Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Thematic: Reality and Its Alternatives

Reality: A Shopper’s Guide

Realism, an idea whose time has come…again.

Paul Nedelisky

Page from Principles of Philosophy, 1699, by René Descartes (1596–1650); Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Realism is back. After several decades of denying there was anything beyond interpretation, thinkers in the postmodern tradition are returning to reality. A new cluster of Continental thinkers—including Maurizio Ferraris, Graham Harman, and Markus Gabriel—argue that realism was unjustly, and unwisely, abandoned.11xSee, for instance Ferraris’s A Manifesto of New Realism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014), Harman’s Speculative Realism: An Introduction (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2018), and Gabriel’s (surprisingly titled) Why the World Does Not Exist (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2015). While part of their motivation is purely philosophical, they also see realism as a defense against a crude, Nietzschean style of politics exemplified by a crop of world leaders who act as though the truth is whatever they say it is. Even in sociology, the thin, metaphysics-free theorizing of rational actor theory has been joined by “critical realism,” a metaphysically heavyweight view that accepts that things have objective natures that make them what they are, and powers that enable real causal interactions between things.22xAndrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (New York, NY: Verso, 1994); Philip Gorski, “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences,” Society 50 (October 2013): 543–53.

Analytic philosophy, meanwhile, has remained predominantly realist since its inception, but it has also struggled with whether we can really be justified in claiming knowledge of a world outside our heads, or any knowledge at all.33xFor a trenchant apology for radical skepticism, see Barry Stroud’s The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984). Lately, however, thinkers from its fringes have challenged this recurring skepticism, pointing to allegedly flawed but deep-seated assumptions in this Cartesian legacy—e.g., that our ideas of the world are radically separate from the external world itself—and reminding analytic philosophy’s adherents that we are thinkers embodied in the real world, even prior to conscious thought.44xSee, e.g., Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor, Retrieving Realism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

No one begins life as an antirealist. Indeed, historically speaking, realism seems to be our default position. Why, then, had realism become, until recently, so implausible? One answer would be is that antirealism resulted from certain unintended consequences of the Enlightenment.55xIn what follows, I draw on Ferraris’s account in A Manifesto of New Realism.

An Unintended Enlightenment

Many, if not most, Enlightenment thinkers believed that the triumph of Reason and the rise of the New Science would improve the prospects and material conditions of humankind.66xThe heading “The Unintended Enlightenment” and the narrative structure of the present section of this essay imitate in miniature Brad Gregory’s account of the emergence of modernity from the Protestant Reformation in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). Knowledge in that sense, they held, was emancipatory, breaking the chains that held back humankind.77xSee Peter Gay’s helpful account in The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom (New York, NY: Borzoi Books, 1969). 

But while this transformative knowledge, applied through technology and medicine, undeniably improved human life, it came with unimaginable social and institutional transformations. Increasingly, transportation was mechanical, communication was mass communication, human society seemed abstract and impersonal. People lived at a greater remove from nature, interacting more exclusively with designed environments. Industrialization, urbanization, and other sociocultural effects of the implementation of Enlightenment science began to blur the boundaries between the natural (or real) world and the artifactual world of many peoples’ experience. For some, this sense of “de-realization” began to undermine the plausibility of having access to a reality independent of the mind.88xGary Aylesworth, “Postmodernism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

Writing in the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche concluded that the view of the world presented by Enlightenment science left no room for objective morality. Philosophizing with a hammer, he declared that great, transformative ideas were no more than the elaborations of the perspectives of powerful thinkers and therefore had little or no claim to an objective representation of reality. The idea of truth, Nietzsche held, was chiefly a tool the powerful used to manipulate and dominate others. The result, as the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris puts it, is “the fallacy of knowledge-power: every form of knowledge should be viewed with suspicion, as an expression of some sort of power.”99xFerraris, A Manifesto of New Realism, 75.

