Supernaturalism and Explanation

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Is Nature Enough?
Book Author: 
by John Haught

Theologian John Haught attempts to show the naturalist that nature is indeed not enough.

If you want to convert someone to your way of thinking, a good strategy is to point out shared assumptions and facts, then demonstrate that it’s your view, not your opponent’s, that follows from what you agree about. In his book Is Nature Enough? theologian John Haught uses this strategy in an attempt to show the naturalist that nature is indeed not enough. He agrees with the naturalist that the essential project is to make sense of our situation – to explain things to our best satisfaction – and in doing so we want to be empirical, not engage in magical thinking, and avoid unmotivated dualisms that complicate reality unnecessarily. With these shared assumptions about explanatory adequacy in hand, Haught sets out to convince the naturalist that the scientific description of reality is inadequate to explain human intelligence and subjectivity – the mind – and that therefore the naturalist’s commitment to science is unjustifiably limited. To explain mind we must go beyond science and use what Haught calls a “richer empiricism” which includes other modes of knowing. These modes reveal that the natural world described by science is not all there is. In addition to the insentient matter and non-purposive processes of physics and cosmology, lurking behind and immanent in nature, and driving existence toward some sort of apotheosis of meaning, there is…Mind. The ultimate explanation of human intelligence is that it participates in a transcendent, purposive intelligence, what some call god.  

Can we trust our reason?

A central element of Haught’s attack on naturalism is a version of what’s become known as the argument from reason. He asks: why should we trust our own reasoning if we’re merely and strictly natural, evolved creatures? We of course do and must trust our reasoning, since that’s all we’ve got, but Haught claims we can only trust it if there’s more to human intelligence than what the blind, mechanical processes of natural selection could produce: “By itself science cannot justify the spontaneous trust you have placed in your own mind even as you seek to arrive at scientific truth” (p. 28). In fact, “a consistent acceptance of scientific naturalism logically impairs the very trust that underlies…attempts to know and understand the world” (p. 37, emphasis added).  Further,

If the ultimate cause of mind is mindlessness, we would still need to look for reasons to trust our minds here and now, as Darwin himself seemed to realize.[1] Fully justifying the obvious acts of faith that we place in our critical intelligence requires that we situate human cognitional life, and along with it the whole universe, in a more spacious environment than the one laid out by scientific naturalism (p. 53).  

To which the naturalist responds with the Missouri state motto: show me. Why is it, precisely, that mechanical, insentient processes and elements, when structured properly, can’t constitute sentient, rational cognitive systems, namely us, that form sufficiently accurate and thus trustworthy models of the world outside our heads? Sure, we don’t yet understand how the brain does it, but what’s the logical contradiction between being a set of neural mechanisms and instantiating a reliable rationality? Haught never quite says, unlike for instance Alvin Plantinga, who’s worked hard to refute naturalism on logical grounds. Further, for Haught to make good on his claim, he has to say what additional supernatural (underived from natural selection) cognitive feature is needed to justify trust in reason, and he has to specify what it does, how it works, and where it comes from. Nowhere does Haught suggest what this feature might be.

He does discuss four “fields of meaning” that constitute the richer empiricism through which the mind contacts reality: affectivity, intersubjectivity, narrativity and beauty. He says these non-analytical, non-theoretic modes of knowing must be added to scientific inquiry to really understand the world. Of course, many might doubt that the intuitive, qualitative knowledge in such domains meets the criteria of reliability, universality, and replicability that science assiduously tries to meet, however imperfectly, in its knowledge claims. These ways of knowing don’t seem, on the face of it, at all empirical, so Haught’s richer empiricism seems misnamed. But the point here is that such modes of understanding, empirical or not, are themselves perfectly natural, organic parts of human higher functioning. If instead they somehow transcend what the physical brain can do using it’s evolved neural resources, then Haught again has to specify what non-physical, supernatural, non-evolved capacity such knowing employs, and how it alone can justify trust in our reason. But he doesn’t, so his claim that our neural resources are insufficient for knowing and trust in knowing seems unsupported.

