Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation
3 January 2010
In A Formulation of Naturalism I suggested that naturalism could be characterized as following materialism as far as materialism can reasonably be extended. Later in Two Thoughts on Naturalism I suggested that one could just as well formulate naturalism in terms of mechanism as in terms of materialism. Just a few days ago in Parsimonious Formulations I noted that these two previous efforts fall within the spirit of parsimony. By following materialism or mechanism as far as they will go, and only departing from either when they no longer serve our purposes, we are pursuing a strategy of conceptual minimalism.
Today it occurred to me that naturalism could also be parsimoniously formulated in reference to the quantitative/qualitative distinction, and it may well be that this is a more satisfying formulation than naturalism interpreted in terms of materialism or mechanism, although quantitative formulations are related, through science, to materialistic and mechanistic formulations. In short, we can characterize naturalism in terms of a quantitative parsimony, following quantitative formulations as far as they will go, and only appealing to qualitative formulations when quantitative formulations break down.
Earlier in this forum (for example, in le regard scientifique and Microcosm/Macrocosm, I implicitly criticized quantitative methods (especially in statistics) and the ways in which quantitative methods can distort data. I do not withdraw this contention, but I understand its limitation as well as I understand the limitations of a purely quantitative approach.
Science pursues the quantitative approach. We have, for example, a fully quantitative account of color in terms of the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and how our eyes perceive this. This is the science of color. Ordinary perception of color is a paradigm of qualitative experience; we do not experience color as quantitative. Perhaps we are incapable, in any real and genuine sense, of experiencing color quantitatively. Nevertheless, there is a thorough scientific account of color that is quantitative. It is not the case that either science or experience must be wrong. Both the quantitative explanation of color and the qualitative experience of color have their sphere of validity.
When, in the interests of philosophical naturalism, we pursue quantitative explanations of matters experienced qualitatively, we are not denying the legitimacy of our experience, but we are providing a systematic explanation of an aspect of experience that coheres with the known body of scientific knowledge. The quantitative and qualitative accounts of experience are alternative formulations (more on this another time).
Even given the remarkable vividness of our experience, there are few things more intellectually stimulating and rewarding than discovering a quantitative account of some qualitative aspect of the word revealed to us through macroscopic experience. Oftentimes we believe that nothing can possibly explain the qualitative character of some particular experience, only to later find a remarkably clever quantitative account that renders the same experience according to the alternative formulations of science. I find this refreshing and exhilarating. It counts as one of the pleasant surprises of reason. And it is ironic to note that such clever quantitative accounts of experience are the product of an intuitive leap that itself remains, for the time being, beyond the possibility of any quantitative explanation. But I do not say that such intuitive leaps of understanding must always remain beyond the reach of quantitative explanations.
. . . . .
. . . . .