One of the joys of inhabiting an explicitly interdisciplinary space is that one is constantly challenged and stimulated by ideas, critiques, and voices that collectively defy easy conceptual or disciplinary categorization. I consider myself extremely fortunate to exist in such a space, addressing theological questions by drawing upon scholarship not only from specific faith traditions, but also from cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy of mind—to give a partial list. Occupying a boundary-crossing role of this sort, in combination with a temperament and orientation that prioritizes theological exploration and experimentation, means that I will always enjoy and benefit from the sorts of challenges so ably set forth in this symposium.
Cambridge University Press, 2019
And so, when I write the obligatory “I am grateful to the respondents,” let this be read as an honest recognition of the critically important role that these discussions play in interdisciplinary scholarship. Critique and challenge are important in all disciplines, and this is perhaps even more true when one occupies the sorts of interdisciplinary spaces described above: one’s excellence in these spaces is only as sound as one’s weakest engagement with disciplinary specificities and nuances. In that spirit, then, I can write that I am truly grateful to the respondents for their thorough readings and thoughtful responses to the book.
Indeed, exchanges of this type can be hugely influential in the development of one’s work, highlighting blind spots and areas that deserve increased scrutiny and clarity of analysis. After all, all published work is a necessarily limited snapshot in time, as if of a frozen image of a fast-moving river. Many of us have had the perhaps uncomfortable experience of realizing that our own work has evolved and progressed before the ink is even dry on a recent project! This is certainly true for me, and I happily admit that within the book in question, there are phrases I would clarify or omit, sections I would add, and chapters I would frame just a bit differently, given where I am now. Our respective intellectual currents are continually taking each of us somewhere, and no book or article is a perfect representation of either the full breadth and depth of one’s current work, or of how the present work will develop, evolve. Crucial to the most productive and creative manifestations of that evolution are exchanges like this. It is in this spirit, then, that I respond briefly to each of the participants in the symposium.
Jason Runyan’s response offers a perfect example of just how many levels of critique and analysis suggest themselves in discussions about mind, divine action, and the relationship between God and the created world. Runyan appropriately picks up on an incredibly important set of questions: What, exactly, do I mean by “physicality,” how is physicality related to physicalism, and where should one draw the line between the physical and the nonphysical? (This discussion of physicality, I should note, should only be read against the backdrop of the naturalism(s) described in Part 2 of the book, for reasons I hope to make clear.) Though related, these questions are distinct, and so I will respond accordingly.
First, there is a definitional question. Runyan’s response rests on the premise that “Presumably, Ritchie thinks brains and ‘brain-body-environment systems’ are explicable wholly in terms of the entities and phenomena studied in physics.” I do not think this. In fact, I was almost pleasantly surprised to read this footnote, as I have often been critiqued for embracing a physicalism so expansive that it renders the word nearly meaningless, or at least stretching the term beyond all recognition of its normal usage! Of course, Runyan is absolutely correct that in Chapter 4, where I describe the general landscape surrounding the Hard Problem of Consciousness, I do characterize physicalism-as-usual in the reductionist manner in which it is usually considered. I write, “For now [emphasis added], I will use physical to denote those entities or phenomena that are explicable wholly in the terms of physics. In other words, physicalism is used to denote the position affirming only those entities or phenomena explicable in terms of energy, matter, and the relationship between them” (p. 135). Here I am describing the standard physicalist position, rather than the full-throated expansive position on physicality I suggest later in the book. Even when employing this restrictive definition, however, I note that physicalism “does not necessarily say that it is convenient or even possible to describe all phenomena with the language of physics – only that no nonphysical realities are involved in those phenomena” (p. 135). Music, art, economics, religion, consciousness: a physicalist could affirm that all these things are real and need not involve any sort of “stuff” other than that recognized by physics, without affirming that the language and methods of physics are sufficient even in principle to fully describe these phenomena. (In hindsight, for the sake of clarity I would probably remove the words “or phenomena” from the definition of physicalism above, to reflect the potentially expansive nature of physicalist positions which many of its advocates wish to preserve. I thus appreciate Runyan highlighting my lack of clarity here.)
