Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism?

By Paul Copan

Philosopher David Papineau declares “nearly everyone nowadays wants to be a ‘naturalist.’ ”1 Western intellectuals call naturalism the “orthodox” view. The late Carl Sagan of Cosmosfame succinctly described this “orthodox” doctrine of naturalism: “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”2

The space-time universe — which we can study with physical sciences — is all there is. Rather than appealing to “occult,” “spooky,” “supernatural,” or “theistic” explanations, naturalists claim their worldview is simpler. It requires fewer entities to explain the way things are. Right? God is a metaphysical fifth wheel — a mere explanatory appendage. God simply is not necessary to account for the way things are. “Science” will do just fine.

Three Features of Naturalism

That is the big picture. Let me break it down by reviewing its three key characteristics.

#1: Knowledge (epistemology) is the increasing tendency to see knowledge as nothing more than what contributes to survival rather than requiring a belief to be true. We intuitively recognize that knowledge by definition requires truth. Also, knowledge requires we do not hold a true belief accidentally, but that we have some warrant or proper basis: knowledge = (i) a belief that is (ii) true and also (iii) warranted. Let’s unpack this.

Truth:Truth is a match-up or correspondence with reality. I cannot know the earth is flat; I cannot know the sun orbits the earth. Why? These beliefs are false; they do not match up with reality. I cannot know the earth is flat or the moon is made of cheese. Why? Because they are not. Despite this commonsense insight, naturalists are increasingly tempted to deny that truth is necessary for knowledge.

Not all naturalists take this view (called “naturalized epistemology”); but given naturalism’s starting point, many do. We cannot talk about how we ought to think (the role of traditional “philosophy”); we do not have some philosophical obligation to reject as many false beliefs as possible and to embrace as many true ones, we are told. Rather, our focus should be on how human beings actually happen to think (“psychology”); we can study beliefs that are aimed at survival rather than at truth.

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Warrant:If naturalists are right, it seems we are just biological organisms whose beliefs are pumped into our brain by physical forces beyond our control; so, if one’s survival-producing beliefs are true (they match up with reality), it’s purely accidental— not rational. We might believe humans have intrinsic dignity and rights, and this may help us as a species to survive, but this belief would be completely false.

Naturalistic evolution is interested in survival, not truth. So the naturalist has no more control over his own beliefs than the Christian. That is, the naturalist cannot claim to be more rational than anyone else. Atheistic beliefs are just as random as theistic ones since physical forces beyond rational control produce these beliefs. Humans are just surviving beings who form beliefs to survive — even if they happen to be false.

#2: Causal explanations (etiology) are the tendency to explain all events mechanistically (from the Big Bang to the choices we make each day), which implies a kind of determinism. Naturalism’s grand story of origins is that our universe had physical, impersonal, mechanistic beginnings, and this physical cause-and-effect scenario describes all events since the Big Bang — including my choices and beliefs.

So the historical string of physical causes from the Big Bang until now implies determinism. No room remains for free will, which enables an agent to rise above purely physical influences. We could argue, though, that our legal and prison systems assume that humans are not simply “dancing to their DNA,” as Richard Dawkins says. We have moral control over our actions, despite genes and environment. Personalcauses are part of reality, not simply physical ones.

#3: Entities that exist (ontology) are based on the assumption that only physical things exist. That is, if something is not strictly physical (e.g., a mind), it necessarily depends on the physical for its existence; so, in the case of the mind, it would completely cease at death. God or angels (spirit beings) do not fit anywhere in the naturalist’s radar screen of reality. Yes, naturalism is tied to physicalism; reality is comprised of matter.

That is a brief sketch of naturalism. What are we to make of it and its alleged simplicity?

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Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism?