Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Naturalism, atheism, and post-theism

Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times offer helpful background to some of the theological and philosophical issues that I address in this blog.

Alex Rosenberg (“Why I Am a Naturalist,” September 17, 2011) describes the epistemological foundation that naturalism seeks to establish. The unanswered question that looms large for naturalism is whether the scientific method can potentially discover all knowledge or whether some knowledge and experiences exist that are inherently not amenable to scientific discovery.

Unlike Rosenberg, I believe that naturalism can only advance knowledge so far, that some of reality is not susceptible to scientific discovery. For example, humans value art in ways that do not seem to have any evolutionary benefits. Otherwise, why would so many starving artists, working in all genres, continue to pursue their art when obtaining a paying job or career would make the person much more attractive as a sexual partner and provide substantially increased resources for child raising?

Gary Gutting (“Beyond 'New Atheism,'” September 14, 2011) correctly recognizes that most people do not believe in God because of philosophical arguments but because of experience. The glaring shortcoming of strident atheists like Richard Dawkins (cf. Michael Powell, “A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy,” New York Times, September 19, 2011) is their failure to recognize that personal experience forms the basis for most religious belief. Similarly, the glaring shortcoming of most theists is their reliance on anachronistic conceptions of the ultimate that lack coherence when examined from a scientific worldview.

Science cannot shed light on the nature of the ultimate directly. But science provides powerful insights about what the ultimate is not, e.g., the ultimate is not a cosmic puppeteer or heavenly vending machine.

The challenge for post-theism is to articulate a metaphor for the ultimate that excites the human imagination and acts as a catalyst for evoking experiences of the ultimate. To date, light seems the best candidate for such a metaphor (cf. Ethical Musings: Experiencing light).


Ted said...

Some people need to get a real job. There are many real issues which they could devote their opinion and it might have an effect on another individual.
Seldom does anyone win their argument on these topics and who cares.

Mark Diebel said...

I think the new atheists may be searching after a monistic view and are dissatisfied with the dualism implied with the concessions to religious views.

Too bad too few people - even philosophers - know nothing of earlier efforts to establish monism that include spiritual phenomena...such as anthroposophy. It offers a plausible epistemology that covers physical and spiritual phenomena.

New atheists, like any thinkers, are prone to dogmatism. They haven't convinced me that they've answered that.

Calvin Marshall said...

George, thank you for this post - very relevant. I agree with you that “that some of reality is not susceptible to scientific discovery.” I also think what Rosenburg writes at the end of his article, “Why I am a Naturalist”, is revealing: “What naturalists really fear is not becoming dogmatic or giving up the scientific spirit. It’s the threat that the science will end up showing that much of what we cherish as meaningful in human life is illusory.” I think a thoroughly consistent Naturalist will indeed come to the conclusion that all he values is ultimately illusory, that all his feelings of love, value, and morality is but the result of an accidental collision of atoms.

I think it should be noted that Naturalism’s ability to fully account for all of reality is not a given. Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has a strong argument to support his claim that evolution is not geared to produce true beliefs. You might check out some of his material on Youtube.

You might also check out William Lane Craig’s work at – he’s a well-known philosopher who devotes a considerable amount of resources into grounding people’s faith in something more than just their experience. I attended a well-attended and very interesting debate that William Craig had earlier this year at the NCSU Mckimmon Center with Lawrence Krauss (Theoretical Physicist at Arizona State University) – “Is There Evidence for God?” You can view the debate in its entirety at

While I think a consideration of philosophy and science is a vital component to a well-grounded belief in God, I don’t think the more or less intuitive side to faith should be overlooked. What Pascal says in his Pensees comes to mind: “Le coeur a ses raisons que the la raison ne connait point” (“The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of”).

George Clifford said...

Anthroposophy has not gained much traction and many reputable scholars from a variety of disciplines dismiss it. However, if anthroposophy helps, go for it. Michael P. Lynch correctly and insightfully observes in his column, "Reasons for Reason" (New York Times, Oct 2, 2011 - that political (and I would add, philosophical, theological, and ethical) discussions are impossible because of epistemic differences - what Ted wrote about in his comment.

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