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On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics.

In this interesting study Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in the U.S.A., and George Ellis, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town and President of the Royal Society of South Africa, argue that the hierarchical ordering of the natural and human sciences, according to which each mode of understanding poses boundary questions that can only be satisfied by reference to the one above it, is incomplete until it is extended to include ethics and, finally, a doctrine of God. Their thesis starts from the conviction that `the (apparent) fine-tuning of the cosmological constants to produce a life-bearing universe (the anthropic issue) seems to call for explanation'. Granting that this is a coherent question for which it is appropriate to seek an answer (perhaps, since it is the question of everything, one ought to speak of it as fundamentally the question), they seek to show how a particular way of understanding the divine nature provides the basis for 'a theistic explanation' that gives `a more coherent account of reality ... than does a non-theistic account'. In this respect, it should be noted, 'reality' not only refers to what is studied by the natural and human sciences but also embraces what `we know ... from other spheres of experience such as the moral sphere'. If, however, a credible theistic understanding of the fundamental structure of reality is to be established, it is essential to employ an account of the divine reality that is `consistent with the patterns of divine actions [that] we seem to perceive in the natural world'. In their view this has to be an account that understands God as working `in concert with nature, never overriding or violating the very processes that God has created'. This account, furthermore, not only sees God as refusing `to do violence to creation, whatever the cost to God'; it also is held to have `direct implications for human morality' in that `it implies a "kenotic" or self-renunciatory ethic, according to which one must renounce self-interest for the sake of the other, no matter what the cost to oneself'. Since, Murphy and Ellis judge, with some justification, that this implies an ethical stance that is much at odds with the ideas presupposed in current social theory, they conclude that `new research programs are called for' that will explore `the possibilities for human sociality in the light of a vision modeled on God's own self-sacrificing love' (p. xv).

The above outline of their thesis is taken from the summary that they provide in the Preface to the book. The authors then do what they say that they are going to do. What results is a clear, thoughtful, wide-ranging and sometimes highly provocative exposition of its various points, that seeks `to synthesize knowledge from a variety of disparate fields' (ibidem) and, in particular, to remedy the lack of attention paid to ethics in current discussions about science and religion. In this their thought, as they acknowledge, seeks to build upon epistemological insights developed by Carl Hempel, Imre Latakos and Alasdair Maclntyre, upon Arthur Peacocke's notion of theology as the apex of the hierarchy of the sciences, and upon theological work by John Howard Yoder. It is also informed by the authors' Anabaptist heritage -- one of them being a Quaker and the other a minister in the Church of the Brethren.

The conclusion that they reach is that the hierarchical structure of the natural and human sciences is not to be seen as a single scale but rather in terms of a complex figure where the initial stem of physics, chemistry and biology bifurcates into one branch consisting of geology and ecology, astrophysics, and cosmology, and the other of psychology, social and applied sciences, motivational studies, and ethics. Overarching the two branches, however, and establishing the unity of reality at the highest level is what they call `Metaphysics (Theology)' (cf. P. 204). Their conclusion is that while 'there are aspects of reality at each level that can be explained reductively, in terms of lower levels', there are critical `boundary questions that can only be answered by turning to a higher level'. Ultimately `scientific cosmology raises boundary questions that can only be answered theologically' and the social sciences pose questions whose answer requires ethics -- and `ethical systems, in turn, raise theological questions'. Furthermore, Murphy and Ellis not only contend that morality has 'an "objective" basis in the nature of reality' and that ethics can consequently be advanced as a `scientific study of this moral order'; they also maintain at considerable length that `the ideal human life is one of self-renunciation', even to the point of renouncing one's supposed right to self-defence (p. 250)

In many ways the thesis that is offered is very attractive. If warranted, it provides the basis for developing a coherent (and theistic) story of reality as a whole that includes values as well as facts, persons as well as things, and presents a challenging moral ideal for guiding human activity. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear from what is given that it is as securely warranted as might be hoped.

First, it is not as self-evident as the authors apparently assume that the question of the meaning of the whole of reality is a legitimate question. As Bertrand Russell put it, while it is true that `every man who exists has a mother', it does not follow that `the human race must have a mother'. The claim that all that there is constitutes a whole (a `universe') about which questions of meaning and purpose can be coherently asked is a basic tenet of theistic understanding (at least of that theology that sees itself as `providing knowledge of a transcendent reality' -- which is how Murphy and Ellis see it) but it is a tenet that may be considered open to question. While to show that it is possible to identify a coherent and fitting meaning of all-as-a-whole may be a way (perhaps the only persuasive way) to answer doubts about whether there is such a whole, to fail to pay appropriate attention to these preliminary doubts leaves the thesis open to the objection that fundamentally it begs critical questions.

