Correspondence on Naturalism

A correspondence on naturalism from the sophomore and senior worldview classes at Christian Heritage School in Hillsboro, Oregon.

This correspondence is in response to an open letter to Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about his misrepresentations of naturalism. The students raise interesting, well-formulated questions that anyone considering naturalism as a worldview would want answered. The replies therefore cover some central concerns about naturalism such as its internal coherence, the naturalist's commitment to empiricism, naturalistic metaphysics, and the naturalistic basis for morality. The spirit of inquiry and intellectual level of these letters speak well of the educational standards at Heritage Christian, even if from a naturalistic perspective the underlying theistic worldview is debatable. The letters are also a welcome example of the kind of communication that can maintain amicable relations between naturalists and anti-naturalists, helping to ensure the survival of the open society.

Thanks to the students and instructors at Heritage for granting permission to post this exchange, and for being such good correspondents.

Cover letter from Christian Heritage Instructors

February 10, 2009

Dear Mr. Tom Clark,

Our names are Nick Plato and Jay Hawthorne; we are high school teachers at Heritage Christian School in Hillsboro, OR. At our school we teach using Socratic questioning, reading classical texts such as Plato's Republic and other Great Books of Western Civilization. In studying various philosophies in our Worldview classes, we exposed our students to your response to Mr. Albert Mohler. This interchange was used to teach students about argument, rhetoric, and naturalism.

As teachers at a classical school, we seek to be intellectually honest and accurate in representing any viewpoint, especially differing ones. It is our hope that through interacting with a respected Naturalist, such as yourself, rationality, fairness and honest thinking will be reinforced in our students.

Enclosed you'll find two letters, one from 10th graders and one from 12th graders. These letters were based upon student critiques individually written and collaboratively synthesized into their current form. However, this synthesis was restricted to the respective classes, so each letter accurately represents that grade level's ability, understanding, and rhetoric. This project is the culmination of many weeks of thinking, reading, and discussing naturalism.

Students in both classes labored diligently on this project and are now in a state of hopeful expectation of your reply. However, in light of your responsibilities we understand the multitude of commitments you have might prevent a response. Although you're not under any obligation, we, and our students would be overjoyed with a response of any sort.

Thank you for your time and consideration. 


Mr. Nicholas Plato, M.Ed. and Mr. Jay Hawthorne, M.A.
Humanities Department
Heritage Christian School
Hillsboro, Oregon

Reply to Instructors

February 18, 2009

Mr. Nicholas Plato, M.Ed.
Mr. Jay Hawthorne, M.A.
Heritage Christian School

Dear Nick and Jay (if I may),

I was delighted to receive your letter and those from the seniors and sophomores at Heritage Christian School, very impressive!  I much appreciate the thoughtful, well expressed questions your students have formulated, which indicate they have indeed worked hard in evaluating worldview naturalism. Enclosed are two letters in reply which I hope will help to clarify my position on physicalism, the naturalistic basis for morality, and other concerns they raised.

Let me know if I may publish this correspondence at Naturalism.Org; I think many readers would find it interesting and benefit from it. But it’s your call entirely.

Again, many thanks to you and your students for initiating this dialog, and for considering the possibilities and perils of naturalism. Your openness to honest inquiry sets a very high standard.

best regards,

Thomas W. Clark, Director
Center for Naturalism

Letter from Sophomores

February 10, 2009

Dear Mr. Tom Clark,

We genuinely appreciate the response you wrote to Dr. Mohler entitled "Misrepresenting Naturalism." Thank you for writing it with respect and clarity. We like the fact that you addressed the issues at hand rather than attacking the person. After discussing your letter in class we wrote individual critiques of naturalism as well as the selection included in this letter. Our class would find great delight in hearing from you.

In this letter we will be focusing predominately on an argument we are sure you are familiar with: The Argument from Incoherence. In our critique, we begin with the statement "all things are physical," a conclusion to which most, if not all, naturalists, adhere. We go on to demonstrate why this seems to inevitably lead to circular reasoning. According to the naturalist epistemological view, only the physical can be known, and it is therefore clear that the only available proof for this claim is physical. However, to prove that all things are physical by physical data is circular reasoning. Consequently, the only plausible data in support of this claim would be non-physical data. However, to use non-physical data as support for the claim that "all things are physical" would be a direct contradiction of the basic naturalistic assumption that only the physical can be known. It seems to us, therefore, that the only conclusion is that naturalism is an illogical worldview, because even one its most basic claims cannot be proven without breaking one its own premises.

