Naturalism!

"I don't write about naturalism often, but when I do I write about wheat in California." (Frank Norris)

Lately it is beginning to appear as though Naturalism is experiencing a backlash in certain intellectual circles. Take Timothy Williamson’s recent article in the New York Times regarding, essentially, why he is not a Naturalist. Or the recent discussion, which I wrote about last year, of fMRI studies and the responses from some contemporary philosophers over at Flickers of Freedom. The conclusion of many there was that clearly these studies jumped the gun in claiming to have abolished the possibility of metaphysical freedom (a conclusion with which I agree) and that there are many varied approaches to theory of mind that include both determinist elements as well as new conceptions of the self that mitigate concerns of an absence of freedom.

Naturalism is the promised one – the grandchild of the Enlightenment and the daughter of the scientific method – who might redeem us from mysticism and the unfounded belief in what cannot be scientifically confirmed or tested. And yet, for all of our recent scientific advances and the general attitude with which intellectuals view anti-scientific individuals, as of late it seems some are shutting the door on the science that helped us arrive where we are today, and holds the hope of bringing us further in our intellectual and social development as a species and as a culture.

It may seem pedantic to say so, but science and the scientific method so pervade our understanding of the world that they have permeated into all levels of our social, legal, and moral framework. Watching the movie Contagion reinforces our implicit affirmation of germ and viral theory in understanding the causes of disease and illness. Murder trials that saturate the media depend more and more upon the ability of scientific evidence, such as DNA sequencing, fingerprinting, and various other forensics to arrive at a verdict. And morality is beginning to be seen as a natural and evolutionary development stemming from the social nature of our ancestors. So why is it that even the most contemporary and scientifically minded philosophers are so suspect of Naturalism’s advancing tide?

Williamson gives a number of reasons for the weakness of Naturalism as a worldview. First, it seemingly depends upon the shifting (and perhaps circular) standards and methods of scientific advance and inquiry:

Anyway, the best current scientific theories will probably be superseded by future scientific developments. We might therefore define the natural world as whatever the scientific method eventually discovers. Thus naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers, and (not surprisingly) the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method. That is no tautology.

But is the answer to the question of how we define the natural world really “Whatever we end up finding out,”? In fact, I find comfort in the fact that Naturalism and the scientific method make no bones about having a shifting worldview. One of the many salient differences between Naturalism and religion is that once we know it is not scientifically possible to turn water into wine, or that events like hurricanes are natural and not the wrath of God, we can amend our understanding of the world to fit our best view of how it operates. Other options for viewing the world to not afford us this opportunity.  Would Williamson, or any like-minded academic, truly be interested in a rigid and unchanging worldview? My intuition says no.

The next reason Williamson gives is that Naturalism has difficulty in incorporating mathematics, physics, and other such strictly non-scientific (though science-related) disciplines:

Which other disciplines count as science? Logic? Linguistics? History? Literary theory? How should we decide? The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite. Naturalists typically criticize some traditional forms of philosophy as insufficiently scientific, because they ignore experimental tests. How can they maintain such objections unless they restrict scientific method to hypothetico-deductivism? But if they are too exclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its credibility, by imposing a method appropriate to natural science on areas where it is inappropriate. Unfortunately, rather than clarify the issue, many naturalists oscillate. When on the attack, they assume an exclusive understanding of science as hypothetico-deductive. When under attack themselves, they fall back on a more inclusive understanding of science that drastically waters down naturalism. Such maneuvering makes naturalism an obscure article of faith.

Nick Byrd over at Critique My Thinking has a great response to this aspect, and so I will defer to his well-written piece rather than say, essentially, the same thing. What I will say, however, is that I am slightly wary of incorporating utilitarianism into a worldview given the implications of such a move. To name a few, utilitarianism commits itself to  the sacrifice of one for all (even the innocent), the difficulty in realizing utiles as a valid form of measuring social utility, the difficulty in offering independent reasons for prioritizing one social good over another, and the potential for sacrificing some social goods in the names of those that are prioritized higher. But that is a discussion for a different day!

Finally, Williamson seeks to draw a distinction between Naturalism as a philosophical theory and the spirit of science that motivates such a move:

Naturalism tries to condense the scientific spirit into a philosophical theory. But no theory can replace that spirit, for any theory can be applied in an unscientific spirit, as a polemical device to reinforce prejudice. Naturalism as dogma is one more enemy of the scientific spirit.

