The Material Image: Christian Faith and Scientific Naturalism

Chapter Synopses

Chapter One: Christianity and Scientific Naturalism

Science and Christianity cannot be reconciled by separating science from its naturalistic implications.  Reconciliation lies in realizing that the world as scientific naturalism portrays it is what, from the perspective of the Christian faith, we can reasonably expect.  Christians can faithfully and honestly embrace scientific naturalism, defined as the view that science is our best way to know contingent reality, and that science implies that humans are entirely material beings, the product of unguided natural selection.  This calls for neither the attenuation of historical Christian belief nor for exotic additions to the picture of the world on offer from natural science. What is called for is close attention to the implications of science and to the particularities of the Christian faith.

Chapter Two: Knowledge

The first principle of scientific naturalism is the primacy of science as a way to know this world and its inhabitants.  Beliefs, even matters of faith, that conflict with the well-confirmed theories of science are never reasonable.  Science is the most reliable, but not the only route to knowledge.  There are other ways of knowing, but they are constrained by science. The primacy of science as a way of knowing does not deny faith a legitimate role in scientific inquiry, but ultimately, Christianity has empirical content and is vulnerable to scientific refutation.  The nature and scope of human knowledge is limited by our being evolved minds embedded in a world of natural cause and effect. This dispels illusions of certitude and transcendence.

Chapter Three: Miracles

Miracles occur when God acts upon the world, causing what would not occur in the natural course of events.  Miracles do not imply that the well-confirmed theories of science are false, since the laws of nature describe what happens in the natural course of events.  Ordinary empirical experience cannot overturn well-confirmed scientific theories, but it can make it reasonable to subject them to further scientific testing that might disconfirm them.  Analogously, ordinary experience can make it reasonable to suspect that a miracle has occurred.  Miracles are indispensable for the Christian faith: God’s aim was persons distinct from, and capable of communion with, God.  God and created persons can interact only if he acts upon them directly, intervening to bring about what would not have occurred in the natural course of events. Reasonable belief in the miraculous pertains to particular divine actions in human history; it does not compete with scientific explanation.  We can make a principled distinction, denying divine intervention in nature and affirming it in history.  Mere absence of natural explanation does not make belief in miracles reasonable.  One must already reasonably believe that there might be a God who might intervene in that way.  Abstract metaphysical considerations make that belief reasonable, and this in turn can make it reasonable to believe that the miracles central to Christian faith occurred, and thus that God actually exists.

Chapter Four: Origins

If evolutionary theory is true, and the laws of nature are indeterministic, then human beings were not designed by God.  No wise creator deploys chancy means to achieve specified results.  It is essential to the Christian faith that God created the world and its human inhabitants.  If it is also essential that God designed the human species, then faith conflicts with science.  But Christians have good reason to sever creation from design.  God, intending there to be persons distinct from their Creator, would choose not to design them.  Design precludes the distinctness that personhood requires.  A Creator with the purposes revealed in Christian faith would rely on indeterministic natural processes, reliably realizing general goals but leaving specific outcomes to chance.  From the Christian perspective, evolutionary theory’s account of our origins is what we should expect and welcome.  Human beings were not created miraculously, but the universe was created for our sake: we are the material image of the transcendent God, creatures given the vocation of sharing the life and work of the Creator.

Chapter Five: Mind

Human beings are material things.  There is no non-physical human mind or soul.  The mind is the functioning brain.  Ordinary experience joins with contemporary science in strong support of this materialist view.  The Bible provides no good reason to doubt it.  Resistance to the materialist conception of human nature can manifest an inflated self-image, a refusal to accept that we are creatures, not transcendent beings but things that can be objectified and explained.  The mind is not reducible to physical reality, but this shows our superficiality in created reality; it is no mark of human uniqueness or a surrogate for transcendence.  What is finally important about human beings is not how we are made—we are mere material objects contingently assembled by mindless natural selection—but the fact that we have been created for fellowship with our Creator.

Chapter Six: Freedom

Whatever freedom and responsibility is possible for human beings must be compatible with our being fully implicated in a natural world governed by causal laws.  All human choices and actions are effects of causes that occurred deep in the past.  We are not the ultimate originators of our actions.  Nonetheless our actions can be the effects of our own, reflectively considered and endorsed beliefs and desries: our reasons.  This responsiveness to reasons, not a radical freedom impossible for material creatures, is what personal relationship with other created persons, and with God, requires.  God, bringing the initial universe into being and authoring its causal laws, is the first cause of all human actions.  If those laws were deterministic, then all our choices and actions would be what God intended; we could not have meaningful freedom and responsibility.  Because the laws of nature are indeterministic, the conditions for human freedom and responsibility can be satisfied.  Yet God remains the most remote cause of all we do, so God and humans share responsibility for what humans do.  God never abandons his creation, but incarnate and crucified, assumes responsibility for it.