Our class wrote critiques on arguments against naturalism in addition to the one above and were thus conflicted as to which to include in this letter. We would like to ask you some questions regarding the following issues: Concerning the Moral Law, if morals originate from instincts, then why is it that we sometimes suppress our stronger instincts to choose the weaker? For example, if your friend is in danger, you experience two conflicting instincts. The stronger instinct is to save yourself, and the weaker one is to save your friend. What is the third 'voice in our head' that tells us to choose the weaker one? In addition, Biological design is also a worthy argument. We have found that the probability of random mutation causing the complexity of biological organisms seems highly unlikely. Taking this into consideration, how can you justify your confidence in evolution?

We would also like to share with you an observation we came up with regarding your opinion of our Christian worldview. In the first sentence of the section titled "Towards Peaceful Coexistence of Worldview" you state, "I obviously don't expect you or your congregation to accept that worldview of naturalism; its cognitive commitment to science and philosophy is too austere, too impersonal for those accustomed to the comforts of the theistic faith." We are unsure whether you were broadening the "you and your congregation" to all Christians, but some clarification here would be beneficial. We are not afraid where science and philosophy will take us, for we desire the truth; we are on the same quest as you. You stated" ... we ask. .. not to be mischaracterized and misunderstood." We ask the same of you.

To close, we deeply appreciate the time that you have invested in reading this letter, and your consideration of the topics here discussed. We are eager to hear from a respected naturalist authority on the subjects we have written to you and greatly anticipate a reply.


Sophomore Worldview Class of Heritage Christian School

Reply to Sophomores

February 18, 2009

Dear Sophomore Worldview Class,

I read your letter with great interest and much appreciate your taking the time to investigate worldview naturalism. I congratulate you on your good questions which indicate a very high level of understanding. If I were king, all high school sophomores would have the opportunity to conduct philosophical inquiry into worldviews as you have done under the guidance of Mr. Plato and Mr. Hawthorne. Back in the 1960’s, our headmaster at the Commonwealth School in Boston taught such a course. We referred to it simply as “Bible class” since the Bible was one of the main texts, along with such classics as Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man and William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies. In any case, here are some responses to your questions.

1) Regarding “the argument from incoherence,” I would respond as follows:

The naturalist is not necessarily committed to physicalism or materialism, the idea that “all things are physical.” Naturalists can be, and sometimes are, ontological pluralists, who might believe in the existence of mental, non-physical things as well as physical things. (About this see The Commitments of Naturalism – A Dialog.) For instance, in the study of consciousness, a leading philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, calls himself a naturalistic dualist. He thinks it might well turn out that there are categorically mental, non-physical entities in the natural world (e.g., “qualia,” your private subjective experiences of pain, color, taste, etc.) that are related to physical things (such as your brain) by so-called psycho-physical laws. I happen to disagree, but I have to leave open the possibility that Chalmers might be proven right.

The naturalist’s epistemology (at least as I understand and present it) relies primarily on science and other intersubjective modes of knowing that use publicly available evidence, as opposed to people’s subjective experience, intuition and revelation. This epistemological stance doesn’t rule out the existence of non-physical entities such as souls, spirits and gods, but it does require that existence claims be supported by repeatable public observation. The naturalist primarily wants a reliable, coherent picture of the world, and she doesn’t know in advance what the world’s ontology will be. It may contain only physical objects or it may not – that’s for philo-scientific investigation (the collaboration of science and philosophy) to decide.

So, to summarize: naturalism is not committed to the idea that “all things are physical” since its ontology is determined by an epistemology which doesn’t specify in advance what sorts of things exist in the world. So I don’t think naturalism is illogical or self-contradictory in the way you claim it is.

2) Regarding morality, you ask “if morals originate from instincts, then why is it we sometimes suppress our stronger instincts to choose the weaker?” and give the example of saving a friend (weak) instead of yourself (strong). But of course we can’t assume that one’s desire for self-preservation is always stronger than the desire to save a friend. In fact, the naturalist would explain behavior by saying that desires compete within a person, and that sometimes the desire to save a friend wins. Naturalists don’t suppose there is a third thing, a dispassionate moral “voice in our head,” that chooses between desires in order to do the right thing. That wouldn’t help since a dispassionate chooser would have no reason to choose one desire over the other (if it did have a reason then of course it wouldn’t be dispassionate, but just another desire (see The flaw of fatalism about this). Evolution made us altruistic as well as selfish, and sometimes the altruistic side of ourselves wins the internal psychological battle and gains control over behavior.

3) Re your question about evolution, it’s important to remember that although mutations are random, the process of natural selection is definitely not. Some random mutations give organisms a reproductive advantage over their competitors, which results in an increasingly good, non-random fit between successful organisms and their environments. But of course environments change, which allows room for new random mutations to give rise to new species adapted to the changed environment. Sometimes this results in more complexity in an organism, sometimes not – it depends on the particular environment, including the organisms already present in it. In any case, I have great confidence in the theory of evolution by natural selection because of the voluminous evidence for it gathered over the last century and a half (since Darwin’s publication of On the Origins of Species in 1859). Should evidence to the contrary come to light, I would change my mind.

