Naturalism is a Dogma

snowflake-evolutionOne of my readers has pointed to Richard Carrier as making a sound argument for naturalism over theism in his book “Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism”. I haven’t yet read the book. I thought I’d first take a look at the summary of his argument from the following page: Naturalism Is True, Theism is Not


If we want all our beliefs to be more likely true than false, then we must proportion our beliefs to the evidence. So if our reasons to believe are few and unreliable, our confidence should be low, and if our reasons to believe are many and reliable, our confidence should be high, with an appropriate continuum between. That means if we have no reason to believe something, then we should not believe it, and if we have much better reasons to believe something than we have not to, then we should believe it.

I agree with the first two sentences, but the third does not follow. Belief is not black and white. I can hold a position where I neither believe in a proposition (such as the universe was created by a God) nor entirely disbelieve it. I.e. I can be skeptical to some degree or other.

Basic Argument for Naturalism (BAN)

In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

I do find this argument compelling for the objective universe. I’d point out that the exact same argument was made for Newtonian physics until Einstein came along, and the same was true for the properties of matter until quantum theory (specifically the uncertainty principle) came along, and for mathematics until Gödel’s incompleteness theorem opened things up. But this is absolutely a winning argument for agnosticism.

Naturalism is the belief that there is nothing supernatural. If … all observed phenomena are explained by [it], then there is no reason to believe anything in addition to what is countenanced by [it], and therefore no reason to believe in anything more. If Naturalism is true and every kind of phenomenon [predicted] by it is observed, then there is no reason to believe anything less. I assert that Naturalism is true and that all observed phenomena are explained by [it], and every kind of phenomenon [it predicts] is observed.

Above, I’ve simplified Carrier’s definition somewhat, but not materially.

We should believe Naturalism unless we find a very compelling reason not to, since we should not believe any proposition established on less reliable methods that contradicts a proposition established on more reliable methods. Moreover, Naturalism is currently the only worldview implied by all the findings of the most reliable methods of science, history, and critical investigation. Therefore, we should believe Naturalism.

I agree with the premise that one should agree with the simplest hypothesis that explains the facts. The assertion that naturalism is that current best hypothesis is presented without justification. While I agree naturalism is simple and fits the facts well, I think it’s an overreach to state that it’s the best hypothesis. To his credit, Carrier goes on to assume that that is exactly what others will take issue with.

All claims and phenomena that have been thoroughly investigated, using the best methods available to us for ascertaining the truth, have verified and conformed to Naturalism, without any confirmed exception despite hundreds of years of searching, involving countless observations by countless qualified experts. It is any supernatural worldview that bears a greater burden of proof than Naturalism.

I agree that for phenomena currently testable, Naturalism is the best theory. In the objective universe, Naturalism is beyond a hypothesis, just as the Big Bang is (sorry, Creationists). The problem is that many subjective phenomena exist that science hasn’t (yet) explained. This is not merely a “God of the Gaps” argument, since there is IMO vastly more that we don’t know than that we do. If I thought we were close to knowing all that is knowable, I’d agree that Naturalism was a complete universal theory.

Basic Argument to Naturalism as the Best Explanation (BANBE)

You can read Carrier’s thesis for yourself. My summary: Naturalism explains all known facts better than Basic Theism, which he defines as:

The existence of God is more probable than His nonexistence. God is a nonphysical, conscious mind having power, intelligence, and a morally good nature, all far beyond that of any human. This God is distinct from, and the creator of, the universe, and can act upon the universe by simply willing so.

Argument from Divine Inaction (ADI)

The moral code accepted by most Christians entails it is a duty upon every moral person to protect the innocent from harm, heal the sick, provide means to the impoverished, feed the hungry, build safe and healthy homes and workplaces, and tell everyone who asks what they need to know to achieve a happy life here and hereafter (which set of duties we shall label D). There is no evidence that God does any of these things, yet according to BT he has the means to do them and always obeys the same moral duty that most Christians accept.

This assumes that what is moral for us is moral for God. I don’t mean simply the old “no one can know the mind of God” chestnut. What I’m talking about is that, in the same way that the morals that apply to adults don’t apply equally to children, the morals that apply to humans might not apply to a God. This is where this argument fails, for me.

In contrast, that the natural world is brutal, dangerous, harmful, indifferent, and unsafe is the only way the natural world could be if Naturalism is true.

Again, this is a huge logical leap. Who is to say that the universe is not exactly how it should be to achieve it’s purpose? This opens up a bigger question. Does the universe have a purpose? If so, what is it? Simply stating that there isn’t one is not a convincing argument.

People starving to death is expected by Naturalism but not Theism.

Again, this is a leap in logic. Just as a parent may let a child burn her hand (hopefully mildly) on a hot stove in order to learn the lesson that it is dangerous, a god might let people do foolish things like breeding without self control and raising cattle instead of soy beans because they need to learn for themselves that they are responsible for their choices. Essentially, Carrier has created a straw man god who has to behave just like a person.

The Argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology (AMBD)

The scientific evidence confirming the necessity of a functioning human brain for human consciousness to exist is vast and secure. We have identified where in a brain different kinds of memories are stored, where emotions and reason operate, where each kind of sensory experience is processed, and so on. We have observed that if we physically remove or deactivate any one of these parts, the memories or abilities it contains then cease. It follows that if we take away all the parts, everything that we are will cease.

Dr. Eben Alexander argues this is untrue, but I’ll concede that it’s the best theory we currently have.

This is not what we’d expect if theism were true, since entails that consciousness can exist and function without a brain, and there is no known reason a god would imbue us with any other kind of mind, and good reason to expect he wouldn’t. Theism predicts the opposite: that we would instead be made “in God’s image,” which is not what we observe.

