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The Philosophy of Naturalism

ID 138084797 © Edhar Yralaits |

[Originally published as Naturalism Is a Philosophy]

Anyone trying to understand the secular evolutionary answer to the question of “Where did we come from?” is at a huge disadvantage unless they first understand the science behind it.

First of all, you need to understand that secular science is based on the philosophy of naturalism. Its followers believe that there is a natural explanation for everything that exists, including the beginning of all things.

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When it comes to origins, naturalists believe that all forms of life on earth can trace their origins back to the same one-celled ancestor rather than to a supernatural creation by God. They also believe there is a natural explanation for how the earth and the universe came to be. Evolutionary naturalists consider a Creator to be either false or irrelevant when it comes to how all living things came to be.

One of the justifications for naturalism came out of the Scientific Revolution. During this time, revolutionary discoveries about forces and motion, chemistry, biology, geology, energy, astronomy, and the atom burst onto the academic scene, as new discoveries built on previous ones in rapid succession. Much of the success of these scientists came because they established dependable scientific methods of research and did not use supernatural explanations.

The methods that were established during the Scientific Revolution worked amazingly well for an area of science known as operational sciences.  Most of the early scientific research was in this category as scientists sought to explain how and why things work in nature. These included research about such questions as what happens when the temperature of an object increases or decreases; what causes an object to move; how light behaves when it passes through a lens; what causes smallpox; and what happens when objects burn.

Although early scientists, working in the fields of operational science, referred only to natural processes, that did not lead them to consider supernatural events to be false. They worked in a clearly defined area where they were just trying to understand how things in nature operate and behave, not how did they came to be.

Well-known biblical scientists, such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Robert Boyle, followed scientific methods as they studied the natural world, but they often wrote in their notes and journals of their amazement at the order and precision of nature and gave God the glory for what they discovered.

At the same time operational sciences were rapidly making new discoveries, other scientists were beginning to work in another field of science known as historical sciences.  The goal of these scientists was to reconstruct the past and explain where things came from rather than explain how or why they behave as they do.

Even though it was logical for operational sciences to try to provide explanations for how the natural world operates using only natural processes, the methods they used did not work well when trying to reconstruct the past.

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Still, historical scientists were determined to reconstruct a history of living things, the earth, and the universe in a similar way to that used by operational sciences. That included basing their explanations only on natural processes.

They sought to answer questions that had to do with where we came from, such as whether the first men evolved from an ape-like animal; what animals were ancestors to the apes; was there a first living thing that was an ancestor to every living thing; how did the earth come to be; and how did the universe come to be.

Without witnesses to these events or any way to recreate the conditions under which the first humans and other living things came to be, historical sciences had to find different ways to conduct their work. Controlled experiments, which were often used in operational sciences, were not feasible for testing many of the questions about what happened in the distant past.

The main clues for reconstructing the past were fossils, sedimentary layers, similarities in morphologies, and minor changes in living things over time. Scientists who tried to reconstruct the biological and geologic history of the earth had to work with the same principles as those used by detectives trying to solve a crime. That involves taking whatever available clues remain and trying to piece them together in a way that fits the available facts.

Recent events could be reconstructed with a moderate to high level of certainty, but recent time was not the goal of the early historical scientists. They believed that all living things could trace their ancestors back over millions of years to a first living organism, just as Darwin had claimed. They also believed the origin of the earth and the universe could be explained scientifically without referring to a supernatural creation.

When Darwin’s ideas were first presented to the scientific community, opinions were divided. But gradually all areas of science came to be defined in terms of naturalism. Geologists and astronomers aided in this trend as they began looking for natural explanations for how the earth and the stars first originated and evolved over billions of years.

New scientific explanations are often met with skepticism and controversies. This was true of the ideas that were first proposed by scientists in the field of operational science. Most of the disagreements about research from the field of operational science were resolved over time by open debate, critical analyses, and further research. Using natural processes to explain the principles of forces and motion, magnetism, electricity, chemical changes, animal functions, and other topics within the field of operational science was almost never controversial. Nor is it today.

A critical point to understand is that what a scientist believes about origins does not affect his/her research on topics within the field of operational science.

The controversies that arose from the field of historical sciences were a different story. Disagreements have not been resolved by further research or by critical debates. Scientists who suggested a role for supernatural explanations for origins were eventually squeezed out of academia.

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In today’s culture, supernatural origins are almost never taught as a possibility in academic settings. However, limiting historical sciences to natural explanations came with a price. For many, it came to mean that:

  1. The literal account of Biblical Creation was not accurate,
  2. The biblical creation account amounted to nothing more than vague symbolism, and
  3. Either God is false, or He is irrelevant.

Another critical point to understand is that there is no logical basis for assuming that only natural processes were involved in forming the earth. There is no logical basis for assuming that supernatural processes could not have been involved in forming the earth.

One reason for the assumption that there is a natural explanation for the history of the earth and the universe is that all science has come to be defined as a search for natural explanations. Supernatural explanations are simply dismissed as a non-science topic. Another reason is that Darwinian evolution would not be possible apart from naturalism and long ages of time.

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Written by Dr. Carolyn Reeves

I taught junior high school science for thirty years before retiring. After reading evidence for a worldwide flood, I was convinced that not only was the flood real history, but the Bible was God’s inerrant, infallible, inspired Word. I coauthored a series of elementary science books published by MasterBooks, and later produced videos for all of the investigations. I have written several articles and anthologies for Christian publications. I maintain my own website, Underground Paradigm, where I write articles pertaining to a variety of topics that support biblical teachings. My husband, Jim Reeves, and I have three children and fourteen grandchildren. We are active members of a local Mississippi Baptist church.
I have three degrees: B.S. (major in biology and minor in chemistry); Master of Combined Sciences; and Doctor of Education.

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