The Image in Mind: Theism, Naturalism and the Imagination
Reviewed by David A. Hoekema, Philosophy, Calvin College
“In spite of the indispensable use of images in our yearning to make sense of reality, there has not been sufficient attention to the aesthetic in the debate between theism and naturalism” (3). This opening comment conveys the motivation for a wide-ranging and provocative book by a philosopher and a painter.
Already in Plato’s Sophist the battle lines were drawn between materialists, “trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen,” and idealist philosophers, who insist that “true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms.” Between these, says the Stranger, rages “an interminable battle” (Sophist 246a-c, cited on pages 2-3). In today’s language, some philosophers reduce all reality to physical entities and their interactions, while others acknowledge mental and spiritual realities underlying immediate experience. In one corner, in this perpetual boxing match is the naturalist; in the other, the theist.
Setting this study apart from many others on similar themes are its joint authorship, by “a philosopher who is passionate about the arts” and “a painter with philosophical training,” and its emphasis on aesthetic dimensions of the search for truth. St. Olaf College philosophy professor Charles Taliaferro’s many contributions to philosophy of religion, and his stalwart defense of neo-Platonism against Christian de-hellenizers, have earned the respect of philosophers and theologians. Jil Evans is a painter and printmaker based in Minneapolis whose work hangs in museums and corporate collections. Her paintings using vegetative forms that she observed in the Galapagos islands, described on her website as visual responses to Darwin and explorations of “the role of the imagination in light of evolutionary biology,” are reproduced at the beginning of each chapter.1 The authors take up related themes throughout the book, locating Darwin’s naturalistic worldview in relation to those of his contemporaries and intellectual heirs and contrasting it with theistic competitors from the standpoint of science and from an aesthetic stance. The philosopher and the artist, by the way—a fact not mentioned in the text—are married to each other. One can only imagine how rich the conversational diet must be when they sit down together over a meal.
The book’s first chapter offers “a provisional understanding of images and imagination in philosophical inquiry,” arguing that images help us understand what is possible and what is knowable. (11). The authors take their cue from the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century—figures whom Taliaferro has long sought to rescue from obscurity—in affirming our creation by a benevolent God who instilled in each of us the capacity to know the good. Ranging widely over historical and contemporary figures, the authors trace the role of imagination for David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, even David Lewis and Bernard Williams. All of these recognize what Thomas Nagel has called “the redemptive role of philosophy,” they argue, and grant the imagination an important role in the search for knowledge.
As these figures pass in rapid succession, it is not clear that key terms are being used univocally. Hume and Kant acknowledge the necessity of imagination in perception, for example, in order to bring unity to the jumble of sensory impressions; but for Coleridge and Emerson, imagination is an independent and creative power. Some regard images as the means by which science advances, others as antidotes to the deadly grip of scientism on our souls. A provocative closing section highlights the importance of imagination in moral discourse, but this seems to invoke yet another sense of the term, as the capacity to trade places conceptually with another agent. The threads tying all these thinkers and themes to each other get a bit frayed.
In the following chapter on “the aesthetics of inquiry,” the focus becomes clearer. “All experience is aesthetic,” the authors affirm, because we are always open to “the affective or emotive features of objects or events” (38, 39). Aesthetics may have little to do with traditional notions of beauty, which is spurned by many contemporary movements in art, but it has everything to do with our “long[ing] for unity and wholeness” (40). And this is no less true in scientific theory-building than in literature or painting.
Taliaferro and Evans find support for this in the writings of Darwin, who wrote of the theory of evolution in the closing paragraph of The Origin of Species that “there is grandeur in this view of life.” When contemporary Darwinists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins defend their rigorously naturalistic view of the world, they too appeal to aesthetic considerations of elegance and fittingness. The naturalist’s understanding of the world is shaped by the imagination as much as by scientific reason and philosophical argument.
What is the world like, from an aesthetic standpoint, for the theist? We need to ask: what sort of theist? The authors have no sympathy for a negative theology that rejects all claims to know God’s nature: how can you praise, or pray to, a God with no attributes? According to the “Platonic theism” they embrace, on the other hand, God deserves our praise and answers our prayers because he is supremely good. Moreover, we discern signs of God’s goodness in the causal order of the world. For the naturalist, any theory that pos-its “an irreducible self” or credits “mental, conscious causes” with causal efficacy must be rejected out of hand. For the theist, on the other hand, these are to be affirmed, and “the full account of the persistence and endurance of the cosmos includes God’s comprehensive, creative intention that there is a cosmos, sustained over time” (54). Without God, the world is neither unified nor whole.