Secondly, the hierarchy of levels of investigation and understanding presented by Murphy and Ellis takes up the notion that some boundary questions at one level can only be answered by reference to a higher level in the hierarchy. A scheme is thereupon developed that offers a way of giving a sense of completion to the whole. This scheme may be considered to be intellectually satisfying -- granted that the final level, that of the reality of God, is recognized necessarily to involve claims about that which determines the final boundaries and of which higher level questions are illegitimate. 'God' is the absolute brute fact for theistic patterns of understanding. It is, however, necessary to ask whether what seems to be intellectually satisfying to a human way of understanding necessarily reflects what is actually the case.

This second issue is made more troubling by the way, thirdly, that the hierarchies of understanding not only move from the natural to the human sciences but are developed to incorporate levels dealing with ethical values and, finally, the transcendent reality discussed in theology and classical forms of metaphysics. While theistic faith maintains that reality not only forms a whole but also that questions of fact, value and rationality ultimately find their final resolution in the reality of God, there are problems about the relationship of fact and value that deserve careful consideration before an understanding of the relationship between them can be confidently affirmed.

Fourthly, while it is widely recognized that scientific studies that ignore ethics (or, as one researcher put it to me, that see ethics as keeping the discussion of experiments out of the tabloids) can seriously damage not only the health of individuals but also the health of humankind, it is not clear that the ethical issues raised by the natural and human sciences are to be met by studies that belong to a single all-embracing hierarchy of levels of understanding. While Murphy and Ellis make an important point when they draw attention to the important place of ethical reflection in human understanding, they seem to move unconvincingly easily from what they hold to be the observed character of reality to the ethical values that are to direct human activity. Seeing the universe as having a moral nature that is fundamentally to be described in kenotic terms may make their move attractive but it is open to two objections. First, it is debatable whether their identification of the moral character of the universe is warranted. Some would argue that the notion of a `selfish gene' is a more accurate basis for such description than that of a 'telos of self-renunciation' while others, perhaps most justifiably of all, would question whether (and, if so, the extent to which) moral terms like `selfdenying' and `self-interested' are applicable to non-personal modes of being. Secondly, it is arguable that morality is not necessarily to reflect what is found to be the case, but may be to change it. If, for example, it were convincingly held that the structure of reality is ultimately self-interested rather than self-denying, it could be that theists would want to argue that morality is to impose values (perhaps even kenotic values) upon that structure rather than to copy the ways that things are.

Fifthly, while the kenotic view of God that is developed in this work has many persuasive elements, it may seem to some theists as interpreting God in a way that renders the divine worryingly ineffective. Belief in God faces the problem that the more the divine is held to be effectively active, the greater appears to be the problem posed by evil. To diminish claims about the activity of God to the point of disappearance, however, eradicates that problem but at the cost of raising questions about the material significance or references to God. This, is a danger with a kenotic interpretation of the divine. If God is perceived as never acting coercively in the world, some may question whether there is much significance in the notion of God's activity. This is a question that haunts a great deal of contemporary theology and it could well have been helpful to have more prolonged discussion of the issues in this study.

Finally, while the strong kenotic principle for guiding activity set out in this study makes a deeply challenging demand on individuals, it is not clear that it provides a justified moral basis for action, both individual and corporate, in social, political and economic affairs. I may be brave enough not to resist evil when it is inflicted on me but it is not clear that I ought to do the same when it is inflicted on you. The lack of clarity is both practical and moral. On the practical level it is not obvious that good examples will in the end convert the evil-minded, whether single persons or bound together in institutions. Morally, it is not obvious that my duty to my neighbour is satisfied by giving an example of self-renunciation that allows her or his destruction. An Anabaptist approach to these matters is persuasively expounded in a large section of this work but its pacifist demands need more justification than the authors provide, even though they appreciate that what they present will be seen as controversial.

While, however, these criticisms raise basic questions about the thesis that Murphy and Ellis put forward, they should be seen as asking for further development and defence of that thesis rather than showing that it cannot be sustained. Their work is a challenging attempt to explore what follows from trying to make sense of reality as a whole in a theistic way that takes account of how the sciences, both natural and human, perceive the characteristics of that reality. If theistic faith is to be seen as a way of understanding and is to justify its claim to be credible, it will have to be through attempts like this to show how all things may be drawn together in a coherent way.
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Author:Pailin, David A.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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