More importantly than definitional clarifications, however, is the footnote I include with the definition of physicalism which Runyan has cited: this footnote reads, “Part 2 of this book is devoted to challenging the idea that anything can be ‘just physical’ – but this designation [of standard physicalism] will be used here in keeping with dominant scientific and philosophical practice” (p. 135). One of my chief goals in this book, as described and explored in Part 2, is to problematize standard distinctions or dichotomies, including those between the physical and nonphysical, natural and supernatural, mind and matter, etc. I would deem it a failure on my part if I was read as promoting a reductive physicalism that sought to dismiss the priority or reality of lived, conscious experience. It is true that I affirm that “there is reason to assume a fully natural, perhaps physical, understanding of the human mind,” but that affirmation of the physical can only be fleshed out and understood within the context of a naturalism that elevates the status of physicality altogether (p. 191). My goal is not to argue for a particular philosophy of mind, but to use debates about divine action in the mind as a way to highlight the problems and possibilities surrounding larger ontological questions of the relationship between God and physical reality more broadly.
In fact, it is precisely because of this overall goal that I find the rest of Runyan’s response so helpful, particularly in his emphasis on humans as living, organic organisms. To his discussion on this, I can simply respond, “Yes, I agree!” The same is true of his discussion of the causal closure principle (CCP). It is certainly true that the CCP looms large in divine action debates, and that I use the CCP in Part 1 of the book to demonstrate the weaknesses of proposals that locate divine action within the human mind. However, as I hope to have demonstrated in Part 2 of the book, the CCP becomes problematized when taking seriously more theistic versions of naturalism that cause us to question the neat, strict dichotomies so often used to delineate the physical from the nonphysical.
And finally, in response to Runyan’s initial question regarding what I mean by “physicality”: it is my hope that the book as a whole is seen as an extended response to this question, a response that insists that nothing is ever “just physical,” and that there are theological frameworks available (or waiting to be developed) which mitigate against the reflexively pejorative nature with which physical processes are so often treated in theological discussion. More importantly, perhaps, I would also signal my true appreciation to Runyan for flagging up exactly the question which my research has been exploring. This project of developing a complex, nuanced, theological understanding of human physicality is a project that will occupy me for years to come.
With characteristic clarity and insight, Billy Abraham’s response highlights three challenges to the book: the appropriate and even necessary role of intuition in human experience, cognition, and academic discourse; the problematic depiction of Thomism as the “gold standard’ in divine action theology;I consider each of these points to be “spot on” (as we say in the UK), and it is with real pleasure that I say a few words about each of them here. and the frustrating tendency for the substantive conceptual issues within divine action debates to be lost or mishandled amid the verbal disputes so characteristic of the discussion. I consider each of these points to be “spot on” (as we say in the UK), and it is with real pleasure that I say a few words about each of them here.
First, Abraham rightly identifies that the book is largely dismissive of the role that intuition should play in one’s assessment of various approaches to the ontology of mind. This, I think, is a fair characterization of the way I handle intuition in the book in general, and particularly of the way I handle intuition when it comes to the so-called “Hard Problem.” There are two points I would make in response: one contextual, and one drawing on psychological research. But first, it is not the case that I see no role for intuition in human experience or academic discourse. I agree with Abraham that “a softer appeal to intuition as a prima facie privileging of various judgments held to a varying degree of assurance” is entirely appropriate, particularly as a sort of cognitive or experiential shorthand when sustained interdisciplinary analysis is unnecessary or cumbersome, or even as a sort of initial hunch or insight leading to further research. Rather, my concern is with the sustained and systematic reliance on intuition that is often a hallmark of key premises regarding the mind in Christian philosophy of religion and analytic theology. This brings me to my first, contextual, point: it is perhaps the case that Abraham and I operate within very different intellectual climates! It is fascinating to read that “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,” as I find the exact opposite to be true in much of the writing surrounding the science-theology dialogue in general, and especially within theological and philosophical debates regarding the mind (or, often, the soul). I suspect that what comes across as a wholesale rejection of intuition on my part might well be an (over?)compensation in light of other leading voices in this particular debate, and in the particular academic context in which I currently operate. Additionally, though, I would make a further point about intuition, drawing on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. It seems clear that intuition plays a vital role in human survival, and is immensely important for providing the sorts of heuristics and mental shortcuts necessary to form judgments about the world that are often more-or-less reflective of the actual state of things. However, it is also true that intuitions are fallible, and by their very nature involve the necessary exclusion of nuance and perspectives that might not be immediately “fit for purpose” in a given context. My concern is not with those who recognize their own intuition that the mind must be ontologically distinct from the body (indeed, intuitive dualism seems as cognitively natural as anything can be),For an accessible account of intuitive dualism, see: Paul Bloom Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2004). but with those who would use dualistic intuitions as a fundamental premise on which further argumentative steps are dependent. I do not insist on a rejection of intuition altogether, but rather hope for a recognition of the role and limitations of intuition—particularly in conversations where dueling intuitions are at play!
Abraham’s second challenge involves my depiction of Thomism as the “gold standard” of divine action theology; he writes that “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.” I wholeheartedly agree, and do not consider myself to be a Thomist. In a spirit of generosity to Thomists, then, perhaps it is best for me to simply say that I share Abraham’s critiques of classic Thomism and find the position largely untenable when it comes to divine action; that the alternative versions of Thomism I explore in the book are rather unorthodox and unlikely to be recognized as legitimately Thomistic by most Aquinas scholars; and that my depiction of the position as a “gold standard” has more to do with my assessment of mainstream positions and inclinations within the contemporary science & religion field than with any merits of the position itself.
Finally, Abraham raises the issue of the complexity of divine action discourse, and in particular the endless verbal disputes surrounding terms like intervention/nonintervention, or natural/supernatural. I deeply appreciate Abraham’s insight that oftentimes in debates about intervention or the supernatural, “there is no hermeneutic of generosity in sight.” I take his point that, often and for many people, to simply say that God has intervened in this-or-that particular instance, or has supernaturally engaged creation in a decisive way, is indeed a fair enough description of the situation as it is experienced “on the ground.” I would even say that oftentimes, something pastoral and even theological can be lost when we spend endless hours parsing terms and examining the boundaries of disciplinary-specific concepts: it is true that, regardless of potential philosophical inconsistencies, Hume’s designation of miracles as violations of the laws of nature brilliantly made his intended point! I agree with these points. My concern, however, is that what is rhetorically or even theologically useful can sometimes lead to conceptual errors outright, or at least an unnecessary constraint of theological possibilities. For example, I would agree that sometimes it is useful to simply say: “Yes, God has acted in this moment in history, and this is decisive for who we are and how we understand reality.” But it is equally true that such a statement can often lead to a whole raft of implications and hidden assumptions being unconsciously incorporated into one’s theological framework. When I say that “Jesus physically raised Lazarus from the dead in a dramatic interventionist miracle,” am I also inadvertently saying that “God could have prevented a few thousand more people from dying in that tsunami, but for whatever reason did not do so?”For a full discussion on exactly this issue, see Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), chp. 3. Or, am I thereby saying that divine action is occurring only when events seem particularly non-natural? Perhaps, perhaps not. My point is simply that our words and concepts matter, if for no other reason than that they suggest and constrain other assumptions, possibilities, and conclusions. My hope is that in engaging in these complex debates will serve not to needlessly complicate matters, but to open up new theological possibilities for how we orient ourselves to the God-nature relationship.
And finally, in response to Abraham’s closing addendum that I do not go nearly far enough in exploring exactly what these theological possibilities for divine action might look like: I agree! There is much work to be done, and I fully intend to develop the suggestions of Part 2 into full-fledged research projects prioritizing both divine immanence and a robust appreciation of human physicality in all its multi-disciplinary complexity. Again, I am grateful for his engagement on these issues.
I am grateful to Bruce Gordon for the philosophical and theological clarity marking his response: it is nothing but refreshing to engage a scholar who is quite happy to explicitly name the points of convergence and divergence between one’s respective positions. Gordon and I are clearly in agreement about the metaphysical, scientific, and theological deficiencies of causal joint approaches to divine action. I would also agree, in most cases, with Gordon’s specific critiques of the three versions of theistic naturalism set forth in Part 2 of the book. For instance, we agree that Thomistic double agency is untenable; that panentheism can be theologically problematic and (in my view) far too vague in its description of the precise nature of God-world relatedness; and that pneumatological approaches are often similarly vague in their descriptions of the precise mechanisms by which divine action is said to occur. I am fully cognizant and open about the fact that these three theistic naturalisms are but partial instantiations of the sort of theistic naturalism that could be more robustly developed. They are suggestive approaches that explore the various dynamics and features that I find crucial to any “true naturalism;” as divergent as they may be in terms of specifics, “the most important affirmation shared in common by theistic naturalists is that nature is always and everywhere involved with the active presence of the immanent God” (p. 347).
Gordon disagrees with my use of the term “theistic naturalism,” and I believe I understand his reasons for this. In regard to the three theistic naturalisms I discuss, he writes: “classification of them as naturalistic depends upon a robust conception of natural causality in the inanimate realm, a deeply problematic commitment.” And yet, it is this sort of proprietary definition of naturalism that is precisely at issue in this book, and which I would reject. Similarly, Gordon writes that in regards to pneumatological naturalism, “classifying this pneumatological conception of nature among theistic naturalisms seems misleading at best for it certainly rejects the full efficacy of immanent causes.” But again, this strict delineation between immanent and transcendent causes is precisely what Part 2 of the book sets out to challenge. My goal throughout the book is to suggest ways in which naturalism itself can be understood in explicitly theological terms that prioritize the participatory involvement of all nature in and with God, at all times. That is, “To be natural is to be involved with God . . . theistic naturalists insist upon a God-nature relationship in which nature is always and everywhere fundamentally susceptible to divine action, influence, and relationship” (p. 347). My defense of the term “theistic naturalism” is not unlike Fiona Ellis’ use of “expansive naturalism. As Ellis writes, “We ourselves, qua natural beings, are already open to God. The supernatural – which here embraces both God and His communicative action – is not a spooky superstructure, extrinsic or added on to a nature which is complete in itself.”Fiona Ellis, God, Value, and Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 91. Rather, naturalism itself should be defined with reference to all dimensions of reality, rather than by the most scientistic, reductionist varieties on offer.
Finally, Gordon takes issue with my treatment of consciousness, particularly critiquing my lack of engagement with specific issues surrounding intentionality, for example, and clearly prefers an approach in which “consciousness is fundamental, not derivative.” Regarding questions of intentionality, meaning, and their relationship to physical laws, there is clearly a discussion to be had about correlation (versus, for example, causation, reducibility, or identity). For reasons discussed in Part 1 of the book, it seems clear to me that we have reason to doubt that phenomena such as intentionality are merely correlated with physical processes; or, rather, we have reason to suspect that the “mere correlation” stance is too simple, too neat, and fails to take into account the causal complexities of the brain-body-environment system. This being said, I am actually very willing to entertain naturalistic positions on the mind that go beyond the usual reductionist or emergentist approaches. While I think it is perhaps too soon to agree with Gordon that “consciousness is fundamental, not derivative,” this is certainly a position I take seriously (nowhere in the book do I subscribe to a particular, definitive philosophy of mind, after all!). For instance, I am particularly intrigued by the growing body of serious theological literature engaging with Galen Strawson’s claim that “real physicalism, realistic physicalism, entails panpsychism.”Galen Strawson (2006) “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 13:10-11, pp. 3–31, esp. p. 26. There is every possibility that consciousness might turn out to be a wholly natural, physicalist-friendly, theistically congruent, fundamental feature of reality. These are exactly the sorts of claims that challenge intuitions, engage the best of scientific thinking, and suggest immensely promising and creative theological possibilities.
I want to close with yet another word of thanks to my interlocutors. I have thoroughly enjoyed their insights and fresh critiques, and the spirit of inquiry and critical engagement with which they have engaged this book. I am better off for it! It strikes me, in closing, that one of the undervalued and rarely acknowledged features of theological discussion is the sheer personal variety embodied by its participants. This symposium serves to highlight the specific ways in which robust critical scholarship is fully compatible with a recognition that individual human interlocutors embody extremely varied cognitive styles, dispositional qualities and personality traits, intuitions, and fundamental theological inclinations. We find various theological options plausible not only because of their relative strengths or weaknesses (of course these are vital), but also because of who we are as specific, highly differentiated, embodied creatures. I am grateful for a space in which robust argumentation can occur precisely because of these differences.