Justin Topp on his blog A biologist’s view of science & religion has just recently cleared his google reader and posted a Not so Weekly Links Update. There are many good links here on science, religion, or science and religion. One in particular caught my notice. This post on Naturalism and Investigating the Unnatural is found on a blog written by John Wilkins, an agnostic and a philosopher of science. It refers to and comments on an online exchange between two philosophers on the New York Times site, What is Naturalism by Timothy Williamson and Why I am a Naturalist by Alex Rosenberg. Timothy Williamson has since come back with a third post On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism. Three philosophers shouldn’t have the last word on science, naturalism, and religion, however. Yet another article also crossed my path this week Does God Exist by Alan Lightman. Lightman is a physicist and novelist, currently an adjunct professor of humanities, creative Writing, physics at MIT (faculty page), a rather interesting mix.
These four essays all explore different aspects of the relationship between science, naturalism, and faith. None of the four authors profess to any religious belief. John Wilkins and Timothy Williamson are agnostic (because one cannot know for sure) or atheist. Alex Rosenberg is unreservedly a naturalist – as the title to his essay makes clear. Alan Lightman is also an atheist although his stance is somewhat less rigid than Rosenberg’s.
Lightman starts his essay by reflecting on religion and why religion always seems to come up in discussion – even among those who profess no faith, who come together in a thoroughly secular environment to discuss things like science and art.
What continues to astonish me is the frequency with which religion slips into the room, unbidden but persistent. One member of our group, playwright and director Alan Brody, offers this explanation: “Theater has always been about religion. I am talking about the beliefs that we live by. And science is the religion of the twenty-first century.”
But if science is the religion of the 21st century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God?
This is an interesting observation. Science – naturalism and the expectation of natural explanation for anything and everything – is the underlying premise of much of modern life, and is certainly the underlying philosophy taught in our colleges and universities. It is in the air and the water, assumed in almost every discussion and premise, whether explicit or implicit. I wonder though, if this is general experience or limited to academics.
Is science the religion of the 21st century?
If so how does this impact your life or your mission?
How does this environment of naturalism impact the gospel today?
There are a number of interesting points we could take up from these four essays, and I’ll touch on several of them over the course of a series of posts, but I would like to start today with the concept of naturalism. First Wilkins’s definition of naturalism.
Naturalism is a project: It aims to try to explain all things, including mental activities and experiences, origins of living things, ethics, and so forth … by natural processes which are nomologically constrained.
I’ve included a link for those who, like me, don’t find “nomological” to be a word in their everyday vocabulary. It is the right word here though because it describes the essence of the approach. Naturalism is an approach to the investigation of the world around us that assumes that there is rhyme and reason, cause and effect in the world. We can put together the pieces in a way that makes sense. The scientific approach to knowledge and knowing, the underpinning principles of much of the present academic exercise, is that natural events are explicable by natural processes and by discoverable laws of nature.
Alan Lightman refers to this as the Central Doctrine of Science:
The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.
The scientific project, whether searching for an explanation for superluminal neutrino’s (either observational error or some new facet of physics) or an explanation for the origin of the universe, the diversity of species, and the origin of life operates under the assumption that there is some natural string of cause and event that gives rise to the reality we observe around us. Science can take no other approach.
This doesn’t mean, however, that scientific knowledge is the only kind of true knowledge. Dr. Williamson tries to make this point in his essays in the New York Times. He points to mathematical knowledge, historical knowledge, and literary criticism as places where there is a kind of knowledge that is not scientific knowledge and calls into question “pure” naturalism as the sole source of knowledge. Dr. Lightman also points out that the Central Doctrine of science is itself an assumption, it cannot be proven.
However we look at it naturalism, the assumption of natural explanation, and the consequences raised by this view is a prevailing and growing view in the 21st century. Naturalism formulates and forms the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives. In this sense it is the 21st century religion.
Naturalism and the Gospel. Scot has a post up today on the Gospel, a discussion of a central premise in his book, The King Jesus Gospel. The gospel is the story of God’s work in the world. Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament story of Israel and the work of God. We need this book and we need the kind of radical recovery of the story gospel because nothing else will fly in today’s world. People who are embedded in the naturalism and humanism of western civilization are not going to be sold on a need for salvation and escape from hell. The story is what we have to sell – and it is the only thing we have to sell. God’s work in the world is the gospel and is what frames our hope for the future.
What do you think?
How do you understand naturalism? Is it an underlying feature of your view of the world?
How does this impact our understanding and presentation of the gospel?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
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