Tennis Without a Net: The Emptiness of the Supernatural Hypothesis

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism
Book Author: 
J.P. Moreland

Supernatural beliefs about mind, morality and the self are losing plausibility as naturalistic explanations gain traction. In response, supernaturalists argue that gaps in these explanations are evidence for the failure of naturalism. But the success of science and the potential for ongoing research and conceptual development to close such gaps suggest otherwise. Moreover, since supernatural explanations bypass the evidential and methodological constraints governing secular scientific inquiry, they end up facile, unsupported and empty.


As scientific accounts of phenomena replace supernatural and theistic accounts, science-based naturalism increases in plausibility. Every time a causal explanation gains confirmation, for instance the mechanisms underlying evolution or perception, there’s less need to posit a non-natural agent that’s doing the work, such as God or the soul. Gradually we’re starting to see that nature all by herself has the creative resources to account for an astonishingly broad range of phenomena, including ourselves. The supernatural is thus driven to the margins, causally and explanatorily otiose.

Well aware of the success of science, advocates for supernaturalism are not about to cede the field to naturalists, and they have historical and cultural momentum on their side: all of organized religion’s accumulated wealth, property, institutions, social capital, ceremony and apologetics, all the New Age fuzzy thinking about fringe science, the paranormal and the occult, all the deeply ingrained secular memes of mind/body dualism and contra-causal free will that set the self above physical nature. If modern Western culture has a predominate worldview orientation, it’s still overwhelmingly supernaturalist, stemming from two millennia of exposure to aggressively marketed theism and other wish-fulfilling worldviews, the Enlightenment notwithstanding. What we might call the supernatural hypothesis – that supernatural agents are active in the natural world – is alive and well, taken as uncontroversial fact by most folks.

Among those defending it is Biola University philosopher J.P. Moreland in his book The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. He argues that human beings, made in the image of God, possess characteristics, powers and faculties that naturalism can’t explain, which in turn counts as evidence in favor of Christianity. The “recalcitrant” facts that embarrass naturalism are the existence of consciousness, contra-causal free will, rationality, the soul, and objective morality, each of which gets a chapter (followed by an appendix on philosopher Thomas Nagel’s account of reason, which I won’t discuss). What Moreland calls the “Grand Story” of naturalism – that all phenomena are essentially physical or composed of physical parts, and can in principle be explained by causal or emergent relations – fails in the face of these facts. To account for them properly requires that something exist beyond nature, therefore naturalism is false. The project of falsifying naturalism has considerable urgency for Moreland, since he believes it’s responsible for what he sees as the moral and spiritual decline of our culture.

Of course, demonstrating the failure of naturalism wouldn’t make Moreland’s Christian theism necessarily true; it would only make it one contender among many brands of supernaturalism. Another difficulty for Moreland is that it’s very hard to prove, once and for all, that naturalistic explanations of perplexing things such as consciousness will never be forthcoming. Present explanatory gaps may be closed by scientific and conceptual revolutions undreamt of by Moreland, so it seems premature to say naturalism has forever failed.

But looming even larger is the question of explanation itself. As Moreland says, “One of the functions of a worldview is to provide an explanation of facts, of reality the way it actually is” (p. 3). But what counts as a good explanation? Readings in recent theology, including this book, suggest that theologians and theistic philosophers such as Moreland aren’t operating under the same epistemic and explanatory constraints as secular scientists and naturalistic philosophers.[1] Theistic standards of evidence are considerably more relaxed in comparison to science, and of course theologians have a big stake in reaching a desired conclusion: that not only the supernatural exists, but it exists as described by their particular religious tradition. Not surprisingly, the conclusion is reached. Philosophers Ronaldo De Sousa and Daniel Dennett have likened the theistic explanatory enterprise to playing tennis without a net.

Although naturalists are hardly immune to bias from wanting to reach desired conclusions, their paramount commitment isn’t to validating a particular picture of the world, but to a method of inquiry exemplified by (but not limited to) science in collaboration with philosophy. Thus far, such inquiry has given us no reason to believe in something beyond nature, the space-time manifold encompassing all the phenomena described by physics, chemistry and biology. But naturalists such as myself like to think that were evidence to accumulate in favor of the supernatural hypothesis, we would gracefully acquiesce. After all, it would have been reached with our most reliable mode of justifying beliefs about the world, so on what grounds would we resist? Meanwhile, the epistemic humility attending naturalism is there for all to see: naturalists readily admit that we don’t have transparent, bullet-proof explanations of such things as consciousness or the origins of life and the cosmos – we are very puzzled. We also concede that there are open questions about free will, rationality, the self and morality when approached naturalistically. But for supernaturalists such as Moreland, these questions have long since been wrapped up and put to bed. Their main occupation isn’t inquiry, but defending their worldview against the competition.

