Tag Archives: methodological naturalism

Some problems of naturalism

I don’t usually write in English. With a vast amount of readily available excellent material in English from amazingly intelligent people, both in books, articles and in the blogosphere, I pretty much figured out that only in Norwegian could I fool some of you to think I’m not an amateur, and hope to be in any way competitive as a blogger on philosophy, science and God.

However, at seldom times I write in English to write assignments, in mail exchanges or in some obscure magazine. And even more rarely, those writings could actually turn out to be interesting for the audience of this blog. So from now on, I’ll create an English tab, and leave an occasional text here in English. If any English-speaking audience decides to make some noise, that might become more common.

This text is regarding naturalism, which is the most popular way of framing a positive worldview for atheists. Following David Bentley Hart, I personally find naturalism absurd, circular, incompatible with any form of reasoning at all, and amounts to little more than a series of categorical mistakes. But being a paper, I had to write in a more polite manner. The paper is on the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism, along with its problems. I chose to highlight the latter.

So here goes:

Some problems of naturalism

A description of the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is likely to differ, depending of which naturalist you ask. One main reason seems to be that the term naturalism itself is very hard to define. Norwegian philosopher Duenger Bøhn recently stated in an interview that he hated the expression naturalism, because nobody really know what it is[1].

If we start off with Alex Rosenberg, he defines naturalism as a “philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge”[2]. That is a claim about methodology, not ontology. But if you were to press Rosenberg for an ontology, then naturalism would probably be just whatever the sciences, or more precisely, whatever physics, discover to exist.

As he says in another essay: “What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones. Another way of expressing this fact-fixing by physics is to say that all the other facts—the chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural facts supervene on the physical facts and are ultimately explained by them. And if physics can’t in principle fix a putative fact, it is no fact after all”[3]. So with Rosenberg, it seems that there is a close and necessary link between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism just follows upon methodological naturalism.

It seems unfair to describe naturalism in this way, as few naturalists would identify with such an extreme scientistic view. And since there are some very pressing problems with scientism as a philosophy[4], it would be unfair to reject naturalism in its entirety just because one finds good reasons to reject scientism. Philosopher (and atheist) Timothy Williamson rebukes this ambiguity of terms like “science”, the circularity of Rosenberg’s argument, and the recognition that the natural sciences need both preliminary and interpretive tools to its own operations, and can in no way stand as an island by itself[5].

Hence, Williamson’s approach seems like a better way to untie the chain between methodological and metaphysical naturalism, and examine each in turn.

Methodological naturalism then, is a view about practice. It is the practice that, for the sake of the method, we’re only going to allow for naturalistic explanations. Commonly assumed, such explanations are continuous with the natural sciences. When one looks for scientific explanations, one is not going to include magic, God or supernatural entities into one’s explanations, but only that which are natural. So even for a person that believes in the supernatural, one can assume methodological naturalism for a limited time being of performing some experiment or develop a theory about biological organisms.

Metaphysical naturalism, on the other hand, is a view about ontology. It is a way of describing what exist in the reality we all find ourselves participating in. More precisely, it is the statement that all that exist is natural. For most naturalists, that entails the causal closure of the natural, and the belief that the deepest reality just is the physical universe and the natural laws that accompanies it, however you’d like to express this.

Of course, both expressions above struggle with ambiguity of words like natural or physical. Because what should really be counted as natural? Can mental states properly be ascribed as natural? Can God and souls exist, and still count as natural? E.g. Aristotle obviously have a completely natural concept of soul in mind in De Anima. How can we proceed to determine whether mathematics is natural? Moral truths, if such exist? Aesthetics? Concepts? How can we even state what the so-called natural laws are, and how we decide whether these can be described as natural? And that leads us to some of Williamson’s objections.

Timothy Williamson object to characterizing himself as a naturalist, because of problem as those just considered. He states that if the description of naturalism relies on being just the sum of what the scientific method discovers, and if we assume that one criteria of a scientific method is that it proceeds according to the hypothetico-deductive method, then e.g. mathematics appears as a challenge. Natural sciences rely on mathematics, but mathematics itself does not fit as a science as now described. Mathematics proceeds by pure reasoning, often completely abstracted from physical reality itself.

The same could be said for other subjects, as logic, linguistics, history, literary theory and even many philosophical subjects. If we adjust the scientific method to include all of these, it really loses most of its meaning, and if the scientific method excludes these, then naturalism has little credibility left as a description of reality. And if it is impossible to find a reasonable place to draw up a clean border, then why believe in naturalism? It just becomes another dogma, where we’re flexible in refusing or including whatever entities that does or does not fit our picture of reality[6].

If we cannot use science or even observation to decide upon what should count as natural, then what reason do we have to be naturalist? Prominent physicist and naturalist Sean Carroll obviously recognize some of the issues, and try to reframe a position he calls poetic naturalism, where the latter naturalism-part can be summarized in three claims:

  1. There is only one world, the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it[7].

Of course, one could protest that terms are still ambiguous, in the same way as natural. What is this one natural world? Is mathematics a part of this one world? Are God and souls? What are these things we call the laws of nature, and how could we ever determine that they are unbroken patterns? If only one person discovers an event where these patterns of these natural laws are broken, then how could we trust her? And if the patterns are broken repeatedly, wouldn’t we just include this by proposing new patterns that the world is governed by? How do we know that the only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it? Then what about history, which cannot be directly observed, but is transferred by testimony? What about pure mathematics?

It seems that the only way of accepting Carroll’s claims, is to accept them to a large extent as dogmas of faith. And why should we limit ourselves to these? And those points pretty much repeats Williamson’s original critique.

 

[1] Olsen, J. A. (2016, 22th of April). Dette gir livet mening, ifølge filosofen. Forskning.no. Retrieved from http://forskning.no/filosofiske-fag/2016/04/sjonglerer-med-de-store-sporsmal

[2] Rosenberg, A. (2011, 17th of September). Why I Am a Naturalist. New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/17/why-i-am-a-naturalist/

[3] Rosenberg, A. (2014). Disenchanted Naturalism. B. Bashour, og H.D. Muller (Ed.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and Its Implications. London: Routledge.

[4] Kleiven, D. J. (2014). Scientisme – en filosofi uten fundament. Filosofisk supplement, 03/2014. Retrieved from http://www.danieljoachim.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Scientisme-en-filosofi-uten-fundament1.pdf

[5] Williamson, T. (2011). What is Naturalism? New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/what-is-naturalism

[6] Ibid

[7] Carroll, S. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. London: Oneworld Publications.

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