As I’ve been blogging Keith Ward’s recent book The Big Questions in Science and Religion, I’ve also been reading Naturalism by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. The book, in essence, argues that strict naturalism is opposed not merely to a dualist view of human beings, but to theism.
Many of the same issues that plague Ward’s discussion of this topic appear here, only in far worse form. At one point the authors, after quoting Jaegwon Kim on mental causation of bodily movements, write “For the most part, we will simply assume in this chapter that causation of physical events by teleologically explained mental events, which is the ultimate target of the causal closure argument, is causation by events involving souls” (p.29).
Their argument seems to me to be the equivalent of arguing that a computer must have a soul, because the computer can open the CD drive. Of course, they would probably respond that in such a case the computer has been programmed to be able to do that. But isn’t there good reason to believe that the human brain, which has some abilities “hardwired” at birth, is capable of being “programmed” – what, in popular parlance, is referred to as learning?
The questions of interiority, qualia, experience, and spontaneity are important ones, but they are not the same as the question of causing motion through “mental events”.
The analogy between the soul and God plays a key role in the book, and the authors are concerned that, unless one leave room for the human soul, then a divine personal agent acting in the world will lose its plausibility at the same time. As I said in an earlier post, it seems better to reason from the known to the unknown, and to use our (clearly rudimentary, partial and inadequate) understanding of the human “mind” in thinking about God, rather than vice versa.
The authors are quite correct in highlighting our uncertainty about key issues: “We remain radically in the dark about how consciousness might emerge as something physical from nonconscious, nonmental parts” (p.76). The key question at this stage cannot be “Has science explained subjective human experience?” but only “Has science provided evidence that strongly suggests that our subjective experience arises as an emergent phenomenon from brain activity?”
The book’s attempt to begin with consciousness as the fundamental, ultimate reality has a long history in both Western and Eastern thought (pp.83-85). But all those systems of thought were formulated before our modern understanding of the brain, and it should not be surprising if new information required longstanding notions to be rethought. Nonetheless, the authors’ point seems fair when they write that “The conflict between naturalism and theism is not a matter of different scientific theories of events within the cosmos, but of conflicting overall philosophies of the cosmos itself” (p.102).
Finally, I have reached the conclusion that positing the existence of God does not help much with moral reasoning. The fundamental problem in ethics is how one gets from “is” to “ought”. And if there is a personal God who is eternal and has certain values, it would seem that this is still only an is statement. The deity in question may have the power to punish all who fail to adhere to the divine values, but they are still values that merely happen to be the values of the deity. There is nothing that turns them into values one “ought” to hold to, unless the desire to avoid punishment is felt to be a sufficient basis for adhering to a certain morality. Positing either God or the soul may or may not help us make sense of our own experience, but neither allows us to sidestep the Euthyphro dilemma, which asks whether right and wrong are defined by the gods or are universal principles to which the gods themselves are subject.