Moreland engages with naturalism at a philosophically technical level, so this book is most suitable for those with at least some familiarity with the philosophies of mind, action, ethics and metaphysics. What becomes clear is just how intertwined the questions of consciousness, free will, rationality, self and morality are, and how theistic mind/body dualism as wielded by Moreland is able at a stroke to (seemingly) resolve the puzzles naturalism is left facing. The only difficulties are whether such dualism is actually explanatory, given the physical realities theists admit are the case, and whether there’s good evidence for supernatural agents independent of their purported problem-solving abilities. If God and the soul exist, then perhaps everything falls readily into place. But inquiring minds will want good evidence for their existence beyond their explanatory convenience, otherwise they seem too ad hoc and wish-fulfilling to take seriously.

Consciousness and cheap tricks

Consciousness is arguably the most recalcitrant of the facts facing naturalism since there’s little consensus among naturalists themselves on how to locate it in nature. Although consciousness seems an everyday sort of phenomenon, given the billions of human beings (and likely other creatures) that enjoy conscious states, the puzzling fact remains that such states aren’t publicly observable in the way other aspects of nature are. Subjective experiences are essentially private affairs. No one has ever seen a pain, the taste of mango, or the experience of red in the way we see a physical object.[2] Experiences don’t seem to weigh anything, aren’t extended in space, yet for all that are undeniably real for those that have them. Given these peculiarities, the temptation is to suppose they comprise a categorically different realm of existence: the non-physical, mental realm. As Moreland correctly points out in his interesting if necessarily incomplete critique of naturalistic explanations of consciousness, it seems impossible to get from matter, however artfully combined and functioning in the form of beings like us, to something that’s categorically immaterial. A possible conclusion to draw, therefore, is that if all natural phenomena are physical, then non-physical mental phenomena such as conscious experiences must be supernatural, reflections in us of God’s immaterial nature.

Moreland’s theistic explanation for consciousness is, as he puts it, personal, not scientific, in that conscious minds exist because an intelligent personal agent, God, created them in his own image:

…if God exists, He may well create a variety of kinds of entities, and it [sic] may create various kinds ex nihilo or by actualizing potentialities in precursors that go far beyond what is countenanced in the Grand Story [of naturalism]. Given theism, one would expect creative variety in being and there is no bar to holding that various kinds of things are quite discrete…the theist has no need to begin with a basic account and try to locate other entities in terms of a limited number of basic entities. (p. 32)

Compared to the poor naturalist, the theist is in an apparently enviable position. He’s not burdened with the explanatory or evidential constraints of science, nor with achieving any kind of theoretical unity among admittedly very disparate (“quite discrete”) phenomena, the physical brain versus its conscious mental states. He simply posits the existence of a creator who wants himself mirrored in his creation, and shazam! – the mind/body problem is solved: consciousness is placed in each of our heads by God. This, what I call an easy button explanation (“That was easy!”), stands the theist in excellent stead so long as the existence of the creator is granted (for more examples see the conclusion of this review). But Moreland offers no evidence for God’s existence apart from his purported role as creative agent. Instead, his argument for the supernatural hypothesis consists in highlighting the difficulties facing naturalistic accounts of consciousness, including those of philosophers Frank Jackson, John Searle and Colin McGinn. But of course most naturalists concede such difficulties (if not necessarily precisely as Moreland describes them), yet for some reason they aren’t flocking to supernaturalism. The reason, of course, is that to our way of thinking Moreland’s appeal to God is simply an evasion of some very demanding epistemic responsibilities, an explanatory cheap trick that short-circuits the fascinating project of locating mind in nature. Yes, mental phenomena such as pains, tickles, tastes and thoughts seem intractably other than physical phenomena, but to count them supernatural is to leave the puzzle essentially unexplored. Besides, the fact that consciousness very reliably appears in conjunction with what we know are naturally evolved human brains strongly suggests that it too lies within nature, not outside it. 

For those wanting a philo-scientific challenge, the shortcomings of naturalistic explanations of consciousness is the spur to further empirical research and conceptual innovation, not a reason to give up on the Grand Story of naturalism. In pursuing it, we might discover that consciousness is neither categorically immaterial nor straightforwardly physical, but rather representational: conscious phenomenal states like the experience of colors, tastes, pains, thoughts, and even the felt sense of self are, perhaps, a necessary entailment of being a behaviorally autonomous system that instantiates informational states, states which represent itself as acting in the world, including the act of representation. Further, the contrast between the mental and physical might itself be entailed by being a sufficiently sophisticated world-representing system within a concept-generating culture. The system will likely represent the difference between its own proprietary internal representational states (the subjective and mental) and the external facts those states represent (the objective and physical). But this is just one of many theoretical possibilities being explored by neuroscientists and philosophers, the point being that consciousness studies is alive and well, not the cul de sac Moreland suggests it is.

Free will and first person data

In his chapter on freedom, Moreland claims that the accepted notion of free will worldwide is libertarian or contra-causal: human agents are first movers, uncaused causers of action. As he puts it:

…a first mover is not subject to laws in its initiation of action. Since such an initiation is a first, spontaneous, action not caused by a prior event, it amounts to the absolute origination of initiatory movement…[T]he circumstances within (e.g., motives, desires, reasons) and outside (environmental conditions) the agent at the time of action are not sufficient to determine that or fix the chances of the action taking place. Given those circumstances, the agent can either exercise or refrain from exercising his/her active power, and this ability is the essential, causal factor for what follows. (pp. 47-8)

Not surprisingly, science-based naturalism discovers no such agent in the world, since observations of human brains, bodies and behavior always suggest that there are causal antecedents for choices and actions. We don’t observe that human persons decide what to do independent of their internal and external circumstances, and indeed such a power of choice would render choices unintelligible and arbitrary, divorced from the person’s own motives and situation. Even from a commonsense standpoint, never mind science, it isn’t obvious that such freedom exists or that if it did, it would do us any practical good.

So why does Moreland think we have contra-causal free will?  It’s because “people the world over are simply directly aware of themselves exercising active power…On the basis of such awareness, we form the justified belief that we exercise originative, free, active power for the sake of teleological goals” (p. 43). This reliance on direct awareness as trustworthy grounds for belief illustrates a central cognitive commitment of most forms of supernaturalism: that first person data such as intuitions and introspected feelings, if sufficiently widespread, are accurate reflections of reality. But from the perspective of naturalistic empiricism this is among supernaturalism’s greatest epistemic failings. The scientist is unimpressed with majoritarian appeals to intuition, since after all it’s quite possible that we don’t have reliable introspective access to the truth about ourselves, either as agents or selves. The feeling of being contra-causally free, if indeed you feel that way, could arise because you’re not in a position to observe (you’re unconscious of) the intricate causal workings of your brain and body as they interact with the world: you are that brain and body. So your choices and decisions might well present themselves as seemingly spontaneous, without causal antecedents, when in fact they are fully caused.

Similarly for the soul, the immaterial subject of consciousness: it might feel as though you exist as a disembodied agent sitting somewhere in the head, having experience and governing the body. But to take such a feeling as unimpeachable evidence for the existence of the soul is to suppose that feelings are necessarily accurate reflections of reality, when we know they often aren’t. Even most supernaturalists concede that subjective intuitions about factual matters, for instance the threat of global warming, generally need corroboration by public, intersubjectively available evidence that isn’t biased by possibly defective perceptual or sensory processes, wishful thinking, hide-bound conventional wisdom, or prejudice. Why then, when it comes to factual matters about human self and agency, should we place greater trust in intuitions rather than such evidence? The fact (if indeed it is a fact – research is underway[3]) that a majority of folks worldwide intuit that they are souls and uncaused causers establishes nothing about the reliability and accuracy of their intuitions – more intuitions doesn’t mean better. Moreover, public observational evidence for contra-causal free will and the soul is notably lacking, which is why most scientists and philosophers have long since given up on them.

This means that Moreland’s charge against naturalism, that it can’t account for the fact of libertarian agency, has no force. Our most reliable mode of justifying beliefs about the world – intersubjective empiricism –  discloses no such fact. Moreland does a nice job of showing why philosopher John Searle ends up in a muddle trying to articulate a naturalized version of contra-causal free will: there are no causal gaps in the operations of a physically instantiated agent that the agent itself could exploit in order to transcend causation. But this is a problem for Searle, not for naturalism, which happily abandons the fiction of uncaused causers, whether they be gods, gremlins or freely willing souls.

