Naturalism, the worldview that most atheists hold to, is not itself science although it does endorse the continued practice and development of science. Instead, naturalism is a belief system that makes all sorts of philosophical assumptions (and arguments) about the universe that cannot be verified by the scientific method. According to Dr. Osmond “naturalism is a metaphysical theory, not a necessary reading of scientific data.” (1) For example, science cannot tell us if the natural universe is all that there is (a central belief for the naturalist) but it can tell us about the physical universe and how it operates. Naturalism cannot disprove the supernatural although it presupposes the supernatural (God, spirits, demons etc.) does not exist. Naturalism asks existential questions that are in the realms of philosophy – these are questions that science is incapable of answering (questions such as meaning, value, purpose etc.). So, although science looks for natural explanations of the physical world it does not have the ability to support naturalism’s philosophical beliefs. And in that way naturalism cannot be science.
It is also true that naturalism possesses some important explanatory power when it comes to the empirical facts of nature, but the scope of this power is limited – this is where the naturalistic worldview crashes into a wall. For instance, philosopher Samples explains that “according to the naturalists worldview the source or foundation of man’s reasoning was not itself rational (endowed with reason), nor was it personal (self-aware, intelligent), and it was not teleological (purposive) in nature. Rather it was a nonrational and impersonal process without purpose consisting of a combination of genetic mutation, variation, and environmental factors (natural selection). Naturalism postulates that a combination of random chance and blind impersonal natural process (physical and chemical in nature) produced humanity’s rational faculties” (2).
This would then rightfully bring up some legitimate questions about whether or not human reason can then be trusted. Since how can non-rational forces give rise to rationality? Such a position is clearly not consistent with normal everyday experience. And if the source of our cognitive faculties was not rational then it would suggest that the naturalist does not have a reason to trust that he has embraced this worldview on the basis of sound rational factors. Yet, the irony is that this same naturalist claims to dismiss theism, the supernatural etc. based upon rational grounds. The words of the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel are quite applicable here: “If we came to believe that our capacity for objective theory (true beliefs, e.g.) were the product of natural selection, that would warrant serious skepticism about its results” (3). Likewise Patricia Churchland, also an atheist philosopher, explains that “Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost” (4) as an implication of the naturalistic worldview.
1. Osmond, Daniel. “A Physiologist Looks at Purpose and Meaning in Life.” p. 133 – 67 in Evidence of Purpose: Scientists Discover the Creator (1994).
2. Samples, K. A World of Difference. p. 316 (Scribd ebook format).
3. Nagel, T. 1989. The View From Nowhere. p. 79.
4. Churchland, P. 1987. Journal of Philosophy. p. 548.