Monday, March 30, 2009

Optimistic naturalists

A correspondent was recently asking me about a particular argument naturalists sometimes use. Now, to me, this argument sounds so incredibly lame that I can never understand why smart people are the least bit impressed by it. It's just like saying, "Oh, never mind the evidence. I'm sure we'll figure that out eventually. Move along. Nothing to see here." Why would anybody listen to this?

But it's been put forward very seriously by various people and was worrying my correspondent, so Tim and I responded, and I have a post up at W4 based on that response.

The naturalist's argument basically goes, "Science has made great strides and achievements and has explained lots and lots of stuff that we didn't used to understand. So eventually, whatever it is that you are bringing up as evidence for the existence of God or for any entity that isn't strictly non-naturalistic will also be explained as a purely naturalistic phenomenon."

This is just such a bad argument. The sense in which science has made great strides and achievements--you know, finding the causes of diseases, discovering very small particles and figuring out how they interact, seeing the inner workings of the cell, figuring out the basic laws of planetary motion--in no sense tends to confirm that there is nothing but matter in the world and that everything has a physical cause. How could it?

To my mind, this is just one step up, if that, from the Bultmannian claim that we can't possibly believe in miracles in the age of the electric lightbulb.

But my W4 post is much more dignified than this little rant. (Ahem. Really. Much more dignified.) Enjoy.


William Luse said...

What puzzles me is how the believer in naturalism (by that I mean materialism or physicalism) makes this huge leap of faith far greater than any taken by a believer in religion. He moves in a flash from the premise that the physical sciences are very good at
explaining a great many things to the conclusion that there is no God. That's what it boils down to and it's really quite amazing. In
doing so, he violates the principles of his own methodology requiring the accumulation of evidence to test a theory which, being repeatable without deviation, he can then claim as a factual truth. In other words, instead of forming the hypothesis that there is no God (or, e.g., that the mind is material in substance) and then setting about testing this hypothesis by the gathering of evidence which should lead to a proof, he simply jumps to the conclusion in the absence of any evidence whatsoever. Perhaps the more important question is: why? Why would anyone do this or even want to do it? I can't help but wonder which came first: the modern tendency to conscript the sciences into the service of atheism (as a result of the wonderful Progress of science pushing us in that direction), or the will to disbelieve, which found in the march of science a conveniently authoritative crutch to lean on.

Let me try to form an objection to the error you describe, and you can tell me if it's valid. Let's say a fellow announces that he is
bound to hold to naturalism because of that very explanatory power of science (leaving aside my thesis that to believe such a
thing one must already be a materialist). The explanatory power depends upon a method of inquiry, which varies in its
specifics from discipline to discipline but is universal in its application. Even when a scientific discovery occurs by happy accident, we can see in hindsight that proper use of the method could have led us to it. The method's effectiveness can be
refined as new technologies appear and new insights brought to bear, while the method itself remains essentially the same. It was
brought into being by the human mind, and cannot be said to have any objective existence apart from the mind which employs it. You can't point to it as you could to the chair across the room. In fact, a chair, or any number of other objects, is likely to be
the target of its scrutiny. But only a mind can do the scrutinizing, using the principles of the method. Those principles, as universally professed, are suitable only to the examination of physical objects. Now if the human mind is a physical object, the method would be the appropriate tool with which to investigate it. But since the method is itself a mental phenomenon, a mental "object", a thought, in other words, it is put in the position of having to investigate itself, to prove that its own existence is in essence material. This necessitates that the mind "understand" that it is not immaterial, which necessitates the further fact that 'awareness' is a property not only of minds, but of physical objects as well, since the mind is one of those. Thus, awareness is a material thing. Since all material things are subject to change, and must pass out of existence, understanding of an enduring kind is impossible. We could no longer say that anything is 'true', because this conviction would itself be ever subject to change and, ultimately, to annihilation. The explanatory power of science, therefore, cannot verify the truth of the claim being made for it.

How'd I do?

Lydia McGrew said...

