Review of David Ray Griffin’s “Religion & Scientific Naturalism”

Review of David Ray Griffin’s “Religion & Scientific Naturalism”

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Review of:
 RELIGION AND SCIENTIFIC NATURALISM, OVERCOMING THE CONFLICTS, by David Ray Griffin. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2000. 345 pages, index, notes, bibliography. Softcover; $25.95. ISBN 0-7914-4563-1.

David Ray Griffin, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont, a prolific writer on issues of science and religion, has written a watershed book, one which has received the Book Award for 2000 from the (UK-based) Scientific and Medical Network. This volume, one in the SUNY series in Constructive Postmodern Thought, argues a Whiteheadian based philosophy that religion does not require supernaturalism and science does not require materialism. Griffin describes himself as a panentheistic Christian, one who sees God as more than the universe and yet the universe as part of God. He sees God at work in the universe, but in a “persuasive” rather than in a “coercive” way.

One does not have to subscribe to panentheism to benefit from this work. It was the primary text in Dr. William Dean’s Science and Religion Ph-D level course at the Iliff School of Theology in the spring of 2001. While a difficult read, demanding full attention and study, I found it to be well worth the considerable effort demanded during that course.

Both Whitehead, writing in 1925, and Griffin see a middle ground between materialism and supernaturalism. Griffin uses the term “theistic naturalism” for this worldview. While some may view that phrase as oxymoronic, a study of this book will show it has significant meaning. Griffin writes (Page xv):

“The central question of this book is simply whether there is anything essential to science that is in conflict with any beliefs essential to vital religion, especially theistic religion. My answer is No, but the dominant answer has been Yes… .”

Griffin defines two metaphysical terms, “naturalism(sam)” and “naturalism(ns). Naturalism(ns) is all science requires, he argues, and is fully compatible with theistic religion. He defines naturalism(ns) as being simply a rejection of supernatural interventions which interrupt causal relations, and naturalism(sam) as including naturalism(ns) plus sensationism, atheism, materialism, determinism, reductionism,  no causation from mind to body, upward causation only, no transcendent source of religious experience, no variable divine influence, and no ultimate meaning to life (nihilism). The (sam) comes from the terms “sensationalism,” “atheism,” and “materialism.” He also observes that other writers call naturalism(sam) by the names reductionistic naturalism, materialistic naturalism and atheistic naturalism. I have been used to the term “metaphysical naturalism.”

Arguing that Naturalism(sam) is the dominant scientific worldview, Griffin cites Russell, Monod, Skinner, Uttal, Wilson, Provine, Drees, Asimov, Lewontin, Crick, Searle, Weinberg, Dawkins and others as evidence of this. Seeking a religion/science harmony, he sees three things as necessary:

1. They must share a worldview.
2. Science must insist only on naturalism(ns), not also on naturalism(sam).
3. Religion must agree that it can live with naturalism(ns) and therefore without supernaturalism.

Griffin examines three alternatives (of the many that exist), which challenge one or more of these theses:

1. Theistic Science, as proposed by Plantinga and Johnson.
2. Scientific naturalism within a supernaturalistic framework, as proposed by Van Till and others.
3. Accommodating religion to naturalism(sam), as proposed by Drees.

The discussions on these, 38 pages in all, are very well done. One of the strengths of this book lies in the way Griffin can find merit in some, but not all, of these competing ideas. Advocates of any of these positions can benefit from his remarks.

Having argued that none of those alternatives succeed, Griffin turns to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, proposing a theistic naturalism that can bring harmony. Griffin argues that theism need not require supernaturalism to be genuine and “robust.”  He first discusses Deweyan naturalism, as proposed in 1944, rejecting it. He then discusses the views of James Pratt. In Pratt’s book, published in 1939, naturalism can recognize “the reality of teleological, purposeful causation.” (Page 87). Pratt also held that teleology included both the living and non-living world, and that the mind and brain could, and did, interact.

Pratt, however, did not go far enough (Griffin asserts) and so this book takes up where Pratt left off.  Arguing against the supernaturalistic version of theism. Griffin, like Whitehead, believes that the basic casual principles of the world are never interrupted. How, then, does Griffin find a “genuine robust religion?” Disdaining modern liberal religion, because it denies divine activity in the world, he asserts such activity for theistic naturalism, arguing that there are nine features to the “generic idea” of God:

1. a personal, purposive being
2. supreme in power
3. perfect in goodness
4. created the world
5. acts providentially in the world
6. experienced by human beings
7. the ultimate guarantee for the meaningfulness of human life
8. the ground of hope for the victory of good over evil
9. alone worthy of worship

Theistic naturalism retains all nine of these features, he says, by modifying the traditional understanding of  #2, from coercive power to persuasive power. This, in turn, modifies the traditional meaning of #4, #5 and #8. He rejects Creation ex Nihilo, arguing that it is not biblical, and is the concept that leads to the problem of theodicy. He sees God as one of the casual influences on every event.

In chapter 6, Griffin addresses the mind-body problem in detail, asserting that it has been the central problem for modern philosophy. He says that we have some “hard common sense” (i.e. non-negotiable) beliefs about ourselves, which we presuppose in practice. Among these are:

1. We have conscious experience
2. We have at least partial free will
3. Our free will can act on the body, therefore
4. We have at least a degree of responsibility for our bodily actions

While there are those, such as Searle, Crick, and Skinner, who argue that science has proven false one or more of these ideas. Griffin effectively rebuts them. In a high point of his book, he argues that if one eliminates a belief in the reality, self-determination and causal efficacy of conscious experience, the belief still remains, because as much as one may deny these beliefs verbally, he will continue to assume them. If a speaker tells you that you should eliminate beliefs in these three things, he must necessarily assume that:

(1) you can understand what he is saying,
(2) you can freely choose, or reject, his advice, and
(3) you can freely choose, in the future, to tell others of it.

To deny this is irrational, it is a “performative self contradiction.”

In chapter 7, Griffin argues that paranormal events are “real” and that this reality provides empirical support, beyond what Whitehead himself had provided, for the Whiteheadian concept of God. He does not argue that it is an essential part of that foundation, however. Readers of this section may want to compare the writings of William James in his 1902 book, THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, in particular lectures XVI and XVII.

In chapter 8, the chapter I enjoyed most, Griffin addresses “Darwinian Evolutionism,” arguing that it is not an all-or-none affair, but a mixture of ideas. Darwinian Evolutionism has fourteen dimensions:

 1. Microevolution 
2. Macroevolution (all present species have come from previous species) 
3. Naturalistic 
4. Uniformitarianism

 Griffin accepts these dimensions, but rejects the next ten:

 5. No theistic guidance, either non-casual or “directing influence” 
6. Positivism. All influences are, in principle, detectable through sensory perception 
7. Predictive (in principle) Determinism. No teleology. 
8. Macroevolution understood as microevolution happening long enough 
9. Natural selection acting on mutations the sole cause
10. Gradualism. Tiny step by tiny step
11. Nominalism
12. Atheistic
13. Amoral
14. Nonprogressive

A significant argument for Darwinism is that we require a materialistic theory (because we are good methodological naturalists) to explain how we got here and Darwinism is not just the best such theory, it is the only such theory (garbage dumped on the earth millennia ago just moves the area of interest from the earth to another location). Therefore, if materialism is true, Darwinism must be true. Materialism being the scientist’s presupposition, Darwinism is the only game that can be played.. Griffin observes that this argument can be turned against Darwinism. If materialism has proved inadequate for other issues, such as human consciousness, or for psi effects, or for certain religious experiences, then the obvious presumption ought to be that it is also inadequate for evolution.

God, says Griffin, not being external to the universe, is essentially the soul of the universe, and exists with the universe, with equal necessity, being coeternal. He identifies himself as a Christian, but points out that one implication of theistic naturalism that some will find problematic is that it provides no basis for arguing that Christianity is “The One True Religion.” Not considering this implication a drawback, Griffin, an advocate of religious pluralism, sees it to be a benefit. He argues that classical theism’s depiction of God is, itself, unbiblical.

There is an extensive bibliography, 16 pages, in excess of 300 citations. So many books! So little time! Griffin has written a later book, REENCHANTMENT WITHOUT SUPERNATURALISM: A PROCESS PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION (Cornell, 2001) in which he expands on many of the ideas developed so well here.

This book is highly recommended to those who study science/religion issues in depth, and to others interested in the philosophical issues of process theology. It is a “keeper” in my own library.