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Naturalism and Scientism

Julian Baggini on the Four “New Atheist” Horsemen

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A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of “spells” and “delusions”, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist. “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” says Dawkins, once again implying that reason and evidence are strangers to religion. This is arrogant, and attributes to reason a power it does not have.

JP Moreland on Determinism Twice Over

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This story is physically deterministic in two ways. First, the physical state of the universe (and everything in it, including you) at a particular time and impersonal laws of nature are sufficient to determine or fix the chances of the next successive state. This is temporal determination. Second, the features and behavior of ordinary-sized objects like glaciers, rocks, human beings and animals is fixed by the states of their atomic and subatomic parts. This is bottom-up or parts-to-whole determinism. If genuinely mental consciousness exists, it is a causally impotent epiphenomenon. Among other things, this means that a feeling of thirst never causes someone to get a drink; thoughts and beliefs play no role in directing or bringing about our behavior. Many philosophers right think that if a view implies epiphenomenalism, the view must be rejected.

Victor Reppert on What Governs Reason

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It is not enough that one mental event cause another mental event in virtue of its propositional content. Someone who engages in rational inference must recognize the correctness of the principle of sound reasoning, which one applies to one’s inference. Modus Ponens works, affirming the consequent does not. Our inferences are supposed to be governed by the rules of reasoning we recognize to be correct. However, can these rules of inference ever really govern our reasoning process? According to physicalism, all of our reasoning processes are the inevitable result of a physical substrate that is not governed by reasons. ¶ So we might ask this question: “Which laws govern the activity we call rational inference?” We might stipulate, for the purposes of this discussion, the idea that laws of physics are accounts of the powers and liabilities of the objects in question. If the materialist claims that laws other than the laws of physics apply to the assemblage of particles we call human beings, then those particles are not what (mechanistic) physics says they are, and we have admitted a fundamental explanatory dualism. If however, the laws are the laws of physics, then there are no powers and liabilities that cannot be predicted from the physical level. If this is so there can be a sort of emergence, in that the basic laws governing a sleeping pill will not mention that the pills tend to put you to sleep. Nevertheless, the pill’s soporific effectiveness can be fully and completely analyzed in terms of its physical powers and liability. If this is so, then we will be rational if and only if the physical configurations of matter guarantee that we are physical, and in the last analysis, the laws of logic do not govern our intellectual conduct.

Materialism and Its Discontents

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The clear facts of consciously valued experience and of freely chosen purpose, the intelligibility and elegance of the deep structure of the physical world, the visions of transcendent value in art, the categorical demands of duty and of the search for truth, and the testimony of so many to a felt power making for goodness and uniting the mind to a higher selfless reality of wisdom and bliss – all these things the materialist has to consign to illusion. May it not be that it is the materialist who is refusing to see what is there?

Eric Reitan on a Meaningful Universe

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Everything we care about — and, more significantly, everything we should care about — is something the universe of “blind physical forces” just doesn’t care about. A materialist view of reality turns morality and goodness into the idiosyncratic concerns of a single species that might never have existed (and if we hadn’t, the universe wouldn’t have cared a whit). When we are gone (as we will be), the universe will once again just be a world of meaningless facts and events. The world of things without life, without personality, without a capacity to care — this, according to the scientific picture endorsed by Dawkins and Stenger and others, is the ultimate reality. ¶ Juxtaposed against this picture, there is the hope that the essence of the universe is characterized by something else — what Martin Luther King called “a loving purpose.” It is the hope that there is something fundamental that eludes empirical investigation and which is essentially on the side of goodness. In such a universe, the moral agent who cares about the good is in tune with the fundamental truth about the universe in a way that the sociopath is not.

