The Naturalist and God (Newsletter 30-9)

The Naturalist and God

Naturalism: Belief that the final reality is strictly matter and energy. One for whom all gods are dead, for whom all meaning and purpose are human in origin, ungrounded in either nature itself or in the transcendent.

Pantheist: A person for whom the final reality is really divine. One for whom the dance of the atoms is the ultimate dance of the spirit.

Naturalism and pantheism seem to be polar opposites, yet a door has been opening between them. The so-called “New Age physics” of Fritjof Capra, Gary Zukav, and Michael Talbot tries to link material science with Eastern pantheism, the most spiritual of world views. We can see one scientist stepping through that door to pantheism in the popular writings of Lewis Thomas. Thomas, chancellor of Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in New York City, received his M.D. from Harvard in 1937 and has had a productive career in medical research. A collection of his essays first published in the New England Journal of Medicine became a best seller, The lives of a cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1973). That was followed by another
collection, The Medusa and the Snail (1979), and The Youngest Science (1983).

In his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Oration, “On the Uncertainty of Science” (Given June 1980; published in Harvard Magazine, Sept-Oct 1980), Thomas struggles to make sense out of the whole of reality. What is the universe like? What does it mean? Who are we? Why are we here? He accepts two basic tenets of naturalism: (1) That nature is ultimate all there is (There is no creator God who brought the world into being); and (2) that human beings evolved out of nature alone (There is no super-added soul). But Thomas refuses to accept the typical naturalistic implications. He rejects the “intellectually fashionable view of man’s place in nature,” the nihilist conclusion that it “makes no sense at all” (Page 20), that the universe is “meaningless for human beings.” And he rejects the existentialist conclusion that humankind’s meaning is merely human, merely our own imagined values. Instead, Thomas affirms that nature itself is meaningless. Throughout that lecture, Thomas uses personal language for nature’s ways. Human language, he says, is a mysterious “gift” (page 20). He calls the symbiotic character of nature the “urge” to form “partnerships” (page 21), The “invention” of the DNA molecule was the greatest achievement of nature. “Nature has exhibited such restraint and good taste in evolution” (page 21), and “nature has been kind to us” (page 21). Even the mechanism of evolution – natural selection – is given a personal twist.

Like a naturalist, he agrees that error (accident, randomness) is the driving force in evolution, but he points out that the word “error” comes from an Indo-European root meaning, “to wander about, looking for something” (page 21). Surely, we think, a scientist does not take such language literally. He must be using it metaphorically, to put some “life” into a popular lecture. Or perhaps the words are what Francis Schaffer calls semantic mysticism, language used by naturalists to ease the burden of seeing ourselves alone in the universe. It’s nice to feel that nature cares. No, Thomas is serious. He confesses: “I cannot make my peace with the randomness doctrine: I cannot abide in the notion of purposelessness and blind chance in nature. And yet I do not know what to put in its place for the quieting of my mind. It is absurd to say that a place like this place is absurd, when it contains, in front of your eyes, so many billions of different forms of life, each one in its own way absolutely perfect, all linked together to form what would surely seem to an outsider a huge spherical organism (page 21). Christians would say, “Of course, Dr. Thomas. You’ve just recognized the truth of Psalm 19:1 “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.”

But, we read on: “We talk … about the absurdity of the human situation, but we do this because we do not know how we fit in, or what we are for. The stories we used to make up to explain ourselves do not make sense anymore, and we have run out of new stories for the moment” (page 21). Thomas rejects all traditional religious explanations of human meaning – including the Christian one. But Thomas refuses to give up hope. His works are imbued with a strong spirit of optimism, of luck, his word for humankind’s natural history so far. He endows the word with almost divine attributes: “We are . . . the most impossible of all earth’s creatures, and maybe it is not beyond hope that we are also endowed with improbable luck” (The Youngest Science, page 248).

Thomas asks, “What I would like to know most about the developing earth is: Does it already have a mind? Or will it someday gain a mind, and are we part of that? Are we a tissue for the earth’s awareness?” (page 21). And he speculates, “I would like to think that we are on our way to becoming an embryonic central nervous system for the whole system” (page 22).

In lives of a cell, Thomas suggested that at death perhaps human consciousness is “somehow separated off at the filaments of its attachment, and drawn like an easy breath back into the membrane of its origin, a fresh memory for a biospherical nervous system . . .”

Then he added, “but I have no data on the matter” (page 61) realizing that his speculations might be hubris or false hope. We could just as well be a “transient tissue, replaceable, . . . on our way down under the hill, interesting fossils for contemplation by some other creature” Yet, Thomas wanted to end his 1980 lecture on a note of hope.

We see in Thomas the pilgrimage of a truly modern man, raised as a dues-paying naturalist, beginning to play at the edges of pantheism. Note the sequence of his thought:

1) Naturalism poses a purposeless, meaningless cosmos. Human beings are the result of random accidents of the evolutionary process channeled only by survival of the fittest.

2) But the universe is obviously not absurd. It’s too orderly, too beautiful, and, with the coming of humankind, too personal. Nature belies a naturalistic metaphysic.

3) Therefore, nature must be intrinsically meaningful, intrinsically personal, or, with the rise of humankind, “becoming” personal.

For Thomas, the Judeo-Christian concept of a personal Creator is one of those stories considered no longer credible. But which is more credible:

(1) a universe that is developing personhood, requiring something (the personal) to COME FROM NOTHING (the non-personal);

(2) a universe that’s always been personal and thus, via its own nature, DESIGNED the DNA template; or

(3) a universe that has God as its infinite, personal Creator?

In his writings, Thomas vacillates between the first two views – both forms of pantheism.
Lewis Thomas stands as a symbol of the modern dilemma. Without God, he cries for meaning, and he has to take it where he can get it.

(Written by James W. Sire)

Computers for Christ – Chicago