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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Theology Must Save Science From Naturalism

By Conor Cunningham, repost from ABC Religion and Ethics Blog 
Let me lay my cards on the table. The conversation between science and theology has been hijacked by a restrictive naturalism, which rests on an impoverished understanding of science, one that is underwritten by an atrophied imagination, and that leaves us bereft of nature.

I'll explain what I mean. Generally speaking, there are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach that science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such.

A certain methodological naturalism is commonsensical. It wouldn't be very helpful when making a cup of tea if, when the kettle boiled, we became overly entranced by the mystical wonder of the emission of steam, thinking it was the communication of the spirits of our ancestors. Science must preclude this, and thus it seeks to explain phenomena in purely natural terms. This is eminently sensible - we may expect the farmer to pray to his maker, asking for a good harvest, but we don't then expect the farmer to put his feet up and leave God to get on with ploughing the fields.

Ontological naturalism goes further. While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion of what exists, ontological naturalism is less modest. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural, but that the natural is all there is - indeed, all there ever could be.

Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy's ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called First Philosophy). Instead, philosophy now becomes the handmaiden of science, at the most, or science's lackey boy, at the least. This is what is commonly known as scientism , the perspective of which Richard Lewontin captures in one pithy sentence: "Science is the only begetter of truth."

Leaving aside the fact that this proposition is itself extra-scientific - that is, it is a philosophical thesis and not a scientific one at all - we might be inclined to inquire as to why he asserts something so question-begging? Lewontin gives us an answer of sorts:
"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failures to fulfill many of its extravagant promises ... in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior committment to materialism ... Moreover that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door."
There is a saying that offers sage advice: the theology that marries the science of today will be the widow of tomorrow. It is good and constructive to engage with science but it cannot act as its "foundation." But this advice also applies to atheism: the atheism that marries the science of today will be the widow of tomorrow. As the philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen notes: "All our factual beliefs are to be given over as hostages to fortune, to the fortune of future empirical evidence."

When it comes to human nature and culture, scientism and ontological naturalism would contend that we are guilty of what John Ruskin called the "pathetic fallacy." We commit this fallacy when we attribute emotions to what quite obviously cannot have emotion - as in "the wind cried" or "the trees wept." We keep insisting that we have such emotions. We keep attributing terms such as life, death, existence, desire, free will, pain and so on, to ourselves.

But for ontological naturalism - or better, restrictive naturalism - this simply cannot be the case because the very entities to which we ascribe such terms do not exist. We are left in a world that consists solely in the physical or the material. Consequently, what we see before our eyes is merely the agitation of matter; now thus, now so. That remains the case whether such agitation is that of murder, rape, cancer, war, famine, love or joy, birth or death.

Moreover, we have to ask if "matter" is all there is. How do we even discern real difference if all events and objects - all change - seem to be wholly arbitrary? To account for real difference, surely we must appeal to something other than matter - and yet any such appeal is prohibited in what amounts to a monistic philosophy (the notion that existence is composed of only one type of substance, which we call "matter").

Consequently, the materialist must admit that his description is metaphysical; it tacitly invokes something that transcends what is basic at the level of immanence or the merely physical. The only other option is to deny all change, just as they must, it seems, deny objects themselves. As Peter van Inwagen writes:
"One of the tasks that confronts the materialist is this: they have to find a home for the referents of the terms of ordinary speech within a world that is entirely material - or else deny the existence of those referents altogether."
And this includes persons - for as David Chalmers says, "you can't have your materialist cake and eat your consciousness too."

But of course, Hegel had already pointed to the vacuous nature of materialism, arguing that the word "matter" remains an ideal unless you pick out something material and that something cannot be just mere matter. But materialism would appear to preclude identity. This becomes clearer when we realize that ontological naturalism cannot, on its own terms, identify what are called persistence conditions for an object - that which an object requires to be what it is.

Those that celebrate scientism and ontological or restrictive naturalism do so because what they have set out to achieve is the banishment of the divine, no matter what the cost. These fundamentalist atheists will bring the whole house down so as to leave no room for God. They are, in short, willing to cut off their faces to spite their noses - willing to leave us all faceless.

It is thus not heaven that is under threat but earth, the common sense world, the world of nature and of the natural. This is the abolition of the human - not of God. On this point Simone Weil makes a crucial observation, quoting first from Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf, which contends that in the natural world "force reigns everywhere and supreme over weakness which it either compels to serve it docilely or else crushes out of existence." According to Weil:
"these lines [from Mein Kampf ] express in faultless fashion the only conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from the conception of the world contained in our science ... Who can reproach [Hitler] for having put into practice what he thought he recognized to be the truth? Those who, having in themselves the foundations of the same belief, haven't embraced it consciously and haven't translated it into acts, have only escaped being criminals thanks to want of a certain sort of courage which he possesses."
We must, of course, remember that naturalism recognizes science only. The point is that science should not seek to operate on its own, for if it does then Hitler's position and approach does indeed become a live option.

