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Lecture 19: Naturalism & Process Thought
Naturalism, or scientific materialism is a particular variety of scientific thought
that is very popular in the 20th century. It incorporates a lot of mechanistic
philosophy and is often very "deterministic" with a firm belief in "chance". In
its relation to religion it comes in two forms, mild and virulent.
The milder version would say that religion is irrelevant for science, and possibly
for life in general and society in particular. At my college, a traditionally
fundamentalist school, my Physics professor was required by the administration to
"integrate faith and learning" in the classroom. So we spent the better part of one
lecture attempting this, which he initiated by asking us how our faith was related
to the practice of science. After our fumbling attempts to say it meant being
cheerful and truthful, he related this anecdote. A colleague had told him that he
should never pray for his experiments. "Why?" he asked. "Because if prayer works,
then it is miraculous, and no one will be able to duplicate your experiment, which
violates the definition of science. But if prayer doesn't work, then it is a
waste of time."
Carl Sagan's introduction to the
book A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, says it this way,
This, Hawking's first book for the nonspecialist, holds rewards
of many kinds for the lay audience. As interesting as the book's
wide-ranging contents is the glimpse it provides into the workings
of its author's mind. In this book are lucid revelations on the
frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and courage.
The more virulent form of naturalism says that science has made religion superfluous,
and now religion is an impediment to science.
Various people have played the attack dog of materialism over the years, Bertrand
Russell filled that role in the first half of the 20th century, but in the
latter half, none have done
so well as Richard Dawkins, a British biologist. In describing his anti-faith in
materialism, his complete denial of purpose, he writes:
This is also a book about God . . . or perhaps about the absence
of God. The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest
to answer Einstein's famous question about whether God had any
choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he
explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes
all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least
so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end
in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.
Paley drives his point home with beautiful and reverent
descriptions of the dissected machinery of life, beginning with
the human eye... Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity
and is informed by the best biological scholarship of his day,
but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong...Natural selection,
the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered,
and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and
apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It
has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future.
It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be
said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind
Thus for Dawkins a belief in purpose, and a purposeful God, is not just an eccentric
delusion to be humored, but a deceitful lie that prevents science from progressing.
In his words to the Edinburgh International Science Festival:
"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to
think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps
because of, the lack of evidence." In more inflammatory language, "Faith is a kind
of mental illness", "one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox
virus but harder to eradicate."
One can group all these diverse people
together as united in a commitment to a metaphysics of scientific materialism. In addition,
they also show the same paradoxical behaviors:
a surprising lack of humility discussing what they have never
understood, an immovable belief in the progress
of man and science, a tragic romanticism finding meaning in a
meaningless world, an unflagging goal to deny all purpose, and a religious zeal
to fight theistic religion.
These "hard science" practitioners disparage religion, but they make no attempt to
explain the attractiveness of religion. That task has been left, for the most part, to
psychologists and sociologists. Hence the 8th chapter of SRI involves a number
of influential "soft science" practitioners: L. Fuerbach (1804-1872),
William James (1842-1910), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and their reinterpretation
A physicist might reply to a statement of faith by questioning the validity of the data,
but it is the psychologist who has perfected the ad hominem retort
(spoken with feigned surprise) "Why? Is it important to you?"
To paraphrase the well-known method, if you can't answer the question, find a question
you can answer. So William James, rather than answering the question of God's existence, instead
answered the question of the experience of God's existence. Science could not (or would not)
make God a proper subject of study, but by refocussing on the human experience of God, science
found a proper subject. Which is not to say that the study of man, anthropology, has been
very enlightening about the study of God, theology.
Can one understand physics by dissecting Einstein's brain?
But this is exactly the approach that grew out of the German liberalism of the 1800's.
Fuerbach saw religion as a projection of human longings. Freud built on this foundation
a rather complex and involved myth about wish-fulfillment and repressed sexual feelings.
His view that religion evolved historically from a group of sons that murdered their father
to have access to his wives with religious ritual arising from this collective guilt may not
be taken too seriously today, but the attitude or approach of deconstructing transcendent
truths with materialistic reductionism took firm root in science.
