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Scientific Naturalism and the Unfalsifiable Myth of Evolution

Scientific Naturalism is a worldview that is powerfully influencing our culture today. So much so that even believers in one and the same God struggle with conflicting views. J.P. Moreland begins the first of his four part series with a clear examination of its belief system and the role theistic evolution plays to perpetuate its ends. Here are parts II, III, IV.

In 1941, Harvard sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin wrote a book entitled, The Crisis of Our Age. In it, Sorokin claimed that cultures come in two major types: sensate and ideational. A sensate culture is one in which people only believe in the reality of the physical universe capable of being experienced with the five senses. A sensate culture is secular, this-worldly, and empirical. By contrast, an ideational culture embraces the sensory world, but goes on to accept the notion that an extra-empirical immaterial reality can be known as well, a reality consisting of God, the soul, immaterial beings, values, purposes, and various abstract objects like numbers and propositions. Sorokin claimed that a sensate culture will eventually disintegrate because it does nor have the intellectual resources necessary to sustain a public and private life conducive to corporate and individual human flourishing.

Sorokin’s claim should come as no surprise to students of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs tells us that we become the ideas we cherish in our inner being and Paul reminds us that we transform our lives through a renewed intellectual life. Scripture is quite clear that our world view — the way we think about things and the beliefs we actually come to have — will determine the shape of our cultural and individual lives. Because this is so, the war of worldviews raging in our modern context is a struggle with far-reaching and crucial implications.

In my opinion, given the death of communism, there are three main worldviews currently contending for prominence in the market place of ideas, especially in the universities: post-modernism, Christian theism, and scientific naturalism. Very roughly, post-modernism is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth, there are only a multiplicity of equally valid, relative perspectives. So understood post-modernism is a self-defeating form of conceptual relativism. I shall not examine it further because, at least for now, it is not as influential as scientific naturalism. Instead, I intend to examine scientific naturalism, and more specifically, its central creation myth, evolution, in order to accomplish two ends. First, I want to explain why it is that so many people accept evolution when the evidence for it is far from conclusive and, actually, quite meager. Second, I want to issue a caveat emptor for those Christians who think that theistic evolution is a benign option for believers to embrace in their attempts to integrate science and theology To accomplish these ends, I will clarify the nature of naturalism, explain two reasons why evolution is embraced with a type of certainty that goes well beyond the evidence for it, and close with a plea to Christians who advocate theistic evolution.

What is Scientific Naturalism?

Succinctly put, naturalism is the view that the spatio-temporal universe of physical objects, properties, events, and processes that are well established by scientific forms of investigation is all there is, was, or ever will be. There are three major components of naturalism. First, naturalism begins with an epistemology, a view about the nature and limits of knowledge, known as scientism. Scientism comes in two forms: strong and weak. Strong scientism is the view that the only [thing] we can know is what can be tested scientifically. Scientific knowledge exhausts what can be known and if some belief is not part of a well-established scientific theory, it is not an item of knowledge. Weak scientism allows some minimum, low-grade degree of rational justification for claims in fields outside of science like ethics. But scientific knowledge is taken to be so vastly superior to other forms of reasonable belief, that if a good scientific theory implies something that contradicts a belief in some other discipline, then the other field will simply have to adjust itself to be in line with science.

Second, naturalism contains a theory, a causal story, about how everything has come-to-be. The central components of this story are the atomic theory of matter and evolution. The details of this story are not of concern here but two broad features are of critical importance. First, the explanation of macro-changes in things (a macro-change is a change in some feature of a normal sized object that can be detected by simple observation such as the change in a leaf’s color) in terms of micro-changes (changes in small, unobservable entities at the atomic or sub-atomic level). Chemical change is explained in terms of re-arrangements of atoms only; phenotype changes (physical traits) are due to changes in genotypes (generic makeup). Causation is from the bottom-up, micro to macro. For instance, it is explained that heating water causes it to boil because of the excitation of water molecules. Second, all events that happen are due to the occurrence of earlier events and the laws of nature, regardless of whether these laws are understood to be deterministic or probabilistic.

