Tag Archives: Naturalism

What difference does God make to the questions of meaning and purpose?

Dr. Neil Shenvi has had a successful career in the field of theoretical chemistry, but in his spare time, he thinks about faith questions. One of the questions he’s thought about is the difference that God makes when we are asking questions of ultimate meaning and purpose in life. And he’s even done a lecture on it.

Here’s the lecture:

(37 minutes)


Does life have a purpose? If naturalism is true, what is the purpose of life? If Christianity is true, what is the purpose of life?


  • Dr. Shenvi’s brief testimony and background
  • There is no purpose to the universe and us on naturalism
  • The answer to every why-question on naturalism is chance and necessity (laws)
  • Nothing in the universe has intrinsic / objective value
  • There is no hope on naturalism because of the heat death of the universe: everything dies
  • Nothing that humans do, on naturalism, matters in the long run
  • Given sufficient time, the universe will not even know we were here
  • Famous atheists like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins agree on this

Purpose on naturalism:

  • Purpose response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up purposes
  • The monopoly in a prison illustration

Meaning on naturalism:

  • Meaning response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up meaning
  • The scrabble vs Shakespeare illustration

Value on naturalism:

  • Value response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up values
  • The subjective opinion vs objective truth illustration

Hope on naturalism:

  • Hope response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up hopes
  • The heat death of the universe ensures that all hopes fail on naturalism

If Christianity is true:

  • The universe and human beings have an objective purpose
  • There is a meaning to life that is objective
  • Human beings have intrinsic value, because God made them and values them
  • There is hope because there is an life after death that extends eternally


  • This lecture does not argue that Christianity is true because it gives us goodies
  • People should become Christians because Christianity is true
  • Christianity is actually quite difficult because it requires self-denial and self-sacrifice
  • What God has done to help us overcome with our rebellion?

Note that these are not arguments for God’s existence, because he covered that in a previous lecture. And this lecture is not about arguing for Christianity, because he covered that in a previous lecture.

Dr. Shenvi’s web site is here.

By the way, if you want to hear a recent debate on this question, I summarized one in a recent post. The debate featured Andy Bannister vs Michael Ruse. Ruse tried to argue that you could get a feeling of self-worth from your accomplishments and that this feeling of having meaning was enough.

Study by UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz falsifies materialist determinism

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here’s a summary of the research of UCLA professor Jeffrey Schwartz, authored by William Dembski.


Schwartz provides a nonmaterialist interpretation of neuroscience and argues that this interpretation is more compelling than the standard materialist interpretation. He arrived at this position as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers recognize obsessive-compulsive thoughts and urges as separate from their intrinsic selves. For instance, after a few washings, the compulsive hand-washer realizes that his hands are clean and yet feels driven to keep washing them. It was reflection on this difference between the obvious truth (the hands are clean) and the irrational doubts (they might still be dirty) that prompted Schwartz to reassess the philosophical underpinnings of neuroscience.

From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, the brain enables the mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this involved a patient acknowledging that his hands were in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about his hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing his thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).

Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms, but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, “mindful attention”-conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.

So mind-brain interaction is not a one-way street. Everyone knows that you can alter your consciousness, beliefs, moods, sensations, etc. by changing your brain, e.g. – with drugs. But it turns out that you can also will to focus your thoughts on certain things in order to change your brain chemistry. So the causation is not just bottom-up, but also top-down.

Now mindfulness therapies – which are documented in the research papers published by Schwartz (like this one and this one and this one)- assume the existence of free will. Naturalists don’t like these scientific publications because naturalists don’t believe in free will, as the famous naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg explained in his debate with William Lane Craig.

This post from Uncommon Descent explains the naturalist conundrum.


The issue, for Schwartz, turns on whether or not there is such a thing as free will. The assumption of free will is critical to mindfulness therapies for practical purposes.

