Many a naturalist (all?) lives under the spell of thinking he is simply noting “facts” and throwing his objective gaze around robotically and as if he had appeared without birth, family, culture, education, or influence. Science lends itself to this unfortunate naivety, because of its striving for objectivity and distance. In and of itself, this is laudable. Taken further however, and actually believed, it is damaging and especially to science.
One’s methods, processes, algorithms, and frame-works as they are applied to objects and phenomena do not capture, freeze, or reduce those objects or phenomena. They do not generate ontology or meaning—they only describe. They are not a first philosophy; they are in fact derived and only possible because of a first philosophy and thus their efficacy in their limited but important role.
What confuses many naturalists is their belief that a process (methodology) can take the place of being, existence itself (ontology). These are two different areas, entirely, and never the twain shall meet. Methodology is always derivative. Continuing on with Darwin’s Pious Idea, Cunningham speaks to this difference:
“There are two mains types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach that science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such. A certain methodological naturalism is commonsensical. It would not be very helpful when making a cup of tea if, when the kettle boiled, we became overly entranced by the mystical wonder of the emission of steam, thinking it was the communication of the spirits of our ancestors. Science must preclude this, and thus it seeks to explain phenomena in purely natural terms. This is eminently sensible…”
And here we would add that this is what makes science workable and approachable by scientists, who also happen to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or any other faith we might add.
“Ontological naturalism goes further. While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion on what exists, ontological naturalism suffers no such shyness. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be. Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called first philosophy).”
“This is commonly known as scientism, the perspective of which Richard Lewontin captures in one pithy sentence: ‘Science is the only begetter of truth.’ Leaving aside that this proposition is extrascientific—it is a philosophical thesis and not a scientific one at all—we might be inclined to inquire why he asserts something so question begging.”
In my many conversations with atheists and agnostics, especially those with science backgrounds, this is the most common (and certainly most fundamental) error they make. They usually have no idea they are spouting philosophy and not “science.” The moment one begins to articulate, unpack, talk about, and tell us what something “means” even if it is to say that such-and-such means “nothing” or that “this, whatever “this” might be, means there is no God or spiritual aspect to the world, he has left “science” and joined philosophy. It is fine to do this, but own up to it man! Quit hiding. Quit trying to privilege your take on things as “objective science.” But the more incredible realization is that many have no idea they are doing it. They actually think they are pointing out something obvious or that there is a direct one-to-one correlation between their observations and their take on its meaning in a Meta- narrative sense as if collapsed into one. Good grief!
“When it comes to human nature and culture, scientism and ontological naturalism would contend that we are guilty of what John Ruskin called the ‘pathetic fallacy.’ We commit this fallacy when we attribute emotions to what quite obviously cannot have ‘emotion’—as in ‘the wind cried’ or ‘the trees wept’…we are left in a world that consists solely of the physical or the material. Consequently, what we see before our eyes is merely the agitation of matter; now thus, now so. That remains the case whether such agitation is murder, rape, cancer, war, famine, love or joy, birth or death…How do we discern real difference if all events and objects—all change—seems to be wholly arbitrary? To account for real difference, surely we must appeal to something besides matter—yet any such appeal is prohibited in what amounts to a monistic philosophy (the notion that existence is composed of only one type of substance, which we call ‘matter’). As John Peterson puts it, ‘If matter is the ultimate substrate and is identified with some actual thing, then all differences within matter must come from something besides matter.’ Consequently, the materialist must admit that his description is metaphysical; it tacitly invokes something that transcends what is basic at the level of immanence, or the merely physical. The only other option is to deny all change, just as one must, it seems, deny objects themselves.”
“As Peter van Inwagen writes, ‘One of the tasks that confronts the materialist is this: they have to find a home for the referents of the terms of ordinary speech within a world that is entirely material—or else deny the existence of those referents altogether.’
One constantly sees this when a materialist will note a description as “better” or a goal as something to make us “happy.” It is almost painful. It is like watching the teacher have to remind a student over and over that he cannot use that tool now that his philosophy has banished it, when the student continually reaches for it to explain his position. When one cuts off the branch on which he was sitting, the only thing remaining is to watch him fall, which leaves the materialist in an almost constant state of free-fall. Cunningham finishes with a very sobering assessment:
“Those that celebrate scientism and ontological (restrictive) naturalism do so because they have set out to achieve the banishment of the divine, no matter what the cost. These fundamentalist atheists will bring the whole house down so as to leave no room for God. Once again, they are willing to cut off their faces to spite their noses—willing to leave us all faceless. And make prisons into cultural artifacts, and eccentric, unjustified ones at that. Moreover, and shockingly, we all become Holocaust deniers. For we find it impossible to provide a metaphysics that can notice real difference. All wounds become impossible—cancer is removed from the vocabulary and is no longer to be eradicated—for this is radicalized democracy, the very flatlining of reality. All such notions now appear only in folktales. We are, therefore, beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche foresaw. And if this is true, naturalism, rather than occupying the high ground of the enlightened, is more damaging than all the wars, diseases, famines, disasters, and crimes put together. For it is the liquidation of existence itself.”
Of course many a materialist will respond, “Oh, come now, you go too far—certainly it is not that bad.” But one can be assured that such a response is out of ignorance—it only means the materialist has never had the forethought or nerve to take his presuppositions to their logical conclusions. Materialism, I believe, is a world-view that gives some psychological comfort to its holders in its radical nature, novelty, and its “me against the world” narrative (something most grow out of—after all didn’t I just describe a teen-ager?), but it certainly isn’t a world-view anyone can live with. It’s all for show. It’s the equivalent of getting a tattoo. A materialist may believe while at the office, 9-5, but that’s the end of it. When he joins his friends, family, life partner, and social life—the life he really cares about and truly lives, as he listens to his favorite music, shares his dreams, and sips that glass of wine—he believes and behaves as if love, joy, peace, goodness, beauty, and truth were indeed real. Such is all one needs to know, to know when a world-view is bankrupt and false.