Prof Says: If God Is Dead, So Is Science

Barb Wire

By Angus Menuge, Ph.D.

Can we get outside our own minds and contact the world as it really is? If science is the project of knowing what is really going on in nature, the answer had better be yes. Otherwise science is merely a game that connects our subjective experiences — if I have this experience, then I will have that experience, nobody knows why. While a few philosophers have embraced this view, most working scientists are driven by the conviction that they can get beyond appearances and discover reality.

Indeed, in advanced democracies, science is usually regarded as the preeminent source of objective knowledge; other disciplines, like literature and theology, have to limp along as comforting reservoirs of emotion. So it is not surprising that many embrace scientism — the view that the scientific attitude just is the rational attitude. Equally common is the assumption that the scientific attitude involves commitment to naturalism.

Naturalists hold the philosophic notion that nature — the world revealed by physical science — is all there is, or at least all we can legitimately talk about when explaining the facts. While naturalism can be more or less exclusive (there is “strict naturalism” and “broad naturalism”), what makes it an interesting thesis is what it denies. Even the broader versions say there is no God, no mental substances (souls), and no goals, purposes, or essences. So, if naturalism is true, it must be possible to understand reality without ever speaking of these banned items.

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But what if it turned out that some of these exclusions were actually necessary for us to know anything?

“Naturalism Undermines” Scientific Project

Some thinkers, like C.S. Lewis (Miracles: A Preliminary Study), Alvin Plantinga (Warrant and Proper Function and Warranted Christian Belief), Victor Reppert (C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea), and myself (Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science), have argued that naturalism undermines our confidence in human reasoning, including the reasoning used to support naturalism.

And in his book Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth Claims (Ashgate, 2012), Prof. Scott Smith argues that naturalism makes it hard to see how anyone can know anything about the world. So far from being the inevitable consequence of science, naturalism undermines the whole project.

Now Smith’s claim is audacious and can easily be misunderstood. He is not claiming that naturalists are incapable of knowing the world as it is. In fact, Smith emphasizes in his book that he is not offering a skeptical-threat argument, such as Descartes’ idea that an evil genius is deceiving us in every way possible. Rather, Smith assumes, as we actually cannot help doing in real life, that all of us, naturalists included, do know lots of things.

The question is: How do we know them?

Smith argues that if naturalism is true, knowledge is impossible; but knowledge is possible; so naturalism is false. The naturalist knows things alright, but only because naturalism is mistaken.

“Fails All Three Conditions”

Smith’s full argument is quite sophisticated, but let me sketch the main idea. What does it take to know something? For example, what is required for us to know there is an apple on the counter? Smith argues that we must: (1) be able to access the apple itself (not just our sensory experience or brain states); (2) have a valid concept of an apple; and (3) be able to match the concept with the object.

But naturalism fails all three conditions. First, if naturalism is true, we are trapped inside minds (or brains) whose states are not intrinsically about anything. This is because naturalism denies mental essences and so denies that a perception or a thought can be by its nature of an apple. As a result, all one can say is that one takes certain experiences or brain states to be of apples, which gives no reason to think such experiences or states really have apples as objects.

Secondly, because of the first problem, as children learn and develop an apple concept, they have no way to access apples themselves to correct that concept. The naturalist can say he has a mental map that guides him through the world of experiences, but not that he can think of apples as they really are. And finally, this means there is no way to reliably match apple concepts with apples themselves. We are confined to the Platonic cave of our own mind or brain.

Notice that if Smith is right, the consequences are momentous. For if naturalism is incompatible with knowing the world as it is, we have no reason to accept naturalists’ claims that human beings have no special dignity (we are not made in the image of God) or that there are no objective moral norms. And we can reconsider the case for the existence of God, the soul, and goals and purposes in the world.

If naturalism undermines its own credentials, then theism — naturalism’s principal competitor — is back on the table for discussion. And anyone who has been following philosophy recently knows there has been a renaissance in rigorous, first-rate work from an authentically Christian perspective. (To see how well Christian theism stacks up against the opposition, I’d recommend Debating Christian Theism, Oxford University Press, 2013, which gives equal time to defenders and critics of a Christian worldview.)

Naturalism may look like an invincible nuclear submarine, but critical thinking theists have developed a salvo of counter-measures. Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth Claims is one of the depth-charges calling naturalism’s invincibility into serious question. It deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Angus Menuge, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin and president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science.

First published at

Related: Christianity Is a Science-Starter, Not a Science-Stopper, by Nancy Pearcey

Christmas Spirit in Space and Time, by J. Richard Pearcey

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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