Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 110 (February 2001): 45-49.
The Mind of the Universe: Understanding Science and Religion. By Mariano Artigas. Templeton Foundation Press. 364 pp. $22.95.
Reviewed by Ernan McMullin
Forty years ago, publications in the boundary regions where religious belief and natural science both claim an interest amounted to no more than a trickle. Now, for one reason or another, they make up a steady and growing stream, most of them, it would seem, written from the perspective of the Christian believer. Even a casual glance at these newer writings will discover two quite opposing attitudes towards the natural sciences.
For some writers, the sciences represent first and foremost a challenge, even a threat, to religious belief. Their first concern is to find gaps in the explanatory competence of the sciences, inadequacies of theory that cannot, in principle, be bridged without invoking God’s “special” action to supplement the natural causes to which scientific inquiry is necessarily limited. In this way, they hope directly to counter the provocative scientism of some of the most widely read representatives of the sciences, those who would claim that advances in science leave the Creator God of the Western tradition no more than an unnecessary “spare wheel,” in Daniel Dennett’s dismissive phrase.
In striking contrast are those who regard advances in natural science primarily as a deepening of insight into the wonders of God’s creation, as an opportunity, therefore, to understand better the intricacies of the natural order that allow the purposes of that creation to be realized. The first book in English by the distinguished Spanish Catholic philosopher of science Mariano Artigas leaves the reader in no doubt as to the side of this divide on which its author belongs:
When we contemplate the natural world from the point of view of its creation, it appears to be the deployment of a divine plan in which matter is endowed with a natural dyna mism whose successive deployment and integrations produce an immense variety of systems and processes that make possible the appearance of the human being.
The new scientific worldview is most coherent with the view that divine action on the world carefully respects the agency of created causes and uses them to achieve the plans of divine providence.
On the topic of evolution, which has so divided Christian opinion in the U.S., Artigas does not hesitate: “It seems indisputable that since life has actually emerged, the corresponding potentialities must have existed since the very beginning.” He is not concerned to defend the sufficiency of the current version of neo–Darwinian theory; his own well–developed account of the nature of scientific theory would lead him to be wary of any suggestion that a particular theory constitutes the last word in its domain. His aim, rather, is to insist that the potentialities present from the beginning in the created order are adequate to bring about the Creator’s ends. The created order thus can organize itself and (prior to the advent of the human) there are no moments where the evolutionary process would be brought to a halt without a call on the non–natural, on a supplementation of the resources of the natural order by a “special” action on the Creator’s part.
Artigas’ conviction that the natural order had at the beginning all the resources needed to achieve the ends for which it was created leads him to call his approach “integral naturalism.” This represents an appropriate, if daring, choice, daring because of the baggage that the generic term “naturalism” carries with it in the science/religion context. Its usage in that context most commonly indicates the rejection of the supernatural, the affirmation that the physical universe is, as Carl Sagan famously phrased it, all that was, all that is, all that ever will be. When Artigas uses “naturalism” without a qualifier, it is this sense that he has in mind, and it is against this position that his book is directed.
He also criticizes the view that the methodology of science is the only valid way to knowledge, a view he somewhat eccentrically calls “metho dological naturalism.” (Usually, in the science/religion context, this phrase designates a regulative principle that Artigas himself not only endorses but regards as “trivially” obvious: “You should not introduce divine action as an explanation in problems of physics or biology.”) By calling his own brand of naturalism “integral,” Artigas wishes to convey the notion that nature as understood by the natural sciences points beyond itself to a larger reality to which the natural owes its existence, a reality to which the methods of the natural sciences do not of themselves, however, give direct access.
Artigas insists that the discourse of the sciences is quite separate from that of religion. The existence of this gap, he argues, calls into question the currently fashionable model of the science/religion relationship as a dialogue. Neither side can bridge this gap solely through its own resources; only philosophy can provide the needed bridge. His book thus gives an importance to philosophy that is quite rare in books of this genre. And since the question interesting him is almost always the relevance of the natural sciences to theology rather than the other way round, his emphasis is specifically on the philosophy of science. His book is, indeed, an admirably wide–ranging discussion of contemporary philosophy of science, drawing extensively on English–language sources. Familiar authors Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Larry Laudan, and others troop through his pages. Somewhat surprisingly for so sturdy a realist, he gives Karl Popper pride of place.
It is not clear that so detailed a treatment of contemporary philosophy of science is needed to serve the broader theological theme announ ced in the title of the book. (Incidentally, this title, which Artigas describes as “deliberately provocative,” certainly succeeded in provoking at least one reader. The universe is assuredly the object of the human mind, but it does not possess a mind. Nor is it “rational,” strictly speaking, an adjective Artigas frequently attaches to it, as though it were a deliverance of natural science. It is intelligible, a very different matter.) Artigas endorses the claim that God is “the mind and reason of the universe.” This does not, I would argue, do justice to the real argument of his book, which is that certain of the properties of natural science, and of the natural world disclosed by science, testify to the operation of mind, specifically to the mind of God.
“Testifies to”: there is a troublesome ambiguity about the logic of this relationship, an ambiguity that pervades much of the recent literature on science and religion. Most often, Artigas is careful to use such guarded phrases as “is coherent with” when describing how a particular feature of the world relates to the belief that that world is the product of a divine Mind. This suggests a quite modest claim: it amounts, perhaps, to saying that this belief fits well into the worldview of someone who already believes in a Creator. The presence of such a feature thus draws attention to the coherence of the theistic worldview. “From the very beginning,” Artigas writes, “I have remarked that I would propose interpretations based on coherence rather than proof.”
