Naturalism vs. Theology
Papers and reviews exploring the fundamental differences
- arranged by date, earlier to more recent -
* = book review
1. Is Naturalism Self-Defeating? - critique of Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism.
2.* Supernaturalism and Explanation - review of John F. Haught's Is Nature Enough?
3. When Worldviews Collide - commentary on the Secular Web debate on Mind and Will.
4.* Projecting God - the logical and psychological pitfalls of theological justification; a review of God and the New Atheism by John F. Haught.
5.* No Competition For Naturalism - review of Naturalism by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro.
6. An Exchange on Naturalism - Stewart Goetz & Charles Taliaferro reply to Clark's review above, and Clark responds, in six parts.
7. Misrepresenting Naturalism - open letter to Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (September 1, 2008).
8. Correspondence on Naturalism - with Heritage Christian School sophomores and seniors responding regarding the open letter to Mohler directly above.
9.* Tennis Without a Net: The Emptiness of the Supernatural Hypothesis - review of The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism by J.P. Moreland.
10. All In - Paul Louis Metzger on Nietzschean atheism, from his book Connecting Christ, with invited commentary by Tom Clark; end notes for this chapter are here. Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Thomas Nelson, 2012) is available wherever fine books are sold and here; © 2012 Paul Louis Metzger.
Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism
on the Secular Web debate on
Mind and Will -
The Secular Web, all praise to them, hosted a debate between naturalists and theists which illustrates how their more or less opposing worldviews differ in assumptions and explanations. The first installment, Mind and Will, pits Andrew Melnyk (naturalist) against Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro (theists). It doesn’t directly address the existence of god, but instead is an argument about the nature of mind, choice, purpose and self, and how we should decide about the nature of such things. If, as the theists (or anti-naturalists, as they call themselves at various points) argue, it’s plausible to conclude that the mind and will are a certain way, namely that they are fundamental constituents of existence, irreducible to mechanistic and mindless components, then perhaps that’s evidence for the view that a creator god made them that way. As they put it:
But it can also work the other way. If it’s plausible to conclude that human purposes and minds don’t involve anything over and above physical components, the naturalist replies, then perhaps that makes the godless view more likely. We’ll have an explanation that doesn’t resort to the supernatural, essentially putting god out of a job.
The debate reveals some rather different ideas about
what counts as good evidence, good explanation, and admissible argument. Of
course it wouldn’t be fair to generalize about all theists and naturalists on
the basis of this exchange alone, but it’s nevertheless a useful illustration of
what some basic disagreements likely are. What’s clear is that it isn’t a simple
matter of science vs. faith, for it were only that there would be little to
debate. Other articles at Naturalism.Org about root differences between
naturalism and theism (or supernaturalism) are
That both sides are willing to debate suggests that they assume a common ground of some sort that their arguments can build on, and thus be intelligible and perhaps even persuasive to the opposition. Beyond speaking the same language and agreeing about logical inference, both camps take the fundamental project to be one of understanding and explanation. Both are trying to make sense of the world, to gain a plausible view of it. In particular, the theists make clear they aren’t appealing to belief in miracles or the paranormal; in fact, they take themselves to be more sensible and rational than naturalists:
So the common ground is substantial: each side appeals to what they consider to be good reason, evidence and logic, with the aim of convincing the reader that they’re more rational than the other guys. But since neither side convinces the other, this suggests that there’s something fundamental not in common. Indeed, our theists say at one point (original emphasis):
What follows is an analysis of the divide as expressed in this debate, to see what most differentiates naturalists and theists. I’ll suggest that naturalists, using science joined with philosophy (hence my neologism “philo-scientific” to describe the naturalist approach), stick with widely accepted criteria of explanatory adequacy, while anti-naturalists in some respects do not. Being methodologically rigorous according to these criteria when formulating beliefs about reality drives the naturalist’s worldview, while departures from them necessarily lead away from naturalism. The basic issue between naturalists and anti-naturalists, therefore, might be framed as one of differing methodological commitments when explaining the world. These commitments in turn might be explained by differing desires for explanatory transparency, epistemic reliability and cognitive coherence. Naturalists, perhaps more than theists, are driven by wanting a clear, unified, and maximally trustworthy account of how things work, and less than theists by needs for ultimate meaning and cosmic reassurance. Such at any rate is my psychological hypothesis.
