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.