Can we know anything if Naturalism is true? Or: A plea for creativity with Theistic Arguments

In my last post, I considered John Calvin’s claim that we cannot know God unless we  know ourselves and (conversely), we cannot know ourselves unless we know God. Calvin thinks there is a tight relationship between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man. Here I want to consider a deeper concern: Can we have knowledge of anything if God does not exist?In his recently released book Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality[1], Scott Smith argues that we cannot. Scott’s book is a bold and sustained attack of naturalism and its ability to deliver us knowledge. His master argument is a kind of transcendental argument: If philosophical naturalism is true, then we do not have knowledge of reality. We do have knowledge of reality, therefore it is not the case that philosophical naturalism is true. The bulk of Scott’s book (in fact, Chapters 1-8) is concerned with showing the inability of naturalism to ground knowledge (he engages with the Direct Realism of D.M. Armstrong, the Representationalism of Dretske, Tye, and Lycan, Searle’s Naturalism, Papineau’s naturalized epistemology, Dennett’s neurophilosophy, the Churchland’s eliminativism, and Kim’s physicalism). Finally, in Chapter 9, Scott begins to build a positive case for the kind of ontology required for knowledge. Mental properties are sui generis, irreducible to the physical; knowledge requires substance dualism; and the “natural affinity” exhibited between mind and world is best explained via a divine mind. Thus, the reality of knowledge entails theism and a decidedly theistic world.

If correct, Smith’s thesis has huge implications. For, we clearly do know things. Thus, we find an argument, or probably a family of arguments, from the reality of knowledge to the existence of God.

And, if God exists, this is as it should be—if God is the creator of all things, that means that all knowledge (that is, all truths discovered) as well as knowledge itself—somehow connects to and illuminates the divine.

I think that Scott is right in his central positive assertions. I also think that we need to see more books, articles, and arguments like Scott’s advanced in the academic and popular presses—if, as the theist claims, God exists and is the ground of being—then all of reality, any existent phenomenon, ought (in principle, at least) be able to figure into a premise of a philosophical argument with a theological conclusion. Robert Adam’s article “Flavors, Colors, and God,” (found in here) and Alvin Plantinga’s widely cited “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments” are suggestive of this kind of thinking. Scott Smith’s book is a sustained argument from knowledge to God, motivated by paying attention to the necessary ontology required for knowledge. And now a challenge for theists: pick any existent phenomena of our world. I submit that in investigating the ground or cause of the phenomenon, we will be led, if we follow the dialectic carefully, to a divine source. Let’s begin to construct and articulate these philosophical arguments—ours is a magical world, an ontologically haunted world, where the immaterial constantly is breaking into the material, the abstract into the concrete, the mental into the physical, and non-natural into the natural, and evidence of such breaches are everywhere.


[1] R. Scott Smith, Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012).


22 Responses to Can we know anything if Naturalism is true? Or: A plea for creativity with Theistic Arguments

  1. Stephen Law says:

    The blurb says: “Philosophical naturalism is taken to be the preferred and reigning epistemology and metaphysics”.

    Actually while only about 15% of prof philosophers and graduate students are any sort of theist, only 50% sign up to naturalism (see the Phil paper survey). I don’t. And I’m an atheist.

    To refute naturalism is not to establish theism, particularly not the sort that posits an all-powerful all-good God (a hypothesis that is fairly straightforwardly empirically refuted – much as the all-powerful, all-evil God hypothesis is).

    • says:

      Hello Stephen, I actually agree with you–to refute naturalism isn’t to straight away establish theism. In Scott’s book, he does go all the way–knowledge can only be grounded if the God of theism exists. I think that there are non-natural (Platonic) accounts of reality that might do the trick as well, but I don’t think they are nearly as plausible as theism. Still your point is well taken.

      When you say that theism is empirically refuted, I assume you must mean the problem of evil refutes it? That’s a discussion for another day, but I (obviously) would side with those theists who think that evil does not render God’s existence unlikely.

  2. bobmo says:

    No doubt, Stephen Law is referring to his own “Evil God” challenge that he presented in a debate with William Lane Craig during WLC’s UK tour in October of last year. This challenge attempts to reverse common theodicies by claiming that an equally strong case could be made for an evil god against whom the “problem of good” could be raised.

    However, I believe this challenge has been successfully refuted by folks such as Glenn Peoples who argue that the moral argument makes a good God much more likely than an evil one.