This suspicion of knowledge as merely the expression of power, instantiated in norms, institutions, and cultural forms, was handed down and elaborated by twentieth-century thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty. What Enlightenment philosophers had seen as the emancipation of humankind was seen by these “postmodern” thinkers as a tool, potential or actual, of oppression. For the more strident advocates of this stance, the only way to avoid the inevitable abuse of any claims to knowledge of reality was to deconstruct such claims, and ultimately to deny the possibility of any such knowledge.

From Realism to Reality

While postmodern thought can bear only so much blame for a style of politics that destabilizes notions of reality and truth, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, and Donald J. Trump have all profited from the collapse of a broad cultural consensus about what is plausibly true and what is “fake news,” a collapse to which popularized postmodernist suspiciousness has contributed. Having observed Berlusconi’s roughshod abuse of reality during the media mogul’s off-again on-again career as Italian prime minister, Ferraris argues that without the idea that some things are the way they are, no matter what anyone thinks about them, it is unclear how one might resist the claims of the powerful. “Contrary to what many postmodern thinkers believe,” he concludes, “there are reasonable grounds to think, first of all on the basis of the teachings of history, that reality and truth have always constituted the protection of the weak against the oppression of the strong.”1010xIbid., 72.

If postmodernist suspicion of realism is itself now under suspicion, what of that ingrained Cartesian skepticism about reality? One response advanced by more phenomenologically oriented philosophers such as Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor is to criticize Descartes’s view that ideas are isolated in the mind, cordoned off from the world they are supposed to represent. Once that “inside/outside” structure was accepted, there would always be the problem of how to get outside one’s head to compare one’s ideas to the real world. Dreyfus and Taylor offer an alternative approach, pointing out, first of all, that we automatically accept entire life-worlds in terms of which we understand the objects of ordinary experience. Without this prior and unreflective assumption of a holistic framework, we couldn’t even identify most of the things we think and talk about. And much of our navigation through the world occurs by way of cognitive interaction with our physical environment, below the level of conscious awareness. Since we are constantly interacting with that environment, we should accept it as real.

Such observations about how we interpret and interact with the world are plausible, but the committed Cartesian would point out that our automatically assumed life-world may be illusory, despite its not having been intentionally chosen. Surely we can be mistaken by accident! Furthermore, we can gather the reality of the external world from our subconscious interaction with it only if we already assume that the interaction is with the external world. After all, the appearance that we are subconsciously interacting with an external world may be just another aspect of our illusory inner representations.

Regardless of the persistent challenges posed by Cartesian skeptics, it’s clear that realism is mounting a comeback. The critical question now is where the new realists should turn once they’ve resumed a realist stance. After all, realism is just the view that the world is at least partly an objective matter, independent of what we think of it and how we interpret it. This leaves open what the newly discovered real world is like, apart from its objective existence.

Thus far, the new realists are headed in different directions. The critical realists are returning to an Aristotelian view of causation, with its acceptance of genuine causal interaction instead of mere “correlation” between significant events. Ferraris suggests that we return to a broadly Enlightenment picture, with its elevated view of science.1111xIbid., 84. I propose to offer a brief sketch of the primary metaphysical theories now on offer, skewing toward the more popular accounts and making a few distinctions in response to key theoretical problems that should help contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of the respective views. Perhaps the most significant fault line among the competing options is marked out by the question of what, at bottom, the building blocks of reality are. Given that there is a reality out there, what is it made of?

Naturalism, Observable and Measurable

First among equals, naturalism is far more popular than any other competing view in analytic philosophy.1212x“Metaphilosophy: Naturalism or Non-naturalism?,” The PhilPapers Surveys, Centre for Digital Philosophy and Philosophy Documentation Center, accessed April 24, 2019, It appears to be the only acceptable background assumption for research in the hard sciences—physics and chemistry—and is preferred even in the softer ones—biology, psychology, sociology. Naturalism is the view that the building blocks of reality are things we can describe in scientific terms—everything is built up from stuff that science can study. In slogan form: Reality is scientific. Unpacking it a bit, we can see that naturalism doesn’t commit us to thinking that science has already described the fundamental basis of reality, but just that whatever these building blocks turn out to be, they’ll be the kinds of things science can study. That is, these fundamental things will be describable in empirical terms, terms connected to observation and measurement in the right sort of way.

