Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 4

What do I think of the response to naturalism? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Our look at the work of Glenton Jelbert continues. This time it is a response to an essay on the problems of naturalism. He starts by pointing out that methodological naturalism does not equal metaphysical naturalism. Sure, but even still, this is a hard subject to discuss. Just recently, I read a work that had a chapter on this very topic.

Part of the problem is scientific methodology has thoroughly changed. Jelbert’s first time given on this is the 1550’s after the scientific revolution had begun. However, this assumes that there was a scientific revolution. In reality, science had been being done for centuries on without any sort of peep of objection from the church. The church itself was a driving force behind science.

While this is certainly the case in a work like God’s Philosophers, someone could be skeptical and say that that’s by a Christian. Indeed it is, but what if the same was being said by a non-Christian? How about Tim O’Neill? O’Neill is an atheist who would be one of the first to come out against this idea.

Did science get a jump start at a certain point? Yes. For all manner of reasons, but this is not because science was a neglected enterprise. This was a continuation. Industry had been an enterprise before the Industrial Revolution. We had plenty of technology before the technological revolution. There were plenty of things that were digital before the digital revolution.

The medievals were also quite often looking for “natural” explanations of what happened. Did they get the answers wrong many times? Sure. They at the same time weren’t making stuff up theologically and they weren’t doing God of the Gaps arguments. If anything, they wanted to fill in all the gaps. The more gaps they filled in, the more they wondered at the glory of God with a sort of “Wow. It’s really incredible how He did this.”

While we can say methodological naturalism has had some success, we still have to question it. What is methodological naturalism? Both of the terms are hard to define. If we mean that science cannot admit any extramaterial realities whatsoever, when we will have a problem. What if the universe was made by extramaterial realities? Then we have a definition of science that can never get us to the truth.

And what of naturalism? Has this naturalism been scientifically verified? If not, are we not begging the question? Why should a Christian have to go into the lab and bracket their beliefs but an atheist shouldn’t? Why not have both go with their beliefs?

As for no explanatory power behind extra-material realities, I could agree, provided we are not talking about everything that is. You may not need to posit God in an interaction that combines hydrogen and oxygen and gets water, but you do need Him to posit how the hydrogen and oxygen and anything else exists to begin with. The fine-tuning argument itself does point to many people to a designer of the universe. I’m not saying I use it as I’m not a scientist, but if one looks at the universe and thinks it’s the result of a mind, it’s not hard to think there is a mind behind it.

There is also the field of teleology where we look at the purpose behind things. It has often been thought that modern science has killed this, but this is false. Modern science in fact depends on it. Let’s consider evolution for instance. What does evolution do? It allows the most fit to survive so that they can pass on their genes and the creatures that are the most fit do indeed survive. That is teleology in itself. The reality of things acting for an end does not have to posit an intentional acting on their part, much like the arrow doesn’t intentionally fly towards the target, but having a mind as the connection behind things certainly does explain data very well. Those interested in more of this are invited to check the work of Edward Feser on the fifth way of Thomas Aquinas.

Another example could be the ID movement saying that junk DNA has a purpose. I do not say this as a supporter of ID, but if a claim is made, why not consider looking into it? It is my understanding that it has been found that it does have a purpose and why did they think that? Because they posited that there is an intelligence who would not waste in that way.

Besides that, Christians for the most part do not think that this universe requires constant direct intervention. It doesn’t change our looking at it is the work of God. One of my wife’s favorite Bible passages is about being fearfully and wonderfully made. Granting David wrote the Psalm, we can be sure that he knew the basics of modern biology, in the sense that it takes sex to make a baby. There is no indication that David thought all would be well after the Bathsheba incident because the ordinary peasants had no idea what made babies. They knew it very well.

The modern gynecologist today certainly knows a lot more about what happens when the sperm enters the female body, but that doesn’t change anything about humans being fearfully and wonderfully made. The process is deep and intricate, but we are still that. This is also in fact why saying we are the products of evolution would not bother me. The methodology does not change the end result.

Jelbert goes on to say that the rise of modern science led us to be able to say “I don’t know.” It’s something to think that this is something no one ever said before. Obviously they did, because they were seeking answers to the questions. It would also be strange to say that this is because of Christian theism. Do we need to suggest that Aristotle, who did get a lot of things wrong, was opposed to doing investigation?

Jelbert’s main piece of information on this is to compare a map with the 1490’s and that of the 1550’s. The maps are from the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The claim is the earlier one was beautiful and complete in every detail, but wrong because guesses were seen as an adequate substitute for knowledge. Meanwhile, the later one is blank where the mapmaker does not know what is there.

Sadly, without seeing the maps, it’s hard to comment on them. In each case, we are dealing with one cartographer and it’s hard to point to one and see them as representative of the whole of the time. It’s also quite hard to read motives. Guesses were seen as knowledge? How is this known? Has Jelbert looked to see how beliefs were arrived at the time? Does he have any sources from the medieval period that show this?

Jelbert goes on to say that naturalism explained things better than theism. Once again, naturalism does explain things very well, unless you ask it to explain everything to which it fails miserably. Naturalism still has the basic question of why is there something rather than nothing at all? Naturalism can explain how one existent thing becomes another, but it can’t seem to explain why there is any existent thing at all.

Jelbert also says that every technological advance and improved understanding of our universe comes from science. Once again, this is fine, unless you think of anything that is not scientific. If we were talking about moral living for instance, what has been the greatest impetus to moral living except the life of Jesus of Nazareth? If we even want to talk about science, what caused the rise of science but the rise of Christianity itself? If we are talking about the study of the material world, I am not surprised that science does the most there since that is what science is to study, but do most people really think the goods and knowledge of the material world are the best? When it comes to questions of how to be a good spouse, how to love your neighbor, what kind of lessons you want to leave behind, etc., I doubt few of us head to the sciences.

I will not comment on the evolution of personality and such. That’s a topic I have not studied and one I deem irrelevant. To say that we have evolution, therefore God is not needed, is to still have a God-of-the-Gaps theology. If Jelbert wishes to condemn that kind of thinking, he needs to avoid it himself.

He does get into some that evolution cannot guarantee us true beliefs, seeing as many people today are superstitious and such, and I do not mean religious by that. This is in fact the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism put forward by Plantinga. Evolution could give us beliefs that helps us survive, but that does not entail that those beliefs are true.

Jelbert says that reason has provided better results and there is no alternative. Indeed, but why is this so? Is this not a good question to ask? We are often told so much that we should be exploring the questions and this is scientific. If the universe is a result of a cosmic accident, why should it be reasonable and why should we be able to relate to and understand one another? Why does it seem that the mathematics that we have and have developed on our own works so well?

It is quite odd that Jelbert has a chapter on how important it is to ask the questions and explore, but when he comes to the big one, which is about everything, that one doesn’t seem to be as worthy of exploration. As I have said throughout, naturalism is very good at explaining some things, except everything. Jelbert strikes me as pointing to some points and thinking that all points are explained. Also, without looking further at medieval and other sources, I do not think I can accept the claims about the medieval period. I just do not find the arguments in this chapter convincing.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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