Naturalism, Scientism, Utopianism
William Lane Craig discusses the assumption of naturalism, scientism, and utopianism at LA CIUDAD DE LAS IDEAS 2010.
Naturalism, Scientism, Utopianism
Kevin Harris: Welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast. I'm Kevin Harris in studio with Dr. William Lane Craig talking about an event that happened in Mexico City not long ago – Richard Dawkins was there – it's called “City of Ideas.” Dr. Craig, you were on a panel, and there was several things surrounding this conference, this debate, that gave you an impression. What were the three things that you mentioned in the newsletter that dominated the thought of this conference?
Dr. Craig: I had never been to a conference like this before, Kevin. This is a conference that's sort of in the information technology/World Wide Web subculture. Everybody there seemed to be obsessed and enamored with the World Wide Web, and the advance of science and technology. And the three impressions that I came away with that were just overwhelming to me were the assumptions of naturalism, scientism, and utopianism. And by that I mean, naturalism: that there was no supernatural reality, just the contents of spacetime, even physicalism. The self was not thought to be an immaterial entity, rather we are just a bundle of neurons in a very complicated array. And this sort of reductionism with respect to human beings was very evident in that many of the speakers compared the World Wide Web to a neural structure, and therefore a sort of super person, that the World Wide Web is in fact a kind of individual just like we are, a kind of super individual. This was the reductionistic, naturalistic view of man.
Kevin Harris: And that kind of reminds me of the movie Avatar, wherein all of the branches of the trees and the roots of the trees were interconnected; almost like the whole planet was like a big brain, and the neurons; and Navi could of course plug into that, and then it could all be unified. And so there's a unifying force.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, I hadn't made that connection before, but I see your point, and that is sort of the idea. One fellow showed a kind of picture of the structure of the World Wide Web, and then he showed a neural structure from the human brain. He said, “look how similar these are, you know, the internet is really a big, giant brain.” And then of course God played no role at all in any of the other presentations. There was no suggestion of a supernatural reality—that was the naturalism. And then the scientism . . .
Kevin Harris: Stay at naturalism for just a moment . . .
Dr. Craig: Yes; alright.
Kevin Harris: . . . because naturalism is basically atheism: there's nothing beyond nature, there's nothing beyond the universe, nothing transcends it. In a sense we kind of lose a linguistic war here, Bill, because when people hear the word on the street 'supernaturalism' they think ghosts, witches; see, supernatural has a popular definition that has nothing to do with the philosophical definition of supernaturalism.
Dr. Craig: That's a good point.
Kevin Harris: So we seem often unreasonable by believing some weird supernatural thing.
Dr. Craig: Sort of like superstition.
Kevin Harris: Yeah—superstition.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, maybe we need a different word. Sometimes in my talks on the existence of God I'll use the word ultramundane—we're arguing for an ultramundane cause of the universe. Mundane comes from the Latin word mundis or world, so ultra means above, something beyond the world. In fact it means supernatural, but ultramundane perhaps would be a word that wouldn't have those negative connotations to it, and communicate the idea.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, it's just unfortunate. I don't know if we can rescue the word – perhaps we can – it's just that it's so embedded that supernatural is the twilight zone and a horror movie, that we kind of have a disadvantage in the terminology there, in the culture wars. But anyway, that's what naturalism is.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and then in addition, scientism. The notion that science and science alone is the source of knowledge and truth. This was evident particularly in Richard Dawkins' talk that he gave in which he denounced what he called the evil of faith, and held out for a kind of very crude evidentialism, which he equated, I think, with scientific evidence—don't believe anything that cannot be scientifically proven. And all of the speakers seemed to have this approach to their epistemology of this sort of scientism, which I think is ultimately a self-defeating point of view because if you hold to a scientistic epistemology you would never believe in science because science cannot be justified scientifically.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, yeah. This is highjacking science in a way—the scientific method.
Dr. Craig: Oh yeah, it's a misuse of science.
