Academic Intervention

Article ID: JAR4325 | By: Angus Menuge

This volume belongs to the “Interventions” series, which aims to confront the prevailing nihilism of the academy with a rigorous, interdisciplinary defense of central theological insights. At the root of much of this nihilism is naturalism—the thesis that the natural world is all there is. Naturalism excludes not only God, but also the soul, undermining the idea of divine and human purpose. Authors Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro intervene by exposing the weaknesses of naturalism, and by defending the coherence of belief in souls and in God. Goetz and Taliaferro are qualified by an impressive record of relevant scholarly publications, but the book is concise and accessible to nonspecialists.

Strict Naturalism and Folk Psychology. Naturalism is not a sharply defined position because there is no consensus on what nature includes. Chapter one explains “strict naturalism,” which rejects the common sense view of an agent’s beliefs and desires as outmoded “folk psychology.” Strict naturalists recognize only the blind, material causes of physical science, concluding there is “no ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of any event…no libertarian freedom of the will…no enduring self or soul of any kind” (p. 13). Teleological (goal-directed) causation is rejected because it violates “the causal closure of the physical world” (28), according to which every physical event has a sufficient physical cause.

Chapter two critiques the causal closure principle, appealing to the renowned neuroscientist Wilder Penfield. Although Penfield had to assume causal closure during his experiments, where bodily movements were produced by stimulating neurons with electrodes, he did not conclude that these movements could not also (on other occasions) be produced by the subject’s mind. Indeed, Penfield himself was a soul-body dualist, partly because “his patients reported being conscious of the distinction between being agents and doing things, and being patients and having things done to them” (35–36). Goetz and Taliaferro also argue that it is “thoroughly reasonable to believe that there can be gaps (causal openness) in the physical world…ultimately explained teleologically.” (38) Here the authors might have helped make their case by explaining why gap arguments need not be arguments from ignorance, as is often assumed.

Goetz and Taliaferro also show the failure of strict naturalism to account for our subjective mental life and even science itself, which is “unintelligible unless persons exist and have observations and thoughts” (50). In an appendix, they develop one version of the argument from reason, showing that naturalists cannot give a credible account of human reasoning, which seems irreducibly teleological. I was a little disappointed that they did not interact with the sophisticated developments of this argument by Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert.

Chapter three defends the soul. Souls appear distinct from physical entities because consciousness is not composed of physical parts. Naturalists claim that souls are too mysterious to explain anything, but Goetz and Taliaferro rightly argue that one can have good grounds for believing that souls causally interact with bodies without knowing how they do so (64), arguing persuasively that “dualism…has more going for it than its critics admit” (70).

Broad Naturalism and Theism. Chapter four addresses “broad naturalism,” which claims our mental and moral lives are not illusions, but can be accounted for in materialist terms (71). Thus John Searle thinks that consciousness “emerges” from the brain just as liquidity emerges from H2O molecules. Goetz and Taliaferro object that “the physical properties…noted by Searle are structurally complex…while properties…of consciousness are not” (73). The overriding problem for naturalism is its implausible reduction of the normative (e.g., moral values) to the purely descriptive. Thus it makes ethical norms contingent on evolutionary history, so that fratricide might have been right (89–90)! By contrast, theists hold that moral values always existed in the mind of God.

Chapter five considers those who claim that God-talk is unintelligible because we can only meaningfully talk about physically embodied agents. Goetz and Taliaferro argue cogently that our thoughts are not limited to spatial objects (101). They also show that given the case for irreducible teleological agency in the human instance, there is no reason to reject divine agency as unintelligible (108–11). They mention “fascinating advances in contemporary neuroscience” (110) as evidence of mental causation, although I wish more had been said to rebut materialists’ use of neuroscience to undermine libertarian free will.

This book makes a strong, concise defense of theism and dualism and responds effectively to the best naturalist critics.

—Angus Menuge

Angus Menuge is Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin, and author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) and of recent articles critiquing a materialist philosophy of mind.