Rationality and physicalism

The interrelatedness of Moreland’s supposedly recalcitrant facts comes out strongly in his discussion of rationality, in which he argues that only conscious souls with contra-causal freedom could possibly engage in rational deliberation. Reasoning, he claims, requires a unity of consciousness within which it transpires and a persisting self to carry it out. These conditions are only met if the self is a unity, a “single, simple (uncomposed of separate parts) subject.” Composite physical brains just can’t support the unity of consciousness, for instance of visual consciousness, as had by a persisting self:

…a physicalist may claim that such a unified awareness of the entire room by means of one’s visual field consists in the fact that there are a number of different physical parts of the brain each of which terminates a different wavelength and each of which is “aware” only of part of and not the whole of the complex fact (the entire room).

However, this will not work, because it cannot account for the fact that there is a single, unitary awareness of the entire visual field. It is the very same self that is aware of the desk to the left, the podium at the centre, and indeed, each and every distinguishable aspect of the room. But there is no single part of the brain that is correspondingly activated as a terminus for the entire visual field. Only a single, uncomposed mental substance can account for the unity of one’s visual field, or, indeed, the unity of consciousness in general.  (p. 70)

Moreland, not surprisingly, cannot imagine how being a spatially distributed neural network (a brain) could entail the conscious experience of visual unity presented to a continuously experienced unitary self. But this, what neurophilosophers call the binding problem, is among the primary targets of ongoing research. The neural correlates of consciously experienced gestalts, including what philosopher Thomas Metzinger calls the highest-order phenomenal “holon” [4] of experiencing oneself as a stable, persisting subject in a persisting external world, are gradually being pinned down, as well as their functional roles and interconnections. So to say at this early stage of consciousness studies that only a single non-composite mental substance can account for the unity of consciousness, including the sense of a persisting unified self, is patently to jump the gun. And of course positing such a substance isn’t really to offer an account of such unity, since it’s obscure how the non-physical soul manages to bind the disparate physical inputs to the brain’s visual system and systems supporting other sensory modalities. Such an account would have to solve the root problem facing dualists: how does something essentially immaterial interact with something essentially material? Moreland, not surprisingly, gives us no hints on this score.

He also claims that a reasoning self must be contra-causally free from determinism:

Acts of deliberation presuppose that the rational process is ‘up to me’ and is not determined prior to or during the process. The conclusion is drawn freely. My act of deliberation itself contributes by way of exercises of active power to what outcome is reached. Acts of deliberation presuppose that there is more than one possible conclusion one could reach, but if determinism is true, there is only one outcome possible, and it was fixed prior to the act of deliberation by forces outside the agent’s control. In deliberation, we not only weigh evidence, we also weight evidence – freely assign it certain importance in the rational process. Moreover we stand at the end of deliberative processes as intellectually responsible rational agents. Our conclusions are ones we or anyone in relevantly similar circumstances ought to draw. On the reasonable assumption that ought implies can, then genuine epistemic responsibility requires free will. (p. 74, original emphasis)

Note that there’s strong tension between the claim that rational agents in similar circumstances ought to draw the same conclusion and the claim that such agents are not ultimately constrained by those circumstances in drawing the conclusion. Being rational consists in being able to deploy powers of observation and inference such that a more or less truth-tracking and thus behaviorally advantageous conclusion is reached, given one’s beliefs and desires. One takes the relevant evidence into account, deduces conclusions from premises according to rules of thumb and logical inference, and ends up with a provisional best bet about what's the case or what action to take. It isn’t at all clear that being contra-causally free helps with any of this. In being rational, we don’t want to be free to ignore the evidence before us, nor do we want to be free to decide whether or not to obey rules of inference. Such freedoms would render rational deliberation less reliable, not more. The fact that, in a given situation, only one conclusion is possible on a deterministic view of ourselves doesn’t disqualify us as rational, rather it certifies us as rational: a rational creature is just that which is determined, by its mostly reliable powers of observation and inference, to reach a likely (not infallibly) true and thus behaviorally advantageous view of its situation. That’s precisely why similar agents in similar situations will reach similar conclusions, if they are rational. Were they contra-causally free, they would likely wander all over the map of decision space, not likely to their advantage. The normativity (the “ought”) of reasoning derives from, is dependent upon, being properly constrained in the manner of one’s deliberations such that one usually (not infallibly) reaches true conclusions.[5]