Kevin Harris: Saying that, again, science is the answer to our problems, science will answer every question—science, science, science. And it's a misunderstanding of what science does and what it means. I mean science is a great enterprise but is it not limited?
Dr. Craig: And here, again, Kevin, it puts us in a culturally prejudicial situation—just like the affirmation of supernaturalism.
Kevin Harris: Yeah.
Dr. Craig: To be against scientism makes you sound anti-scientific, as though you believe in some kind of voodoo or mysticism or something, and that's not at all the case. In fact scientism is very widely rejected among philosophers today because, as I said, it's ultimately a self-referentially incoherent point of view. The statement 'you should believe only what can be scientifically proven' cannot itself be scientifically proven. The position is self-defeating, and yet it makes, again, the person who is non-scientistic sound non-scientific.
Kevin Harris: Ah, yes. And that means you're ignorant, and you're backwards and you're not cutting edge. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard a high school student in particular say 'I don't need God, we have science.'
Dr. Craig: Yeah, and that's not science, that's scientism. And scientism is a self-defeating epistemology. We as Christians affirm science, but I think we should reject scientism, because there are other sources of knowledge than the empirically verifiable sciences. There's rational intuition by which we know mathematics and logic. There, I think, are ethical truths that we know by moral faculties. There are metaphysical truths. I think there are theological truths; I think theology is a source of knowledge. And as my colleague J. P. Moreland has often emphasized, we need to recapture the notion of Christianity as a knowledge tradition; that theology is, as the Germans put it, a vissenshaft, it is a way of knowing something. It is science in the sense of that word—science from the Latin scientia means knowledge. And theology is a type of knowledge, it is a kind of scientia or science or vissenshaft, a way of knowing.
Kevin Harris: This is why what we're doing right here is so important, and why Reasonable Faith is so important, because Christians and secularists both need to understand this. There's misunderstanding on both sides.
Dr. Craig: Right.
Kevin Harris: The nature and role of science as distinct from scientism.
Dr. Craig: Yes.
Kevin Harris: And Christians tend to fear it, or we're accused of fearing it, and then secularists tend to depend on it and think it can answer all the questions.
Dr. Craig: Oh, and the false oppositions that are created constantly between faith and science, where they're portrayed like hot and cold or black and white, and it's such a false bifurcation, false dichotomy.
Kevin Harris: Utopianism, also, is kind of what you picked up on.
Dr. Craig: That was the third aspect of the conference that really surprised me, Kevin. I think it was Dawkins at the conference that characterized the future as the golden age of science and technology that is coming. And many of the speakers – despite all of the doom saying you hear about global warming and population growth, world poverty, war – boy, those people weren't present at this conference. These people were all super-optimists, who think that the future is going to be very rosy and that world peace is on the horizon, that science and technology are going to ultimately save the day, that world poverty is going to be defeated. It was really quite remarkable the kind of utopianism that characterized many of the presentations at this conference.
Kevin Harris: And utopia defined—how would you basically define that? It's a progress toward, well, perfection?
Dr. Craig: Yes, not just progress, but even arrival at, that we are going to arrive at a kind of perfect world, a paradise on earth, as it were—the perfect society.
Kevin Harris: And it gives us an idea because you can't have progress unless you have a standard to which you are progressing, by which you can gauge progress. And so we kind of have an intuitive sense of how we want things to be.
Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that we have a sense of what it would be for the world to flourish. It would certainly involve the absence of war – that there would be world peace – that it would involve defeating poverty and disease, education would be advanced.
Kevin Harris: And the Nazis thought utopia would be the absence of Jews.
Dr. Craig: Well, now, see, that's where you get into the question of who's values will determine the utopia? One could achieve world government, for example, and world peace, if you’re willing to sacrifice a good measure of individual freedom, by having the state impose social order and peace—that's the way the old Soviets did it. But at what cost does this occur?
