Naturalism’s Folly – How a method morphed into a metaphysics

Photo by Oleg Magni on

The idea we can neatly divide the world into the natural and the supernatural is a distinctively modern way of thinking. Many people take it for granted the supernatural exists only as a vestigial belief, a cognitive echo of the superstitions of our primitive ancestors.

It’s commonly thought that as scientific knowledge advances, it’s proving beyond reasonable doubt, there is no God, no gods and no eternal soul. There is nothing beyond the world we experience with our senses. Nature is an insentient machine moving in response to blind forces and following mathematical laws.

However, contrary to popular opinion, this mechanistic philosophy isn’t a scientific fact. It’s one interpretation, among many possible interpretations, of the scientific facts. Often, this interpretation of the facts isn’t based on rationality and evidence, but on mistaking a method for a metaphysics.

The scientific method is also known as method naturalism. A method is a way of doing something, in this case a way of discovering truths about the natural world.

The development of scientific method didn’t arise from a discovery about the world, but by intentionally excluding certain types of explanations about the world. The only explanations accepted as scientific were particular types of causal explanations.

The Aristotelian Idea of Causes

For a long time, Western philosophy thought in Aristotelian terms of four causes in the world: material, formal, efficient and final.

The material cause is the stuff something is made of, the matter itself. The wood in a table or the wax in a candle.

The formal cause is the form the matter takes, the shape or pattern that makes it the kind of thing it is.

The efficient cause is the force which creates the matter and form into one singular thing.

The final cause is the ultimate purpose of the thing, the good it creates, or the use it fulfills.

As the scientific method developed, formal and final causes were excluded from explanations. This was a matter of practicality, not logic. The exclusion wasn’t motivated by evidence those causes didn’t exist, but the practical difficulties involved in investigating them.

The Scientific Idea of Causes

Scientific investigation restricts itself to material and efficient causes. The stuff something is made of and the force which causes that stuff to take a particular form.

Those type of explanations are how we think of nature: as a series of physical things transferring energy to other physical things. Form and purpose (formal and final causes) are seen as arising incidentally. They are effects, not causes.

This method of investigating the world by deliberately restricting the casual ingredients of explanations was powerful. With the unrivaled success of the scientific method, the method slowly morphed into a metaphysics.

Instead of seeing nature as something we could investigate with a mechanistic paradigm, we began to see nature as an actual machine.

Nature as a Machine

Nature was no longer thought of as something which was organised and maintained from within by higher causes, but a machine which was organised and maintained from without by efficient causes.

A method of investigating the word was confused with the world itself. A way of gaining knowledge was confused with the object of that knowledge. An epistemology became a metaphysics.

In this picture of nature as mechanism, the only place left for the supernatural was outside the machine. If our view of nature includes only objective features, there is no room for inner forces. What we now call nature is only its objective properties. Those objective properties are what science can describe.

Nature had become what science could measure and explain. And what science could measure and explain had become the only type of things which exist.

The Death of God

The only place in the cosmos which remained for God to occupy was external to nature. Transcending the cosmos, but not immanent within it. God became the watchmaker who created the machine and set it in motion.

God was relegated to the role of the first cause. First cause was understood as first in time, rather than first in existential priority. God became the initial impetus of a linear casual sequence. The force which set the cosmos in motion and then his work was done. An efficient cause beyond the universe itself.

This is a very different idea than the pre-mechanistic view of divinity and the supernatural.

The pre-mechanistic view saw the cosmos as pervaded and sustained by a divine intellect, dharma, dao, logos or nous. Nature was dependent at every moment on its divine cause. The supernatural animated the cosmos from within.

By contrast, the mechanistic view saw the cosmos as a self-contained machine and reduced God to a clever engineer who occasionally tinkers with his mechanism via miracles. Our conception of God had morphed from the rational source and foundation pervading all of existence, to an objective or transcendent creator. In our eyes, God became a Sky Daddy.

Darwinian Evolution

Once this conceptual framework became established and humans started seeing the world in this objective way, it was already the case that God as traditionally understood was dead. But as yet, no one had noticed.

It was Darwin’s theory of natural selection that put the final nail in God’s coffin and the obituaries began to be published.

The view of God as creator and engineer caused his demise. In the pre-mechanistic vision of divinity as the forces immanent within nature, evolution would have been easily accommodated in our spiritual view of the world.

Natural selection would have been seen as the innate movement of the rational essence of nature, the unfolding of its rational character.

Instead, because God was only a designer and engineer, he became superfluous in our new explanatory paradigm. Now that we had evolutionary principles, it was possible to see nature as “designed” by wholly insentient and mindless forces.

We no longer had any need for the God hypothesis.

The Degradation of our Understanding of Divinity

Once the idea that scientific explanations were not just a way of explaining the world but an accurate description of the world itself, God had no role to play within that picture.

Few thought to question if the picture was an accurate description of the world, or a viewpoint imposed on the world based on human practicality.

A method of questioning morphed into a conclusive answer. A way to gain knowledge of nature transformed into the idea nature is all that exists.

The success of science caused the transformation but not in the way most people think. Most people think because science has discovered only natural explanations this is reason to think the supernatural doesn’t exist.

But it’s hardly a surprise our natural method has only discovered natural phenomena. That’s what it’s designed to do. Those are the only type of explanations which qualify as scientific.

However, this in itself wasn’t enough to complete the transformation. As we began to think scientifically, we imposed that way of seeing the world not only onto nature, but onto our conceptions of divinity. And it was this imposition that caused the death of God and the supernatural.

Our conception of God and the divine was degraded. From the heart and soul animating the cosmos – He in whom all things live and move and have their being – we reduced divinity to an object. Something disconnected from our lives and our inner selves that we could dispose of when we had no further use for it.

“It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we say about nature.” Neils Bohr

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: