Can complexity save souls? A theological plea for simplicity [Kan kompleksiteit siele red? 'N teologiese pleidooi vir eenvoud]
Please cite as follows:
Brand, Gerrit. (2012). Kan kompleksiteit siele red? 'n Teologiese pleidooi vir eenvoud. Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe, 52(1), 103-120.
The original publication is available at: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0041-47512012000100008&lng=en&nrm=iso
Recent statements and reflections by public intellectuals like the French based "international association" Ars Industrialis and the American author Marilynne Robinson, point to what they see as a crisis of the "spirit" or "soul" in contemporary society. (For present purposes "spirit" and "soul" are used interchangeably.) While the cultural malaise suggested by these thinkers is multifaceted, one common thread is a sense that humankind seems to be taking leave of a rich spiritual heritage. The heritage in question (represented in classic writings like Blaise Pascal's Pensées) functions in much present-day discourse (for instance Gilbert Ryle's influential The Concept of Mind) as a foil for contrasting pre-modern, presumably pre-critical understandings of spirit to a current neuroscience and philosophy of mind in which various forms of so-called physicalism predominate. However, this contrast is largely based on caricatures of pre-modern thought, as can be shown by an analysis of Pascal's classic reflections on the soul, which are comparable to those of Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus and other formative Christian thinkers, but in conflict with some Cartesian speculations often wrongly characterised as pre-modern survivals. As a result, the supposed modern-pre-modern contrast is handicapped by a lack of clarity on where the significant points of difference actually emerge. A clear generic concept of "soul" or "spirit" can serve as a means of clarifying the precise point at which dominant contemporary forms of physicalism take leave of traditional beliefs concerning the spirit. A helpful definition would point to consciousness, intentionality and freedom as constituting what is traditionally called soul or spirit. It turns out that the notions of consciousness and intentionality are not seriously under threat, despite what many mistakenly regard as a potential result of physicalist theories like those put forward in Daniel Dennet's controversial Consciousness Explained. The reason is that any denial of consciousness and intentionality would by its very nature be self-referentially incoherent. The real bone of contention, then, is freedom, the denial of which may, according to some, have far-reaching anthropological consequences. In the resultant quest to "save the soul", theorists like Philip Clayton and Timothy O'Connor draw on insights from complexity thinking, especially theories of emergence, in making a case for a robust concept of freedom understood in either asymptotic or libertarian terms. While such accounts may help strengthen humanist resistance against physicalist reductionism, their value in defending some form of real, meaningful freedom should, for a number of reasons, not be overestimated. The relevance of the humanist quest for a convincing account of freedom has its origin in existential rather than explanatory considerations, so that seeking empirical support for the reality of a kind of freedom suited to particular existential demands runs the risk of ending in category mistakes, thereby actually undermining what it is supposed to strengthen. Moreover, in attempting to escape empiricist criticism, such theories end up giving centre stage to a very limited existential relevance of the freedom defended, mainly with reference to some notion of responsibility and its moral importance. Of more vital importance is a view of life in which the assumption of a particular type of freedom is taken up into a wider account of what makes life meaningful. One such account in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (or "Abrahamic") tradition that requires the assumption of human freedom centres on a matrix of personal relations between God and humans and between humans. It can be argued that, within this language game of faith, the classical doctrine of divine simplicity is more helpful for "saving souls" than are theories of complexity, however valuable and illuminating they may be. The reason is that the simplicitas Dei, as classically understood, is intended above all to secure the radical freedom of God as the basis for human freedom.