Though it is not an automatic consequence, many hold that reality as depicted here is hierarchically structured. Coming first are fundamental physical entities, which compose the molecular entities of chemistry, which compose the building blocks of life as studied by biology, which compose the “higher” life forms—including humans—and their brains, with the accompanying psychological phenomena, which in concert with other life forms give rise to social phenomena. 

Part of the appeal of naturalism lies in its success at replacing the picture that long held sway in the West. A synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelian thought, this view held that the essence of anything was what and how it was aimed at its specific “Good,” as designed and directed by God. The thinking was that all living organisms had a built-in teleology, a direction and an end. But even while this medieval synthesis contributed directly to the rise of modern science, its deductive emphasis on causality lost credibility as the New Science steadily answered many age-old questions with empirical demonstrations that had no need of teleology. One after another, realms of study that had shown little development over preceding millennia advanced in decisive steps: first astronomy, then mechanics, then physics more generally, then chemistry, then broad swaths of biology and medicine. It seemed clear that reality would be explained through observation, not through an appeal to an embedded orientation to the Good.

The Problem of Humanitas

Because naturalism holds that everything real must ultimately trace its roots to what science can describe, the reality of certain other things becomes doubtful. These things include consciousness, value, morality, meaning, teleology, reason, intentionality, free will, life, the soul, and the self. Naturalists sometimes call these things “spooky,” since from their perspective these phenomena are hard to understand in physical terms, as ghosts and other spooky things would be.

But since this term seems a bit pejorative, rather than “spooky,” I will call these phenomena by an older term for denoting the distinctively human: humanitas. After all, most of these “unscientific” phenomena are centrally involved in a traditional conception of humanity. Human beings are living, conscious selves that perceive and possess great value, whose interactions with others are guided by a sense of the moral, who appreciate and pursue meaning, who navigate and understand reality by use of their reason and will. These features aren’t restricted to human beings. But they are united in humanity.

After the emergence of modern science from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, many supposed that we would find naturalistic explanations for all of reality, including the realms of humanitas. Yet biology has not acquired the definitive, solid character of physics or chemistry. We might know more about how animal and plant bodies work, but there’s still no remotely adequate naturalistic account of what life is—what it is that makes living things specifically different from inanimate things.1313xSee Edouard Machery, “Why I Stopped Worrying about the Definition of Life…and Why You Should As Well,” Synthese 185, no. 1 (March 2012): 145–64. Indeed, on the intractability of this question the tide began to turn. Similarly, the revolution in cognitive science launched in the latter part of the twentieth century was supposed to solve the riddle of consciousness, but for all it has done to elaborate the neural corelates of consciousness and assorted brain processes, it still can’t pin down consciousness itself.1414xSee David Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995): 200–219. Since the Scientific Revolution itself, there have been numerous attempts to apply the methods of naturalistic science to elucidate and even help adjudicate thorny questions of value and morality. All of these have failed, though it is still often claimed on their behalf that they demonstrate things their methods actually cannot achieve.1515xSee my book with James Davison Hunter, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018). Similarly unsuccessful have been efforts to “naturalize” intentionality, free will, the soul,1616xOn intentionality, see Pierre Jacob, “Intentionality,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2019), ed. Edward N. Zalta, See the section “Can Intentionality Be Naturalized?” for a description of the current, less than promising proposals. On free will, see Alfred R. Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). On the soul, see Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz, eds., The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul (New York, NY: Continuum, 2010). and the others.

Naturalism is part of the continuing legacy of the Enlightenment, which produced its first systematic self-understanding.1717xSee Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: The Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001). But its explanatory difficulties should give us pause when we hear simplistic calls for a return to the Enlightenment certainties from science guru types like Steven Pinker or new realists like Maurizio Ferraris. It is not to gainsay the countless achievements of modern science to acknowledge the limits of scientific explanation and philosophy that try to explain all merely in the terms provided by science.

