Deflecting Reductionism, Questioning Faith

George Ellis, winner of the 2004 Templeton prize, addressed the Metanexus conference on “Science and Religion in Context.”   His wide-ranging talk, "On Rationality and Emotion, Faith and Hope," aims to make the case that science and rationality alone cannot meet human needs, and that we must admit a significant, necessary role for faith in our lives.  It also rebuts what Ellis perceives to be the claim of some scientists, those enamored of strong reductionism, that on a scientific understanding of ourselves there is no basis for moral responsibility and personhood.  Below I first respond to Ellis’ concern about reductionism and personhood, clearing up what I think are some confusions in his discussion.  Then I consider his claim that faith, as opposed to reason and science, is necessary for a complete, fulfilling life.   Ellis replies to my critique here.

The inequivalence of reductionism and determinism: deflecting nasty reductionists, properly

In explaining ourselves to ourselves, we rightly resist what might be called strong explanatory reductionism, the idea that higher level human capacities for rationality and choice are explicable in terms of physics, chemistry, and cellular mechanisms. On the other hand, it’s important not to make the mistake of supposing that we are causally privileged over nature in some respect. Our behavior qua behavior can’t be usefully explained at the basic physical level, but it is, scientists suppose, amenable to causal explanation at some level or levels. In section 3.4, “Free will and responsibility,” Ellis rightly inveighs against strong reductionism, but in so doing implies that determinism is part of the problem, when it isn’t. He says:

In order for ethical choices to be meaningful, it is crucial that the human mind has "free will"; that is, the individual can make choices expressing both their nature and their conscious decisions about the way they want to act. We must be responsible for our actions in some serious sense.

Many scientists in various ways deny that free will exists, because of the way that physics and chemistry underlie neuronal functioning and hence brain activity, as outlined above. It seems as if our brain is a computer that computes output according to immutable laws of physics, its operations shaped by either our evolutionary history or our culture in such a way that consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon superimposed on its unconscious operations, with the disastrous implications that "there is no sound biological (or ideological) basis for selfhood, willpower, freedom, or responsibility” (Donald Merlin, A Mind So Rare, p. 31).

Here Ellis raises the issue of whether a “serious sense” of moral responsibility is compatible with science, since “many scientists in various ways deny free will exists.” Actually, scientists only deny that contra-causal freedom exists, that we might be little gods acting as uncaused first causes, what philosopher Galen Strawson, following Nietzsche, calls the causa sui. This denial is the necessary conclusion of taking science seriously with respect to ourselves, for instance in seeking to explain such things as consciousness and behavior. What our brains do is consistent with the laws of physics, and their operations do reflect our evolutionary history (nature) and our culture (nurture). None of this implies, however, that consciousness is epiphenomenal or that unconscious processes rule our lives. It does say, however, that consciousness and moral choice must be understood within nature, as fully caused phenomena, not exceptions to natural causality. If we are to stay true to science, such things as “selfhood, freedom, willpower, [and] responsibility” must all be understood as properties of material, biological persons, even though these properties aren’t understandable as biological properties, of course. The benign assumption of deterministic causality – that events at the macro-level have sufficient causes that fall into discoverable regularities, they don’t arise mysteriously or haphazardly – shouldn’t be confused with the sort of strong reductionism which mistakenly assigns causal efficacy only to lower level, bottom-up processes.

Ellis continues, however, by conjoining determinism and reductionism in his characterization of scientific hubris:

The response to this deterministic and reductionist denial of the core of personhood is multiple [emphasis added]. This view is based on laboratory results that fail to take into account the timescales and complexity of real-life interactions, and it does not adequately represent the way the human mind develops and functions as part of a distributed cognitive network. It fails to take into account top-down action in the brain, together with the causal effectiveness of consciousness.