Tim Folger on the Fine-Tuned Universe

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A sublime cosmic mystery unfolds on a mild summer afternoon in Palo Alto, California… The day seems ordinary enough. Cyclists maneuver through traffic, and orange poppies bloom on dry brown hills near Linde’s office on the Stanford University campus. But everything here, right down to the photons lighting the scene after an eight-minute jaunt from the sun, bears witness to an extraordinary fact about the universe: Its basic properties are uncannily suited for life. Tweak the laws of physics in just about any way and — in this universe, anyway — life as we know it would not exist. ¶ Consider just two possible changes. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we. If gravity were slightly more powerful, the consequences would be nearly as grave. A beefed-up gravitational force would compress stars more tightly, making them smaller, hotter, and denser. Rather than surviving for billions of years, stars would burn through their fuel in a few million years, sputtering out long before life had a chance to evolve. There are many such examples of the universe’s life-friendly properties—so many, in fact, that physicists can’t dismiss them all as mere accidents. ¶ Physicists don’t like coincidences. They like even less the notion that life is somehow central to the universe, and yet recent discoveries are forcing them to confront that very idea. Life, it seems, is not an incidental component of the universe, burped up out of a random chemical brew on a lonely planet to endure for a few fleeting ticks of the cosmic clock. In some strange sense, it appears that we are not adapted to the universe; the universe is adapted to us. ¶ Call it a fluke, a mystery, a miracle. Or call it the biggest problem in physics. Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multi verse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

We’re In This Together

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On a recent broadcast of the Infidel Guy (Sep. 16, 2008), a caller challenged Gary Habermas, the evening’s guest, to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will. Habermas did his best to argue that there is no necessary conflict, that God knows because we freely choose, we do not so choose because God knows. For my part, I think it’s a legitimate and difficult objection. I’m not yet persuaded by either Molinist or Openness attempts to reconcile the two, much less compatabilism or the notion that it is solved by God’s being outside of time. But what followed is what struck me. Habermas took the opportunity to ask Reggie Finley, the host, whether he, as a naturalist, believed in free will. Reggie paused, then conceded that he was still trying to figure that one out. Good luck, because while free will may be problematic for the theist, it is probably a lost cause for the naturalist. For example, in his excellent and lucid work, The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane manages to find a place for indeterminacy in matter (in quantum theory), but not for agency, the sine qua non of free will in my judgment. My point is not to wade into the deep waters of human freedom. Rather, I’m taking exception to the widespread impression that it is only the theist who must accept mysteries, antinomies, and quandaries. The truth is, all worldviews are beset by unique difficulties and internal conceptual problems. And, we remain perplexed by many mysteries that we share in common. That is to say, we’re in this together. With our amazing, but limited human faculties, the world remains puzzling to us all. In the ongoing debate about what is and is not real, it would serve us well to be mindful of the problems with which each worldview must wrestle. To that end, here are some that occur to me for both Christian theism and for Naturalism.

Michael Egnor on Behaviorism

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Having convinced only a small fraction of Americans that chance and tautology — i.e. Darwinism — adequately explains life (despite a court-ordered monopoly on public education for the last half-century), materialists are moving on to your mind. Materialism posits that your mind is meat. No soul, no spirit, just chemicals, congealed by natural selection to dupe you into believing that you’re more than an evanescent meat-robot. It’s a hard sell, but that’s not to say that materialists haven’t tried. In the first half of the 20th century, behaviorists proposed that internal mental states were irrelevant or didn’t exist at all. All that mattered in the study of the mind was stimulus and response. Behaviorism turned out, unsurprisingly, to be a sterile avenue of research, as one might guess about a theory of the mind that denied or ignored mental states. As a theory of the mind, it is now largely regarded as insane, even by materialists. Behaviorism may be the only scientific theory to be finally extinguished by a joke: After a night of passion, one behaviorist rolls over in bed and says to the other: "that was good for you; how was it for me?"

