Sarah Lane Ritchie’s Divine Action and the Human Mind is a well-written treatise advocating for a robust theistic naturalism that affirms God’s active presence not only in the human mind, but throughout the natural world. Let’s clarify her terminology since, on the surface, it would seem that “theistic naturalism” is an oxymoron. The standard philosophical understanding of “naturalism” holds that the supernatural realm is non-existent, nature is autonomous and causally closed, and natural properties and causes are sufficient for all explanations. In short, naturalism conventionally holds that God does not exist and thus cannot have an explanatory function.

Cambridge University Press, 2019

To speak coherently of “theistic naturalism” requires revising the philosophical meaning of “naturalism” to render it consistent with theism. To achieve this, Ritchie advocates a “theological turn” that conceptualizes laws of nature in terms of the ontology of divine action rather than vice-versa (p. 27). It is her position that science cannot, by itself, delimit the ontology of nature or the parameters of the God-nature relationship. The nature of nature can only be grasped properly when it is understood in terms of a God-nature relationship that includes a conception of divine action as, in some appropriate sense, naturally formative, that is, as giving being and structure to nature. In principle, then, the whole of scientific knowledge—insofar as we can agree on what constitutes it—is drawn into the ontology of theistic naturalism, allowing our understanding of nature to be analyzed in various theological frameworks that offer different conceptualizations of divine action. This terminological anschluss reveals the deficiency of standard philosophical naturalism while opening the door to a “true” naturalism that places nature in its proper metaphysical context as created and ordered by God (p. 28).

On Making the Theological Turn

While I have strong reservations about the confusion the term “theological naturalism” can generate and I generally despise the standard philosophical associations conjured by the word “naturalism” itself (see Ritchie’s distillation on pp. 202-203), I whole-heartedly agree that the theological turn Ritchie advocates is necessary. Divine action must be understood as formative of nature and essential to its coherent functionality. I would, however, seek explanations significantly different than the ones she explores and articulate a conception of the human mind quite different from what she considers, though I cannot readily explore these here. In regard to the necessity of the theological turn, I would contend that there is no sustainable concept of natural necessitation (physical law) under the aegis of philosophical naturalism. But contrary to Ritchie’s worry that any theological naturalism that makes God indispensable to nature while including “the whole of scientific knowledge” faces the challenge of “real engagement with the natural sciences” (p. 29), I would argue that when scientific knowledge is allowed to affect how we conceive of the mode of divine action in relation to the physical world and of the human mind, certain conceptions are eliminated and others revealed to be superior. I cannot say much about this in a short review, but I’ve written extensively about it elsewhere.See B. L. Gordon, “Idealism and Science: The Quantum-Theoretic and Neuroscientific Foundations of Reality,” in Joshua Farris and Benedikt Göcke, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Idealism and Immaterialism (New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2020), and references to various other essays of mine therein.

Rejecting Causal Joint Models

Ritchie is rightly and severely critical of what she calls “causal joint” models of both the interventionist and non-interventionist kind. These models focus on the causal joints where divine activity is conjectured to meet physical reality. The interventionist (in my view correctly) rejects the causal closure principle that physical events must have physical causes, but unfortunately also presupposes the background autonomy of physical reality. Causal joints thus occur where God intervenes and divine causality supplants physical causality. Interventionism thus allows for “violations” of laws of nature: autonomous physical laws are ceteris paribus laws, but not all things are equal when God acts in a special way. The ceteris paribus status of physical regularities seems correct, but it is wrong to think of physical laws as operating autonomously without divine involvement, so the idea that something is “violated” by special divine action is mistaken. Since the regularity of nature is always dependent on divine action, the idea of an intervention is misconceived; it is never the case that God is not active.My view of how divine action functions to maintain the integrity of reality is articulated and defended in B. L. Gordon, “The Necessity of Sufficiency: The Argument from the Incompleteness of Nature,” in Jerry Walls and Trent Dougherty, eds., Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 417–45, and other essays. The non-interventionist causal joint theorist seemingly shares with the interventionist an assumption that either God or natural processes can be responsible for an event, but not both, while looking for causal joints where divine activity can meet physical reality without violating the laws of nature. This approach, like interventionism, is also mistaken in attributing autonomy to nature, but it is mistaken in other ways too. The non-interventionist must search for gaps in the causal structure of nature where God may operate and, naturally enough, looks to quantum physics. While quantum physics does have some very interesting implications for theories of divine action, the non-interventionist appropriation of it is ill-conceived. It is not hard to show that if nature is autonomous, then assuming there would have been a different outcome if God had not acted in the causal gap imposes counterfactual definiteness on the quantum system in a way that leads to a Bell inequality the system will violate, so the assumption is false.See my essay “A Quantum-Theoretic Argument against Naturalism,” in B. L. Gordon and W. A. Dembski, eds., The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (Wilmington, NC: ISI Books, 2011), 179–214, esp. §3. While it is true that there is no local fact of the matter to be known about quantum outcomes before they are observed—and supposing there is leads to Bell inequalities the quantum system will violate—this does not entail that it’s metaphysically impossible for God to create quantum outcomes as they happen in a way that maintains the validity of quantum-mechanical descriptions (indeed, the distinction between “as they happen” and “fixed in nature” disappears from a timeless divine perspective). We shouldn’t think of God as acting in the causal gaps of a causally-closed secondary-causational structure; rather, divine causality constitutes the reality of any and all quantum phenomena, tout court. Self-contained efficient or probabilistic causality has no role in inanimate nature. Ritchie discusses a variety of problems with causal joint models and ultimately rejects the interventionist/non-interventionist binary altogether (p. 47), a conclusion with which I agree, though my reasons differ in some ways because the model I find superior is quite different than any she considers. But we do agree that causal joint models are deficient theologically, metaphysically, and scientifically.

Three Theistic Naturalisms

Ritchie’s discusses three “theistic naturalisms.” Her classification of them as naturalistic depends upon a robust conception of natural causality in the inanimate realm, a deeply problematic commitment. In the case of Thomistic naturalism, for instance, a double agency is affirmed in which God is the primary cause, fully efficacious in all events, but natural processes as secondary causes are concurrently fully efficacious (p. 56). Insofar as this view is tenable, it ensures that God works in and through fully efficacious physical processes, but there are significant reasons to think the view is untenable.For the double-agency required by Thomistic naturalism to be effective, there must be essential states of material substances that necessitate lawlike behavior; but there’s no necessary metaphysical connection between the material identity of a substance and the causal powers it supposedly has, so the power is not intrinsic to its nature but rather produced by God. Furthermore, even if it weren’t metaphysically problematic, fully efficacious secondary causality has no place in quantum physics. Causal closure resides in divine action alone. Panentheism is the view that the world is, in some ontological sense, within God, though God is more than the world, so panentheism is not pantheism. The idea is that the world, while outside the divine essence, is still somehow within the divine being (pp. 119–20, 267ff), that is, God essentially transcends a reality that is nonetheless an extension of his being. Ritchie’s discussion of panentheistic naturalism focuses primarily on the work of Philip Clayton and Christopher Knight, who have very different approaches. Clayton’s model focuses on emergent divine action in the ontological hierarchies of the natural world, plus the prospect for downward causation of the whole on the parts on which it depends (pp. 119­­–22). As is inevitably the case with emergentist proposals, particularly on a grand scale, Clayton’s is scientifically vague and degenerates into efforts to leverage plausibility on the basis of metaphor and metaphysical conjecture wrapped into a nicely framed narrative;For an extended critique of technical notions of supervenience and emergence applied to nature in general and quantum physics in particular, see B. L. Gordon, “The Incompatibility of Physicalism with Physics,” in Joshua Farris and Keith Loftin, eds., Christian Physicalism: Philosophical Theological Criticisms (New York: Lexington Books, 2018), 371–402; see also my response to Alister McGrath in Paul Copan and Christopher Reese, eds., Three Views on Christianity and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, forthcoming 2020). recognition of this fact is a readily discernible subtext of Ritchie’s evaluation of Clayton’s position (see esp. p. 125). Christopher Knight’s panentheistic naturalism, which embraces divine timelessness as an explanatory resource, has more going for it, both theologically and scientifically, though I think it needs considerable revision, and I would distance myself from terminology involving either panentheism or naturalism in describing my position.It is important to note that divine timelessness (eternalism) removes the distinction between creation and providence from God’s perspective outside of time and also reconciles occasionalism with the idea that there are ceteris paribus physical laws “written into nature.” Since occasionalism also removes the distinction between creation and providence from within time, there is a philosophical affinity between occasionalism and eternalism in this respect. If we ask how we can have the freedom requisite to moral responsibility when the future, with every decision we will make, exists timelessly as a creative act of God, the answer is that we have freedom in each moment of consciousness, and our lives are the collection of such moments. God eternally perceives what each choice is. If we would have chosen differently—and we are created with the freedom to do so—then God, in his timeless creative act, would have brought a different universe into being. Finally, there is pneumatological naturalism (pp. 298ff).Ritchie discusses the views of James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong in this regard, while noting that Wolfhart Pannenberg, in a plausible reading, might also be classified as a pneumatological naturalist (p. 299, n1). As described by Ritchie, pneumatological naturalism sees the Holy Spirit’s presence and influence in the natural world as normative—the world is infused with the Spirit of God and the human mind is a particularly intense locus of human participation in God (pp. 299–300). In James K. A. Smith’s formulation, all of nature is involved with God in a dynamic and participatory way that negates any presumed autonomy of nature (p. 303). As Ritchie notes, however, Smith’s approach does very little to explain the mode of divine action in the world (pp. 315–16), so she turns to Yong for further elucidation. Yong understands the laws of nature as habitual, dynamic, and general tendencies that are part of the fabric of reality and that evolve as the Spirit invites creation and empowers free creatures to inhabit the eschatological presence of God (p. 322). While this theological language is edifying, it is also vague. Its implication seems to be that the regularities of nature are what they are because of the Spirit’s presence, and when the particulars of the Spirit’s presence change, a different result occurs than would otherwise have occurred. It is thus not hard to see why Jeffrey Koperski thinks that Smith’s and Yong’s view commit them to a form of occasionalismJeffrey Koperski, Divine Action, Determinism, and the Laws of Nature (New York: Routledge, 2020), 25. Unlike Koperski, however, I do not think this is a bad thing, nor do I think it makes the problem of evil and theodicy more difficult than, say, ceteris paribus secondary causation.—which makes it downright strange (Smith’s terminology aside) to call it “pneumatological naturalism,” for occasionalism is nothing if not supernatural in its emphasis. Insofar as Koperski is right—and I’m inclined to think he is—classifying this pneumatological conception of nature among theistic naturalisms seems misleading at best for it certainly rejects the full efficacy of immanent causes. Regardless, it’s fair to say pneumatological naturalism (so-called) needs fewer theological metaphors and a more rigorous metaphysical analysis of the mode of divine action in nature.

The Fundamental Status of Consciousness and Mental Causation

While I’m enthusiastic about a theological turn that understands the law-like order in nature in terms of divine action, I’m considerably less sanguine about Ritchie’s advocacy of theological naturalism, especially since she sees it as opening a way to embrace naturalistic accounts of the human mind (pp. 29, 346, et passim). In this pursuit, she discusses the hard problem of consciousness and various attempts to deflate it (pp. 133–56), but never really comes to terms with intentionality as the hallmark of consciousness and the intrinsic inability of matter, qua material, to possess it, or of computers, as machines, to ascend from the implementation of algorithms to the grasping of concepts (understanding). Meaning is not intrinsic to neurons, synaptic traffic, or the neurochemical syntax of the brain, nor is it generated by it any more than the grammar and lexicon of natural languages have intrinsic associations with the meanings they are used to convey. Our capacity for intentionality and semantics is correlated with physical systems and their behaviors in our bodily life and communication, but it is not intrinsic to these things, nor could it be. Intentionality and meaning transcend the phenomena of the physical world while being correlated with them in contingent ways. These correlations are themselves subject to scientific investigation and description, but the mind as inherently characterized by intentionality exists at a level of reality beyond the physical and must be studied at this level, for it is neither reducible to a material substrate nor capable of being generated by it. Ritchie considers mind-brain identity theory, functionalism, and non-reductive physicalism (pp. 157–85) as paradigmatic physicalist approaches to mind, and they are, as she recognizes, all woefully incomplete. The lesson here is that there are principled considerations that would counsel us against placing our faith in a naturalism-of-the-gaps. Consciousness is fundamental, not derivative. I therefore see naturalistic accounts of the human mind—ones that portray human consciousness as something physical and either reducible to brain function or in some non-reductive and nebulous sense supervenient upon or emergent from brain function while having an effect on brain function—as resting on a category mistake. Consciousness is not what needs explaining; consciousness is what does the explaining. Matter is not fundamental in the theistic worldview, mind is. Our consciousness transcends and makes possible the experience of what we call physical reality in and through our bodies, and divine consciousness is what creates and sustains physical reality as a whole, inclusive of our bodies. The presence of consciousness in the universe and the existence of physical reality itself do not have explanations that arise from within nature. Both have their explanation in that which grounds all of reality: God. Divine consciousness transcends nature and is fundamental while created consciousness transcends nature and is derivative of divine consciousness. Both function as explanans, not explananda. As I pointed out, however, this does not mean that consciousness cannot be scientifically investigated. There are neural correlates of consciousness and the neurophenomenology of brains and nervous systems is empirically investigable within a metaphysics that reverses the polarity of explanation from what is commonly supposed, which is to say, the mental is primary and causative, and the physical is derivative and passive, not the reverse.


Sarah Lane Ritchie’s book provides abundant opportunity for reflection on important issues in the theology of nature, theological anthropology, philosophical theology, divine and human action, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and natural science (especially quantum physics and neuroscience). Her treatment of the issues is helpful, though we have found reasons to differ from some of her conclusions and strategies along the way. I suppose as many questions have been raised as have been answered in this regard, but one may hope the stage has been set for interesting conversations to follow.