Emergence (Part 2): Responding to the Atheist Foe

By Adam Lloyd Johnson


November 10, 2017

It seems that emergent naturalists want to etch out a middle ground somewhere between reductive materialism and theism. They acknowledge that reductive materialism fails to explain key aspects of reality such as morality and consciousness, but they do not want to go so far as to posit an infinite-personal God who stands above and beyond the physical universe. It is for this reason that Christians need to engage emergent naturalism, point out its weaknesses, and show how theism provides a more plausible explanation for the reality we experience. In this essay I will present two such strategies.

Strategy 1

First, Christians can challenge emergent naturalists as to their consistency. In other words, they can push back against such naturalists and argue that emergence is inconsistent with their naturalistic ontology. This strategy can be seen in the work of J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae; they argued that:

…the most consistent naturalist view is to hold that the physical realm is causally closed and that there are no “gaps” in the causal fabric to be filled by causes at so-called higher, emergent levels of description… It would seem, then, that the most reasonable view for naturalists to take is to commit themselves at least to what is called causal reduction: the existence and causal powers of “reduced” macroentities are entirely explainable in terms of the causal powers of the “reducing” microentities.[1]

This strategy does not deny strong-emergence but argues that naturalists, if they are to be consistent with their naturalism, should reject strong-emergence.

There is no shortage of naturalists, both reductive materialists and those who accept only weak-emergence, who agree that strong-emergence is impossible given the basic tenets of naturalism, namely, the causal closure of the physical. Arguments from such thinkers can be used to point out the inconsistency between naturalism and strong-emergence. For example, Mark Bedau rejects strong-emergence because he claims it has not been empirically verified, viewing it is as speculative and mysterious hypothesis.[2] The most influential argument against strong-emergence is Jaegwon Kim’s ‘downward causation argument.’[3] Kim, not wanting to multiply causes beyond necessity, argued that strong-emergence is incompatible with the naturalist’s commitment to the causal closure of the physical realm.

Thus this first strategy attempts to push emergent naturalists back towards reductive materialism, arguing that it is more consistent with their naturalism. At this point Christians could then revert back to the classic comparison between reductive materialism and theism as discussed in part one, showing how theism provides a better explanation for consciousness and morality.

Strategy 2

A second strategy for responding to emergent naturalists, one that seems to me more productive, is to argue for the following conditional: If strong-emergence is true, then this phenomena itself needs an explanation, and theism does the job well, especially as part of an overall fine-tuning argument for God’s existence.

Naturalist Thomas Nagel, well known for critiquing reductive materialism, recognized that emergence could not be a final explanation because it too needs to be explained. He is drawn to the idea of strong-emergence but pointed out that emergentists

“cannot just say that each mental event or state supervenes on the complex physical state of the organism in which it occurs. That would be the kind of brute fact that does not constitute an explanation but rather calls for explanation.”[4]

He argued that the concept of emergence is helpful in understanding consciousness, but that the explanation cannot stop there. Of strong-emergence he wrote that:

[U]nless there were some further link between the physical history and the psychophysical theory, this would not rend the result intelligible, even if it were causally accurate. It would present consciousness as a mysterious side effect of biological evolution-inevitable, perhaps, but inexplicable as such. To explain consciousness, a physical evolutionary history would have to show why it was likely that organisms of the kinds that have consciousness would arise.[5]

He believes this “psychophysical theory of emergence” is “one serious option” but

“[i]t has the disadvantage of postulating the brute fact of emergence, not explainable in terms of anything more basic, and therefore essentially mysterious. And it relies on the large assumption that a reductive physical theory could confer sufficient likelihood on the appearance in geological time of the right kind of physical organisms to trigger that emergence.”[6]

In his next chapter he expressed the same concern in relation to our cognitive faculties, specifically our ability to reason, namely, that emergence as an explanation does not go far enough. He wrote that an “emergent answer… comes to seem increasingly more likely than a reductive one as we move up from physical organisms, to consciousness, to reason.”[7]

But he noted that:

