Naturalism and its discontents

March 10th, 2017
by Chris

There is a story I’ve heard used by preachers (source unknown) which goes like this:-

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Most preachers go on to say that we should always look for the hand of God in things which seem to happen naturally. But I suspect a subtext. The overwhelming majority of the people sitting in the pews, whatever they say about belief in divine providence, will be methodological naturalists, i.e. they put their trust in natural, not supernatural, causes and effects and will assume that there’s a natural explanation for everything – and this story is also telling them that they’re not being stupid doing that. Indeed, it’s probably telling them that louder than it’s telling them to look for the hand of God in a guy with a canoe.

I am most definitely a methodological naturalist. How could I be anything else? I have a science degree and actually do a bit of research part time, I spent over 25 years as a practising lawyer, and in my teens I used to love stage magic, because I was forever trying to work out the mechanics of magic tricks (sometimes with success) and try some of them out on my friends (and I assumed that any report of the supernatural was someone doing a “magic trick”). By the age of about 9, I was an atheist – indeed, I was an evangelical atheist, thinking that people needed to be rid of their ridiculous attachment to supernatural explanations (which was something of a burden to my preacher father…).

That, for the philosophically minded, meant that I was also at that point an ontological naturalist, i.e. I thought that all that there was consisted of natural causes and effects. Another way of putting it was that I was a scientific rationalist materialist; material was all there was.

So, what am I doing hanging around most Sunday mornings and at some other times during the average week with a group who believe (at least ostensibly) in miracles, including resurrection, walking on water and creating food out of thin air? Surely the cognitive dissonance is too much?

Well, at 14 I had, out of the blue, a peak mystical experience. The naturalist, scientific rationalist explanation was, ultimately, that there was no reason for this and no meaning in it – it was just something my brain did. That was not enough for me – for a start, it was the best experience of my existence to date at that point (it still is, along with a few “repeat performances”), and I wanted more of that. However, the language used by almost all the people who reported something similar (who I found were called “mystics”) was “God language” (those who avoided “God language” didn’t give very good descriptions, and didn’t propose any ways of achieving repeats, so I rather discounted them…)

Then in the course of my physics studies I encountered wave-particle duality – matter was , when looked at one way, a wave (and that explained a lot of phenomena), but when looked at another, was particles (and that explained a lot more). There was no really sensible way in which it could be both, and in reality, it probably wasn’t actually either – but there was no way of knowing.

In other words, we could tell a story about it being a wave, and that was useful in some circumstances, we could tell a story about it being a particle, and that was useful in some others. It was a lot later that I encountered Terry Pratchett’s “Science of Discworld” books, but I think he expounds the idea very well in those – we tell stories about the world, about our experience, and some are useful, some aren’t. Pratchett calls us “homo narrans”, the story-telling hominid.

Telling the story that my peak mystical experience was an experience of God was useful. It gave me a narrative, it gave me access to a set of people who had had similar experiences and who also wanted more where that came from. It wasn’t the same story as was told about that by an atheist friend of mine – he said it was a “brain fart”. Maybe that was useful to him, but it definitely wasn’t useful to me!

What about ontology, I wonder? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion since that we actually can’t ever hope to say anything definitive about ontology, about the way things actually are in and of themselves, we can only talk about how they appear to us. We can only tell stories about them…

There is a story about a wise and charismatic teacher, preacher and (I believe) mystic who gathered a following and ultimately was faithful to his vision in the face of persecution and died at the hands of an occupying empire as a result, and whose followers then continued to experience him afterwards. I am captivated by that story, and I follow that teacher as best I can (which is not very well, to be honest – he set some incredibly high standards). Is it a true story? I don’t know. Is matter composed of waves or is it composed of particles or is it something we can’t conceive? I don’t know that either. It’s a story I want to identify with, a story I find useful.

And, returning to the story with which I started, I have no problem these days in saying “thank you, God” when a parking space suddenly opens up for me. I don’t expect that there’s been any suspension of natural law to enable that to happen, or even a subliminal command to the departing driver. That’s a different story, a different narrative, and one which is not at that point useful to me…

(First appeared on The Way Station blog at

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