Two Thoughts on Naturalism
26 December 2009
Several times in this forum I have identified my own views as a form of philosophical naturalism, and while I haven’t given any kind of systematic exposition to naturalism I have made a few suggestions, such as in A Formulation of Naturalism, in which I suggested that naturalism can be treated as materialism analogously to finitism in transfinite set theory: we follow materialism as far as it can go, and only depart from it when it forces incoherent formulations upon us in the attempt to preserve an unadulterated materialism. (In retrospect, what I said there about materialism I could just as well have formulated as mechanism: in naturalism we follow mechanistic explanations as far as we can.) With that in mind, here are two more passing thoughts about naturalism.
Naturalism: Thought One
Naturalism accepts science at face value. Now, this is simple enough, but any explicit and simple statement usually requires a great deal of qualification in order to make it accurate when applied to the detail and complexity of the actual world. And since naturalism emphatically is concerned that it be in touch with the actual world and not some fantasy world of wish-fulfillment, it is important that we at least try to get naturalism’s relation to science right.
It is a difficult philosophical problem to say exactly what science is. Separating science from other intellectual enterprises (some of which are mistakenly called science when they are not) is called the demarcation problem. We cannot presuppose an answer to the demarcation problem, because there is as yet no adequate formulation of it. Moreover, science changes. We must accept that scientific theories regularly displace earlier theories with more recent theories, with the consequence being that scientific knowledge changes.
One of my favorite quotes from Foucault runs, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” (from “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault”) This is more difficult than it sounds. Moreover, Foucault offers this as a demarcation criterion. This hasn’t gotten the attention of, for example, Popper’s use of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion, but I think it is worth keeping in mind.
For naturalism to accept science at face value means that naturalism accepts that scientific knowledge changes, and it accepts the history of science without feeling attacked by a past that has been abandoned. Anti-naturalistic doctrines (such as those of Plantinga I recently mentioned in A Note on Plantinga) almost without exception view science as a obstacle, as a looming problem on the horizon that the non-naturalistic thinker will resist honestly dealing with until forced to deal with it. When the retrograde thinker is forced to consider the results of science, it is usually only in a series of compromises that seek to evade and avoid the straight-forward conclusions of science.
Naturalism: Thought Two
Just a few days ago in Ideas Again I argued that it is important to distinguish between embodied ideas and abstract ideas. An embodied idea is an idea that is not made explicit and given exposition as an idea, but is made actual through its exemplification in the life of an individual. Mystics embody mysticism and scientists embody science; Plotinus embodies the possibility of mysticism as Darwin embodies the possibility of science.
Today’s thought on naturalism and embodied ideas is that it could be plausibly argued that it is the natural order of things that an idea emerges first in its embodied form, and only later is made abstract and explicit in formal consciousness by an act of de-contextualization. That is to say, the embodied idea must be consciously torn out of its context and exhibited in isolation in order to attain to the status of an abstract idea.
Moreover, one could go further than saying that it is the natural order of things that embodied ideas should (temporally) precede abstract ideas, and one could assert that Naturalism entails that all ideas will first be manifest in embodied form. In other words, there are no abstract ideas that are given to us as abstract ideas; all ideas are ultimately derived from experience. I would call this radical empiricism if William James had not already employed that phrase to his own ends.
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Naturalism: a Series
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