Essay / Philosophy

Naturalism, Human Persons and Rationality: Admitting the Problem

The recalcitrant nature of human persons for scientific naturalism has been widely noticed. Thus, Berkeley philosopher John Searle recently observed, “There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy.” How do we fit in?….How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles? For the scientific naturalist, the answer is “not very well.”

The difficulty for scientific naturalism in accounting for these commonsense features of human beings has not been noticed simply by notable atheists. In fact, the nature of human persons has lead some to embrace theism. In the seismic book recounting the shift to theism by famous atheist Anthony Flew—There is a God—Roy Abraham Varghese notes that

“the rationality that we unmistakably experience—ranging from the laws of nature to our capacity for rational thought—cannot be explained if it does not have an ultimate ground, which can be nothing less than an infinite mind.”

According to Christianity, the Fundamental Being is rational and he created his image-bearers with the noetic equipment to exhibit rationality and be apt for truth gathering in their noetic environment. But rationality is an odd entity in a scientific naturalist world. Christian philosopher Victor Reppert agrees: “the necessary conditions for rationality cannot exist in a naturalistic universe.” And Reppert goes on to argue that the ontology of human rationality provides evidence for theism as its best explanation. But as I mentioned above, it is not simply theists who acknowledge that human rationality is a problem for naturalism and can be explained by theism. According to naturalist Thomas Nagel:

“The problem then will be not how, if we engage in it, reason can be valid, but how, if it is universally valid, we can engage in it. There are not many candidates to this question. Probably the most popular nonsubjectivist answer nowadays is an evolutionary naturalism: We can reason in these ways because it is a consequence because it is a consequence of a more primitive capacity of belief formation that had survival value during the period when the human brain was evolving. This explanation has always seemed to me to be laughably inadequate. The other well-known answer is the religious one. The universe is intelligible to us because it and our minds were made for each other.”

Naturalist Daniel Dennett queries: “How could reason ever find a foothold in a material, mechanical universe? In the beginning, there were no reasons; there were only causes. Nothing had a purpose, nothing had so much as a function; there was no teleology in the world at all.”

Two Reasons Why Rationality is Inconsistent with Naturalism

There are at least two reasons why human persons can’t be rational agents in a scientific naturalist worldview, but are predicted to be precisely such in a biblical worldview: (1) the necessity of the enduring, rational self and (2) the need for room for teleological factors to play a role in thought processes. Let’s consider these in order.

If human beings are to function are rational thinkers who can engage in rational deliberation, then not only must there be a unified self at each time in a deliberative sequence, but also an identical self that endures through the rational act. Consider A. C. Ewing’s argument:

To realize the truth of any proposition or even entertain it as something meaningful the same being must be aware of its different constituents. To be aware of the validity of an argument the same being must entertain premises and conclusion; to compare two things the same being must, at least in memory, be aware of them simultaneously; and since all these processes take some time the continuous existence of literally the same entity is required. In these cases an event which consisted in the contemplating of A followed by another event which consisted in the contemplating of B is not sufficient. They must be events of contemplating that occur in the same being. If one being thought of wolves, another of eating, and another of lambs, it certainly would not mean that anybody contemplated the proposition ‘wolves eat lambs’ There must surely be a single being persisting through the process to grasp a proposition or inference as a whole.”

If the conclusion of a syllogism is to be grasped as a conclusion, it must be drawn from the experiences of each premise singularly and, then, together. As Ewing notes, a successive series of I-stages cannot engage in such acts; only an enduring I can. Moreover, if the rational agent who embraces the conclusion is to be regarded as intellectually responsible for his reasoning, it must be the same self at the end of the process as the self who lived through the stages of reasoning that led to drawing the conclusion. One is not responsible for the acts of others or of other person-stages. So intellectual responsibility seems to presuppose an enduring I. But on the naturalist view, I am a collection of parts such that if I gain and lose parts, I am literally a different aggregate from one moment to the next. Thus, there is no such enduring I that could serve as the unifier of rational thought on a naturalist view.

Here’s the second reason why naturalism cannot account for rationality but theism can. Consider the following argument:

(1) If naturalism is true, there is no irreducible teleology.
(2) Rational deliberation exhibits irreducible teleology.
(3) Therefore, naturalism is false.

Teleology is the notion that some things happen as means to a final end, goal or purpose. Scientific naturalism completely eschews irreducible teleology, and it pervasively replaces it with mere material and efficient causes. However, reasons explanations are irreducibly teleological, and various inductive or deductive thought processes reason through a series of step in order to or for the sake of reaching a sound, true, rational conclusion. Teleology is essential to reasons explanations. To see this, look at these two sentences:

(4) The glass broke because the rock hit it.
(5) I raised my hand because I wanted to vote.

(5) offers a reasons explanation and (4) does not. (4) cites an efficient cause after “because” (the rock hitting the glass). But (5) is very different. It cites a teleological goal or end (to satisfy the desire to vote, to make difference in the culture, etc.) for the sake of which the person raised his/her hand.

Besides the analysis of reasons explanations, when one attends to one’s own endeavorings, it becomes introspectively evident that the various steps in such processes are formulated for the sake of drawing a particular conclusion. If one pays attention to fairly simple mental states in second-order awarenesses of first-order states, then it seems reasonable to say that unless there are substantial, non-question-begging, overriding defeaters, then one should believe that things are as they seem. For example, a pain is as it seems to be in such acts. Similarly, one’s own teleological endeavorings are as they seem.

Additionally, when one attends to the different states containing propositional, mental contents in rational sequences that constitute the inductive or deductive premises of the sequence, it becomes evident that these states are means—rational means—to the end of drawing the conclusion. And when one attends to both the drawing of the conclusion and the conclusion so drawn, it becomes evident that the conclusion is the end for the sake of which the process was undergone. In fact, if one is reasoning to a conclusion, and one line of reasoning is seen to be (or not to be!) epistemically useful for drawing a conclusion, we are through introspection able to become aware of this and thereupon adopt an alternative line of reasoning as a subsequent means to the conclusive end.

For these reasons, rational action and deliberation are not consistent with an evolutionary naturalist depiction of human persons. But they are predicted by Christian theism since God Himself exhibits rationality and he created his image-bearers to do so as well. In the final analysis, you either start with the Logos or with particles. If the former, then Reason is fundamental to reality and it is not hard to see how it could appear in finite creatures. If the latter, then all things are simply the arrangement of brute, mechanical, unconscious, non-rational parts. In this way, naturalism is self-defeating and theism is seen as superior in explanatory power.

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