Sunday, March 1, 2009


The following argument is valid:

  1. If naturalism is correct, then there are no mysteries, only puzzles, pseudo-problems and brute facts.
  2. There are mysteries (subjectivity, free will, intentionality, existence, etc.).
  3. So naturalism is incorrect.
Is it sound?


Anonymous said...

Premise one is false, or at least reasonably deniable. The naturalists that believe we have inappropriate cognitive equipment to ultimately grasp the mysteries of consciousness like McGinn or Nagel could and would deny your first premise and remain consistent naturalist.

Ima said...

Though I agree with him that the argument is false, "Philosophickle" seems to miss the point of the argument.

The fact that many proponents of p maintain p in light of accepting a supposed defeater q of p, does not mean that p is undefeated. According to Dr. Pruss' argument, McGinn and Nagel therefore do not qualify as naturalists. Perhaps what Dr. Pruss means is that, if naturalism is true, then everything is lawfully explicable. And, if there are things that are not lawful, then naturalism is false. Many anti-naturalists and naturalists would argue that naturalism entails determinism based on "universal lawhood" as a necessary condition for the truth naturalism.

However, many Rationalists argue that are no true "mysteries". Are they naturalists, then? Do their arguments, if successful, establish naturalism? There are quite a few "Rationalists", both ancient, modern, and contemporary, who would deny being called "naturalists."

Similarly, if there are mysteries and the falsity of naturalism and the truth of supernaturalism follows from it, and if theism follows from supernaturalism (as most presume), then are there mysteries to God? As I understand the position, one of the core features of Rationalism is that one can have Godlike (certain, absolute) knowledge, and therefore, everything is knowable (or known, qua Plato's Meno) or explicable: there are no mysteries. Are Rationalists also naturalists, then?

What about Wittgenstein, who argued that all problems were only puzzles and pseudo-problems borne of language? Surely his is not an argument for naturalism, is it?

Every supernatualist who makes an argument against naturalism fails to define what 'naturalism' means and, as a result, takes this as license to define it however they wish--often in ways that few naturalists would accept--and claim victory when they have so simply refuted it.

For instance, if we take creationists and “cdesign-proponentists” as our standard supernaturalists, then naturalism = an absurdly strong and untenable form of (usually Democritean) materialism. Though this may qualify as a kind of naturalism (one that few, if any, defend), note that "naturalists"--and even supernaturalists(!)--adhere to various definitions of the term at varying levels of strength and ontological commitment(s).

If "naturalism" is false, what follows then? That nothing exists (qua Gorgias)? That God exists? That dialetheism or Cartesian dualism is true?

Note that there are serious supernaturalists who absolutely believe that if naturalism is false, then telekinesis and astral projection is either true or significantly more likely to be true.

A metaphilosophical observation: it appears that most anti-naturalists gain the ontological content of the position (typically supernaturalism), from denying what "naturalism" is and therefore must volley a number of sometimes bizarre, or very strong, unclear, and untenable positions onto it and thus, in denying or "refuting" the position, they automatically gain God, libertarian free will, intentionality, post mortem existence, and (not surprisingly) the confirmation of all the beliefs and creeds of their particular religion and sect(!).

Seen this way, it is clear that much apologetics becomes weary burden-of-proof-lobbing and "modus-tollensing" argumentation ad nauseum: for instance, the non sequiturs presented by Dr. Pruss in the argument above.

Anonymous said...


You're pretty clearly talking about "mystery" as opposed to insoluble puzzlers. The initial consequence just makes it clear that you want to use "mystery" in a specialized sense, which is much more robust than "something we can't figure out, maybe not ever". There is a positive element to mystery.

The soundness of the argument should start with premise #2. Do all those things share some positive element that can be called mystery as opposed to being mere insoluble puzzles?

James Chastek

wrf3 said...

Are (currently) unsolved puzzles unsolvable puzzles (i.e., mysteries?)

Anonymous said...