[T]he historical question remains. Even if something entirely new begins to happen when the conscious brain reaches a certain size and level of complexity, an explanation of the existence of that complexity will be adequate only if it also explains the existence of reason as such. (This parallels the demands on an explanation of consciousness as such, discussed in the last chapter.) Suppose we have reason because our brains have reached a level of complexity at which reason emerges. If this is to be an explanation that renders the appearance of reason not a complete accident, it must in some way account not just for the physical complexity itself but for the appearance of just the kind of complexity that is a condition of the emergence of reason. This would not be necessary if one were willing to regard reason as a fluke—a pure side effect of other brain developments… if emergence is the correct answer to the constitutive question about reason, it may be that the historical question will require either a teleological or an intentional solution.[8]

Nagel thus proposed two possible explanations for emergence, a teleological one and an intentional one. By an intentional solution, he meant “…due to the intervention by a being (presumably God) who put the constitutive elements together in the right way.”[9] Unfortunately he rejected this explanation in favor of a teleological one based on, what he referred to as, his own “ungrounded intellectual preference.”[10]

His teleological solution is that

“there are natural teleological laws governing the development of organization over time, in addition to the laws of the familiar kind governing the behavior of the elements.”[11]

These laws lead history to develop in a certain way, down a “path that leads toward certain outcomes—notably, the existence of living, and ultimately of conscious, organisms.”[12] He speculated that these “organizational and developmental principles of this kind are an irreducible part of the natural order, and not the result of intentional or purposive influence by anyone.”[13] Though he added that he is “not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense but [he does] not at the moment see why it doesn’t.”[14]

I would maintain that the idea of teleology without intention does not make sense. Or better yet, I would argue that teleology with intention makes more sense, that it is more plausible because, if for no other reason, we have just never witnessed teleology without intention. In this same vein, I would apply the same critique to Nagel’s teleological laws that he used against emergence: teleological laws do not work as a final explanation because they too call for an explanation. I maintain that the best explanation of teleological laws, if they exist, is that there is a personal-infinite God who intended them. It is hard to imagine intentions, goals, and teleology without a mind because in our own experience we have never seen such things without a personal mind standing behind them. Every time we see teleology within the universe on a human level, it is always the result of intentions or purposive influences of a mind, usually a human person. I see no reason why this should not be carried over analogously to the universe as a whole. Of morality, Nagel wrote that

“…the idea of teleological explanation is often associated with the further idea that the outcomes have value, so that it is not arbitrary that those particular teleological principles hold. That in turn poses the question whether an explanation that appeals to value can be understood apart from the purposes of some being who aims at it.”

I maintain that it cannot.

This is the overall fine-tuning strategy that I recommend using towards strong-emergence as well. It seems more plausible to maintain that human personality, which is inexorably linked with consciousness and morality, comes from a personal source rather than an impersonal one. Moreland pointed out that

“[b]ecause of its impoverished epistemic attitude, etiology, and ontology, naturalism cannot offer a deep theory of emergence of genuine novelty and must settle for empirical correlations that beg the question against the theist who offers a personal explanation for the origin of emergent entities and their relation to the physical.”[15]

Even naturalist Paul Draper suggested that

“…the probability that moral agents exist given naturalism is extremely low, much lower than it is given theism… [there] is the possibility that some ‘historical outcomes’ like the existence of embodied moral agents are much more probable on theism than on naturalism and hence significantly raise the ratio of the probability of theism to the probability of naturalism.”[16]

Not only philosophers but scientists too have noted that the organized complexity seen in nature is an indication of fine-tuning. Stephen Barr, professor of physics at the University of Delaware, reflected as follows:

When we see situations that appear haphazard, or things that appear amorphous, automatically or spontaneously ‘arranging themselves’ into orderly patterns, what we find in every case is that what appeared to be amorphous or haphazard actually had a great deal of order already built into it… Order has to be built in for order to come out… scientific explanations do not allow us to escape from the Design Argument: for when the scientist has done his job there is not less order to explain but more. The universe looks far more orderly to us now than it did to the ancients who appealed to that order as proof of God’s existence.[17]

Emergentist Paul Davies, professional physicist and Regents’ professor at Arizona State University, has proposed a similar fine-tuning argument specifically in connection with emergence. He wrote that by selecting the laws of nature

