Rational Scientific Theories from Theism

Philosophy Approach to Theistic Science

Does naturalism in the cognitive sciences constitute a crisis for theism?

Report on a talk by Professor Alan Torrance

From http://www.datadiwan.de/SciMedNet/templeton/reports/report_dublin.htm

Professor Alan Torrance addressed the question: does naturalism in the cognitive sciences constitute a crisis for theism? Before coming to theism he gave an analysis of what he saw as a challenge, if not a crisis, for the academy in the form of two mutually incompatible approaches:

  1. Naturalism - dominant in the natural sciences. He gave the definition of Roger Trigs that 'reality is wholly accessible (at least in principle) to the natural sciences. Nothing….can exist beyond their reach'. Also Alvin Plantinga: 'there is no God, and we human beings are insignificant parts of a giant cosmic machine that proceeds in majestic indifference to us, our hopes and aspirations, our needs and desires, our sense of fairness, or fittingness'. This approach is typified by Dewey, Quine, Davidson, Dawkins and Dennett among others. Evolutionary naturalism with its central concept of fitness has influenced the social sciences. The determinism implicit in this approach tends to play down agency and creativity.

    The main problems with this approach concern a) the contribution to human fitness of the ability to make such claims and b) the grounds for supposing that these claims are also true.

  2. Enlightenment humanism, creative anti-realism, social constructionism - dominant in the arts and social sciences. With its origins in Kant, this approach maintains that human beings are fundamentally responsible for creating the structure and nature of the world - we are ultimately the architects of the rationality of the universe. Properties of objects are not intrinsic but rather creative human projections. Truth becomes 'the state of play' (Cupitt)

The problem is a crisis of truth, which seems to depend on the proposition that something is true if everyone believes it. This leads to competitive propaganda campaigns. The humanistic or constructive approach, in contrast with naturalism, overplays human creativity.

Professor Torrance regarded both these approaches as deficient when compared with theism. For him theism provided an epistemic base of considerable explanatory power. It explains why there was something rather than nothing, it enables access to truth, it provides an ontological basis for values which can be embodied by human beings, and it explains why the world is intelligible. This position gave rise to considerable debate later on - see below.

He then went on to consider Jaegwon Kim's critique of non-reductive physicalism whereby a mental event M is thought to be responsible for a brain state P* which is its physical realisation. However the brain state P* is in fact caused by and antecedent brain state P, thus making M logically redundant. So physical accounts giving rise to mental descriptions are, according to Rockwell, 'somewhere between being shallow and being outright falsehoods'. Mental descriptions are in fact reduced to epiphenomena because of the physiological processes, so we are back to the problems associated with epiphenomenalism.

So can mental events supervene on causal interactions? Kim argues that no emergent causation (such as downward causation) can exist at all: all causality is explicable in terms of the causal relations between the most basic, sub-atomic components. Causality on this account does not and indeed cannot recognise individual entities of any kind, conscious or non-conscious. Given this view, it is not surprising that Kim concludes his 1998 Philosophy of Mind by saying that consciousness and mental causation are two 'intractable problems'.

Professor Torrance saw a possible third alternative to physicalism and Cartesianism in Nancy Cartwright's pluralistic universe as set out in her 1999 book The Dappled World. Here patterns emerge in physical processes which have genuine causal powers. We are part of a highly complex universe characterised by a 'patchwork of laws'. This position repudiates 'nomological monism' (as in Kim), whereby there is only one type of law governing all events - in his case causal connections between basic particles. Cartwright also rejects the fundamentalist assumption that 'all facts must belong to one grand scheme', which means that the world cannot be explained in terms of the operation of a single kind of causal law. All this will make eminent sense to those familiar with systems theory with its notion of distinct but interlocking levels.

These considerations imply the fundamental question being addressed, namely 'where precisely are causal properties located?' Do they belong exclusively to physical objects? Perhaps the concept of a location to causal properties is itself a category error since causality is about relationships and the systems view implies a much more complex and distributed set of feedback loops than the original Cartesian idea of localised mechanical push.

Professor Torrance concluded that academia is rent between the mutually incompatible fideisms of naturalism and creative anti-realism. He argued that theism can obviate problems associated with these views and that it sustains and justifies the academic search for truth. Physicalism in psychology cannot make sense of thought progression and epiphenomenalism logically hoists psychologists on their own petard. Nomological monism needs to be repudiated since we live in a complex world that is not wholly amenable to reductive, naturalistic explanations. Cognitive science points to the need to reject naturalism and the scientistic fundamentalism of Richard Dawkins. Christian Theism's explanatory power should not be underestimated. It recognises the complexity of selves as subjects not objects, subjects who are free, responsible personal agents who can reason and penetrate the intelligible structures of the world. Theism must also recognise physicality, that emotions can be chemically induced and that mental processes are subject to physical degeneration. This corresponds to a resurrection rather than an intrinsic immortality view, although Professor Torrance did not elaborate on this.

www.TheisticScience.org Author: Ian J. Thompson, Email: IanT at TheisticScience.org