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Material Naturalism


Short Answer:

We Really Want to Know:

"... Darwinists tell us that there is no need to consider the possibility that plants and animals owe their existence to a supernatural Creator, because natural mechanisms like mutation and selection were adequate to perform the job of creation. I want to know whether that claim is true, not just whether it is the best naturalistic speculation available. No doubt evolutionary biologists are devoted to the theory that defines their field, and no doubt scientific naturalists regard the project of naturalistic explanation as overwhelmingly successful. Persons who do not share their a priori commitment to naturalism may nonetheless be correct in thinking that the reigning theory is not merely incomplete, but quite inconsistent with the evidence." Johnson (DOT) Page 159

MATERIAL NATURALISM provides one particular viewpoint based on all that humans see, experience, and research in the material and natural realm. Nature is thus assumed the boundary to all one can know. No explanation can come from beyond that boundary.

BUT as noted elsewhere, explanations appear to also arise from outside such a bounded space. So we are compelled to consider how material naturalism constrains our understanding. We also recognize the human experience is 'couched' within a natural framework. To consider life's origin and explain life's material existence in terms of nature is common practice.

As illustrated in other articles in the Science Area, material naturalism is at times more a fixed mindset than a means to explain what is factual. There is then a problem in naturalism constraining other perspectives. Breaking the constraints, to see all sides, is much like the artist looking at a three dimensional sculpture ... rotate the artist's work and this reality reveals its other 'sides.' All one reality in its whole aspect, this work can be appreciated from more than a single line of sight.

We are really dealing with something like an an illusion. No doubt nature is part of what we see and experience, but there is more to the big picture that we miss by not exploring further.

Materialism has long been a foundation to the sciences. Darwin, Hawkins, Freud, Gould, Sagan, and many others are associated with this vantage point. Yet, science evidence, the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and our daily experience also lead to consideration of what is more than the material experience alone. We seem to hold so fast to the material realm and the easy-to-rationalize cause and effect scenarios. As such, material naturalism soon becomes a philosophical position that undercuts knowing more about who we are and how we got here.

Upon reflection ... you may be struck by the dominant role material naturalism plays in our daily lives. The following text is only a first step toward identifying issues that push back on the assumptions affiliated with materialism.


Putting all this in proper context opens the window to an awakening ... a recognition of that other part to the illusion hidden in our day-to-day lives ... yet once recognized there is little chance of missing the point ... something more than the base-material framework is part of the experience we call life.

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Let's be clear from the start, to say material naturalism is the only acceptable way to explain our world limits knowledge and constrains the horizons to which researchers can ascend. A material perspective, while not unfounded nor unreasonable to many points of explanation, can be deceptive ... especially if considered the absolute source of explanation.

Note the following statements by Prof. Johnson. The professor sees how naturalism as science is essentially a philosophical doctrine. With this in mind, he defines material and scientific naturalism as:

Naturalism assumes the entire realm of nature to be a closed system of material causes and effects, which cannot be influenced by anything from "outside." Naturalism does not explicitly deny the mere existence of God, but it does deny that a supernatural being could in any way influence natural events, such as evolution, or communicate with natural creatures like ourselves. Scientific naturalism makes the same point by starting with the assumption that science, which studies only the natural, is our only reliable path to knowledge. A God who can never do anything that makes a difference, and of whom we can have no reliable knowledge, is of no importance to us. Johnson (DOT) page 116

The statement above plays on a 'tension' between the natural and supernatural. We accept the material framework is certainly part of our 'normal' experience. Let us open the discussion further. For example, evidence even from within the sciences points to factors outside the framework. There are examples where naturalism lacks explanatory power! Should these be ignored? (See links to examples in text below)


We don't have to go far to break out of the material mindset to examine interesting counterpoint. But, remember naturalism is the mainline position in Western society today. And what is required to maintain this viewpoint?!

