Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Naturalisms: Churchland, McGinn and Plantinga’s “Advice for Christian Philosophers”

Many naturalists 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.

Yet some 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.

More positively, 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.

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