This volume is an exceptionally valuable contribution to the debate on the relation between theology and science. In what follows I want to take up three major issues that deserve further attention. First, whether her arguments about the success of science are sufficient to trump intuitions driven by such phenomena as consciousness are successful. Second, whether we should take the Thomist tradition as representing the gold standard in the discussion on the relation between theology and science. Third, whether the complexity of the debate leads us to focus more on verbal disputes rather than the substantive issues to be resolved.
Science and Intuition
Cambridge University Press, 2019
First, then, the issue of the role of intuition in the rejection of broadly materialist and physicalist accounts of the mind. Against any appeal to intuition, Ritchie prefers to bet the bank on the future success of science all the while insisting that the appeal to intuition, say, about the irreducible and independent character of consciousness, is not to be given any substantial weight. Philosophers have long despised any appeal to intuition because they see it as unreliable, as arbitrary, and as underwriting contradictory proposals on a host of issues. Ritchie adds the rider that the appeal to intuition is really an apriori prejudice that refuses to face up to the findings of science. I find this unpersuasive for several reasons.
First, the appeal to intuition is inescapable on a host of philosophical questions. Thus, it is crucial in securing even the very foundations of logic for in the end we simply see or do not see that premises follow from conclusions, a claim that goes back to Aristotle. Moreover, in ethics the earlier dismissal of intuition is now much less secure that it used to be. More broadly, intuition is a place holder for good judgment, for weighing alternatives and their warrants in the balance when we do not have available some set of strict, precisionist rules to resolve disputes. Most importantly, the appeal to intuition is not an appeal to some sort of infallible logical sense that is impervious to argument. Rather, it is better conceived as a prima facie commitment that allows for consideration of contrary evidence. To take a simple case, I hold that it is wrong to roast babies alive at three o’clock in the morning for fun. In this case I am more secure in this judgment than any argument or any grand theory that would seek to persuade me otherwise. I am appealing here to my moral sense or conscience, just as I would appeal to my perceptual senses, or my memory, or even to my spiritual sense, in the case say, of a deep sense of sin and divine judgment.What is at issue is a softer appeal to intuition as a prima facie privileging of various judgments held to a varying degree of assurance. So, the dismissal of intuition is much too abrupt. What is at issue is a softer appeal to intuition as a prima facie privileging of various judgments held to a varying degree of assurance. So, the dismissal of intuition is much too abrupt. Indeed, Ritchie is ignoring the fact that the appeal to intuition, say, in David Chalmers, is more the conclusion of a long debate where he has thought extraordinarily hard about the contrary evidence and found it lacking. He has earned the right to his intuitions as very few others have, as is shown to his superstar standing in the academy.
As to the appeal to the success of science, this has merit, but it is but by no means conclusive merit. It is in fact a mixed bag: an inductive argument of sorts, an exercise in faith, and, above all, not at all a scientific argument based on standard scientific procedures. As Ritchie acknowledges in a footnote (pp. 201–11 n. 44), it is a historical argument that has the potential to undermine its own logic for it is not at all clear that historical arguments fit the paradigm of the natural sciences. There was an extended debate on this in the 1960s and I am in no doubt that what emerges from that debate is that the epistemology of historical investigation has its own, unique standards and norms. The effort to shoehorn it into the natural sciences failed for a variety of reasons, not least because history deals essentially with human actions and their explanations. This is an important consideration in the present discussion precisely because what is at issue is whether physicalism in any of its varieties can cope with certain unique features of human action. It is easy at this point to be intimidated by the bluster of most neuroscientists and their devotees. Theologians are right to keep their own counsel, not least because there are a host of philosophers in the modern period from Giambattista Vico to Isaiah Berlin who have rightly insisted that it was a mistake to be carried away by the extraordinary success of science when it came to crucial dimensions of human agency and experience. I suspect Ritchie feels the force of all this because what starts out as a bold thesis tends to lose momentum by the end of the volume.
Thomas and Divine Action
Second, the issue of Thomism as the gold standard in debates about divine action. Thomists are now a dime a dozen in the academy, a welcome departure from the days when medieval philosophy and theology were dismissed as a descent into the Dark Ages.Thomists are now a dime a dozen in the academy, a welcome departure from the days when medieval philosophy and theology were dismissed as a descent into the Dark Ages. Thomas Aquinas was a genius and a saint. It is only natural that weary and not-so-weary souls should seek shelter in his works. The major slogan that has gotten everyone’s attention is that his distinction between primary and secondary causation provides us with a splendid theory of double agency where the same phenomenon can be seen as both a creaturely action and a divine action; there is no need to see these as in competition with one another. The action is both entirely a human action and entirely a divine action. I will not go into how far this takes us in dealing with the full range of divine actions that require attention. I simply want to signal that this is the tip of a very big iceberg where one can intellectually freeze to death once one gets below the surface. Thus, we have to work with a ragbag of causes beyond the primary and secondary causes, including prime matter, form and matter, the four causes of Aristotle, instrumental causes, concurrence, and the application and directing of divine power in the execution of particular human acts. In addition, we have to reckon with Aquinas’s concept of God as Being, the effort to solve the problem of evil in part by appeal to a doctrine of privation, a doctrine of divine simplicity, and so on. If one is already committed to the Thomistic theological and metaphysical enterprise for independent reasons, then, of course, Thomas is your man. If not, then the move to make his work the gold standard collapses.
Verbal Disputes and Substantive Issues
Third, there is the issue of the complexity of discourse that shows up in the Divine Action debate, both in terms of the verbal disputes it engenders and in terms of the lacuna that show up. Consider the following. Murphy shows up in the pub and announces to his graduate students that he is an old-fashioned, unreconstructed supernaturalist when it comes to divine agency and divine action. Before they can pause to catch their breath, he then spells out what he means by this. It runs like this. God is a mysterious, triune Agent who creates and sustains the universe, acts providentially to bring good out of evil, rescued the Israelites by a miracle at the Red Sea, spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, raised up prophets, became incarnate in Jesus who cast out demons as a sign of the rule of God, raised Jesus from the dead, poured out the Spirit of Jesus on his followers who spoke foreign languages in Jerusalem without learning them, and promised to bring his plans for the salvation of sinners in the transfiguration of the created order in the world to come. Supernaturalism seems an entirely proper term to use here.However, somehow, we are told that the whole Divine Action debate may well hinge on getting appropriate models of divine action. I urge skepticism about this kind of endeavor. It involves a robust vision of the agency of God, a very vigorous doctrine of creation and providence, a set of specific claims about direct divine action in the world, and so on. It even takes seriously the reality of the demonic and of exorcism. Supernaturalism seems the right term to use here. We can still read with profit the world of those, say, following de Lubac, who want to highlight other ways of thinking of the natural work as already infused with divine agency. However, the whole issue all too quickly becomes essentially a verbal one.
Take the lament about the language of ‘violation’ and ‘intervention.’ When it comes to instances of potential divine action the deployment of these notions becomes a substitute for serious argument. We confuse the illocutionary act with the negative perlocutionary effects in the public square and among the theologically illiterate. We put the worst possible construction on these notions. There is no hermeneutic of generosity in sight. When Hume spoke of miracles as a transgression of a law of nature by a volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent, he had a point that is easily lost when we reject his way of framing the issue. He was not discussing questions about creation and providence; he was not a closet deist in his thinking. He was making the astute point that if we speak of someone being raised from the dead, we have to face up to the relevant evidentiary considerations that come into play in this case and not in other cases of divine action. It is not enough to point out that he is inconsistent; or that he is wrong about the epistemology of testimony; or that he completely ignores his own definition and treats the claim about the resurrection of Jesus as if it were on a par with the claim that my granny came back from the dead. The claim is about God raising Jesus from the dead; once we relocate the debate in that context, we have an entirely different panorama of considerations in play that he totally ignores. However, the merit of posing the issue in terms of a violation of a law of nature is that it brilliantly and clearly makes the point about the evidentiary debate that has to take place.
Finally, what do we mean by talk about models of divine action? We know what models in science are. They are representations of phenomena (ideas, objects, or processes) that we cannot observe directly. And they come in a variety of forms: visual, mathematical, and computerized. In turn, visual models appear as flowcharts, pictures, diagrams and the like. Their goal is educative and explanatory. Yet, it is hard to see how these options apply to divine actions. In the case of providing explanations of human actions then I think we can begin to make progress by delineating the powers, intentions, plans, beliefs, dispositions, capacities, and the like of the relevant agent. We can certainly map much of this on to divine actions analogically. But these are not models of divine action; they are explanations of divine action. However, somehow, we are told that the whole Divine Action debate may well hinge on getting appropriate models of divine action. I urge skepticism about this kind of endeavor.
A Note on Theological Naturalism
Permit a brief addendum to these concerns about the way the whole debate is framed. Here I share Ritchie’s intention to be much more theological in our deliberations. However, I do not think she goes nearly far enough in proposing what this might mean. She suggests that her theological naturalism will not just help us with claims about divine action and providence. She also thinks it can help us more broadly in understanding other if not all cases of divine action. In reality, the whole debate about divine action since the 1950s has really been an effort to sort through what to say about the God-world relation as it is expressed in doctrines of creation and providence.Here I share Ritchie’s intention to be much more theological in our deliberations. However, I do not think she goes nearly far enough in proposing what this might mean. Somehow if we can get a handle on these actions, aided and abetted by various claims about double agency, our work would be done. Alternatively, if we could only get clear on what is involved in divine incarnation, that attractive case where we have a non-competitive instance of double agency, we could take our findings on the road and arrive in theological nirvana. All these operations are nothing but an attractive illusion.
For one thing, these strategies leave aside how we are going to handle the really hard case in the doctrine of providence, that is, the case where God brings good out of evil. More importantly, while we need serious conceptual work on such general concepts as agency, action, causation, and explanation, even this work only takes us so far. They do next to nothing in sorting out how to identify the Trinity as the subject of divine actions, for example. Nor do they really help us to think through the various, competing theological proposals about divine revelation, divine speaking, divine incarnation, divine salvation, divine forgiveness, atonement, and on, and on. It is no accident that the debate about divine action still has not answered the founding question of the whole debate: What does God actually do? In response to this we take refuge in generalities, starting here with Clayton’s claims about divine ‘luring.’ However, what analogies are we to deploy in order to unpack this claim? We are given vague talk about divine persuasion rather than coercion, but this does not take us very far. Beyond this example we are given general talk in Ritchie about active divine presence, divine influence, divine involvement, divine operation in all of nature, participation in the divine life, and the like. All these sounds pious and even illuminating but these are neither when we try to wrap our minds around them. What we need is radical attention to the specific claims that are on offer in the tradition; and these require rigorous semantic and theological reflection in their own right. This is the real theological turn that we need if we are to make progress. It is a turn that will rest as much on prayer, faithful obedience, and attention to the great debates of the past on these specific actions, as much as it depends on philosophical discussion of the sort that has been in play over the last century.