inconsistency in their stance. Take, for example, Sam Harris, a well-known atheist and neuroscientists. Harris asserts that free will is an illusion and that our beliefs are determined by factors beyond our control. Yet, he often speaks as if we have the ability to consciously steer the course of our lives. This contradiction highlights a tension within the naturalistic worldview: the challenge of reconciling a deterministic understanding of the human mind with the lived experience of making choices and exercising rational thought.

Alex O’Connor, also known as Cosmic Skeptic, is a popular YouTuber and podcaster known for discussing topics related to philosophy, atheism, and ethics. He is admired by many theists as one of very few atheists who are able to steel man and respectfully debate theists without resorting to insult or dismissive remarks. I hope he stays that way.

His view is that the evolutionary process has crafted a compelling illusion of free will in humans. According to Alex, even though free will does not actually exist, our evolutionary psychology deeply embeds this illusion in our consciousness. This inherent belief in free will is so ingrained that, despite intellectually acknowledging its nonexistence, as O’Connor does, we are practically compelled to act as if free will is real in our everyday lives. Our minds, shaped by millennia of evolutionary development, find it challenging to fully integrate the deterministic perspective into our daily decision-making processes. This evolutionary by-product thus leads to a paradox where we intellectually deny free will but practically continue to operate under its illusion. In this view, the process of thinking, evaluating, and coming to a conclusion is seen as determined by a combination of genetic predispositions, environmental influences, and the cumulative impact of past experiences.

But this is where things get a more confusing – this also implies that the argument for the illusion of free will is not a freely made choice but rather the end result of a predetermined sequence of events and influences. This perspective contends that our brains, shaped by evolution, process and interpret information in a specific manner, leading us to certain conclusions based on their programming. However, this view raises a critical question: if our conclusion that free will is an illusion is itself determined, can we trust this conclusion?

This dilemma suggests that rationality inherently relies on the concept of free will. To be rational is to evaluate and choose between different options based on reasoning, which assumes the capacity for free choice. The act of engaging in any rational discourse, including this very argument about the nature of free will, presupposes the existence of free will. If we argue that free will is an illusion, we paradoxically have to assume its existence to make any rational point.

Moreover, if we assert that free will is merely an outcome of material brain processes, then the denial of free will becomes just another output of these processes, like a “secretion of brain tissue.” In this view, such a denial can’t be considered true or false because it’s not a product of logical reasoning but of physical causality. Material processes follow the laws of physics, not the laws of logic. Therefore, if free will doesn’t exist, then logical reasoning can’t be applied to any claims about its existence, including the claim that it doesn’t exist.

Thus, a meaningful exploration or denial of free will inevitably assumes its existence. If it’s true that free will is not real, then the assertion that it’s not real cannot be considered true or false, nor can it be logical. The paradox here is profound: to discuss or deny free will in any meaningful way, we must first presuppose its existence, challenging the very foundation of the determinist argument. Embracing determinism comes at a cost that undermines our commonsense understanding of rationality.

C.S. Lewis poignantly observed, “unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.” This statement highlights a fundamental contradiction within naturalism. Naturalism, in suggesting that our cognitive processes are mere byproducts of physical and evolutionary processes, inadvertently undermines the very rationality it relies on to construct and validate any argument, including itself.

For naturalists to assert that their thinking is sound and justifiable, they must implicitly call upon the ability to reason. However, if naturalism implies that our thoughts are solely the outcomes of non-rational, material processes, this reliance is misplaced. In essence, naturalism, when scrutinised through its own lens, seems to be philosophically self-defeating.

Therefore, I find myself inclined to move away from naturalism, and by extension, atheism. To embrace a worldview that potentially jeopardises the notion of rational thought is to undermine the foundations of not only science and philosophy but of any meaningful intellectual endeavour. The need for a coherent and reliable framework for rational thought leads me to seek alternatives to naturalism that preserve the assumption of reasoning.

The resurrection of reason

I once heard it said that either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter and thoughtless physical processes, or there is a Creator responsible for the human mind. It’s intriguing that some people, relying on their intelligence, gravitate towards the former rather than the latter.

Naturalism struggles to account for our deep-seated intuition and daily experience of agency and decision-making. In contrast, theism, and specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition, appears to navigate this issue more comfortably. This worldview suggests that humans are created in the image of a personal, free God, which intuitively aligns with our sense of autonomy and free will. I don’t think God has a free-will in the sense that we would perceive it, but that’s a separate discussion which would take more time. 

From a theistic standpoint, the existence of free will is not just a byproduct of complex neurobiological processes; it is an inherent quality endowed by a Creator. If we are created in the image of a personal, free God, it stands to reason that we too possess genuine free will, essential for rational thought.

From this viewpoint, the world around us is seen not as an independent entity, but as a creation that owes its existence to something beyond itself. The Christian belief holds that the natural world, while real and tangible, is not self-existent. It is derivative of a higher, supernatural reality. This reality, God, is the ultimate source of all that exists. The Christian tradition teaches that God’s nature is independent and self-sustaining, and it is from this eternal nature that our world derives its being.

In Christian theology, humans are viewed as more than just mechanical beings. We are seen as creatures with a dual nature: physical and spiritual. While we inhabit physical bodies and are part of the natural world, there is also an element within us – a spirit – that transcends the physical. This dual nature is significant: it means that while we are a part of the natural world, we also have a connection to something beyond it, something eternal. As C.S Lewis wrote:

“Humans are amphibians-half spirit and half animal… As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change.”

This duality suggests that our understanding and interaction with the world are not confined to the physical domain. Our rational minds, while operating within the natural world, are not entirely subject to its whims. After all, what position are you in to step back and evaluate the physical world if you are also fully determined by it? The act of thinking itself becomes a testament to something beyond mere natural processes. The moment we contemplate nature, we engage in an act of transcendence. In doing so, we acknowledge that our thinking must be more than just a natural event. This leads to the realisation that the supernatural is not just an abstract concept; it is as real and intimate as our own thoughts.

Thus, in the Christian view, the human mind, in its pursuit of knowledge, reflects a divine reason. This does not place human reason above or beyond nature, but rather sees it as preceding nature, with our understanding of the natural world being contingent upon it.

Before even delving into evidence-based arguments for the existence of God, this worldview lays a foundation for rational thought. It suggests that the act of reasoning itself, and the pursuit of science that it enables, finds its most coherent and justified basis within a theistic framework. In this light, the dismissal of free will and reason, as one might find in certain atheistic perspectives, not only undermines the very basis of rational inquiry but also negates the essence of what it means to truly understand and engage with the world.

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