Oxymoronic: A critique of, “Christian Naturalism”

Michael Dowd recently made the oxymoronic claim that he was a Christian Naturalist on his blog Evolutionary Times.  According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, an oxymoron is a, “combination of contradictory or incongruous words . . . something that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements”—and this is precisely what Michael Dowd’s claim amounts to.

Christians believe in God—an all-powerful, all-knowing, personal agent who exists outside of space and time.  Simply put, Christians believe in the supernatural.  This is a foundational belief upon which all other Christian beliefs and doctrines are built upon.  There is no confusion on this point because the Judeo-Christian worldview is crystal clear about the nature of God—he is a person and he is the creator and sustainer of all things (this includes both material and immaterial (spiritual) elements.)

Naturalism asserts that nature is a closed system of material causes and effects—it denies the existence of God and the existence of immaterial substances (spirits or souls).  Simply put, Naturalism is a repudiation of the Christian worldview; it stands as the complete antithesis of the Christian picture of reality.  There is absolutely no confusion on this point because naturalists are very clear about their position on the nature of reality—the physical/material world is all that exists.

Accordingly, Michael Dowd’s assertion that he is a “Christian Naturalist” is incoherent and can only be explained by one of three ways:  (1) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian, (2) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a naturalist, or (3) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a naturalist.  Now, we can easily eliminate numbers (2) and (3), because it’s quite clear from his writings that Mr. Dowd understands naturalism.  As he says,

“I am a Christian Naturalist, not a supernaturalist . . . my focus and locus of inspiration is found in the cosmos and in this life.” (emphasis mine)

To that extent, it seems clear that Mr. Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian.  In fact, we can be sure of this for one important reason:  Mr. Dowd espouses a naturalistic worldview which, by definition, rejects the foundational Christian belief that God exists.   “But wait,” you say, “Mr. Dowd talks about God all the time; he even dedicated his book Thank God for Evolution to him!”  Mr. Dowd may very well believe in god, but not in the Christian God.  This is made very clear in his book:

“What a difference it makes to be groping our way forward in faith—in partnership with God, or, should you prefer less traditional terminology:  trusting the Universe, trusting Reality, trusting Time.”  (pg. 30)

For the Christian, using terminology like, “trusting the Universe,” is not the same as using terminology like, “trusting God.”  This is because the most basic Christian belief is that God is not the universe—God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.  The universe, the complex arrangement of matter and energy, is not the same thing as a personal, immaterial, God who created matter and energy.  So, when Michael Dowd suggests—as he does throughout his book—that we can interchange these terms it becomes evident that he grossly misunderstands what it means to be a Christian.

In short, Mr. Dowd might as well take the word ‘Christian’ out of his self-description and simply call himself a naturalist—for that is what he is.

Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind

In all of the debates raging over the status of the fetus I have yet to come across material which articulates the connection this issue has with the philosophy of mind.  This strikes me as odd, because one’s theory of mind is inextricably tied to one’s anthropology.  More to the point, one’s theory of the mind will have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus.

The most pertinent topic in the philosophy of mind relating to this issue is the so called mind/body problem—which deals with defining what a mind is and how it relates to the brain.  Philosophers tackling the mind/body problem usually fall into two camps: dualists-those who believe both immaterial and material substances exist–and physicalists—those who believe only material substances exist.   In more common language, dualists believe human beings have a soul and physicalists do not.  In relation to issues regarding the fetus, the question boils down to this: if souls exist, does a fetus have a soul?  And how does this impact the abortion debate?

How one answers the mind/body problem will not only have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus, but on how he views a full grown human being.  This is because one’s theory of mind reflects his general ontology of the human being.  For example, if one adheres to a physicalist theory of the mind then he believes that a human being is nothing more than matter and energy—the hapless byproduct of billions of years of evolution.   Under this scheme, human beings are not endowed with any special or unique importance or value-our existence is just a brute fact of nature.

In contrast, those who hold to some form of substance dualism—that both material and immaterial substances exist—believe human beings have a soul.   If human beings have a soul, this entails the existence of a transcendent immaterial being—namely God.  In natural theology, this forms the basis for the so called Argument from Consciousness which has recently been reformulated by J. P. Moreland (Consciousness and the Existence of God, Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.)   If the argument from consciousness is sound, then God exists; and if human beings are a special part of his creation, it stands to reason that human beings have a purpose—a reason for existence–and that they are inherently valuable.

So we see how foundational our theory of mind is to the status of the fetus.  If the fetus is merely matter and energy, and God does not exist, then the fetus has no intrinsic or objective value or importance.  But, according to the physicalist scheme, this is true for the full grown adult as well.  In essence, there is no ontological difference between a fetus and a full grown human being under the physicalist perspective—both are simply matter and energy and neither one possess intrinsic value or dignity.

However, if substance dualism is correct, then there is a strong possibility that God exists.  If God exists, man has a purpose and is intrinsically valuable.  Like the physcialist, the dualist theory does not delineate an ontological difference between the fetus and a full grown adult.  Both posses a human soul, both are made in the image of God, and therefore, both are intrinsically valuable.

It becomes obvious that the position one holds on the status of the fetus and abortion is inextricably tied to ones theory of the mind.  If a fetus is simply matter and energy then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being—that is, it possesses no intrinsic value or dignity.  As such, there is no objective reason why abortion is wrong—and for that matter there is no objective reason why the killing of a full grown human being is wrong either.

