embrace some version of scientism, holding that modern science is the only or
the chief authority regarding our knowledge of objective reality. And this includes our self-knowledge. At one extreme are eliminative materialists
like Patricia Churchland who dismiss the idea of souls as lazy, defensive,
armchair metaphysics. In her latest
work, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, Churchland’s main message is that
philosophers should get out more, and explore the wonders of empirical
neuroscience. Then they will come to
agree with her: “I think about my brain…as me.” (11) Churchland is quite certain: materialistic
science has got us taped.
naturalists are not so sure. A leading
doubter is Colin McGinn, whose book The Mysterious Flame lays out a position
known as “mysterianism.” McGinn thinks
consciousness must have arisen via evolution, and yet also maintains that none
of the naturalistic accounts of consciousness (especially Churchland’s) is
either plausible or illuminating. Given
that impasse, McGinn’s move is to “doubt the instrument”: our lack of
understanding is due to our cognitive limitations. On McGinn’s view, natural selection did not
gift us with the kind of minds capable of understanding the relationship
between consciousness and the non-conscious world.
Are we really
confined to these two alternatives?
One hopes not, and not just because of the remarkably unproductive
exchange resulting from McGinn’s recent review of Churchland’s book in The New York Review of Books.
For one thing,
both alternatives appear self-defeating.
Churchland prizes empirical science as paradigmatically rational, but
ignores (or rejects) the need for a first-philosophy, which provides the
ontological presuppositions of scientific practice. These presuppositions include that scientists
experience the world and can reason to conclusions about it. But this requires conscious subjects that
think about the world and remain numerically the same through a process of
reasoning, none of which is possible if we are just brains: neuroscience
reveals brain states without subjectivity or intentionality and in constant
flux. If we are no more than such brains, then there is no
scientific rationality and no reason to be a materialist. McGinn thinks that we cannot think reliably
beyond the limits set by the historical, contingent interactions of our species
with nature. But if that were true, as
Thomas Nagel realizes in his Mind and Cosmos, we could not have discovered the
non-contingent norms of rationality to which science itself appeals. McGinn’s claim to know that consciousness
emerged from an evolutionary process depends on our access to rational norms which
(if he is right) are above our epistemic pay grade.
Christian philosophers should be guided by Alvin Plantinga’s celebrated “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” We do not
have to start from an assumption of scientism, but should re-envision the whole
field of philosophical anthropology with the assumption that God is the premier
person and that we are made in His image.
Consciousness does not have to emerge from the physical world, because
it has always been exemplified by God. And human beings are integrated wholes: mind
and body are designed to work together.
But is this just pious hand-waving?
No, there are many promising attempts to work out this idea in
detail. A select list should
include: Richard Swinburne’s Mind, Brain,and Free Will, J. P. Moreland’s Consciousness and the Existence of God, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei and The Soul, Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s A Brief History of the Soul, and eds. Mark Baker and Stewart Goetz’s The Soul Hypothesis. Collectively, these books
show that the soul is not excluded by, but supportive of, scientific
rationality, and solves numerous philosophical problems that beset naturalistic
accounts, including those of Churchland and McGinn.
Labels: advice to Christian philosophers, alvin plantinga, charles taliaferro, contingency, jp moreland, naturalism, patricia churchland, richard swinburne, scientism, soul, stewart goetz, the soul (book), thomas nagel