Worldview 101 (part 2) - Naturalism: A Wasteland of Death

Having briefly talked about what a worldview is and why it's important, I now want to get practical. What "worldviews" are really out there, how do they look, and how do they work in real life? I'm going to outline the 3 most influential worldviews in America today (Naturalism, Christian Theism, and Monism) using the 4 key questions, and then contrast them with one another.

The first worldview to address is Naturalism. This worldview has nothing to do with loving nature or the outdoors! Rather, Naturalism is the belief that the physical world ("nature") is all there is. It's the assumption that there is nothing beyond matter and energy; no spirit world, no supernatural, no immaterial. Thus there is no God, nor spirits of any kind - which also means that human beings do not have a "spirit" or "soul" of any sort. A human is a complex machine, a biochemical meatbag. And that is all.


Here's just one recent example of Naturalistic thinking in action. Recently I received the latest copy of The California Monthly, the alumni magazine for UC Berkeley (GO BEARS! Sorry, that just slipped out unexpectedly...) One of the feature articles described the amazingly advanced brain research the university is doing, including research on consciousness. They're essentially asking the question "how does this electrochemical, biological machine called the brain become self-aware and conscious?" Their current hypothesis (brace yourself): consciousness is an accidental byproduct of the brain's complicated electrochemical activity. Do you see the Naturalistic assumptions? I can identify a few: 1) the brain is only a physical machine, 2) there is no soul or mind, so 3) consciousness must be an illusion, and 4) must be an accidental byproduct of what's real: the physical, chemical processes in the brain.


Note that these are all assumptions, derived from a Naturalistic worldview. In other words, never has a scientific experiment proved the non-existence of the soul. Nor could it. The soul's non-existence is simply assumed. This is the worldview of Naturalism operating before our eyes, and coloring the way these scientists do science.

By the way, there's a delicious irony in the fact that these scientists are using their own conscious thinking processes to prove that conscious thinking is just as illusion. It's a self-refuting proposition: if conscious thinking is an illusion, then why should we trust their research (i.e. their conscious thinking) which tells so?

Like all worldviews, Naturalism can be described using the 4 worldview questions:

1. Origin - where did we come from and thus what are we?
No one really knows where life originated, but once the first living cell arrived we evolved according to some Darwinian mechanism. Thus, a human being is fundamentally no different than an ape, an earthworm, a dandelion, or a bacteria. We are all just machines - biological machines that happened to evolve. Thus life has no true meaning: we simply are. Nor does human life have any special value - we're just matter & energy like everything else. This view has all sorts of frightening implications for things like meaning and ethics...


2. Problem - what's wrong with the world?
Naturalism's view of origins is sort of like a nuclear bomb, laying waste to all questions of purpose, meaning, and morality. Thus questions like this one have no real answer: a logically consistent Naturalist (a very hard thing to find, by the way) simply says the world is what it is - there's no sense in saying it's bad or evil.

Still, Naturalists are just like everyone in that they have opinions on how to make the world a better place. The problem that needs fixing, according to Naturalism, is mis-used power. In the absence of morality and meaning, power is all that's left to discuss. Who is going to get to do what? And everyone has a different view of the best allocation of power. Naturalism-influenced dictators like Hitler believe their regime or race should have all the power. Modern-day secular Naturalism says every individual must have maximum power. This is the only way to improve the world. Which leads to...

3. Solution - how is the problem fixed?
In a word? Choice. The problem of mis-used power is best fixed by allowing maximum individual autonomy. Remember that in this framework there is no absolute standard - no higher meaning or purpose. We simply are, and so the best thing to do is let everyone be exactly what they want to be. Of course that doesn't work in the extreme - it's anarchy. So most every Naturalist favors some limitations on individual freedom for purely pragmatic reasons. But how much, where, and why? There is no basis for consensus here, only (you guessed it) power: whomever has control of the influence in a culture will get their ideas across.

Naturalism's focus on limiting power is what gave rise to worldviews like Marxism: if we just make sure everyone is treated absolutely equal, then we'll usher in a new utopia of human existence. While the state was to be the arbiter of fairness for Marx, today we've learned to mistrust the state because it has...power! And that power can be abused. So secular thought in Western societies now revolves around maximum individual autonomy, which is the only real value in Naturalism. And it trumps all other values, which explains Naturalism's accommodation to issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Should individual autonomy be limited even slightly to maintain standards like the value of human life or the institution of marriage? Not if you think those standards are just made up by someone else. And that's precisely what a Naturalist thinks, because no standard is really real - every concept of right & wrong is just someone's opinion.

4. Purpose - why am I here?
In the case of Naturalism, this is an utterly meaningless question. Dr. Will Provine (a strident atheist) made this point articulately in Ben Stein's film Expelled - there is no meaning or purpose for life in Naturalism. You and I are just pebbles, washed up on the "shore" of existence by the blind forces of chance, time, and natural selection. And life has no ultimate meaning: even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat!

Thus the best we can do is invent our own "meaning." In other words, you make one up - you pretend your life has a meaning of your own choosing. But the mentally strong realize that, of course, this meaning isn't real. And your destiny? Annihilation. Once you're gone, you're gone. You cease to exist, and your material body (which is all you are, remember) will dissipate back into the earth.


In conclusion, the important point is to recognize that this view, like all worldviews, is an assumption. The basic assumption of Naturalism has been taken in hundreds of directions by people throughout history, but the root is always the same: the barren, stark view that the material world is all there is. Like an intellectual nuclear bomb this view lays waste to all of the things that make life worth living: our concept of meaning and purpose, of love, of beauty, of the value of life, and of right and wrong. In the framework of Naturalism, these ideas are all figments of our imagination. And he who has the most power, wins.

Next up: Christian Theism. In the meantime, a question for you: where do you see evidence of Naturalism in the way people think today? Post a comment - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

4 comments:

Tabs said...

Just wanted to let you know that I am now a HUGE fan of Peet's coffee. Thought you would want to know. :) And really, every time I go into one of their little stores of heaven I think of you and how much you have loved their coffee and stuck by your convictions for years. I just hope I can live up to that. :)

Matt Guerino said...

YES!! Another convert!

You know, for all the pub. and street cred I give Peet's they should give me free coffee or something. Oh wait, they already do!

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