Conversely, if the fetus is made up of more than matter and energy—if it has a soul—then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being.  More importantly, if a fetus has a soul, it has intrinsic value and worth—and this is true of the full grown human being as well.  Accordingly, there is an objective reason why abortion is wrong; because it is the killing of a human being; the destruction of a life endowed with the same value, dignity, and worth of a full grown adult.

Is Evolution a Random Directionless Process?

I would like to congratulate Michael Dowd for doing a top-notch job defending Intelligent Design in chapter two of his popular book, Thank God for Evolution.  I would like to congratulate him; but perhaps I should not.  Embarrassingly, I believe he is under the impression that what he has written constitutes a solid defense of Darwinian Evolution.  In actual fact, he has produced one of the all time worst analogies for evolution printed in the English language—and in the process provided evidence for Intelligent Design.

Chapter two of Dowd’s insipid book is boldly titled, Evolution Is Not Meaningless Blind Chance.  Now, there are a couple of things one would expect to find in a chapter with such a title; one of them being a clear example of how evolution is not meaningless blind chance.  Unfortunately, such examples are largely absent from the text.  This is not to say that he didn’t try, but as I will soon demonstrate, his attempt leaves much to be desired.  Lest I should overlook one of his more subtle points I will simply quote to you his exact words–any attempt on my part to summarize Dowd’s work would surely do him great injustice.

At the opening of chapter two, Mr. Dowd says this:

In a million years, the ebb and flow of tides on all the sandy beaches of the world will not fashion even one instance of a multistoried sandcastle that any of us would be fooled into thinking was the work of human hands.  Not in a billion years will a tornado whip together a functioning bicycle (much less a jet plane) from a heap of unassembled parts.  We know this.  Commonsense tells us that random, directionless processes cannot give birth to complex or sophisticated offspring.  (pg. 31, emphasis mine)

I must confess that opening chapter two with this paragraph was a bold move on Mr. Dowd’s part.  Proponents of ID have been making these exact claims for quite some time—and it is hard to ignore the logical force and intuitive appeal of such argumentation.  To his credit, Mr. Dowd fully endorses it—even referring to it as being “commonsense.”  In the next line down he proudly proclaims, “here is the good news for peoples of faith . . . evolution is not blind chance.  Randomness yields nothing—by itself.” (31)

It is clear that Mr. Dowd is a master rhetorician and would make a great used car salesman–he knows how to make a bad product look good.  First, you agree with your opponent’s primary objection—random directionless processes cannot give birth to highly complex integrative molecular machinery—and then conclude by assuring him that Darwinian Evolution postulates nothing of the sort.  Darwinian Evolution is not just random directionless processes—that would be silly.  No one in their right mind could believe something so nonsensical!

According to Mr. Dowd, evolution is not a random directionless process because of natural selection.  To illustrate this profound point, Dowd provides this splendid analogy:

Each morning, when I download my email, I engage in a kind of evolutionary process.  Speaking invitations I forward to my assistant; bills to my wife.  Whenever I encounter spam, I hit the delete button.  There is randomness, to be sure, in the order in which the emails show up on my screen.  But what is far more important is my propensity to sort by function and discard anything that is not helpful…Ever since Darwin, evolutionary scientists have been presenting biological evolution in much the same way.  What Darwin called “natural selection” is nothing more than the sum of Nature’s sorting process. (31-32)

Unwittingly, Mr. Dowd’s little story proves precisely the opposite point he intended it to—it proves that Intelligent Design is the best explanation at hand to explain certain features of the universe.  Like so many Darwinian analogies, Dowd’s fails because it utilizes an intelligent agent who can make rational decisions as a representation of natural selection.

In the analogy, natural selection is personified as Michael Dowd sorting through his email—forwarding messages to their correct file location and deleting spam.  However, this analogy is not—by any stretch of the imagination—an accurate depiction of natural selection.  Natural selection is not an intelligent being—it cannot make decisions, it doesn’t evaluate, it doesn’t look ahead—natural selection is a completely mindless physical process.  As Richard Dawkins would put it, natural selection is the “blind watchmaker;” it cannot see what it is doing.  I would go further:  natural selection is not only blind, it is deaf and dumb as well.

Michael Dowd can read and understand emails, determine what type of email he is reading, look to the future and plan ahead–moving pertinent emails into files for his assistant and wife to view—and delete  files he’s deemed un-useful.   All of these actions require the one thing Darwinian Evolution does not allow for—intelligence.  In presenting natural selection as an intelligent agent, Dowd’s analogy is inaccurate and grossly misleading.

In spite of what Mr. Dowd would have you believe, Darwinian evolution is a random directionless process.   It is based upon random genetic mutations—hence, it is random–and naturals selection –which is, by definition, a directionless process.  If natural selection had an end goal or direction it would require some sort of intelligence directing the process; an intelligence who had in mind what it wanted to do with a given biological system—who could look ahead and decide what an organism would need to survive given a certain environment.  But this requires planning and reasoning—this requires a mind.

It seems to me that Mr. Dowd has utterly failed to prove his assertion that evolution is not a random directionless process.  In consequence, he has proved the very thing he hoped to disprove: that certain features of the universe are best explained in terms of intelligent design.  After all, no one believes that a random directionless process can produce sophisticated/complex structures:

In a million years, the ebb and flow of tides on all the sandy beaches of the world will not fashion even one instance of a multistoried sandcastle that any of us would be fooled into thinking was the work of human hands.  Not in a billion years will a tornado whip together a functioning bicycle (much less a jet plane) from a heap of unassembled parts.  We know this.  Commonsense tells us that random, directionless processes cannot give birth to complex or sophisticated offspring. (pg. 31, emphasis mine)