Thus the conflict between science and religion deepened throughout most of the 20th century,
with each side saying unflattering (and probably untruthful) statements about the other.
As we came to the end of the century, there appeared to be some small indications that
the two sides might be reconciled. Paul Davies writes in God and the New Physics that
"science may provide a surer path to God". Surer than what? It appears he means that hard science
reveals God more clearly than the soft sciences, that physics is better than anthropology
in uncovering purpose. William Paley would have agreed. Davies is coy, but he hints that
the anthropic principle and the origins of life may indicate teleology, a vital force.
What he is referring to is the one anomaly of the 20th century debate, the one semi-respectable
attempt to combine religion and science known as Process Philosophy or Process Theology.
Process in Philosophy and Theology
Although neither Process Theology nor Process Philosophy made much of an impact
on me either in seminary or graduate school in physics, it evidently was quite compelling to
both scientists and theologians slightly older than myself. Somewhere in the 1960's
it must have peaked in popularity for quite a number of physicists-turned-philosopher
have embraced it, including Barbour, Polkinghorne and perhaps Davies.
So despite my indifference, I feel compelled to address its advantages and shortcomings,
and perhaps the cause of its fall from fame.
There are a number of philosophical and theological problems that previous generations
bequeathed us, and none felt the weight of inheritance more burdensome than the
generation of the 60's. Orthodox Christianity was saddled with the problem of evil--how a good,
all-knowing and all-powerful God could tolerate evil (much less the squares who were
all over 30.) Logical positivism seemed completely unable to cope with the explosion of
physical theories that were changing our world, and was bogged down, for example,
defining "space". Neo-Kantian idealists seemed off in their own little world that was
denying the reality of the atom while atom bombs seemed all too real to the rest of the world.
Nor did the Laplacian determinists have any answer at all for the causes of war and the
promotion of peace. Clearly the times they were a'changing, and all the stodgy philosophies
weren't. An approach that captures that mood, that fluidity was surely to be preferred.
Abandonning the primacy of physics and adopting the language of biology, they felt that a
proper metaphor might perhaps hold that the
world and life were organic, growing and changing while ever staying the same. The danger
in this metaphor, of course, is a potential descent into alchemy, the occult and the
nature. So there had to be an upfront separation between a respectable philosophy and
pagan nature worship, a clear difference between panentheism and pantheism. As Bergson,
Whitehead and Tielhard de Chardin tried to express it, God is
in everything but everything is not God. God finds himself swept along by history
and time just as we do, yet he maintains his identity, like us, despite the changes.
And just as time and change influence but do not force us, so God influences
us without forcing us to bend to his will.
Perhaps an example will clarify the difference. In
Laplacian determinism, the future is contained in the past and is unavoidable, determined.
There is no room for improvement over the past unless one hides it in the positions
of the atoms like some clever card trick. Likewise in a fatalistic Christianity, God lives
outside of time and knows and preordains the future of the world. But for Bergson
there is an elan vital that pushes the world toward improvement, toward
perfection without actually demanding it. It is a creative force that influences
evolution and man to progress without being obvious in either space or time.
In Darwin's terminology, natural selection uses random, purposeless, chance events to
accomplish a purposeful evolution toward perfection.
Given that Bergson and Whitehead developed their views in the decades before WWI, when
world trade had reached levels not surpassed until 1980 and many
churches had announced the imminent arrival of the millenium as the 1000 years of peace
and prosperity promised in the book of Revelation, it is not too surprising to find
such optimism. It is perhaps worth noting that Bergson's prolific output diminished
abruptly in 1914 at the onset of WWI, publishing exactly one book between 1914 and
his death in 1941 which
concerned his conversion from Judaism to Catholic Christianity. Irrational exuberance
was no match for the brutality of war.
