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E. Ontological Implications

We now face what is perhaps the most challenging question of all: what is an appropriate ontology in light of these epistemic schemes? Most writers in theology and science seek to avoid two extreme positions: monism in the form of either reductive materialism or absolute idealism, and dualism in the form of vitalism (life is a separate, nonmaterial entity, principle or agency) or Cartesianism (mind and body are independent realities). However, there are several possibilities which reject both of these forms of dualism and monism while still remaining monist in character.Often the rationale is given that the only theologically valid dualism is that of God and creation. Within the created world, there can be no further ontological bifurcations.The three most prominent include:

(1) emergentist monism (nonreductive physicalism, ontological reductionism): There are genuinely new properties and processes at higher levels of organization, but the world is still composed strictly of physical matter (i.e., matter as described by physics);

(2) ontological emergence: The new properties and processes that emerge at higher levels of organization indicate that the ontology of the world, though monistic, cannot be reduced to that described by physics alone. The ontological unity or monism of complex phenomena is thus intrinsically differentiated (as suggested by the term ‘dipolarity’)

(3) organicism (panexperientialism / process metaphysics): Every real event or ‘actual occasion’ includes the capacity for experience (‘prehension’), and thus a mental ‘pole’, although this mental aspect produces consciousness and self-consciousness only when sufficient biological complexity have evolved in the form of coherent societies of actual occasions.Note: the mental only takes the explicit form of consciousness and self-consciousness when sufficient biological complexity and coherent societies of actual occasions have evolved.Panexperientialists frequently reject ‘emergence’ as a “category mistake,” thereby sharpening the difference between this approach and the preceding two.Charles Birch, Feelings (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995), Ch. 3, esp. p. 73-76; Charles Birch, "Neo-Darwinism, Self-Organization, and Divine Action in Evolution," in Evolutionary...

One can find scholars in theology and science who endorse different combinations among these approaches to epistemology and ontology. Peacocke, Polkinghorne and Barbour, for example, accept the hierarchy of the sciences though they differ on its ontological implications (emergentist monism, dipolar monism, and panexperientialism, respectively). Murphy and I work with non-foundationalist epistemologies, but she prefers nonreductive physicalism while I favor ontological emergence.Tillich’s multidimensional unity of life can be taken as an example of this approach. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 434 pp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 3:III/IV/I/A. My own approach...On the other hand, some theists, such as Richard Swinburne and Sir John Eccles, adopt both epistemic and ontological dualism. The differences between these positions is relatively minor, though, when compared with the views of atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Peter Atkins who represent the “conflict” model of science and religion and defend both epistemic reductionism and reductive materialism.

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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