Personhood and the Challenge of Naturalism
Personhood is the property of being a human person, normally with the abilities and significance associated with being human.
Naturalism is the view that nature is all that there is (no supernatural). It often goes together with the conviction that scientific method is the primary way to find truth and to solve problems.
One important question is whether naturalism degrades human beings by making them merely a part of nature and by seeing them merely or primarily as physical objects. Does it eliminate personhood?
Naturalism does not have a single precise definition. But it is associated primarily with two convictions: (1) nature is all that there is; and (2) the scientific method is the primary or exclusive method for dealing with problems.
Both of the two convictions have serious difficulties when we critically analyze whether they have rational support. Support comes largely from cultural popularity, not from evidence. The two convictions tend to be supported by circular argument and to be self-undermining. Moreover, naturalism has several major difficulties due to the impoverished view of human nature that it brings in its wake. It does not offer a good platform for morality or for doing science in practice.
A biblical worldview, by contrast, offers an explanation for morality, for the dignity of human beings, and for human ability to begin to understand nature.
How should a Christian evaluate naturalism? Is it a threat to human personhood? These are important questions, partly because of the large-scale influence of naturalism in Western culture.
The Nature of Naturalism
First, what is “naturalism”? It depends on who is speaking. David Papineau observes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that “The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy.”1 But he also indicates that it derives from a number of philosophers belonging to the first half of the twentieth century:
They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural,” and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the “human spirit.”2
The denial of the “supernatural” implies that “nature” is all that there is. But how extensive is “nature”? Does it include the “human spirit,” as a distinct entity or a distinct level of existence, in addition to physical bodies and forces between them? Or is the “human spirit” itself an illusion, projected on us by our brains? Or is the spirit a kind of “epiphenomenon,” generated by a complex interplay of neurons firing in the brain? Does the “spirit” take the form of metaphorical foam cast up by material forces in the brain, just as the foam on the sea is cast up by the material forces of the molecules in the sea and air?
Naturalism can affect our view of humanity (“anthropology”), by eliminating or degrading the significance of some of the characteristic aspects of human beings.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) gives us a definition of naturalism:
[A] theory denying that an event or object has a supernatural significance specifically: the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.3
But this definition still leaves some questions. Who is to say what counts as “scientific laws”? Are we supposed to include laws still to be discovered in the future? Since the future is not yet here, how do we know whether the laws will ever be “adequate”? How do we judge when an account is “adequate”? What is the boundary between science and non-science? Is the term “all phenomena” meant to encompass sense experience alone, or to include our minds and “the human spirit”?
We cannot find a single definition that answers all the questions and satisfies all the participants in the discussion. But we can at least observe that there are important issues. Both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Merriam-Webster dictionary indicate that “naturalism” has close connections with two convictions: (1) the denial of the supernatural; and (2) the affirmation of the adequacy of the scientific method as the main or perhaps the exclusive method for obtaining knowledge.
Scientism: science as the route to all knowledge
Let us first consider the second of the two convictions. It is often called “scientism.” It is culturally attractive, in a superficial way, because of the success of experimental physical sciences in their own spheres of research. The advances in scientific understanding can easily suggest that we need only to apply the same methods to all our human questions and human dilemmas, in order to achieve equal success. Science can enable us finally to understand ourselves, both as individuals and as social groups.
But there are difficulties.
The first difficulty is that for more than a century various people have been trying to solve the riddle of humanity through scientific method. And what some of them have found is that human beings are very, very complicated. In practice, we cannot scientifically isolate one aspect of a human being for the benefit of controlled experiments.
Other people committed to scientism have felt they were on the way to success. But they had confidence only because they ignored what they could not capture in the net of their controlled observations. They “flattened” human nature to make it fit their chosen focus. As might be expected, this flattening has produced hostile reactions. People sensitive to the wonders in history and literature and artistry have not approved of attempts to deny complexity. Humanity itself is degraded if we treat it only as a playground for the working of physical forces. We get a false anthropology.
The second difficulty is that the fundamental argument in favor of scientism is circular. If we investigate physical aspects of the world through physical science, surely the result will be that we find physical laws and physical constraints and physical regularities. It is easy to say, “See, our science has discovered nothing but what is physical.” But we found only what is physical because it was what we were looking for. Finding it does not mean that the physical aspect is all that there is to reality. The initial decision to focus on the physical does not dictate the nature of the whole of reality.
The third difficulty is that the commitment to scientism tends to undermine itself. The difficulty here is similar to what was faced at an earlier time by “logical positivism” or logical empiricism. The movement called “logical positivism,” or more precisely the position called “verificationism,” defined cognitive meaning in scientific terms, but this kind of meaning turned out not to include the fundamental doctrine of verificationism itself.
We can make similar observations about scientism. Let us suppose that the fundamental thesis of scientism is that all truth about the world is to be uncovered using scientific method. Then how would we uncover the truth that “all truth about the world is to be uncovered using scientific method”? If we apply the thesis to itself, it implies that the thesis must be demonstrated using scientific method. But how could this thesis be tested scientifically? What experiments do we run? The scientific method cannot hope to demonstrate a thesis about the general nature of truth. So by its own criterion, the fundamental thesis cannot be shown to be true. It undermines itself.
The question of the supernatural and God
The other conviction associated with naturalism is the conviction that the supernatural does not exist. But how could we know that? Scientific experiments naturally interact with the physical world. The supernatural, if it exists, is “super.” It is above nature. So science that investigates nature is automatically not adequate. Moreover, suppose that we are talking about God, rather than about created beings like angels. According to the teaching of the Bible, God is naturally present all the time, and is active all the time in the midst of what is ordinary as well as in the instance of extraordinary acts like miracles. Scientists do not “detect” him, not because he does not exist, but because he is not another “force” or “cause” on the same level as physical forces and causes. As usual, it is the limited focus of science, not the nonexistence of God, that generates the perception of “absence.”