Chapter Seven: Morality

Human beings have innate dispositions to altruism, to care about, and cooperate with one another, even when doing so is not in one’s interests.  Evolutionary psychology explains this as an adaptation to social life.  Altruism, morality’s core, is the product of our ancestors’ metaphorically selfish genes.  There is a mistaken idea that this debunks morality by revealing that human altruism is not genuine.  A genuine debunking threat arises because the evolutionary theory implies that moral facts are not features of objective reality, but projected upon it by the human mind.  Moral truth is not relative to individuals or to cultures, but it is relative to the human species.   Conjoined with the view, congenial to scientific naturalism, that reasons to act are always grounded in human desires, not in objective reality, this implies that evolution has equipped us with a false belief: moral facts give us reasons to act that are independent of our interests.  Morality’s hold on us depends finally only on our evolved moral sentiments.  Science reveals morality as fully human, not divine, transcendent, or even rooted in a reality independent of us.  Science does not debunk morality, but it dethrones it.  An intimate connection of morality to God has long seemed obvious, but science makes possible an understanding of God’s relation to morality that better coheres with the Christian faith.   The demands of morality partially overlap what God cares about: God loves human beings and wants what is best for them, and morality generally prescribes good treatment of human beings.  God condescends, making use of the natural morality with which evolution has equipped us insofar as it serves his purposes, but also putting it under critical judgment.  The Fall and Original Sin, traditionally conceived in moral terms, can be better articulated once science puts morality in its properly human place.

Chapter Eight: Religion

Evolutionary theory explains human religiosity, but not as an adaptation.  In contrast to its explanation of morality, it portrays religion as an accidental by-product of the interaction of our evolved capacities.  Humans are innately disposed to believe in unseen agents on the basis of minimal evidence.  This, the cognitive theory of religion, has a clear debunking potential: it claims to explain our propensity to religious beliefs without assuming those beliefs are true. We would believe whether or not the unseen agents of religion exist.  Such beliefs are, at face value, unreasonable.  Christians can try to sidestep the debunking effect by contending that the theory uncovers the sensus Divinitatis, an innate inclination to belief with which the Creator has endowed us.  This account should be rejected, since it relies on divine design.  God’s relation to human religiosity is best cast as analogous to his relation to human morality.  God accommodates himself to our natural religiosity, making use of it even as he subjects it to judgment and ultimately dispenses with it.  This enables us to make sense of the ambivalence toward religion found in both the Bible and Christian theology.

Chapter Nine: Last Things

Despite the weight of evidence in favor of a materialist account of human nature, many Christians adhere to a dualism of body and mind (or soul), on the ground that otherwise the resurrection is impossible.  But a naturalistic understanding of the identity through time of  material persons allows for the possibility of supernatural resurrection with no need for an immaterial soul existing between death and resurrection.  This account is susceptible to paradoxes of transitivity but they have force only if there must always be an objective fact as to whether a human being exists.  But humans belong to the surface of reality, existing only because chancy natural processes have assembled basic physical things in a particular way; therefore there need not always be a fact of the matter about our existence.  The Christian claim that God resurrects finite persons to everlasting life gives rise to various objections, but they can be answered by focusing on the fact that the future life is not mere infinitely extended existence, but created persons’ sharing in the life and work of their Creator.

There now exists an essentially complete manuscript of the Material Image: The Christian Faith and Scientific Naturalism. If you would like to read some or all of the chapters, contact me: wacomeATnwciowaDOTedu.

Thanks Adolf!


I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to Adolf Hitler.

Not to say that I approve of the man and his works.  One of leftist statism’s worst manifestations was National Socialism, but I loathe it in all its forms, even the mild version that now labels itself progressivism.

Still, honesty requires that I acknowledge that I owe der Fuhrer my existence. If not for him, I would not be here. Of course, all he was after was Lebensraum in the lands to the east.  Setting the stage for me was an unintended consequence.

The same is true for many persons of my generation and thus for our children and grandchildren.  If Hitler had not ordered the invasion of Poland, and started the Second World War, the United States would not have eventually entered that war, my maternal grandfather would not have been transferred to Boston, his daughter would not have met my father to be, they would not have married and procreated, and I would not have existed.  Of course, even if all of this had happened, but things had then gone just slightly differently in any number of ways, I still would not have existed.

Right from the start: Which spermatozoon reaches the ovum, and thus which of a large set of possible siblings comes into existence is, it appears, a matter of chance—the little swimmers buffeted by Brownian motion.

Wars set large numbers of people in motion, in which case people meet, marry, and reproduce, so over the course of human history many owe their existence to the evil men who start them.

Of the vast number of possible human beings, only a very few get to be actual.  You and I are, let’s face it, astoundingly improbable.  Getting to be actual depends on a very long sequence of contingent, improbable events.  Suppose that your great, great, great maternal grandmother had not caught that gentleman’s eye…they would not have married and none of their descendants would have ever existed.  Had they not met, probably many other persons who do not now, and never will, exist would have existed instead

Early modern science taught us to look out into the unimaginable vastness of space and contemplate how small we are in comparison.   Contemporary science adds to this the realization that each of us, and all of us, and most everything actual, occupies a vanishingly small space in a vast space of possibilities.