Two Flavors of Naturalism

So what to do? Naturalists have reacted to these intractable explanatory problems in two ways, effectively leaving us with two versions of naturalism: enchanted and disenchanted. The disenchanted naturalist is aware of the explanatory difficulties and proposes a solution: Naturalism has struggled to explain these phenomena because they aren’t real. We can’t explain consciousness in scientific terms because there is no consciousness—it’s just an illusion.1818xDaniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York, NY: Norton, 2017); Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York, NY: Norton, 2012). We can’t explain morality in scientific terms because there is no morality.1919xHunter and Nedelisky, Science and the Good, ch. 8. And so on. The mistake, these thinkers hold, was to accept ordinary experience instead of following the surer guide of empirical inquiry.

The trouble with this approach is that it ultimately leads to incoherence. The most forthright proponent of disenchanted naturalism is Alexander Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke University. In his book-length treatment of this view, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he argues that all of what I’m calling humanitas is illusory.2020xRosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Part of the upshot is that since there’s no intentionality, there’s no thought, in which case there’s no such thing as reason, in which case there are no reasons to accept any view. But Rosenberg’s entire book purports to provide reasons to accept his view…that there are no reasons to accept any view. If his case is rational, then it follows that it isn’t. So non-natural phenomena appear to be required for the very activity of reasoning. Thoroughly disenchanted naturalism appears to be a nonstarter.

The enchanted naturalist believes that the spookier phenomena of human experience—humanitas—can nevertheless be explained in the right way.2121xOn naturalistic dualism, see, for instance, Brie Gertler’s “In Defense of Mind-Body Dualism,” in Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, eds. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2013), 312–23. Some may believe this simply because they aren’t aware of the difficulties naturalism faces on these points. But many are aware, and nevertheless maintain confidence that such an explanation exists, even if we haven’t found it yet. Given the general failure to naturalize most of humanitas over the past 400 years, what is the basis for this optimism? For some, the basis is that the alternatives all seem worse. Much of human experience seems accurate in its broad categories—there really is moral truth (even if it’s often hard to know), free will, consciousness—so we can’t deny this. But we also can’t deny that, ultimately, whatever we experience must arise from basic empirical reality. After all, what would the alternative to naturalism be? A fundamentally nonscientific reality? Even if such a thing existed, how could we know it, departing, as we would have to, from the reliable methods of science?

A Better Alternative with a Worse Name

Answering these questions gives us our next category of views. This category doesn’t have a catchy name. Indeed, it’s currently simply known as non-naturalism. What unites the big-picture views in this category is—as the name suggests—that each in some way accepts as real something that can’t be described in scientific terms. In slogan form: Science can’t explain everything. The most obvious way of not being a naturalist is to think God exists, since an invisible supernatural being clearly wouldn’t be describable by science—God wouldn’t be made of subatomic particles, have mass, etc. But there are plenty of other ways, too.

While non-naturalists think some things can’t be explained in the terms of science, these days almost all non-naturalists think some things can be explained in this way. That is, very few of them think nothing is explained in scientific terms. In the past, some have held that, at bottom, everything is mental or spiritual.2222xEarlier proponents of idealism include many in the broadly Kantian German idealist tradition—such as Hegel and Schopenhauer—which influenced the British Idealist school that was largely brought to an end by the beginnings of analytic philosophy. But today, most non-naturalists who accept some basic mental or spiritual reality also think there is an empirical realm.

A key, organizing question for non-naturalistic views is how and why humanitas emerged in the universe at all. Even if we have an idea of the building blocks that are needed for a reality that includes human beings, this doesn’t tell us why the building blocks happened to come together in the right way so as to produce this particular reality. This is the difference between, say, wondering at the structure and materials of an architectural marvel and wondering what brought about its design and production. One set of questions concerns form and materials, and the other concerns how it came to be built at all. It is a matter of how much sense the explanation of this emergence makes. (The philosophical terms are intelligible versus brute explanations.) For both non-naturalists and enchanted naturalists, the problem is pressing.

