Posts

Indignity and indecency: Pascal on human nature

It is in vain, oh men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for all your miseries. All your insight has led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, but they were not able to keep that promise. They do not know what your true good is or what your nature is. How should they have provided you with a cure for ills which they have not even understood? Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God, and sensuality, which binds you to the earth. And they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they have given you God for your object, it has been to pander to your pride. They have made you think you were like him and resemble him by your nature. And those who have grasped the vanity of such a pretension have cast you down in the other abyss by making you believe that your nature is like that of the beast of the field and have led you to seek your good in lust, which is the lot of animals.

Blaise Pascal, The Mind on Fire, ed. James M. Houston (Multnomah Pub, 1989), page 115.

A seamless garment with no holes: human persons and the failure of naturalism

Last year, the release of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology saw a lot of attention. And quite rightly. The Companion marshalled some of most cutting-edge work in the field of the philosophy of religion and showed why natural theology is fast becoming an exciting scholarly domain again. But in the shadow of the Companion‘s release, another of Moreland’s works was published: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. Although it might not have got the same amount of attention, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei also represented an important entry in the contest of ideas and a powerful defense of theism. In it, Moreland argues for the theistic position by way of a stinging attack on naturalism and its failure to answer the problem of consciousness and account for the basic facts of human experience, such as free will, rationality, and intrinsic value.

The problem of consciousness is a deep mystery for philosophers and neuroscientists. This problem is the dilemma of how conscious states (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) arise from physical brain states. Ned Block, the American philosopher at NYU, has said that “researchers are stumped” and that we have “no conception” that enables us to explain subjective experience or conscious life. Colin McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami in the philosophy of mind, says that the emergence of consciousness “strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic”. Even if we are sure that they arise from brains, we do not know the sorts of connections that conscious states (such as “seeing a tree”) have with brain states (such as “there are neurons firing at point A in the brain”). Hard materialists like Daniel Dennett have argued that conscious states are nothing more than brain states and brain behaviour, but Moreland argues that in both science and philosophy, a strict physicalist analysis of consciousness and the self has been breaking down since the mid-1980s.

For Christianity, the existence of such features basic to human experience are not metaphysically strange or inexplicable. For if in the beginning existed a supremely self-aware Being, then it is not difficult to see how consciousness could emerge. And if Christianity were true, Moreland also suggests one would predict that alternative worldviews whose basic entity or entities are not spiritual would find these things we take for granted recalcitrant – that is, hard to explain or explain away. In his book, Moreland shows that this is exactly the case with philosophical naturalism. Because naturalism posits particles at the beginning, one cannot adequately account for consciousness without mounting other reductive or eliminative strategies to explain their emergence. In The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, Moreland looks at these strategies and shows why they fail. Moreland therefore concludes that consciousness, freedom, rationality, a unified/simple self, equal and intrinsic value, and moral action of a certain sort, are all rebutting defeaters for naturalism and evidence for Judeo-Christian monotheism.

Bill Vallicella has written an excellent and thorough review of Moreland’s book, giving a summary of Moreland’s discussion of naturalism and his argument from consciousness for the existence of God.

Formally set out, Moreland’s argument looks like this:

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.

Therefore

6. The explanation is a personal one.

7. If the explanation is personal, then it is theistic.

Therefore

8. The explanation [for the existence of mental states] is theistic.

In his review, Vallicella examines each of the premises, cataloguing additional reasons that Moreland offers in support for them. He writes:

Moreland makes a very powerful case, to my mind a crushingly powerful case, that [mental states] 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?)

While Vallicella acknowledges that there are possible objections to Moreland’s argument (he raises some potential ones himself), he concludes that it renders belief in the Judeo-Christian God reasonable, and when combined with the rest of Moreland’s arguments, demonstrates why theism is more reasonable than naturalism.

It is worth reading his whole review (it can also be found on his own blog here). Also worth looking at is Moreland’s interview about the book on the Evangelical Philosophical Blog from last year (part 1 and 2) and Moreland’s post about the topic on his Amazon blog.

The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, can of course, be picked up on Amazon.

Notes:

“God, Naturalism and the Foundations of Morality” by Paul Copan in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.