J. P. Moreland on Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism
A review of The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism
Apart from what Alvin Plantinga has called creative anti-realism, the two main philosophical options for many of us in the West are some version of naturalism and some version of Judeo-Christian theism. As its title indicates, J. P. Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (SCM Press, 2009) supports the theistic position by way of a penetrating critique of naturalism and such associated doctrines as scientism. Moreland briefly discusses creative anti-realism in the guise of postmodernism on pp. 13-14, but I won’t report on that except to say that his arguments against it, albeit brief, are to my mind decisive. Section One of this review will present in some detail Moreland’s conception of naturalism and what it entails. Sections Two and Three will discuss his argument from consciousness for the existence of God. Section Four will ever so briefly report on the contents of the rest of the book. Numbers in parentheses are page references. Words and phrases enclosed in double quotation marks are quotations from Moreland. Inverted commas are employed for mentioning and ‘scaring.’
I What is Naturalism?
Moreland views contemporary naturalism as consisting of an epistemology, an etiology, and a general ontology.
A. The epistemology of naturalism is (weak or strong) scientism with its concomitant rejection of first philosophy. Strong scientism is the view that "unqualified cognitive value resides in science and nothing else." (6) Weak scientism allows nonscientific subjects some cognitive value, but holds that "they are vastly inferior to science in their epistemic standing . . . ." (6) On either weak or strong scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary. The method of explanation allied to this scientistic epistemology is combinatorial and third-personal. It is combinatorial in that every complex entity is to be understood as a combination of simpler entities. Whether this enormously fruitful approach, which resolves wholes into parts and complexes into simples, can work for types of unity such as consciousness is one of the key issues in the debate. The scientistic method of explanation is third-personal in that first-personal "ways of knowing" are eschewed in favor of third-personal ways. (8)
B. The etiology or "Grand Story" of naturalism is an event-causal account of how everything came to be, spelled out in the natural-scientific terms of physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology. There are three main features of the Grand Story. The first is that the event-causal account must proceed bottom-up, as is done in the atomic theory of matter and in evolutionary biology, not top-down. A second feature is "scientistic philosophical monism" according to which everything falls under the aegis of the methods of natural science. As monistic in this sense, naturalism is most consistently understood to entail strong physicalism, the view that everything is "fundamentally matter, most likely, elementary ‘particles’ (whether taken as points of potentiality, centers of mass/energy, units of spatially extended stuff/waves, or . . . ) organized in various ways according to the laws of nature." (9) If a naturalist fights shy of this strong physicalism, in the direction of admitting supervenient or emergent entities, he will nonetheless have to maintain, if he is to remain a naturalist, that all additions to his ontology in excess of what strong physicalism allows must be rooted in and dependent upon the physical items of the Grand Story. The third feature of naturalism’s Grand Story is that its account of things, because it is event-causal, must reject both agent-causal and irreducibly teleological explanations. Fundamentally, the only allowable explanations are "mechanical and efficient-causal." (9) A corollary is that the Grand Story is both diachronically and synchronically deterministic. Diachronically, in that the state of the universe at a given time together with the laws of nature determines or fixes the chances for the state of the universe at later times. Synchronically, in that the properties and changes of macro-wholes are determined by and dependent upon micro-events.
C. The general ontology of naturalism countenances only those entities that figure in a completed physics or are "dependent on and determined by the entities of physics. . . ." (6) There are three main features of naturalism’s general ontology. The first is that the only admissible entities are those "knowable by third-person scientific means." (10) The second feature is that it must be possible, with respect to any entity admitted into the general ontology, to show how it had to arise by chains of event causation in which micro-entities combine to form increasingly complex aggregates. The third feature of naturalism’s general ontology concerns supervenience/emergence. The idea is that anything admitted in excess of the entities of physics, chemistry, and biology must be shown to be determined by and depend upon (whether with metaphysical or nomological necessity) natural-scientific entities.