Suppose basic physical stuff—such as quarks—has what it takes to give rise to life, consciousness, value, and the rest of humanitas. Even if that were so, why would the quarks—as directed by the laws of nature—eventually organize themselves so as to produce life? There’s nothing we know about basic physical stuff or its laws that suggests that this would be likely to happen. And why would natural selection operating on random mutation in living organisms produce conscious beings, let alone the especially significant human conscious beings? There is no discernible telos in mutation—that’s why we say it’s random. So it seems extremely improbable that naturalistic reality would give rise to life and consciousness.

But it did. So what should we think about this?

Some think we just got lucky, and point out that any particular universe is extremely improbable, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that ours is too. But for many, this response seems too dismissive. Consider the innumerable possible configurations 500 toothpicks could form if spilled from a box. Each possible configuration would be extremely unlikely to be the one that resulted. Yet if you looked down and saw that the spilled toothpicks had spelled out your name, this might seem to call out for more explanation than merely “Well, it’s as unlikely as any other outcome…”

Others might propose (as they do in response to the observation of “fine-tuning”) that our universe is just one of very, very many universes in a “multiverse,” across which all the various ways a universe might turn out are realized. In the vast majority of these, as we might expect, conscious life does not develop. But in some tiny fraction of them, it does. And we couldn’t even recognize that we were conscious and alive unless we were in one of those worlds. So it’s really no surprise that we do recognize this.2323xSee Max Tegmark’s “The Multiverse Strikes Back,” Scientific American, July 19, 2011, Problem solved.

The trouble with this response is that it requires positing a near-infinite number of additional universes in order to make less improbable the development of humanitas in reality. Inelegant, to say the least.  

So, for the non-naturalist, here is the needle to thread: explaining how the physical world and humanitas are united into a common reality, without infinitely multiplying universes, or ignoring the significance of our existence. This is precisely what Thomas Nagel attempts in his controversial book Mind and Cosmos.2424xThomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York, NY: Oxford, 2012).

Nagel’s solution is to posit new, teleological laws of nature. Just as some believe that there are laws that account for the behavior of the physical world, Nagel suggests that there are laws that relate key aspects of humanitas to the development of the physical world over time. The laws are in some sense “aimed at” bringing about life, and then bringing about conscious life. Such laws would exert something like pressure on otherwise random arrangements of molecules to encourage the formation of life, and on natural selection, favoring the evolution of conscious organisms. If such laws exist, then the fact that conscious life exists isn’t so astounding. Rather, given such laws, it’s what we should expect. These laws would make the emergence of humanitas intelligible.

The main difficulty Nagel’s view faces is that it is tough to make sense of the idea that reality just happens to have laws that promote life and consciousness. It’s one thing for a rational agent to promote some valuable outcome. We humans can make sense of the significance of valuable things, and so can try to act on behalf of value. “I tried to save her life because her life is good” is a claim that makes sense. But reality itself isn’t a rational agent that could “act” to promote valuable things like life and consciousness. One thinks of the wizard Gandalf’s claim, in The Lord of the Rings, that the One Ring “wants to be found.” Except in this case it isn’t a ring in a fantasy novel—it’s all of reality. “Reality wants conscious life to exist.” Deeply puzzling, if not incoherent.

It seems we still need something else to explain why reality would privilege life and consciousness. As you’ve probably surmised, there’s a historically popular option I still haven’t discussed, though it’s one that Nagel says he hopes doesn’t exist.2525xThomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130–31.

The Big Three

Yeah, it’s God. The most recognizable non-naturalistic views are the metaphysical extensions of the “Big Three” monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In some of the more prevalent versions of these views, God is a personal being, with something akin to rationality and will. And on these views, God is supposed to have created human beings to be like him in these respects (whether gradually via evolution or immediately via special creation). Humanitas is ultimately a sort of donation from divinitas. It isn’t a cosmic coincidence that conscious life appeared. Rather, conscious life is present in the fundamental entity—God himself. And God gave of himself through creation and brought about further conscious lives. So from the perspective of the Big Three, the appearance of humanitas is intelligible.

