Is the presupposition of naturalism in science good for the pursuit of truth?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

This topic came up recently in a discussion, and I wanted to be sure that all my readers were aware of how to think about the work that the presupposition of naturalism does in supporting naturalistic views of science. When I was little, way back in the 1990s, Phillip E. Johnson’s work on the definitions of science, evolution and creation were very important stuff. He was everywhere, doing lectures on university campuses and debates on the radio with Eugenie Scott. I was able to get a bunch of this audio from Access Research Network on AUDIO CASSETTES, but now that’s all obsolete.

Thankfully, I was able to find an old column written by Johnson in the Wall Street Journal, and preserved by Access Research Network.


A Chinese paleontologist lectures around the world saying that recent fossil finds in his country are inconsistent with the Darwinian theory of evolution. His reason: The major animal groups appear abruptly in the rocks over a relatively short time, rather than evolving gradually from a common ancestor as Darwin’s theory predicts. When this conclusion upsets American scientists, he wryly comments: “In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin.”

That point was illustrated last week by the media firestorm that followed the Kansas Board of Education’s vote to omit macro-evolution from the list of science topics which all students are expected to master. Frantic scientists and educators warned that Kansas students would no longer be able to succeed in college or graduate school, and that the future of science itself was in danger. The New York Times called for a vigorous counteroffensive, and the lawyers prepared their lawsuits. Obviously, the cognitive elites are worried about something a lot more important to themselves than the career prospects of Kansas high school graduates.

The root of the problem is that “science” has two distinct definitions in our culture. On the one hand, science refers to a method of investigation involving things like careful measurements, repeatable experiments, and especially a skeptical, open-minded attitude that insists that all claims be carefully tested. Science also has become identified with a philosophy known as materialism or scientific naturalism. This philosophy insists that nature is all there is, or at least the only thing about which we can have any knowledge. It follows that nature had to do its own creating, and that the means of creation must not have included any role for God. Students are not supposed to approach this philosophy with open-minded skepticism, but to believe it on faith.

[…]All the most prominent Darwinists proclaim naturalistic philosophy when they think it safe to do so. Carl Sagan had nothing but contempt for those who deny that humans and all other species “arose by blind physical and chemical forces over eons from slime.” Richard Dawkins exults that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” and Richard Lewontin has written that scientists must stick to philosophical materialism regardless of the evidence, because “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

So, if you’re having a discussion with a person who believes in naturalism – that everything in nature can be explained by material forces alone – then they will give you a stock response to all of your evidence for something outside of nature.

  • Origin of the universe? That’s not science
  • Cosmic fine-tuning? That’s not science
  • Origin of life? That’s not science
  • Cambrian explosion? That’s not science
  • Habitability-discoverability? That’s not science

It’s not that the people who did the science around these discoveries invoked God, and that’s why it’s not science. On the contrary, the mainstream scientists who made these discoveries scrupulously left God out of their microscopes and telescopes. These discoveries – which have only gotten worse for the naturalists as more details emerge – do not have easy naturalistic explanations. If you ask the naturalist for an explanation, they will resort to various sorts of speculations:

  • future science will undermine all our current knowledge
  • we are in an unobservable multiverse that exists eternally
  • aliens seeded the Earth with life, and THEY evolved
  • there are lots of fossils we haven’t discovered yet
  • there are lots of stars and planets we haven’t discovered yet

What’s the answer to this arguing from ignorance?

I think ridicule is best. You need to start by telling the full story about how these discoveries were made. Name the scientists, state the dates. Tell the whole story of how the science was done. Do this for each discovery. Then, at the end, ask them which of these scientific discoveries they deny. Ask them for naturalistic explanations of the ones they accept. Pretend to be confused, then concerned about their sanity. Finally, you should be as condescending as possible, and just explain that we can’t believe in fairies and unicorns. Explain things to them as if they were a child: we have to base our worldview on what science has revealed. We can’t hold out for Santa Claus to come down the chimney with new science that undermines all we have discovered. We have to go with the science we have today, and the science we have today says Creator and Designer. That is the best explanation of the what we know right now. And the trend is that these discoveries are becoming even MORE difficult for naturalism to account for. I guarantee you that the average rank-and-file atheist knows more about Star Wars and Star Trek lore than they do about actual scientific discoveries that threaten their beloved religion of naturalism.

Try to make your face look like Tucker Carlson:

When dealing with a naturalist fundamentalist, make the Tucker Carlson face
The Tucker Carlson face conveys a mix of confusion, disappointment and horror

For God’s sake, even Richard Dawkins admitted in his debate with John Lennox that a good case can be made for a deistic God from the science we have now. If Dawkins can admit this, then you need to be extremely harsh to the village atheists.