Moreland is also wrong to say that the conclusion a deterministic reasoner would reach is “fixed prior to the act of deliberation by forces outside the agent’s control.” Rather, the conclusion is reached by the agent’s act of deliberation itself, which is just as causally necessary to the conclusion as any preceding causes, such as the causes of the agent’s reasoning capacities. As so often happens, those worried about determinism, like Moreland, forget that human persons are just as causally efficacious, whether reasoning or acting on impulse, as the impersonal forces that helped to create them. We don’t have to have libertarian free will to exert power and control: rational deliberation, although likely deterministic,[6] nevertheless guides effective decision-making that has far-reaching effects on the world. Indeed, an uncaused, uninfluenced deliberator, natural or supernatural, would have no reason to decide one way or another. The supernatural hypothesis adds nothing worth wanting to our powers of rationality.

There are several other capacities necessary for rationality that Moreland supposes that strictly natural, physical creatures can’t have: capacities for a priori and introspective knowledge, for goal directed action (such as seeking to reach a correct conclusion), for valuing rationality itself, and for having intentional mental states, such as beliefs, that successfully refer to the world outside the head. Nor, he argues, if reasoning is simply a brain process, can the informational content of beliefs and desires play a role in explaining behavior. These are all very strong claims about what “merely” physical creatures can’t in principle do, claims about the necessary explanatory failure of naturalistic cognitive neuroscience, for which these puzzles constitute a major research domain. Deconstructing in full measure Moreland’s confidence in this failure is beyond the scope of this review, but it’s telling that lots of very smart people, some of them Christian physicalists (!), are vigorously pursuing explanations of rationality that have no need of the supernatural hypothesis.[7]

The soul vs. the self as construction

As we’ve seen, the immaterial non-composite soul is the lynchpin of Moreland’s explanation of consciousness, free will and rationality. The soul, made in the image of God, is the indivisible core of personhood, a core which experiences, wields contra-causal freedom, and engages in reasoning. If composite deterministic physical systems cannot do such things, this seemingly increases the plausibility of the soul’s existence. But as we’ve also seen, Moreland can’t (or shouldn’t) help himself to the premature conclusion that naturalistic explanations must fail when it comes to consciousness and rationality (they don’t have to account for contra-causal free will, since there’s likely no such animal). Since naturalism hasn’t failed yet, what other grounds for the soul’s existence might there be?

As discussed in the section on free will above, Moreland relies heavily on the incorrigibility of first person data – intuitions and introspections that don’t rely on intersubjective evidence, but are directly presented – as proof of the soul. For example:

 …it is directly evident to me that an object composed of separable parts lacks the sort of simple unity necessary for a conscious, thinking being. (p. 114)

We are simply directly aware of ourselves through various acts of introspection, and in such awareness, we are directly aware of ourselves as simple spiritual substances. (p. 114)

…the dualist view of the soul is grounded in direct awareness of one’s self and in the fact that such an awareness provides a unifying basis for the other items we seem to know. (p. 114)

…through direct awareness, I am aware of myself as a simple substance. (p. 118)

Moreland also suggests that the ubiquity of the soul intuition helps establish its validity:

The intuitions [about the soul] shared worldwide…seem to be quite reasonable to most folks. Moreover, when most people introspect, they do not confront their “composed animality”…but their own unified, simple conscious self.  (p. 116)

These claims are vulnerable to the challenge to the incorrigibility of first person data, which I won’t repeat here – see the earlier section on free will. But in this chapter Moreland cites another sort of evidence for the soul, near death experiences:

I also know that disembodied survival is possible. Consider the well-known account of a woman named Viola who was checked into a hospital in Augusta, Georgia, in 1971 for routine gall bladder surgery. Six days after surgery…her condition had worsened to the point she was operated on again and died at 12:15 pm on the operating table. When the doctor said she was dead, Viola was confused. She had been in excruciating pain, when she suddenly felt a ring [sic] in her ear and, then, she popped out of her body!...