... Naturalistic evolution is not merely a scientific theory; it is the official creation story of a modern culture. The scientific priesthood that has authority to interpret the official creation story gains immense cultural influence thereby, which it might lose if the story were called into question. The experts therefore have a vested interest in protecting the story, and in imposing rules of reasoning that make it invulnerable. ... Johnson (DOT) Page 159

There are other examples besides evolution. The materialist view explains and defends the origin of the universe in a similar fashion. Yet again, special conditions supporting the universe and life within appeal to reason beyond naturalism.

Let us broaden the view! Might we further consider our existence amidst perspectives contributed by science as well as by culture, philosophy, and religion. Any aspect of these vantage points that brings a Creator or any explanation from outside material science is immediately viewed as the opposition to naturalism. This threatens the status quo of science, how research is directed and funded, and how science might lead societies into the future. Much of naturalism's influence is evident in the Darwinian explanations and assumptions:

... As the creation myth of scientific naturalism, Darwinism plays an indispensable ideological role in the war against fundamentalism. For that reason, the scientific organizations are devoted to protecting Darwinism rather than testing it, and the rules of the scientific investigation have been shaped to help them succeed. Johnson (DOT) Page 155

From this angle ... to squash the competition, "science" maintains operating principles that ignore what else might be tested:

The conflict arises because creation by Darwinist evolution is hardly more observable than a supernatural creation by God. Natural selection exists, to be sure, but no one has evidence that it can accomplish anything remotely resembling the creative acts that Darwinists attribute to it. The fossil record on the whole testifies that whatever "evolution" might have been, it was not the process of gradual change in continuous lineages that Darwinism implies. As an explanation for modifications in populations, Darwinism is an empirical doctrine. As an explanation for how complex organisms came into existence in the first place, it is pure philosophy. Johnson (DOT) Page 117


To explore a bit more of what Johnson is saying above, look at the feature articles on: fossils; lineages, hierarchy, evolution, intelligent design, and irreducible complexity. Does naturalism stand alone or is there evidence for something more? The latter two articles referenced here (on intelligent design and irreducible complexity) are part of looking beyond material naturalism. These considerations do not deny what's material, but recognize unique features that exist within the material realm. Unique here means features that cannot be explained simply by material or naturalistic explanations alone.

The presence of complexity in nature is so often taken for granted. But complexity is specified by precise information, which in turn needs some thought on our part ... because no one really knows where that came from!

Various contradictory conjectures have appeared as scientists have attempted to explain how purely natural processes could have given rise to the unlikely functionally specified systems found in biology—systems that comprise, among other things, massive amounts of coded genetic information. The origin of such information, whether in the first photocell or at those discrete points in the fossil record that attest to the emergence of structural novelty, remains essentially mysterious on any current naturalistic evolutionary account. Meyer (CH) Page 68

[Note: to examine some of the interesting points related to information and the DNA that embodies this knowledge-base in living organisms refer to the feature articles on: DNA, DNA (part 2), and DNA (part 3). Examples of complexity are further described in articles on: molecular machines, complex examples; cells, and feathers.


Theories of design or creation do not, they say, meet objective standards of scientific method and practice. Such theories do not explain by reference to natural law, nor do they manifest a host of other features of true scientific theories such as testability, observability and falsifiability.

The use of what philosophers of science call "demarcation arguments"—arguments that purport to distinguish science from pseudoscience, metaphysics or religion—in defense of a favored theory has a long history. Darwin himself employed such arguments to defend his theory from idealist and creationist challenges. Meyer (CH) Page 70

Darwin's experience is locked into a specific time frame in the past. The scientific community tends to refer to his work as current and immutable. Still, Darwin had limited evidence from a non-technological era. His information was limited. Further, as noted in the feature article "Darwin's Dilemma," Darwin used materialism to grapple with issues related to natural evil. What he could not reconcile in his mind lead to rationalizations based on naturalism. He was trying to explain away what he found difficult to consider as reality. His retreat was a philosophical mindset couched in material explanations. He purposely chose to limit perspectives and thus narrowed his view.

As suggested in "Have You Ever Met Charles Darwin?," Darwin today would be compelled to consider intelligent design, for example, by the present day molecular evidence and ongoing discussions about this topic. (See section on intelligent design below)

What would the school boards do if he showed up to weigh in on the discussion and in the process concede points to design! Using Darwin as a defense thus fails. Intelligent design is not the only counterpoint to taking a material view, but the design discussions of today serve to quickly confine Darwin's conclusions to old data. Materialists will always disagree, but then we might expect them to stay their course.

Indeed, various demarcation criteria are often cited by scientists as reasons for rejecting the very possibility of intelligent design. Meyer (CH) Page 71

Furthermore, positivism's verification ideal misrepresented much actual scientific practice. Many scientific theories refer to unverifiable and unobservable entities such as forces, fields, molecules, quarks and universal laws. Meanwhile, many disreputable theories (e.g., the flat-earth theory) appeal explicitly to "common-sense" observations. Clearly, positivism's verifiability criterion would not achieve the demarcation desired. Meyer (CH) Page 74

A valid rejection of any scientific concept requires an objective treatment of the data (drawing inferences and conclusions based on scientific information gathered over time). To do otherwise leaves us with mere assumptions. What then is truth! Truth over personal preference is key:

Thus philosophers of science have increasingly realized that the real issue is not whether a theory is scientific but whether it is true or warranted by the evidence. Thus, as Martin Eager has summarized, "demarcation arguments have collapsed. Philosophers of science don't hold them anymore. They may still enjoy acceptance in the popular world, but that's a different world."

If philosophers of science such as Landau are correct, a stalemate exists in our analysis of design and descent. Neither can automatically qualify as science; neither can be necessarily disqualified either. The a priori methodological merit of design and descent are indistinguishable if no agreed criteria exist by which to judge their merits. Meyer (CH) Page 75

First, many laws are descriptive and not explanatory. Many laws describe regularities but do not explain why the regular events they describe occur. A good example of this drawn from the history of science is the universal law of gravitation, which Newton himself freely admitted did not explain but instead merely described gravitational motion. Meyer (CH) Page 78


Here we encounter questions concerning the root of existence. What is the 'cause' that is the origin of gravity? We see its effects and use those as cause to a multitude of other secondary effects.

There is a second reason that laws cannot be equated with explanations or causes. ... Laws cannot be equated with explanations, not just because many laws do not explain but also because many explanations of particular events, especially in applied or historical science, may not utilize laws. While scientists may often use laws to assess or enhance explanations of particular events, analysis of the logical requirements of the explanation has made clear that the citation of laws is not necessary to many such explanations. Instead, many explanations of particular events or facts, especially in the historical sciences, depend primarily, even exclusively, upon the specification of past causal conditions and events rather than laws to do what might be called the "explanatory work." That is, citing past causal events often explains a particular event better than, and sometimes without reference to, a law or regularity in nature. Meyer (CH) Page 78

In other words, naturalism can find itself tracing events back to a non-material foundation. The natural world exists on a base that goes beyond nature alone. Naturalism is therefore only a subset and a narrowed vantage point within at the greater whole of what we experience.

This condition is knowingly or unwittingly acknowledged in the work of a famous scientist, such as Newton. There are other such examples. But we have to think this through to see what's happened! If the great minds are not revealing their assumptions or self imposed limits to their thinking, then who will speak truthfully and what are the implications!

First, as we have already noted, many theories in science are not mechanistic theories. Many theories that explicate what regularly happens in nature either do not or need not explain why those phenomena occur mechanically. Newton's universal law of gravitation was no less a scientific theory because Newton failed—indeed refused—to postulate a mechanistic cause for the regular pattern of attraction his law described. Meyer (CH) Page 86

And for those of our readers who hope 'string theory' will explain everything—including gravity—we add a cautionary note. The proposed 'strings' of energy that are thought the most fundamental element to existence beg the question concerning design! Strings, if real, appear to 'vibrate' at set frequencies and this is postulated to explain numerous observed constants that make for a fine tuned universe. This would explain the constants like gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, weak force, etc. So many forces are exactly fine tuned. Why should strings be so well tuned? Naturalism cannot begin to approach the question for the answer goes to primary causes beyond the material realm alone!


There are feature articles within the WindowView that address intelligent design, its detection, irreducible complexity, and examples of complexity that go along with the hypothesis. Such information leaves open a gaping door to discussion other than where the material naturalists want to go. But is their reluctance constructive!

Science investigation should not be about intellectual turf, ego, or one's pride of career and research accomplishments. If information concerning evolution serves to defeat the assumptions that are common to evolution's doctrine, then that alone makes for opportunities to new avenues of investigation. Intelligent design opens new avenues. It also meets resistance. If this is mere academic bias, then you—all of us—are short changed in the process!

In light of the foregoing analysis we consider that it is reasonable to doubt whether prebiological evolution occurred, and we suggest intelligent design as an alternative. Sagan, Miller, Fox, Shapiro and most other origin-of-life scientists have insisted that we continue to look for a natural pathway; they are sure that prebiotic evolution produced life. But surely our doubt agrees with experience. The general persistence and defending prebiotic evolution is based on the philosophical commitment quite apart from experience. Bradley and Thaxton (CH) Page 197

The commentary here concerns defending outdated positions. What invigorates research are investigations that add new tools and approaches to seeking truth. Is that not the entire spirit of true investigation? Speaking of material naturalism ...

... methodological naturalism—that is, commitment to the search for natural processes irrespective of metaphysical commitment. Whether the supernatural exists or not, they say, we must approach science in terms of natural processes, for there is no other way to do science. Bradley and Thaxton (CH) Page 197

We agree with the intent of this approach to preserve the integrity of science. However, we believe that the approach itself is in error and that those who promote it place and unnecessary demand on both nature and scientific methodology. It insists, in advance of looking, that a natural-cause, continuous world picture will be forthcoming. We think this demand is contrary to the spirit of science and smacks more of metaphysical commitment—which, if unrecognized, becomes dangerous. Bradley and Thaxton (CH) Page 197

Perhaps by now you have come to the conclusion that material naturalism is a framework that is part but not the whole of what defines existence! Again, look at how this is applied to Darwinism:

Naturalism is not something about which Darwinists can afford to be tentative, because their science is based upon it. As we have seen, the positive evidence that Darwinian evolution either can produce or has produced important biological innovations is nonexistent. Darwinists know that the mutation - selection mechanism can produce wings, eyes, and brains not because the mechanism can be observed to do anything of the kind, but because their guiding philosophy assures them that no other power is available to do the job. The absence from the cosmos of any Creator is therefore the essential starting point for Darwinism. Johnson (DOT) Page 117

This simply revisits the notion of how scientists—as persons—can be painted into a philosophical corner. Science, truthful assessments, an humanity all lose in such cases.

A good empiricist insists that conclusions be supported by observation or experiment, and is willing to discard even the most cherished doctrines if they do not fit the evidence. Naturalism and empiricism are often erroneously assumed to be very nearly the same thing, but they are not. In the case of Darwinism, these two foundational principles of science are in conflict. Johnson (DOT) Page 117

Simply stated, the empirical approach is one of asking questions, conducting the investigations, and then see where the data take us! This is an objective departure from material naturalism. It leaves the window wide open.


