Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Insanity of Naturalism

In two consecutive days my students have brought before me arguments based in thoroughgoing naturalism. Naturalism argues that, because humans are the inevitable result of evolutionary processes, we ought to base our decisions upon what we observe in nature, and not upon any moral code or philosophical idea based in non-natural a priori principles.

The first student made the argument that humanity, like viruses, might be able to solve problems of population control by simple procreation. At least, he argued, procreation doesn't hinder population control. While we can probably agree with my student's conclusion, it would be insanity to agree with his premise. Why, you ask?

In his refutation speech, the same student backed up his argument by an appeal to Aristotle's theory of mimesis. We ought to imitate nature, he said, by learning from the natural processes we observe there, and by applying these processes to human interaction. There are several difficulties here.

First, let's start with definitions. What is a natural process? Or better, what ISN'T a natural process? Remember, naturalism posits that ALL of what we observe stems from evolutionary processes. Even human rationalizations, including moral and philosophical codes, are but the movements of chemicals and the coding of our genes. Can any decision or principle of action be considered unnatural under such a definition? But even if we find a non-natural distinction to posit against naturalism, how do we decide which natural processes to imitate? We might choose to imitate viruses, which multiply in seemingly indiscriminate and rampant reproduction. Or perhaps we should imitate other species who choose one mate and remain monogamous throughout their entire life? Or maybe the best model to imitate are those species that use the male to reproduce, and then devour him in order to eliminate unnecessary competition for the future generations?

The other student presented me with an article from the New York Times, which he was assigned to analyze with a model of analysis called Toulmin's model of arguments. The article can be found at this link. The article reports that scientists are questioning the traditional understanding of moral decision-making being based in reason or reflection. Rather, we make moral decisions on the basis of immediate analysis, which is grounded in our emotions. We just know what tastes good. We just know what looks pretty. We make such aesthetic judgments and most of the time we are right. Corrections often come from reflection or from others who talk to us, and this is sometimes good. Scientists are also qualifying Darwin's model of competition to include a more communal aspect of cooperation. Like bees who seek collective existence in hives, so we as humans can cooperate through out emotions and reasons.

One commentor on the newspaper article mentioned that this is old news that goes back as far as Henry James (and John Dewey, we might add). The problem with the view ought to be apparent to any thinking individual, but for those who have abandoned reason for emotion, reasons are less apparent. So let's help them out, like a worker bee helps out a drone who has finished his job of fertilization.

First of all, emotions and snap decisions are not always regular in the manner in which the examples given in the article seem to indicate. Sure, most of the time we like the taste of ice cream or blueberries, or whatever it is we like, but such emotions are contingent upon other factors. If we are sick, we may not enjoy the taste of certain foods. If certain foods are rotten or ill-prepared we don't like the taste. The contingency of circumstances and our immediate reactions can tell us nothing about the reasons for those immediate reactions. It is only by our use of reason that we can determine that our taste is influenced by sickness, or the fruit is rotten. If all we had to go on was our immediate reaction, we would like blueberries one day and hate them the next, only to love them again at some other time.

A more damaging problem than taste is moral judgments, which are not (as these scientists wish to prove) based upon immediate emotions. If someone punches us in the face and we choose to restrain our anger and cease from punching back, we have applied reason to our immediate emotion. Our scientists might agree that such a reaction was a positive use of reason. But why? If our immediate emotions are the standard for moral judgment, upon what basis is our reason justified in curbing an immediate emotion? The only standard to which evolutionary naturalism can appeal are the observations of nature, but we've already canvassed a few of the innumerable and contradictory examples provided in nature. How does one decide which to apply in a given case?

Consider the example of bees from the article. True, there is a collective aspect to bees, but in that collective organization, individual sacrifices are made all the time, not to mention that the entire society is organized to work for one purpose--the propagation of the species through servitude to one queen. In other words, a totalitarian society where workers slave away endlessly to provide food for the queen and her offspring (which will become slaves) and her harem of drones (who are executed once they have sevred their sexual purpose). Is this really the sort of collective we want to imitate?

The point is not simply that naturalism is insane, but that it is also impossible. Naturalist, in order to make any normative judgments at all, must assume a point of departure that they cannot justify upon naturalistic principles. The cheat by importing a universal maxim or principle into their system. Van Til would say that they are living upon Christian capital, and so they are, for the Law of God is God's Law after all, and not a law derived from nature apart from God, or from human invention, apart from God, or from anything else, apart from God. God who made men in His image, also implanted upon their hearts an innate knowledge of His law, by which they all judge the world around them to be just or unjust. All the analogies from nature, all the first principles of rationalism, all the snap decisions of thoughtless emoters are based upon an inherent understanding of God's moral law, expressed in the Ten Commandments (now is an appropriate time to get your Bible and read the Ten Commandments, The Sermon on the Mount, and Romans 1).

The next time someone wants to argue from nature or evolution, tell them that you agree so long as you get to be the queen bee in his hive.