Williamson’s point is that any theory can be motivated by either a scientific spirit or an unscientific spirit of inquiry. I applaud Williamson for seeking to avoid dogma dressed in philosophical garb, but I wonder if he is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Clearly he affirms the use of the scientific method but not as the sole approach for defining our world. The broader scope of his article is certainly one I can agree with – Naturalists must include other worldviews and evaluative systems in their definition of Naturalism, but must do it in such a way as to maintain internal coherence with the motivation scientific spirit, and to avoid equivocating when pressed for clarification. What we mustn’t lose is the need for philosophical inquiry to rely upon and be held accountable to scientific discovery. But where do we draw the line, or even the “no man’s land,” between disciplines? How can we maintain philosophy and science as healthy and robust areas of inquiry which are mutually dependent but also distinct?

A Question of Concepts

I have recently been reading Neuroscience & Philosophy: Brain, Mind, & Language which offers a back-and-forth exchange between Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker on one side and Daniel Dennett and John Searle on the other. One point I believe to be particularly salient with regard to delineating disciplines is made by Bennett/Hacker:

The question we are confronting is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. It calls for conceptual clarification, not for experimental investigation. One cannot investigate experimentally whether brains do or do not think, believe, guess, reason, form hypotheses, etc. until one knows what it would be for a brain to do so. i.e. until we are clear about the meanings of these phrases and know what (if anything) counts as a brain’s doing so and what sort of evidence supports the ascription of such attributes to the brain.

To be sure, naturalism, science, and the scientific method more generally hold incredible promise for allowing us to better understand the world we inhabit, including human beings. But before science can begin helping us answer the question of whether a brain is capable of thought rests upon understanding what we mean when we say “thought” or “thinking.” More to the point, I believe we must settle how we conceive of human identity. For, though we might posit that the brain makes decisions, it does so based upon sense-data available from a body’s particular sense apparatus. When the sense apparatus is damaged, augmented, or otherwise compromised, this affects the decision-making process among other functions. Moreover, if we are to utilize everyday conceptions of the self in our considerations, even if we consider our primary actions to be cognitively based, and the brain to be the cognitive workhorse, I doubt many reduction-friendly laypersons would limit their identity to their brain.

I am hesitant to endorse the use of common-sense conceptions of the self, freedom, moral responsibility, etc. because they so very often are inconsistent and problematic. As Eric Schwitzgebel at Splintered Mind says:

Commonsense opinion is not straightforwardly substance dualist.  Rather, commonsense opinion about the metaphysics of mind is an incoherent mess.  Thus, it’s impossible to develop a detailed, coherent dualist metaphysics that respects all the inclinations of common sense.

Perhaps interesting examples of “double think”, human beings often hold conflicting metaphysical views. Our justice system is also a good example of this – we hold individuals morally and legally responsible for their behavior, sometimes in a retributive manner, for what we deem monstrous actions. Paradoxically, we also consider the inability to have acted otherwise as a mitigating factor for moral or legal guilt – if an individual is mentally incompetent he is not even fit to stand trial, or if he is deemed insane by the court then he is sent to a medical facility rather than prison. While this mitigation is traditionally limited to psychological, medical, or other behavioral circumstances, what about coercion? Joshua Dressler discusses this here.

The “mess” that is the common view of metaphysics cannot be of much use to us directly, but perhaps indirectly. For, the concepts of “thought”, “belief”, “guess” etc. are rooted as much in how we use those terms in common parlance as they are in how professional philosophers and scientists use those terms. This is why I maintain that, despite the existence of some well-reasoned compatibilist theories, we lack the type of freedom most people mean, and most people believe they have. So, perhaps philosophically we can arrive at a congruent and unproblematic compatibilist theory of mind. But often these theories are so far away from what most people mean by freedom or responsibility that they lose practical application.

Ultimately, I agree with Bennett and Hacker that experiments can only take us so far. Yes, recent experiments in neuroscience are incredibly important and useful, but mostly insofar as they provide a wealth of data for philosophers and scientists alike, not because they single-handedly resolve long-standing controversies in philosophy. As philosophers we must temper our theories with scientific findings, but also use advances in philosophy to weigh on how scientists consider the very concept of freedom, action, the will, desire, etc. This is the hope I have for naturalism – that it will offer a mutually beneficial approach to both philosophy and science, one that will allow us to develop our understanding of the world but also our understanding of how human beings view the world and themselves.

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