The Secular Web on the Wastefulness of Pursuing God

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Life is short. Nevertheless, billions of people invest incalculable hours making fruitless pleas to nonexistent gods, participating in lavish rituals with no tangible effects, and whittling away tight budgets to support extravagant religious institutions or “spiritual advisors.” Worse still, antiquated religious ideas lead people to impose needless hardships on themselves and others, to rationalize discrimination and other forms of mistreatment, and to hasten environmental destruction because they believe that “the end of the world” is imminent anyway. And for every outward manifestation of wasteful, counterproductive, and even downright harmful activity motivated only by religious belief, there are countless instances that are not nearly so obvious. Religious belief has exacted a toll on people’s emotional well-being as well. Just how much energy has been drained searching for meaning where none is to be found, or been squandered on false hopes and unwarranted fears? How many believers have agonized over the uncertain destination of their loved ones after death? How many have struggled to discern exactly what they did to displease God after falling victim to a natural disaster? How many have been tormented trying to make sense of why God allows terrible things to happen to good people? In the absence of any clear revelation about what God wants us to do, how many have fretted about whether their own actions or beliefs, or those of the people dearest to them, are enough to avoid hellfire? How many of those who have lost their faith in old age have looked back at all the missed opportunities, the roads not taken, the life that could have been, had they not been born in a religious household, or had they abandoned religion in their younger days!

John G. West on Scientism and Eugenics

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[T]he idea that the current scientific consensus on any topic deserves slavish deference betrays stunning ignorance of the history of science. Time and again, scientists have shown themselves just as capable of being blinded by fanaticism, prejudice, and error as anyone else. Perhaps the most egregious example in American history was the eugenics movement, the ill-considered crusade to breed better human beings. During the first decades of the 20th century, the nation’s leading biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford, as well by members of America’s leading scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were all devoted eugenicists. By the time the crusade had run its course, some 60,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will in an effort to keep us from sinning against Darwin’s law of natural selection, which Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin dubbed “the great law of evolution and progress.” Today, science is typically portrayed as self-correcting, but it took decades for most evolutionary biologists to disassociate themselves from the junk science of eugenics. For years, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditionalist Roman Catholics, who were denounced by scientists for letting their religion stand in the way of scientific progress. The implication was that religious people had no right to speak out on public issues involving science.

The Ad Hoc Multiverse

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In recent years, as our deepening understanding of the delicate complexity of the universe continues unabated, Naturalists are increasingly turning to “multiverse” hypotheses to blunt or dodge the force of fine-tuning and teleological arguments for the existence of a Designer. Roughly, the idea is that, parallel to the universe we inhabit, there exists an infinite series of universes, each of which is different from our own in at least one respect. In the multiverse, every contingent possibility is instantiated in at least one universe. If it helps, the concept has been used for dramatic effect on the TV show, Sliders, and in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The multiverse is thought to undercut design arguments because while it is wildly improbable that our life-supporting universe should exist if there was only one shot at it, it is inevitable that our universe exist if every possible universe exists. (Yes, it begs the question of the necessary conditions for this meta-universe, but we’ll leave that to the side.) There are mixed feelings about the multiverse hypothesis amongst skeptics and Naturalists. While it may be a stopgap against the implications of our apparently designed universe, it is an inescapably ironic move for the Naturalist to postulate a deus ex machina that is unobserved and, in principle, unobservable.

Naturalism (Interventions)

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Most, if not all, other books on naturalism are written for professional philosophers alone. Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro offer a book that — without losing anything in the way of scholarly standards — is primarily aimed at a college-educated audience interested in learning about this pervasive worldview. Naturalism groups the various terms of this philosophy into two general categories: strict naturalism and broad naturalism. According to the strict version, all that exists can be exhaustively described and explained by the natural sciences. As Goetz and Taliaferro explain it, broad naturalism allows that there may be some things beyond physics and the natural sciences, but insists that there can be no reality beyond nature — i.e., God — and explicitly rules out the possibility of souls. The authors argue that both categories face substantial objections in their failure to allow for consciousness, human free will, and values. They offer sustained replies to the naturalist critique of the soul and the existence of God and engage in critical evaluations of works by scholarly and popular advocates of naturalism — Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Thomas Nagel, Jaegwon Kim, and others.

