Naturalism: A World View


By L. Russ Bush III

The word "nature" usually refers to the physical world in its normal condition. If something is "natural," that means it is unmodified by human (intelligent) actions. Many of us love "nature," the unspoiled outdoors, the world of forests and rivers and mountains and meadows.

By adding "ism," however, we get a related but different meaning. "Naturalism" is the belief that in the final analysis, nature is all that there is, and that "nature" is essentially unmodified by anything other than itself. In other words, nature itself is thought to be the ultimate reality.

Nature is dynamic and active, but according to the world view known as "naturalism," there is nothing beyond nature that has any causal influence or effect upon nature. Either there is no God or God has no effect or influence on nature. Some might suggest that nature itself may be thought of as a creative being. Naturalism claims that life on earth arose from natural substances by natural selection for natural ends. There is no reality that can properly be called super-natural. Spiritual realities, according to naturalism, are either illusions or else they are merely complex or unusual natural realities.

Since the eighteenth century, a materialistic philosophy has been gaining influence in the western world. Previously, most people in the West believed that the world was a divine creation, but naturalistic thinking gradually challenged that view and sought to replace it, first with naturalistic methods and then with a more comprehensive naturalistic philosophy.

Prior to the rise of naturalism as a prominent world view (or comprehensive mind-set), most western people believed that God had created the world and was responsible for its form and for its very existence. It was understood that God was upholding all things by the word of His power, for in the beginning God had created all things. Since God was a living being, it was logical to expect life in the world, because life comes from life. Twentieth century naturalism built itself on the idea that the universe (and everything in it, including life itself) came into being because of a natural quantum fluctuation (or by some other strictly natural means) and developed by natural processes from its original natural state to its present natural state. Life arose from non-life.

Naturalism affirms no God except the god of impersonal, non-living, undesigned, physical chemistry. A natural process of change is essentially random and/or undirected, but natural processes actually seem to "select" some processes and activities in the sense that "better" or stronger ones survive while others perish. Naturalists believe that this unconscious, non-directed "selection" process along with random genetic fluctuations (i.e., mutations) are the keys that explain the origin of the world of living things as we know it today.

Thus the naturalistic "world view" is the overall belief that nature itself is all that there is. God did not design it. Intelligence was a result not a cause of the developing world. Nature formed itself by strictly natural processes. This claim has several implications.

On the earth there seems to be a host of different conscious personalities. Naturalism by definition says that personality arose (evolved) from the non-personal, from that which was matter and energy only. There is nothing in a naturalistic universe that is essentially personal.

Not only must personality have arisen from the non-personal, it also supposedly arose spontaneously, without direction or guidance from any personal source. This would appear to violate the natural law of cause and effect. Energy dissipates. Complexity changes by simplifying. No system spontaneously becomes more complex unless additional energy and order is added from outside the system. A "cause" must either contain the "effect" or at least be sufficiently complex to be capable of producing the less complex "effect." Personality, however, is far more complex than the natural chemical and physical order of things observed in nature. How could this be? The naturalist usually assigns such questions to the intellectual dust bin. Personal beings are here (they and you and I exist), and thus naturalists accept that fact regardless of the significant improbability of highly complex and intelligent and self-aware personality naturally arising from the non-personal reality of non-intelligent and non-aware matter.

The same with life! Naturalists admit that there is life (usually they are alive). But to maintain their naturalism, they argue that nature spontaneously and without direction or external cause produced life out of non-life. The lack of evidence for and high improbability of this kind of event does not dissuade these thinkers,  because (they say) it only had to happen once. In fact the genetic similarity of all life forms leads naturalists to assume that all life must have come from a single simple cell or collection of chemical processes approximating a working cell. This simple cell must have randomly (and without direction or programming) initiated orderly energy usage and replication processes over the years. The chemical activity and physical changes supposedly led to more complex arrangements that then mutated and began to use energy and replicate in new ways. Over time, all living things supposedly arose from those simple and randomly collected natural chemicals, with those evermore complex processes arising randomly and without intelligent design. 

This also means that at some late stage of development, rational mental states arose out of utterly non-rational precursors. Rational thinking was and is, for naturalists, simply a complex form of natural chemical interactions. Reason was never intended by the natural, non-intelligent process, for intention is a rational characteristic. So intention or purpose could not exist until reason came into being, but naturalism denies that reason existed in the beginning. Reason evolved only at the end of the process. Prior to the appearance of reason, there could only have been substances characterized by non-reason.

This leads us finally to a very important insight. Reason itself, in the naturalistic world view, is nothing more than the natural and random result of a particular randomly changing original bit of matter. Reason is not really an independent evaluative process that can critique itself. Reason is only what the chemistry allows through self-arrangement and self-organization, and the shaping of logic and rationality and grammatical language is merely a chance result of an undesigned process that has no necessary relation to truth or meaning. All truth could be merely a pragmatically qualified set of ideas. No intrinsic truth would exist, and yet naturalists claim that naturalism itself is true. But how could that claim avoid the inevitable skeptical conclusion. Nothing can be known for sure to be objectively true, for there is no standard other than the chemical pattern one happens to be using at the time. Why should reason be trusted? How could naturalism be known to be true? The answer is: it can't.

Thus naturalism fails to be able to sustain its own truth claim. In fact, all knowledge becomes mere temporary chemical behaviors in the brain, which is a product of meaningless and random chemical processes. You and I are nothing more than two sets of chemical processes temporarily in this present configuration. Nothing can in the traditional sense be true, for there is no objective standard. The human mind is only a temporary effect of a particular set of chemical processes, and thus is not a true observer of fact and reality.

Naturalism claims to be the best and most scientific way to seek truth, but it is an extreme case of circular reasoning that has forgotten its objective roots in the knowledge of the world that stands upon divine revelation ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"). Only in theism do we have a personal, living, intelligent cause. Only theism has a sufficient explanation of life in the world. God is a necessary being, but this is exactly what naturalism denies. Thus reason is lost. Truth is lost. Knowledge is lost. Meaning is lost.

Naturalism dies of its own success.   

Recommended Reading

L. Russ Bush, The Advancement: Keeping the Faith in an Evolutionary Age. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003.