The naturalistic assumption in explaining the world is that all phenomena, however disparate in character, and however separated in space and time, participate in the single, unified reality that we call nature. Anti-naturalists, on the other hand, are more likely to put stock in dualistic conceptions of reality, for instance that it’s comprised of both the natural and the supernatural. Taliaferro and Goetz (henceforth T&G) do in fact identify themselves as dualists, and during the course of the debate they make the following dualistic claims:
These dualisms are closely intertwined in T&G’s account. The conscious, mental part of the self makes free, undetermined, purposive choices, which cause the physical, determined part of the self (the body) to move appropriately when carrying out intentions. But notably lacking in T&G’s contribution to the debate is any story about how the two parts of the self and the two basic categories of existence – mental (free, purposive, immaterial) and physical (causally determined) – interact and influence each other. How, for instance, does mental free will cause the physical brain and body to do its bidding? This is the large and likely insurmountable explanatory shortcoming that has always dogged dualism: how can things of two categorically different natures interact? No dualist thus far has come up with a satisfactory answer, and that T&G make no attempt in the debate to address this problem casts doubt on their explanatory zeal. We are left with a root mystery, a patent lack of transparency, that curious minds would want cleared up.
By contrast, Melnyk tenders the naturalistic, monistic proposal that mental and teleological phenomena ultimately reduce to certain physical systems, those instantiating representations of the world in service to a self-maintaining goal-driven entity, such as a human being. The representationalist analysis of mind, including consciousness and intention, is one of a number of robust research programs in cognitive science now underway in universities and labs worldwide. Although there’s no consensus yet about representationalism given the relative youth of neuroscience and cognitive studies, it at least attempts to provide a transparent account of how the mindless, physical components of a nervous system (or artificial system) might, by virtue of their interaction, result in subjective consciousness. Whether representationalism or some other naturalistic account ultimately proves true, the point here is that cognitive science, like science generally, has as its goal the unification of phenomena into a comprehensible whole, and thus necessarily works against dualism. Insofar as dualism leaves an explanatory gap between the mental and physical, good, transparent scientific explanations will seek to close it. They offer, as dualism cannot, the possibility of a satisfying cognitive coherence.
A striking methodological difference between the two sides, one that helps explain their differing takes on reality (dualist vs. monist), has to do with the status of what T&G call first person data. They put great stock in the validity of what they believe are widespread and commonsensical intuitions about metaphysical matters, intuitions deriving from personal experience (thus the expression “first person data”). These intuitions include most of the dualist claims listed above: that freely willed human choices are uncaused mental events, that the self is a non-compositional, persisting essence (a soul), and that consciousness and human purposes are irreducible to physical processes. Their charge against naturalists is that we don’t take such data seriously enough, that is, count them as fundamental: “What we know from the first-person point of view, however, is not posited or hypothesized. It is a fundamental datum that itself must be acknowledged, as opposed to explained away, by an adequate account of reality” (original emphasis here and in what follows). Likewise: “There are two kinds of mental events, representational and nonrepresentational, and two kinds of explanation, teleological and causal, neither of which is reducible to the other. Physicalism fails to provide an adequate account of this fundamental datum. Instead, it disregards it.” And: “The existence of the binding problem [of consciousness] is confirmation that practicing scientists themselves, unlike philosophical physicalists, take seriously our first-person experience of ourselves as unified, simple subjects. And it is because we take seriously our experiences of ourselves as simple substantial individuals that we remain convinced that the dualist view of the self is true.”
