Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism
reviewed by Terry Scambray
Most people think that science and religion were entangled in the past, to the detriment of science, but that the modern, experimental science of the last 400 years, with its reliance on natural explanations, has eliminated any lingering religious influence. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Cornelius Hunter writes in the opening pages of Science’s Blind Spot.
In the ensuing pages, Hunter, a biophysicist and adjunct professor at BIOLA University, documents how the success of experimental science, with its trial-and-error method, is compromised when it is misapplied to other areas of study. This misapplication forms “theological naturalism.” It is not a discovery of science—it is a presupposition of science as currently practiced.
Theological naturalism emerged in the seventeenth century, at a time when the telescope and the microscope were revealing the harmony and beauty of the cosmos in a deeper way than had been previously seen. But these instruments also showed a cosmos that was more imperfect and grainy than had been previously realized.
Hunter offers the example of the seventeenth-century Anglican cleric and geologist, Thomas Burnet, whose popular and influential book, Sacred Theory of the Earth, extolled the great beauty of the Alps. Yet he was disconcerted by the mountains’ “incredible confusion” and “ill figured” lack of symmetry. “Burnet’s paradoxical observations would become commonplace,” and from the belief that the world looked designed yet was imperfect was born Deism, the idea of a distant, rationalist god who remained unsullied by contact with an evil world.
Indeed, God was thought to be a “greater God” if he could create and sustain the world from a distance, rather than degrade himself by acting as a handyman who had to keep fixing his own bungled creation. As Burnet wrote: “We think him a better Artist who makes the clock that strikes regularly at every hour rather than having to put his finger to it every hour to make it strike.”
Thus, the desire of theists to protect God’s image, not of atheists to deny him, resulted in theological naturalism. Whether this move was justified or not is not Hunter’s point. His point is that naturalism was not a discovery of science. It developed as a presumption of theologians who wanted a god who could be divorced from all the evil and disorder in nature.
Certainly the great success of science in the last 400 years is due to its reliance on observable experiments that themselves presuppose that God does not intervene capriciously in nature.
But when experimental science is confused with the study of origins, or with the study of consciousness, then subjective beliefs can be smuggled in where experimental observation necessarily ends and conjecture must necessarily begin. Conjecture must take over at a certain point because the study of origins deals with one-time, unrepeatable events from a deep past, and the study of human consciousness depends on the subjective responses of those whose minds are being studied.
And amid this confusion a philosophic preference like theological naturalism can be smuggled in. This occurs, for example, when scientists argue that life could not have developed in the relatively short time available for its development and therefore it must have come from space. Or when, as some cosmologists argue , a la Carl Sagan, that “billions and billions” of universes, called multiverses, must have existed in order for natural processes to have created life in one of them.
Hunter argues that such speculations merely buy the time necessary for a naturalistic explanation to work. Little if any evidence exists for such speculations, but they are called “science” because they fit the presumption that naturalistic, accidental forces are the only ones available. “Those committed to naturalistic explanations, like those committed to supernatural explanations, can always devise a theory to explain what we observe.”
This is “science’s blind spot.” And it will remain unless scientists free themselves from theological naturalism, the tacit religion of science.
And even the most sophisticated among us don’t realize this. For example, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin has famously written that science, “in spite of the patent absurdity of its constructs and its just so stories,” nonetheless, has “a prior commitment” to purely naturalistic explanations. Doing otherwise, he insists, would “allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Cornelius Hunter has news for Professor Lewontin. In theological naturalism, a certain image of the Divine not only has his foot in the door but has been comfortably cohabitating on the premises for some time. And guess who unknowingly and sternly insists that he remain?
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Obstructed View” first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.