4) I’m glad to hear that you are “not afraid of where science and philosophy will take us, for we desire the truth; we are on the same quest as you.” This gives us a lot in common, including a desire for an open society in which people are free to pursue science and philosophy in schools such as Heritage Christian and Commonwealth, as well as public schools. However, I do think there are important differences between naturalists and anti-naturalists in their approach to knowing about the world, and in their ontological commitments, for instance to the existence of God. I’ve written about these differences in papers at Naturalism.Org, in particular Reality and its rivals and the papers and reviews in the theology section. It’s these differences that help explain why people such as ourselves, engaged in the quest for truth, can end up with such different conclusions about reality.

Many thanks again for your good letter and for opening up this avenue for dialog. I’m much encouraged by your inquiring spirit, intelligence and good will in wanting to explore these questions. You are a credit to sophomores everywhere!

best regards,

Tom Clark, Director
Center for Naturalism

Letter from Seniors

February 18, 2009

Dear Mr. Tom Clark,

On behalf of the senior worldview class at Heritage Christian School in Portland, Oregon, we would be honored to engage in correspondence about Naturalism with you. In critically examining Albert Mohler's blog about Naturalism and your enlightening response titled, "Misrepresenting Naturalism," our class decided to write you this letter. We appreciated your counterarguments and were pleased that you explained your worldview in great detail. Your letter offers a chance to gain a better understanding of Naturalism. Like you, we agree with your strong belief in moral responsibility. You say, "The need for public safety, deterrence, rehabilitation, and restitution all require an effective humane criminal justice system," This is certainly true but we are unconvinced that Naturalism can provide a non-relativistic ethical standard.

Naturalism assumes what is provable by science is considered empirically true. With this approach science has proven many theories and helped advance technology. But how can science prove something is ethically right or wrong? After all, ethics are not verified by empirical means. For example, Naturalists, like most people, agree that the Holocaust was a horrible atrocity; but, to Hitler the Holocaust was a great victory. The evil of the Holocaust is self evident. Yet from Naturalists' articles, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, your letter to Albert Mohler, and other articles from worldview class, it does not seem like Naturalism has the means to adjudicate between Hitler's assessment of the Holocaust and the present global consensus of that atrocity.

Again, how can science measure something that is in itself immaterial, e.g. ethics? The inability to create an objective empirical standard leads to moral relativity. In a morally relative scenario the standard laws are the ones that can be enforced by authority. In numerous countries, this means multiple coups with many factions vying for power. Each new ruling power has its own agenda it believes is right. Since there is no moral standard authorities can decide what is right and wrong arbitrarily. In the U.S. we do not quite have this "might makes right" situation, instead a majority decides. However, a majority could decide murder is ok; would this really make murder right? So it seems even in a democracy morals can be arbitrary.

Unless there is a set measure for right and wrong, it is subjective. It seems to us that Naturalism cannot bring about ethics because it cannot provide a basis for non-relativistic ethical standards. We realize you may not hold all the things we have assumed about naturalism to be true. Of course Naturalists may be moral; we are simply concerned that your view has no safeguard against moral relativism. We respect your view, and once again we appreciate the effort you put into your article. It provided us plenty to discuss: both what we ourselves thought as well as what scholars and philosophers see as the pros and cons of Naturalism. We hope to gain more insight and a more balanced understanding about Naturalism by reading more of your work in the future. Though without undue expectation, we would be honored to continue in correspondence with you. We thank you for taking the time to read our letter.


Senior Worldview Class of Heritage Christian School

Reply to Seniors

February 10, 2009

Dear Senior Worldview Class,

I was very pleased to get your most thoughtful, well-written letter, and I certainly appreciate your interest in worldview naturalism. You raise good questions that demonstrate familiarity with the ongoing debate between naturalists and anti-naturalists, and you do so in a way that fosters mutual respect and tolerance. That for me is the primary goal: to maintain a peaceful culture of open inquiry in which people are free to disagree about these fundamental matters. As you know, it hasn’t always been this way, and in some parts of the world this sort of dialog simply isn’t allowed.

Your basic concern is that naturalism can’t provide a non-relativistic ethical standard. Let’s assume for the moment that you’re right about this. Does this imply that naturalism is therefore false? Not at all. The possible consequences or implications of a worldview, some of which we might find distasteful or upsetting, don’t bear on its truth, which has to be judged independently of what we might want to be the case. The truth about the world might not be to our liking but that wouldn’t make it untrue. It’s important to see this, because otherwise our desires, for instance for a non-relativistic ethical standard, might be biasing our view of reality. If we want to represent reality accurately, we have to insulate ourselves from the influence of such desires as best as we can. About this see Reality and its rivals.

