“Naturalism” is a term that is frequently bandied about with such carefree disregard for clarity and meaning that one is left rather breathless at the speed with which so many largely meaningless labels are confidently announced to the world. Naturalism is frequently associated with (physical) science. But regardless of how justified such an association is, it frankly tells us absolutely nothing about either nature or science. Scientific results only seem to tell us what nature is, in a pure and simple way, when the metaphysical presuppositions of science are thoroughly suppressed and the large-scale interpretive commitments that exercise their unexamined domination over the particular reading of this or that scientific theory are permitted to operate not only unchallenged, but altogether without so much as a first, much less a second thought. Scientific theories – most particularly those in theoretical physics, where abstract mathematics is so profoundly important and influential – do not come with their interpretations “on their sleeve,” as it were. I will be exploring this problem in greater detail in the not-too-distant future, when I spend a few posts on the problematic issue of what I call “Model Centrism.”
Leaving aside that argument, it is not too difficult to see that unless one has a concept of nature that is independent of the results of physical science (at least to some extent; obviously it will be informed by those results), then that concept is a product of the fallacy of circular reasoning: It is presented as a conclusion of scientific inquiry, yet it was presupposed by that inquiry in the first place. So my purpose here is twofold: (1) I wish first to explore a little bit just how remarkably vexed the concept of nature genuinely is; (2) I also want to say a few words about why it is important to at least have a somewhat clear notion of what one’s concept is. These points are not independent, which is part of what vexes matters in #1.
Please notice that it is not my intent to argue here for a particular concept of nature (although I do quite explicitly endorse one such.) Rather, my argument is that one must have a concept that is relatively clear and articulate, so that when issues relating to the nature of nature arise (and they do) one is positioned to actually say what one means, rather than merely spewing incoherent twaddle.
So, to the first part, one of the questions we need pose to ourselves is: what is the difference between “naturalism” and a “concept of nature”? I’ve permitted myself more than a bit of sloppiness on this point, but now it is time to “tighten” things up. Even persons who do not endorse naturalism might well enough be prepared to agree to some concept of nature or another. On the other hand, any one who espouses “naturalism,” yet fails to have a fairly explicit concept of nature, teeters on the edge of incoherence. Worse yet, if that concept of nature is just and only what “science reveals,” then it is overtly circular for the reasons pointed out above. So naturalism must involve a moderately robust theory of nature that has some discernible traction of its own.
Naturalism does not necessarily reduce to a concept of nature. The latter often expresses itself as a theory of “what there is,” which in philosophy is called “ontology.” But naturalism also often expresses itself as a methodology for discovering that ontology. These two aspects are inseparably related at their deepest levels – as anyone who has ever felt the satisfaction of finding the exact tool (methodology) to solve a particular problem (ontology) will readily understand. But the difference is a useful abstraction and serves to illuminate the complexities of the issues.
Most approaches to naturalism associate it fairly closely with contemporary science. John Shook has written on this subject at some length, and one can explore many of his thoughts HERE. As Dr. Shook points out, “There are numerous sophisticated varieties of naturalism.” However, there is also such a thing as “Religious Naturalism.” When one starts surveying the range of possibilities and differences, matters become extremely tangled. Thus, for example, Thomas Sukopp claims to have “found at least 30 different terms of ‘naturalism’. Are these terms merely different designations? No, things are different.” Sukopp goes on to insist that, “we should be careful with naturalistic labels.”
This care is clearly mandated by the worry that a label such as “naturalism” might hide as much as it reveals, which brings me to my second point: the need for an explicit concept of nature. This is the case not only for clarifying our communications with others, but for clarifying our own thoughts to ourselves. Saying that one embraces naturalism without going further to generate a positive (even if only provisional) concept of nature is almost tantamount to unintelligibility. Even if we insist that science plays a roll in determining that concept of nature (and I believe that even most religious naturalists would agree to this), science cannot be used to define that concept. Quite aside from the overt circularity this leads to (mentioned above), the abstract mathematics that is the core of theoretical physics is unable to provide an interpretation for itself: an appeal to additional principles must be made. What is even more problematic here is that the facts and evidence available to theoretical physics are significantly “thinner” than what is required to settle which mathematical theory is to be taken as true. The American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine talked about this at some length, noting the problem of the “underdetermination of theory by observation.” Since we are only ever in possession of a finite number of observations, there is no finite limit to the number of mathematical theories that can be constructed to fit those observations. This problem shows itself with both gravitational cosmology (a subject I’ll be tackling in the foreseeable future) and “String Theory,” which the physicist Peter Woit (along with Lee Smolin, in the comments section) has quite recently discussed HERE.
Absent some concept of nature that is at least moderately independent and robust, what basis do we have to examine and critique areas of science that are genuinely problematic, even within the sciences, to say nothing of from a principled philosophical position? Are we to surrender all intellectual responsibility to gate-keepers like Stephen Hawking and Laurence Krauss, and legislate the sciences beyond all critique (other than that generated by the gate-keepers themselves)? Are we to just give-up on the problems that Nagel spoke to in his recent work, and just declare that matters of consciousness, cognition and value are devoid of scientific – hence natural – meaning? (The reader might do a quick search and see for herself how savagely Nagel was attacked by some scientists, for daring to point out the obvious fact that the dominant form of scientific naturalism is incapable of accounting for the three items mentioned above. Nagel’s argument, it might be noted, was much weaker than it might have been: see HERE.)
The simple fact of the matter is, it is foolish to suppose that the dominant concept of nature that we find in science is beyond critique and revision. It is even more foolish to suppose that such critique is an abandonment of science for irrationalism &/or anti-scientific posturing.
 Sukopp does not offer an explicit list or taxonomy for his over 30 terms. Thomas Sukopp, “How Successful Is Naturalism? Talking about Achievements beyond Theism and Scientism,” found in Georg Gasser, ed., How Successful Is Naturalism? (Frankfurt am Main: Ontos Verlag, 2007).
Gary Herstein said:
This article from New Republic, which I discovered only after I posted the above, is germane here. In particular, I’d draw folks attention to where Rovelli states that, “If this is so, then the idea that we have data and theories and then we have a rational agent who constructs theories from the data using his rationality, his mind, his intelligence, his conceptual structure doesn’t make any sense, because what’s being challenged at every step is not the theory, it’s the conceptual structure used in constructing the theory and interpreting the data. In other words, it’s not by changing theories that we go ahead but by changing the way we think about the world.”
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