Another huge leap here. Just because we don’t know the reason why, if there is a god, that that god would choose to make the universe the way its is, is not a good argument against the deity. Theism is not Christianity. The idea that we are made in God’s image is an ancient superstition that dates back to the Bronze Age. Even most Christians don’t take it literally.

If Theism is true, then (a) a brainless mind is possible, (b) God could have imbued humans with one, (c) no mind exists that was not deliberately created or allowed by God, and (d) in choosing what to do or allow, God would have obeyed the same moral code that a majority of Christians obey.

I agree with (a), since God having a mind is a requirement for Theism. (b) doesn’t follow. (c) assumes that God is omnipotent, which wasn’t part of the definition of Basic Theism; rather, God merely has far more power than we do. (d) is again the claim that God must obey the same morals that we do.

God could have provided every human being with a supernatural mind that (a) always operates correctly without need of food or oxygen, (b) is incapable of being damaged by any wounds or disease, (c) always perceives and reasons correctly, (d) doesn’t pose a physical threat to a mother’s life or health during delivery (as human brains do, in contrast with all other mammalian brains), and (e) is otherwise in every respect the same as our current mind.

This statement again assumes omnipotence.

I am certain a clear majority of Christians, given the choice between bestowing a child in the womb with a supernatural mind or an evolved brain, would choose the supernatural mind. And rightly so, since regardless of what drawbacks a supernatural mind might have, an evolved brain will always have more.

This is again a huge logical leap. Humans are notorious for thinking they know what would be best when they don’t. For example, communists believed that the world would be better without property rights, and managed to kill millions of people trying to prove their belief true. Perhaps, if there is a god, God is humble enough to know he is not all knowing, and to let nature take its course. This is essentially the “watchmaker argument“.

The Golden Rule, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” is the most universal moral dictate in the whole of Christendom. If God adheres to the moral code most Christians accept, then he must adhere to the golden rule. Most people would want a supernatural mind rather than an evolved brain and would thus choose one for themselves if they could. Therefore, anyone who adheres to the golden rule must want their neighbor to have a supernatural mind instead of an evolved brain, too.

I’ve already stated that there is no reason to assume that a god would have to follow the same moral code as humans, but let’s assume God does follow the golden rule. What “most people would want” is not always what is best for them. In fact, most people want things that hurt them. Maybe we aren’t given a supernatural mind for the same reason that I wouldn’t given heroin to a drug addict. Sure, he might want it, but I wouldn’t be doing him a good deed.

Atheistic Cosmological Argument (ACA)

The universe is almost entirely lethal to life. By far, most of existence is a radiation-filled vacuum, and there are easily a trillion times more dead worlds than life-bearing planets. Life is clearly an extremely rare and unusual product of the universe. We also know it took the universe billions of years to finally produce any life anywhere, and then only an extremely simple single-celled life form. Then it took billions more years of a long, meandering and often catastrophically failing process of evolutionary trial-and-error to finally produce human beings. Naturalism explains this state of affairs better than Theism, since this state of affairs is highly probable on Naturalism but not particularly probable on Theism.

We do not know that life is rare. We don’t know that it took billions of years to produce life. The claim that the universe is improbable under the assumption of Theism is unfounded, which Carrier goes on to address:

If a God might have some reason to build a universe this way, he had many other ways he could have chosen (like the way the Bible literally depicts and early Christians believed), and some make more sense (a God has no need of a universe so old or big, for example).

This assumes omnipotence, which is not required by Theism. The assertion that the age of the universe makes no sense if Theism is correct is again unfounded.

But we know of only one way Naturalism could produce human beings: pretty much the way they were, with vast ages of unguided trial-and-error spanning across vast stretches of life-killing space. Life could only be an accidental byproduct of the organization of the universe, but the only way life could then exist is if the universe were so incredibly old and big that something as improbable as the origin of life would be possible, yet that is exactly the universe we find ourselves in.

This statement again assumes that life is improbable, something that we do not know. It is also an argument from the Anthropic Principle. That argument cuts both ways. I.e. a Theist can say that since the universe is the way it is, God must have intended it so.

Argument from Nonlocality (ANL)

God has no spatial location. But if God has no location, then by definition there is no location at which God exists. And if there is no location at which God exists, then God exists nowhere, which entails that God does not exist. There is no place we know of except space, so we have no reason to believe any other place exists (even if one does). Therefore, if God does not exist in any location in space, we have no reason to believe God exists.

Even science admits (and even suggests) the possibility of multiple universes. But putting that aside, just because we know of no other place, does not mean that such a place does not exist. If there are entities (gods, angels, spirits) that can be contacted subjectively (i.e. in the mind), this gives us reason to believe that another place exists. Unless one shows that the religious experience is merely subjective (i.e. all in our heads), this argument isn’t compelling.

Argument from Physical Minds (APM)

This argument is a restatement of the first and (most compelling) argument made.

Carrier then concludes:

Given the argument from nonlocality (ANL) and the argument from physical minds (APM), we should not believe basic theism. But given the basic argument for naturalism and the basic argument that naturalism is the best explanation (BANBE), we should believe naturalism.

I draw a different set of conclusions:

  1. Science provides the best explanations of the objective universe
  2. We do not understand the subjective realm of the mind and consciousness
  3. There is evidence that there is a common religious experience that we don’t currently understand scientifically

Given that naturalism precludes a supernatural explanation for something that we have evidence for and don’t currently understand scientifically, I find naturalism unscientific. Carrier’s arguments support an agnostic worldview and strong skepticism of a supernatural explanation of the religious experience, but not an outright dismissal of it.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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