Monday, November 19, 2012

A characterization of naturalism

It's hard to define naturalism. After all, even if there were souls and the like, naturalists could still treat them as natural phenomena.

Maybe a better way to characterize naturalism is that it is the view that objectively speaking in itself there is nothing numinous: Nothing holy or sacred, but only the good or right; nothing sinful or unholy, but only the morally wrong; nothing uncanny or eldritch, but only the unusual or the scary; nothing aweful, but only the impressive; nothing mysterious, but only the puzzling or the strange; nothing fascinating, but only the attractive; nothing sublime, but only the beautiful.

Some naturalists will have an error theory about the holy, sacred, sinful, unholy, uncanny, eldritch, aweful, mysterious and fascinating. Others will say that such that such predicates can be rightly applied, but they indicate in large part our attitudes to these things, rather than indicating the intrinsic characteristics of things that make those attitudes appropriate.

(It is also interesting that even some of the de-sacralized replacements—especially the good, the right, the wrong and the beautiful—are troubling to many naturalists.)


Heath White said...

It seems to me that the de-sacralized replacements are equally problematic.

My own preferred characterization of naturalism is in terms of the relative priority of two forms of explanation. Explanations generally boil down to either intentional explanations (an agent desires/intends something, whose object is perceived good) or law-like regularity explanations (include statistical explanations as a variant). Then naturalism is the view that all intentional explanations have a deeper, regularity explanation: agents are explained in terms of non-agents. While theism is the view that all regularity explanations have a deeper intentional explanation: non-agents are explained in terms of agency.

Or for short, theism is mind over (behind, under) matter and naturalism is matter over mind.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Imagine someone who holds a reductive version of Plato's tripartite view of the soul, and thinks that all mental states have a deeper explanation in terms of sub-mental states of the three parts. Is that naturalism? (I don't know.)

Jason Thibodeau said...

The Secular Web offers the following:
"As defined by philosopher Paul Draper, naturalism is "the hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system" in the sense that "nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it." More simply, it is the denial of the existence of supernatural causes. In rejecting the reality of supernatural events, forces, or entities, naturalism is the antithesis of supernaturalism."

This is awful, isn't it? What counts as a supernatural cause? If this definition is supposed to eliminate God from the natural order it does so only be begging the question: Who is to say that God is not natural?

But nonetheless, it is clear what Draper is getting at: Naturalism will have no truck with gods or ghosts. In this light, Heath's definition seems apt. Naturalism would truck with gods or ghosts if the behavior of such entities could be accounted for by the behavior of lower-order, non-intentional entities.

Michael Gonzalez said...

It seems to me that naturalists just want the world to be a closed system, such that every event in the system is fully explained by previous events in the system, along with certain regulatory laws. Therefore the naturalist will reject mental causation, but not necessarily the existence of mental states (epiphenomenalism of some kind). Or, even if the strong naturalist does reject mental states, they do so because these don't seem to be part of the closed system -- they don't engage in causation themselves, and so are a kind of excretion from the system, which defies the idea of it being "closed".

Even if someone takes a reductive view of Plato's tripartite theory, they are only introducing causal determinism into the mental realm; they are not re-introducing closure to an overall natural system. The person's mental states will still not engage with the the natural world as a closed system.

My own view is that naturalism is more of a gut feeling that people of a certain disposition have. And, since there are many people with that disposition, they all have a general sense of what the others are talking about. However, those of us without that disposition (those of us, for example, who think that a closed system couldn't account for its own existence; nor could it account for free actions, though these seem to be part of our epistemic foundation), would rightly be bewildered by it.

Of course, van Fraasen says that "materialism" or "naturalism" are just polite ways of saying "whatever science permits us to talk about right now". And there may be something to that.

ozero91 said...

I think one challenge that theism faces is God's explanatory power. For example, how does God create space?

Michael Gonzalez said...

I often get that question when discussing theism on blogs or YouTube. Especially if I give a cosmological argument, like the one Pruss uses in the Blackwell Companion. The question is always "how does God create?". It might seem like it's not enough to just say that God has "power", since that word is rather vague. However, if we begin by showing that words like "energy" and "causal potential" are ALWAYS vague (as Feynman used to say: " physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is"). It follows that the atheist is asking for an account of energy, even though physics still doesn't really have one. In other words, they are asking more of the theist than they would ever ask of themselves.

