John Hick: The Fifth Dimension Chapter II – Naturalism as Bad News for the Many

The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual RealmWe continue exploring John Hick’s, The Fifth Dimension, a book in which Hick makes an extended argument for the reality of a “spiritual dimension to life.”   If his argument holds, it would mean that God / “the Transcendent” / “the Divine” (depending on if you use Western, personal categories or Eastern, impersonal categories, is an ontological reality, not simply a projection of humanity’s imagination.  Today we’ll look at Chapter 2 where Hick takes some jabs at Naturalistic thinkers who paint their worldview in flowery colors…


Chapter 2: Naturalism as Bad News for the Many
In Chapter 2, Hick makes the argument that  if Naturalism is true, this would be “bad news” for most of the world’s inhabitants .  Of course he doesn’t make the claim that this makes Naturalism false, just that, if true, it leads to a depressing and negative outlook on the nature of existence.

One well known quote regarding the ultimate negative nature of this worldview comes from the famous atheist writer Bertrand Russell:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand.  Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Sound a little depressing?  Yeah I think so too.

After making the claim that naturalism is, in fact, an ultimately negative outlook on life, Hick responds to naturalist writers who argue that it’s not so bad as Hick makes it out to be.  By focusing on the short term…the warmth of family life, love, good food and good friends, these writers, in effect, say that if you just don’t look at the big picture, Naturalism is actually a positive view.  Just focus on what’s in front of you and you’ll be happy.

Hick points out that this may be true, but only for the advantaged.  Not only do large numbers of people today live in extreme poverty, where day to day life is more hellish than heavenly, but the vast majority of humanity throughout history has also lived as such.  Hick cites the life expectancy in Britain, a developed nation, in the relatively recent year of 1840… 42 years old!  We forget just how fortunate we have it today.  He goes on…”indeed it is probably true that until fairly recently the majority of people who have ever been born have died before reaching their teens”.  What hope does Naturalism offer to these people…the majority who have ever lived? A brief flicker of a candle and then non- existence?

Thoughts:  Basically Hick wants Naturalist thinkers who like to gloss over the worldview and pretend that it is really positive or life-enhancing to own up to its negative nature.  I think he does a good job in this chapter doing so.  Sure you can look to the short term and “just not think about” the bigger picture, but once you do think about the bigger picture, embracing Naturalism clearly means embracing “bad news” for humanity.

In Chapter III, Hick will challenge Naturalists to at least be open to the possibility of a worldview that offers more hope.

For the previous installment click here