Moreland grants that a naturalist can stray ‘upwards’ from strong physicalism by admitting emergent properties, but in only two senses of ‘emergence.’ A feature is emergent0 if it can be deduced from its base. Moreland gives the example of fractals. For a simpler example, my own, consider the weight of a stone wall. Its weight can be computed (and thus deduced) from the weights of its constituent stones. Suppose the wall has a weight that is utterly novel: nothing in the history of the universe before this wall came into existence had its exact weight. The property of weighing 1000.6998236 lbs, say, despite its utter novelty, is innocuously emergent and surely no threat to naturalism’s epistemology or Grand Story or ontology. Ordinary structural properties are emergent1. The property of being water, for example, is structural in that it is "identical to a configurational pattern among the subvenient entities," (10) in this case atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. Structural emergent properties are also easily countenanced by naturalists. But there are five other types of emergent entities that according to Moreland are beyond the naturalist pale: sui generis epiphenomenal properties; sui generis properties which induce causal liabilities in the things that have them; sui generis properties that induce active causal powers in the things that have them; emergent egos which are consciously active and rational; emergent egos which are conscious, active, and rational and are rights-possessors.
With the exception of the first two types of emergence, emergent entities, whether properties or substances, "defy naturalist explanation and they provide confirmation for biblical theism construed as a rival to naturalism." (11-12) Human persons in particular "are recalcitrant facts for naturalism and provide evidence for Judeo-Christian monotheism." (14) At this point I need to register a misgiving I have over Moreland’s use of ‘emergence.’ On his way of thinking, human persons are emergent entities, albeit ones that cannot be accommodated by naturalism. But I should think that, because Moreland’s purpose is to "provide confirmation for biblical theism," human persons and "suitably unified mental egos" (11) are precisely the opposite of emergent. If persons are created by God in his image, then they do not emerge since what emerges emerges ‘from below,’ from suitably organized material configurations. But it all depends on how we will use ‘emergence.’ There is an innocuous sense of the term according to which an entity emerges just in case it manifests itself or comes into being. Apparently this is the way Moreland uses the word. But in its philosophically pregnant sense, ‘emergence’ is a theoretical term, a terminus technicus, that always implies that that which emerges has an origin ‘from below,’ from matter, and never ‘from above,’ from spirit or mind. (See the opening paragraph of Timothy O'Connor's SEP article, Emergent Properties.) I suggest we use it as a technical term, but Moreland is of course free to disagree.
II The Argument From Consciousness for the Existence of God
Finite consciousness exists. But naturalism is "utterly incapable in principle" (16) of explaining it. Moreland concludes that "the existence of God is the best explanation for finite examples of consciousness in creatures such as humans and various animals." (16) This is the gist of Moreland’s argument from consciousness (AC) for the existence of God. Here, verbatim, is Moreland’s argument in formal dress:
1. Genuinely non-physical mental states exist.
2. There is an explanation for the existence of mental states.
3. Personal explanation is different from natural scientific explanation.
4. The explanation for the existence of mental states is either a personal or natural scientific explanation.
5. The explanation is not a natural scientific one.
6. The explanation is a personal one.
7. If the explanation is personal, then it is theistic.
8. The explanation [for the existence of mental states] is theistic. (22-23)
This deductive version of AC is plainly valid. Let us consider what can be said in support of the premises.
Ad (1). Pace eliminativism, it is an undeniable datum that there are mental states, but why should we think that they are "genuinely non-physical"? Why couldn’t they be identical to physical states? There are a number of well-known reasons why token-token mental-physical identity is untenable. One reason is that, to put it in my own way, some mental states have a Feiglian raw feel and a Nagelian ‘what -it-is-like’ that it makes no sense to ascribe to physical states. The felt quality of a pain, for example, is no attribute of any brain state. By the Indiscernibility of Identicals, if two items are numerically identical, then they must share all properties. Since felt painfulness is a property of pains but not of physical states, no pain can be identical to any physical state. At most, pains are correlated with physical states, but identity is not correlation. A second reason, which also invokes the Indiscernibility of identicals, is that physical states are in space while there is no clear sense in which mental states are in space. A third reason is that some mental states such as beliefs are true or false, while it makes no sense to ascribe a truth value to any physical event or state or process. A fourth reason is that some mental states exhibit intentionality: they are intrinsically characterized by directedness to an accusative which may or may not exist, or, in the case of propositional accusatives, may or may not be true. But nothing like this is the case for any physical state: as Moreland puts it, "physical states aren’t about anything." (21) (But aren’t dispositional states physical states that are about something in a manner closely analogous to the way conscious intentional states are about something? See my post Intentionality, Potentiality, and Dispositionality: Some Points of Analogy.) A fifth reason is that mental states, quite unlike physical states, are private and accessible only in a first-person way to the one who experiences them.