This is completely in character for many atheists, since they often ask for explanatory feats the likes of which they would never demand of themselves. For example, when discussing the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, they often demand proofs of veridicality FAR beyond what is normally considered solid.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that's exactly right. Once we get to the fundamental powers of the fundamental physical entities--say, one electron's power to repel other electrons--the answer to the "how" question will be something like: by its own nature. Or further unexplained laws of nature will be brought in.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think this is an important insight, because it cuts against the usual response of the philosopher, e.g.: "I can imagine a possible world where gluons bounce back and forth between quarks, but no attraction arises (or, maybe there is an attraction, but the gluonic action is utterly irrelevant to it; a side effect)." The response from the perspective of "that's the nature of gluons" may be as good as explanations can be.

It's like asking "why is it that propositions can be true or false, but tables can't?". The answer? Because that's not the kind of thing a table is, but it is the kind of thing a proposition is.

I also think that, for people who are trying to find an account of free will (or even of consciousness generally), that may be the kind of answer they end up with. An animal of such-and-such kind, embedded in such-and-such sort of world (physical, social, etc) just IS the kind of thing that makes free choices, or that perceives.

It's a thought, anyway :-)

Jason Thibodeau said...

I think it is reasonable for the atheist to suggest that there ought to be an explanation of how God creates. God is a person. The power of intentional explanations is that they appeal to a way of making things happen that we all have direct experience of. Because we are persons, we have a modicum of understanding of how persons accomplish their goals. We know that when a person wants to build a house, he has to engage in certain activities. And we know how the sequence of activities culminates in the completed structure.
So, if God is a person, then would it not follow that he achieves his goals in similar fashion? This must be one of the reasons that the demand for an explanation of how God created the universe makes sense.
Fundamental physical particles and forces aren't persons and so the 'how' question does not arise as obviously.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Distinguish between what we fundamentally cause as agents from what we non-fundamentally cause.

For instance, perhaps, maybe what we fundamentally cause as agents are some neural events, which in turn cause muscle actuations. Or maybe what we fundamentally cause as agents are basic actions such as lifting of arms, clenchings of fists, etc.

In any case, in the case of the fundamental stuff, there might not be a very informative answer to the question of how we do it. We do it by a power to do it.

In the case of the non-fundamental stuff, there are informative answers. How did you make that loop of rope? By tying the ends in a Zeppelin bend. How did you do that? By making a six loop and a nine loop and tucking this through that and that through this and pulling tight. How did you make the six loop? By tensing my muscles thus and so.

Now, the case of what God does directly, without secondary causes, is analogous to what we fundamentally cause as agents. Except that whereas for us the basic effects are things like muscle tensings or nerve firings, for God the basic effects are much more impressive, like an object coming into existence ex nihilo.

Jason Thibodeau said...

That is a nice distinction and helpful. But I think there may still be a problem. Human persons are able to fundamentally cause in virtue of having bodies. And while there is no informative answer to how we do it, the powers that we have in virtue of which we fundamentally cause are themselves subject to (non-intentional)causal explanations. That I am able to tense my muscles thus-and-so is subject to explanation in terms of nerves, muscle fibers, etc.

Suppose that all human intentional explanation presupposes the existence of powers that are subject to non-intentional explanation. That is, we understand (human) intentional explanations in virtue of understanding that humans non-fundamentally cause by directly manipulating their bodies (or whatever the fundamental stuff is).

God's powers in virtue of which he can fundamentally cause are not subject to explanation. God doesn't cause by tensing his muscles, and however he does cause, the fundamental stuff is not subject to explanation.

Can we make sense of intentional causation without presupposing the existence of a body (or something analogous) that an agent can fundamentally affect, and in virtue of which the being can non-fundamentally cause?

Michael Gonzalez said...

Jason, I think you missed the point of the difference between fundamentally causing and non-fundamentally causing. You say that humans can fundamentally cause in virtue of having a body. This is exactly incorrect. They can NON-fundamentally cause, because they have a body which they can fundamentally cause to do things.

To put it another way, if a human is using his body to do something (say, pick up a glass of water), that is a case of non-fundamental causing. However, the movement of the body itself (say, the initiation of neural events leading to the raising of the arm) is not done through a body.

Likewise, God could act on the world (even in His creation of it) at a purely fundamental level, not involving an intermediate step.