Philosophies and religions have various opinions about ultimate free will. The therapist must ask, is my patient capable of carrying out a program that requires that he choose to focus his attention on A and not B? In practice, this turns out to be true for many patients, which makes the therapy useful. There is neuroscience evidence for brain reorganization as a result, showing that it is not merely an imagined effect.

Now, if someone wishes to claim, as many outspoken advocates of Darwinian evolution have, for example, that free will is impossible, the only thing that a mindfulness therapist can say is, go away. Either they are mistaken or the research results from mindfulness therapies are.

By the way, if you like this topic, and want a resource to show your friends, be sure and get a hold of the debate on mind vs. brain between Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Michael Shermer.

Neil Shenvi lectures on the relationship between science and religion

Another great 42-minute lecture by Dr. Neil Shenvi.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Outline slide: (Download the Powerpoint slides here)



  • Science is often considered to be in opposition to religion, because it answers all the questions that religion asks
  • Thesis: 1) Science and religion are compatible, 2) Science provides us with good reasons to believe that God exists
  • Definition: what is science?
  • Definition: what is the scientific method?
  • Definition: what is religion?
  • Where is the conflict between science and religion, according to atheists?
  • Conflict 1: Definitional – faith is belief without evidence
  • But the Bible doesn’t define faith as “belief without evidence”
  • Conflict 2: Metaphysical – science presuppose naturalism (nature is all that exists)
  • First, naturalism is a philosophical assumption, not something that is scientifically tested or proved
  • Second, methodological naturalism in science doesn’t require us to believe in metaphysical naturalism
  • Conflict 3: Epistemological – science is the only way to know truth (scientism)
  • But scientism cannot itself be discovered by science – the statement is self-refuting
  • Conflict 4: Evolutionary – evolution explains the origin of life, so no need for God
  • Theists accept that organisms change over time, and that there is limited common descent
  • But the conflict is really over the mechanism that supposedly drives evolutionary change
  • There are philosophical and evidential reasons to doubt the effectiveness of mutation and selection
  • Evidence for God 1: the applicability of mathematics to the natural world, and our ability to study the natural world
  • Evidence for God 2: the origin of the universe
  • Evidence for God 3: the fine-tuning of the initial constants and quantities
  • Evidence for God 4: the implications of quantum mechanics
  • Evidence for God 5: the grounding of the philosophical foundations of the scientific enterprise
  • Hiddenness of God: why isn’t the evidence of God from science more abundant and more clear?
  • Science is not the only means for getting at truth
  • Science is not the best way to reach all the different kinds of people
  • There is an even deeper problem that causes people to not accept Christianity than lack of evidence
  • The deeper problem is the emotional problem: we want to reject God’s claim on our lives

He concludes with an explanation of the gospel, which is kinda cool, coming from an academic scientist.

I am a big admirer of Dr. Neil Shenvi. I wish we could clone him and have dozens, or even hundreds, like him (with different scientific specializations, of course!). I hope you guys are doing everything you can to lead and support our young people, and encouraging them to set their sights high and aim for the stars.

UPDATE: Dr. Shenvi has posted a text version of the lecture.

Related posts

Does reading science fiction predispose people to atheism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

My friend ECM thinks that science fiction that people read when they are younger causes them to believe that the religion is anti-science and that the progress of science always disproves religion. The stories they read colors their views of science and religion for life, before they ever get to assessing evidence. And that’s why when we produce evidence for them in debates, they will believe in speculations rather than go where the evidence leads. So they believe that maybe unobservable aliens caused the origin of life, and that maybe the untestable multiverse theory explains the fine-tuning of cosmological constants, and that maybe this universe has existed eternally despite the well-supported Big Bang theory which shows that the universe began to exist. Maybe, maybe, maybe. They seem to think that untestable speculations are “good enough” to refute observational evidence – and maybe it’s because of all the science fiction that they’ve read.

Here’s an article in the American Spectator that talks a bit about it.


A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held to particularly qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God.