The Devil’s Delusion

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Militant atheism is on the rise. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have dominated bestseller lists with books denigrating religious belief as dangerous foolishness. And these authors are merely the leading edge of a far larger movement – one that now includes much of the scientific community. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion.” A secular Jew, Berlinski nonetheless delivers a biting defense of religious thought. An acclaimed author who has spent his career writing about mathematics and the sciences, he turns the scientific community’s cherished skepticism back on itself, daring to ask and answer some rather embarrassing questions. ~ Product Description

On Being Certain

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You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001 — you know these things, well, because you just do. In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen. Bringing together cutting edge neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Robert Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. Provocative and groundbreaking, On Being Certain, will challenge what you know (or think you know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason. ~ Product Description

Paul Copan on Naturalism and Ethics

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Yes, many naturalists deny that objective moral values exist — that our moral impulse is nothing more than the product of a blind evolutionary process that selects out traits that enhance survival and reproduction. I such a case, morality is merely subjective. However, non-theists can and do endorse objective moral values — that rape or child abuse is wrong. These nontheistic moral realists will tell us, “You don’t need God to be good.” Yet the deeper question is, how did we come to be morally responsible, rights-bearing beings? Since all human beings are God’s image-bearers, they not surprisingly recognize the same sorts of moral values theist do. The basic issue, tough, is this: why think humans have rights and dignity if they’re products of valueless, physical processes in a cause-and-effect series from the bing bang until now? The more plausible context or scenario is that human value and moral responsibility come from a good God who created us as intrinsically valuable, morally responsible creatures.

Alvin Plantinga on Naturalism as Self-Defeating

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Since we have been cobbled together by (unguided) evolution, it is unlikely, he thinks, that our view of the world is overall accurate; natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. But Dawkins fails to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by way of unguided evolution. We can see this as follows. Like most naturalists, Dawkins is a materialist about human beings: human persons are material objects; they are not immaterial selves or souls or substances joined to a body, and they don’t contain any immaterial substance as a part. From this point of view, our beliefs would be dependent on neurophysiology, and (no doubt) a belief would just be a neurological structure of some complex kind. Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?

Breaking the Spell

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In his characteristically provocative fashion, Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, calls for a scientific, rational examination of religion that will lead us to understand what purpose religion serves in our culture. Much like E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Dennett explores religion as a cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection. Religion survives because it has some kind of beneficial role in human life, yet Dennett argues that it has also played a maleficent role. He elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens. Because Dennett offers a tentative proposal for exploring religion as a natural phenomenon, his book is sometimes plagued by generalizations that leave us wanting more ("Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future"). Although much of the ground he covers has already been well trod, he clearly throws down a gauntlet to religion. ~ Publishers Weekly

Andrew Melnyk on Naturalism’s Ease with the Mind

Go Naturalism can easily explain how the universe came to contain physically irreducible conscious occurrences. It can do so by supposing that, among the fundamental laws governing the universe, there are some according to which, whenever such-and-such complex nonconscious occurrences occur, so-and-so conscious occurrences occur; perhaps such a law says that, whenever a human brain attains a certain kind and degree of complexity, a pain is experienced. Given such laws, the capacity for consciousness that some creatures enjoy, like the capacity for breathing, can be explained as having arisen through natural selection. Through mutation, some creature was born with a brain of the requisite kind and degree of complexity to generate conscious experiences; and then, because these experiences increased the creature's fitness, such creatures were selected for.

Moral Minds

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Marc Hauser’s eminently readable and comprehensive book Moral Minds is revolutionary. He argues that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right and wrong independent of gender, education, and religion. Experience tunes up our moral actions, guiding what we do as opposed to how we deliver our moral verdicts. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that moral judgments arise from rational and voluntary deliberations about what ought to be. The common belief today is that we reach moral decisions by consciously reasoning from principled explanations of what society determines is right or wrong. This perspective has generated the further belief that our moral psychology is founded entirely on experience and education, developing slowly and subject to considerable variation across cultures. In his groundbreaking book, Hauser shows that this dominant view is illusory. Combining his own cutting-edge research with findings in cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and anthropology, he examines the implications of his theory for issues of bioethics, religion, law, and our everyday lives. ~ Product Description

