The Theological Critique of Scientific Naturalism and Positivism

The growing prestige and authority of the sciences in the latter decades of the nineteenth century provoked a broad cultural reaction against the all-encompassing claims of scientific positivism, especially its materialism and determinism. One aspect of this wider reaction was a series of philosophical and theological critiques of the foundational assumptions and the pretensions of an all-embracing unified science, but carried out in the service of theistic alternatives. Several were considered decisive. Here this critical appraisal can be illustrated in three contexts.

In Germany the critique was associated with a group of Neo-Kantian philosophers and theologians, many of whom were colleagues at Marburg, one of the centers of Neo-Kantianism. Its most prominent theologian was Wilhelm Herrmann, who was introduced earlier. Herrmann included in his defense of theology's autonomy an impressive criticism of positivistic science itself, based essentially on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant had shown the theologians and philosophers, as well as the scientists, the true limits of human knowledge. In Religion in Relation to Knowledge of the World and to Morality (1879), Herrmann seeks to demonstrate that the conclusions of natural science are necessarily provisional. This is because "pure knowledge," or our making representations of the world, depend on the employment of certain intuitive concepts of space, time, substance, and causality by which the mind unifies a plurality of sensations into objects of human understanding. Herrmann insisted that this knowledge of nature, dependent as it is on empirical sensations, is always in flux:

If the knowledge of nature is directed to determining objects and the changes in their states as completely as possible, no definite limits can be imagined for this activity. It lies in the nature of our concepts that our attempts to complete the representation of an object can never totally be drawn to a close.46

This ordering activity of human knowing means that our scientific knowledge only has "hypothetical validity." But Herrmann was not skeptical regarding "practical" scientific knowledge as long as the science recognized both its hypothetical character and its philosophical limits.

In France the critique of scientific positivism and materialism began early in the century with the philosopher François-Pierre Maine de Biran's (1766-1824) attack on the French philosophes' materialist psychology. Maine de Biran was the forerunner of the late nineteenth-century French "spiritualist" philosophy associated with Jean Ravaisson (1813-1900), Emile Boutroux (1845-1921), and Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Boutroux's student. These philosophers were critics of the scientific positivism of Auguste Comte, and they attacked all forms of scientific monism and reductionism that entailed materialist, mechanistic, or determinist doctrines. All three defended a free, spontaneous human will and the inability of science to explain the human mind and human action solely in physico-chemical terms.

Bergson's defense of a spiritual metaphysics is summarized rather nicely in the following résumé of his work:

In my Essai sur données immédiates de la Conscience (1896), I succeeded, I hope, in demonstrating the reality of the soul. In L'Evolution creatrice (1907), I presented creation as a fact. From this the existence should stand out clearly of a God freely responsible for creation and the generator of both matter and life, through the evolution of the species and the constitution of human personalities.47

Bergson was not a Christian theist, but he and the earlier "spiritualist" philosophers' defense of a theistic worldview were very important in advancing other forms of theistic belief that also were constructed on a critique of the claims of science. The most important of these theistic apologists were associated with the French "philosophies of action" that supported the cause of Christian theology at the turn of the century. The best representative of this group is Maurice Blondel (1861-1941), who was a colleague of Boutroux at the Sorbonne and professor of philosophy at Aix-en-Provence from 1897 to 192 7, and who played a significant, if ambivalent, role in the theological movement known as Roman Catholic Modernism. Implicit throughout Blondel's major work, L'Action (1893), is his critique of scientific reductionism and of any philosophies that fail to take serious account of the free moral and spiritual nature of humans and their need to aspire to that which transcends nature, that is, God or the supernatural. For Blondel, "action" implies the free, conscious effort of the whole person, not only the will but also the convergence of instinct, will, thought, and faith or trust. And this consciousness continually seeks to fulfill itself, to reach goals, which are never fully satisfied. It is this gap between human potential and achievement that opens up the way to the transcendent. To deny this unique and preeminent aspect of human experience is to fail to take full account of human life. Blondel insists that a true philosophy will, necessarily, take account of this human striving for transcendence as an authentic hypothesis. Theistic belief, however, requires the act of personal choice, for philosophy itself cannot give positive knowledge of the transcendent; it only can reveal the genuine human need for this "undetermined supernatural."

Concurrently in Britain there was a similar reaction against scientific positivism. It, too, sought to demonstrate the incoherence and philosophical inadequacy of scientific naturalism, and this, again, in support of various theistic alternatives. Among these critics of science, James Ward (18431925), the Cambridge psychologist and professor of mental philosophy and logic, stands out. Ward served briefly as a Unitarian pastor in Cambridge, abandoned Christian belief, but retained throughout his professional career a distinctive form of theistic idealism. Like many of the French critics of science, Ward focused his criticism on the incoherences and other deficiencies in the new science of physiological psychology, especially the associationist psychology espoused by J. S. Mill (1806-18 73) and by the followers of Alexander Bain, the Scottish psychologist (1818-1903). It was widely agreed at the time that Ward's critique administered the death blow to associationist psychology.

In his Gifford Lectures on Naturalism and Agnosticism (1896-1898), Ward sought to expose not only the incoherences of mental materialism but also the weaknesses in the philosophy of science as it was then expounded by T. H. Huxley,

W. K. Clifford, and others in the "church scientific." Sensitive to the dangers of adopting a crude ontological materialism, a number of these scientific naturalists adopted, with Bain, a psychophysical parallelism that affirmed the dissimilarity between matter and mind while positing a perfect parallelism or correspondence between them. Ward saw no such correspondence; after all, parallels are lines that never meet. Ward pointed out that, in fact, Huxley and Clifford either adopted a vague agnosticism on this question or subordinated the psychic or mental to the physical. Either way, there is no real causal interaction.

Ward proceeds to show that, for these naturalists, human volition appears to be a mere shadow or symbol of molecular processes in the brain. Intellectual activity (e.g., logical reasoning) therefore is seen as illusionary, determined only by mechanical neural connections. This, Ward insists, is determinism. He then demonstrates how these defenders of physiological psychology begin to waffle incoherently when they discourse on ethics. Huxley tells his readers that "in itself it is of little moment whether we express the phenomenon of matter in terms of spirit, or the phenomenon of spirit in terms of matter."48 Ward calls this "a sort of book-keeping by double entry," and "a palpable contradiction."49

There were British contemporaries of James Ward who also published impressive critiques of naturalistic psychology and ethics. The Idealist philosopher T. H. Green (1836-1882) offered a sustained defense of free will, moral autonomy, and the distinctiveness of the human mind in his Prolegomena to Ethics (1883). The Scottish theologian James Iverach (1839-1933) and the Anglican theologian Aubrey Moore both wrote telling critiques of the naturalist psychology and ethics as they then were exemplified in, for example, the Darwinian physiologist George Romanes' (1848-1894) Mental Evolution in Man (1888).50 What is notable here is that Ward, Iverach, and Moore all were theists and trained scientists; the latter two were also supportive of Darwin's theory and were orthodox Christians. What all three wisely opposed were those contemporary forms of scientific naturalism that avowed or covertly entailed a reductive mental materialism and determinism.

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