Maybe, this drastic improbability is illusory: although it’s true that if things had gone a bit differently, then I would not exist, it’s also true that things could not have gone differently.  Given the world’s laws and initial conditions, everything Adolf got up to in the middle of the 20th century was what had to happen, and all the effects of his aggression followed necessarily, so here I am.  Given what happened 13.76 billion years ago, I was in the cards and eventually guaranteed to appear.  This depends, though, on the laws of nature being deterministic, which at the very least is not obvious the still standard interpretation of quantum mechanics being that measurement collapses the wave function stochastically.  Only the general shape of the development of the universe was more or less guaranteed, the specifics left to chance.

Even if determinism is true, contingency, and with it our fantastic improbability, is not easy to dispense with.  We still ask why, of all the possible sets of laws and initial conditions, just these are the ones that are actual.  If this, a universe guaranteed to produce you and me, is just one of some vast number of possible universes, then our existence remains wildly improbable.

Maybe, though, these are the only possible laws and initial conditions, this is the only possible world and, bizarre as it seems, “Don Wacome exists” is no more contingent than “2 + 2 = 4.” That’s at least as hard to grasp as my being contingent and astronomically improbable.

Maybe, instead, all the possible sets of laws and initial conditions are actual, and all possible universes exist. Thus all possible persons exist.  Why, though, do all the possible universes, with all their possible inhabitants, exist?  Is this, finally, a matter of necessity, or is it a contingent fact? (At this point, we might begin to see the wisdom of rejecting the application of necessity and contingency to things—de re modalities—rather than just to our thought and talk of things—de dicto modalites.)

As a Christian theist, I believe that God created me and the universe I live in.  Because God’s aim in creating was the existence of persons truly distinct from himself, and thus capable of freely sharing his triune life, he most likely deployed indeterministic means to bring persons into existence, e.g., evolution by natural selection in a universe governed by indeterministic laws.  The fact that the universe gives rise to persons of some sort or other is a more or less sure thing, but which species, and which individuals, actually come into existence is a matter of chance. Christians properly separate creation from design.

However, many theists believe otherwise. They think that from the set of possible persons, God selected who to make actual, either by creating a universe with initial conditions and deterministic laws guaranteed to actualize the chosen possibilities, or by miraculously intervening to bring the desired individuals into existence.  Assuming that the persons God makes actual comprise a tiny subset of possible persons, the question is why God chose for us to exist.  Did God choose arbitrarily? That just shifts our utter contingency from the creation to the mind of the creator: that you exist is a stroke of fantastic good luck.  The alternative is that there is something about you that was, for God, a good reason to create you.  This could be some inherent feature of you, or the fact that a world that includes you is the one that God chooses to make actual.

Progressive Christianity

Some autobiography: I grew up in a community of theologically conservative, evangelical Christians.  There, in accord with the stereotype, salvation was principally an individual matter.  Despite avowed rejection of “legalism” in opposition to salvation by grace through faith, Christian practice centered on individual morality and tangential behavioral matters, e.g., (not) swearing, drinking, or smoking, i.e., the “purity code” of the community.  Structural matters of public policy, justice, discrimination, poverty, war and peace, in contrast to the needs of individuals, were not on our radar.  The mid-century evangelical world was to a serious degree shaped by what it was against, and that included “liberalism” and its “social gospel,” which in caricature at least was an alternative to genuine Christian faith.  In retrospect, this seems to have gone so far as to make the Pauline epistles the focus of preaching and teaching.  In practice, what mattered about Jesus was being born of a virgin and then his cross and resurrection; nothing in between seems to have been important.  I suspect that we implicitly thought paying much heed to the Gospels was the province of liberalism and its allegiance to Jesus the mere moral teacher.  There was some slight tilt toward the Republicans, though this was never regarded as a matter of much import. There were certainly members of my church in good standing, in fact in leadership positions, who were Democrats, but any investment in political matters beyond being a good, law-abiding citizen—St. Paul apparently commanded this in Romans—and voting, would have been looked down upon as “worldly.”

In the 1970’s this changed rapidly and drastically, so that by the 1980’s there was little daylight between evangelical Christianity and the political right.   Theological conservatives discovered their own social gospel, a package of moral values and political polices intended to mold society in accord with them.  The etiology of this, in the social changes in the later 1960’s and after, as well as in cultural resentments going back to the early 20th century, are well-known and I won’t rehearse them here.  Aside from the merits or demerits of any of the particular beliefs of the “religious right,” I believe we now see that this was a disaster.  Today, many young (and not so young) people who grew up in this religious culture rightly reject the identification of faith in Jesus Christ with commitment to a conservative political program, the uncritically held values of the white middle class, free market capitalism, and American nationalism, and, hoping to find an authentic faith, look elsewhere.