So there’s a direct, self-confessed connection between taking first person data seriously in their sense, that is, taking it at evidential face value, and their dualist metaphysics. But from a philo-scientific perspective, the claim that some intuitions or experiences wear truth on their sleeve and can’t be second-guessed is to let the tail of data wag the dog of theory. As Melnyk rightly points out, there’s no reason to believe that our capacity for introspection is incorrigible, and therefore to suppose that our intuitions about such complex metaphysical matters as choice, self and consciousness must stand as fundamental data, immune to question:
To suppose that first-person data are indefeasible is to enshrine dualistic intuitions about the world as foundational assumptions, so it’s no surprise that T&G’s theistic theory ends up being dualistic. The naturalist, adhering to good theoretical practice, can’t suppose that any single datum is irrefutably fundamental in what it tells us about the world. Rather, it’s the theory as a whole that decides how data are to be interpreted. A good psychological theory, for instance, might well explain the dualistic deliverances of some intuitions as illusions produced by the nature and limitations of subjective consciousness, not an accurate grasp of reality.
A further, more basic point is that from a scientific methodological perspective there are no such animals as first-person data. Data are always third person: they must be intersubjectively available, that is, publicly verifiable by different observers, as is a meter reading or a brain scan. Intuitions based on personal experience alone don’t count as intersubjective since there’s no public object of observation available, only one’s personal conviction. We shouldn’t trust intuitions, however widely they might be shared, as direct apprehensions of what’s real since they are notoriously unreliable: mass delusion is possible. Instead, we must test intuitions against objective evidence. (For instance, to verify the widespread and commonsensical intuition that we have immaterial souls in addition to bodies, we’d have to conduct an observational test for the soul’s existence.) Further, in seeking consensus on the nature of reality, science can’t accept unverified personal beliefs as evidence for empirical claims, since people notoriously disagree in their beliefs. However, as philosopher Daniel Dennett points out in his writings on heterophenomenology, the beliefs themselves count as 3rd person data for science – data about the psychology of those who have them.
T&G allege at several points in the debate that the failure of philosophical physicalists, and more generally naturalists, to take subjective experience and intuitions seriously means we eliminate consciousness and purposive choices as real phenomena in need of explanation. But this is false. Naturalists take experience, intuitions and other mental phenomena quite seriously, both as data and as explanatory targets. It’s just that we don’t suppose that, absent the corrective influence of theory and experiment, personal experience is the incorrigible route to empirical truth about the world. The stronger methodological commitment of the naturalist to the provisional (not fundamental) status of data, the primacy of theory, and the intersubjective requirement for evidence, helps to explain why the two sides end up in very different metaphysical ballparks.
A close companion to T&G’s anti-naturalist dualism is their insistence on the irreducibility of the mental and volitional aspects of ourselves. Such phenomena can't, they claim, be understood as emerging from systems composed only of physical, mindless components. Mental and volitional phenomena are also irreducible (or “ultimate,” as they often put it) by virtue of not having causal antecedents, at least of a physical nature. Since we can’t understand these phenomena in physicalist, causal ways, they become a categorically different order of being, something existing along side of the physical world; hence dualism. T&G say
The claim that something, in this case pain, will never be subject to reductive understanding (“seemingly impossible”) can’t of course be proven, since what now seems impossible might become tractable given a new set of conceptual tools. Besides, it’s unlikely that T&G have canvassed all the current naturalistic proposals for explaining consciousness, some of which have more than a grain of plausibility. So their argument from impossibility carries little weight. Further, if there are no physical causal antecedents to mental phenomena such as purposive human choices, if the mind really does float free of the brain and the body, then its provenance and its choices remain a mystery. Indeed, T&G offer no explanation of how “mental reality” arose, or came to assume the characteristics it has, other than to say god created it. Compared to scientific accounts of mental phenomena, preliminary though they be, such an explanation leaves naturalists unimpressed.
Their other main argument for irreducibility is the appeal to first person data discussed above: from the first person perspective it seems (at least to some) very unlikely that pain, for instance, could just be the property of representing damage to the body. But again, why should science respect empirical claims based simply on intuition? The weakness of appeals to first person data is thus inherited by this objection to reductionism.