I agree with nearly every bit of your objection. I would put it that reasons and understanding _cannot_ be material objects or material phenomena, and that if that is all there is, then there simply is no such thing as understanding and reasons. Hence materialism undermines itself. If the materialist scientist is right, he's just a physical object doing whatever physical objects do, which isn't what he really wants to be doing.

The "passing" nature of material objects is the only thing that doesn't seem to me to be overwhelmingly relevant, because after all, human thoughts pass as well, human beings can die, and I suppose in principle it would be possible for all human life to be wiped out on the planet and hence all scientific knowledge to be destroyed. So the satisfaction for the scientist must lie not only or primarily in the _enduring_ power of the knowledge of the truth but simply in the _fact_ of knowing the truth and teaching it as far as lies within him. But this is a very great thing, if it is real. As you point out, though, knowledge of the truth just isn't real at all if what we call "knowledge of the truth about the world" is nothing more than a particular way for atoms to bump around in the void.

william luse said...

All right, mission at least half-accomplished. I can rest on my laurels for about a year now.

Anonymous said...


How does "materialism" differ from "physicalism" in your usage?


1. According to SEP ("Naturalism"), naturalistic philosophers generally reject "supernatural" entities (i.e., classical God, angels, persons without bodies, and the like -- that is, in general, all immaterial concrete endurants?), and many times at least allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the ‘human spirit.’ It seems the real core is just to say that only non-supernatural entities exist, or rather that supernatural entities do not exist (while many naturalist embrace abstract objects like numbers, sets, non-mental propositions, etc.).

By "endurant" I mean an entity persisting in time (like things, persons, and aggregates of these), as opposed to "perdurant," an item having temporal parts or being a temporal part (like processes, events).

2. Historically, or at least according to Craig's and Moreland's Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (partly available at Google Books), "materialism" in philosophy seems to be the view consisting in the claim that all endurants occupy space (like balls, PCs, chairs, animals).

Of course, "materialism" can mean something else in one's own idiolect.

3. "Moral theory naturalism" in contemporary metaethics wants to embrace only "natural properties": that is, properties treated in natural (and sometimes even economic, and social) sciences (cf. the work of Brink and Q. Smith). No "non-natural properties" allowed.

4. Finally, "physicalism" seems to be the thesis that there are only: (i) physical entities like elementary particles (or physical strings, or physical fields) and (ii) their configurations (and maybe also (iii) some inner, immanent ontological principles or parts of (i) and (ii), like essences, in case the physicalism is relatively ontologically sophisticated, or even (iv) "supervening" mental entities, properties or states in case the physicalism is a non-reductive one, e.g. like that of John Post).

All these isms are conceptually different, though mutually logically related by various implications. It's not clear to me that there is some incompatibility of any of them with the mental. E.g., even if all endurants occupy space and have bodies, some of them could have mental properties/states -- like animals, people, or their brains.

(I am no naturalist/materialist.)

Vlastimil Vohánka

Lydia McGrew said...

Vlastimil, I disagree that, for example, so-called "non-reductive physicalism" is any better off as regards these things. It is incompatible with minds in the only sense that makes knowledge meaningful. Post wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to be a good physicalist while uttering the word "non-reductive" like an incantation to make it sound like he's a moderate and it's okay, we can have all the things we thought we could have with non-physicalism.

If the mind is just a physical entity or a "supervening" function of a physical entity, then the game's over.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lydia. Could you be more specific about the problem(s) of non-reductive physicalism?


Lydia McGrew said...

Well, I don't know if you'll consider this "more specific," but let me put it this way: If something is a reasoning process, it is not a function of a physical system. It may occur in an embodied being. That is, an embodied being (like me) may engage in a reasoning process. And it may be a contingent fact that the reasoning process would not occur if the physical body didn't exist. So, for example, if I were killed in the middle of thinking about an argument, I wouldn't (presumably) finish thinking about that particular argument. (Though I might take up the argument again later, in heaven.) But that is a _contingent fact_. If something is a real reasoning process, it cannot be as a matter of absolute metaphysical necessity "tied to" some physical system in the sense that it is a "supervening property" of the physical system (for example). "Having a population" is a property of a city in a sense that it is not a property of, say, the houses that make up the city. "Thinking" simply does not and cannot supervene upon a computer or other physical entity in this same necessary sense. (No city= of necessity, no population _of_ the city)

Think of it in reverse: Suppose I were a committed idealist and told you, "There are physical trees and tables. They just _are_ ideas in the mind of God." Berkeley, in fact, does something very much like that. You would quite rightly say, "Those aren't physical tables and trees in the sense that I mean that at all." The same is true in reverse of minds and the physicalist--any sort of physicalist.

william luse said...

