A former colleague of mine once said that the problem with theology is that it has no subject-matter. I was reminded of Nietzsche’s (unwittingly self-damning) claim that those who have theologians’ blood in their veins see all things in a distorted and dishonest perspective, but it was counterbalanced a few years later by a comment of another philosopher – on hearing of my appointment to Heythrop College – that it was good that I’d be working amongst theologians because they are more open-minded than philosophers.
Can one be too open-minded? And isn’t the limit traversed when we start talking about God, or, even worse, believe in Him? Presumably yes, if atheism is true, but it is not demonstrably true, and it is unclear in any case what it means to be either an atheist or a theist. (Some think that theists make God in their own image, and that the atheist is in a better position to relate to God.)
The atheist with which we are most familiar likewise takes issue with the theist, and A.C. Grayling goes so far as to claim that we should drop the term ‘atheist’ altogether because it invites debate on the ground of the theist. Rather, we should adopt the term ‘naturalist’, the naturalist being someone who accepts that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws, and that it contains nothing supernatural: ‘there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses’.
I agree that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws, and I do not believe in fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. However, I cannot accept that there is nothing supernatural in the universe until it is made absolutely clear what this denial really means.
The trouble is that the term ‘naturalism’ is so unclear. To many it involves a commitment to the idea that the scientist has the monopoly on nature and explanation, in which case the realm of the supernatural incorporates whatever is not natural in this scientific sense.
Others object to this brand of naturalism on the ground that there are no good philosophical or scientific reasons for assigning the limits of nature to science. As John McDowell says: ‘scientism is a superstition, not a stance required by a proper respect for the achievements of the natural sciences’.
McDowell endorses a form of naturalism which accommodates value, holding that it cannot be adequately explained in purely scientific terms. Why stick with naturalism? In short, the position – in its original inception – is motivated by sound philosophical presuppositions.
It involves acknowledging that we are natural beings in a natural world, and gives expression to the demand that we avoid metaphysical flights of fancy, ensuring that our claims remain empirically grounded. To use the common term of abuse, we must avoid anything spooky.
The scientific naturalist is spooked by anything that takes us beyond the limits of science; the more liberal or expansive naturalist is not. However, the typical expansive naturalist stops short of God. Understandably so, given his wish to avoid metaphysical flights of fancy, and given the assumption that such a move can be criticised on this score.
Yet what if his reservations in this context can be challenged in the way that he challenges the scientific naturalist’s reluctance to accept his own position? (The scientific naturalist thinks that McDowell’s values are just plain spooky, and McDowell challenges this complaint on anti-scientistic grounds.)
McDowell could object that the two cases are completely different – God is spooky in the way that value is not. Yet this response simply begs the question against the alternative framework at issue – a framework which challenges the assumption that God must be viewed in these pejorative terms.
The idea that there is a naturalism to accommodate God does not mean that God is simply part of nature – I am not a pantheist – but it does mean that the concept of the divine can already be understood as implicated in our understanding of nature, rather than being thought of as entirely outside it.
So I am rejecting deism to recuperate a form of theistic naturalism which will be entirely familiar to the Christian theist and entirely strange (and spooky) to the typical atheist who is a typical naturalist. McDowell is neither of these things – that’s why his position is so interesting.