As we’ve seen, a first step toward organizing the various non-naturalistic views is to look at how much sense their explanation for the emergence of humanitas makes. A second step is to look at whether a view unifies or fragments the natural and non-natural. I know of no one who calls his or her view “fragmented,” but descriptively this is true of some views. In my home discipline of analytic philosophy, this sort of view seems fairly common among non-naturalists. A standard account would be that someone finds the naturalistic picture very plausible…except for this or that recalcitrant phenomenon that doesn’t seem to reduce, such as objective value. Scientifically describable building blocks—such as subatomic particles and their features—somehow add up so that some things are good and valuable. But how is objective value unified with its physical basis? While some will have a theory here, some will plead ignorance: “No idea—but both objective value and the wider world of physical phenomena coexist somehow.”

On the other hand, say there is a cognitive scientist who thinks the workings of the brain explain the human mind, but thinks consciousness can arise there because, at bottom, all matter is conscious in some way. (This view, called panpsychism, is growing in popularity.2626xDavid J. Chalmers, “Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism,” in Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 19–47. ) This scientist’s view is more unified, because it posits a fundamental connection between the natural and non-natural.

On this score, too, the Big Three receive high marks. Their views can trace humanitas to its source in God, though, unlike God, human beings are formed “from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), having a material basis like much of the rest of creation. This suggests that the physical is in part meant to underlie and support humanitas. On these views, then, we get both unity and an explanation for the existence of humanitas.

Christian, Muslim, and Jewish versions of these monotheistic views of reality were worked out in the early Middle Ages. In each case, the development followed roughly the same script: Take what you know about your God from your sacred texts, and slot that into the role of Prime Mover in Aristotle’s metaphysical system. The religious specifics about God would then trickle down through the rest of the system, making each more specifically Christian or Muslim or Jewish. But the overall framework remained fundamentally Aristotelian.2727xFor the paradigmatic case of Christian Aristotelianism, see Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae; for the Islamic example, see (among others) Ibn Rushd’s On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy; for the Jewish case, see Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed.

According to Aristotle and later proponents—including Thomas Aquinas—most of his metaphysical system can be known just by reasoning about the world of common experience. For example, when you see an injured animal, you perceive that the injury isn’t good for it, and so are able to know something about what is good for it, and thus know something about what its flourishing consists in. What makes the monotheistic syntheses different is that they also incorporate information that those who formulated these syntheses believed was specially revealed to them from God. For instance, reasoning about experience won’t reveal to us that God took on human nature as Jesus Christ, that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah, or that the Jews are God’s chosen people. The addition of revelation narrows the appeal of these views, since only those who accept that God really did speak to us can accept them. Additionally, the specific content of the revelations further narrows their appeal, since it includes claims we often find implausible—that all have sinned, that some will be eternally punished in hell, that all must submit, etc.

From a more specifically philosophical angle, the big problem with the Big Three is the problem of evil. If God is perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then there shouldn’t be evil in reality. If all-good, he would want to prevent evil; if all-powerful, be able to prevent it; and if all-knowing, always be able to see the consequences of his actions in order to prevent it. Yet there is evil, and often horrendous evil. Thus, there appears to be no God.