“God is able to bestow a rich creativity on the cosmos, because the actual laws of the universe are able to bestow a remarkable capacity to canalize, encourage, and facilitate the evolution of matter and energy along pathways leading to greater organizational complexity.”[18]


In their battle against naturalism, Christians have mostly focused on reductive materialism, and for good reason; it was the predominant form of naturalism during the last century. But there are now various forms of non-reductive naturalism that provide sophisticated alternatives to theism, emergent naturalism being one of them. It is important for Christians to understand what emergentists are claiming and develop appropriate responses. I propose that there are things we can learn from the study of emergence that will strengthen our understanding of the world. In addition, emergence seems to be a helpful ally in pointing out the problems with reductive materialism, how that position is unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for consciousness and morality. In that sense emergent naturalism could be considered a friend, especially when it prompts people to consider other ontological positions, including theism.

Unfortunately though, emergence is most often presented as a naturalist alternative to theism, as though it can better explain the origin of life, consciousness, and morality. In this sense it should be considered a foe. In this essay I presented two responses that Christians can employ against emergent naturalism. First, we can point out the inconsistencies between strong-emergence and naturalism, showing that strong-emergence seems to violate a basic axiom of naturalism, the causal closure of the physical. Second, we can argue that emergence itself cannot be a final explanation, that it too needs to be explained. I propose that if the process of strong-emergence is true, then the best explanation for it is that there was a creative infinite-personal God who orchestrated it. This should be included in an overall fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. I believe this second response is the stronger and more influential one.


[1] J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 95. Also see J. P. Moreland, “Should a Naturalist Be a Supervenient Physicalist?,” Metaphilosophy 29, nos. 1/2 (January/April 1998).

[2] Mark A. Bedau, “Downward Causation and Autonomy in Weak Emergence,” in Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (eds. Mark A. Bedau and Paul Humphreys; Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008), 155–188.

[3] Jaegwon Kim, “Blocking Causal Drainage and Other Maintenance Chores with Mental Causation,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67.1 (2003): 151–76.

[4] Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, 55.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ibid., 60–61.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Ibid., 88.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Ibid., 26. However, throughout his book he gave several grounds for why he rejected theism—he does not find it anymore credible than reductive materialism (p. 22), it pushes the quest for intelligibility outside of the world (p. 26), it is merely a projection of our internal self conception onto the universe (p. 29), and the history of our world includes huge amounts of pain (p. 117). All of these concerns can be addressed, and have been by able Christian philosophers, but doing so would be outside the scope of this paper.

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid., 67.

[13] Ibid., 93.

[14] Ibid.

[15] J. P. Moreland, “Should a Naturalist Be a Supervenient Physicalist?,” Metaphilosophy 29, no. 1/2 (1998): 50.

[16] Paul Draper, “Cosmic Fine-Tuning and Terrestrial Suffering: Parallel Problems for Naturalism and Theism,” American Philosophical Quarerly 41, no. 4 (2004): 311.

[17] Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 79.

[18] Paul Davies, “Teleology Without Teleology,” in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (eds. William R. Stoeger, Francisco Ayala, and Robert John Russell; Berkeley, Cal.: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1998), 158.


Tagged with:

About the Author

By Adam Lloyd Johnson

Adam Lloyd Johnson serves as a full time missionary with Ratio Christi. He also teaches philosophy at Rheinland Theological Seminary in Wölmersen, Germany. Adam is a PhD candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Having worked in the field of actuarial science for 10 years after college, he then served as a Pastor for 8 years. While in his twenties he went through a crisis of faith: are there good reasons and evidence to believe God exists and the Bible is from Him? His search for answers led him to apologetics and propelled him into ministry with a passion to defend the truth of Christianity. He desires to serve others by equipping Christians and reaching the lost for Christ. Adam has presented his work at the National Apologetics Conference, the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the International Society of Christian Apologetics, the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith, and the Evangelical Theological Society. His work has been published in the Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Philosophia Christi, the Westminster Theological Journal, and the Canadian Journal for Scholarship and the Christian Faith. Adam has spoken at numerous churches and conferences in America and around the world – L.A., Chicago, Charlotte, Boston, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. He is currently putting a book together with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig; Adam will serve as the Editor and author the first chapter.