Is Science Inconsistent with Naturalism?

In “The Explanatory Emptiness of Naturalism” (another essay in Gilson & Weitnauer's anthology True Reason, which I mentioned a couple of posts back), religious philosopher and “former atheist sociopath”* David Wood, argues that, in order for there to be science, naturalism must be false. There are various reasons why he claims this is the case. These include the usual suspects, such as that naturalism is inconsistent with our ability to reason and that it cannot account for the uniformity in nature which science requires. (I've previously covered these issues, or something closely related to them, and rather than repeating myself have placed links below.)

Some of the other reasons he offers also involve common complaints against naturalism, but in ways that are odd in this context. For example, he argues that naturalism is incompatible with the existence of the universe, and from this concludes that under naturalism it would be impossible to practice science! (After all, there first has to be a world before anyone can be a scientist.)

But notice how odd this argument is (in addition to being wrong). Arguing that naturalism is incompatible with science because it is inconsistent with the existence of everything is, at the very least, overkill. Why worry about naturalism's incompatibility with science if naturalism is inconsistent with so much more than that?

The last reason Wood covers for why naturalism and science don't mix is what he calls the problem of value. Naturalism, he says, implies there are no objective values. This, of course, is specifically denied by ethical naturalists, which is something Wood fails to mention. (Like most apologists, he writes as if anyone who is a naturalist must not accept objective morality.) Nevertheless, an argument can be made that Wood is partially right here: No one has ever been able to give a good account of moral principles based on natural facts. However, nothing about the ability to do science follows from this.

Wood tries to show that lack of objective values rules out science as it's currently practiced by pointing out that at least some science is pursued as an end in itself. That is, although science can be pursued as a means to other ends (e.g., to improve health or food production), much of it is done for its own sake. But that means it is done because scientific discovery is regarded as good in itself. And this, he tells us, cannot be, given naturalism. For on the naturalist view, nothing is objectively good, but only good according to someone or other. The crux of his argument is this:

“If we seek scientific knowledge because we value knowledge as good in itself (not simply for its benefits), and naturalism holds that nothing is good in itself, then naturalism will always undermine science” (p. 119).

Wood's essay and the others printed in this book are attempts to show that it is Christian thinkers, and not atheists, who have reason on their side. And yet they contain arguments like the above. The equivocation in Wood's statement is so obvious that it could be used as an example of a fallacy in logic class.

There are two distinct meanings of “good in itself” in the above passage. On the one hand, good in itself means that which is intrinsically, as opposed to instrumentally, good. In other words, that which is pursued as an end in itself as opposed to as a means to some other end. It is in this sense that some scientific knowledge is pursued only for its own sake, whereas other science is pursued with a more practical goal in mind. On the other hand, good in itself is used to mean objectively good (as opposed to the subjective sense in which something is considered good by some but not necessarily by others). Wood then conflates the two meanings.

If there are no objective values, then the value that some of us put in knowledge itself is a subjective preference. We desire to know things. (Lots of other people couldn't care less, so they don't value such knowledge. That's their right.) There is no inconsistency at all in pursuing such knowledge while maintaining that it is not objectively valuable. The knowledge is regarded by us as valuable for its own sake. It doesn't follow that it must be a fact, something everyone should acknowledge, that such knowledge is good.

* Conservapedia


On an issue related to naturalism and reason: Stealing from God: Reason, Part 1

On naturalism and the uniformity of nature: Presuppositionalism and Induction

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.