Three M’s That Naturalism Can’t Provide

Can Atheism Account for Mind, Morality, and Meaning?

Everyone has a worldview; all of us experience and interpret the world through a collection of beliefs that guide our understanding. As an atheist, I accounted for my experiences through the lens of naturalism. I believed everything I experienced and observed could be explained in terms of natural causes and laws. I never thought deeply about the inconsistencies in my view of the world or the fact that my naturalism failed to explain three characteristics of my daily experience:

Mind
If naturalism is true, some form of physicalism or materialism must rule the day. The “problem of mind,” as philosophers and researchers commonly describe it, is only a “problem” because the material limitations of naturalism strain to account for immaterial consciousness. Naturalism can explain the existence of the brain, but little more. Our “minds” are an illusion created by the physical processes that are occurring in our material brains. But if this is the case, our thoughts are merely the result of a series of physical causes and resulting effects. You might believe you are thinking freely about what you just read, but in reality, your “thoughts” are simply the consequences of neural “dominoes” falling, one against the next. In a world of strict causal physicalism, free will and freely reasoned thoughts are simply an illusion.

Morality
If naturalism is true, morality is nothing more than a matter of opinion. All of us, as humans, have simply come to embrace those cultural or personal mores that best promote the survival of the species. There is no transcendent, objective moral truth. Instead, cultures merely embrace the values and moral principles that “work” for them and have resulted in the flourishing of their particular people group. If this is the case, then one group of evolved humans has no business trying to tell another evolved group what is truly right or wrong from a moral perspective. After all, each group has arrived at their particular level of development by embracing their own accepted moral standards. Arguments over which moral truths provide for greater human flourishing are simply subjective disagreements; there is no transcendent, objective standard that can adjudicate such disagreements from a naturalistic perspective.

Meaning
If naturalism is true, life’s meaning and purpose are simply in the eye of the beholder. If your son tells you that he thinks meaning is found in playing video games ten hours a day, there is little you can offer as an objective rebuttal. After all, if there is no transcendent author of life, each of us gets to write our own script. While you may believe your son has missed the point of his existence and has forfeited the opportunity to experience life fully, you really don’t have any objective authority upon which to ground an alternative. As a naturalist, you are inventing your own meaning as well; purpose and significance from a purely naturalistic perspective are nothing more than opinion and personal preference.

As an atheist, I chose to cling to naturalism in spite of the fact that I lived each day as though I was capable of using my mind to make moral choices based on more than my own opinion. In addition, I sought meaning and purpose beyond my own hedonistic preferences, as though meaning was to be discovered, rather than created. I called myself a naturalist while embracing three characteristics of reality that simply cannot be explained by naturalism. As a Christian, I’m now able to acknowledge the “grounding” for these features of reality, making my philosophical worldview consistent with my practical experience of the world.

 

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case DetectiveChristian Case Maker, senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of “Cold-Case Christianity,” “Cold-Case Christianity for Kids,” “God’s Crime Scene,” and “Forensic Faith.”


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  • john

    Great article!. I would add a fourth M that naturalism cannot account for and that is Matter. Naturalism cannot explain the beginning of space, time and matter from nothing (the absence of anything) whether the beginning of the universe or multiverse.