NATURALISM VS. THEISM IS A FALSE DILEMMA

NATURALISM VS. THEISM IS A FALSE DILEMMA


(This is prepublication draft of my contribution to the next issue of THINK, which focuses on naturalism.)

 

Often, when theists attempt to make a case for theism, they contrast their theism with what they call 'naturalism'. Atheists, they insist, sign up to a 'naturalistic world view'. Indeed, it's because atheists sign up to a naturalistic worldview that they reject theism (naturalism is, if you like, the ideological engine that draws people into atheism). And they argue that naturalism, while widespread, has fatal flaws. We should, therefore, embrace theism.

 

This way of making a case for theism, while popular among religious apologists, is flawed. It is a classic example of the fallacy of false dilemma. Our options are not restricted to just theism or naturalism.

 

Many assume that naturalism entails atheism. They assume that if there's only the natural world, then God, being a supernatural being, does not exist (though see Fiona Ellis's contribution to this volume in which she defends 'a form of naturalism that promises to accommodate God.').

 

However, even if it's true that naturalism entails atheism, it's not true that atheism entail naturalism. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god or gods. Naturalism on the other hand, is (roughly) the view that there is nothing beyond the natural realm. So, even if a theist successfully refutes naturalism, it doesn't follow that they've refuted atheism. In fact, an atheist might successfully refute theism even while rejecting naturalism. They might show that there is no god even while acknowledging that not everything belongs to the natural realm.

 

Actually, naturalism is pretty controversial even amongst atheists. Take the professional philosophical community. The 2009 Philpapers survey of the opinions of professional philosophers and graduate students revealed that less than 15% of professional philosophers and graduate students are theists. Yet only a little less than half of them sign up to naturalism. That leaves around 35% who are neither theists nor naturalists. These are philosophers who fail to sign up to theism, but not because they sign up to naturalism. They have other reasons for being sceptical about God.

 

Why are people attracted to naturalism? One reason is that they are sceptical about the supernatural. People who have little time for belief in gods, angels, fairies, goblins, and who reject the belief that we humans possess supernatural powers, will often identify as 'naturalists' just to make clear that they firmly reject belief in such 'woo'.

 

However, you can reject belief in such supernatural beings and powers without signing up to naturalism. Personally, though I believe there are no ghosts, goblins, or angels, and that we lack supernatural beings or abilities, I don't feel entirely comfortable about signing up to 'naturalism'. I sit on the fence when it comes to 'naturalism'. That's partly because I am not entirely clear what 'naturalism' involves.

 

Philosophical doubts about naturalism tend to spring, first, from concerns about whether 'naturalism' is even a well-defined term. What is naturalism? A common first port of call is to say that naturalism consists in the rejection of belief in the supernatural. But what is the supernatural? Why, it’s that which isn’t natural, of course! But these explanations are, as they stand, entirely circular and uninformative. So far, no significant meaning has been attached to either. Beyond saying, unhelpfully, that (ontological) naturalism is the view that there's nothing beyond the 'natural', it's harder to define ‘naturalism’ than you might think (though I don't say it can't be done).

 

Second, some reject naturalism because they suspect that, for example, mathematical Platonism might be true. Many mathematicians believe that mathematics describes a non-natural mathematical realm. They suppose that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is made true by how things stand in this external, non-natural, mathematical reality. If such a mathematical reality exists, then naturalism is false (though it strikes me as odd to describe this reality as ‘supernatural’ given that term’s ‘spooky’ connotations).

 

Famously, it's also philosophically controversial whether minds, or moral value, or necessity, can be fully accommodated with the natural realm. There are, notoriously, all sorts of philosophical objections to naturalism: objections relating to what we might call The Four Ms: minds, maths, moral, and modals. I'm not entirely confident all these objections can be dealt with (certainly - I don't know how to deal with all of them). So, though I personally lean towards naturalism, I’m by no means fully committed to it. I’m one of the many professional philosophers that's neither theist nor naturalist.

 

In response to these sorts of objection from the theist - ‘But how does mind, or moral value, or mathematical truth, fit into your naturalistic world view?’ - my response is not to attempt to defend naturalism but instead to shrug and say, ‘I don't know. But even if your objections successfully establish that naturalism is false, that leaves my atheism entirely unscathed. What are your arguments against atheism and for theism?’

 

The moral is: you don't need to get bogged down in unnecessary battles that you might lose, and that you certainly don't need to win, in order successfully to defend atheism or refute theism. Nor do you need to sign up to a 'naturalistic world view', whatever that is exactly.

 

Of course, someone could choose to argue for atheism by arguing for naturalism - some do, and I don't object to that. What I object to is the assumption that atheism and naturalism are a package deal: that not only does naturalism entail atheism, but atheism entails naturalism.

 

Making your atheism entail naturalism creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune. If atheism entails naturalism, then all a theist has to do to refute atheism is refute naturalism. Define atheism so that it entails naturalism, and critics will rub their hands together with glee knowing you've just provided them with a cupboard full of stock philosophical objections relating to minds, maths, morals, and modals. Whether or not any of these objections to naturalism are good, many are troublesome enough to get most atheists needlessly bogged down in an often pointless philosophical sideshow (I say often pointless - sometimes the theist argues not only that naturalism can't, but also that that only theism can, accommodate one of these things: that would be an argument that an atheist committed to the existence of minds, or moral value, or mathematical truth, etc. would need to refute).