But on occasion he uses much stronger language: the property he is describing “requires a divine foundation” (emphasis added); it “provides new strength for the arguments that point to a Creator”; it “clearly suggests the existence of a divine source of power and perfection.” Is this then to be a natural theology of the classical sort, which allows one to infer from a specific aspect of the natural world to the necessity of a transcendent cause for an aspect of that sort? I am pretty sure that this is not what the author intends, given his frequent reminders to the reader that the overall coherence of science and theology is all he claims. Nevertheless, he clearly wants to suggest that the universe of modern science more and more clearly displays the active workings of mind, a mind that can only be the mind of a Creator. He is walking a fine line here, as he obviously knows.
Something of the same ambiguity envelops the features of the natural order that he singles out for their theo logical significance. Chief among these are the capacity for self–organization, the teleological “directionality” that nature exhibits, and the emergence within nature of human beings who “transcend the natural level.” In all three cases, Artigas emphasizes the mounting scientific evidence for these features of nature, and hence the relevance of scientific progress to his theological quest:
The existence of teleological dimensions of our world—not only at the biological level but at the physiochemical—is a plain fact. Until now the state of the sciences did not provide sufficient grounds for it; only the scientific progress of the last decades of the twentieth century has made it possible to reach this vantage point.
Teleology, as Artigas himself reminds us, however, is a notoriously slippery term. He chooses to give it the broadest possible sense: “Any kind of stabilized organization (of matter) implies the existence of teleological dimensions”; thus, “virtually any of the main aspects of our world can be taken as a particular case of teleology.” The operation of the four fundamental forces, for example, indicates the existence in nature of “tendencies” to build up “successive levels of organization” starting at the level of elementary particles. The “directionality” of such “tendencies towards goals” is “the hallmark of natural teleology.”
But “teleology” so broadly understood hardly needs the warrant of recent scientific advances to certify its existence. The solar system, for example, would qualify as possessing a “teleological dimension” under this rubric. Extending teleology to the nonliving world in this way tends, to my mind, to empty the notion of real significance. The living world is another matter. Natural selection is goal–directed in the short term. Evolutionary biologists (as Artigas notes) prefer to use the term “teleonomy” in this context because for them “teleology” carries the Platonic suggestion of recognizable direction on the part of an intelligence. It is risky to speak of “directionality” in this context; biologists in general resist the suggestion that evolution exhibits direction in any long–term sense.
Closely associated with teleology is the notion of self–organization, which for Artigas is “a key that unifies our entire representation of natural order.” The two themes, indeed, tend to blend into one another: “Self–organization provides new evidence in favor of the existence of teleological dimensions in the natural world.” Self–organization too is understood by him very broadly; it begins at the microphysical level and is exhibited most strikingly at the level of the living cell. The multiple operations in which the constituents of the cell engage involve “information,” “directional tendencies,” behavior that “insofar as it acts to achieve natural goods through sophisticated methods can be considered a manifestation of rationality.” From this it is an easy step to: “The more the sciences progress, the more they provide us with knowledge of the process of self–organization that clearly suggests the existence of a divine source of power and perfection.” Clearly suggests? Would not “is coherent with” be more appropriate here? It is the overall coherence of the theist’s worldview that should impress. It is tempting, of course, to go that one step further and make the wonders of natural self–organization an independent argument for God’s existence. But from the philosopher’s standpoint, it is, to my mind, a temptation calling for critical scrutiny.
According to Artigas, it is the emergence of rational beings possessing the sort of creativity attested to by the natural sciences that gives this process of self–organization value, and hence allows it to be described in theological terms. Human beings are in nature, but they somehow also “transcend” nature.
This is where Artigas’ integral naturalism comes under severe strain. The spiritual dimensions of the human are not accessible, he claims, to the natural sciences. Only metaphysics or theology can discover them. Are they, then, outside nature? Artigas dismisses the emergentist solution to this dilemma favored by many naturalists, Christian and other. Yet the idea that the capacities of mind are naturally emergent from the potentialities implicit in the creation from the beginning need not be reductionist. The primacy of the spiritual can, many have argued, be retained in the emergentist perspective without incurring the unacceptable dualism of matter and spirit that seems implicit in so many attempts to wall off the human spirit from the domain of nature and the sciences of nature.
In a single brief paragraph, Artigas states the case for asserting “the special divine creation of every human soul.” He has here, of course, the weight of authority and tradition on his side. But to his credit, he seems slightly uneasy about this break with the naturalism that elsewhere informs his book. He allows that this thesis forces a “discontinuity” into the otherwise continuous development of nature. A “specific divine action” is required in order to produce “a new level of being,” one which the natural world cannot reach on its own resources. Allowing this “does not contradict the course of nature,” he insists.
It may not contradict it, but it does seem to run contrary to the pattern of the Creator’s action elsewhere in nature. Perhaps the gap between matter and spirit really is as wide as this, so wide that even a transcendent Creator cannot inform the natural world with the potentialities that would allow the eventual emergence of the human person without need for further miraculous supplementation on the Creator’s part. But so peremptory a restriction should surely encourage the philosopher to raise questions. And Artigas’ book suggests, to this reader at least, what some of those questions might be.
Is the natural world, through continuous processes of self–organization, indeed unable to produce beings possessing “the unique characteristics of the person”? Would man’s uniqueness be compromised by allowing the qualities of the human person to be emergent? Have the natural sciences really nothing to offer in regard to those qualities? These are not easy questions to answer. One of the many merits of this estimable book is to draw attention to coherence as a worthy objective for Christians engaged in balancing the diverse sources of their worldview. These questions about the genesis and the relationship to the rest of nature of the human person mark where, for the present, coherence seems hardest to come by.
Ernan McMullin is the John Cardinal O’Hara Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
at the University of Notre Dame.