On Naturalism, and its Lack of a Foundational Value Structure

by guest author Robert Sheahan

There seems to be a belief in secular society that a supernaturalistic worldview is not only incorrect, but also illogical and primitive – a regression to a way of thinking that has long since been dispensed with by educated folk. Organised religion is seen as anathema to progress and rationality, most stridently by leading atheistic thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, etc. Dawkins in particular goes out of his way to savage religious ideology, likening it to a disease that infantilizes and corrupts its adherents.

However, it has become apparent to me recently that there is a glaring omission in the canon of naturalistic humanism regarding meaning, morality and purpose. Very few people indeed, irrespective of their religious beliefs, really live as though some undercurrent of supernaturalism is not present within the universe. No one wants to dwell on the idea that their life has but a momentary, fleeting impact within the immense expanse of the cosmos. Yet the fact is inescapably true. For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes (James 4:13-15, ESV). To avoid the existential nihilism produced by this realisation, people create meaning for themselves. Scales, and terms like proximate and ultimate causation are invented to detach us from the notion that we are merely sentient clusters of organic matter. The thought that any feeling of deep joy or familial love, anger or despair is simply the consequence of chemicals flowing through our brains is unpalatable, so alternative explanations are created that ascribe meaning and purpose to our experiences and desires. The line of causality shifts from the concrete to the abstract. To condemn the theist for self-infantilization is either pretentiously hypocritical, ignorant or both. A purely naturalistic worldview simply does not comport with existential meaning.

The bulwark of naturalism is scientific rationalism – the substrate of post-Enlightenment thinking and the North Star high in the sky above modern, progressive culture. As it often appears to play devil’s advocate to religious doctrine, it is perceived to be the firm ally of atheism. It is relied heavily upon as explanatory dogma by the likes of Dawkins and co. However, as many of the renowned thinkers of the post-theistic Western world have discovered, science does not beget meaning. The deep questions of humanity such as, what is the purpose of my life? and what is my life worth? remain not only unanswered, but unanswerable by it. More than that, it lays waste to the questions themselves with indifference and callousness.

The problem, as I see it, diverges into two subdomains of meaning: morality and purpose.

Nietzsche, the great critic of Christianity had perhaps more insight into the future of post-Enlightenment society than many credit him for. In his book ‘The Gay Science’, he writes about the death of God:

“Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, ‘I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!’ Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter. Has he been lost, then? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to sea? Emigrated? – Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this?” (Nietzsche, 1882, p. 125)

“Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? – Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (Nietzsche, 1882, p. 125)

Far from celebrating the demise of God, as many credit him for, Nietzsche recognised that with the emerging pre-eminence of rationality, a vacuum would be created in the place of the incumbent Judeo-Christian value structure. Religion had filled a void that lies within every man and woman – the desire for meaning and purpose. Now that we have killed God, what remains in His place?

Here we come to the first of the great conundrums posed by a purely naturalistic worldview. How can an a priori moralistic system be established in an amoral universe? How can one claim that right and wrong are axiomatically woven into the fabric of a universe, which by its very nature, regards impartially even its own outcome? Right and wrong, good and evil are inherently subjective concepts only given foundation by an authoritative adjudicator. If the adjudicator is removed, the system collapses in on itself.

With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?

Without an impartial judge, right and wrong lose all meaning, and more importantly, they lose authority. There can be no appeal to a higher authority or universal acknowledgement of common understanding within naturalism. The most that could be claimed is that any behaviour is beneficial or detrimental to the wellbeing of the individual or the community. Moreover, when this is taken to its furthermost point, it too becomes shallow and arbitrary – after all, what meaning does any action contain when perceived in the twilight of eternal nothingness?

The theist has a simple caveat. An action can be morally righteous according to the adjudication of the supreme judge. A system of judgments becomes a doctrine. Whilst there is clearly no universal agreement even within religions on the interpretation of these moral systems, there is at least universal agreement they exist, and that there is objective good and objective evil because there is a deity who in the act of creation, ‘set the rules’, so to speak. The naturalist, however, has no such caveat. Steven Pinker (2002) explains the emergence of morality like this:

“The brain may be a physical system made of ordinary matter, but that matter is organised in such a way as to give rise to a sentient organism with a capacity to feel pleasure and pain. And that in turn sets the stage for the emergence of morality” (p. 187).

In this view, morality springs from humans’ capacity to experience pleasure and pain. This theory, however, falls down immediately because of the simple fact that not only are pleasure and pain impossible to accurately measure or scale, but they are causative of themselves. An injection of heroin may produce short-term pleasure, but long-term pain. Alternatively, short term pain, like forced study for a student, or a smack for a child about to run onto a road, may produce in the future, sustained, long-term pleasure. Even incorporating the intention behind one’s actions into the equation is difficult. An adult may dispassionately beat a child with the intention of improving their behaviour – thereby helping them in the end – but does that make the beating morally defensible? Pleasure and pain have such wildly subjective outcomes that a moral system based purely on the elevation of pleasure over pain without any conceivable timeframe or scale would be utterly incoherent at best, and Machiavellian at worst. Additionally, it is not clear why the self should not necessarily be elevated over the other. That is, if causing you pain brings me pleasure, why should my pleasure not be considered of greater value than your pain?