However, such egregious acts or thoughts do not define science; in other words, science does not belong to naturalism, metaphysically speaking. Indeed, in a certain sense it belongs to religion.

Cognitive suicide

It is important to bear in mind that nothing in science requires philosophical naturalism. Moreover, the analytic method of philosophy is likewise extrinsic to any attachment we may feel toward naturalism.

In short, we can quite happily be scientists or analytical philosophers and reject ontological or restrictive naturalism. There is nothing regressive or reactionary about rejecting naturalism. Indeed the reverse is true, for such naturalism appears to be damaging to both science and philosophy for many reasons. To my mind, however, the main reason is that naturalism undermines the veracity of reason, that is, it leads to global irrationalism and scepticism.

When naturalism is ontologized, when it becomes a metaphysical thesis about what can and cannot exist in the world, one of the major consequences is cognitive suicide (a phrase used by Lynne Rudder Baker, Thomas Nagel and G.K. Chesterton). Why would this be the case?

It is because, as Husserl pointed out, we are then forced into a situation wherein reason is subjected to species relativism, which in reality means relativism tout court. There is, in other words, no universal reason by which our thoughts should be judged. Instead, reason becomes a wholly local affair at best, and is itself subordinated to the utilitarian principle of mere survival.

But the problem is that there is now a disconnect between survival and truth, for they only ever coincide contingently. Ironically, this leaves us in a much more mysterious world than that of the theist, for in an almost Humean sense everything is now "miraculous," as it is beyond explanation. Not only is there a disconnect between survival and truth, if we take truth to be objective and normative, but also in the end truth becomes devoid of content as it is subservient to function: truth is the performance of a function, namely, survival.

In light of naturalism or physicalism, Lynne Rudder Baker argues that lived life has become mysterious, almost miraculous; this is what she refers to as the bizarre spiritualism of the everyday. For example, in the absence of intentional agents - which, given ontological naturalism, must be the case - social practices that depend upon ordinary explanation and prediction of behaviour become unintelligible.

Nietzsche said "it is unfair to Descartes to call his appeal to God's credibility frivolous. Indeed, only if we assume a God who is morally our like can 'truth' and the search for truth be at all something meaningful and promising of success. This God left aside, the question is permitted whether being deceived is not one of the conditions of life." Nietzsche's question seems to be eminently sensible. In light of adaptationism - the view held by some that natural selection is responsible for all, or at least most, of the features we see in the world - Jerry Fodor appears to agree:
"When applied to the evolution of cognition, the theory of natural selection somehow entails or at a minimum strongly suggests, that most of our empirical beliefs aren't true; a fortiori, that most of our empirical scientific theories aren't true either. So the rumour is that Darwinism - which, after all, is widely advertised as a paradigm of scientific success (I've heard it said that Darwinian adaptationism is the best idea that anybody's ever had, and that natural selection is the best confirmed theory in science) - Darwinism, of all things, undermines the scientific enterprise. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!"
The point is simply that Darwin is not in the epistemology business. His theory is not about knowledge but about survival. Therefore, again quoting Fodor, "Evolution is neutral as to whether most of our beliefs are true. Like Rhett Butler in the movies, it just doesn't give a damn."
This may well be the case when it comes to extending the reach of Darwinism beyond biology and into our minds. What about naturalism itself, we might ask? The problem is that naturalism is wedded to adaptationism, for otherwise it simply does not have an explanation for the human mind.
This uncomfortable situation - uncomfortable for the advocate of naturalism - leads it to indulge in all manner of exotic, desperate explanations of the mind, the best one being that there is no such thing, which seems to be an eminent example of Bill Livant's cure for baldness: you just shrink the head until the remaining hair covers what is left.

Naturalism or nihilism?

Alvin Plantinga brings the absurdity of naturalism to our attention:
"If naturalism were true, there would be no such thing as proper function, and therefore also no such thing as malfunctions or dysfunction. Hence, there would be no such thing as health or sickness, sanity or madness, further, and in this epistemological context crucial, there would be no such thing as knowledge."
To this we would add people, life, death, violence, ethics, beauty and so on. This is not an argument from incredulity. Just because we find it shocking and hard to accept, in other words, does not mean it is not true. The problem is not one of credulity or incredulity in relation to the truth of some view; rather, the problem is whether there is even such a thing as truth.
Plantinga's point is that, given naturalism and the emergence of our cognitive faculties through natural selection, it would be nothing short of a miracle if our beliefs turned out to be true.
"Most human beings think that at least one function or purpose of our cognitive faculties is to provide true belief; although we make mistakes, for the most part we are successful. However, naturalistic evolution, which is the conjunction of naturalism with the view that we and our cognitive faculties have arisen by way of mechanisms proposed by contemporary evolutionary theory, gives us reasons to doubt two things: (1) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (2) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs."
The point is that survival has the ascendancy over truth, and while truth and survival may at times coincide, such coincidence is contingent. This means that many of our most cherished beliefs have, according to those such as Richard Dawkins, turned out to be patently false - what are memes, after all?

