Naturalism As True By Definition

Jason Streitfeld weighs in on the question of naturalism or supernaturalism, treated by Sean Carroll here, John Pieret here, and Shane and me in these this post and then this one. Streitfeld’s post is excellent so read it in full.

Scientists do not rely on any notion of the supernatural to formulate their conception of nature. So why include the word “supernatural” in the definition of “natural?”

Also, it is not clear that the world “obeys unambiguous rules.” It is not even clear what that means. Perhaps Carroll means the world acts in a manner consistent with the predictions made by unambiguous rules. If we remove the part about the supernatural and clarify the reference to rules, we end up defining “nature” as that which can be methodically demonstrated. Nature is what is open to formal discovery, by definition.

Naturalism is not a scientific hypothesis which might eventually be falsified. It is not a conclusion based on scientific evidence. Naturalism is true by definition. It is a framework for talking about discovery and demonstration. It is a language for understanding the relationship between knowledge and action. The words “nature” and “science” go together like “bachelor” and “unmarried.”

This makes it easier to correct a misconception regarding quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, there are events or relationships which are somewhat unpredictable, or “whimsical.” This is not to say they suggest a “supernatural” or any other kind of intervention, though. The notion of intervention implies directedness, and there is no evidence that quantum unpredictability is somehow directed towards any ends. The whole point is that it lacks direction.

Quantum unpredictability does not undermine a naturalistic view of the world. It does not undermine the meaning or value of science. In fact, quantum unpredictability is quantified scientifically. Scientific theory predicts a certain degree of unpredictability, and measurements of that unpredictability can be tested against scientific theory. The so-called “whimsical” aspects of quantum mechanics might defy common sense, but they do not defy scientific practice.

The point to stress here is that, if there were some intent or direction behind these events, some force which guided the course of nature, it would be scientifically discoverable. It would be worthy of the term “nature.”

The term “naturalism” has no place in science. It is a political rejoinder against supernaturalists, and nothing more. Supernaturalists wish to protect their beliefs and institutions from scientific scrutiny, simultaneously promoting the contradictory claims that they are beyond science’s purview and that science must change to allow for their beliefs. Yet, the term “supernatural” remains incoherent.

I strongly agree with this and it helps congeal some inchoate thoughts I was having about the topic the last few weeks and days—the issue is simply that as soon as something becomes explicable, it is in terms of a nature that it has.  The very idea of the supernatural as an explanation or a cause is inunintelligible.  But then what those who claim to believe in the supernatural must be referring to (if anything at all) is a more encompassing level of nature which God rules according to another level of rules that only appear to contradict those within our limited experience and conceptualization of nature but which ultimately contains and accounts for what we experience while involving other rules which go beyond our understanding.

But without any account of this higher order within nature (more totally conceived) there is no good basis for positing that any of the things that supernaturalists claim are possible.  Until we have a glimmer of this allegedly more encompassing nature of the world and accounts which are explanatory and predictive about it, it is simply not a fit subject for knowledge claims of any sort.

Streitfeld, again excellently, defends Occam’s Razor and induction against Pieret:

Ockam’s Razor is an indispensable explanatory tool. Consider the situation with ID again.

IDers might claim that ID is simpler than natural evolution, that Ockam’s Razor weighs in their favor. The question is, are they right?

The answer is: of course not. Natural evolution does not postulate any entities beyond our explanatory framework, and it does not postulate anything superfluous. It does not postulate entities beyond necessity.

ID, on the other hand, postulates an “intelligent designer” which is outside of our explanatory framework, which is not (and, some IDers would say, cannot be) explained. ID does not explain how the “designer” has done anything. It does not explain anything.

Ockam’s Razor is not the principle of least effort. If it were, then any predictive theory would lose against hand-waving. No, the razor does not favor the argument which requires the least amount of work. Rather, it says, the best explanation is the one that does not postulate unnecessary entities. (Necessity is recognizable by comparing two competing theories.) Clearly the razor favors natural evolution, and nothing “supernatural.”

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.