Transcendental Non-Naturalism

13 March 2011


Some time ago in Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology I cited the view of Colin McGinn from his book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry which he calls Transcendental Naturalism:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.” (pp. 2-3)

While for those who pay little attention to philosophy this might sound like an unremarkable claim, for a philosopher is a quite remarkable claim, because what McGinn is saying is that there are some things that we just can’t understand no matter how hard we try. Human minds simply aren’t put together in such a way that they can be reliably counted on to solve the venerable puzzles that have occupied philosophers.

While McGinn calls this a form of naturalism, and for him it seems to be so, there is more than a little resemblance between McGinn’s position and Plantinga’s rejection of naturalism. I earlier wrote about Plantinga in A Note on Plantinga. In what is sometimes called Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, his approach is similar to McGinn’s in so far as he argues that the human mind was constituted under certain natural conditions, and these conditions that begat human minds come with no guarantee that we are going to understand the world, its structure, or our place in it. The conditions under which the human mind evolved certain do imply that human beings will be good at hunting and gathering, but a mind that is optimized for hunting and gathering is not necessarily optimized, or even remotely suitable, for philosophical conundrums.

(I realize now, as I write this, that claims of this nature are related to some of the arguments that I recently made in I Dreamed a Dream… — the intermingling of ontology and natural history — but apart from noting this at present, I will not further consider it. Fate willing, I will return to it. As I reread my above-referenced post on Plantinga I also see that I have criticized his psychologistic presuppositions of his argument, and this was also a theme of my I Dreamed a Dream… post.)

Plantinga takes unknowability — shall we go so far as to call it ineffability? — rooted in human cognitive structures in the direction of anti-naturalism; McGinn takes unknowability rooted in human cognitive structures in the direction of naturalism. Clearly we can see here the unity of their approach, however divergent the results.

I have characterized non-naturalistic conceptions of the world as being rooted in an eschatological conception of history, and in yesterday’s Naturalism and Suffering I considered some of the views of Bart D. Ehrman on the question of a eschatological conception of history — specifically, the need to frame our understanding and responses to suffering in eschatological terms because a naturalistic framing of suffering is seen as inadequate — retained despite Ehrman’s abandonment of earlier held eschatological views.

It occurred to me that Ehrman’s position could be characterized, in contradistinction to McGinn’s transcendental naturalism, as transcendental non-naturalism. Here is a quote from Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer:

“I tend to agree with scholars like Ken Surin — who is easily as brilliant as any of the theodicists he attacks — that many of the attempts to explain evil can, in the end, be morally repugnant. I can even sympathize with theologians like Terrence Tilley, who argues that a believer’s response to theodicy should be to renounce it as an intellectual project.” (p. 122)

In other words, we can’t explain evil, so we probably can’t really, truly understand evil, and therefore attempts to explain evil are illusory, and they look suspiciously like “explaining away” evil, which is an insult to those who suffer.

Ehrman explicitly notes Tilley’s condition that this ought to be a believer’s response, and, again, Ehrman makes it abundantly clear that he is no longer a believer.

Recently I checked out of the library a wonderful series of six one hour videos called A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, as presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch. The show was well worth watching, and in fact I watched the whole thing through three times. In the final episode of the series, Professor MacCulloch says that while he cannot call himself a Christian, he instead thinks of himself as a “candid friend of Christianity.” This seems to also sum up Ehrman’s position — a position that both Ehrman and MacCulloch seem to have come to by way of an extensive and intensive study of history.

The implicit transcendental non-naturalism of Ehrman and MacCulloch combines elements of an eschatological conception of history with elements of a naturalistic conception of history. We don’t and can’t really know what’s going on, but at least we know must do justice to human experience by framing it in a non-naturalistic context.

This is not at all an unusual position to take, and it is familiar to anyone who has been involved in one of those frustrating arguments in which eschatological positions are first presented as an explanation as to why the world is as it is, and then, when pressed, the world is consigned to the category of divine mystery because, in the final analysis, it doesn’t make sense, and we can’t make it make sense.

If one is going to invoke the divine as an explanation of anything, or make claims about the eschatological structure of the world, then one cannot consign the world to the status of divine mystery. Contrariwise, if one is going to consign the world to the category of divine mystery, one cannot then invoke the divine as an explanation of anything. Or, rather, one can do so, but at the cost of one’s intellectual integrity.

Everyone named above, however, at least aware of the difficulty, and I not seeking to impugn their intellectual integrity.

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