The limits of knowledge

According to Haught, there are two things about the mind that can’t be naturalized, that can’t be explained by science and thus shown to be within nature. One is what he calls the anticipatory aspect of the human desire to know, the other is conscious subjectivity.  About the first he says (original emphasis):

[A]s a little reflection will show, the desire to know intends nothing less than the fullness of being. This is why any arbitrary imposition of boundaries on the desire to know is an act of violence, inconsistent with truth-seeking. Even the human capacity to experience limits as limits – for example, to suspect that nature is all there is – is due to the fact that the desire to know always reaches out beyond the confines of what is actually known. The desire to know is anticipatory rather than possessive. It is most at home where there is an openness to a limitless horizon of being, and it begins to feel cramped whenever it hears phrases such as “enough,” “nothing but,” or “all there is”…

            The horizon of being and truth toward which the desire to know extends itself is unrestricted. And it is only our mind’s reaching out toward an endlessly wider plenitude of being that exposes, by way of contrast, the poverty of what we have actually comprehended. The limits of cognitional achievement cannot be recognized as such unless the mind has already transcended those limits in some way. Consequently there is something immediately unseemly about the naturalist claim that nature is all there is. For how could one know that reality ends at the boundaries of nature unless the naturalist’s own mind has also quietly extended itself beyond that limit? Can the mind know a limit as a limit, G.F. Hegel and other philosophers have asked, unless the same mind has already somehow – courageously – transcended that limit?  (pp 41-2)

Well yes, it can. When constructing a scientific model of reality, the question of its adequacy is obviously primary, and this reflects the commonsense idea that in our dealings with the world, whether mundane or cosmic, we may not be getting it right, or may never get it right. The idea of a limit or boundary to knowledge, temporary or permanent, is implicit in the very project of understanding; we don’t need to suppose that the mind somehow transcends this limit to become cognizant of it. And besides, the idea that “nature is all there is” isn’t to limit the quest for knowledge. It’s simply to say that the scientific method, what naturalists rely on in making claims about ultimate reality, inevitably unifies the objects of empirical inquiry within a single coherent domain, what we call nature. It isn’t to limit what we might learn about nature.

Haught’s argument, here and in many other passages, amounts to an argument from psychology: because the desire to know “is most at home where there is an openness to a limitless horizon of being” it’s affronted by the idea that nature is all there is; therefore nature is not all there is. He moves from an observation about human desire to an assertion about reality, but of course the inference fails. Reality routinely thwarts our desires, and claims about it that are so obviously driven by what we want to be the case are automatically suspect, if we are empiricists.

Throughout the book Haught says that this anticipatory, questing desire to know, something he says we all directly experience, can’t be fully accounted for by any compositional, algorithmic process. Therefore, and alternatively, there must be something essential and non-compositional in reality, something that transcends the natural material space-time continuum and its particles and forces. Only anticipation as a fundamental feature of reality – a teleological cognitive striving on the part of all existence – can really, ultimately explain its existence in us.

Again, this is strong claim about the limits of science’s explanatory resources: our personal experience of anticipation will never be understood as a function or by-product of being a naturally evolved cognitive system. But Haught doesn’t and can’t prove this negative; he only asserts it – many, many times. In fact, naturalistic neuroscience is making considerable headway in showing how psychological-intentional states such as beliefs and desires might be instantiated in purely physical systems. On what basis should this possibility be ruled out, as Haught suggests it should? Furthermore, to explain the anticipatory aspect of mind by saying that it partakes of a fundamental aspect of reality, a supernatural Mind that transcends physical nature, simply pushes the demand for explanation back a step: where does this Mind come from, and why does it have this particular aspect? To rule out this question would indeed impose a limit on our quest for knowledge.

Explaining consciousness

The second aspect of mind Haught says science can’t explain is subjective consciousness. The qualitative feel of consciousness to a subject, each person’s unshareable private experience, is indeed a deeply puzzling phenomenon, and standard intuitions have it that there’s an explanatory gap here science will never cross. Perhaps, but the pursuit of consciousness is front and center these days, so it’s strange that Haught writes:

The scientific method enshrined by naturalism as the privileged road to the real is by definition not interested in subjects, only objects. Subjectivity of any sort does not show up on its radar screen, even when it tries to understand minds. Scientific naturalism’s world, at least in its typically materialist versions, is a world without subjects. (p. 52)

He must know that the burgeoning field of naturalistic consciousness studies seeks to explain how the world can contain subjects, since it manifestly does contain them, so his charge that the scientific method isn’t interested in subjects is false. The only charge that sticks against science and naturalism is that we don’t yet have a transparent, agreed-upon naturalistic account of consciousness. And naturalists in their epistemic humility are happy to admit this. But Haught also claims that science in principle doesn’t have the resources to explain consciousness: “What I will deny is that a complete understanding of consciousness and the natural world that gave birth to it can ever come from science alone” (underline added).  Again, naturalists will want evidence to support this sweeping negative claim. Here’s one statement among dozens in the book about the limits of science:

Science…filters out other kinds of information that bombard each of us in the affective, intersubjective, narrative and aesthetic regions of our experience. Because of its methodological self-limitations science cannot look squarely at what is truly emergent about natural phenomena. Indeed the theoretic mode of engagement with the world, generally speaking, diverts attention away from the primal fields of consciousness that opened us up to the reality of emergent novelty in the first place. 

Science does indeed impose upon itself rather strict methodological constraints when explaining phenomena in a theoretical context, but Haught says these constraints must be relaxed if we are to truly understand such things as consciousness. We must meet consciousness, and more broadly, the intelligent human mind, on its own, non-theoretic, primal terms, taking into account other sorts of non-scientific information that his richer empiricism affords. Science insists on very precise specification of concepts, explanatory targets, admissible data, and experimental procedures, since it’s only by hewing to such specificity that intersubjective agreement and reliable knowledge have been historically achieved. Although Haught says such methods are fine as far as they go, they only reveal the world in its mechanistic, algorithmic, impersonal and non-purposive guise, and you just can’t get sentience out of insentient mechanisms. By implication, the richer empiricism Haught says is required to explain the mind will reveal an intrinsically qualitative, personal, and teleological aspect of reality that transcends – is more than – mere mechanical nature. But the claims about the insufficiency of science are never really backed up. Haught just knows a priori that the mind transcends the physical, and this drives his claim that nature isn’t enough.

Explanatory adequacy

Despite Haught’s appeal to common ground mentioned earlier, what’s really at issue are two very different conceptions of explanatory adequacy. For their part, naturalists suppose that good explanations generally account for complex, higher level phenomena in terms of the organization of simpler, lower level phenomena. This reductive strategy has, after all, proved spectacularly successful, such that we can understand life forms, behavior and intelligence, at least for simpler organisms, in terms of the naturally evolved structure of bodies and nervous systems composed of what physics describes as the ultimate constituents of reality. Good explanations reveal a transparent ontological and causal unity across levels and types of phenomena, from quarks to quasars to kiwi birds; they necessarily place the objects of explanation within what we call the natural world. Further, there’s no magic or hand waving going on: the transitions between levels of complexity, the connections and mechanisms that link lower and higher order phenomena, are all out in the open. From this perspective, human capacities for intentionality and subjectivity are, by default, further targets for reductive accounts, in which case the working assumption is that they are indeed compositional phenomena whose properties might eventually be understood as emerging from, in some non-mysterious, well-specified sense, the organization and operation of insentient physical parts. True, consciousness seems to have intrinsic, private properties that constitute first-person facts beyond the reach of science, and some of our psychological states might seem to be irreducibly, essentially intentional and purposive. But the challenge, the way naturalists see it, is to storm the gates of these seemings[2] and show how it could plausibly be the case that a strictly physicalist ontology is sufficient, in which case the aim of inquiry will have been fulfilled: to have a transparent account of how all phenomena fit together within a theory of everything, with the insentient elements at the “bottom” and sentient intelligence at the “top.” To suppose that mind is sui generis, beyond reduction, and thus somehow transcendent of physical nature, is to give up the explanatory project just when it’s the most challenging, and what’s the fun in that?  And how can we know a priori that the mind won’t yield to a reductive explanation?  That’s to allow our pretheoretical folk conception of the mental – that it's something categorically irreducible – to rule out in advance certain possible conclusions, not an epistemically virtuous position to take. Further, to explain our mental capacities by saying these are fundamental characteristics of reality, an aspect of transcendent Mind (god, ultimately), isn’t to explain them at all for the naturalist; it’s to smuggle the explanatory target in as one of the elements of the (so-called) explanation.

