Most philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition are naturalists and atheists, the standard assumption being that these positions stand or fall together. This means that the naturalist’s philosophy leaves no room for God, and hence, that the theist must reject naturalism. I reject this assumption to defend a theistic form of naturalism. Such a position is a contradiction from the vantage point of the typical naturalist and indeed, the typical analytic philosopher of religion, for they believe that theism and naturalism are logically incompatible. I argue that they are operating with an unduly narrow understanding of naturalism – most typically by insisting upon an interpretation which limits ‘nature’ to whatever is the object of scientific enquiry.
Scientistic naturalism has been the paradigm for most naturalists, but the position is supported by neither philosophy nor science, and there has been an anti-scientistic reprisal in recent philosophy – the kind of reprisal which seems fated to recur whenever reductionism becomes the dominant ideology. Of particular relevance to me are those dissenters who have sought to articulate a new, and more liberal, form of naturalism, notable examples being John McDowell, James Griffin, and David Wiggins. These ‘expansive’ naturalists give due respect to the findings of science, but they deny that the scientist has a monopoly on nature, insisting to the contrary that there are things which cannot be adequately explained in these terms, such as value.
Expansive naturalism is a defensible form of naturalism, and I argue that it should be embraced. So I agree with philosophical orthodoxy that we should be naturalists, but I deny that we should be scientistic naturalists. What does it mean to be a naturalist in this more liberal sense? The answer is complex, but a clue is to be found in what Griffin says in the context of defending a (liberally) naturalistic conception of value: ”[v]alues do not need any world except the ordinary world around us – mainly the world of humans and animals and happenings in their lives. An other-worldly realm of values just produces unnecessary problems about what it could possibly be and how we could learn about it’ (Value Judgement, p.44). So being a naturalist in this sense involves acknowledging that we are natural beings in a natural world (the only world there is), it gives expression to the demand that we avoid metaphysical flights of fancy, and ensures that our claims remain empirically grounded. Griffin adds that to defend such a picture one does not have to adopt a reductive form of naturalism.
The expansive naturalist grants at least some of the items which are deemed ‘other-worldly’ by the lights of the scientistic naturalist – ‘other-worldly’ in this context referring to anything which exceeds the ambit of science. However, he stops short of God. His reluctance to concede in this direction is understandable – after all, God is not a part of the natural world in one clear enough sense, and it is tempting to suppose that a move along these lines will reintroduce the unnecessary problems to which Griffin refers. We can note that this is exactly what the scientistic naturalist says in response to the expansive naturalist’s conception of value – a point which will lead one to conclude that expansive naturalism per se is metaphysically and epistemologically objectionable, or that God is problematic in the way that value is not, or that expansive naturalism can be further expanded in the direction of God.
I go for the third and seemingly outrageous position. That is to say, I argue that there is a form of theistic naturalism which can accommodate the distinction – and indeed, the relation – between God and nature. The arguments are complex, they pose a challenge to the assumption that we are remotely clear about the question of being (to put the point in Heideggerian terms), and they are borrowed from those used by the secular expansive naturalist to defend his own position against scientistic naturalism.
What follows from this conclusion? First, it moves us away from the temptation to suppose that scientistic naturalism is the default position, and that we are forced to choose between either science or God. Atheists like Richard Dawkins assume these terms of debate, and their acceptance by such authorities has helped to sustain the view that believers in God are intellectually challenged. Second, it means that we must reconfigure our understanding of the naturalism versus theism debate so as to allow that naturalism and theism can both be true. Finally, we have the prospects for defending a theistic framework using philosophical resources which can genuinely appeal to an atheist – at least, one who has moved beyond the limits of scientistic naturalism. What better way to vindicate such a position than by reference to a metaphysics which demands no more than a resistance to scientism, a spirit of open-mindedness, and a preparedness to go where one’s arguments lead?
God, Value, and Nature, Fiona Ellis(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).