Theists and naturalists often quarrel over exactly how the world and its creatures came into being, but Taliaferro and Evans see no reason why they should. Evolution is simply the means by which species arise, whether by chance or by divine intent. Perhaps human consciousness and freedom reflect special divine creative acts, or perhaps not: they speculate that there could be “a law of nature” by which these features of the world arise from “certain physical processes” (60). The treatment of these perplexing issues is brief and inconclusive, leaving a reader with more questions than answers.
In the remaining four chapters the authors explore, in turn, the “cosmic questions” of why the universe exists at all and whether consciousness is an emergent quality of the physical body; the basis of our confidence that other people have minds like ours; the theist’s ability to account for the nature and extent of evil; and, finally, how a “fitting imagination” can help us decide whether theists or naturalists offer “more reliable views of the world and what may be beyond the world” (179).
In each chapter the authors make effective use of Darwin’s writings, as well as those of many contemporary philosophers, to advance their arguments. But the key concepts of imagination and the aesthetic often fade from view, and even an attentive reader may lose sight of the forest while Taliaferro and Evans leads her patiently from the contemplation of one tree—or should we say twig—of philosophical contention to the next. Three Big D’s recur every few pages—Darwin, Dawkins, and Dennett—but other writers slip on- and off-stage with dizzying rapidity, with only a paragraph of comment between one long quotation and the next. Suzanne Langer is cited at the beginning of the book for her insistence on the primacy of images in religious thought, and much later we are introduced to her theory concerning “forms of feeling” in art and experience, an interesting anticipation of recent work in cognition and perception (1, 91). Rather than develop and apply her theory, however, the authors turn to contemporary philosophers Colin McGinn, Paul Churchland, Owen Flanagan, Galen Strawson, John Searle, and Thomas Nagel—all these in the space of seven pages.2 Each chapter is carefully argued, but as we come to the end of one and proceed to the next it is not always clear whether our understanding of “the image in mind” has been advanced.
It is mostly the voice of the philosopher, not the artist, that we hear in this collaborative work. A painting stands at the beginning of each chapter, but there is no discussion of how it relates to Darwin’s theories or to the chapter that follows. From time to time an artist or a movement in the arts surfaces for brief discussion, but attention soon shifts back to the philosophical. Wait a moment, we want to ask the artist and the philosopher: How can visual art support or challenge philosophical or theological argument? Have theater and poetry played an important role in the ascent of naturalism over theism? Are some recent movements in art friendly to theism, others more hostile? Perhaps these are topics for a future collaboration.
A brief closing chapter outlines “the work to be done in filling out the theistic image” in several areas. We need to understand redemption as a final triumph over death and evil, the authors suggest, and not a settling of moral accounts. On the topic of the afterlife, they cite as an image of heaven G. K. Chesterton’s account of the novels of Charles Dickens, in which “all the numerous personalities unfolded themselves like great tropical flowers” and “every man was more himself than he had ever been in this vale of tears” (G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, 88; quoted on 184).
Taliaferro and Evans close with an admiring summary of John Schellenberg’s synthesis of skepticism and fideism, which rejects both religious belief and naturalistic unbelief as lacking justification, yet invites us to live by “a new form of religion appropriate to our time, grounded in imagination rather than belief” (Schellenberg, The Will to Imagine, 254; quoted on 195). To my ear this sounds like a muddle, as appealing as a diet in which you eat no real food but savor all the food you imagine you are eating. And yet perhaps what Taliaferro and Evans see in Schellenberg’s skeptical fideism is another signpost on the road that they have set out to map for us, one that recognizes the inseparable unity between a mind seeking truth and a heart seeking wholeness and fittingness. If the present study has not yet brought the destination in view, it can help us some distance down that road.
- See http://jilevanssite.com/galapagos-cactus-wars/, accessed 6/21/2012. The Continuum Publishing Group has served the authors rather poorly in this volume, not just in failing to catch more than a dozen typographical errors but also, far more seriously, in providing only hazy black and white reproductions of Evans’s paintings. I strongly recommend that every reader of the book view the color images on the page just referenced.
- Noteworthy by their absence from the pages of this study are philosophers in the Continental tradition in whose theories of knowledge and experience the aesthetic dimension occupies a central role, such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Nor do they acknowledge Hegel’s synthesis of art, history, and philosophy from which these writers take their point of departure. All of these offer important alternatives to the writers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition whose theories are discussed here, particularly with respect to the relationship between scientific theory, religious belief, and ordinary experience.