Naturalism, Worldviews, and Epistemology
As I’ve argued before, the rise of modern science came about from the conviction of the Bible’s presentation of metaphysical realism teaches that the external world was really there, not merely a projection of our minds, and detailed study of it could lead to a true understanding of the world rather than merely biographical insights (opposed to eastern influenced worldviews that teach reality as maya, illusion.). This is grounded in the Biblical notion of a Creator/creature distinction.
Naturally, this may lead to an objection: What of those who practiced a kind of science before the rise of modern science? What about Lucretius? What about Democritus? Didn’t they say the same kinds of things?
Well, let’s ask a couple of question. Did Lucretius believe in a Creator/creature distinction? Great! Wait…no? Did he believe that the external world was really there? Great! My point isn’t that non-Christians don’t believe in an external world. The nub of the issue is whether their worldview provides a basis for believing those things. The issue is worldview. The rise of modern science is owed to Christian theism.
It’s not enough that someone, somewhere (ex: Lucretius) agreed with a single point that Christians later held. Rather is was a collection of beliefs that made modern science possible. Even Alfred North Whitehead, not exactly a friend to historical Christianity, said in Science and the Modern World:
Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.
The point? Even those who reject Christianity acknowledge its role in the development of modern science.
Let’s think of some other problems for naturalism. Epistemologists for centuries have noted what I’ve called the problem of the knower. That is, how do we know that our measuring, thoughts, etc. match up to the external world? Our measuring, observations, etc may work (they may provide pragmatic usefulness), but how do we know that they lead to truth? Personally, I can understand how on a materialistic worldview they lead to the first (pragmatic usefulness), but not how they can secure the second (truth).
You see, this is also called the subject/object problem. But, one of the reasons for the problem (and the issue here, again, is how does one justify, integrate, harmonize, provide the philosophical preconditions for these assumptions. I’m not doubting that the assumptions (i.e. that our measurements reflect the external world, etc.) are valid, I’m questioning naturalism’s philosophical foundation for such beliefs. Naturalists have failed to provided an epistemological norm or standard for these foundational beliefs. For Christians the standard is the Bible. Lots of work has been done to unpack the philosophical implications for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc from the teachings of the Bible, like John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R Publishing), and Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford). This “norm” serves as a presupposition in the sense that it acts as the filter, lens (insert analogy here) through which evidence will be understood. This norm isn’t easily refuted or correct by a simply appeal to “the facts” either, because it’s the standard by which evidence is interpreted. So the battle between naturalism and Christianity is a clash of worldviews. This clash was made explicit in the now infamous book review by Richard Lewontin:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, IN SPITE OF its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, IN SPITE OF the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a A PRIORI adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
- Richard Lewontin,”Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 4, 1997, 31. Emphasis in original, though they were italicized, not caps
This speaks volumes, and I’m convinced that this worldview clash is what dictates so many of the arguments against, for example, the intelligent Design movement. It’s a commitment to methodological naturalism, and as Lewontin notes, and a priori commitment at that.
Conclusion. What’s the Christian response to the philosophical issues noted above? In a nutshell, it’s found in biblical doctrines of creation and anthropology. Since the same God created both me and the world around me, there’ s a correlation between the two. God has created the world with a rational structure and likewise has modeled our thinking to match this rational structure (not perfectly, but truly).