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. Pingback: Can we know anything if Naturalism is true? Or: A plea for creativity with Theistic Arguments « Ratio Christi- Apologetics At The Ohio State University

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