A response to J.P. Moreland’s talk, by Gary Patterson

The Christian Scientific Society and J.P. Moreland

The CSS is committed to sound Christian theology as well as real science. All evangelical and Reformed Christians gladly believe and experience the reality of the soul. Deeper discussions about how to understand both the nature and functioning of the soul are continuing, and are unlikely to reach a conclusion any time soon.

The subject of the brain and the mind is a current topic of great interest, both to the CSS and to the scientific community known as cognitive neuroscience. Inviting J.P. Moreland to the past annual meeting to tell us that neuroscience has nothing to say about this subject reflects a serious misunderstanding about the limits of tolerance for truly anti-scientific discourse. Who is J.P. Moreland, and what does he teach?

J.P. Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published many books, and is a well-known member of the Society of Evangelical Philosophers. He was also a well-known leader of the Creation Research Society.

Without question, J.P. Moreland is a philosopher and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Southern California. Moreland essentially argued that philosophy is the king of human thought and that all scientific activity is subordinate to philosophical thought. While such a position has a long tradition, exactly where philosophy gets its input becomes a real question for Moreland. While he often appeals to Christian theology, his primary appeal is to the Platonic forms, accessible through his sensus philosophicus. While mere scientists must probe the messy world of matter and energy, philosophers can access Truth! As a result, scientists must first consult their local philosopher before they do anything else.

Beyond his area of competence, he wishes to be the creator and arbiter of a new type of human activity: theistic science. He claims to have access to absolute Truth that must be accepted before any type of science is conducted. Since he knows the Truth, he can direct mere scientists and save them from fruitless searches for useless knowledge. This attitude was displayed at the April 2015 CSS Meeting.

While I employ philosophy regularly as a historian, I do not look to philosophy for the source of my presuppositions. Philosophers have no special competence for creating knowledge. The basic protocol for philosophy is: If X, then what? Where X comes from is left to other modes of inquiry. Good philosophy accurately explores the consequences of the premises, but it does not produce premises.

In addition to being the editor of the volume “The Creation Hypothesis,” J.P. Moreland is the author of an introductory chapter on the nature of science. He wishes to argue for a system of thought and practice that he calls “theistic science.” Where do scientists get the initial ideas that lead them to carry out experiments or to construct theories? Moreland seems to misunderstand that there are as many different ways of envisioning initial notions as there are scientists. There is nothing about science that forbids using theological insights to construct initial hypotheses, any more than philosophical insights are forbidden. Even “dreams” are a regular part of the practice of science (think Kekule). But, Moreland wishes to insinuate his theological conclusions into science with a program to then establish the outcomes as “scientific.” While scientists are often highly invested in their hypotheses, it is considered bad science to blatantly reject evidence against the proposed conclusion for purely “personal” reasons. Since Moreland “knows” the Truth, science is obligated to confirm his views: this is “theistic science.” (In the political arena, names like Lysenko come to mind.)

Moreland seems unaware that science is not a disembodied universal. It is a record of human activity over an extended period of time. Both the standard protocols and the underlying presuppositions have changed over time. Science is what scientists have done. The type of Middle School discussion carried out by Moreland and corresponding obscurantist atheists ignores the realities of the history of science. But, when a particular episode in the history of science is written, both the genesis of the issue as well as the way in which it has been pursued are discussed in light of the provisional conclusions reached at the time. Since Moreland starts with the Truth, both the history and the provisional nature are ignored. Either the Truth was “established” or the scientists were either incompetent or malevolent.

One of the greatest philosophers was Descartes. He proposed that the “mind/soul” was immaterial and was linked to the body through the pineal gland. There is nothing untoward about such a suggestion (especially in Descartes’ time.) Attempts to verify this idea by observation and experiment have not proven to be fruitful and it has been discarded as a useful idea by modern psychology. But, this is not a criticism of Descartes. Linus Pauling had many really bad ideas. When they were examined in more detail, they were disproven. Why would anyone spend so much time investigating the ideas of someone who was so often wrong?! Because when he was right, he was truly inspired! The clearly stated ideas of very creative people yield testable programs of research. But, they are often wrong. This is normal scientific reality. Have any of Moreland’s ideas proven to be correct?

Moreland is very active in citing atheist obscurantists as examples of the inadequacy of science. “Theologized” science is no better than “politicized” science. It does not matter whether the source of certainty is divine or infernal. Science does not produce perfect certainty! At its best, science can establish empirically adequate systems of thought which can assign high probability. All science is provisional, and I believe Moreland knows this, but he seems to want to rule over science since he has a source of certainty.

I strongly support the notion of including philosophers and theologians in the discussions at CSS meetings, but we should seek people who truly understand science and its limitations as well as its strengths.

Gary Patterson is a professor of history of chemistry at Carnegie-Mellon University and a member of the CSS

One response to “A response to J.P. Moreland’s talk, by Gary Patterson”

  1. David Snoke
    David Snoke

    Just a couple of comments. First, our vision for the CSS annual meetings is to have a diversity of thought and robust debate, represented by a variety of speakers who do not necessarily agree on key points. We do not require speakers to be members of the CSS, or even to be Christians. While it is unlikely that we will want to debate the age of the earth any time soon, J.P. Moreland’s stature and his work on mind and brain issues made him an interesting and provocative invite.

    Second, while Moreland’s talk was unpersuasive to most of the scientists at the meeting in many aspects, I did not see the theme of his talk or Mike Egnor’s to be an assertion of ascendency of philosophy over all science. Rather, both focused, like Thomas Nagel in his recent book, on the importance of the “I-story” (to use the language of Donald Mackay), that is our subjective experience of our sense of self. Our subjective experience is, on one hand, apparently off limits for science, as something purely subjective and containing many incommunicable elements, and on the other hand, crucially part of our daily experience and not something anyone can or ought to try to ignore. What I drew from both talks was not a dismissing of neuroscience per se, but a recognition that the subjective I-story is real, mysterious, important, and not addressable by neuroscience. I loved the story of “Mary the red scientist” who was an expert on everything about the neural responses to the color red, but who was blind and had never seen/experienced the color red. I think we all recognize that there is something she was missing despite all her knowledge of neuroscience.

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