Naturalism, Epistemology and Atheism

If you’ve been around on the internet for long then you’ve almost certainly seen some form of theist vs atheist debate. They’ll pop up in everyone’s youtube feed from time to time, usually if you’re watching anything vaguely to do with philosophy. Theist vs atheist debates have been a staple of “internet bloodsports” for as long as the internet has been around, and they still get churned out as a reasonable rate. How useful they are is questionable at best, however there’s no denying that they have a certain appeal as some of lifes biggest questions pop up as the two worldviews battle over which has the right answers to them.

Unfortunately it’s almost always the same old story. We hear the arguments over and over and nobody seems to come away with any real sense that they’ve closed the gap of understanding each others positions. The biggest problem as far as I can see is that the position of naturalism has been so dominant for so long that it’s considered a given by most people. These debates often lead to the two participants talking past each other because their axioms each are using are simply completely different.

Naturalism is a philosophy that asserts there are only “natural” things and denies the existence of “supernatural” forces. Naturalism says that reality is simply the things we can see and touch, things that interact with other things and those things are governed by natural law, nothing more. Reality is a soup of matter and energy all acting in accordance with laws that are simply built into the fabric of reality as a matter of fact. Naturalism, of course, goes hand in hand with empiricism and logical positivism and all three of these form the basis of the new atheists philosophical outlook on life.

The question then is naturalism really a given? Is it simply the correct philosophical view and any claim made needs to be proven within its framework? The answer is an obvious no. Naturalism, of course, is a philosophical view is of the same nature as other philosophical claims about reality. You can certainly argue its merits, and I’m not saying those merits are weak, but it’s not a simple fact like many people assume these days. Naturalism has some strong arguments in its favor, but it also has weaknesses. To date many atheists have deftly avoided addressing those weaknesses by starting from a position that their epistemological framework is simply true and that any claim needs to be proven in that framework. If you say something exists then you need to pony up objective evidence of some sort, usually empirical evidence but sometimes mathematical or logical evidence depending on how much of an empirical hardliner the atheist is. The problem is that theists simply do not accept the atheists claim that their methods are the only way to obtain true knowledge.

There is an issue that many atheists want to avoid completely, and that issue is that it’s possible to come to theism not only by the positive arguments for theism but by the negative arguments against naturalism. In some ways even atheists at times acknowledge those problems when they propose things like simulation theory which is certainly “supernatural” in the way it posits that our reality is a projection of a higher layer of reality we cannot detect or perceive. As an aside I think the categories of “natural” and “supernatural” are useless and actually counterproductive for discussion because once again the assumptions of naturalism are baked into the terms. Anything “natural” is that which can be proven within the naturalist epistemological framework, anything “supernatural” is that which cannot be detected or proven by their framework and thus simply can be disregarded as non-existent as an apriori fact of their philosophy. If it could be proven by empirical methods then of course that “supernatural” phenomena immediately becomes “natural” just as a matter of fact. Certainly the distinction isn’t used in the same way it was by the Church in the past and we should probably just avoid it altogether. Theism is a holistic explanation of reality, both the material and immaterial, it’s not simply naturalism with a bunch of supernatural faith based assumptions tacked on.

It’s time for theists to present theism as what it actually is, an entirely consistent and rational alternative to naturalism, one which explains all of reality better, not just the aspects that are accessible to the empirical methodology. A worldview that isn’t afraid to ask the question “why” without resorting to appeals to brute facts or claims that “why” isn’t a meaningful question. Of course why is meaningful, the claim that itt isn’t is what has led to the morose figure of modern man living in perpetual nihilistic existential crisis. I believe that theism, and specifically Catholicism is the right worldview, the one that makes all the pieces fit into place and the one that leads people to seeing their life in the right way. If we want to guide people to it then we need to do a better job of keeping the atheists honest about their own presuppositions and flaws in their philosophical outlook on life.

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