Swinburne Evolved

We had Richard Swinburne in town on Wed, offering an interesting seminar paper, the stated thesis of which was ‘it is impossible to offer scientific explanation of the evolution of humanity’ – he did pause to reassure us that he is very happy with a (neo-)Darwinian account of evolution by natural selection, &c., to account for speciation. So why the problem? The basic argument relied on a particular take on the philosophy of science. We may usefully divide properties/events into ‘physical’ and ‘mental’, according to Swinburne, and science necessarily deals with only physical properties/events. (He defined an event as ‘a substance having a particular property at a particular time’.) However, what it is to be human (and, by supposition, a member of various species of the higher animals) involves a series of mental events/properties, and so is necessarily opaque to science. A ‘mental’ event/property is one to which ‘the substance in whom it is instantiated necessarily has privileged access’ (quoted from Swinburne’s handout). This gets us into a hard mind/brain distinction: the chemical state of my brain is a physical event: I have no direct access to it, and anyone can in principle investigate it. However, my feeling interest, excitement, or fear, is a mental event: no-one else has access to those feelings. Of course, it is almost certainly the case that many – perhaps all – mental properties either cause or are caused by certain physical properties, but they remain different events. I can know that I feel fear without knowing anything about my brain chemistry; you can know something about my brain chemistry without knowing anything about how I am feeling. The essence of science is repeatable observation; this is, by definition, impossible, for mental properties and events. Science is remarkably successful at investigating the physical world, but does so often precisely by replacing language of mental events (‘heat’), which is necessarily opaque, with language of physical events (the random motion of particles, or electromagnetic radiation) which is susceptible to scientific investigation. Therefore, if it is of the essence of being human to be possessed of certain mental properties, there is no available scientific account of what it is to be human, or of how humanity appeared on earth. Swinburne suggested five such properties: the possession of mental properties simpliciter; the occurrence of intentional events; the two-way interaction between mental events and brain events; the possession of moral beliefs; and the possession of libertarian free-will (which he acknowledged to be contested). This is all very neat, and difficult to criticise as a piece of logic. What of the premises? It seems to me that the crucial assumption is that only I am able to observe my own mental processes. Presuming that the universe is less hospitable to telepaths than many of our sci-fi novelists have imagined (which seems to me a reasonable presumption), this assumption is still, it seems to me, straightforwardly false. God knows me better than I know myself, and this would seem to include my mental properties. I suspect that the argument could be re-written to take account of this point: God is, after all, not your average scientist (I will resist any of the obvious rude comments…). If my criticism stands, then two potentially interesting results follow. The first is that Swinburne’s assumption of libertarian free will becomes decisive for his argument. If I am possessed of libertarian free will, then there might in principle be aspects of my mental life to which God has less immediate access than I do (which seems to me another in a long list of fairly devestating arguments against libertarian free will, but…). Second, Swinburne’s argument could be taken as a demonstration that it is impossible to believe in evolution if one happens to be an atheist, which would be a pleasing conclusion to be able to demonstrate in the present cultural...

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Bodies and the Body

Yesterday we managed to divert both Cyril O’Regan, Huisking Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, and Matthew Levering of Ave Maria University to St Andrews to give us papers. In the morning Prof O’Regan explored von Balthasar’s apocalyptic trinitarianism, which helped me to understand why Halden has thought McCormack’s ideas echo Balthasar. In the afternoon, Dr Levering gave us a paper soon to be published in Pro Ecclesia on the theological interpretation of Scripture, a topic we talk a lot about in St Andrews. Levering explored proposals from O’Collins and from the Princeton Scripture Project before giving us his own account of what theological interpretation ought to look like. It was good stuff. One point got me thinking, however. He suggested that theological interpretation should be ’embodied’, which he glossed by saying that the lives of the Saints (and, perhaps, saints) should be read as privileged interpretations of Scripture. I don’t disagree with the point (I’ve explored something similar in passing in chapter 2 of my Listening to the Past, indeed), but when elevated to the status of a normative principle for hermeneutics, it made me pause. My instinctive, Baptist/Congregationalist, reaction was to resist locating the normative performance of Scripture in individual lives, and instead to locate it in the lives of Christian communities. ‘Is not the visible church of the New Testament with all the ordinances thereof the chief and principal part of the Gospel?’ asked John Smyth as the Baptists began. I actually believe that the answer is...

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Ben Witherington in St Andrews

‘The School of Divinity presents a special series of open lectures byProfessor Ben Witherington (Asbury Seminary, Lexington, KY) Oral Texts and Rhetorical Contexts: Rethinking the Nature of the New Testament (Monday 14th Jan 2-3.30) Will the Real Beloved Disciple Please Rise Up? The Historical Figure of the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John (Tues 15th Jan, 2-3.30) Did the Canon Misfire? Rethinking Recent Rethinking about the Canon (Thurs 17th Jan 2-3.30)’ I shall have to miss the first of these, unfortunately, unless I can cancel a long-standing engagement in the south of England, but I’m looking forward to the rest. Ben is a fairly regular visitor to St Andrews, and always worth hearing.

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