W. Scott McCullough
 on May 22, 2020

Awake in the Night: Part 3

After reading an alternative naturalist perspective, the student has even more questions.

man holding lantern by a lake

Dear Dr. McCullough,

Well, Dawkins isn’t subtle or uncertain of himself. Here’s my summary of Dawkins’ answers to your two questions.

The only thing that is real is the physical world—what we can detect or measure, either directly or indirectly. Intangible things, like love, grief or other emotions, “exist,” but depend on matter (the brain, to be specific) for their existence.19 And the only way we can know anything is by our senses (or instruments to augment them) and the scientific method. The key use of the scientific method is to verify by experiment (usually by testing hypotheses that could potentially be shown to be false). He is dead set against anything supernatural, because it isn’t “real,” can’t be confirmed by observation and because it short circuits scientific investigation.

My upbringing rebels against the idea that there is no spiritual aspect to us that is independent of our material bodies and that absolutely everything human—love, anger, grief, regret, guilt, forgiveness—is ultimately only the interactions of atoms and molecules. But I also work in a field that makes assumptions like that daily, and they are successful in explaining more and more. Our bodies are not less than a collection of atoms and molecules—but is that all there is to human life? Is the spiritual side of our human life merely a complex manifestation of the material world? Is matter all that there is? Do the successes of science mean that there is no spiritual world? I have doubts either way. The choice seems so binary, so this or that.

Going back to Walton’s book—his ideas seem to hang together, especially in Genesis 1, but I am starting to watch how the rest of the Bible speaks of creation. Your discussion about how culture shapes perception was very helpful, and it has made me see lots of things in the Bible in new ways. But it isn’t always clear to me that the “assigning functions” view of bara’ (create) in Genesis 1 fits with the way other parts of the Bible refer to Genesis 1. For example, “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Psalm 33:9). Or in Exodus 20, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). Neither verse uses bara’, the Hebrew word translated “create” in Genesis 1 that Walton argued meant “to give function to.” Any thoughts?


Dear Martin,

So good to hear from you again. How is the research going?

To answer your last question first, I do have thoughts—lots of them. And doubts too. Walton has created more questions than he has answered. But you are doing the right thing in trying to run those questions to ground. Walton’s study of the semantic range of bara’ was excellent; similar studies for parallel words are necessary and then the implications must be unpacked. Yes, in Exodus 20:11, the verb translated “made” is `asa, which has a semantic range that overlaps bara’, but is certainly not a synonym!20;21 Walton carries on with exactly this kind of investigation in his subsequent book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. You hardly have time as a grad student, but an exhaustive study of the Bible’s allusions to Genesis 1 is the next step in evaluating his thesis. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to happen overnight.

You summarized Dawkins’ position pretty well. He unashamedly asserts that the material world is the only thing that is real, and observation (aided by the scientific method) is the only way that we can know. He states it even more forcefully in his book, The God Delusion. Besides being crystal clear on what he is asserting, he does a wonderful job of showing how science has been able to explain diverse natural phenomena. I am less enthusiastic about his forays into philosophy and theology.

Here is the rub: How do we know that only that which is material (in one way or another) is real? The problem is that the scientific method is a way of knowing things in the material realm; it has nothing to say about the existence or non-existence of another reality, such as the spiritual world that we confess as Christians. This is a serious concern despite Dawkins’ denial and bluster. Furthermore, and more seriously, the assertion that observation (and the scientific method) is the only way to know is itself an untestable statement. Many Naturalists feel that such a claim is merely playing with words, but their impatience is no reflection on the legitimacy and importance of such questions.

Dawkins does offer reasons for his assertion that only the material world is real. He shows the success of the scientific method in explaining many different phenomena in the material world. Having done so, he suggests that observation and the scientific method can be expected—reasonably, in my estimation—to explain virtually any natural phenomenon. Then he concludes—unreasonably, in my estimation—that, if we can explain every phenomenon from cause and effect in the material world, then God is either irrelevant or probably does not exist.19

Dawkins’ conclusion is axiomatic for many scientists, but it succeeds (if that is the right word, to employ one of his favorite rhetorical devices) by posing every question inside the confines of an all-encompassing materialism. Dawkins approaches the existence of God as an empirical question.19 That is essentially to set up a straw man by defining a god who is testable, the kind of god that is conceivable in Naturalism. I am not disturbed that Dawkins demolishes this god and would cast a few stones myself if there were any sign of life remaining. But is it really fair to pose every question as a material one? The method assumes its conclusion.

close up of an atom sculpture

Even if, for the sake of argument, every material cause and effect were known, we would not have answered every possible question, especially the question of ultimate purpose to the universe. The philosophers would call this a final cause and distinguish it from an efficient cause, what I called material cause. (Owen Gingerich has a nice discussion on efficient and final causes in his book, God’s Planet.) Dawkins uses the word purpose informally as in, “my purpose is…”, but the idea of a transcendent purpose is never mentioned. The word does not even appear in the indices of The God Delusion or The Magic of Reality. The reason for this systematic exclusion is because purpose presupposes a mind or will. It is not surprising that he would reject the idea of purpose in the material world out of hand; it is too close to assuming the existence of God. But where is the evidence that there is no purpose?22

The claims of Naturalism require a foundational commitment—a belief, if you will—to the Naturalist dogma that only what is material is real, the universe is purposeless, and observation is the only way to know. That dogma is not empirically demonstrable. Naturalism is, in short, a religion (if that is the right word) with all the empirical shortcomings of a belief in the existence of God.

What do you think? I have not demolished Dawkins, but I believe this kind of reasoning gives the outline of an answer to his “fundamentalist atheism.”3

We have only brushed up against the question, “How do we know?” It is related to the possibility of miracles, especially the resurrection, which, of course, is foundational to our faith.


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About the author

Scott McCullough

W. Scott McCullough

W. Scott McCullough, Ph.D. (Purdue) is associate professor of physics and mathematics at Indiana Wesleyan University. His undergraduate research program is in computational biophysics, collaborating with biochemists and biological chemists. He spent 18 years in the Republic of Yemen, where he taught in the physics department at Sana’a University and worked in STEM teacher education development.

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