Posted by: gcarkner | October 15, 2013

David Bentley Hart’s Provocative Take on Naturalism

David Bentley Hart’s Concerns about Naturalism/Materialism

~Provocative Quotes taken from The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. (Yale University Press, 2013)

David Bentley Hart 

Naturalism, alone among all considered philosophical attempts to describe the shape of reality, is radically insufficient in its explanatory range. The one thing of which it can give no account, and which its most fundamental principles make it entirely impossible to explain at all, is nature’s very existence. For existence is most definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever…. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all. (18)

The God described by the new atheists definitely does not exist. (23)

I think it is fair to say that  a majority of academic philosophers these days tends  toward either a strict or qualified materialist or physicalist view of reality (though many might not use those terms), and that such a position rests upon a particularly sound  rational foundation. But, in fact, materialism is the most impoverished  in its explanatory range, and among the most willful and (for want of a better word) magical in its logic, even if it has been the fashion for a couple centuries or more. (48) See also Lawrence Bonjour, “Against Materialism” in Robert C. Coons and George Bealer, eds., The Waning of Materialsm (Oxford: OUP , 2010), pp.3-23.

Should Methodology ever become Ontology? An admirably severe discipline of interpretive and theoretical restraint [modern empirical science] has been transformed into its perfect and irrepressibly wanton opposite: what began as a principled refusal of metaphysical speculation, for the sake of specific empirical inquiries, has now been mistaken for a comprehensive knowledge of the metaphysical shape of reality; the art of humble questioning has been mistaken for the sure possession of ultimate conclusions. This makes a mockery of real science. (71)

The sciences  concern certain facts as organized by certain theories, and certain theories as constrained by certain facts; they accumulate evidence and enucleate hypotheses within very strictly limited paradigms; but they do not provide proofs of where reality begins or ends, or for that matter what the dimensions of truth are. They cannot even establish their own working premises—the real existence of the phenomenal word, the power of the human intellect accurately to reflect that reality, the perfect lawfulness of nature, its interpretability, its mathematical regularity, and so forth—and should not seek to do so, but should confine themselves to the truths to which their method gives them access. They should also recognize what the boundaries of the scientific rescript are. There are, in fact, truths of reason that are far surer than even the most amply supported findings of empirical science. (71-2)

Scientific Integrity: There is no such thing, at least among finite minds, as intelligence at large: no mind not constrained by its own special proficiencies and formation, no privilege vantage that allows any of us a comprehensive insight into the essence of all things, no expertise or wealth of experience that endows any of us with the wisdom or power to judge what we do not have the training or perhaps the temperament to understand. To imagine otherwise is a delusion…. This means that the sciences are, by their very nature, commendably fragmentary and, in regard to many real and important questions about existence, utterly inconsequential. Not only can they not provide knowledge of everything; they cannot provide complete knowledge of anything. They can yield only knowledge of certain aspects of things as seen from one very powerful but inflexibly constricted perspective. If they attempt to go beyond their methodological commissions, they cease to be sciences and immediately become fatuous occultisms.  (75-76)

Contradictions of Naturalism: Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address  the being of the whole; it is a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainity of the impossibility of transcendent truth, and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification…. Thus naturalism must forever remain a pure assertion, a pure conviction, a confession of blind assurance in an inaccessible beyond; and that beyond, more paradoxically still, is the beyond of no beyond. (77)

Tautology of Scientism: Physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. (77)

Interpretation of evidence produced by science can never yield a proof of materialism, or even a coherent way of thinking in materialist terms. (79)

The naturalist view of things … is just a picture of the world, not a truth about the world that we can know, nor even a conviction that rests upon a secure rational foundation. (82)

Category mistake: The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God–especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side–is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact….. Beliefs regarding God  concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. (32-33)

The question of God… is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence…. Evidence for or against God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. (34)

As it happens, the god with whom most popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiurgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but came to mean a  particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. (35)

 There simply cannot be a natural explanation of existence as such; it is an absolute logical impossibility. The most a materialist account of existence can do is pretend that there is no real problem to be solved (though only a tragically inert mind could really dismiss the question of existence as uninteresting, unanswerable, or intelligible). (44-45)

There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing in the cosmos contains the ground of its own being…. One is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same it true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature. (92-93)

A finite regress of dependent causes would be equivalent to nonexistence. At some point, then, at the source of al sources and origin of all origins, the contingent must rest upon the absolute. (101-2)

God alone has necessity in and of himself. That is, if the word “God” has any meaning at all, it must refer to a reality that is not just metaphysically  indestructible but necessary in the fullest and most proper sense; it must refer to a reality that is logically necessary and that therefore provides the ultimate explanation of all other realities, without need of being explained in turn…. God is absolute being as such, apart from whom nothing else could exist, as either a possibility or an actuality…. It is God’s necessity, as the unconditional source of all things, that makes any world possible in the first place. (116 and 122)


In my opinion, this is one fine book, well-reasoned with good humour in the mix. This sharp editor of First Things offers an immense amount of insight on both theism and naturalism. It is a worthy and logical read after the lecture by Alvin Plantinga at UBC on October 2, 2013 “Where the Conflict Really Lies” 

Connor Cunningham comments on the book: “David Hart’s new book is nothing less than astounding. He is liberal, conservative, radical, theological, philosophical and historical at the same time–that is his genius. There is no American writing on religion as intelligently, bravely, and originally as Hart.”

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology, Supporting Postgraduate Students at University of British Columbia and beyond.

See also the fine statement by former atheist science professor Sy Garte, The Works of His Hands.

See also Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talk on Sapiens and The Strange Death of Europe

Dr. Carkner uses Hart to help discern a path out of the nihilism of our age in his new book The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. (Infocus, 2016)

see also Alister McGrath, A Fine Tuned Universe: the search for God in science and theology.

View from Bowen is.


  1. […] See also quotes from David Bentley Hart on Scientism: […]

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