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Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism?

By Paul Copan

Philosopher David Papineau declares “nearly everyone nowadays wants to be a ‘naturalist.’ ”1 Western intellectuals call naturalism the “orthodox” view. The late Carl Sagan of Cosmosfame succinctly described this “orthodox” doctrine of naturalism: “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”2

The space-time universe — which we can study with physical sciences — is all there is. Rather than appealing to “occult,” “spooky,” “supernatural,” or “theistic” explanations, naturalists claim their worldview is simpler. It requires fewer entities to explain the way things are. Right? God is a metaphysical fifth wheel — a mere explanatory appendage. God simply is not necessary to account for the way things are. “Science” will do just fine.

Three Features of Naturalism

That is the big picture. Let me break it down by reviewing its three key characteristics.

#1: Knowledge (epistemology) is the increasing tendency to see knowledge as nothing more than what contributes to survival rather than requiring a belief to be true. We intuitively recognize that knowledge by definition requires truth. Also, knowledge requires we do not hold a true belief accidentally, but that we have some warrant or proper basis: knowledge = (i) a belief that is (ii) true and also (iii) warranted. Let’s unpack this.

Truth:Truth is a match-up or correspondence with reality. I cannot know the earth is flat; I cannot know the sun orbits the earth. Why? These beliefs are false; they do not match up with reality. I cannot know the earth is flat or the moon is made of cheese. Why? Because they are not. Despite this commonsense insight, naturalists are increasingly tempted to deny that truth is necessary for knowledge.

Not all naturalists take this view (called “naturalized epistemology”); but given naturalism’s starting point, many do. We cannot talk about how we ought to think (the role of traditional “philosophy”); we do not have some philosophical obligation to reject as many false beliefs as possible and to embrace as many true ones, we are told. Rather, our focus should be on how human beings actually happen to think (“psychology”); we can study beliefs that are aimed at survival rather than at truth.

Warrant:If naturalists are right, it seems we are just biological organisms whose beliefs are pumped into our brain by physical forces beyond our control; so, if one’s survival-producing beliefs are true (they match up with reality), it’s purely accidental— not rational. We might believe humans have intrinsic dignity and rights, and this may help us as a species to survive, but this belief would be completely false.

Naturalistic evolution is interested in survival, not truth. So the naturalist has no more control over his own beliefs than the Christian. That is, the naturalist cannot claim to be more rational than anyone else. Atheistic beliefs are just as random as theistic ones since physical forces beyond rational control produce these beliefs. Humans are just surviving beings who form beliefs to survive — even if they happen to be false.

#2: Causal explanations (etiology) are the tendency to explain all events mechanistically (from the Big Bang to the choices we make each day), which implies a kind of determinism. Naturalism’s grand story of origins is that our universe had physical, impersonal, mechanistic beginnings, and this physical cause-and-effect scenario describes all events since the Big Bang — including my choices and beliefs.

So the historical string of physical causes from the Big Bang until now implies determinism. No room remains for free will, which enables an agent to rise above purely physical influences. We could argue, though, that our legal and prison systems assume that humans are not simply “dancing to their DNA,” as Richard Dawkins says. We have moral control over our actions, despite genes and environment. Personalcauses are part of reality, not simply physical ones.

#3: Entities that exist (ontology) are based on the assumption that only physical things exist. That is, if something is not strictly physical (e.g., a mind), it necessarily depends on the physical for its existence; so, in the case of the mind, it would completely cease at death. God or angels (spirit beings) do not fit anywhere in the naturalist’s radar screen of reality. Yes, naturalism is tied to physicalism; reality is comprised of matter.

That is a brief sketch of naturalism. What are we to make of it and its alleged simplicity?

The Background Test

Naturalism is an all-or-nothing proposition. It requires throwing out many of our commonsense beliefs — the soul’s existence and that of free will, moral obligations, and evil. But is naturalism the better explanation?

Let’s put naturalism and theism to the “background test” by asking: Which worldview best explains various features of the universe and human experience phenomena? Is naturalism or theism the least surprising context given these features? We can go down a fairly hefty checklist and say, “God … God … God.” The origin and fine-tuning of the universe, the emergence of first-life and of consciousness, the existence of human rights/dignity, objective moral values, free will, rationality, beauty, and even the existence of evil, the existence of a powerful, intelligent, good Creator makes the best sense.

Ask: which scenario is more plausible — that consciousness came from nonconscious matter or from a supremely self-aware Being? Or that personhood emerged through impersonal processes or by way of a personal Creator? Or that free will emerged from deterministic processes or from a Being who freely chose to create? Or that a finite time ago the universe just popped into existence, uncaused out of nothing or that a powerful Being brought it into existence? Naturalism does not really help us here. At least we can say that “something’s out there,” a reality beyond nature — something we ought to explore seriously.

In the chart below, note how theism is the less surprising, more natural context than naturalism to explain these important features of the universe and human existence.

Phenomena We Observe, Assume, or Recognize Theistic Context Naturalistic Context

(Self-)consciousness exists.

God is supremely self-aware/-conscious.

The universe was produced by mindless, nonconscious processes.

Personal beings exist.

God is a personal Being.

The universe was produced by impersonal processes.

We believe we make free personal decisions/choices, assuming humans are accountable for their actions.

God is spirit and a free Being, who can freely choose to act (e.g., to create or not).

We have emerged by material, deterministic processes beyond our control.

Secondary qualities (colors, smells, sounds, tastes, textures) exist throughout the world.

God is joyful, and secondary qualities make the world pleasurable and joyful to His creatures.

The universe was produced from colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, textureless particles and processes.

We trust our senses and rational faculties as generally reliable in producing true beliefs.

A God of truth and rationality exists.

Because of our impulse to survive and reproduce, our beliefs would only help us survive, but a number of these could be completely false.

Human beings have intrinsic value/dignity andrights.

God is the supremely valuable Being.

Human beings were produced by valueless processes.

Objective moral values exist.

God’s character is the source of goodness/moral values.

The universe was produced by nonmoral processes.

The universe began to exist a finite time ago — without previously existing matter, energy, space, or time.

A powerful, previously existing God brought the universe into being without any pre-existing material. (Here, something emerges from something.)

The universe came into existence from nothing by nothing — or was, perhaps, self-caused. (Here, something comes from nothing.)

First life emerged.

God is a living, active Being.

Life somehow emerged from nonliving matter.

The universe is finely tuned for human life (known as “the Goldilocks effect” — the universe is “just right” for life).

God is a wise, intelligent Designer.

All the cosmic constants just happened to be right; given enough time and/or many possible worlds, a finely tuned world eventually emerged.

Beauty exists not only in landscapes and sunsets but in “elegant” or “beautiful” scientific theories.

God is beautiful (Psalm 27:4) and capable of creating beautiful things according to His pleasure.

Beauty in the natural world is superabundant and in many cases superfluous (often not linked to survival).

We (tend to) believe life has purpose andmeaning. For most of us, life is worth living.

God has created/designed us for certain purposes (to love Him, others, etc.); when we live them out, our lives find meaning/enrichment.

There is no cosmic purpose, blueprint, or goal for human existence.

Real evils — both moral and natural — exist/take place in the world.

Evil’s definition assumes a design plan (how things oughtto be, but are not) or standard of goodness (a corruption or absence of goodness), by which we judge something to be evil. God is a good Designer; His existence supplies the crucial moral context to make sense of evil.

Atrocities, pain, and suffering just happen. This is just how things are — with no “plan” or standard of goodness to which things ought to conform.

By comparing contexts, we see that theism repeatedly makes the best sense, offering a better, more natural fit than naturalism. Furthermore, when people ask, “Why theism? What about all the other religions?” we can suggest this: If a personal God exists, then this would rule out not only naturalism, but Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and certain versions of Hinduism. A personal Creator immediately simplifies things.

Is Naturalism Really Simpler?

Naturalists, however, will claim that naturalism is simpler because fewer entities exist — that is, the physical cosmos is all there is. The theist believes in the universe plus God (not to mention “plus souls plus angelic creatures”). God seems unnecessary: if naturalism explains things, why bring God into the picture? Let’s offer a few responses.

First, whenever possible, we should use the principle of simplicity or economy to get rid of unnecessary explanations. Consider polytheism (many gods) versus monotheism (one God). We can ask: Why involve extra entities when just one will suffice? All things being equal, if one God (monotheism) is adequate for the task of creating and sustaining the universe, why bring in multiple deities? There is no reason to multiply additional entities beyond necessity — a principle known as “Ockham’s razor.” Extra gods can be plausibly eliminated on the basis of explanatory simplicity. One God will do just fine.

Second, while atheism is theoretically simpler than monotheism, this is true only in a numerical sense — and this “greater simplicity” turns out to be problematic. As we noted from the chart above, eliminating God as an explanation leaves us with massive conundrums as well as huge gaps in our understanding. This move just does not enhance our power to explain. In fact, removing God from our explanatory resources reduces our explanatory power dramatically. Naturalism is simply inadequate to account for a number of different features of the universe and our human existence. Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga correctly observes that theism — or more specifically, the Christian worldview — “offers suggestions for answers to a wide range of otherwise intractable questions.”3 That is, without God, we would just be left with just-so stories — “that’s just the way it is” explanations — regarding how the universe began, how it came to be finely tuned, how humans came to have dignity and worth, how beauty emerged, how consciousness came about, and so on.

Third, if we apply the principle “the fewer entities the better” across the board, then why not just say, “No explanatory entities are better than one”? In 1668, Francesco Redi, an Italian scientist, tried to show that maggots did not simply appear spontaneously from rotting meat — despite the popularity of this belief. Redi tried to show that maggots came from flies’ eggs. To test his hypothesis, he put meat specimen A into a sealed jar; he laid out meat specimen B in the open air, giving it fly-accessibility. As he suspected, the protected meat did not produce maggots; the exposed meat did.

This raises an interesting question: Why not believe in “spontaneous generation” since it involves fewer entities? But that is like assuming that the rabbit really popped into existence from nothing, suddenly appearing in the magician’s hat. Why think that life just popped into existence from nonliving matter? Or, even better, why a universe from nothing and not something else — like a herd of elephants? Surely, something’s coming from nothing is “simpler” (i.e., requiring fewer entities) than something coming from something.

Surprisingly, some atheists are willing to accept that something cancome from nothing or that the universe is even self-caused. Of course, we should not be surprised at this, given the obvious theistic implications of Big Bang cosmology. Yet, the atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen gets the following scenario right: “Suppose you hear a loud bang … and you ask me, ‘What made that bang?’ and I reply, ‘Nothing, it just happened.’ You would not accept that. In fact you would find my reply quite unintelligible.”4 Agreed. In fact, science itself — the naturalist’s alleged home turf — reinforces the idea that something cannot come out of nothing. Yes, it is numerically simpler to say that nothingcaused something than that one thing caused something. Zero entities are simpler than one entity. But to explain events without any sufficient reason — that they “just happened” — is clearly inadequate. Based on Nielsen’s example, I suspect that if the Big Bang did not strongly suggest a Creator, naturalistic scientists and philosophers would not be motivated to suggest something could come into existence out of literally nothing. The chances of something coming from nothing are exactly zero.

The metaphysical bankruptcy of the “something from nothing” idea does not just apply to the beginning of the universe. It applies to the emergence of first life, consciousness, moral value, beauty, reason, and a host of other features. It makes better sense to say that life came from life, that consciousness came from consciousness, and that moral values came from a supremely valuable Being.

Atheist Philosopher Michael Martin claims there is no reason why objective moral values cannot be comprised of matter.5 There is a big problem here. We will search in vain for a physics textbook listing “moral value” as one of matter’s properties. But perhaps we should not be surprised that Martin believes moral values could emerge from valueless matter. After all, Martin elsewhere claims to believe the universe could emerge from literally nothing!6 The fact is: Martin accepts that value somehow emerged from valueless processes. This “simplicity” is not very smooth or natural. What is smooth, however, is that “value comes from value — not valuelessness.” If a supremely valuable Being exists, we can readily explain the existence of morally valuable human beings. We must earnestly ask and pursue the answer to the next question: “If there is something ‘out there,’ has this being revealed itself? Can we find out more about this being — perhaps through special revelation?” These are the questions any genuine seeker of truth needs to ask.

Concluding Thoughts

Naturalism is “simpler” in that it involves fewer entities within its system. But that does not help in accounting for the universe, its major features, and key aspects of human experience. To get rid of God means losing significant explanatory power. A theistic context helps us make sense of many important characteristics of the created order. Resorting to beliefs such as the universe came from nothing or the universe caused itself flies in the face of the very “scientific method” naturalists so heartily applaud.

Theism guides us to a clearer explanation of things, shedding light in otherwise dark places. As C.S. Lewis put it: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”7

Richard L. Dresselhaus

PAUL COPAN is professor and Pledger family chair of philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is author and editor of a number of books, including When God Goes to Starbucks; True for You, But Not for Me; That’s Just Your Interpretation;Creation Out of Nothing; Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God; and, The Paul Copan Apologetics Collection (6 Volumes). He is also president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

Further Reading

Copan, Paul, and William Lane Craig. 2004. Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Explanation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Copan, Paul. 2005. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? Responding to Objections that Leave Christians Speechless. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Copan, Paul. 2007. Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion. St. Louis: Chalice Press.


1. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 1.

2. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

3. Alvin Plantinga, “Natural Theology,” in ed. Jaegwon Kim and Ernest Sosa, Companion to Metaphysics (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995), 347.

4. Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 48.

5. Michael Martin, Atheism, Morality, and Meaning (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press, 2002), 45. (Martin himself, however, holds to the view that moral values emerge from matter [supervenience] but are not constituted by matter.)

6. Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 106.

7. “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory 140.

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