Confronting the Nihilistic Ontology of Secular Naturalism

I concluded my previous post by recognizing that the confrontation with nihilism is on the battlefield of metaphysics. In this post, I plan to sketch out the metaphysics of what I think is the most plausible metaphysics behind a nihilistic outlook based on secularization. It is my own construction because it is the metaphysical outlook I think that I confront in thinking what reality might be like if nihilism were true. Ultimately, in philosophy you lay out your own intellectual struggles in the belief that your conceptual problems will help others to articulate their own.

I call this metaphysical outlook secular naturalism. It holds the ontology of scientism while rejecting the inconsistent or narrow epistemology of scientism. It holds:

There is nothing but the objects, processes and events investigated by the natural sciences. However, there are ways of knowing about these objects, processes and events different from the methods of the natural sciences. Belief beyond what could be established by natural science is permissible if consistent with natural science and not about any objects, processes independent of those investigated by the natural sciences.

The fundamental thought behind any metaphysical scheme for secular naturalism is to eliminate any final causation as a basic form of causation. Ultimately, so the thought goes, nothing is for the sake of any thing else. All purposes and intentions are derivative realities. A logical implication is that human lives have no purpose.

So far there is no claim that there can be some formula for reducing all claims to claims about the objects studied in physics. Any secular naturalistic ontology is at most an expression of an intention to develop such a scheme. Yes. A consistent secular naturalism has as part of its project showing how the theory of secular naturalism is dependent upon the purely physical. Indeed, it is still unclear what ‘dependence” means. There really has not been progress on showing how even personal thoughts and feelings are dependent on the purely physical. Any such theory is probably only a hope.

An analysis of dependence is the major problem for secular naturalism. Secular naturalists can make some strong claims about independent reality prior to a generally accepted analysis of “dependence.” They can justify the following despite unclarity about “dependence.” These are analogues of Aquinas’ first three arguments for a God.

There is something which depends upon nothing but upon which everything else depends, viz., the physical.

Granted that there is moving and bringing about, there is a moving and bringing about that depends upon no other movement or bringing about but upon which all other moving and bringing about depends.

The physical with its motion and bringing about necessarily exists.

I mention these analogues to Aquinas’ first three arguments to emphasize that the way to confront secular naturalism is not to argue for a first cause or necessary being. In the twenty first century, we cannot say with Aquinas that all men call such things God. A secular naturalist is not at all inclined to classify a necessarily existing first cause as God.

How should we confront the nihilistic ontology of secular naturalism? For those few, such as me, who have been involved with professional philosophy, one guideline is to stop work on the beginning efforts to establish such an ontology. Don’t work on projects allegedly eliminating the non-physical. But, in general, we should we should boldly uncover and systematize the ontological assumptions behind our best thoughts about God, freedom and immortality without fear that we are ignoring some well established ontological outlook from which our assumptions about reality are superstitions.

On this metaphysical battlefield, we should fight small skirmishes by struggling to articulate some structures presupposed by what we believe is true about God, morality and human destiny. For instance, I am struggling to articulate what there must be in reality if what I claim to be true about moral harm and a moral authority are true. At some other time, most likely not during my life, I should try to find a way of re-expressing my articulations in the concepts of an established philosophical system such as that of Aquinas. But there is no need for development of anything which could be called a “philosophical system.”