Moreover, many scientific views have themselves turned out to be erroneous, yet we have undoubtedly benefited from them. Falsehoods can be beneficial. Indeed, does not society benefit from us accepting erroneous ideas like mind, existence, free will, ethics and even objects? But we are told that none of these ideas are true. At the same time, however, we wouldn't fancy our chances crossing the road to pay a visit to our Darwinian lover without them.

In short, truth is not about fitness enhancement. Any fiction that is useful is fair game for natural selection. As the saying goes, "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." In our case it would be, "In the land of the dead, that which mistakenly thinks it is alive, has sex and so breeds."
Advocates of naturalism such as Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg argue that Darwinism is an example of metaphysical nihilism. In addition, however, they say it is also ethical nihilism. This means that morality is a fiction. But which Darwinian would argue that ethics, morality and so on, have not been useful - that is, that they are adaptive fictions or lies?

This lends further support to Plantinga's argument regarding scepticism and naturalism. But as Barry Stroud has argued, this scepticism cannot help but turn around and implicate naturalism itself:
"There is an embarrassing absurdity in [ontological naturalism] that is revealed as soon as the naturalist reflects and acknowledges that he believes his naturalistic theory of the world ... I mean he cannot say it and consistently regard what he says as true."
This statement also applies to universalized Darwinism. Thus ultra-Darwinism and naturalism are like the proverbial drunk man on a moving train who appears to walk straighter than his fellow passengers. As Plantinga puts it, "the argument isn't against the falsehood of naturalism, but for the irrationality of accepting it. The traditional theist, on the other hand, isn't forced into this appalling loop."

But it is clear that naturalism is also self-defeating in its slavish following of science and its rejection of all things metaphysical. As E.J. Lowe points out, "without a coherent general concept of the whole of reality, we cannot hope to render compatible the theories and observations of the various different sciences: and providing that conception is not the task of one of those sciences, but rather that of metaphysics."

Moreover, any arguments given in opposition to metaphysics seem to be employing the very thing that they are denying, for they are inevitably making metaphysical claims. For example, it is self-defeating to assert that philosophy must relinquish its claim to formulate a First Philosophy, and that it should instead be subservient to science, as science allegedly provides the best account of reality. Such an assertion is self-defeating because it is, quite obviously, not a scientific claim but rather a metaphysical one.

Naturalism finds it very difficult to accommodate philosophy at all, just as it finds it extremely difficult to naturalize itself. In other words, naturalism cannot itself be naturalized. For if naturalism were, in a sense, true, then it would never be spoken of. In short, it would not be a philosophical position at all.

Naturalism is in a similar position to ultra-Darwinism: their posture as universal theories causes them to eat their own discourse, so to speak. They therefore become like racing driver who, to avoid friction, chooses tires that are so smooth they offer no resistance, which in turn causes the driver to remain at a standstill, unable to move. Likewise, if Darwinism dissolves other discourses, it comes to a standstill itself.

Naturalism's dissolution of philosophy leaves it in a similar place, for its sycophantic relation to science renders it devoid of rationality. But thankfully, as Lowe points out, "We cannot rationally believe that we lack freedom of rational action."

Persons, naturally

Robert Spaemann argues:
"Persons are not something else the world contains, over and above inanimate objects, plants, animals, and human beings. But human beings are connected to everything else the world contains at a deeper level than other things to each other. This is what it means to say there are persons."
This type of connection is reflected in the notion of common ancestry, but arguably only accurately when the Patristic notion of recapitulation (anakephalaiosis) is included. In short, the human is a microcosm, uniting the inanimate, the animate and the intelligent, and opening it up to the divine - that is, the immaterial.

It should be noted - before the fashionable despisers of humans tell us that such a view is pompous and self-serving - that what in fact is special about man's place in the world is precisely his relationship with the rest of nature. As St Gregory Nyssa says:
"There is nothing remarkable in Man's being the image and likeness of the universe, for earth passes away, and the heavens change ... in thinking we exalt human nature by this grandiose name (microcosm, synthesis of the universe) we forget that we are thus favouring it with the qualities of gnats and mice."
Indeed, as St Maximus the Confessor tells us:
"man was introduced last among existent things, as the natural bond mediating between the extremes of the whole through his own parts, and bringing into unity in his own person those things which are by nature distant from each other."
In other words, persons naturalize nature, which is to say they actualize nature. They reveal nature to itself, doing so in all its forms, colours and structures, for without them all is dark, or at least shadow. Thus they do not flee nature, as do the philosophical naturalists who destroy all that is natural.
Conor Cunningham is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, and is the assistant director of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy. He is the author of Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong.

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