Third, naturalism has a view about what is real: physical entities are all that there are. The mind is really the brain, free actions are merely happenings caused in the right way by inputs to the organism along with its internal “hardware” states, and there is no teleology or purpose in the world. The world is simply one big cluster of physical mechanisms affecting other physical mechanisms.

As we will see shortly, the order among these three components of naturalism is quite important. The naturalist view of knowledge is what justifies the naturalist causal story. We have purged the world of real teleology and accepted the evolutionary story largely because the latter can be tested scientifically and the former cannot. Or so we are led to believe. The naturalist causal story is used to justify the naturalist view of what is real. As such, we know we are merely creatures of matter because we are solely the product of evolution, and evolution is a story of physical processes operating on physical things to produce more adaptive physical entities.

So far, I have been using the term “evolution” without defining it, but in reality, it can be used to mean three different things: the fact that organisms change over time (micro-evolution), the thesis of common descent, and the blind watchmaker thesis. The thesis of common descent can be interpreted in two ways: the mere claim that 1) life appeared on earth in a general pattern of simple to complex in a certain order or 2) the pattern just mentioned was one in which latter forms of life somehow (naturalistically or by Divine action) came from [one organism?]. The blind watchmaker thesis is the belief that the processes and mechanisms of evolution are solely naturalistic with no specific intervention of a deity. So understood, a theistic evolutionist could accept the blind watchmaker thesis so long as he or she limited God’s activity to that of a first cause or of a being who sustains the world in existence while it unfolds according to natural law and “chance.”

The blind watchmaker thesis is crucial to the naturalist, and it is precisely this sense of evolution that has far less evidence in support of it than is often realized. Whether or not you agree with this statement, one thing seems clear: the certainty claimed for evolution and the ferocity with which it is held go far beyond what is justified by scientific evidence and empirical testing. No one could read Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (Intervarsity, 1991), Michael Den ton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1986), or JP Moreland, ed., The Creation Hypothesis (InterVarsity, 1994) without realizing that a serious, sophisticated case can be made against the blind watchmaker thesis even if one judged that, in the end, the case is not as persuasive as the evolutionary account. The problem is that most intellectuals today act as if there is simply no issue here and that if you do not believe in evolution then you must believe in a flat earth. Why is this? Why do so many people, including some well-intentioned Christians, heap so much scorn on creationists (either “young earth” or “progressive”) who reject the evolutionary story and act as though no informed, modern person can believe otherwise? I believe the answer lies in two directions, neither of which is empirical or purely scientific.

Two Reasons For the Modern Certainty About Evolution

Let us recall that our question is not about the empirical evidence for evolution. As I have said, I think this evidence is quite meager. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that there is a decent bit of positive evidence for it, the degree of certainty claimed on its behalf, along with the widespread negative attitude towards creationists, is quite beyond what is warranted by the evidence alone. What is going on here?

First, the monolithic intellectual authority of science, coupled with the belief that creation science is religion and not science means that evolution is the only view of origins that can claim the backing of reason. In our sensate culture, science and science alone has unqualified intellectual acceptance. On the evening news, when a scientist makes a pronouncement about what causes obesity, crime, or anything else, he or she is taken to speak ex cathedra. When was the last time you saw a philosopher, theologian, or humanities professor consulted as an intellectual leader in the culture? All supposedly extra scientific beliefs must move to the back of the bus and are relegated to the level of private, subjective opinion.