She…sensed presences around her that she took to be angels. And get this: she could travel anywhere her thoughts directed her, so she found herself instantaneously in Rockville, Maryland…  (p. 112, original emphasis)

Moreland goes on to relate that during her disembodied visit to Rockville (and elsewhere), Viola saw things that were later confirmed by eye-witnesses, which he takes to be nearly sufficient to confirm the fact of disembodied existence. Nearly, since Moreland concludes, with proper circumspection, that Viola’s soul travels are “at least metaphysically possible and cannot be ruled out prior to investigation of the eyewitnesses and so forth” (p. 113). There are, however, less metaphysically extravagant explanations of Viola’s out of body experience (OBE) available to the naturalist. Experiments have shown that given the right external cues, the brain can generate the sense of self as projected outside the body, either partially (feeling a rubber arm as one’s own) and perhaps even totally (feeling that you are located at virtual image of yourself a few feet away).[8] The normal ongoing experience of being embodied can likely be explained as a function of very stable neurally-instantiated representations, in which case it isn’t a stretch to suppose that Viola’s marginally functioning, destabilized brain was responsible for her experience of disembodiment, the experience of flying to Rockville, and all the rest of her OBE as she lay on the operating table. That dreams (ordinary and lucid) sometimes afford these sorts of experiences also counts against the supernatural interpretation of Viola’s near death experience.

Moreland also argues that “It is only if organisms or persons are simple spiritual substances that they can be continuants” (p. 136), that is, persist over time as the same identifiable entity for themselves and others. But, absent a spiritual substance, we have no difficulty identifying individual persons from one year to the next, or ourselves to ourselves, given the robust stability of our unique composite construction: the stability of the neural structures that account for our particular character and behavior, and the stability of external physical attributes such as voice, face and body. A person is a persisting spatio-temporal pattern constituted of physical parts at different levels of description (atomic, chemical, biological), many of which might be replaced over a lifetime while the pattern stays largely intact. That pattern, neuroscience is showing, has the remarkable capacity to represent itself to itself by means of the phenomenal experience of being a continuing I that owns each successive moment of its conscious existence. There is no simple, non-composite essence of self or person which that experience corresponds to, but the way naturalists see it that’s not necessary for being a full-fledged continuing person with a perfectly real and functionally necessary sense of self.[9] Of course, since naturalists can’t categorically disprove the existence of the soul, the supernatural hypothesis, however sketchy the intersubjective evidence, will always be available to those wanting to be more than bodies. Which is why supernaturalists will always be with us.

Morality and evolution

Naturalists would like to deflect the supernaturalist’s oft-made claim that we can’t be good without God or some extra-human source of objective moral truths. As Moreland rightly points out, it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to find in impersonal Nature any sort of validation for our moral intuitions, intuitions which evolutionary accounts suggest had adaptive value, whether or not they reflect objective values. Yet we ordinarily suppose our moral norms do reflect something objective, something that’s independent of them but which they accurately reflect. This moral logic says murder is objectively and intrinsically wrong, period, so we’re right to strongly feel that it's wrong.

Regarding this, Moreland says

…evolutionary naturalism would seem to predict that human moral agents would not be interested in or preoccupied with the…intrinsic rightness or wrongness of intents, motives, virtues/vices, moral rules and moral acts. Rather, those agents should be interested in and preoccupied with the reproductively advantageous consequences of intents, motives and so forth. (p. 151)

But evolutionary psychologists think they can explain our penchant for moral realism. One story (among others) has it that creatures who felt really strongly about moral rules, to the point of projecting them onto reality as objective eternal truths, formed the most resilient and reproductively successful social groups.[10] We, with our moral realist intuitions, are their descendants.

For Moreland, this sort of explanation is a debunking of morality, just further proof that naturalism can’t supply us with real morality, which must have supernatural warrant for its claims. But of course we can’t just stipulate that morality is real only if it has such warrant. If we find ourselves often behaving morally, as being strongly bound by moral norms, that’s prima facie evidence that morality exists whatever else is the case. Indeed, there’s no better evidence. If we should discover that, contrary to our moral realist intuitions, that there is no God-given or cosmic rule book to which our intuitions correspond, can we then conclude morality is a fiction? Not if our behavior is any guide, since, as all the evidence shows, we’d continue to behave morally. As most theists admit, naturalists who disbelieve in extra-human moral foundations are overall no less ethical than supernaturalists.

But, Moreland asks the naturalist, absent the foundations, why behave morally? The naturalist answers: because human flourishing demands it. Our well-being as individuals depends crucially on being accepted as members of a larger community which is only viable by virtue of cooperation among individuals. This in turn requires that most individuals assign a high value to the basic moral precept that even liberals and conservatives agree on: consideration for others. Treat them fairly and don’t harm them without very good justification. Most of us find that this precept has a strong claim on us, and a naturalistic explanation for it does nothing to lessen its force.