It would be interesting to know who Ellis thinks in the scientific community endorses the “reductionist denial of the core of personhood,” since otherwise he risks setting up a straw man. In fact, few thoughtful scientists or philosophers espouse explanatory reductionism seriously any longer, the sort that denies top-down causality. But taking into account top-down causation and the causal role of consciousness is obviously not to escape causality, but to take causal explanations seriously with respect to consciousness and choice. Science, eventually, will help us understand “the complexity of real-life interactions” that shape our minds outside the lab, and show that such cognitive development is a fully caused process, albeit supremely complex and convoluted. It will also, eventually, unravel the neurological basis for those conscious processes essential for human cognition and behavior. The “core of personhood” isn’t something magical or exempt from causality, nor is there reason to think that we aren’t fully determined in our behavior, even at the highest levels. To suppose we are undetermined in some respect wouldn’t add to our causal powers, or to our dignity. It would simply insert something mysterious within us, something that, because uninfluenced, would have no reason or basis for acting in one way as opposed to another, and would be uncontrollable by moral norms. Many suppose that an undetermined, self-caused personal core is required for moral responsibility, but this is not the case. For why not, see for instance “Materialism and morality” (long), “Science and freedom” (short), “Against retribution” (long), and “The moral levitation of David Brooks” (short). Ellis continues:

And above all, if [the deterministic and reductionist denial of the core of personhood] were actually true, then science would not be possible, because we would not have the power to assess theories on the basis of their internal consistency and compatibility with the data. Our brains would be computing output in some internally determined way that would not necessarily relate to any concept we might have of rationally deciding whether theories are scientifically acceptable or not. The whole supposed basis of the scientific enterprise would turn out to be a charade.

Here Ellis tries to oppose determinism and rationality, but the opposition is false. Our brains “compute output” in a causally determined way that instantiates an environmentally sensitive rationality which operates on neurally instantiated representations of concepts, for instance that of rationality itself. There is no conflict between our brains being causally determined and their being capable of assessing theories and evidence. Indeed, if processes of assessment involved indeterministic elements, that would make them less reliable and rational, not more. The core of personhood, rationality included, isn’t exempt from causality, but of course the determinants of behavior are not those at the basic physio-chemical level, but rather those described on higher functional and representational levels, the levels that directly subserve emotion and cognition.* This is what Ellis gets right: strong explanatory reductionism is indeed false. But we should not conflate reductionism and determinism. Imagine if the core of personhood were somehow exempt from causal understanding at the functional and representational levels. Now, that’s something that would really spike the scientific enterprise, at least as applied to ourselves. If and when the core gets explained, it won’t be explained away. We will have both the science of the self and rationality, moral responsibility, and personhood intact.

* In a forthcoming book (now published and reviewed here), Fuller Theological Seminary professors Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy argue the case that the capacity for full-blown rationality can be instantiated by strictly physical neural processes.

Is faith really necessary?

There is a commonsense and widely agreed upon distinction between faith on the one hand and evidence-based knowledge on the other. Faith is “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” (Merriam Webster), while evidence-based knowledge is knowledge because it is evidence-based. In section 4 of his talk, “On being Human: faith and hope,” Ellis defends the necessary role of faith in our lives, in contrast to knowledge:

Essential features of a full human life are faith and hope, driven by the need to make life choices in the face of uncertainty and adversity (and we note here that even atheism is a faith). Rationality, based on impartial analysis of repeated experience and carefully collected evidence, is what gives us our ability to plan sensibly and successfully in the face of reality and its inherent limitations, but hope is often needed in order to continue surviving and functioning in the face of desperate situations - to fight against the odds…

This process has an element of faith - faith in what might happen if hope is pursued. But faith is needed anyhow to provide a basis for thought, values, and action, for a number of reasons, even though it is itself guided by thoughts and values. Faith is needed when the evidence is incomplete; hope when the evidence is against you…

Thus there are important roles for both rationality and hope in human life, but there is an ongoing tension between them, for rationality is based on logic and proof, but faith functions where there can be no proof. We cannot live without it. Thus in many ways the concept of a purely rational, securely evidence-based approach to life is an illusion. Life is much richer than that” (emphasis added).