For naturalists, reductionism is a primary explanatory strategy that’s worked well in many domains, so why not attempt it for the mental and purposive too? To reduce a higher level phenomenon to lower levels, which is also to show how it emerges from them, demonstrates the systematic connections between levels – for instance how cellular mechanisms are the coordinated functioning of sub-cellular parts made from macro-molecules such as proteins. Seeing transparently how the mechanisms work is an explanatory success, since there’s nothing mysterious left over, though there might be many complex and recursive steps getting from the basement of nature to the ground floor to the attic. Reductionism reveals the satisfying unity of the entire structure. Of course it could turn out that no matter how cleverly we extend our concepts, we’ll never, for example, transparently understand how subjective pain emerges from a physical instantiation. But it’s nevertheless an explanatory strategy worth pursuing in the quest for cognitive coherence – to see the unity of nature – a quest that anti-reductionist dualism cuts short prematurely.
For Melnyk (see his opening paper), it’s the representationalist approach to mind which stands the best chance of unifying our grasp of the world, by showing how the mind might be a matter of a physically instantiated representational system out of which consciousness and intentionality emerge. He also argues that purposeful human thought and action might be understood as special cases of physically caused events, such that intentional phenomena might be fully naturalized. Such explanations, once complete, can show us where minds come from and why people choose the way they do as a function of their evolved physical nature as expressed in society. Naturalization won't eliminate intentionality, rationality and choice-making, or render them epiphenomenal, as T&G suggest several times; rather it will identify their antecedents in evolution and culture. As Melnyk says: “The physicalist explanation… treats mental phenomena as perfectly real, but as physical phenomena or as functional phenomena that are realized by their associated neural (hence physical) phenomena...”.
If, as T&G claim, things such as mind, self and choice can’t be understood as composite phenomena, this implies they are essential, indivisible elements of reality. They say
T&G often appeal to the way things seem to us about the mind and self, verging perilously close to an argument from appearances. But of course the seeming simplicity of such things as pains, selves and choices as we experience them can’t be taken at face value. Our experience, assuming we even agree that it conveys the impression of non-compositionality (and we may not, as Melnyk points out with regard to the self), might not reflect reality accurately. This again is the point about there being no privileged data, and no “first person” data at all. Further, T&G are mistaken to declare, as in the first quote above, that compositional explanations won't work for what we can now see is our real explanatory target: the seeming simplicity of these things. In fact, the seeming intrinsicality and non-compositionality of qualia such as pain, and the experience of a seemingly indivisible self, are targets of a fairly advanced research program in cognitive neuro-philosophy, one that seeks explanations in systems with many parts and levels, see here for one example. Instead of resting content with an argument from appearances, naturalists seek to explain appearances when it appears, as it does in the case of subjective experience, that they don’t necessarily get reality right.
In his opening essay, Melnyk argues that dualistic explanations of such things as mind, choice and purpose are less economical than physicalist explanations since they posit a host of irreducible entities and events that exist in parallel to the physical world. Moreover, dualism can’t explain the obvious dependence of the mental on the physical (no consciousness without a brain), and necessarily leaves obscure how these two basic categories of existence interact, as they must if the mental is to control the physical. In contrast, monistic naturalism needs only the material universe of particles, fields and forces to explain higher-level mental phenomena via reduction and emergence operating over physically instantiated parts. (In passing we should note that naturalistic explanatory resources aren’t limited to the physical and chemical levels, as T&G sometimes seem to think, but include biological, functional, representational and behavioral levels as well.) Of course, it isn’t as if naturalistic accounts of consciousness, intention, self and volition are entirely in hand, so the naturalist offers a promissory note, admitting there’s lots of work yet to be done. But the promised explanations will, if achieved, be transparent and reliable. Transparency and reliability come from having specified and verified the existence of all entities, mechanisms, and events that participate in the explanation, such that there’s nothing mysterious or ad hoc involved. We can place our predictive bets about the world with confidence.