[…]Historically the contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Kepler was assisted by a number of Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who had studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler’s theory on the Earth having an elliptical orbit. J.L. Heilbron of the University of California has written:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.

Science fiction is, by definition, fiction, that is, it deals with things which are the product of a writer’s imagination and are not literally true. In any event, what is and what is not science fiction is hard to define. Simply to say it is about science is meaningless, and while some science-fiction writers are qualified scientists, many are not. Probably even fewer are trained theologians.

Science fiction makes the mysteries of the universe seem easy to an atheist. Everything can be easily explained with fictional future discoveries. Their speculations about aliens, global warming and eternal universes are believed without evidence because atheists want and need to believe in those speculations. In the world of science fiction, the fictional characters can be “moral” and “intelligent” without having to bring God or the evidence for God into the picture. That’s very attractive to an atheist who wants the feeling of being intelligent and moral without having to weight actual scientific evidence or ground their moral values and behavior rationally. The science fiction myths are what atheists want to believe. It’s a placebo at the worldview level. They don’t want cosmic microwave background radiation – they want warp drives. They don’t want WMAP satellite confirmation of nucleosynthesis – they want holodecks.

Why do people become atheists?

My theory is mainly that atheists adopt atheism because they want pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, without any restraints or guilt. They want to believe that sex without commitment has no consequences, especially a consequence like God judging them for it. Another contributing factor may be that atheists want to be thought of as smart by “the right people” – to sort of blindly accept whatever the “smart people” accept without really searching out reasons or dissenting views. They do this so that they are able to look down at some other group of people so they can feel better about themselves and be part of the right group – without actually having to weigh the evidence on both sides. And lastly, atheism may also be caused by weak fathers or abandoning fathers. But I think that ECM’s science fiction theory has merit, as well. I think that all four of these factors help to explain why atheists believe in a discredited worldview in the teeth of scientific progress.

I wonder if my readers would take some time out to investigate whether their atheist friends have been influenced by reading science fiction and whether they still read it.

Peter J. Williams lectures on the historical reliability of the gospel narratives

Peter J. Williams
Peter J. Williams

Here’s the main lecture: (54 minutes)

And here’s the Q&A: (9 minutes)

About Peter Williams:

Peter J. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Summary of the lecture:

  • What if the stories about Jesus are legendary?
  • were the gospels transmitted accurately?
  • were the gospels written in the same place as where the events happened?
  • do the gospel authors know the customs and locations where the events happened?
  • do the gospels use the right names for the time and place where the events took place?
  • do the gospels disambiguate people’s names depending on how common those names were?
  • how do the New Testament gospels compare to the later gnostic gospels?
  • how do the gospels refer to the main character? How non-Biblical sources refer to Jesus?
  • how does Jesus refer to himself in the gospels? do the later Christians refer to him that way?
  • how does Jesus teach? do later Christians teach the same way?
  • why didn’t Jesus say anything about early conflicts in the church (the Gentiles, church services)?
  • did the writers of the gospels know the places where the events took place?
  • how many places are named in the gospels? how about in the later gnostic gospels?
  • are the botanical details mentioned in the gospels accurate? how about the later gnostic gospels?

And here are the questions from the audience:

  • how what about the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives that Bart Ehrman is obsessed with?
  • what do you think of the new 2011 NIV translation (Peter is on the ESV translation committee)?
  • how did untrained, ordinary men produce complex, sophisticated documents like the gospels?
  • is oral tradition a strong enough bridge between the events and the writers who interviewed the eyewitnesses?
  • what does the name John mean?
  • why did the gospel writers wait so long before writing their gospels?
  • do you think that Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical source which historians call “Q”?
  • which gospel do critical historians trust the least and why?

I really enjoyed watching this lecture. He’s getting some of this material from Richard Bauckham’s awesome book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get an idea of what’s in it. Peter Williams is a lot of fun to listen to – an excellent speaker.