As a professor in a Christian, i.e., evangelical, college, I have seen this going on for a long time.  There is a common, but by no means universal, trajectory.  The student arrives at college raised with the conviction that a particular collection of moral, social, cultural, and political beliefs are essential and incontestable matters of Christian faith.  Theory aside, in practice this student has his entire life been taught, for instance, that a particular stance on abortion or homosexuality, or on evolution, is not just important to the Christian faith, but more important than, say, the deity and resurrection of Christ. (I hope there is a difference between what is still officially taught in the evangelical churches, and the unnuanced messages their young people imbibe, but I am no longer sure.)  For some students, often the most committed and brightest, the experience of higher education is an ongoing crisis.  Even in what is overall still a relatively conservative (theologically, socially, and even politically) campus environment, they absorb many challenges to the politicized, enculturated Christian faith in which they were raised.  Some simply jettison the totalistic ideology of their past in favor of a new one, rejecting the morally and intellectually bankrupt evangelical culture in favor of the leftist political monoculture of the academy and this country’s ruling elites.  One package is dropped and a new one takes its place, the contents of neither ever have been closely examined. Raised as an evangelical Christian but having spent my career in the academic world, what I find striking is the formal similarity: a package of beliefs in which familiarity creates an impression of internal coherence, serious critical questions are made invisible, and the believer taught to find satisfaction in being smarter and better than non-believers.  (It is amusing to encounter the young person who sees himself as a rebel and individualist in virtue of adopting wholesale the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the educational establishment, the mainstream media, Hollywood, and the United States government.  The only rebellion is against one’s déclassé parents.)

Others retain their Christian faith but seek an expression of it free of American evangelicalism, adopting something sometimes called progressive Christianity.  Insofar as I understand it, much here is laudable: the rejection of biblical literalism, abandonment of evangelicalism’s purity code as well as its facile certitude, giving up belief in damnation, rejection of the assumption that non-Christians must be either stupid or wicked, openness to women in ministry, inclusion for LGBT’s.…in general, the discovery that it is possible to be a Christian without trying not to be a human being.

On the other hand progressive Christianity is troubling when it makes a political ideology an integral component of the Christian faith.  Many young people seem to be making exactly the same mistake an earlier generation of Christians made, but now by making faith a front for the dogma of the Left, rather than the Right.

Christian faith is not just belief.  It is trust in the God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself, and that trust calls for action.  Christian action is not properly contained in individual life, but belongs in all areas of human activity, including our social, cultural, and political existence.   But faithful Christianity is not a matter of making one’s own a pre-packaged bundle of values, beliefs, and commitments.  The evangelical culture’s worldview rhetoric probably makes this seem reasonable. So does the growing tendency on our highly polarized political scene to demonize and silence opponents. In contrast faithfulness calls upon us to break open the ideological packages and to think through the issues with honesty and freedom.  It seems to me that this is in short supply in “progressive Christianity,” just as it is on the Christian Right.

Blogging Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide To Reality: A Kind of Conclusion

0. Underlying Rosenberg’s project is the claim, made but not defended, that science reveals that God does not exist. Obviously, no well-confirmed theory of empirical science implies anything about God and thus science implies nothing about God’s alleged non-existence. Rosenberg assumes that if there were good reasons to believe that God exists, they would reside in theistic explanations of things that in fact science explains better. This is one of many false beliefs he shares with religious fundamentalists. However, Rosenberg can hardly be blamed for taking so many Christian theists at their word when they insist that what contemporary science tells us of the world and our place in it is antecedently improbable from the perspective of the Christian faith. They are wrong about this: the naturalistic implications of science are antecedently probable on Christian theology. But it’s not Rosenberg’s job to figure that out.

1. On Rosenberg’s account introspection reveals little or nothing of explanatory relevance about the human mind/brain because conscious states (a) are (something like) epiphenomenal, (b) no more than post hoc rationalizations of the unconscious goings on in the brain that actually cause human behavior, and (c) lack intentionality so they aren’t about anything anyway. Indeed, unconscious mental states, those that do cause behavior, also lack intentionality. There are experimental results (famously Libet’s) that support (a) and (b), though there’s plenty of distance from this evidence to these sweeping conclusions. The status of deflationary claims about intentionality, or to change the idiom, about the mind/brain having no semantic properties, is a central issue in the philosophy of the last century. I take it that all physicalists take it for granted that the facts about meaning are ontologically superficial, that in some sense the brain is a syntactic device that simulates a physically impossible semantic device. Where the mainstream sees this as setting the task of locating meaning in the world science knows, Rosenberg sees it as reason to elimiate serious talk of meaning. This is a manifestation of a general strategy, see #4, infra.

It would be nice to see at least a gesture toward the obvious issues of self-reference that arise from the claim that none of our thoughts are about anything. How do we manage to have scientific knowledge when our scientific beliefs are not about the world that makes science true?

2. Physics, Rosenberg reasonably asserts, fixes all the facts. (We theists who agree of course acknowledge an implicit scope restriction: physics fixes all the facts about the created world.) However, he appears to slide effortlessly from this to the stronger claim that all the facts are physical facts, or at least that all the facts are physical facts or facts reducible to physical facts. Most humanly important “facts,” e.g., those of folk-psychology or morality, thus turn out not to be facts at all. Here, as in other places, Rosenberg’s claims seem finely balanced between interpretations on which they are true but uncontroversial and interpretations on which, if not false, they are at least very controversial.

3. On the epistemological side there’s a similar move from the true, “Science is our best way of knowing,” to the highly problematic, “Science is our only way of knowing.” Such inferential leaps are all too familiar, but surely they are not mere mistakes on Rosenberg’s part. His texts in the philosophy of science are admirably clear and carefully reasoned introductions to many of the subjects he addresses in An Atheist’s Guide. The main disappointment of this book is that it seems to have been written by someone else! Writing, or trying to write, for a popular audience, one cuts all kinds of philosophical corners, and we see this going on left and right in An Atheist’s Guide. Yet it often seems that the wrong corners have been cut and that the effect on the philosophically innocent reader might well be the opposite of what Rosenberg intends: to instill the idea that the implications of taking science seriously are simply crazy. (I’m tempted to blame some editor’s notion of what’s appropriate for a book buying public.)