T&G respond by saying that Melnyk’s naturalistic philosophical commitment to physicalism has in effect eliminated the very things – the fundamental first person data about dualistic choice, consciousness, purpose and self – that need explaining. They say he’s buying theoretical economy at the cost of denying indubitable posits about the world. But as argued above, this charge can’t be sustained, except insofar as certain intuitions about the self and its choices are indeed ruled out under a science-based naturalism. The immaterial soul and its contra-causal free will are necessarily eliminated from a naturalistic ontology, one which takes science and empiricism as definitive in deciding what’s real, since there’s no good intersubjective evidence for them. It’s the naturalist’s cognitive commitment to good science as the basis for belief that drives the denial of the soul, not a pre-existing commitment to a monistic ontology. Allegiance to science is prima facie rational, since it’s intersubjectively established beliefs that have proven the most reliable, by far.
T&G also respond by claiming that the complexity of a dualistic universe isn’t a problem for their explanatory scheme, which ultimately holds that god created both the mental and physical realms. They say:
The extraordinary simplicity and economy of the theistic explanation, however, violates other commonly accepted criteria of explanatory adequacy, criteria which confer transparency. First of all, god, for whom creating a complex, dualist universe is a simple matter, is a patent unexplained explainer. Such are not permitted in science since they get us nowhere in our understanding. As Melnyk points out later in the debate, there’s no explanatory gain in positing a creator of what you’re seeking to explain, since you’re just postponing the explanatory work: “…we can always ask why God decided to create so-and-so, and explaining why God decided to create so-and-so (rather than such-and-such) looks no easier than explaining the phenomenon we started with--why so-and-so exists.” We might add here the obvious but perfectly legitimate stumper: from whence came god?
Second, a creator god, curiously enough, turns out to have just those characteristics and motives necessary to explain the kind of world T&G’s indefeasible first person data reveal: a “good reality” containing simple selves and uncaused free wills that human beings can use (or not – it’s ultimately up to them) to glorify the creator. God-the-explainer is fitted to what needs explaining: he’s beneficent enough to have made reality good and the soul immortal, and smart enough to have given us contra-causal free will, without which he would get the blame for evil. But in good scientific practice there must be independent and sufficient evidence for everything which participates in an explanation, or at least good grounds to suppose such evidence is forthcoming. Even if it were the case that freely willing souls existed, it would still be illegitimately ad hoc to posit just the right sort of creator to produce them without adducing other good intersubjective evidence for his existence and his specific characteristics. It would be as if a neurophilosopher claimed to have solved the binding problem of consciousness by saying there's an “object synthesizer” in the brain that has just those functional properties that allow it to amalgamate the separate streams of perceptual input (visual, tactile, auditory) into the coherent objects of ordinary experience. Unless he also produced evidence for its existence, location and workings, no one would give him the time of day. A transparent explanation, at least for naturalists, can’t have gaping holes, filled with unexplained, ad hoc explainers. If some things currently escape explanation, so be it; that simply makes life more interesting.
At the heart of T&G’s explanatory scheme is the idea that existence has as its raison d’etre the working out of a benevolent intention, that of the creator. They contrast this with the naturalistic presumption of cosmic purposelessness:
Many might find psychological comfort in knowing that there’s something essentially personal and well-disposed toward us at the heart of things, that we participate in something essentially good. Wanting stories like this to be true is only human, perhaps. But of course T&G can’t and won’t admit that this is what’s driving their theory, with its indefeasible first person data, its many dualisms, its dismissal of the possibilities of reductionism, its unexplained explainers, and its mysterious influence of the mental over the physical. Yet their departures from good philo-scientific practice can best be explained, I think, as a function of putting the desideratum of a purposive reality above the desiderata of explanatory transparency, evidential reliability and cognitive coherence.
In their final installment, the last of the debate, T&G try to rebut the appearance that it’s their philosophical commitments and life hopes that drive their empirical claims:
But from whence comes this general ontology? Well, it gets sketched in this last installment in order to defend their claim that an agent’s mental power is uncaused, and thus irreducible and ultimate. They introduce, for the first time in the debate, a number of definitions, distinctions and claims about the nature of mind, choice and agency, none of which are backed up by empirical considerations. In short, they generate a brief philosophical blizzard, unrebuttable by Melnyk (since he doesn’t get to respond), designed to suggest that there are good conceptual grounds, along with first person data, to support belief in contra-causal free will.
