In his 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos, philosopher Thomas Nagel, who is both an atheist and a philosophical naturalist (the view that all reality can be reduced to the material world alone[1]), issues a stark conclusion (some would call it a terminal diagnosis) for naturalism due to its inability to account for some key aspects of human experience that many believe make human beings significant—namely, consciousness, rationality, and morality/moral properties.[2] With theism considered a non-starter for Nagel, he attempts to maintain his naturalism and provide an adequate account for the above three aspects of human behavior. He concludes that mainstream evolutionary naturalism (the view that atheistic evolution alone accounts for the origin of all reality) fails in this attempt, and he concludes with a rough form of teleology (that these aspects are somehow built in to the design of the universe) as his best, but still largely exploratory, explanation for consciousness, rationality and morality. He does recognize how significant a departure this is from the tradition of naturalism that is still the dominant worldview in the academy, particularly in the sciences. Alvin Plantinga, in his 2011 work on science and religion (Where the Conflict Really Lies)[3], makes a similar argument about rationality, concluding that on an evolutionary, naturalistic account, there is little to suggest that our reason is reliable, especially when it comes to abstract ideas about the world. Of course, he does not share Nagel’s skepticism about theism, but considers theism a much more comfortable “home” for rationality than naturalism. Both Nagel and Plantinga (as well as many others) illustrate recent attempts to give an accounting for some of the key aspects of human experience.




From a forthcoming chapter, “Naturalism and Human Significance,” in John Kilner, ed., Why People Matter, Baker Academic.


[1] The terms, “naturalism” and “evolutionary naturalism” will be further explained in the following section of this chapter.

[2] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist, Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.)

[3] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.)