4. Along the way I’ve complained about Rosenberg’s strategy of reasoning from the fact that nothing in the reality known to science precisely answers to a familiar human concept, e.g., meaning, freedom, purpose, to the conclusion that that concept applies to nothing and should be eliminated from serious thought about the world. Why in at least some of these cases isn’t it more reasonable to regard our concepts as being corrected and revised by science and thus accorded their secure place in the world? We need not suppose that our pre-scientific concepts are infinitely malleable, but it’s hard to accept that they cannot sometimes be retained in versions improved by the encounter with science. And this is especially hard to accept in instances where the concepts at issue are adaptations that enable us to navigate the natural or social environment. But, of course, if all the facts are facts of (and not just fixed by) physics, there’s no place for such things in reality.

Here it’s worth pointing out Rosenberg’s reliance on folk-philosophical conceptions as though they are in perfectly good order. For example, he regularly tells us that since science shows that human behavior is causally determined, we are not free. But, of course, this is valid only with the addition of the premise that no causally determined action can be free. That premise remains unreflectively embraced by many, including many of the scientifically well-informed, and it might be true. The centuries of philosophical attack on it may be misguided. But the mere fact that this seems simply obvious to so many is no more a good reason to accept it than, say, the still-popular belief that heavy objects fall faster than light objects…or that our choices cause our actions.

5. An abiding question is about the supposed connection of all this—Rosenberg’s radically eliminative materialism—to atheism. Does he think that run of the mill naturalistic philosophers, engaged in the project of trying to explain how mind, rationality, meaning, purpose, freedom, and so on might fit into the physical universe best known by way of the sciences are some sort of crypto-theists, clinging to concepts that make sense only if there is a God? It would be interesting to see a case for that. (Perhaps Rosenberg and folks like Al Plantinga are on the same page: if no God then no meaning, no rationality, etc.) Insofar as anything like this appears in An Atheist’s Guide to Reality, it seems to be no more than one more fast inference, this one from the fact that there is no purpose in nature to the further claim that there is no purpose for nature. (For Rosenberg the claim that there is no purpose in nature encompasses not just the obvious fact that there is no final causation in nature, that evolution’s trajectory is blind, and that the etiology of human action is entirely a matter of efficient causation, but the not at all obvous claim that human beings do not really do things for reasons, i.e., that beliefs and desires are not the causes of behavior.)

Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Chapter 11

Rosenberg tells us that there’s little hope of ascertaining the meaning of any individual human action because the particular motives expressed in thoughts about ends and means cannot be known.  If I understand the claim, it’s that our intentional folk-psychology has little value for limning the causes of human action.  Even if we knew the reasons for which someone thinks he did something, these reasons are at best “rough indicators” of the real, non-intentional causal structures in the brain that underlie behavior.  “Biography” (folk-psychology) is a blunt explanatory instrument at best and mostly just storytelling.

It’s hard to know what to say here.  On physicalist assumptions, the proximate causes of human action are neural events, so any explanation of what we do that invokes beliefs, desires, and other intentional mental states succeeds only if they connect to the neural reality in some reliable way.  But there’s plenty of room to maneuver here.  At one extreme, the folk-psychological states ascribed to human beings are type-identical to neural states, but if this classical reduction of the mental to the physical fails (as, presumably, it does) it might be true that any given, particular belief, desire, etc., is identical to some particular neural state.  If this token-identity fails as well, we can proceed to more loosely conceived connections of intentional states to brains. For example, we ascribe mental states holistically to minds construed as engines of massively parallel, non-symbolic, computation.  So someone believes that P just if his brain realizes a particular pattern of weightings distributed across large assemblies of neurons; thus (as in the Churchlands) intentional states roughly correspond to points in multidimensional representational spaces.  Or (following Dennett) we say that the behavior of very complex organisms (and other devices) exhibit real patterns that we usefully and economically detect when we adopt the intentional stance.  And so on.  It’s not obvious where in all this we are entitled to say that the intentional idiom affords a rough approximation of the causes of behavior, and when we’re entitled to say only that it provides at most a blunt explanatory instrument.  Rosenberg denies the former and accepts the latter, but the distinction is not clear.

One thing that seems obvious and, in light of the continuing preeminence of computationalist theories of the mind, important, is that we can couch powerful explanations in intentional terms, at least when the “minds” in question are artificial. We regularly and reliably explain how a device got from one computational state to another by reference to their representational content.  The machine entered into the state that represents Q as an effect of being in the state that represents If P then Q, and the state the represents P.  The clever wiring makes causation mirror logical inference. It is possible, though not for mere humans, to explain the computer’s behavior in terms of physics alone.  And for most practical purposes, explanations couched in the higher-level vocabulary of electrical engineering are similarly out of human reach. Yet we happily explain computation in intentional terms, relying on the token-identification of representational and physical states.  Extant artificial computation is, of course, much simpler and neater than what transpires in brains, but it does not seem obvious that this precludes intentional explanations of human minds and behavior.