Kevin Harris: Have you noticed, Bill, that most movies that deal with the future, science fiction in particular, are not utopian, they're dystopian – they are a bleak, horrible future.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, the machines have taken over, and maybe they're coming back now to get us, or something, or the world has been devastated by nuclear war. You just think of so many films coming out of Hollywood that, as you say, have just the opposite vision of the future—I would say almost an unduly bleak, pessimistic vision of the future. And it's very, very different from the speakers at this conference.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, and some of the popular movies – 2012, and some others – they have kind of a utopia, but you have to wipe this world out first, and kind of start over.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's not the way these fellows saw it. These conferees felt that science and technology are going to be our deliverers. They didn't use the word savior, but, boy, that was the word that came to my mind, is that it's a kind of savior that will give us heaven on earth.
Kevin Harris: Technology as salvation.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, really.
Kevin Harris: There was a time when we thought, when mainstream thought (secularists in particular, they still do) that education is going to be the salvation of mankind. Now it seems to be shifting to technology.
Dr. Craig: Well, at least among this subculture that I was involved in. I could only hope, as I listen to these folks, that they represent a subculture that is not very widespread – at least that's my hope – because I felt it was extremely naïve, and therefore dangerous. And the naturalism and scientism I thought were very negative features of it.
Kevin Harris: Well, Bill, here's what we need to do as we wrap up today: naturalism, obviously we can as followers of Christ show that naturalism fails as a worldview by various arguments, and we can offer many arguments against naturalism, and arguments for God's existence, and so on.
Dr. Craig: Right.
Kevin Harris: Scientism: we can show the false dichotomy—that there's not really a conflict.
Dr. Craig: As well as the self-defeating nature of scientism.
Kevin Harris: Yes, and that science is limited in its enterprise, and it's really kind of confined to certain areas only.
Dr. Craig: And then, also, I think, offer a positive model of a different theory of knowledge, like Alvin Plantinga has done in his work in Reformed epistemology—I think he offers a positive alternative to that kind of scientism.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, and we can get our definitions straight on it. I think that’s one thing.
Dr. Craig: Yes.
Kevin Harris: But how do we respond to utopianism, because that sounds so positive, and nobody wants to be negative or pessimistic?
Dr. Craig: Right. Well, I'm not sure, Kevin – this is new for me – but the thing that I wondered about was whether or not this isn't based upon a defective anthropology, namely, it does not take really seriously how deeply ingrained evil is in the human psyche. And here's where Christians – with our commitment to the fallenness of man, and man's need of salvation and redemption – can speak to a fallen world, and chastise them for their unbridled optimism and naïve utopianism.
Kevin Harris: At the same time we're often accused – particularly Sam Harris accuses people who are followers of Christ – to say we're going to give up on this world, and we're going to let it go to hell in a hand basket because Christ is coming, and he's going to redeem all things. And so therefore we're not involved in the community or in the political process, and we kind of shut down. Paul in the New Testament tells us not to do that; we're not to do that. So we don't have a pie in the sky hope.
Dr. Craig: No. That's a silly accusation, Kevin. That can only be born out of mean-spiritedness or ignorance, because anybody who knows anything about the institutions that are involved today in social work, in helping the third world with dealing with AIDS, poverty, education, medicine, these are predominately religious institutions. And historically this has been the case: modern nursing and hospitals are the result of Christian foundations, and care for lepers, programs in literacy and learning, the university system, all of these were founded through Christian endeavors. So that's just false—the Christian faith has probably been the most beneficial social factor for the improvement of mankind that the world has seen.
Kevin Harris: Sure. We ought to work for improvement. We are to be good stewards of God's earth and creation. It's as if we need to say, though, Bill, yes we need to work for the good, but only God can bring about a utopia.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, there's a difference between working for human good and well-being and a kind of naïve utopianism. Only God can give us heaven.
Kevin Harris: Well, we're just getting started. And we've got more podcasts coming up, including a look at Stephen Hawking, his new book, Sam Harris and his new book, as well, coming up on future podcasts from Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Thanks for being here.
 Total Running Time: 16:06 (Copyright © 2011 William Lane Craig)