Alvin Plantinga, Charles Talliaferro, David Bentley Hart, Gary Gutting, metaphysical naturalism, Naturalism, philosophy, Physicalism, Robert Koons, Stewart Goetz, The Experience of God, The Waning of Materialism, Thomas Nagel
The philosophical position that is predominant in today’s philosophy departments worldwide is called Naturalism. It is, roughly enough, the position that all of reality is limited to the ‘natural’, by which is meant the physical. Strictly speaking Naturalism is a form of Physicalism or Materialism. There are many important and well-thought-out attempts to refute Naturalism and I personally find them compelling. These can be found in book-length form, for instance Robert Koons’ edited volume, The Waning of Materialism, has much to say about this. Even Thomas Nagel’s recent short treatise, Mind and the Cosmos – despite his being a Naturalist – lends much to the discredit of philosophical Naturalism. Nagel is refreshingly honest about his commitment to Naturalism: he must remain an atheist because he absolutely does not want to believe in God. If it were not for this I suspect that he, and many other Naturalists, would have become theists long ago and embraced a richer ontology. One further: the picture for this post is actually taken from the cover of a book sharply criticizing naturalism, the title of which is, naturally, Naturalism, by Stewart Goetz and Charles Talliaferro. I had the pleasure of meeting Talliaferro several years back when he came the university I was at and he was nice enough to give me a copy of the book – it is a splendid read.
There are two recent criticisms of Naturalism, however, that this post would like to direct your attention to: one short and one book-length. The first, which I recommend reading first, is Alvin Plantinga’s interview in the New York Times Opinionater section with Gary Gutting. Plantinga is arguably the most important – certainly the most influential – of living philosophers. His work is tremendous in its scope and originality. In brief form he puts his finger on several key problems for Naturalism and, I think rightly, a chief reason why it is so widespread: not due to rational superiority to the alternative but due to psychological blockage in the system.
The second work is a book that I am still in the process of reading but am, at present, well pleased with. It is worth reading if only for the excellent example of the proper use of the English language – something that is terribly abused today. The future of this common tongue is in jeopardy and it is heartening to see some authors with the courage to insult meager minds by forcing them to use a dictionary. I am, of course, referring to David Bentley Hart’s recent work, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss from Yale University Press. Hart, in his usual style, pulls no punches and has a knack for zeroing in on the key issues. Summing up a long exposition, on page 150 he writes the following:
“Naturalism, as I have said repeatedly, is a philosophy of the absurd, of the just-there-ness of what is certainly by its nature a contingent reality; is it, simply enough, an absurd philosophy. As I have also said, however, there is a certain circularity in that claim, inasmuch as naturalism, if it is true, renders all reason debile; so it is possible to believe that what has the appearance of absurdity may in fact be the reality of things, even if one cannot consistently act upon that belief, or even conceive what it would mean. I at least, am willing to grant naturalism its proper dignity as a kind of pure, unreasoning faith: absolute fidelity to an absolute paradox. Theism has nothing magnificently wild and rhapsodically anarchic to offer; the faith it supports depends at some point upon a consistent set of logical intuitions, and so lacks the sheer intellectual brio of that sort of madly, romantically adventurous absurdism. In a few of my more purely passionate moments I find myself a little envious of materialism’s casual audacity and happy barbarism.”
Thus, I for one, as this blog suggests, think that the true bridging of faith and reason is only on the side of the theist. The faith of the atheist cannot be bridged to that of Naturalism, for Naturalism is inherently irrational, as all forms of materialism are. It takes an enormous amount more of hope to be a naturalist – hope that one day, somehow, one might have a good reason for being one – than it does to be a theist. Moreover, the hope of the theist is of an altogether different kind – one grounded in actuality.