Regarding that explanation, Moreland claims that our capacities for moral knowledge and our valuing of morality itself “are utterly without precedent in the long history of evolutionary adaptation, their appearance is without explanation…” (p. 150). But there are obvious precursors to human morality in the behavior of other mammalian social species, for instance chimpanzees and bonobos. It isn’t difficult to see the adaptive value of such other-regarding sentiments, and their importance to the creatures that have them, in maintaining strong social groups.

Moreland argues that only God can endow all individuals with equal worth and rights, whatever their origins and characteristics. But there’s a naturalistic alternative: the claim of universal equal worth and rights is a culturally engineered extension of our original, admittedly rather chauvinistic tribal morality. On a scientific understanding of ourselves, there are no morally relevant differences between in-group and out-group, men and women, gays and straights, Christians and atheists, leaders and followers, elites and underclass. We all more or less equally and strongly desire love, security, and autonomy and there need be no further warrant beyond this desire to justify its realization across the board of human variation. In short, morality is a natural phenomenon, produced by evolution, that results in powerfully motivating social norms of fairness and minimizing harm, that when pursued in the equalizing light of science help to ensure conditions of flourishing for all individuals.[11] Because it’s deeply embedded in evolved human nature, morality has no need of the supernatural hypothesis to be a going concern, which is why naturalists can be, and are, good without God.

Conclusion: the emptiness of the supernatural hypothesis

Naturalists will agree with Moreland that morality, rationality, the self, and human freedom as he conceives of them can’t be explained naturalistically. This is to be expected since according to Moreland they all require something essentially supernatural: a contra-causally free agent that consciously deliberates, chooses and obeys without itself being fully at the effect of antecedent and surrounding conditions. While it’s true that our moral and rational capacities have often been thought to depend on an uncaused causer and reasoner, over the last two centuries science has gradually called this assumption into question. Once we discard it, then we are free to explore explanations that involve physical systems and processes available to public observation, and that link human individuals in all their complexity to the natural world from which they spring.

Moreland is right to point out that these explanations are sometimes incomplete, and his analyses sometimes expose the weaknesses of naturalistic accounts to good effect. But these failings are not necessarily terminal, as he claims to have shown. They simply point up the widely acknowledged fact that naturalistic science and philosophy face big challenges when it comes to explaining the human animal and its higher capacities as expressed in varying cultural circumstances.

Although he occasionally hits the mark, it’s hard to take Moreland’s critique of naturalism seriously because his supernatural explanations are not bound by the standards of evidence and theory-building that constrain naturalists. With God to appeal to, the easy button is always within easy reach, the net conveniently down. As he says about our moral capacities:

As beings created in the image of God who were placed here to live in light of moral knowledge and knowledge of other intrinsic values…these abilities of human faculties are hardly surprising. (p. 150)

About objective moral norms:

The theist begins with a Being who is intrinsically good…  (p. 146)

About rationality:

Given the ontology of such [rational] acts, it is easy to see how they could obtain in a theistic world because the fundamental level of being – God – exhibits this ontology itself. Since they are fundamental to reality, it is not hard to see how they could obtain a certain points in creation, especially when those allegedly made in God’s image appear. (p. 68)

And about libertarian (contra-causal) free will:

The theist…takes the fundamental being not to be particles, but a Person who is Himself a libertarian agent. Given that the theist starts with a Being who exhibits the ontological features of a libertarian free agent, it is not difficult to see how such features could be exhibited again at an appropriate time in the development of God’s created order.  (p. 52)

If one takes the “ontological features” of consciousness, free agency, rationality, and moral knowledge to be fundamental to reality – as resident in an all powerful God – then of course it’s no surprise that God’s favored creations should also possess such features. But absent independent evidence-based reasons to believe in God, and given competing naturalistic explanations that meet high standards of coherence, verifiability, transparency and simplicity, Moreland’s supernatural hypothesis has little appeal for those wanting to know how things really work. It’s their evidential and methodological constraints that make naturalistic explanations worth pursuing, and it’s the lack of such constraints that makes the supernatural hypothesis facile, uninteresting and ultimately empty.