We build machines that realize a secure connection of the normative realm of reasons to the natural, physical, realm of causes.  The intentional, by design, piggybacks on natural causation, ultimately on physics, and intentional explanations are the best explanations we can hope for here.  How likely is it that we, products of natural selection, manage this with our handiwork but natural selection didn’t manage it in putting us together?  Is it plausible that the result of eons of evolution is an organism that has a high degree of inclusive fitness because it does a good job of explaining, predicting, and (sometimes even) controlling the behavior of other organisms—predators, prey, and one’s conspecifics—by means of a folk-psychological theory of mind, if all this affords it is a blunt explanatory instrument? How blunt is blunt?  Our ancestors caught food, avoided being food, and seduced mates so as to become our ancestors because, along with some luck, they were endowed with an instrument that worked.

We may agree with the Churchlands and praise folk-psychology as a marvelous instrument that reached maturity millennia ago and is currently largely moribund, being refined on the margins by our artists but long since having come up against the gross limits of what it can explain.  Whether its elimination in favor of something better, something that can be smoothly integrated into the natural sciences, is a practical possibility remains to be seen. But—and this seems the crucial point against Rosenberg—the demise of propositional attitude psychology is not the demise of the intentional. The Churchlands’ eliminationist program is, as they call it, neurosemantics, aspiring to explain human behavior as the effect of neural states that represent things.

The focus of Rosenberg’s denigration of folk-psychology might lie elsewhere.  If the mental states to which we have conscious access and which we cast as beliefs and desires are something akin to epiphenomena, then explanations that invoke them might simply be false, the intentional states playing no real role in the causation of behavior.  This is not an attack on intentionality per se.  The true explanations might, as in Freud, be intentional yet accessible not at all or only by way of therapy.  Rosenberg (for reasons that do not seem adequate) contends that brain states that cause behavior could not possibly mean anything, so folk-psychological “explanations” wind up explaining nothing.  But even if they could, it might be that they lie beyond our introspective powers, powers whose feebleness Rosenberg highlights earlier in the book.

The other possible ground to dismiss folk-psychological explanations is a view of causation, roughly the idea that true claims about cause and effect must be formulated either in terms of physics, or in terms reducible to it. When we assert that Marvin went to the store because he wanted some beer and he believed that in the circumstances the best way to obtain some was by going to the store, these reasons can be the causes of his going to the store only if they are identical—token wise or maybe even type wise—to the neural states that actually cause the bodily movement.  I suspect that we’re entitled to be more generous with ourselves when it comes to describing causation, and that reasons can be identified as causes without being so closely tied to the underlying physical reality. (Here I ignore what seems to me the fact that in any event the neural stuff cannot be reduced to the physical stuff. The neuroscientific and evolutionary baby are at risk of going down the drain with the folk-psychological bathwater.) To say that one thing causes another is, as is well known, in part a practical matter, dependent on human interests, and thus not relegated to the God’s-eye point of view of physics.  Physics fixes the world’s facts, including the facts about causation, but this does not imply that all the facts about causation are facts of physics.

But if the only truths about causation are those couched in the vocabulary of physics and whatever special sciences are reducible to it, then Rosenberg properly dichotomizes scientific explanation and mere storytelling.

It is striking how seemingly unselfconsciously Rosenberg proffers explanations of the kind he tells us are useless. For example, in the process of informing us that all history, being no more than folk-psychology on a grand scale, provides are entertaining stories, not real explanations, he offers the example of Henry Kissinger, who became a power broker by convincing people that knowing about the 1815 Congress of Vienna was going to help Nixon deal with the Soviets.  Whether what Kissinger convinced people of was true or false, here we have a folk-psychological explanation of how he came to pre-eminence.  Later in the chapter, Rosenberg offers a perfectly reasonable, yet patently folk-psychological, explanation of the Chinese practice of binding female feet.  It’s all about what people wanted and what they believed about how to get it. (I’m enough of a humanist to suspect that this explanation, though correct, is missing something, viz., the rich symbolism that was part and parcel of the cultural practice.) And it’s worth noting that this folk-psychological explanation is at the same time a satisfying selectionist explanation.

Rosenberg’s discussion of innovation, discovery, creativity, etc., is an instance of a familiar pattern. We do not explain it by learning what it really is, i.e., that it’s the product of random variation and selection in a brain that operates on stochastic principles.  To learn this is to find that there is no such thing.  It’s not the mysterious, magical thing some might be inclined to imagine it is, so, since they are right about what it is, they are wrong about there being such a thing.  More scorched earth eliminativism.