I’ll leave readers to judge for themselves the cogency and plausibility of T&G’s general ontology, but whether or not it succeeds, it's meant to reinforce the impression that theirs is a principled undertaking, not an elaborate rationalization for what they most want to be the case. Still, it’s hard to shake the psychological suspicion, since their theistic conclusions so obviously conform to widespread human hopes for security, immortality, a god-like power of choice, and participation in a cosmic plan that gives existence ultimate meaning.
Naturalists would like to think that they are subject to no such motivational biases: our commitment is first and foremost to the objective story about things using the most reliable methods, whatever unpleasant truths might be revealed. But we must also admit that this commitment isn’t infallible; we too might fall into the trap of reading into existence what we most would like to find. Some naturalists very much don’t want to find god, preferring instead a wild, inscrutable universe, one that gives human beings freedom to formulate their own deepest idiosyncratic purposes. Acknowledging such desires helps to keep naturalists from prejudicing the philo-scientific enterprise. That enterprise is driven by an equally human desire, not for security or freedom, but for reliable, comprehensive knowledge.
The Mind and Will debate is presumptively rational, in that neither side is arguing from faith or is deliberately trying to mislead. But the two sides are as far apart at the end as at the beginning, which suggests deep differences in assumptions and explanatory strategies. We’ve explored some of these: disagreements about the explanatory potential of dualism, about the epistemic status of intuitions and data, and about what counts as good explanation.
The theists don’t seem particularly worried about a basic problem for dualism – how the mental and physical domains interact – while for naturalists this is a major shortcoming. T&G take the “first person data” of our metaphysical intuitions as fundamental and incorrigible; Melnyk, hewing to standard philo-scientific practice, does not. He and other naturalists will instead wait, impatiently, for what the best theory decides (provisionally) is the case. In developing the theory, some fairly strict criteria of explanatory adequacy rule, at least for naturalists, and they rule because they result in transparent, reliable and unifying explanations, what naturalists most want. In particular, no unexplained, ad hoc explainers are allowed to fill explanatory gaps. God, when appealed to as a creator, is perhaps the foremost example of an unexplained explainer (contra-causal free will is a close second). That theists suppose they are making explanatory progress by appealing to a creator differentiates them starkly from naturalists. This shouldn’t surprise us, however, since to find god at the end of investigation is perhaps what theists most want, more than explanatory transparency.
Should theists reply that they are not being driven to their metaphysical conclusions by a desire for god and a beneficent, purposeful cosmos, that instead theirs is a rational, perhaps even empirical undertaking, this of course lessens the gap between them and naturalists. To the extent that faith and foregone conclusions are taken out of theology, it necessarily moves closer to science. But – and here’s the rub for theists – once they start playing the rational-empirical philo-scientific explanatory game, they have to defend any departures from the rules as they’ve evolved over the last few centuries. Taliaferro and Goetz, as well as John Haught (see here) do indeed depart significantly from standard philo-scientific practice in ways that, naturalists believe, weaken their claims about reality. Still, naturalists have to concede there’s a bare possibility they might be right in some methodological respects yet to be determined, since after all science and philosophy are self-critical. But whether they are right or not is for the philo-scientific process to adjudicate, since there’s no higher court of appeal.
It’s unlikely, given our tribal nature and the diversity of human personalities, that people will ever come to agree on matters of politics, religion and worldviews. So coexistence, preferably peaceful, is the only option. Engaging in a debate where the possibility is kept alive that minds might change could keep the collision of worldviews from becoming a conflagration, even if minds never do change. We look forward to Round 2.
TWC August 2007
 One wonders if dualism can ever be a satisfactory conclusion to empirical inquiry, although some naturalists, such as philosopher David Chalmers (a self-described naturalistic dualist), pessimistically suppose the best we can likely do is discover the brute psycho-physical laws that describe mental-physical correlations.