In philosophical circles “naturalism” is a shibboleth. Just about all academic philosophers and most self-described intellectuals in the West are quick to reassure each other that however strange their pet philosophical beliefs might sound to the common folk, the thinkers would never even consider abandoning the ship of naturalism. “Naturalist” is an honourific term so that if you admit to being a supernaturalist, you’re revealing that you haven’t thought things through, that at best you’ve studied theology rather than philosophy. Modern philosophy has helped drive the Age of Reason, but the engine has been science, and by definition science’s subject matter is nature. Whatever scientists discover that they can explain becomes part of the natural world. Both American and French-dominated philosophies take scientific knowledge for granted, although the latter is more pessimistic about science’s social impact.
However, if naturalism is supposed to be the philosophical upshot of the scientific world picture, the standard presentation of this philosophy turns out to be a nonstarter. There’s a difference between exoteric and esoteric naturalism, and as in the case of any comparable distinction such as that between vulgar (literalistic) and enlightened (mystical or cosmicist) theism, the exoteric variety is half-baked and rife with delusions. Instead of invoking the pertinent technicalities such as “supervenience,” “physicalism,” or “nomic relation,” which function as mantras and memetic incantations that mesmerize and distract professional philosophers, we should consider a more grounded, intuitive interpretation of what’s at issue. Naturalism is set against the idea that there’s anything supernatural or unnatural. In particular, naturalism is taken to be well-established on at least three grounds. Metaphysically, science is supposed to have established that everything is part of the material world. Epistemically or methodologically, science is supposed to engage in unifying causal explanations, leaving no room for anything outside science’s purview. And institutionally or culturally, science impresses with its practitioners’ intellectual virtues which far outshine the faith-based drivel of religion, the latter being science’s arch rival. On each of these grounds, however, naturalism is incoherent. Indeed, the one ground leads to the other as a defense, so that with the collapse of cultural naturalism, that is, of rationalism or skepticism, we must look elsewhere if we wish to supply content to this shibboleth.
Miracles in the Mechanical Cosmos
The metaphysical point about nature is that nature is composed of stuff that scientists can understand. If we think in analytical terms, cognitively dividing and conquering systems, as it were, breaking them down into their constituent parts to see how the mechanisms interlock, the world is supposed to cooperate with this approach. Indeed, the Scientific Revolution was progressive in so far as these cognitive methods were applied in spite of defeatist religious traditions, and the universe turned out to be largely material and mechanical. The heavens were demystified and depersonalized, the divinities having been reduced to stars and planets. Organic design turned out not to be divinely intended, but the product of blind processes such as natural selection. And so naturalism entails, in short, that there are no miracles.
But having discovered discontinuities in the world, scientists themselves showed the limits of their analytical methods. Gödel’s Theorem showed that mathematical descriptions are necessarily incomplete, while Bell’s Theorem confirmed the direst suspicions of quantum physicists, that at the quantum level the world isn’t mechanical at all. At that level, one thing doesn’t impact another by locally pushing or pulling it, as it were. There is what Einstein mockingly called “spooky action at a distance,” when particles become entangled and affect each other irrespective of the distance between them. Moreover, singularities were discovered in black holes and at the universe’s point of origin, in which the natural laws break down.