If the word “naturalism” is all new to you, you should probably read the whole article and this longer article as well. The longer article really explains the different definitions of the words that are used in these debates. Johnson’s an excellent writer, and you will learn a lot.

6 thoughts on “Is the presupposition of naturalism in science good for the pursuit of truth?”

  1. Johnson’s works are still very timely. He was brilliant.
    I think that focusing on the words “naturalism” vs. “supernatural’ are not helpful in discerning the nature of truth and reality. These words are charged with atheistic philosophical assumptions that grant them premature victory. If God is real, then let’s not exclude him from nature, i.e.: all that exists. It’s all part of reality, so let’s not grant this false distinction.
    The proper way to frame the issue is to argue over epistemology. Atheist methodology requires the scientific method and grants no weight to any other methodology for the discerning facts. Theists must make it clear that this methodology is wonderful within it’s very narrow, limited sphere, but can say nothing (or little) about most of the really big questions. This is not to deny that science can be hugely supportive of theism and certainly can never undermine theism, which is just the wider picture of all reality.
    So, the atheist is at a huge self-imposed disadvantage and cannot even begin to approach answers to the ‘first things’ such as origins, meaning, purpose, destiny, etc., or even God’s providential involvement right now. It is primarily a problem of knowledge and methodology.
    Whilst this is not something to be ridiculed as they do us, it certainly should be a source of pity and compassion.

  2. Love this. I have often listened to atheists just presume and argue from atheism as a default position. Often because they perform experiments and claim you don’t need God inserted into them to come to a conclusion. The problem is that they exclude the why most of the time and that’s not something empirical evidence can answer all the time. Frank Turek argues in “Stealing From God” that you need God in order to even begin scientific endeavors, and many things are presumed even before a hypothesis forms.

    Lately, I listened to a podcast talking about the problem of induction (as they put it – the problem of how do we know that the future will stay constant with the present of past?) I’ve got to do more digging on that though.

    I’ve often wanted to ask atheists why pursue truth and knowledge in the first place? It seems to go along with the Transendental Moral Argument and I think presents a problem for atheism in general. Once again, I need to do more research and something I want to discuss further.

  3. One very important thing to keep in mind. A presupposition is a BELIEF and science does not (and cannot) provide beliefs, religions do. And beliefs are chosen on the basis of whether they are coherent or not with a worldview, not on the basis of empirical proof. This is why the whole matter of Origins is largely outside the domain of science as presuppositions vastly outweigh empirical evidence in importance. Just for fun, fiddle with the pressuppositions regarding the red-shift data for example and you’ll get very different results.
    Of course in our Enlightenment influenced world, the concept that Science is LIMITED is heresy…

    1. I think one of the reasons why Christianity is so in decline today is that certain Christians have decided to elevate fideism above the scientific method, which is proven to work so well in so many areas. By attacking science, those pious Christians have effectively cut off God’s own revelation of himself through the natural world. The purpose of my post is to show that there is nothing wrong with science at all. The problem is the naturalistic philosophy that tries to smuggle itself into authority by piggy-backing on the strength of science.
      Regarding redshift, I find it ironic that atheists and young Earth Christians both oppose it because neither can accept that experimental science conflicts with their dogma. Atheists and young earthers are alike in that dislike of experimental science. I am pro-science all the way.

    2. This is good. Let’s not forget that science relies on many presuppositions about which much has been written. So, if we want to use the word “faith”, then we can say that science itself relies on faith, based (just as religion) on evidence, intuition, assumptions about the nature of reality, etc. Once all of these are in place, then we can rely on the scientific method to do it’s work. That work might be limited to a very narrow slice of reality, but it is highly useful work for our day to day existence nonetheless.
      I’ve spent a lifetime as a physician and doing basic molecular biology research (regulation of DNA transcription) and all of the above had become very evident to me after a few years as a grad student.
      For some of these reasons in my replies, I do not like to use the word “natural” (as opposed to “supernatural”) unless we make it very clear that by ‘natural’ we mean only that extremely limited range of nature which the scientific method can discern. Ditto for the words ‘religion’ and ‘belief’. Atheists load these words with anti-Christian meaning, so we must be very careful how we use them.
      For example, asking an atheist if they deny that the ‘supernatural’ exists is only giving them total control of the narrative, and handing them a gift and a ton of ammo if it’s in a debate. You’ve shifted the argument into their worldview and granted them that which the debate should be about. That’s why we really need to be very alert to how common “religious’ words are used and we do much better to use other words and explain carefully what we mean by them.

  4. John Lennox’s book introduced me to naturalism as a philosophy, which was quite a mind blowing moment for me. Its something not talked about, or even realised by many, that naturalism is just a philosophy that has interpreted scientific evidence in a certain way. Instead, its commonly conflated with scientific discovery itself. This is why I think evolution, age of the cosmos etc. are rather weak arguments against the existence of God these days.

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