In fact, the quick dismissal of God is arrogant, not thoughtful. It presupposes what it ought to prove. It tends to assume that the world is a world in which “scientific law” is like an impersonal mechanism. By contrast, the Bible presents us with a personal God, whose faithfulness in governing the world is the true foundation for scientific investigation. Psalm 104:14 says, “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate.” God works in a faithful way in growing the grass. Scientists are studying the faithfulness of God. God is present all the time. The denial of the supernatural is a way of trying to ignore God’s presence, to have the laws without the law giver.
Some people deny the possibility of exceptions in the form of miracles. But that makes sense only if a person has already convinced himself that a God who could work miracles is out of the picture. In other words, a person has to claim to know a lot about religious issues. In fact, the people in question do not know. They only trust that the world has the shape that they want it to have.
Other Weaknesses of Naturalism
We have already mentioned some of the weaknesses of naturalism as a worldview.
(1) It flattens human nature. It tends to notice only what it has already decided is worth noticing.
(2) It tends toward circularity. That is, the focus of scientific method on the physical aspect leads to physical results, which in turn are used to infer that the physical is all that there is.
(3) Like logical positivism, it tends to be self-undermining, because its fundamental thesis is excluded by its method. (4) It tends to dismiss the existence of God by assumption, not by demonstration.
We may now add a few further points.
(5) Naturalism is a poor foundation for morality. Within the worldview of naturalism, there is no easy way to justify universal moral standards. They become nothing more than personal preferences. Or, if we consider the morality of a group or a society, morality becomes only a social preference. You are evolved to have a preference for helping the old lady cross the street. The nearby bystander is evolved to have a preference for mugging the lady and taking her purse and her money. These preferences are both equally the product of mindless motions of atoms and mindless evolution. It is like saying that you prefer vanilla ice cream and he prefers chocolate.
(6) Naturalism is therefore also a poor platform to provide moral underpinnings for scientific work. It does not provide us with moral principles like honesty, integrity, patience, and humility that are important for human beings to do good scientific work.
(7) Naturalism is a poor platform for supporting hope for success in scientific research. Development in science depends on scientists who have ideas and whose minds are naturally in tune with the universe. They have to have confidence in their minds and their conceptions of the truth. But a narrow naturalism cannot account for ideas and minds at all, or else at best it converts them into epiphenomena, like the foam on the surface of the sea.4
(8) Naturalism does not harmonize with contemporary physics nearly as well as it thinks. In the nineteenth century, naturalism gained additional traction from the world picture offered in Newtonian physics. That world picture was deterministic. When people looked at physics, it appeared to some of them that the lesson was that everything was fated to happen in accord with inexorable physical laws that operated at the level of the most basic physical constituents—atoms, or, as twentieth century physics found, elementary particles. The physical laws predicted the future deterministically. No human being could escape the iron clutch of these laws. So everything could be accounted for by physics. Free will was an illusion.
The twentieth century included the surprising rise of quantum mechanics, which in fact was not “mechanical,” but introduced an irreducible element of unpredictability. The laws were probabilistic, not deterministic. And if God controls these unpredictabilities, as the Bible implies that he does, he cannot be banished by an appeal to physical causal determinism.5
In fact, most of the influence of naturalism is due to cultural factors. It lives off the prestige of the successes of modern experimental science. It smuggles in the assumption that since science is successful, it shows us everything that matters. It offers itself as a worldview that allows people to escape the uncomfortable idea of a personal God who controls the world and judges human actions. If the prominent people in the universities and the media are influenced by it, it is easy for others to adopt it without reflection. It propagates by osmosis, not by evidence.
A Biblically Based View
The Bible offers an alternative that is radically different. To begin with, God exists. And God is personal. He constantly rules the world (Psa. 104). He is present everywhere in the world (Jer. 23:24). So “nature” does not exist by itself. There is no such thing as nature that is not everywhere penetrated by the supernatural. God is always present and is always acting. Because he is personal, his actions express personal purposes. He may act exceptionally, if he chooses (we call such things “miracles”). Because God is personal, he can make human beings in his image, and they can be personal. Personhood cannot be reduced to molecules.
The biblical account in Genesis 2:7 indicates that God made man “of dust from the ground.” Our bodies have a physical aspect. We get physical bruises and eat physical food. But that is just one dimension. We are persons, designed to have personal and intimate communion with God who is personal.
The Bible presents us with a multi-dimensional world, rather than a world that is strictly reducible to its physical aspect.6 People feel the need to have a total explanation stemming only from the physical aspect because the physical aspect has become a substitute for God. Once God is in the picture, there is no need either to suppress physical science or to idolize it, as if it were the only path to the truth. Because we are made in the image of God, and given the task of dominion, scientific exploration of the world is part of the human task. It is a task to be undertaken in service of God and for the glory of God. When we do it that way, with the dignity of persons made in the image of God, science is one display of the wonderful capabilities of human beings, rather than a threat that would degrade them by merging them into the physical aspect of nature.
This significance of personhood is important in developing a biblical view of human nature.
- Creath, Richard, “Logical Empiricism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- Dirckx, Sharon. Am I Just My Brain? Epsom, England: Good Book, 2019.
- Egnor, Michael. “Naturalism and Self-Refutation,” Evolution News, Jan. 31, 2018.
- Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperOne, 2015.
- Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Poythress, Vern S. Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events. Wheaton, IL: Crosssway, 2013. Free PDF download here.
- Poythress, Vern S. Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. Especially pp. 44-186. Free PDF download here.
- Poythress, Vern S. Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. Free PDF download here.
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