I recently took it upon myself to read Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz‘s work Naturalism (for sale here). I highly recommend the book for anyone looking for a good summary of some considerations of modern philosophy on the topic of naturalism. The work is pithy, cogent, and I think easy to follow even for those not well-versed in the technical jargon and historic arguments surrounding this traditional metaphysical debate. I would caution, though, that I think that the book seems to me overly critical of some features of naturalism, and also to me seems to overgeneralize many characteristics which I think abound in naturalists and non-naturalists alike.
I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Taliaferro last fall, and will likely be meet him again in a few days, so I took the time to throw together a little gut-reaction response to the work Natualism (which, I rather think might be better titled “Against Naturalism”, which indicates better that the purpose of this book seems to be the construction of an argument against naturalism, rather than some merely informational and “objective” presentation of historic facts and debates).
If you don’t feel like taking the 15 minutes to listen, here’s the gist of my thoughts, without most of the explanatory substance:
- Yes, I agree with Goetz and Taliaferro that naturalism as they characterize it (through examples) stands on shaky ground, but…
- Naturalist perspectives, being based on the ever-expanding realm of scientific advancement, are not simply reductionist. Rather, their role can expand as our empirical observations and theories about these observations expand. My feelings on this follow from my (mildly Kuhnian, i think) view that science is a primarily pragmatic rather than epistemological endeavor.
- Because science offers us the opportunity to challenge traditional “supernatural” explanations, it bears the possibility to act as a corrective check for, or at least calls us to critically reflect upon, our folk psychology/physics/philosophy/metaphysics/dogmas.
- Finally, I think that a strict, parsimonious, positive naturalism is not just likely epistemically problematic–it is psychologically untenable even for its most outspoken adherence (but so is anti-naturalism in some ways). In the long run, though, if the apparent choice is between accepting on or the other tradtional dogma (either naturalist or unnaturalist), I would just assume have both perspectives around as long as possible duking it out, as neither seems wholy cogent to me. With the argument preserved, we can pragmatically utilize one assumption in one context generally (say, anti-naturalism for religion; naturalism for science), but allow these perspectives to challenge each other in their own contexts as well. In this way, I hope we can either realize that these distinctions are irrelevant, or that they are somehow complimentary, or that some better alternatives exist instead–and enjoy the fruits of continued argument.
What struck me as interesting, was that when I was looking for some alternative perspectives on naturalism while writing my response, one of the first results provided by my friend Google was lil’ ol me. Yes, on the first page of my google results was an entry that I posted in October last year, entitled “Hobbes and Modern Science v. Descartes“. Back in October, though, I was sort of on the other side of the argument. Back then, I was chastizing modern science for its naturalist assumptions, rather than lauding it for bringing options to the table–at least until the end of the article. In the end, though, it seems that both today and last october, I was arguing from one side (first against naturalists, then against anti-naturalists) in order to get to the middle. In both places, I criticized dogmatism, dualism, and hubristic assumptions that we already know what types of substances make up the entirety of the cosmos.
The major discrepancy between my old article and my new one, it seems to me, is that I was content to characterize science in my October post as presuming the sort of materialistic naturalism that Goetz and Taliaferro seem to see in it, but this week I argued that that view of science is short-sighted. Which description is more accurate? In a way, I think both. I think the end paragraph of my recorded response hints at the answer. It seems that real human beings simply don’t portray stable, context independent dispositions of this sort. In one context, we might all predictably be naturalists (say, when you consider whether or not you should worry about a 1,000 anvil falling on you from above), and in others we may all be anti-naturalists (say, when considering our plans for the future or interpreting our emotions). It may simply not be possible to separate these two categories in a way that is both meaningful and able to be held by a real person over time.
Also, if you’re in the Sioux Falls area, I heartily implore you to come to Charles Taliaferro’s talk at the Augustana Naturalism Symposium this week; it will make your life better.
Also, I tried to stream my recorded response to Naturalism, but it does not seem to work for me. Try it, if it shows up for you: