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Naturalism, Christianity, and the Best Explanation of Moral Goodness

By Jonathan Pruitt

In this essay I suggest that Christian theism better explains the existence of moral goodness than does naturalism. But what is goodness? One way to answer this question is by ostension.  We can point to things that are good as examples. If we asked a child, “What is water?” she would not likely respond, “It is a molecule composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” Instead, she might answer by pointing to the stuff that comes from the sink.  In the same way, we might not know what the essential nature of goodness is, but we can readily identify a wide array of things that are good. For example, most would agree that being healthy is good, the beauty of the Grand Canyon is good, having a trusted friend is good, and that William Wilberforce’s abolitionism is good. But if we ask the further question, “What is the nature of goodness?” then we are faced with a deeper challenge. Socrates was notorious for pushing his interlocutors for essential meanings rather than definitions by ostension, and it didn’t win him many popularity contests.

One way to respond is by giving an account of instrumental goods. A thing is good if it has instrumental value. These are features of a thing that allow for some goal to be achieved. If, for example, I am learning chess, it would be good to study the play of Garry Kasparov. In this case, we might understand “good” to mean “whatever conduces to a given goal.” One way naturalists might be tempted to cash out the essential nature of goodness is in instrumental terms. We could, for example, read Philippa Foot’s teleological, nonconsequential view this way. Human virtues are just those things that conduce toward her preferred end of human thriving as a species. Or, on egoism, it is good to do whatever is in my self-interest. But, of course, instrumental goods exist in obviously bad places, too. The rounding up of the Jews was instrumentally good in Hitler’s plan for their extermination. What this suggests is that while instrumental goodness may get us some way toward understanding the essential nature of goodness, it cannot possibly be the whole story. And mere instrumentality does not explain how to make sense of a wide range of other things that are obviously good.

Clearly, what we are after here is something much more robust than mere instrumentality. We want to understand goodness as intrinsic and not merely extrinsic value.  Let us try again to get at the essential nature of goodness by ostension. What can we point to as an uncontroversial and obvious case of goodness? A good candidate here is humanity itself. The intrinsic value and worth of human beings is often assumed as the starting place of many ethical theories. So, if being human is good, how can we make sense of this claim? This view will have to accord with what we think humans actually are.

Consider, for example, the naturalist view of human persons. Naturalism usually utilizes what might be called “atomistic” metaphysics. That is to say, everything that exists is explainable in terms of the periodic table plus physical laws. All that exists is the material world. Further, matter does not possess any powers that cannot be captured in scientific, physicalistic terms. It follows, then, that humans too are composed of atoms and are governed by the physical laws. If this is true, then we cannot talk about human nature as some additional metaphysical category that obtains simply because there are collections of atoms arranged in a human-shape and that behave in human ways. Generating this kind of nature is not explainable in terms of the powers of physical things. Therefore, on naturalism, humans are piles of atoms arranged human-wise. And when I say “piles,” I do not mean it to be a caricature or a derogatory way of capturing the naturalist view. Rather, I think that is just the honest way to put it. If it seems degrading or silly, the problem lies with the naturalist and his metaphysics that commit him to such a view.

Given this picture of human beings, in what sense can we say that it is good to be human or that humans posses intrinsic value and worth? This will be hard for the naturalist to answer for a couple of reasons. In the first place, he must explain such strange categories as “value,” “worth,” and “dignity” in materialistic, scientific terms. But what combination of atoms conjoined with what set of physical laws will allow us to explicate such notions? In what sense can piles have intrinsic value? This seems like an exceptionally hard question to answer. On the other hand, it will be difficult to even meaningfully distinguish between humans and other physical objects. What can the naturalist point to as the relevant difference between, say, a human pile and a rock pile? This is, of course, a dramatic example. And it is a strong accusation to make to say naturalists cannot provide some relevant difference. But consider what the famous and brilliant popularizers of naturalism, Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, say when trying to capture the wonder of humanity. They point out the rather startling fact that humans are composed of star dust. Humans are made of the same stuff that makes the stars. On the surface, that has an aesthetic appeal, certainly. However, the rock pile is composed of the same stuff. Should this lead us the same wonder and awe of rock piles? Presumably not.

One way the naturalist would likely object here and say that humans are better than rock piles because humans have minds and rock piles do not. But if the naturalist that raises this objection is a thorough going materialist, then this objection will not get him any traction. This is because, presumably, by pointing to the fact that humans have minds, the naturalist wants to indicate some obvious and relevant difference between humans and rock piles. And there is an obvious difference indeed. The trouble is, however that this obvious and qualitative difference cannot be captured using the periodic table plus the physical laws. This is why philosophers of mind committed to materialism often try to reduce, identify, or functionalize mental phenomena to the physical. For example, naturalist and philosopher of mind, Paul Churchland says, “the human species and all its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. Like all but the simplest organisms, we have a nervous system… We are notable only in that our nervous system is more complex and powerful than those of our fellow creatures. Our inner nature differs from that of simpler creatures in degree, but not in kind.”[1] In this case, if naturalist like Churchland were to say, “Well humans are better than rocks because they have minds” he would be committing a mistake given the truth of his own view. There just is no such thing as the mental understood as a unique kind of property or substance distinct from the physical. Rather, there is only a physical nervous system; the periodic table plus the laws of physics. Human piles may in some ways be more complex than rock piles, but mere complexity does not somehow generate intrinsic value.

Now perhaps the naturalist will want to say that despite the fact that humans are piles, they are still somehow special. I am open to hearing that case, but I suspect that the naturalist will have trouble giving an adequate explanation for how it is that humans, if they are complex material piles, are intrinsically valuable and worthy of dignity and respect. It seems to me that if the naturalist wants to explain human dignity and remain an atheist, he will at least need to abandon reductive materialism and opt for something like Nagel’s panpsychism or Wielenberg’s moral Platonism (and here he will face a new set of difficulties).

To put the problem more precisely: on naturalism, there can nothing in principle different between human piles and rock piles. They are both composed of matter and they both operate only and always according to physical laws. When one group of humans considers themselves intrinsically better than another just because of their biological make-up, we call those people racists. On naturalism, thinking human piles are better than other piles smacks of a kind of “matter-ism” and those who hold such views are “matter-ists.” So, if we want to avoid being matter-ists and we want a meaningful way to explain human value and dignity we must look elsewhere.

Consider in contrast to the naturalist position, the theistic one. Instead of positing matter and physical laws as fundamental, theists propose that God is fundamental. Classical theists hold that not only is God the ground of all things, He is also maximally great. That is, He possesses all great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree. God, then, is understood to be maximally and intrinsically valuable. Further, theists reject the physicalist metaphysics of naturalism. Instead, they say that spirit is fundamental because God is spirit. Matter exists contingently as the product of God’s free choice to create a material world. In light of this, we need not explain all things in term of matter and physics. We have other resources to appeal to, namely theists can say that possibly some things are composed of spirit.

Now let us turn our attention to the theistic view of human persons. In pondering this question, we might talk Alvin Plantinga’s advice. Plantinga suggests that Christian philosophers who want to understand what kind of things human persons fundamentally are should turn their thoughts to God because

God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.

In light of Plantinga’s insight, let us consider how humans might have intrinsic value. For one, humans, being in God’s image, bear a resemblance to Him. If God is intrinsically valuable, then humans too, insofar as they resemble God, also have intrinsic value. This may seem like too easy an answer to give and that could raise suspicion. But notice why the answer is easy. Contrary to the naturalists, theists hold that essential to the fundamental nature of reality is maximal intrinsic value. Value is right at the center of the world so it is not hard to say how value in general comes about. Value exists as a necessary and essential part of Reality. Further, the Christian view, based on the opening chapter of Genesis, is that humans are imagers of God – they bear a resemblance to God. The easy move to explain human value on Christian theism is due to the richness of the theistic world. This is not a fault, but a strength.

But there is more to say. Earlier, I said that naturalists face a “matter-ist” problem. That is, they cannot provide a meaningful difference between human piles and rock piles. This is not the case on theism. Humans are not piles on theism. Instead, humans are souls. Being a soul means being, fundamentally, an immaterial person imbued with the powers of volition, creativity, and the like. It also means bearing essentially a resemblance to God, who is the premier Person. God is spirit and so are humans, although humans have physical bodies in addition to being souls. It is our souls that ground the resemblance to God, not our physical parts. In this way, humans possess a relevant difference from rock piles. Rock piles have no soul and therefore do not resemble God. It really is better to be human than rocks on theism.

Christian theism, then, provides a better explanation of the reality of the intrinsic value of human beings in particular and moral goodness in general than does naturalism.


[1] Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, MIT Press 1990, 21.


Photo: “Hubble Watches Super Star Create Holiday Light Show” by NASA. 

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