Last month in this space, I wrote about some judges and legal scholars who claim that religious beliefs are irrational. I critically assessed a standard applied by one legal scholar: “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable.”
Today I want to discuss a slightly different standard offered by another scholar: “Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and science.”
Although there are a number of ways to critique this standard, I want to single out one in particular. It seems that some views that claim to be consistent with the deliverances of modern science are not only inconsistent with common sense – and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification – but insulated from them as well.
Take, for example, the work of thinkers such as Paul Churchland, who maintain that modern science establishes the truth of philosophical materialism, and thus conclude that we have no grounds to believe in any immaterial realities. Writes Churchland:
The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. . . .If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any non-physical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.
This seems to be obviously inconsistent with common sense and our ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification. For Churchland intends his statements to be about something, which means his powers of reasoning allow him to grasp ideas that provide warrant for the propositional content of his statements.
But the relationship between these ideas is logical, not spatial or material, and the power to grasp and offer these ideas as reasons for a conclusion requires intentionality, an of-ness or about-ness (e.g., “This thought is about materialism”), something that cannot be had by a physical state.
For this reason, Churchland maintains that intentionality and all our mental states literally do not exist. That is why he calls his view “eliminative materialism,” for it literally eliminates certain apparently obvious realities from the realm of the real.
Low Tide by Maurice Prendergast, c. 1897
Eliminative materialism is the thesis that our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced, rather than smoothly reduced, by completed neuroscience. Our mutual understanding and even our introspection may then be reconstituted within the conceptual framework of completed neuroscience, a theory we may expect to be more powerful by far than the common-sense psychology it displaces, and more substantially integrated within physical science generally.
Churchland also tells us that “we should learn to live” with materialism, implying that we intellectually err if we do not do as we ought to do. This seems to be grounded in the more primitive notion that our mental powers are ordered toward the acquisition of truth, and thus to frustrate that end is inconsistent with our good.
But such a normative judgment – grounded in ends and goods – implies final causality, which, like all our mental states, has no place in Churchland’s materialism. Yet despite its apparent inconsistency with common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, Churchland, like many other philosophical materialists who hold similar views, has not abandoned his materialism.
Does it follow from this that Churchland’s unwavering posture means that philosophical materialism, or at least Churchland’s version of it, is insulated from common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification? It depends.
On the one hand, if one treats modern science as the measure of rationality, and if one believes that modern science requires belief in philosophical materialism, and philosophical materialism seems to be inconsistent with common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, then perhaps common sense and its attendant notions may not be rational.
On the other hand, if one believes, as the legal scholar quoted above apparently believes, that common sense is of a piece with the standards and methods of modern science as well as the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, then philosophical materialism, or at least Churchland’s version of it, may not be rational.
The point here is that there are just too many philosophical considerations that have to be addressed before one can confidently suggest that a claim, religious or otherwise, is insulated from common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification. Ironically, by ignoring these considerations, the secular critic of faith insulates his position from just the sort of criticisms that may count against his point of view.