Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another Problem with Naturalism

Might makes right government

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The United States was founded upon the notion that certain things were right and certain things were wrong. The founders said that, according to this objective standard, they were being treated unfairly and had a right to leave and create a new government that would rule in line with the principles of the Creator.

Before that, the kings of England and other powers claimed a right to rule based on the fact that their governments were ordained by God. He had placed them and their ancestors in those positions, and the people were obliged to obey them as they obeyed their Maker.

Before that, kings ruled by virtue of the simple fact that they were, in fact, gods – or so they claimed.

Throughout history, rulers appealed to divine right or divine principle to justify their rule. It was recognized that people needed to know why they should obey – because either the king was a god or was instituted by God. What happens when they can’t do that?

One of the results of naturalism is the loss of the idea of an objective standard for morality or anything else. You don’t just lose God; you lose good. Why is murder wrong? What’s so bad about stealing? Who’s to say we can’t bury inconvenient facts?

In this realm, there is no unalienable right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness because there is no creator to endow us with them. At this point, there is no good reason for anything government wants to do, nor is there anything wrong with anything it wants to do.

There is no obligation to protect the innocent or punish the guilty. There is no fundamental right to what you own and so no reason to justify taking it away from you.

So why does government get to rule? Because it can. Because it is powerful. Government based on objective principles or divine prerogative is replaced by might makes right.

Eventually you get to the point where whatever the leaders want to do is right because they have the might.

Am I exaggerating? Reflect on Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia for a few minutes. Millions were killed because the government deemed it to be in the government’s best interest.

What moral argument could be brought against that policy? “Thou shalt not kill”? Fairy tales and superstition. Men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”? Men are created by undirected biological processes that endow them with nothing.

Naturalism has many problems both philosophical and logical, but the greatest problem is moral. Naturalism is the path to government of the powerful, by the powerful, and for the powerful.

You might also be interested in: What's Wrong with Naturalism?


Vinny said...

I think your analysis may be somewhat superficial. The appearance of "the Laws of Nature " and "Nature's God" reflect a naturalistic perspective from Jefferson at least to some extent. I think this perspective was shared by some of the other founders. I think these men believed in objective moral values, however, they believe that they could be reached by reason. The naturalism of the Declaration of Independence may not be the same as today's naturalism, but I don't think you can deny that it is there.

ChrisB said...

Vinny, nice to see you again.

Not all the founders were Christians, that much is certain. Jefferson was, iirc, a deist -- i.e., believed in a god who was not involved in the universe at present. That is a far cry from a completely naturalistic universe.

Believing that objective moral values can be discovered by reason (as opposed to requiring revelation) is not the same as saying that they are created by reason.

I, too, believe that people can know at least some moral truth without special revelation (the Bible teaches that much too). But saying we can know truth without a signed letter from God is not the same as saying truth exists without a god.

Absolute moral standards are a nonsense without an external standard. Every society that has tried having morals without a supernatural source has gone the same direction.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

You conveniently forget the white USA was founded on grand theft, genocide, and slavery (which is both mass murder {of bodies and spirit} and grand theft too).

But I guess that was part of "gods" plan for Humankind with the his-story of white Christian America being the focal point for the unfolding of this "plan".

And the Native "Americans" and Africans were only heathens and brutes, and savages besides---so they deserved what was coming to them!

So where is the basis for your "moral" righteousness.

Meanwhile please check out these related references on religion, culture, and politics.

1. www.coteda.com
2. www.dabase.org/restsacr.htm
3. www.ispeace723.org

ChrisB said...

John ("Anonymous"),

I'm not sure what America's sometimes less than stellar past has to do with the question of whether you can maintain a just society without a notion of transcendent principles.

Thanks for visiting.

Jon said...


Good post. The other comments do not address the core issue; one attempts to redefine the naturalism of which you speak, and the other is a simple ad hominem attack (ironically coming from a person whose country began as a place of exile for British criminals). Your point is a valid one that naturalists have not yet successfully countered, in my opinion.

Vinny said...


I don't think I was trying to redefine naturalism. I was simply noting that a form of naturalism is evident in the Declaration of Independence. I think that makes it a problematic text for the contrast that Chris was trying to draw.

Jon said...


I think that I would have to agree with Chris that there were influences of Deism more so than naturalism. Today's naturalists, as best as I can tell, would think that moral values are not objective but subjective, having evolved (and implicitly continuing to evolve) throughout history. This is a far cry from Deism.

I can see where naturalism and Deism are similar in some points, but not here so much as elsewhere.

However, thank you for correcting me and clarifying your point.

Vinny said...

I can see the difference between deism and today’s naturalism as well although I think that deism may have been a step in the chain that led to today’s naturalism. I have done a little reading in this area but I am far from having any sort of satisfactory handle on it.

I suspect the deists of the founders' time shared the theists' belief in the existence of objective and perhaps absolute truth, but believed that it could be reached by the exercise of reason through science and philosophy without the need for supernatural revelation. Since that time, however, I think science and philosophy have come to see the pursuit of knowledge as more subjective and less absolute. The question is what the founding deists would have made of this development.

On the one hand, I could see those deists saying that the natural laws and nature’s God contemplated in the Declaration of Independence were objective and absolute to the extent that science and philosophy could make them objective and absolute. If science and philosophy become less deterministic, then natural law becomes less so as well. On the other hand, I could also see them saying that they contemplated natural law that was as absolute and objective as the revealed law embraced by the theists and the fact that science and philosophy have changed their views does not change that.