Premise 1 might be correct, but it's begging the question.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, if naturalism is true, then it's just a matter of science to figure out how things really are. That's puzzle, not mystery. Now, folks like McGinn think there is mystery about how our consciousness fits into that picture. But if they are constitently naturalistic, the mystery is merely about how we fit into the picture, not about how things are. It's like a case where you see a photo of a great crowd, and you want to know where in that crowd you are. That may be puzzling, but the knowledge you seek is basically indexical in nature.

Of course what I say in this response is only plausible if one agrees that true mystery is ontological in nature. :-)

Drew Mazanec said...

Could you define these terms for us laymen out there?

I'm not sure of the difference between a mystery and a puzzle.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I actually don't know exactly what the difference between a puzzle and a mystery is. I just threw out that argument. I made no claim that it was sound, only that it was valid.

I do, however, have a sufficient condition for a problem being merely a puzzle: A problem is a puzzle if merely throwing enough raw computational power at it would solve it.

Similarly, once we have a correct framework for modeling a phenomenon, where the framework includes all of the basic ontological features, and the only thing that needs to be done is to find the right combination of these features, to fill in mathematical information (numerical constants, values of fields), etc., then what remains is just a puzzle.

A problem that can be answered through a combination of puzzle-solvings is just a puzzle.

Consequently, if we knew the correct scientific framework, and if naturalism were true, then the question of understanding what the world is like would just be a matter of finding out how to fill in the blanks in the framework, and to compute transition probabilities. So we'd be down to puzzles.

If I could further argue that the question of what the right scientific framework is is also just a puzzle, I would have a good argument for (1). I think there is some plausibility there.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Rationalists need not be naturalists. If my argument is sound, then if naturalism is true, there are no mysteries. But the converse is probably false.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's another sufficient condition for being a mere puzzle: If p is a mathematical proposition, the problem of finding a proof for p is a mere puzzle. (Argument: If p has no proof, then it's a question whose presuppositions are false, and such questions aren't mysteries, but more like pseudo-problems. If p has a proof, then there is a computational procedure--with finite but unbounded time and resource use--for finding the proof.)

Drew Mazanec said...

So you're saying that if naturalism is true, then it is possible to reduce all branches of science into a unified whole.

For example, sociology is reducible to psychology, which is reducible to biology, which is reducible to chemistry, which is reducible to physics, which is then fully axiomatized and reduced to math.

James A. Gibson said...

How about this argument:

1. If God exists and God is omniscient, then there are no mysteries.
2. But there are mysteries.
3. So ~(G & O)
4. So at least one of the conjuncts in 3 is false.

I don't claim this argument is sound.

If we were smart enough or understood enough like God, then there would be no mysteries for us, unless you claim there are mysteries for even an omniscient God and so (1) is false. However you cash out the concept of a mystery, I'd think you would want to do it in a way that avoids this argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am not claiming such a reduction to follow, at least not in this post.


Nice argument. It neatly puts pressure on my comment where I say that mystery is not about something indexical in nature. For mystery is relative to a kind of knower.

larryniven said...

Goodness gracious this is a lot of commenting for a very silly argument. It took people 13 separate statements to get to "mysteries are relative to ways of knowing" even though philosophickle basically said that at the outset? And yet nobody has even bothered, in all that time, to ask how subjectivity is supposed to be at all mysterious? This is always what happens when people rubberneck at goofy arguments...

Ima said...

Dr. Pruss,

You're precisely correct to note that Rationalists need not be naturalists; this exactly was my point, as I should have been explicit with my conclusion, rather than being rhetorical.

James Gibson

Again, I should have been more explicit, as your argument was exactly what I meant when I said

"if there are mysteries and the falsity of naturalism and the truth of supernaturalism follows from [them], and if theism follows from supernaturalism (as most presume), then are there mysteries to God?"

I congratulate you on formally arguing this point and Dr. Pruss on recognizing, at your formalization, the force of what I meant to argue by mentioning God and objective mystery.


Rivers of ink have been spilled over "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" and "Here is a hand; here is another; therefore there is an external world". As Spinoza says: "Caute"!