On the other hand, for supernaturalists such as Haught, the human mental realm constitutes a fundamental datum whose intrinsicality and essentiality are necessarily beyond reduction. We can directly know, by virtue of inspecting our own minds, that consciousness and intention and purpose necessarily escape the explanatory net of science. The essence of rationality, knowing, and consciousness is just that, an essence, in which case no amount of compositional fiddling will explain it, so we must conclude it’s a fundamental aspect of reality. Tellingly, Haught says its naturalists that are guilty of magical thinking to suppose that evolution over eons could, by itself, produce mind; there must be something more:

Attempting to explain how intelligence arises out of unintelligence without citing a proportionate cause for such a prodigious feat can only come off as superstition. Simply reciting the usual evolutionary factors is scarcely enough to help us understand how mindless objects can be transformed into sentient, intelligent and critical subjects. A richer explanatory toolbox must somehow make the categories of intelligence and subjectivity fundamental to the makeup of true being rather than derivative aspects of an originally senseless reality (p. 134).

So there we have it. To really explain mind, we need a “proportionate cause,” namely something mental, and the “explanatory toolbox” must contain something very much like the explanatory target, namely mind. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the bottom up approach of naturalistic reductive explanation, in which the mental emerges by virtue of the organization of physical components. To imagine such a thing, Haught says, is to indulge in errant superstition. Instead, something like Mind-in-Reality is necessary to explain mind-in-us. No matter how much detail science compiles about the physical basis for mental  processes, and no matter how our concepts of the mental and physical might evolve under pressure of analytical theory and evidence, empirical science must be supplemented with non-analytical cognitive tools to really grasp the nature of mind, and thus the nature of reality. And because other modes of knowing besides science are required to grasp reality, reality is more than the natural world science describes.

Differing fundamental commitments

These two very different notions about what counts as good explanation reveal, perhaps, the differing mind-sets of naturalists and supernaturalists. As much as each side might agree that we want to be empirical (in some sense), avoid magical thinking, and avoid unmotivated dualisms (which is to say we all want maximum cognitive coherence), each side can’t help but feel the other is committing grave explanatory errors. Naturalists think supernaturalists underestimate the power of reductionist accounts, and they don’t see why we should assume the mind will never yield to them. They find circular any explanation that posits mind as a fundamental feature of reality, and they are open to the possibility of conceptual revolutions in which our basic, pretheoretical notions of what’s mental and physical might be transformed by science. They don’t find the idea of ultimate explanations, grounded in what seems to them yet another mystery (the mind of god), either compelling or necessary, even if that leaves nature without a purpose. And besides, positing god simply raises further questions of god’s provenance and purpose for being. On the other hand, supernaturalists think that naturalists are, in their commitment to science as the route to reliable knowledge, ignoring other, equally valid ways of knowing, even if these aren’t quantitative, experimental, or rigorously observational. They believe that certain explanatory targets, such as the human mind, are beyond what the scientific method can address. They believe (some, anyway) that, on logical grounds, our trust in rational inquiry can only be secured by supposing that the mind is more than mechanism; so again, scientific explanations aren't enough. In which case, they say, reality can’t just be the nature that science describes, there’s something more. And a good, satisfying explanation of mind has to be ultimate, in the sense of involving purpose and intention at the heart of reality. An explanation that bottoms out in the non-sentient fails to really explain. As Haught says, “A richer explanatory toolbox must somehow make the categories of intelligence and subjectivity fundamental to the makeup of true being…” (emphasis added).

Obviously I’m on the naturalist side of all this, but I hope my diagnosis of the disagreements about explanatory adequacy as exampled by Haught seems at least somewhat fair to supernaturalists. Everyone wants to get reality right, but our very different epistemic and methodological commitments drive very different conclusions about it. Each side will claim epistemic virtue, but the other side will say it’s only according to their own, rather dim lights. Each side might see the other as operating on the basis certain hidden (or not so hidden) ontological commitments that prejudice the inquiry. This raises the question: are there ontologically neutral criteria of inquiry both sides will agree to which can decide who has the epistemic high ground? I’ll leave that for another day. [That day has perhaps arrived, see here.]

- TWC, November, 2006

[1] In a letter, Darwin wrote (as quoted by Haught): “[W]ith me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” It seems Darwin managed such doubt without resorting to supernaturalism.

[2] See for instance Killing the Observer, which challenges the existence of first person mental facts and the putative observer which has them.