How to teach your new pet rock everything it needs to know (or, the problem of knowledge for naturalism)

By Jason McMartin Dec. 23, 2012 10:37 p.m. Apologetics, Culture, Philosophy

Among the must-have toys of Christmas 1975 was the pet rock.  Advertising executive Gary Dahl conceived the idea while listening to others complain about the hassles of animate pets, and then his marketing instincts kicked in.  He gathered ordinary stones, printed care instructions and boxes with air holes, placed the rocks on a bed of straw, and then collected near 100% profit on every unit sold to become a multimillionaire within about nine months. In 2012, instead of buying one, people must now make their own. The creation of humorous instructions abounds, including a recent guidebook that can be purchased on Amazon. For example, some tricks are easy to teach your new pet rock, such as sit and play dead.  Others are quite difficult or require owner assistance. House-training a pet rock is easy: "Place it on some old newspapers. The rock will never know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction."

The novelty and humor of the pet rock emerge (if at all) from the absurdity of the whole situation.  Of course the rock doesn’t “know” what the newspaper is for.  We’re not misled for a second into attributing thought or consciousness to the rock.  Yet, the naturalistic worldview of our culture insists that all of reality is composed ultimately of physical or material stuff, including human persons. If we are primarily or entirely made up of matter, just like the rock, how are we able to be consciously aware or to know anything?

A recent book by Biola University apologetics professor R. Scott Smith provides a detailed examination of how knowledge has been characterized by those who espouse a naturalistic worldview. In Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality, his conclusion is that naturalism is simply unable to account for our ability to have knowledge.  In brief, the argument of the book goes like this: we know many things and there is no reason to doubt that we do.  Naturalism is unable to explain this adequately. Therefore, it is a failed worldview.

Smith’s book is an excellent survey and in-depth treatment of the ways naturalists have attempted to explain how knowledge works within their worldview. It is aimed primarily at those with formal training in contemporary philosophy. Among the many challenges to the naturalistic worldview Smith discusses is intentionality. As philosophers use the term, intentionality refers to the property of our thoughts that they are “of” and “about” things. They have a directedness to their objects. In some ways, it is a very simple point: my thoughts are about things.  The things they are about make them the thoughts that they are.  Here is the problem for naturalism: how is it possible for something that is purely composed of matter to possess intentionality?  How can material stuff be of or about anything?  Surely gluing googly eyes onto my pet rock won’t help!

Many naturalists recognize this objection to their view and have attempted to develop responses to it. In his book, Smith systematically shows that these amendments to the naturalistic worldview don’t work, and that naturalism is unable to explain how we can have knowledge of the world as it is. Smith also suggests that several implications follow from the inability of naturalism to ground our ability to have knowledge. For instance, it is not the case that only science provides us knowledge of the world (which is the view known as scientism). In addition, contrary to the views of many, religion and ethics are matters of knowledge and not of subjective opinion.

If, to be consistent, a naturalist must tell us that we’re mistaken about many of the ordinary things we take ourselves to know, then we should wonder whether naturalism can be a true account of the nature of reality. As Smith shows, consistent naturalists must deny many things most of us believe to be true. The purpose they assign to knowledge is that it merely helps us to survive the threats of the evolutionary process.  By using philosophy to destroy these pretentions of naturalism, Smith 1) restores our ordinary direct connection to our environment, 2) injects wonder into the process of how our minds can match up with the many astounding details of our universe, and 3) shows how God has made us knowing creatures so that we can thrive through the development of robust relationships with each other and with him.  Knowledge is much better than the naturalist can say!

Throughout the pages of Scripture God contrasts his own nature with the inanimate idols worshipped by wayward people:

            “They have mouths, but do not speak;
                        they have eyes, but do not see;
            they have ears, but do not hear,
                        nor is there any breath in their mouths.
            Those who make them become like them,
                        so do all who trust in them.”

(Psalm 135:16-18 ESV)

Naturalists propose that the entirety of our universe is composed of inanimate stuff, and as a result, they never successfully manage to explain how we are able “see and hear.” By God’s continued and patient grace we do see and hear, and by his saving grace in Christ Jesus we are enabled to see and hear God himself. Psalm 135 also comes with a warning: those who worship inanimate idols become like them.

Comments

  • Don Neuendorf Jan. 10, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    Sounds like an outstanding book - and written at a time that it is much needed to clarify the ongoing debate. Unfortunately, it STARTS at $78 on Amazon. And no digital version is available. What's with that???

Post a comment

Your email will not be published as part of your comment.

Subscribe (RSS)