 

It's possible, perhaps, conclusively to refute theism (or certain versions of it) even while acknowledging that naturalism may not be true. Perhaps the evidential problem of evil is fatal to the kind of traditional theism that posits a maximally powerful and good God, for example (I think it is fatal to that sort of theism, in fact). Or perhaps the very idea of such a deity makes no sense because it involves a logical contradiction or conceptual muddle. Atheism with respect to that sort of God might be entirely reasonable (I think it is entirely reasonable), even if it can be established that naturalism - whatever the term means exactly - is false.

 

Also notice, incidentally, that even if it can be shown that not only is naturalism false, but some form of theism must be true, that would not necessarily establish that the maximally-powerful-and-good God of traditional monotheism exists. There are many monotheisms to consider in addition to the very specific version embraced by Christians Jews and Muslims. Indeed, we might still establish that that very specific worship-worthy God does not exist (because there's too much evil, say), even if some sort of deity or cosmic intelligence exists (an all-powerful but amoral, god, say). In response to an argument that appears to show that the God of traditional monotheism does not exist, it really won't do to just reply 'But there has to be some sort of god to account for the existence of moral value and mathematical truth.'

 

In summary: my advice to both theists and atheists is:

 

1. don't assume atheism entails naturalism,

2. don't assume that naturalism is what leads someone to embrace atheism.

3. don't suppose atheists must sign up to a 'naturalistic world view'.

 

Certainly, the reason that very many of us reject traditional monotheism, myself included, is not that we're wedded to naturalism.

 

Stephen Law is Editor of THINK and author of books including The Philosophy Gym: 25 short adventures in thinking.

 

 

Comments

Chris said…
The thrust of this argument seems pretty akin to the one Jesse Lopes and I made in an earlier issue of think:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/think/article/hume-kant-and-feuerbach-why-the-anthropomorphic-critique-reveals-a-false-dilemma-between-naturalistic-atheism-and-antinaturalistic-theism/DF16B14BC8F4D145FE3435B425A8E23E

It's good to see atheism holding ground against assaults on naturalistic metaphysics.
ionesficc said…
Why should naturalism entail physicalism? I'd argue for a catholic (not Catholic) naturalism that encompasses abstract objects. Does natural mean material, or does it mean not an artifact? If math for example is discovered rather than invented, it qualifies as natural in that second sense.
Chris said…
This is almost the literal conclusion of our piece:

"1. don't assume atheism entails naturalism,

2. don't assume that naturalism is what leads someone to embrace atheism.

3. don't suppose atheists must sign up to a 'naturalistic world view'.

Certainly, the reason that very many of us reject traditional monotheism, myself included, is not that they're wedded to naturalism."
Sam Simpson said…
Not that you mention it here Stephen, but I feel the use of the term 'scientism' could also be thrown into the mix. Just as pinning naturalism on all atheists is an easy way for theists to refute atheism, couldn't the same be said for when theists accuse atheists of scientism? When an atheist insists that a supernatural claim can be scientifically verified or refuted, instead of meeting the challenge, the theist will just use their get out of jail free card and tar the atheist with the brush of scientism and move on. For a time I just thought this was limited to the internet and religious keyboard warriors on blogs but I've seen that it even crops up in more academic circles. The likes of the aforementioned John Lennox and others such as Alistair McGrath, JP Moreland, etc (respected philosophers and theologians) are even resorting to this underhand tactic.
Hhec said…
I would like to make a small correction. When the philpapers survey revealed that less than half of philosophers accepted "naturalism", the survey was *not* referring to "metaphysical naturalism", the view that the natural world is all there is. They were referring to "metaphilosophical naturalism", which says (ranging from weak to strong) something like that philosophy should take science into account when examining traditional philosophical issues, or that we should go to science before philosophy to answer traditional philosophical questions, or even that science should completely replace philosophy when examining traditional philosophical issues. Common beliefs of metaphilosophical naturalism is that philosophy and science are continuous,that philosophy and science have overlapping domains of inquiry (ie. everything that can be studied with philosophy can potentially be studied with a science), that there is no such thing as "first philosophy", or that philosophy should take into account the findings of science in order to address philosophical questions and so on. A "metaphilosophical *non*-naturalist", on the other hand, doesn't believe any of the things that metaphilosophical naturalists claim. I don't think metaphilosophical naturalism requires one to be a metaphysical naturalist or even to reject the supernatural. The 2009 Philpapers survey was refferring to naturalism in metaphilosophy, not in metaphysics.
stephen Law said…
hi Hhec - here's what Philpapers say about their question. They don't seem to intend to restrict its meaning to the narrower sense you outline above (though they acknowledge it might be more likely to be interpetered in an epistemic way given that tag): Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
As with empiricism and rationalism, there isn't a single standard interpretation of "naturalism." It has metaphysical readings (roughly involving rejection of non-natural entities) and epistemological readings (roughly involving the role of science in philosophical and other knowledge). The "metaphilosophy" tag tends to bias the interpretation toward the epistemological reading, but probably not universally. But again, "naturalism" seems most often used to label a broad camp or orientation, rather than a specific thesis, and data about identification with these camps is interesting.
Hhec said…
Hi Mr. Stephen Law! Thanks for the clarification!
Chris said…
Can someone correct me if I'm wrong, but my problem with NATURALISM (not Atheism) is that it seems circular. Naturalism is the belief that metaphysically only natural things exist. Uhm...? I'm an atheist. I don't believe in god, ghosts, or spirits, but I do accept the Shakespeare quote Stephen provided, and find that because naturalism doesn't, it's circular and impoverished. We can (AND SHOULD) accept mystery in the universe, without defining that mystery as personal, caring, anthropomorphic, etc.