Pinker goes on to liken morality to number sense – the ability to recognise abstract, universal truths like 2 + 2 = 4. These concepts are true, independent from the mind that grasps them.

“According to the theory of moral realism, right and wrong exist, and have an inherent logic that licences some moral arguments and not others. (Pinker, 2002, p. 192)”

The problem with this is, again, immediately apparent. There is clearly no universal agreement on morality, even by those who claim to subscribe to the same moral system! In addition, unlike number sense, there is no way to quantify morality, or to replicate objectively cause and effect. If it were indeed the case that right and wrong existed a priori and contained an inherent logic, independent from a divine creator, then it is hard to believe that we would have the level of disagreement we do. It is not hard to see the intrinsic logic in the notion that 2 + 2 = 4. It is much harder to see the inherent moral logic in flying a plane into a building or attempting to wipe out an entire ethnicity. These actions may be scoffed at as extreme examples, but both have been condoned not by individuals, but by inestimable thousands. At the very least, for anyone who subscribes to Pinker’s hypothesis, it must be acknowledged that the inherent logic of morality differs conceptually between people. Even then, it does not adequately explain where this moral logic originates. Science is in the business of observing verifiable, objective phenomena. Morality cannot be observed in this way, as it has no material foundation. If there is no fixed material foundation for morality, and the hypothesis that it is a pre-existing, inherent-to-the-universe truth is highly subjective and impossible to verify, then the question becomes, where do our moralistic tendencies come from?

It would seem like the logical explanation, from a naturalistic perspective, would be something like this:

Natural selection has selected for attitudes that are most compatible with a well-functioning society, such as a desire for just reciprocity. The nicer we all are to one another, the better chance we have of survival, and the better chance our genes have of continuing. The more effective deterrents of violence and destruction are within a society, the lower the probability that people will commit such acts. The greater the reward for mutually beneficial behaviour, the greater the probability that people will behave in such a way that benefits the majority. Therefore, those with a developed sense of such social structures (morality) are selected for, and the attitudes become universally understood – albeit subjectively. Over time, they have become more refined and idealised. The concept of good and evil then, is more accurately understood as behaviours that prove to be beneficial or detrimental to the degree that a society firstly, then an individual, can survive and flourish. Within this paradigm, selfish desires are the result of the innate drive for the individual to survive and flourish, first and foremost. This however is generally kept in check by the understanding of the importance of just reciprocity. Picture your mother saying, ‘imagine if everyone did what you just did!’ or, ‘would you like it if someone did that to you?’

If this explanation (or a general equivalent) is accepted, it leads to the inevitable conclusion that morality is not absolute or authoritative, but rather a by-product of the blind driving force of evolution. Good and evil, right and wrong can no longer be understood as deep inherent truths; instead, they become guidelines instilled in us by the process of natural selection.

This is the first paradox of the naturalistic worldview. Very few people indeed live as though morality is a subjective set of attitudes, handed to us arbitrarily by the blind, indifferent process of natural selection with the singular purpose of increasing the probability of the continuation of one’s genome. The far more common perception of morality is that of a deep, universal set of truths eternally underlying the existence of all humanity, which exist independently within the cosmos and can be uncovered by those who possess sufficient desire and understanding. Within a naturalistic worldview however, this notion is simply untenable.

The second paradoxical element within the overarching domain of meaning is that of existential purpose. Why am I here? What does my life mean? What do my actions in the present count for, in the light of the infinite expanse of the cosmos? What will humanity’s progress count for when the Earth is swallowed up by the Sun, and all life and memory of life ceases to exist?

The filmmaker George Lucas (1991) put it succinctly,

“…everybody seems to dress down the fact that life cannot be explained. The only reason for life is life. There is no why. We are. Life is beyond reason.”

This sentiment however is misleading in part, not only because it contains an internal contradiction, but also because according to the naturalist, life can be explained. What cannot be explained is not life itself, but rather the purpose of being. The reason for this is that within an apathetic, amoral universe there can be no purpose. How can an action within a game count for anything if the game itself is meaningless? The conundrum that faces the naturalist when posed with such questions is not that Science cannot answer them, but that it can! The answers it provides however lay waste to the concept of higher purpose. When the supernatural is removed, the light and hope of eternity fades, and with it goes the notion that anything done on earth has more than a fleeting impact.

“Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, 1606, 5. 5. 24-28).

Steven Pinker (2002), like Brad Pitt’s Achilles in the 2004 Hollywood film ‘Troy’, makes the contrary claim that not only is it the mortal rather than the immortal life that contains value and meaning (as infinity reduces everything to banality), but that the very concept of an eternal soul is unrighteous. However, it is surely the notion of final and eternal cessation of being that does away with the concept of true and lasting meaning. For, if a thing has no purpose in the future, what is its value in the present? As Jean-Paul Sartre (1966) famously said,

“Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal” (p. 11).