Speaking of getting away from what the evidence tells us ... brings us to another of Prof Johnson's observations:

When a new paradigm emerges it does more than explain the anomalies: it reorients the scientific perspective so strongly that the former anomalies may seem no longer to be mere facts but virtual tautologies, statements of situations that could not conceivably have been otherwise. It is therefore not as exceptional as it may have appeared that distinguished scientists have praised Darwin's theory as a profound tautology, or declared it to be logically self-evident proposition requiring no empirical conformation. Johnson (DOT) Page 122

But what if the data are really saying the theory is not self-evident? In fact, how much of our assumptions are based on tautology. The definition for tautology follows:

tau·tol·o·gy ... 2. Logic. An empty or vacuous statement composed of simpler statements in a fashion that makes it logically true whether the simpler statements are factually true or false; for example, the statement Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow. [Late Latin tautologia, from Greek, from tautologos, redundant : tauto-, tauto- + logos, saying; see -LOGY.] American Heritage Dictionary (1994).

Talking in circles is not an objective exercise. Those who do not recognize they are engaged in using a tautology are thus unaware of the trap they've fallen into.

It is easy to see why Scientific naturalism is an attractive philosophy for scientists. It gives science a virtual monopoly on the production of knowledge, and it assures scientists that no important questions are in principle beyond scientific investigation. The important question, however, is whether this philosophical viewpoint is merely an understandable professional prejudice or whether it is the objectively valid way of understanding the world. That is the real issue behind the push to make naturalistic evolution a fundamental tenant of society, to which everyone must be converted. Johnson (DOT) Page 123

Again, the example is Darwinism, but the basic point here is that the pivotal viewpoint—being naturalism—is being kept central to perpetuate its own influence. Persuasion—with a hidden agenda—is at the root of this practice.

If the purpose of Darwinism is to persuade the public to believe that there is no purposeful intelligence that transcends the natural world, then this purpose implies to important limitations upon scientific inquiry. First, scientists may not consider all the possibilities, but must restrict themselves to those which are consistent with a strict philosophical naturalism. For example, they may not study genetic information on the assumption that it may be the product of intelligent communication. Second, scientists may not falsify an element of Darwinism, such as the creative power of natural selection, until and unless they can provide an acceptable substitute. This rule is necessary because advocates of naturalism must at all times have a complete theory at their disposal to prevent any rival philosophy from establishing a foothold. Johnson (DOT) Page 156

Exposing Darwinism to possible falsification would not imply support for any other theory, certainly not any pseudoscientific theory based upon a religious dogma. ... Falsification is not a defeat for science, but a liberation. It removes the dead weight of prejudice, and thereby frees us to look for the truth. Johnson (DOT) Page 156

Science can be self correcting, if allowed, and an instrument for revelation no matter where the data take us!

Added Perspective:

The topic of material naturalism is hardly insignificant. Much of the ''thought-scape'' of today's thinking is shaped by this point of view. Much of the working assumptions of western culture rest on this as reality.

Take away the assumption that absolutely all explanations are material, as expressed by some thinkers, and the field is wide open to again explore our existence in an objective way. Take every material objection and look at it carefully, in many cases there are assumptions accepted as fact. This takes critical thinking. For example, we wish to use the terms creation and evolution for what they mean. But defining the meanings relies on our ability to filter out assumptions. When evolution's explanations are material, we see failures to explain. Discussions on creation should also be clearly defined and not based on assumption or thinking that is easily compromised by evidence that science itself serve to offer for our consideration.

The real downside to opening up the discussion is that political and educational systems have for so long depended on a material viewpoint. A deeply rooted institutional perspective becomes hard to correct or objectively review when so much is invested over time to one view point. How then does one get back on track! A culture shift and change in paradigms is part of the solution.

Quotations from "The Creation Hypothesis" (CH) edited by J. P. Moreland are used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used without permission from InterVarsity Press.

Quotations from "Darwin on Trial (DOT)" 2nd. Edition. 1993. By Prof. Phillip E. Johnson, appear pending permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used without permission from InterVarsity Press.

Writer / Editor: Dr. T. Peterson, Director,

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