How does "materialism" differ from "physicalism" in your usage?

It doesn't, but then I'm not a philosopher. I'm probably lucky that Lydia intuits what I mean. Just like a woman.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lydia. That IS more specific, and helpful.

"If something is a real reasoning process, it cannot be as a matter of absolute metaphysical necessity "tied to" some physical system in the sense that it is a "supervening property" of the physical system. "Having a population" is a property of a city in a sense that it is not a property of, say, the houses that make up the city. "Thinking" simply does not and cannot supervene upon a computer or other physical entity in this same necessary sense. (No city= of necessity, no population _of_ the city)"

I think the concept of "necessity" is crucial here and I suppose many physicalists would answer: it is anylatically true that if no city, then no population of the city; and it is not analytically true that if no physical entity, then no thinking; yet, it is necessary in some other, weaker sense (than in the sense of analycity) that if no physical entity, then no thinking.

You can cf., e.g., Q. Smith's Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, 1997, pp. 119ff., or his “A More Comprehensive History of the New Theory of Reference,” in The New Theory of Reference, ed. James Fetzer and Paul Humphreys, 1998, pp. 235-83.

(QS's non-analytical necessity is different from Plantinga's broadly logical necessity.)

But maybe you would say that such modal notions ultimately make no sense.


Lydia McGrew said...

I have very grave doubts about other notions of "necessity," yes. But I think it would be an exceedingly odd self-identified naturalist who would, let's imagine, subscribe to substance dualism yet say that it is necessary in a metaphysically strong sense nonetheless that all minds are associated with bodies. And in any event, that would not be "supervenience" or any form of physicalism whatsoever, reductive or otherwise. It would just be substance dualism with a strong but (to me) impossible to understand concept of "metaphysical necessity" associating minds and bodies. If one is going to be a physicalist of any sort one needs, it seems, something more than that, or I do not see how physicalism is to be sharply distinguished from even something as strong as substance dualism.

Anonymous said...


If we distinguish property dualism (embracing mental properties different from physical properties) and substance dualism (embracing non-material substances/things/endurants, like God, angels, and other minds without bodies), as standard in the philosophy of mind, then the naturalist/materialist can be a property dualist without being a substance dualist, can't he?


Anonymous said...

Cf. pp. 229-232 in Moreland's and Craig's .

Note: Their definition of "physicalism" has no place for non-reductive physicalism.


Madeleine said...

One wonders what evidence could in principle be accepted against naturalism by people like the ones you cite.

If a naturalistic analysis is successful then that is considered evidence for naturalism. If such analysis fails that is not evidence against naturalism because we know naturalism will succeed.

It seems ultimately if these people operate with an assumption of metholodological naturalism then their pre-suppositions have determined the conclusions prior to the assessment of the evidence and are not read from it.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well-put, Madeleine. The optimistic naturalist is _very_ optimistic. He just keeps waiting and hoping. What is amazing is that anyone would think this is _rational_, and indeed that such waiting and hoping is the very mark of rationality. I think the only way to think that is more or less to define "rational" as "naturalistic."

Lydia McGrew said...

Oh, Vlastimil, perhaps we might let the naturalists fight it out among themselves as to whether property dualists get their naturalist club membership cards revoked. But meanwhile, we might remember that so-called "non-reductive physicalism" is not dualism of any sort, shape, or stripe. It's physicalism with a phrase "non-reductive" that is supposed to make us all feel good. Let's not be fooled by labels.

Madeleine said...

It is like the element of hope and faith in providence, seen in Christian belief, that ultimately the naturalistic project will be vindicated. At least Christians admit it!