As Europe recovered from the World Wars, optimism had to rise afresh in America, and
Whitehead's appointment at Harvard in 1924 ushered in the development of what became
known as "Process Philosophy", with a religious component called "Process
Theology". An extended quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has
this to say:
As Whitehead himself explains, his "philosophy of organism is the
inversion of Kant's philosophy ... For Kant, the world emerges from
the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from
So if I can summarize, Whitehead opposed the determinism, the secularization
of science that had become the goal of logical positivism. He did not see
any hope of resurrecting Paley's deism, so he embraced evolutionary change
as the expression of how God interacted with the world. This was particularly
welcome to those in the religious ghetto of Kant, who welcomed an academic
alternative to irrelevance, but was despised by the majority of secularized
philosophers who had long since abandonned teleology.
Significantly, this view runs counter to the more traditional view
of material substance: "There persists," says Whitehead, "[a] fixed
scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an
irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux
of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless,
purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine
imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of
its being. It is this assumption that I call "scientific materialism."
Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely
unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now
The assumption of scientific materialism is effective in many
contexts, says Whitehead, only because it directs our attention to a
certain class of problems that lend themselves to analysis within this
framework. However, scientific materialism is less successful when
addressing issues of teleology and when trying to develop a
comprehensive, intergrated picture of the universe as a whole.
According to Whitehead, recognition that the world is organic rather
than materialistic is therefore essential, and this change in viewpoint
can result as easily from attempts to understand modern physics as from
attempts to understand human psychology and teleology. Says Whitehead,
"Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic
field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition
this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the
general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the
The end result is that Whitehead concludes that "nature is a
structure of evolving processes. The reality is the
Whitehead's ultimate attempt to develop a metaphysical unification
of space, time, matter, events and teleology has proved to be
controversial. In part this may be because of the connections that
Whitehead saw between his metaphysics and traditional theism. According
to Whitehead, religion is concerned with permanence amid change, and
can be found in the ordering we find within nature, something he
sometimes called the "primordial nature of God". Thus although not
especially influential among contemporary Anglo-American secular
philosophers, his metaphysical ideas have had greater influence among
many theologians and philosophers of religion.
If it was Einstein who had inspired the Neo-Kantian logical positivists,
it was Darwin and Bohr that inspired the process philosophers.
For Evolution requires, almost as an article of faith, that process be progressive,
inspiring a unvocalized hope in improvement of man. Quantum Mechanics
argues for the mysterious nature of atoms that do not exist as particles
between measurements, but are weirdly distributed waves. The act of measurement,
of becoming real, is more significant than the time between, of being real.
Clearly this is Whitehead at his best, and many physicists found inspiration
in this expression of the new physics.
Not only did process theology find a way to explain evolution, quantum
mechanics and keep God in his creation, Whitehead also solves the problem of evil.
For God, though omniscient and omnibenevolent, is not omnipotent, but is ravaged
by time as we are. Like Rabbi Kushner's God, Whitehead's God inspires our pity,
though perhaps not our reverence.
Thus we can see at once both the persuasion and pitfalls of process thought. It
strikes a delicate balance between materialistic fatalism and religious teleology, allowing
a little bit of both in unspecified proportions. But it risks the condescension of
secular science and the irrelevance of a finite deity.
It puts enormous faith in the paradigm of Evolutionary progress, a paradigm under
attack today from both right and left. At best, it is a resting
place in history for travelers between the coasts of fundamentalism and liberalism,
between purpose and futility, between the bang and the whimper of life.
At worst, it is a opiate for those who never quite understood that God is Dead,
and could never be revived in infinite time.
Davies captures the mood quite well when he concludes the The Fifth Miracle with:
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is therefore the testing ground for two
diametrically opposed world-views. On one side is orthodox science, with its
nihilistic philosophy of the pointless universe, of impersonal laws
oblivious of ends, a cosmos in which life and mind, science and art, hope and fear
are but fluky incidental embellishments on a tapestry of irreversible
cosmic corruption. On the other, there is an alternative view, undeniably
romantic but perhaps true nevertheless, the vision of a self-organizing
and self-complexifying universe, governed by ingenious laws that encourage
matter to evolve towards life and consciousness. A universe in which
the emergence of thinking beings is a fundamental and integral
part of the overall scheme of things. A universe in which we are not alone.
Last modified, March 12, 2002, RbS