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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, 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: 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 of religion.

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.

Whitehead, Bergson

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 deification of 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: 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.

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:
Last modified, March 12, 2002, RbS