Now, if two scientific theories are competing for allegiance, then most intellectuals, at least in principle, would be open to the evidence relevant to the issue at hand. But what happens if one rival theory is a scientific one and the other is not considered a scientific theory at all? If we abandon the scientific theory in favor of the non-scientific one, then, given the intellectual hegemony of science, this is tantamount to abandoning reason itself. If we can draw a line of demarcation between science and non-science, a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that form a definition of science, and show that creationism is religion masquerading as science, then the creation/evolution debate turns into a controversy that pits reason against pure subjective belief and opinion. In the infamous creation science trial in Little Rock, Arkansas in December of 1981, creation science was ruled out of the public schools, not because of the weak evidence for it, but because it was judged to be religion and not science. Today, in the state of California you cannot discuss creationist theories in a science class for the same reason.

Space forbids me to present reasons why almost all philosophers of science, atheist and Christian alike, agree that creation science is at least a science and not a religious view, regardless of what is to be said about the empirical evidence for or against it. I have presented these arguments in The Creation Hypothesis and in Christianity and the Nature of Science (Baker, 1989). Suffice it to say that philosophical naturalists are currently in control of who sets the rules for what counts as science. The bottom line is this: philosophical naturalism is used to argue that evolution is science, that creation science is religion, and that reason is to be identified with science. Thus, the empirical evidence for or against evolution is not the issue when it comes to explaining why so many give the theory unqualified allegiance.

There is a second reason for the current over-belief in evolution: it functions as a myth for secularists. By myth I do not mean something false, though I believe evolution to be that, but rather, a story of who we are and how we got here that serves as a guide for life. Evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, said that evolution made the world safe for atheists because it supposedly did away with the design argument for God’s existence. In graduate school, I once had a professor say that evolution was a view he embraced religiously because it implied for him that he could do anything he wanted. Why? Given that there is no God and that evolution is how we got here, there is no set purpose for life given to us, no objective right and wrong, no punishment after death, so one can live for himself in this life anyway he wants. Serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, made the same statement on national TV. Dahmer said that naturalistic evolution implied that we all came from slime and will return to slime. So, why should he resist deeply felt tendencies to kill, given that we have no objective purpose or value and there is no punishment after death? I am not here arguing that secularists cannot find grounds for objective purpose and value in their naturalistic worldview, though I believe that to be the case. I am simply pointing out that evolution functions as an egoistic myth for many intellectuals who have absolutized freedom, which is understood as the right to do anything they want. Philosophical naturalists want evolution to be true because it provides justification for their lifestyle choices.

For these two reasons, the identification of evolution as the only option on origins that claims the support of reason and the function of evolution as a convenient myth for a secular lifestyle, the widespread over commitment to evolution is not primarily a matter of evidence. That is why people react to creationism with hatred, disgust, and loathing, instead of responding to creationist arguments with calm and open-minded counter arguments. This situation is tragic, because it has produced a cultural logjam in which philosophical naturalism is sustained as our source of cultural authority, protected from serious intellectual criticism and scrutiny. As Phillip Johnson has recently argued in Reason in the Balance (Intervarsity, 1995), philosophical naturalism has had a devastating impact on human flourishing in modern society.

For Christians, there is a lesson to be learned from all this and an application to be followed. The lesson is this: the debate about creation and evolution is not primarily one about how to interpret certain passages in Genesis. Rather, it is primarily about the adequacy of philosophical naturalism as a worldview and the hegemony of science as a cognitive authority which relegates religion to private opinion and presuppositional faith. The application is this: believers owe it to themselves and the church to read works that present a well reasoned alternative to evolution and to keep an eye on the broader implications of taking theistic evolution via media. Theistic evolution may well be inadequate to stop our cultural avalanche towards a thoroughly sensate culture. If Sorokin is correct, this is to head towards disaster.

Naturalism and Scientism

About JP Moreland

With degrees in philosophy, theology and chemisty, Dr. Moreland brings erudition, passion, and his distinctive ebullience to the end of loving God with all of one's mind. Moreland received his B.S. in Chemistry (with honors) from the University of Missouri, his M.A. in Philosophy (with highest honors) from the University of California, Riverside, his Th.M. in Theology (with honors) from Dallas Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Southern California. Dr. Moreland has taught theology and philosophy at several schools throughout the U.S. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology.