Review of “Religion and Scientific Naturalism”

Review of “Religion and Scientific Naturalism”

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Review of Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts, David Ray Griffin (SUNY 2000).  

The conflicts between religion and scientific naturalism—as the two are commonly conceived—can be overcome if less common, but sufficiently adequate, conceptions of religion and scientific naturalism are adopted. The less common conceptions that David Ray Griffin proposes modify the common conceptions of religion and scientific naturalism so that the latter’s falsifying exaggerations are eradicated. The process metaphysics Griffin endorses supposes that the avenues for overcoming conflicts between science and religion are 1) the adoption of a minimal naturalism by science and 2) the adoption of a naturalistic theism by religion.

The conflicts between science and religion result from four misconceptions. First, religious adherents commonly assume that God exists essentially outside the world, which means that deity can, and perhaps does, interrupt the causal powers of creatures. Griffin labels this misconception “ontological supernaturalism.” Second, religious communities often remain committed to beliefs about particular “facts” long after science has demonstrated these facts to be almost certainly false (e.g., the geocentric view of the universe). Third, many in the scientific community are committed to a maximal form of naturalism, a form that rules out beliefs vital to religion. For example, maximal scientific naturalism denies nonsenory perception, purpose, a distinction between mind and body, and divine acts of creation or influence. Fourth, conflicts arise between science and religion when scientists make judgements about particular events based upon maximal scientific naturalism rather than on the basis of the evidence.

Despite these real conflicts, the relationship between religion and science need not be conflictual. Harmony is possible, says Griffin, “with the actual relation being determined by how both ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are understood” (23). Only a minimal, rather than maximal, version of naturalism is required to provide the basis of an adequate and consistent scientific method. This minimalist understanding of scientific naturalism states that “all occurrences, without exception, are explainable in principle without appeal to supernatural interventions,” says Griffin (8). To say it another way, “all events are enmeshed in a universal cause-effect nexus, so that all events have natural causes and effects” (12). Currently, however, most assume scientific naturalism in a maximal sense, and this maximal sense carries with it atheism, sensationism, and mechanism.

What in religion must be reconceived, according to Griffin, is the supernaturalistic version of theism espoused by a majority of theists. Believers should affirm the existence of a deity who is personal, perfect in power, perfectly loving, and omniscient. But the supernatural aspect of deity to be denied is God’s capacity unilaterally to “interrupt the world’s most fundamental pattern of causal relations” (11). A naturalistic theism, which involves the claim that God never interrupts the natural cause-effect nexus, offers religion a conceptual hypothesis congruent with a minimal scientific naturalism.

The materialistic version of scientific naturalism emerged in relation to, or out from, modern science’s presupposition of supernaturalistic dualism, Griffin maintains. Crucial to this unfavorable development was “modern thinking about divine action in terms of the scheme of primary and secondary causation” (18). This causal scheme involved the claim that divine causation offers the sufficient explanation for why a thing exists or event occurs; i.e., *thatness* can only be accounted for with reference to primary divine cause. Secondary, or natural causes, explain the *whatness* of things and events in this scheme. Although God usually brings about effects by permitting natural causes to determine worldly events fully, deity occasionally bypasses secondary causes to bring about a desired effect unilaterally. Instances in which has God bypassed natural secondary causes, say adherents of this scheme, include miraculous events, the ex nihilo creation of the world, the creation of life in general and individual species in particular, the creation of souls/minds, the inspiration of scripture, and the incarnation of Jesus. The “fateful implication of the primary-secondary scheme,” says Griffin, was that, according to it,

“to speak of any divine influence that is constitutive of the nature of events in the world was ipso facto to speak of a supernatural interruption of the chain of natural cause and effects.  Because most events were said to be fully explicable, at least in principle, without reference to divine influence (except for the invariable sustaining influence of God), the affirmation that variable divine influence played a constitutive role in particular events implied saying that this divine influence interrupted the causal principles involved in most events” (39).

Griffin’s alternative suggests, by contrast, that worldly causation is never fully sufficient to account for the *whatness* of any event. Divine influence is a necessary, but not sufficient, cause for every occurrence. This influence is “variable, differing both in content and effectiveness from event to event” (39), argues Griffin, while, formally speaking, always the same. This alternative scheme allows for the claim that some events reveal God’s intentions, while assuming that divine causation never interrupts the (formal) causal principles: “Although the variable divine influence would be especially significant in some events, making them special acts of God, it would be a causal factor in all events, so that these special acts would not involve supernatural interruptions of the normal causal pattern” (40).

Of course, other perspectives, attempting to harmonize scientific naturalism and religion, have been offered. One current perspective accepts that religion, qua religion, requires interruptionist supernaturalism while denying that science need be naturalistic—even in Griffin’s minimal sense. This perspective, labeled “theistic science,” is represented in the work of Alvin Plantinga and Phillip Johnson. In short, advocates of theistic science require the scientific community to eschew naturalism altogether and to adopt fully the implications of an interruptionist deity, i.e., to embrace ontological supernaturalism.

Griffin finds the theistic science perspective unrealistic, anti-evolutionary, puzzling, and inadequate for understanding the presence of evil in the world—to mention four objections. It is unrealistic, because it is highly unlikely that the scientific community will relinquish all forms of naturalism and return to a supernaturalistic perspective. It is anti-evolutionary, because it offers no plausible hypothesis to account for basic evolutionary doctrines that do find strong empirical support. It is puzzling, because it provides no good reason for why the world should be so old; a supernatural God could instantaneously create all species. Finally, it fails to provide a plausible answer to why a God capable of unilateral determination does not prevent genuine evil.

A second attempt to harmonize scientific naturalism and religion places an atheistic, methodological scientific naturalism within a supernaturalistic framework. Those whose work Griffin uses to represent this proposal include William Hasker, Ernan McMullin, and Howard Van Till. This approach encourages one to maintain divergent views simultaneously: a nontheistic naturalist method for science and a supernaturalistic worldview for religion. This second approach can attain harmony only if the religious community admits that supernatural interruptions in the world are extremely rare and if the scientific community admits that atheistic naturalism is restricted to the scientific method alone.

Several problems plague this second attempt to harmonize religion and scientific naturalism, however. First, the approach is religiously inadequate, argues Griffin, insofar as it does not allow for variable divine influence in the world. It does not allow for variable divine influence because either God acts as an event’s sufficient cause or a nondivine natural cause acts sufficiently. Second, this perspective contributes to the marginalization of theology from other scientific disciplines in the academy. Third, this scheme’s methodological atheism suggests the truth of metaphysical atheism. Because adherents affirm that a supernatural God can, and has, violated the methods of scientific naturalism, the position does not posses the consistency demanded of an adequate scientific method nor undermine the belief that metaphysical atheism is acceptable. As a result, claims Griffin, “the otherwise helpful suggestion made by methodological naturalists, that the evolutionary process will be more intelligible if regarded as initiated and guided by a purposive creator, will surely fall on deaf ears if it carries with it the idea of any supernatural interruptions of the normal causal processes” (61).

The third inadequate attempt to harmonize religion and scientific naturalism, according to Griffin, is the radical accommodation of religion to materialistic scientific naturalism. Willem Drees represents this perspective, because he minimizes religion by assuming that reductive materialism is true. The major problems of this third approach arise from its denial of subjectivity and freedom. Even those who verbally deny that humans possess subjectivity and self-determination presuppose the reality of each in their practice.  “Besides not showing that a significantly religious outlook can be harmonized with a materialistic version of scientific naturalism,” says Griffin, Drees “also has not supported his claim that this version of naturalism can ‘account for all our experiences'” (79).

A Whiteheadian-inspired worldview, however, can meet the needs of both the scientific and religious communities without either community having to adopt doctrines that rightfully repulse. This is the central thesis of the book. The proposal for harmonizing religion and scientific naturalism championed by Griffin is a form of what he variously calls “theistic naturalism” or “naturalistic theism.”

With regard to religion, this theism is traditional in that it affirms what Griffin calls the Western tradition’s “generic idea of God.”  However, several aspects of the deity envisioned by this theism are distinct.  Although creator of the world, the God of this Whiteheadian-inspired naturalistic theism does not create out of absolutely nothing, because creatio ex nihilo implies unilateral determination.  Although God possesses the freedom to decide among a wide variety of options when acting in each moment, these decisions necessarily are partially contingent upon the existence of some world or another.  The God of this naturalistic theism is supreme in power, yet this deity works exclusively through persuasion (i.e., is never a sufficient cause).  All of this means — and what lies at the heart of Griffin’s alternative — that this naturalistic theism assimilates “the God-world relation to the metaphysical principles involved in all causal relations” (96).

With regard to science, this naturalism calls for a reconception of the ultimate units of nature. “At the heart of this modification,” says Griffin, “is Whitehead’s rejection of the notion of ‘vacuous actuality’ in favor of the view that the ultimate units are to be understood as occasions of experience—the view I call ‘panexperientialism'” (98).  The doctrine of panexperientialism plays a central role what Griffin contends is philosophy’s central task: the development of “a position that shows how the various notions that we inevitably presuppose in practice can all be true” (101). One of those “hard-core commonsense notions” is our own experience of freedom; other notions entail the widespread witness in practice to moral and religious experiences. The panexperientialist hypothesis also provides an explanation for how God can influence all of nature: all actual entities directly perceive God through nonsensory prehension. In addition, the doctrine provides an explanatory hypothesis for life after bodily death. Griffin closes his discussion of panexperientialism by pointing to scientific developments that give reason to consider doctrine’s validity; those whose work is mentioned include Roger Sperry, John Eccles, David Bohm, Henry Stapp, Ilya Prigogine, and others.

In a lengthy chapter, Griffin lays out a solution for the mind-body body problem and explains the problem’s relation to conflict between religion and scientific naturalism. A solution to this problem is crucial if the freedom presupposed by religion is to be affirmed and the hard determinism often thought necessary for science is to be denied. The implications of panexperientialism reside at the core of Griffin’s mind-body solution: the mind is numerically distinct from the brain and body while being of the same ontological types as the units of which the brain is composed (i.e., a moment of experience). This solution is crucial because it “provides a position in terms of which we can take seriously the evidence for ‘extrasensory perception’ as usually understood, which in turn provides a basis for taking testimonies to distinctly religious experience more seriously,” says Griffin (178).  (For a full discussion of the solution Griffin gives to the mind-body problem, see Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem [University of California Press 1998]).

While a discussion of the mind-body problem’s relation to the contemporary science and religion dialogue is rare, a discussion of contemporary parapsychology’s relation to the science and religion conflict is even more so. On one side, conservative-to-fundamentalist philosophers of religion and theologians have rejected parapsychological research, says Griffin, because it undermines supernaturalism’s interruptionist scheme, thus apparently undermining miracles and the authority of various religious powers (e.g., scripture, Church, prophets). On the other side, liberal philosophers of religion and theologians have ignored parapsychologica research, because they feared being rejected in intellectual circles suspicious of paranormal claims.

Given the continued widespread rejection of parapsychological research, Griffin’s explanation for how he became interested in the paranormal seems appropriate:

“While reading around on the mind-body problem, I stumbled onto an intelligent discussion of the philosophical implications of parapsychology . . . .  Thanks partly to the fact that I had already adopted a philosophical position that does not rule out paranormal phenomena a priori, and partly to the fact that I had time, being on sabbatical leave, I followed up this lead and began reading widely in the field.  Through this extended exposure, I became impressed with the quantity of the work that had been done and with the quality of much of it.  Since that initial exposure . . . , I have become increasingly convinced not only that most of parapsychology’s types of phenomena are genuine, but also that this fact is of utmost importance for philosophy of religion and theology.  With regard to theology in particular, I believe that the incorporation of parapsychological data is crucial for the development of forms of postmodern liberal theology that can overcome the thinness, often verging on vacuity, of most forms of modern liberal theology. . . . Thanks to the evidence provided by parapsychology, we can have a theology that, while fully naturalistic in worldview and liberal in method, is as robust religiously as any supernaturalistic, authoritarian theology.  Whereas modern liberal theologies have achieved a reconciliation of science with theology at the expense of its religious content, parapsychology is crucial for a form of liberal theology that effects a reconciliation of science with religion” (183).

Griffin devotes a significant amount of space to explaining why parapsychology should be considered a legitimate branch of science. Most importantly, a huge amount of paranormal data exist. Contemporary scientists have largely ignored these data despite science’s formal concern to examine all phenomena dispassionately. Parapsychological data provide further justification for denying maximal scientific naturalism’s detrimental mechanistic and sensationist presuppositions.

When the implications of parapsychology are applied to the theological enterprise, a number of advantages become evident. These implications help overcome the thinness of modern liberal theology by supporting 1) religious, moral and aesthetic experience, 2) the belief that creatures directly relate to God, 3) the evidence that spiritual disciplines are transformative, 4) the occurrence of genuine spiritual healing, and 5) a realistic doctrine of life after death.  (For an extended discussion of parapsychology, science, and religion, see Griffin’s Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration [SUNY, 1997]).

In his concluding chapter entitled “Creation and Evolution,” Griffin addresses issues that have long been at the center of the conflicts arising between religion and scientific naturalism. “Given the total opposition between Darwinian evolutionists and scientific creation on . . . matters of ultimate concern,” notes Griffin, “it is no wonder that the antagonism between the camps has been so extreme.” However, “there is good reason to believe that both of these worldviews are false” (243). Griffin examines the various dimensions of Darwinian evolution by pointing out fourteen of its dimensions. He accepts dimensions of evolution involving microevolution, macroevolution (in the sense that all present species of living things have in some way descended from previous species over a very long period of time), minimal naturalism (in the sense that supernatural interruptions of the normal causal processes cannot occur), and ontological uniformitarianism (in the sense that only causal factors operating in the present can be employed). Many other aspects identified with Darwinian evolution, however, are unnecessary. Included among these unnecessary dimensions are (1) the belief that biological evolution occurs without any theistic guidance whatsoever, (2) an empirical positivism based solely upon sensory observation thereby excluding nonsensory perception, (3) predictive determinism, (4) the belief that evolution occurs solely through natural selection operating upon random variations, thereby denying purpose, (5) that macroevolution proceeds gradually, through a step-by-step process comprised of tiny steps, (6) nominalism, (7) atheism, (8) amorality, (9) and the belief that evolution is nonprogressive.  Griffin’s nuanced handling of each of these dimensions, including their connections and implications, is sorely needed by those on all sides of this debate.

The Whiteheadian naturalistic framework, involving a panexperientialist ontology, a nonsensationalist doctrine of perception, and a naturalistic theism, can be a more adequate framework for an acceptable evolutionary theory. On the philosophical side, this naturalistic framework allows one to speak of chance interactions having arisen from purposive actualities. The framework provides conceptualities that support internal change in actualities and the emergence of high-level actualities. It denies that supernatural interruptions of the normal causal processes ever occur, thereby supporting the ontological uniformitarianism scientific naturalism requires.

The implications that Griffin’s naturalistic framework has for scientific evolutionary theory are profound. In this naturalistic framework, God introduces novelty into the created order. This introduction provides a basis for affirming inner evolutionary gradualism and outer evolutionary saltationism (a.k.a., “punctuated equilibria”), which means, says Griffin, that “although there is a saltational change in the outer world, the change that has been going on behind the scenes, which is the only change that the divine appetitions can directly influence, has been gradualistic” (304). The saltational change of the outer world does not involve supersaltations, however, in the sense that this framework does not allow for leaps of any size whatsoever. “Besides not allowing for creations out of nothing,” says Griffin,

“it also does not allow for creations out of inadequate materials. . . .  This wider naturalism does allow for larger steps than did the nontheistic, nominalistic version of naturalism.  But it still entails that the creation of the present state of the world had to involve a step-by-step process” (307-8).

Having summarized the content of the book and given the reader a taste as to the depth and measure of Griffin’s work, I should note that I became thoroughly convinced by the author’s arguments. The book breaks new ground while offering an extremely compelling case. I would agree with John F. Haught who said this of the volume: “No book that I know of has struck so directly at the roots of the dispute nor provided such a polished, thorough, and well-argued synthesis of religion and theological insight on the issues in science and religion.” If this book is given the widespread readership it deserves, the current science and religion dialogue, particularly at the philosophical level, will be radically changed.