In the above excerpts and in all of this section, Ellis strongly links hope and faith, implying that faith in the absence of good or complete evidence is the usual basis for hope. But we often have hope simply on the rational basis of sufficient evidence. True, we sometimes find ourselves clinging irrationally to hope without evidence, and this - the sheer resilience of a desire against all odds - can sometimes play an important role in seeing us through tough times. But to suppose that faith is necessary for hope is wrong; rather, hope becomes faith when there is little or no evidence to suggest that we are being realistic in our expectations. Faith, simply put, is evidentially unjustified hope or belief.

The question is whether we must inevitably live our lives in some significant measure on the basis of faith, in addition to reason, as Ellis suggests when he says “We cannot live without it.” I don't think we must. We will of course occasionally find ourselves stubbornly, unjustifiably hoping for things in a way that qualifies as faith, and such faith might help us get what we want by keeping us in the game. But we need not, indeed cannot, as rational creatures, adopt faith as a reliable strategy to navigate life because as rational creatures we absolutely depend on playing the favorable odds, not the unfavorable. Faith, as seen by reason, is simply the triumph of desire over realism, and we know that by and large we must be guided by reality, not wishful thinking, to survive. We often have justifiable, rational hopes based on evidence, and it is this sort of hopefulness, not faith, that largely gets us through life. That religious faith in an unproveable afterlife or soul is so widespread is simply a function of the powerful, evolutionarily adaptive desire not to die.

In declaring a role for faith, Ellis in a way states the obvious: we have powerful pre-rational needs and desires which press rationality, Hume’s “slave of the passions,” into service. Sometimes, when rationality says the news isn’t good, faith takes us over, the well known “foxhole effect.” But even if we occasionally fall prey to wishful thinking, and despite the fact that it sometimes serves us well, we need not endorse faith as either the basis for hope or as a necessary complement to reason in order to live emotionally rich, fully realized lives.

TWC, July 2004

Ellis replies

I have now had time to look at your response to my Metanexus talk on faith and hope. I will comment on what I see as the two main issues you raise.

First, have I been attacking straw men? Am I exaggerating the destructive effects of the reductionist approach to the human mind, as currently practiced by many philosophers and neuroscientists? Contrary to what I state about this, you deny in your response that these approaches imply consciousness is epiphenomenal.

I have looked again at the relevant literature, and I think you are deeply mistaken. In order to really see clearly what is going on here, please look at the book A Mind so Rare by Merlin Donald, and see particularly pages 28 to 45. The quote I gave, which you reproduce, is from page 31. Donald gives a very lucid and penetrating analysis of what the hardliners claim and its true implications. I stand by what I stated.

Secondly, as regards Faith, I now see there may be a misunderstanding as to how I am using that word. I am using it in a broad way that does not necessarily imply a religious significance. The intended use is: Faith is a belief that something is so, even when compelling evidence is not available; this may apply broadly to any belief, as well as those having metaphysical significance. I see this as more than just belief per se, which I understand as having a mainly intellectual texture, whereas Faith as I see it has a significant emotional overtone - it is not just intellectual. Maybe you use the words differently: in that case, please substitute "Belief" for "Faith" in my text, and maybe it will make sense. As to Hope: as I now see it, this relates to events or happenings; it is a belief that something will happen, whereas Faith
relates to understandings rather than events. However the key point is that in this case too, there is insufficient evidence; nevertheless hope may sustain one in believing that something unproveable will happen.

My point then is that in this sense, Faith and Hope are indispensable parts of every day life, which cannot be lived on a purely rational basis. You have to believe in others in order to function socially; this then implies faith and hope in the sense I am using the words. This even applies in the world of science, for setting up a scientific project is an exercise in hope [see Physics World: March 2004, page 18]. The necessity of faith applies particularly in adopting any metaphysical beliefs, firstly as regards the origin and nature of the Universe on the largest scales, for example the issue of whether or nor there exists a multiverse, as claimed by some prominent scientists (see here; and secondly as regards religious or philosophical views about the nature of underlying reality, if any. In these cases, proof is unattainable, as emphasized strongly for example by Immanuel Kant and David Hume, so faith is required to adopt any standpoint (including any form of theism and any form of atheism) on these issues. The only standpoint not involving such faith is true agnosticism, which is very rare.

I hope this helps clarify my talk.

Yours sincerely

George Ellis

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