This view is not an original one. Nihilism is not unique to Sartre or reserved for a specific branch of philosophy. An instructive example is that of the literary giant, Leo Tolstoy. Late in his career, he fell into a deep depression after concluding that the inevitability and finality of death rendered his earthly pursuits meaningless.

“Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? . . . How can man fail to see this? And how go on living?” (Tolstoy, 2006).

Tolstoy recognised that if he were to cease to exist, he would have no care or claim over his legacy. Eventually, neither would anyone else. What then was the point of establishing anything if all was to be lost with the inevitable passing of time? Within a generation one will be remembered, maybe even two or three. But what about a century, a millennia? Who will be remembered when a trillion years have passed? There is only one correct answer – nobody. When a trillion years have passed, not one person currently alive will be remembered, nor anything that has ever been accomplished on Earth. Every memory of existence will have been long blotted out. Tolstoy outlined four ways out of this terrible quandary. He writes about the position he found himself adopting.

“The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it. People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally — to end the deception quickly and kill themselves — they seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is best and it is within my power, why not yield to what is best? … The fourth way was to live like Solomon and Schopenhauer — knowing that life is a stupid joke played upon us, and still to go on living, washing oneself, dressing, dining, talking, and even writing books. This was to me repulsive and tormenting, but I remained in that position” (Tolstoy, 2006).

Was Tolstoy wrong? And if so, why? He was just depressed, you may claim. But why was he depressed? Tolstoy, an undisputable genius of prodigious ability and intellect, found himself perceiving life to be a cruel joke played on all. He could not bring himself to accept the existence of God, which led him to the realisation that without God and the hope of eternity, life was meaningless.

It is impossible to argue against the simple fact that one day nothing will matter. That point is beyond debate. Therefore, the argument must centre on the idea that even though one day nothing will matter, it still can today. However, this involves a fair measure of cognitive dissonance. We must convince ourselves that even though the game itself counts for nothing, our infinitesimal role in it matters. It is simply a measure of scale. We need to actively and consistently forget about the cosmic picture and concentrate on the present. The difficulty with this approach though, is that the present is fleeting, and constantly vanishing. When someone forgets about the present and ruminates on their ultimate destination, they are dismissed as depressed, or nihilistic.

To live with the cosmic picture in high definition is to live as Tolstoy did. It is to adopt the same sentiment as Sartre, or Macbeth. It is incompatible with an enjoyable, satisfying life. So, what is done? It is ignored. We disassociate ourselves from the reality of our inevitable future. We act with a temporal, finite perspective, ignoring the reality of our condition, and find meaning in the pleasures of sensuality, power, service and the adoption of responsibility – anything that triggers the reward chemicals in our brain – because after all, that is what pleasure is. Perhaps the naturalist could define meaning as the attainment of deep and sustained pleasure – our neurotransmitters working with maximal efficacy. But then to think like this is also mildly uncomfortable. Who wants to acknowledge they enjoy hugs with their children purely because it triggers the release of oxytocin; or that creativity is not a wandering of the soul, but possibly just reduced connectivity between different regions of the brain?

Everyone has to find meaning in something. Everyone has to convince themselves that what they do in life matters and that their existence has purpose. It seems odd that any naturalist would be able to justify criticism of theism, whilst at the same time, adhering to a paradigm that contains such obvious internal contradictions.

Theism seems a logical position to take if one wishes to package meaning, morality and purpose in a coherent fashion. Our moral sense stems from the actions of an authoritative adjudicator who has designed a moral system to which we must adhere. Purpose arises from the idea that the promise of eternity imbues our every action with intrinsic meaning, as the game never ends. There are consequences for our actions, which means that our impact on the world can never be reduced to naught.

The great majority of people live their life with an implicit understanding that a purely naturalistic conception of the world is not sufficient to imbue meaning beyond the immediate present. This is surely why the overwhelming majority of humanity throughout the ages have presupposed some element of the supernatural. Neither scientific rationalism, nor naturalism, provides an effective balm for nihilism in the same way that religion can. Perhaps those who subscribe to the new religion of militant atheism can take pause to reflect more deeply on their own belief system, before criticising so readily that of others.

To continue moving coherently through life, meaning must be established in an immovable foundation. Where does one find such a foundation for meaning, morality and purpose in naturalism?


Lucas, G. (1991). The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here. In D. Friend, The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here. Little Brown & Co.

Nietzsche, F. (1882). The Gay Science.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate. London: Penguin Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (1966). Essays in Aesthetics. Washington Square Press.

Shakespeare, W. (1606). Macbeth.

Tolstoy, L. (2006). A Confession by Leo Tolstoy, Religion, Christian Theology, Philosophy. Aegypan.

About the Author

Rob Sheahan is a junior-school teacher who spends his free time writing and recording music, and reflecting on topics in philosophy and theology. He lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife and two young children. Whenever he gets the time, he pens his thoughts at  https://robsheahan.wordpress.com/.

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