Ad (2). It is undeniable that there are mental states and that they cannot be reduced to physical states. But why must there be an explanation for their existence? On this point Moreland doesn’t have much to say beyond "the appearance of mental entities and their regular correlation with physical entities are puzzling phenomena that cry out for explanation." (24)
Ad (3). If there are irreducible mental states, and they require explanation, then the explanation must be either personal or natural-scientific. A personal explanation of an event is an explanation in terms of the irreducible purposes of an irreducible agent. Let the event be Wesson’s moving of his trigger finger. A natural-scientific explanation of this event could invoke nothing other than mechanistic event-causes operating according to natural laws. A personal explanation, by contrast, does not specify a mechanism but cites an agent with various abilities, the agent’s basic action, together with his intentions and purposes. Thus Wesson’s moving of his trigger finger would be explained, roughly, by saying that Wesson, with the end in view of causing Smith’s death, agent-caused the basic action of his moving of his finger. (23-24)
Ad (4). This premise states that the explanation of mental states is either personal or natural-scientific. Is this perhaps a false alternative? Moreland considers Colin McGinn’s mysterianism and panpsychism as third possibilitites but plausibly dismisses both. (36-40)
Ad (5). According to the fifth premise, the explanation of mental states is not a natural-scientific one. Moreland adduces four reasons. The first concerns the uniformity of nature. On naturalism, the appearance of mind is inexplicable because there is no accounting for why consciousness arises here, in brains like ours, and not in the rest of nature. Everywhere nature is the same: just myriads of physico-chemical reactions of various sorts. In general, such reactions do not produce consciousness. But they do in brains. This fact goes unexplained on naturalism. In some regions of space, non-spatial consciousness arises. Why in some regions but not in others? (24-25) I would add that even in our brains, not everything going on there manifests consciousness. Some brain states do and some don’t. How does naturalism account for that?
Moreland’s second reason has to do with the contingency of the mind/body correlation. It is a contingent fact that we are conscious at all, as the conceivability of zombies seems to show, and specific mind-brain correlations are contingent as well. (There is of course the question whether conceivability entails possibility, and in a fuller treatment Moreland would have to confront this question.) So, "Given the requirement of causal necessitation for naturalistic causal explanations, there is in principle no naturalistic explanation for either the existence of mental states or their regular correlation with physical states." (25)
Moreland’s third reason concerns the causal closure of the physical domain, a principle to which naturalists are committed. The idea is that physical events have only physical causes: trace the causal ancestry of any physical event and you will never have to leave the physical domain. The naturalist is committed to this principle since its rejection would imply the impossibility of a complete and comprehensive physical account of all physical phenomena. Now given that there are mental states, and that they are genuinely nonphysical (see ad (1) above), it follows from the causal closure principle that mental events are epiphenomena: they have causes but no effects in the physical domain. For if genuinely nonphysical mental events had effects in the physical domain, then not every physical event would have only physical events in its causal ancestry, which would be a violation of causal closure. But mental causation is an undeniable fact, and so epiphenomenalism is false. It follows that naturalism, with its commitment to causal closure, cannot explain the existence of mental events.
The fourth reason why naturalism cannot explain mental events hinges on the inadequacy of evolutionary explanations. What evolutionary explanation could there be for the very existence of consciousness? As Moreland points out, "the functions organisms carry out consciously could just as well have been done unconsciously. Thus, both the the sheer existence of conscious states and the precise mental content that constituted them is outside the pale of evolutionary explanation." (26-27)
From the foregoing five premises, Moreland concludes that the explanation for the existence of mental phenomena must be personal. And assuming, as Moreland does at line (7), that if the explanation is personal, then it is theistic, he concludes that the best explanation for the existence of mental phenomena in beings like us is theistic.