Good and Real

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In Good and Real, Gary Drescher examines a series of provocative paradoxes about consciousness, choice, ethics, quantum mechanics, and other topics, in an effort to reconcile a purely mechanical view of the universe with key aspects of our subjective impressions of our own existence. Many scientists suspect that the universe can ultimately be described by a simple (perhaps even deterministic) formalism; all that is real unfolds mechanically according to that formalism. But how, then, is it possible for us to be conscious, or to make genuine choices? And how can there be an ethical dimension to such choices? Drescher sketches computational models of consciousness, choice, and subjunctive reasoning—what would happen if this or that were to occur?—to show how such phenomena are compatible with a mechanical, even deterministic universe. Analyses of Newcomb’s Problem (a paradox about choice) and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a paradox about self-interest vs. altruism, arguably reducible to Newcomb’s Problem) help bring the problems and proposed solutions into focus. Regarding quantum mechanics, Drescher builds on Everett’s relative-state formulation—but presenting a simplified formalism, accessible to laypersons—to argue that, contrary to some popular impressions, quantum mechanics is compatible with an objective, deterministic physical reality, and that there is no special connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness. In each of several disparate but intertwined topics ranging from physics to ethics, Drescher argues that a missing technical linchpin can make the quest for objectivity seem impossible, until the elusive technical fix is at hand. ~ Product Description

Sense and Goodness Without God

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If God does not exist, then what does? Is there good and evil, and should we care? How do we know what’s true anyway? And can we make any sense of this universe, or our own lives? Sense and Goodness answers all these questions in lavish detail, without complex jargon. A complete worldview is presented and defended, covering every subject from knowledge to art, from metaphysics to morality, from theology to politics. Topics include free will, the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, and much more, arguing from scientific evidence that there is only a physical, natural world without gods or spirits, but that we can still live a life of love, meaning, and joy. ~ Product Description

Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe

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Suppose there is no God. This supposition implies that human life is meaningless, that there are no moral obligations and hence people can do whatever they want, and that the notions of virtue and vice, right and wrong, and good and evil have no place in the universe. Erik J. Wielenberg believes this view to be utterly erroneous and, in this thought-provoking book, he explains the reasons why. He argues that, even if God does not exist, human life can still have meaning, humans do have moral obligations, and human virtue is still possible. Wielenberg offers readers a cogent explanation of the ethical implications of naturalism — a view that denies the existence of the supernatural in human life. In his view virtue exists in a godless universe but it is significantly different from virtue in a Christian universe, and he develops naturalistic accounts of humility, charity, and hope. The overarching theme of Virtue and Value in a Godless Universe is what ethics might look like without God. Erik Wielenberg takes readers on an extraordinary tour of some of the central landmarks of this under-explored territory. ~ Product Description

Daniel Dennett on Eliminating the First Person

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There’s a bi-modal distribution between people who think that any theory of consciousness that leaves out the first person is a hopeless theory, and those who think that any theory of consciousness that doesn’t leave out the first person is a hopeless theory. You’ve got to leave the first person out of your final theory. You won’t have a theory of consciousness if you still have the first person in there, because that was what it was your job to explain. All the paraphernalia that doesn’t make any sense unless you’ve got a first person in there, has to be turned into something else. You’ve got to figure some way to break it up and distribute its powers and opportunities into the system in some other way.

Agents Under Fire

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Philosophical naturalism is frequently advocated as the only doctrine that a scientifically informed intellectual of our time can possibly consider. Angus Menuge has shown, however, that a wide range of powerful considerations can be brought forward against this philosophy. Menuge provides a close examination of leading naturalists such as Dawkins, Dennett and Churchland, and draws upon a wide range of critics from C. S. Lewis to Michael Behe, to provide what is arguably the most comprehensive critique of naturalism yet to appear. People who are interested in the Argument from Reason should be especially interested in Menuge’s disucssion. A must read for naturalists and for their opponents. ~ Victor Reppert

World Without Design

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Philosophical naturalism, according to which philosophy is continuous with the natural sciences, has dominated the Western academy for well over a century, but Michael Rea claims that it is without rational foundation. Rea argues compellingly to the surprising conclusion that naturalists are committed to rejecting realism about material objects, materialism, and perhaps realism about other minds. "World Without Design is filled with excellent summaries of positions and philosophers and enough provocative argumentation to incite even the most naturalistically minded. It was a pleasure to read!  ~ Christian Scholar’s Review • "Rea’s is a dense and closely argued book, illustrating the convergence of philosophy of religion and sophisticated metaphysics and representative of the best of Christian philosophy today." ~ Philosophia Christi