    Furthermore, even if the evil god challenge were successful, the argument simply claims that there are no stronger arguments for a good god vs. an evil one. If Dr. Law is willing to concede the existence of a God, even an evil one, his atheism has been refuted.

    • says:

      Thanks for the reference Bob. I look forward to reading Dr. Law’s article on an Evil God. I see that he has an article forthcoming on the topic. I suppose, without reading it, it is more of an argument to show that however you slice it, the reality of objective morality doesn’t provide support one way or other for a God–since it just as equally supports an evil God as a good God. I look forward to reading it….warmly, Paul

  3. Rich Davis says:

    I’m not sure what atheistic non-naturalism *is*. Is it atheism conjoined with, say, substance dualism, or perhaps Platonic realism w.r.t. abstracta, or both?

    • says:

      Hello Rich, I was thinking of atheistic Platonism, the kind of Platonism that Mavrodes considers in his article the on the “Queerness of Religion.” I think it also might have been the kind of Platonism that William Rowe holds to (as an atheist). I suppose were could also throw in substance dualism as some kind of emergent substance from the physical or just a brute fact about humans….

  4. Rich Davis says:

    Hi Paul — I wonder, in that case, what sort of Platonic entities Dr. Law is thinking of. Some — e.g., propositions and possible worlds — have intentional properties. But as we argue in our chapter, Platonic Forms aren’t intentional.

    • says:

      Good question Rich—your right…my guess is he would either have to refute the master argument of Scott’s book, adopt as a brute fact mental properties (a kind of property dualism) or reject the intuition that intentionality belongs with the mental only–either way, an uphill battle!

  5. Jared Rodriguez says:

    It seems that the premise of this piece requires that the “natural” be a fixed set. Yet we know that what is deemed natural is only at a fixed set based upon our ability to observe and understand the universe. The supernatural has entered the realm of the natural pretty regularly for the last few 1000 years.

    • says:

      Hello Jared, I agree that many things that used to be explained by invoking a godly hypothesis are now explained purely as natural processes. Still, I think there is reason to think that I number of things will never be explained via natural processes, or again, in terms of purely physicalistic entities since they seem to be non-physical or non-natural. I think that these phenomenon that will probably never admit of a naturalistic explanation (or more reservedly, a more plausible naturalistic explanation) include things like consciousness, freedom, morality, and why there is something rather than nothing, to name a few.

  6. Jared Rodriguez says:

    Hi Paul, maybe. the biggest item you listed, consciousness, sure seems mysterious. But I imagine it is no more mysterious to us now that say, earthquakes were to humans a mere 5000 years ago. I would contend that they are even less mysterious to us – particularly when you look at some of the “far out” theories such as the quantum brain and holographic universe. While these theories are a far cry from solid, they at least have some basis in the natural universe. Our ancestors had pretty much zero explanation for really basic natural phenomena.

  7. AP Armstrong says:

    How do we know that we have knowledge? Maybe Scott (or another) develops an argument and since you –clearly we have knowledge– assert it, perhaps you could provide a synopsis (but not the whole field of epistemology).

  8. AP Armstrong says:

    On a slightly different tack, I wonder if there would not be competing definitions of knowledge dependent on the philosophy’s metaphysical positions (especially theistic versus atheistic). Does what is defined as knowledge differ based on whether reality is solely natural (matter only matters) or also has supernatural aspects (such as deity)?

    • says:

      Hello Art, no I think everyone is pretty much using the same concept of knowledge–something like justified, or warranted, true belief. The issue that Scott’s book addresses is, on naturalism, we can arrive at such knowledge?

      • AP Armstrong says:

        I think that “under the sun” (i.e., from a strictly materialist and nothing else) view I would have a Humean despair over any possibility of any meaningful epistemology. (Paradoxically, Hume seems not to have considered such despair as an impediment to further philosophical endeavors.)

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  10. Mark says:

    Just recently came across this post…

    Re, “I also think that we need to see more books, articles, and arguments like Scott’s…” If you’ve not already, you might check out Philosophical Foundation. It includes various arguments, which aim to cumulatively show that its clear that God exists.

    A similar argument is used to disprove naturalism/material monism, which essentially says: If all is matter than thinking is motion of atoms in the brain. Thinking cannot be reduced to motion of atoms in the brain. Therefore materialism is false.

    As mentioned in the comments, disproving materialism doesn’t prove Theism, but it is an essential part of the process.

    Thanks for the book recommendation above. Ill check it out.

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