nonreductive physicalism

Friday, August 31, 2007

I've been reading Nancy Murphy's "Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism" where she uses the philosophical idea of nonreductive physicalism to argue for the possibility of miracles. She continues this exploration in "Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies". So what the heck is "nonreductive physicalism", you might ask? As the name suggests, nonreductive physicalism is the opposite of reductionism which says that all our experience can be reduced down to the smallest parts. For example, if you listen to a Bach symphony and are moved to tears, reductionism would say that this is ultimately just a chemical reaction. The music sends sound waves which vibrate on your eardrums which send a signal to your brain which causes the ducts in your eyes to secrete a saline solution. Physicalism is synonymous with materialism or naturalism. Materialism is the methodological assumption of all natural sciences, and up until recently it was assumed that this materialism was reductive, that is, one could explain things like love or awe by breaking it down into the physical explanations - chemicals, brain signals, etc and thus "explain it away".

The typical choice then is between saying
A) miracles don't happen because everything is physical
B) God breaks the laws of nature
Both are modernist choices. Murphy proposes going beyond this Liberal/Fundamentalist impasse via nonreductive physicalism which offers a third possibility. It agrees that everything that exists is made of matter and energy, but says that there are no practical, law-like relationships between levels of hierarchy. That is, there is no law you could discover that would translate statements like “Nancy is feeling awe” into a description of very specific brain states or molecular events as in the above reductive example of the person moved to tears by Bach. A state of awe of being moved by beauty is certainly caused by specific brain states and molecular transactions, but slightly different brain states and molecular transactions could instantiate awe or wonder or love in a different person, or in the same person at a later date. Really its kind of a no-brainer that the person is not crying because of chemicals, they are crying because it is beautiful and moving, and we need to have a way to make sense of those very real aspects of our human experience rather than "explaining them away" through the tunnel vision of reductive physicalism.

Nonreductive physicalism would agree with the physical description is accurate as far as it goes, but say that there is more that is going in than can be described in these reductive terms. Rather than reducing everything to physics, it says we need to realize that we can also learn things about our world and who we are from the other disciplines. Biology can tell us stuff that physics alone cannot, which is why we have both, and psychology can give us yet another level of insight. At the same time the lower level disciplines can also help the hight level ones. For example we really understood what was happening with some sicknesses after they broke the human genome on a chemical level which explained what was observable on a higher biological level (genetic defects). So we no not reduce everything into physics (the old model) rather we have all the disciplines, including Murphy says ethics and theology, each contributing its own level of insights in a nonreductive way.

So what does all of this have to do with miracles? Well, you may have asked yourself when you prayed and someone got better if it was really God, or whether their healing could be explained naturally. What Murphy says is that it could very well be both. There are always physical causal properties to miracles, but this would not mean that God was not involved, just as there would be physical phenomena when you experienced love, but the chemical would not be ALL that was happening. The love is a real part and is not explained away by the physical factors involved. Both are real. So there is no need to put religion and science in separate realms that can never meet. Personally I find this line of thinking promising for a collaboration between science and faith, and a deepening of the insights of both into who we are and how we tick.

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At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how does this approach differ from a dualist understanding of convergence between fields like theology and science? Murphy's position, as you have detailed it, sounds quite different from Kim's exposition in "Phyiscalism or something near enough."


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