Rosenberg’s claims about history are interesting.  There’s a familiar account on which explanation and prediction are essentially the same thing; explanation is “postdiction” in contrast to prediction.  If this is true and we see that history cannot manage much in the way of prediction, maybe we should doubt its ability to explain anything.  However, it seems plausible that a system, even one governed by deterministic laws, that is chaotic, as we might reasonably take the course of history to be, would be explainable after the fact but not reliably predictable.  I assume, for example, that had the world’s leading historians known everything going on on 21 June 1914, they could not have predicted that a world war would be precipitated one week later.  That Gavrito Princip and his pals would, in fact, carry off the assassination in Sarajevo and that this event would, in fact, cascade into world war was something no human being could have reasonably predicted.  God, if his world really were governed by deterministic laws, would have known with certainty what was coming, but no human being could have reliably predicted the events that started the Great War.  Nonetheless, retrospectively we know what started the warPrincip’s assassination of the Archdukeand this is a true, even if quite obviously very incomplete, explanation.  The fine-grained knowledge of initial conditions needed for precise predictions isn’t needed for explanations.  Any number of things going on in the summer of 1914 can be ignored as unknown and now unknowable, yet we still can explain what happened.  There’s a big difference between knowing that the butterfly will flap its wings and thus predicting the hurricane, and knowing that it did, since we know that the hurricane ensued.

The unsurprising fact that historians seem fixated on the past and offer no predictions of the future is due to there being no laws of history.  As Rosenberg tells us, history is large scale folk-psychology, and account of why human beings did what they did that invokes their beliefs and desires on the supposition that they are more or less rational.  This is not a matter of knowing the (non-existent) laws that govern human behavior.  It’s the result of having been supplied by natural selection with a mental module dedicated to making inferences about other minds, inferences we could not typically justify on the available evidence. That is to say, the folk-theory of mind is not a theory in the scientific sense; it involves no subsumption of events under genuine laws.  I imagine that our evolved but quite specialized theory of mind isn’t particularly well-suited to explaining the behavior of remote and unobserved strangers. We can know, say, that Princip fired his gun at Ferdinand because he wanted to kill him and that he believed that in the circumstances that was the best way to bring about his death.  Beyond this truism, I suppose that things get murky fairly quickly, and that a good explanation of why he wanted to assassinate the Archduke and believed that it was a good idea to act on that desire might not be easy to come by, even on the debatable assumption of more or less intact rationality.  And to get from the shooting to the outbreak of hostilities one month later involves all manner of folk-psychological explanations, some trivial and others hard to come by.  This is all hard enough after the fact and impossible beforehand.

Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality Chapter 10

Chapter 10

If, as a materialist might reasonably believe, a brain is a mind in virtue of the structure of its neuronal interconnections, and a mind is the mind of a particular person for the same reason, then one need not suppose the Freaky Friday scenario presupposes that the mind is an immaterial substance. We leave the two bodies and their brains in place, but we re-organize the neural interconnections in the brains, so each realizes the computational state the other initially realized. It’s possible that the truth is more complex than a straightforward computationalism, and that whether a brain is the brain of a particular person is not settled at so abstract a level, but depends also on features that some other brain might be incapable if instantiating. In that case, persons are tied to particular brains in ways that makes the body switching scenario impossible. And of course one might contend-implausibly, I think-that sameness of mind does not suffice for personal identity and what we have here is not a body swap, but two persons becoming very confused and losing their memories.

The fact that a human person, a self, persists through all the changes in our body over the course of our lives hardly implies that it is an immaterial thing. If it did, the implication is either that the car I have today is not the one I bought in 1988 or that it has an immaterial component. But no: it’s the same car even though quite a few parts have come and gone. This does not mean that a person survives all possible changes to a body over time.  Whether a person at one time is the same person at another time depends on what kinds of changes the body has undergone: a person survives some changes and not others.

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality Chapter 9

There is no question but that particular goings on in the frog brain play an indispensable role in explaining how frogs catch flies. If there were something in there that had what is for Rosenberg the magical property of being about flies, it would be of explanatory interest only if it played the causal role that the neural state in question plays, i.e., if it typically made its appearance only when a frog is in the vicinity and typically caused frog-catching behavior. Granting that nothing in the frog has the mysterious aboutness Rosenberg rejects, the temptation to point to the neural state that plays this causal role and say this is what aboutness really is is hard to resist. The Rosenbergian claim that it cannot be about anything falls flat absent some account of what it lacks that’s essential to really being about something.

Is there much of anything to the folk-concept of aboutness for science to subvert?  In my experience, if someone is asked, “What makes the frog’s idea of the fly an idea, and what makes it an idea of a fly?” the notion that it has to with some sort of resemblance of the mental item to what it represents falls apart quickly, leaving not much of anything that we are entitled to say no mere brain stuff can satisfy.

It’s interesting to ask what could be going on when someone mistakenly believes that something is about something.  Someone sees a combination of letters and in error takes it to be a word in a foreign language when in fact it’s just a meaningless combination of letters. Is it conceivable that we are systematically wrong in such judgments, or are errors of this kind parasitic on a background of correct judgments? Or one could encounter a description that fails to refer, e.g., when the student refers to Martin Luther, the German king who was an activist for civil rights for black Protestants in the 1960’s.