Or at least this is how the argument is sometimes glossed. What actually follows from the argument is more complicated. To see what I mean, consider this thought experiment. Suppose that while on a walk in the woods you happen upon (not a watch) but a piece of pottery. You examine it and find that the bowl is beautifully shaped, but the handle is crudely—even grotesquely—formed. Additionally, the outside of the bowl is exquisitely painted, but the inside appears to have been merely stabbed at with a paintbrush. What should you conclude? Due to the improbability both of clay naturally arranging itself into such a lovely shape and pigment staining the outside so beautifully, it was surely made by someone. Indeed, it had to have been made by someone with an eye for beauty and a talent for pottery. But the evil-looking handle and slapdash quality of the interior painting make you realize that there has to be more to the story. Here the inference is less clear, since there are numerous possible explanations. Perhaps the potter is subject to wild mood swings. Perhaps an artist began the bowl, but it was finished by a novice or worse. Perhaps a talented but sinister artist imbued the pot with beautiful elements merely to enhance the offensive qualities of the handle and interior. Perhaps the original artifact was perfect, but then was damaged and repaired by an inferior craftsman. And so forth.

But the beautiful parts of the bowl seem too wonderful to have happened apart from aesthetic intentionality, even if the other elements prevent any easy inference as to the overall character or intentions of the creator or creators. Likewise, there are multiple acceptable responses to the argument from evil. We might deny the perfection, omniscience, or omnipotence of God. We might tell some complicated story about why God permitted evil despite his goodness. But the aesthetically and ethically significant aspects of reality may make it tough to conclude that there was no designer at all.2828xThis was pointed out to me by my good friend Mario Villella, although others have perhaps made similar observations. The role God can play in explaining the appearance of life and consciousness—and their unification with the physical—only increases the plausibility of theism.

But this sort of response to the problem of evil doesn’t make any of the Big Three very plausible, since each is committed to the perfect goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of the creator. To square any of the Big Three with evil appears to require the “complicated story” response.

Secular Theism: Inverting the Naturalistic Hierarchy

But what if we held on to this rationally supported God but let go of the revealed religion?

This would be a return to something like the deism of the nineteenth century, or that of some of the pre-Socratic philosophers. In this picture, there is a rational, powerful deity whose creative activity accounts for at least much of discernible reality. The deity’s creation of conscious human life provides an intelligible explanation for the existence of humanitas and its discernible significance. The unity of the physical and humanitas could be accomplished by an appeal to Aristotle’s “natural philosophy,” roughly as follows.2929xFor an accessible, contemporary retelling, see Edward Feser’s Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid, Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 2019).

One of the central points of the Aristotelian metaphysics is that substances—ordinary living things like humans and other animals—are most fundamental, and that most of everything else is ultimately to be understood in relation to the substances. Also, anything that happens can be understood in terms of four kinds of causes. (Today we’d say four kinds of explanations.) The material cause is what something is made of; the formal cause is the structure that makes something the kind of thing it is; the efficient cause is what caused something to come into existence; the final cause is the purpose of the thing—the reason it exists.

The Big Three took this framework and connected the final causes of all things to the purposes of their creator. The “secular theist” view can do the same: The purpose of each thing can be seen as built into it by the creator, with all these purposes woven together into a coherent whole. So all the most fundamental things—the substances, like people and animals—are united in the harmony of their purposes. Subatomic particles and quantum phenomena, meanwhile, are designed the way they are in order to support and give rise to living beings: plants, animals, humans.

Thus, consciousness, purpose, intentionality, and reason are connected to the physical order, because the underlying physical things are understood in terms of the roles they play for the nonphysical things. This is an inversion of the naturalistic hierarchy, in which living things must be understood in terms of the basic physical things. But the result is a more unified non-naturalistic metaphysics.

Secular theism—as the unified, intelligible, humanitas-affirming view that it is—can avoid the problems facing the other views reviewed here: the incoherence disenchanted naturalism faces, the fragmentation enchanted naturalism and un-unified non-naturalism suffers, the odd issue of “agential laws” that confronts Nagelian non-naturalism, the controversial religious revelation and more pointed versions of the problem of evil that hurt the credibility of the religious metaphysics of the three Abrahamic traditions. And as we begin to recognize the pervasive inability of naturalism to account for the distinctively human, the explanatory value of a creative divine being may be coming back into focus. Perhaps secular theism is an idea whose time has come…again.

I would like to thank Matt Duncan, John Mahlan, and Brannon McDaniel for helpful criticism of this essay.