Tennis with a net presents a literal obstacle to the players, the negotiation of which requires skill and adds entertainment value. Analogously, naturalistic explanations add cognitive value by overcoming the hurdles nature erects to a transparent understanding of herself: the huge composite complexity of the real world and the limited scope of untutored human intelligence in modeling it. Science is a culturally evolved skill set that leverages our innate powers of observation and inference so that we can sort out the complexity and see its unity, a very satisfying pursuit. The beauty and coherence of naturalism is that higher-level properties do arise from simpler elements; the natural world is a marvelously productive and innovative system, all on its own. By comparison, the supernatural hypothesis, insofar as it makes factual claims about how the world is and came to be, simply sidesteps the puzzles that nature affords us. Although it can’t be disproven, it adds no cognitive value since its explanatory agents – God and the soul – are conveniently tailored to have exactly those powers and characteristics that enable such things as consciousness, choice, rationality and morality. Further, these agents seem nowhere to be found as far as we can publicly ascertain, such that belief in them necessarily rests on highly unreliable claims to knowledge, those of subjective intuition, revelation, and biblical authority. For these reasons the supernatural hypothesis and its non-empirical basis will appeal primarily to those wanting the existential security of a tame, supervised universe, the foregone conclusion of Christian theology and apologetics.

The naturalist declines such security in favor of the open-ended excitement of scientific inquiry, which itself depends on a rational commitment to epistemic responsibility: draw no factual conclusion before it’s evidentially warranted.[12] Thus far, no evidence has surfaced to suggest that there’s anything supernatural operating in the natural world. However, it’s an interesting and open question whether scientific inquiry could conceivably require acceptance of the supernatural hypothesis, that is, force us to conclude that a non-composite agent not subject to natural laws is causing observable things to happen.[13] It would seem dogmatic of naturalists not to admit that it could, but on the other hand the very idea of a cogent explanation seems to require at least something in the way of causal regularities and connections exemplified by natural laws.

To know for sure that a supernatural agent is behind a phenomenon, for instance consciousness, we’d have to have an evidence-based account of the agent’s categorically supernatural characteristics and modes of operation, otherwise the default conclusion would be that a natural explanation exists that we haven’t yet discovered. What doesn’t follow is that an ongoing failure to naturalize a phenomenon supports the supernatural hypothesis in the absence of positive evidence for that hypothesis. To be epistemically responsible in the mode of science, we need proof of supernatural agency in terms of verifiably supernatural characteristics before we justifiably admit something supernatural into our worldview and give up on naturalistic explanations. Until such time as the supernatural hypothesis gets more specific, and gains a shred of intersubjective evidence, the naturalistic alternatives should direct our investigations into the puzzles of consciousness, human nature and ethics. Moreland and other supernaturalists like to think naturalism has failed, but the explanatory emptiness of their hypothesis, and the successes of science thus far, suggest quite the reverse.

TWC, September, 2009


[1] Reviews of other books by theologians aiming to defeat naturalism are here, here, and here. Many of the themes discussed in this review appear in those as well.

[2] Even you don’t see, observe, or witness your own experiences; rather, as a conscious subject you consist of them. You’re not in a perceptual relation to your own phenomenal states.

[3] See the Experimental Philosophy blog for research on beliefs about free will.

[4] See Metzinger’s chapter “Faster Than Thought” in Conscious Experience.

[6] The truth of determinism at the macro level is a matter of debate, see here.

[7] See Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown’s Did My Neurons Made Me Do It for one such explanation.

[8] See Bigna Lenggenhager, Tej Tadi, Thomas Metzinger, and Olaf Blanke, “Video Ergo Sum: Manipulating Bodily Self-Consciousness,” Science 2007; 317: 1096-1099, and E-letter responses here. A New Scientist article about research on OBE's is here.

[9] See Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel for a cutting edge explanation of how we can be someone without being an essence.

[10] The group selection hypothesis is controversial, for some discussion see here.

[11] According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, intuitions about harm and fairness are just part of our innate moral endowment, see here.

[12] This is a rational commitment on the assumption that one’s paramount objective is to achieve a maximally reliable representation of reality. For many, this isn’t their paramount objective; they’re primarily seeking existential security and ultimate meaning, see Reality and its rivals: putting epistemology first.  

[13] About this question, see Evan Fales’ paper on intelligent design, in which he says “If there are supernatural causes, then science should seek them. How easy or difficult this might be will depend upon the content of supernaturalistic hypotheses and the phenomena they are invoked to explain, as well as upon what competing naturalistic hypotheses are available. Science regularly proceeds by way of arguments to the best explanation (abduction). There is no in principle reason why a physical phenomenon could not be best explained by a supernaturalistic cause—even if, as a matter of fact, we have never encountered any such phenomenon.” Bradley Monton and Sean Carroll make similar arguments here and here.