This assumes, of course, that you’re interested in getting at the truth about things, not just defending a pre-conceived notion of how reality must be. As the sophomores put it in their letter, “We are not afraid of where science and philosophy will take us, for we desire the truth; we are on the same quest as you.” I trust you are as well.

Here’s an attempt to address your concerns about naturalism, morality and relativism:

Morality as a natural phenomenon. The naturalistic basis for ethics can only be in the natural world, since there is nothing more than nature according to naturalism. In particular, human moral systems are based in human nature, which in turn is explained by natural selection (at the gene, individual and perhaps the group level - the scientific debate about this goes on). So, according to naturalism, morality is a completely natural phenomenon, not something supernatural handed down to us from God. Because human beings share a common human nature, this endows us with a (nearly) universally shared set of moral intuitions, but of course there are variations in moral norms stemming from cultural differences. This shared moral sense involves such things as intuitions about treating people fairly, about not harming them unnecessarily, loyalty to family and group, and wanting to be treated as an end in oneself, not as a means to achieving someone else’s agenda. Just about all human beings, religious or not, and in all sorts of different cultures, end up with these basic intuitions about how people should be treated, which form the natural basis of morality. (A good recent article on this is The Moral Instinct by Steven Pinker at the New York Times.) Of course it doesn’t mean that people don’t sometimes cheat, lie, steal and murder, since unfortunately naturally evolved creatures like ourselves also have selfish, non-moral propensities to take advantage of others who are less smart or powerful. This gives life an unavoidably tragic dimension, as naturalists see it.

Science and equal human rights. One tragedy, as you point out, was the Holocaust, engendered by the unscientific ideology that Jews are inherently inferior to other human ethnicities and races. Prejudicial attitudes about Jews and other groups, including females, non-whites, gays, lesbians, and other minorities, often stem from worldviews and ideologies (for instance Nazism and white supremacy) that have no scientific basis. As science has made progress, and we see that human beings are of essentially the same nature, whatever their gender, race or sexual orientation, prejudice against them becomes harder to justify. So there’s a link between the rise of empirical science and the rise of equal human rights, which counts as moral progress from the point of view of all those accorded such rights (about this see Empiricism and equality). So even though there is no supernatural moral standard according to naturalism, there is still a basis for moral non-relativism: that human rights should be accorded to all human beings since there are no good naturalistic grounds to deny any class of human beings such rights, rights they all naturally desire and would naturally grant to their peers if given the chance. The more individuals that enjoy such rights, the better. Again, this isn’t to deny the obvious: that there are individuals in any peer group that will try to subvert the rights of others by lying, cheating, stealing, etc. and who therefore must be kept in check by systems of rewards and punishments. But the fact that there are rule breakers doesn’t mean that human beings aren’t generally moral animals (as Robert Wright argues in his book The Moral Animal); it just means that morality exists because we are social creatures who survived mainly by forming cooperative groups that unfortunately sometimes need to punish free riders and rule-breakers.

Naturalistic moral objectivity. According to the naturalistic moral standard described above, societies that accord equal rights to women and those of different races, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations are objectively better than cultures that don’t accord such equal rights. Hitler wouldn’t have agreed of course, but he was in the grip of a false picture of human nature, one which placed Aryans “above” Jews according to certain criteria. The developing global consensus, driven by science, is that there are no valid criteria that establish the innate superiority of Aryans, or of any race, gender, sexual orientation or creed. Human beings, whatever their background or characteristics, are equal in their desires for lives worth living, and it’s this that makes them equally deserving of such lives. There need not be a supernatural justification for their demand that they be treated equally, only the recognition of their shared human nature, a recognition driven most forcefully by science.

Note that it isn’t science that makes the judgment that universal equal human rights is better than white supremacy, or male-dominated Islam, or any other system that discriminates against particular classes of human beings. That judgment is made by people inhabiting a culture, for instance our pluralistic, egalitarian culture here in the West. It’s a judgment that has to be defended against less enlightened judgments, those based in false secular and religious ideologies which are in turn often based in non-scientific beliefs about human nature. In defending and promoting science, we in the West can help other cultures eventually recognize the objective factual basis for treating people equally. Naturalists, who champion science and other intersubjective ways of knowing about the world, therefore need not be wishy-washy cultural relativists when it comes to morality. This helps make naturalism more attractive as a worldview. But even if this weren’t the case, it wouldn’t mean that naturalism is false. Likewise, just because Christianity provides a seemingly simple and absolute way of justifying moral norms, doesn’t mean that it is true.

I hope this explanation of how science-based naturalism can help justify an objective moral standard goes at least part way toward answering your questions, which are admittedly difficult and will always be disputed. This sort of dialog is the best way to insure that those who disagree about such fundamental concerns can live amicably together in an open society. So, many thanks for initiating this correspondence and for your study of worldviews. You set a great example for students everywhere!

best regards,

Tom Clark, Director
Center for Naturalism

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