Is nature enough? : meaning and truth in the age of science

by John F. Haught

Paperback, 2006




Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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LibraryThing member hauptwerk
I bought this book on a whim at a used book store, but soon started second-guessed the purchase - there are already plenty of books that address the problem of naturalist scientism from a theological perspective, some of which I've already read. Doubtful that John Haught would offer anything particularly new or substantial, I went into this with low expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover in Haught a talented writer and a subtle thinker, capable of putting a new spin on this somewhat tired subject. Repudiating intelligent design and other anti-scientific ideologies, Haught instead characterizes the error of naturalism as an insistence on explanatory monism. That is, naturalists want to be able to explain the entire world using only material causes (ie: biochemical processes, which themselves ultimately reduce to the laws of physics). The problem, though, is that phenomena in the world are explicable on several layers of understanding, which taken together produce the most complete possible picture of reality. It's technically correct to say that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand died because a bullet entered his jugular vein (the efficient cause), but including other causes - individual motivation, political intrigue, and human nature - will provide a more complete picture of the historical situation in 1914.

Haught, then, is aiming for an explanatory pluralism, one that accepts the authority of scientific explanations within their own realm but also takes into account other levels of inquiry and understanding. His account relies heavily on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi, Alfred North Whitehead, and especially the Canadian Thomist Bernard Lonergan, whose book Insight is frequently referenced. Haught accepts Lonergan's quadripartite theory of mental activity (into experience, understanding, judgment, and decision) as properly basic to any understanding of the mind. If the mind can, in fact, accurately perceive, comprehend, assess and act upon external phenomena, however, then we have a more meaningful inner life than naturalism will allow - since naturalism, in its urge to explain the world objectively, ultimately denies the reality of any subjective experience. What's more, the naturalist cannot argue against Lonergan's theory of mind without becoming incoherent, since by criticizing the argument he necessarily employs the subjective, critical standpoint whose existence he is trying to deny.

I have not done justice to Haught's argument, which is quite a bit more complex than what I've outlined above. But for the first three quarters of the book, his discussion is truly admirable, expressing subtle and philosophically meaningful arguments in clear prose. This puts him far above the usual standard in the ongoing science/religion debates, and I am grateful to him for it.

Problematic for me, however, is the tenth chapter, which tries to engage with naturalistic ideas on the issue of suffering (the traditional "problem of evil.") Haught believes that traditional theodicy is inadequate given the discoveries of natural science; as an example, he cites the ichneumon wasp, an insect that lays its eggs inside live caterpillars, who are then eaten alive by the wasp larvae. Because meaningless suffering of this kind exists throughout the animal kingdom, he argues, we can no longer believe that suffering is a result of original sin. He further argues that the concept of original sin is incoherent anyway; if humanity fell from grace at some point in history, that would indicate that creation had previously been perfect. This must be denied, because science teaches us that life was at no stage perfect. A perfect creation, moreover, would be coterminous with the perfect Creator, and therefore the whole concept of expiatory sacrifice must be abandoned in favour of a conception of gradual spiritual evolution and "anticipation" of eventual union with the Godhead. This is certainly unacceptable, even heretical, from the perspective of any orthodox Christian theology, but my main concern is the weakness and cursoriness of his argumentation; none of his logical inferences are in fact sound, and the many other obvious solutions to this theological problem are simply ignored. His initial observation - that the sufferings of caterpillars eaten by wasp larvae are equivalent to the sufferings of fallen humanity - is even more easily dismissed; we can apply the term "suffering" to insects, if at all, in a highly equivocal sense (while invertebrates exhibit automatic reflexes to noxious stimuli, it's doubtful that they feel "pain" any more than does a potato.)

This one's a toss-up: some really interesting discussion of the philosophical implications of naturalism, and some really dubious theodicy. Not the best book on the subject, but worth reading to those interested in the subject, especially for the discussions of Polanyi and Lonergan.
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