Culture,  Materialism,  naturalism,  Worldview

After Naturalism…

Naturalism has peeked. And when it has collapsed something else will take its place. The question is: What?

Naturalism is a combination of a method and an assumption. Methodologically, naturalism is the attempt to understand the world through the natural sciences. The assumption, which, theoretically at least, can be overturned at any moment, is that all that exists is material (whether these two are happy bedfellows is a discussion better left for another day). I say that this assumption can be overturned at any moment because natural sciences don’t claim to have all data at their finger tips. Fairies could be found at the bottom of an English garden and God might appear from behind a far off planet, but neither of these events seems plausible given only the data that the natural sciences have produced so far.

While many herald the ascendancy of such a worldview there are a growing number of critics. And these critics are not just the usual assembly of evangelical Christians like me. There are those who feel bored by the whole project and long for a time when observation doesn’t reign. Recently an essay from the New York Times complained of the overwhelming dullness of data. Others, who themselves are committed to the naturalistic project, are starting to see philosophical cracks. Thomas Nagel recently showed the incoherence of a reductive physicalism combined with a emergentist historical account. On such an account there is simply no room for consciousness. Naturalism, I suppose, leads to the loss of one’s mind.

I dare say there are nuanced versions of naturalism that solve some of these problems and maybe there is life in the old truck yet. But I’m not convinced any of them will stem the collapse in time.

The demise of naturalism, which has been a powerful force against supernaturalists even though its force has been from a few very rich, media-powerful cities and educational institutions mixed with a couple of brilliant, well spoken Englishmen, leads to a disquieting question: what’s next?

The problem with thinking about what worldview might dominate after naturalism looses its cool (in both senses) is that we are only just learning to deal with naturalism. For example, Plantinga’s EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism) is only now penetrating popular level apologetics. It will be a while until most Christians feel equipped to tackle a naturalist effectively at the office coffee machine.

There are a few trends (okay, that sounds too much like “data,” but I really mean hunches, intuitions and all that other good, unfriendly-to-naturalists kind of stuff) that might give us a heads up about the imminent future.

First, if naturalism loses its fan base it is possible that a growing number of the cool kids will turn to some kind of paganism. I am assuming for a pessimistic moment that this is what will happen rather than a Great Awakening sequel. Paganism has risen in the past few years with religions like Wicca. This is not to say Wicca will top the list of most popular religions, but some of the basic ideas of pagan religion may begin to be assumed by the culture. What a small, quirky group do one minute sometimes morphs into what most people do or agree with the next. This may already be the case. Views about sex, gender and the body in general have taken up pagan ideas about human beings.

Second, many enjoy the products of naturalism. Pragmatically, they think naturalism produces the best fruit. So what if the tree is rotting? Let’s keep harvesting anyway. This vision of the future may be one of self-conscious inconsistency. There is no foundation to the building, but the building itself looks impressive. Of course, buildings, as a certain Nazarene taught us, need foundations when storms come. And storms are a fairly sure bet (dull data can tell us this). Furthermore inconsistencies are difficult to live with and rotten trees that produce good fruit are not a common sight.

On the other hand there are different kinds of foundations for buildings. Where logic is lacking there is always pure spite to fill its spot. Think class envy, the resurgence of Marx and political visions of the utopia-for-all-blame-the-rich type. An ungrounded, slightly paranoid naturalism maybe worse than the confident swaggering one we have at the moment.

There is hope, of course.  Systems, societies and assumptions can develop cracks before they collapse. And truth can work in a crack. There may be many who, like the few whistleblowers that I mentioned, are worried about the whole lot coming down. Most naturalists with this worry are probably not about to become unpopular sages and risk the wrath of Dawkins et al. But they might be willing to hear a Christian talk about how science has a savior. How, in Him, all things (molecules and human consciousness) hold together and how data, like this, can produce joy-filled-far-from-dull worship (Psalm 19:1).

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.