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.

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  • Angie Van De Merwe

    I want to comment further on this entry…The initial response I have of the “is” and “ought”, is this; Whether one holds to a “god” who is subject to morality or “god” is the instigator of morality, you have the same problem…punishment as a causal force may conform to society’s standards, but that does not necessarily say anything about morality, except that that culture’s values will be enforced by punishment…an immoral culture may be enforcing their values, such as a tyrannical form of government…I want to think more on this…

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    I think the social contract is what our Constitution demands as equality before law. Laws are made to define the society and are meant to define justice as well. But, justice is not found in certain forms of government, this is where our Constitution’s understanding of inalenable rights, as granted by the “creator” is the appeal to the order of governing. And it demands equality of each person before government and limits government’s form because of the need for a balance of power…The ethic of the Golden Rule is the universal of many religious traditions. But, again, religious traditions can be understood in cultic or ethical forms…as man develops his reason to come to understanding of a higher order or ethic…I diagree with reward and punishment as THE way to understand training, development and learning. I believe that when a person comes to an age of accountability that their reason should be engaged first and foremost. There is a question as to whether graatitude to God may be a motivating factor in obedience, if one adheres to a personal “god”.The understanding of the social contract, as it pertains to naturalism, is appealing to self-interest. Each party in the contract negotiates the terms and agrees what is beneficial to their values and priorities….Therefore, not only is the type of government important in coming to understand how to get from “is” to “ought”, but the individual’s values, also are important in addressing what is necessary for a balance of power and proper respect for the parties in an agreed contract. The contract is what maintains our societie’s freedoms, while also maintaining an ordered structuring of behavior expected.

  • John Shuck

    I don’t see why we have to invent a god to inject consciousness from the outside into a soul or whatever. It doesn’t solve any philosophical problems, just puts it back a step (where did the injector come from?) and, in my opinion, serves to strip the sacred away from the material. I am perfectly content with consciousness rising as part of our evolutionary process and fine that we are not sure how. An honest “I don’t know” seems better than inventing a god to answer the question.

  • Tom Clark

    Thanks for this review. For another that’s equally critical, plus an exchange with the authors, see best,Tom ClarkCenter for

  • liberal pastor

    The best book I have read recently on this topic is Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul. Flanagan argues that while consciousness is a neural activity it is uniquely “Janus-faced” because it has both an objective side – neural activity – and a phenomenal side – first-person subjective feel. So while the brain scientist might be able to make the reductionist case that it is all in our head, the subjectively real consciousness that emerges there exercises free will, experiences beauty, and is able to live a meaningful, spiritual, and ethical life.Flanagan sees ethics as a form of ecology. Ecology studies how different life forms flourish in their environments. People wish to flourish. Wisdom teaches us that goodness, love, friendship, taking care of the less fortunate, etc. leads to flourishing. Wisdom teachers like Jesus and Buddha can be rightly revered because they pointed us towards the “truths” regarding what it takes for us to flourish as a species.

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    Thank you liberal pastor!Indded reductionism, whether from science or religion(nerosceince or behavior), limits the unique person. The person is an irreducible complexity, just like the eye, that cannot be known, understood by only one aspect or part. This is why it is important to not judge, for we never know the other’s understandings, reasons, and “issues” (and we all have them). I find it so short=sighted to limit understanding to a text of conformity when the text is an ancient form. Supernaturalism is limiting and prohibitive of diversity. Conformity is the only choice.