The crucial fact lurking here is that nothing in nature fixes reference. There is, perhaps, no objective matter of fact as to what the frog’s brain represents when it catches flies. The frog can be fooled, capturing BB’s as though they were flies, so do the goings on in its brain mean small black thing rather than fly? In some quarters much has been made of the indeterminateness of translation and the inscrutability of reference. This tells us something important about the place of meaning in the natural order, but the conclusion that what it tells us is that there is no place for it, i.e., that nothing is about anything, is hard to believe, or even grasp. I’m no fan of facile objections that charge a view with self-referential incoherence, but it’s hard not to want to ask Rosenberg if the words in his book are about anything, whether reading it doesn’t cause us to think about frogs, and so on. Physics fixes all the facts, and facts about meaning are not facts of physics. But why say this implies there are no facts about meaning? As a scientific naturalist, I want to say that we need to identify neural states as representing things in order to explain the behavior of organisms. (Not to say that there must be a local mapping of the intentional onto the neural, an identification of something in the brain as the representation of something; the brain might be in the state of representing something in virtue of rather global features, on analogy with non-symbolic, parallel computation.) The fact that there is an alternate, lower level, description, couched solely in terms of physics, does not imply that the intentional description is scientifically dispensable.

Sometimes The Atheist’s Guide reminds me of early 20th-century popularizers of science, informing us that there are no solid objects, since what we take to be solid objects are mostly empty space containing atomic nuclei surrounded by mostly empty space.  But such a claim strikes us (or at least me) as anachronistic. Of course solid objects exist, and it’s often important to distinguish them from objects that are not so solid, or not objects at all but volumes of liquid or gas. Physics reveals not that there are no solid objects but what solid objects are really like. As Wilfrid Sellars famously said, the task of philosophy is to figure out how the manifest image, i.e., the world as humans experience it fits together with the scientific image.  Sometimes this means dismissing something as illusory, a mere artifact of how we represent things, but sometimes it means revising concepts to fit into the world where physics fixes the facts.  Recall the issue that led Rosenberg to moral nihilism: our natural concept of a moral fact is of a state of affairs that provides those who detect it with a reason to act. If, as physicalists and naturalists tend to think, there can be no such practical reasons, because all reasons to act are rooted in the agent, not in objective reality, then either moral facts need not have this feature, or there are no moral facts and no moral truth.

Or consider our concept of time.  Late in his career Gödel showed that there are physically possible universes in which solutions to the equations of general relativity imply that there are closed, finite time-like loops, which is to say that in those worlds time travel is possible. He saw this result not as implying that time-travel is possible, but that general relativity reveals that what we think of as time is not captured by the fourth, time-like, spatial dimension, and thus that what we think of as time has no objective reality. Talk of time as a fourth spatial dimension is not just a way to interpret general relativity, but the sober truth: there is no such thing as time. Did Gödel draw the right conclusion? Or is the implication that time is real yet quite different than we imagined?

Rosenberg stresses the implausibility of mapping propositional attitudes onto the brain’s physical structure, and the correlative implausibility of its computation being  linguiform, or symbolic at all. On the most likely account the brain’s computation is at bottom parallel and non-symbolic, not serial and symbolic. We still need to explain human linguistic competence, the fact, e.g., that anyone who makes sense of, “The dog bit the boy” can makes sense of, “The boy bit the dog,” and it’s at least not obvious how to do so unless some serial computation goes on in one’s head. (In principle a virtual serial machine can run on a parallel machine and a virtual parallel machine can run on a serial machine.) We may have good reasons to reject the idea that in general the computation that makes a brain a mind involves propositional representations of the world, and to reject the idea that mental representations can be identified, even token-wise, with discrete brain events. But there is no reason to think the scientific explanation of human beings can get by without identifying some state of the brain as a representation, as being about goings on in the world outside the brain, even if that information bearing state consists of an activation pattern realized in some ensemble consisting of some very large number of neurons. (The Churchlands make this sort of thing sound very plausible.)

A general question that arises here is how what looks a lot like some version of eliminativism coheres with Rosenberg’s scientism. It’s hard to see how these claims cohere:

(i) Physics fixes all the facts

(ii) Physics fixes all the facts about human beings

(iii) Insofar as human beings as such are subject to scientific explanation it is by means of subsuming them under biological concepts

(iv) Biological concepts cannot be reduced to those pf physics

(v) What cannot be reduced to physics is not real; it’s at best an illusion provided by natural selection

(vi) Science alone provides the sober truth about human beings.

The only way I can make out a coherent view is by rejecting (iv) and claiming that there is an intertheoretic reduction of biology to physics.  One the one hand, it might be that natural selection can be understood as a law of physics, though it seems to me that this is arbitrary, in contrast to regarding it not as a law of nature but as an abstract principle true of anything, irrespective of its physical constitution, of which a few things are true, e.g., it makes imperfect copies of itself, properties of the copies have a bearing on the odds of their making more copies, etc.  But even if we can include natural selection as part of physics, biological explanation relies on many other concepts and some of these, e.g., gene, seem obviously irreducible to physics in virtue of being functionally defined. Further, if the scientific understanding of minds proceeds largely in computational terms, then while the facts about the mind are fixed by physics, their explanation depends on concepts that cannot be reduced to those of physics. The God Rosenberg finds obviously non-existent could make sense of the world using only the concepts of physics, but probably no finite mind, and certainly no human mind, could do so. We need the special sciences, and probably quite a few other things, even some chastened folk-psychology and history.