The Naturalist and God
Naturalism: Belief that the final reality is strictly matter and
energy. One for whom all gods are dead, for whom all meaning and
purpose are human in origin, ungrounded in either nature itself or in
Panthiest: A person for whom the final reality is really divine.
One for whom the dance of the atoms is the ultimate dance of the
Naturalism and pantheism seem to be polar opposites, yet a door
has been opening between them. The so-called "New Age physics" of
Fritjof Capra, Gary Zukav, and Michael Talbot tries to link material
science with Eastern pantheism, the most spiritual of world views.
We can see one scientist stepping through that door to pantheism
in the popular writings of Lewis Thomas. Thomas, chancellor of Sloan-
Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in New York City, received his M.D.
from Harvard in 1937 and has had a productive career in medical
research. A collection of his essays first published in the New
England Journal of Medicine became a best seller, The lives of a cell:
Notes of a biology watcher (1973). That was followed by another
collection, The Medusa and the snail (1979), and The Youngest Science
In his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Oration, "On the Uncertainty of
Science" (Given June 1980; published in Harvard Magazine, Sept-Oct
1980), Thomas struggles to make sense out of the whole of reality.
What is the universe like? What does it mean? Who are we? Why are
we here? He accepts two basic tenets of naturalism: (1) That nature
is ultimate all there is (There is no creator God who brought the
world into being); and (2) that human beings evolved out of nature
alone (There is no super-added soul). But Thomas refuses to accept
the typical naturalistic implications. He rejects the "intellectually
fashionable view of man's place in nature," the nihilist conclusion
that it "makes no sense at all" (Page 20), that the universe is
"meaningless for human beings." And he rejects the existialist
conclusion that humankind's meaning is merely human, merely our own
imagined values. Instead, Thomas affirms that nature itself is
Throughout that lecture Thomas uses personal language for
nature's ways. Human language, he says, is a mysterious "gift" (page
20). He calls the symbiotic character of nature the "urge" to form
"partnerships" (page 21), The "invention" of the DNA molecule was the
greatest achievement of nature. "Nature has exhibited such restraint
and good taste in evolution" (page 21), and "nature has been kind to
us" (page 21). Even the mechanism of evolution - natural selection -
is given a personal twist. Like a naturalist, he agrees that error
(accident, randomness) is the driving force in evolution, but he
points out that the word "error" comes from an Indo-European root
meaning, "to wander about, looking for something" (page 21).
Surely, we think, a scientist does not take such language
literally. He must be using it metaphorically, to put some "life"
into a popular lecture. Or perhaps the words are what Francis
Schaffer calls semantic mysticism, language used by naturalist to ease
the burden of seeing ourselves alone in the universe. Its nice to
feel that nature cares.
No, Thomas is serious. He confesses: "I cannot make my peace with
the randomness doctrine: I cannot abide in the notion of
purposelessness and blind chance in nature. And yet I do not know
what to put in its place for the quieting of my mind. It is absurd to
say that a place like this place is absurd, when it contains, in front
of your eyes, so many billions of different forms of life, each one in
its own way absolutely perfect, all linked together to form what would
surely seem to an outsider a huge spherical organism (page 21).
Christians would say, "Of course, Dr. Thomas. You've just
recognized the truth of Psalm 19:1 "The heavens are telling the glory
of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork."
But, we read on: "We talk ... about the absurdity of the human
situation, but we do this because we do not know how we fit in, or
what we are for. The stories we used to make up to explain ourselves
do not make sense any more, and we have run out of new stories for the
moment" (page 21). Thomas rejects all traditional religious
explanations of human meaning - including the Christian one.
But Thomas refuses to give up hope. His works are imbued with a
strong spirit of optimism, of luck, his word for humankind's natural
history so far. He endows the word with almost divine attributes: "We
are . . . the most impossible of all earth's creatures, and maybe it
is not beyond hope that we are also endowed with improbable luck" (The
Youngest Science, page 248).
Thomas asks, "What I would like to know most about the developing
earth is: Does it already have a mind? Or will it someday gain a
mind, and are we part of that? Are we a tissue for the earth's
awareness?" (page 21). And he speculates, "I would like to think that
we are on our way to becoming an embryonic central nervous system for
the whole system" (page 22).
In lives of a cell Thomas suggested that at death perhaps human
consciousness is "somehow separated off at the filaments of its
attachment, and drawn like an easy breath back into the membrane of
its origin, a fresh memory for a biospherical nervous system . . ."
Then he added, "but I have no data on the matter" (page 61) realizing
that his speculations might be hubris or false hope. We could just as
well be a "transient tissue, replaceable, . . . on our way down under
the hill, interesting fossils for contemplation by some other
creature" Yet, Thomas wanted to end his 1980 lecture on a note of
We see in Thomas the pilgrimage of a truly modern man, raised as
a dues-paying naturalist, beginning to play at the edges of pantheism.
Note the sequence of his thought:
1) Naturalism poses a purposeless, meaningless cosmos. Human
beings are the result of random accidents of the evolutionary process
channeled only by survival of the fittest.
2) But the universe is obviously not absurd. It's too orderly,
too beautiful, and, with the coming of humankind, too personal.
Nature belies a naturalistic metaphysic.
3) Therefore, nature must be intrinsically meaningful,
intrinsically personal or, with the rise of humankind, "becoming"
For Thomas, the Judeo-Christian concept of a personal Creator is
one of those stories considered no longer credible. But which is more
(1) a universe that is developing personhood, requiring something
(the personal) to COME FROM NOTHING (the non-personal);
(2) a universe that's always been personal and thus, via its own
nature, DESIGNED the DNA template; or
(3) a universe that has God as its infinite, personal Creator?
In his writings Thomas vacillates between the first two views -
both forms of pantheism.
Lewis Thomas stands as a symbol of the modern dilemma. Without
God he cries for meaning, and he has to take it where he can get it.
Maranatha! Net International