III The Argument from Consciousness Evaluated
What should we say in evaluation of this argument? Suppose you are an atheist, one who believes that a God of the sort that Moreland envisages either does not or cannot exist. Perhaps some version of the argument from evil convinces you of the falsity of theism, or the evil argument in conjunction with others. Which premise or premises would it be reasonable for you to deny? To deny (1) would be to bite on granite. But why accept (2)? Why accept that there must be an explanation for the existence of mental states? I myself think that (2) is more reasonably accepted than rejected, but surely it is not as luminous to the intellect as (1), and if I were an atheist who was convinced , by the argument from evil say, of the nonexistence of God, then I would be within my epistemic rights in demanding to know why mental states could not simply exist as a matter of brute fact. Could they not just exist without explanation, natural-scientific or otherwise? Moreland makes a very powerful case, to my mind a crushingly powerful case, that they do not have a natural-scientific explanation. I would go further and claim that they cannot have such an explanation. (If a naturalist pins his hopes on future science, a science that can do what contemporary science manifestly cannot do, then I say our naturalist does not know what he is talking about when he bandies about the phrase ‘future science.’ He is merely gesturing in the direction of he knows not what. He is simply asseverating that somehow science will someday have all the answers. That’s as ‘theological’ as the assurance that, though now we see through a glass darkly, later we will see face to face. What do faith and hope have to do with science? Furthermore, why should anyone hope to have it proven to him that he is nothing more than a complex physical system?) But of course it does not follow from the fact that mental states have no naturalistic explanation that they have a personal explanation: they might have no explanation. For me (5) is as difficult to deny as (1), but (2) seems reasonably deniable. It is reasonably deniable so long as Moreland cannot show that they must have an explanation. And if I were an atheist, I would be tempted to say to Moreland: "You accept that God’s existence is without explanation, so in principle you cannot have any objection to states of affairs that obtain without explanation; why then can’t this be the case as regards mental states in us?"
As for premise (7), why must we think that a personal explanation is a theistic, i.e., monotheistic explanation. Could not a personal explanation be polytheistic?
An atheist could also be expected to raise the following objection. "You demand an explanation for the existence of mental states, and you argue that this explanation cannot be natural-scientific. This leads you to posit God as explanatory of mental states in us. But God is a mind and presumably enjoys mental states. What then explains the divine mental states? If the divine mental states do not require explanation, then why do ours?
An atheist would also be quick to point out that the argument from consciousness does not support the existence of the very specific God that Moreland accepts. God for Moreland is triune; but for all the AC shows, God could have the radical unicity of Allah. Moreland is out to "provide confirmation for biblical theism construed as a rival to naturalism." (11-12) At best, however, Moreland's critique of naturalism confirms generic theism rather than biblical theism.
I have just listed four possible objections to Moreland’s AC. Although I am sure he has responses, the availability of these and other objections shows that the AC is not rationally compelling. But I don’t consider this much of a defect inasmuch as few if any arguments for substantive philosophical theses are rationally compelling. A rationally compelling argument is one that must be accepted by everyone who understands it on pain of being irrational in the case of non-acceptance. But although the AC is not rationally compelling or 'knock-down' in this stringent sense, it does, I think, render reasonable the belief in something like the Judeo-Christian God. Indeed, it makes it more reasonable to be such a theist than to be a naturalist, at least if the AC is taken together with the rest of Moreland’s arguments.
IV. The Rest of the Book
Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 treat respectively of free will, rationality, the substantial soul, and objective morality. There is a wealth of material here that cannot be adequately summarized in a few pages. The book concludes with an appendix entitled "Dismissive Naturalism: Responding to Nagel’s Last Stand." (165-180). Nagel’s position is a serious competitor to Moreland’s but I cannot discuss it here.
All in all, Moreland’s is an impressive achievement. It exhibits two important virtues: well-informed attention to detail combined with systematic sweep. One could build a great course around it in a graduate or upper-level undergraduate seminar.