Nonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 1)

There’s something about the description of this blog that bothers me, especially since inadvertently I’ve ended up as the most frequent voice here. Apparently this blog is centered on metaphysical naturalism. What if you’re a naturalist who is suspicious of any and all metaphysical enterprises, and who is inclined to think that most of what goes on in the philosophy of religion is so much wheel-spinning? Someone like me, in other words.

Now, I can see why we might want to attach “metaphysical” to naturalism. Naturalists are sympathetic to claims such as that made by David Armstrong, that there is nothing that exists beyond or above the space-time realm. On the face of it, this appears to be a kind of claim about ultimate reality that contrasts with, say, idealism or theism. That is, a naturalistic metaphysics that rivals other metaphysical systems. And if you want to adjudicate between such rivals, it seems you might want to ask a metaphysician. Physicists, for example, may well be reluctant to go there: a physicist can say a lot about what exists within space and time, but may be at a loss about what may or may not go on beyond space and time. Questions about what is really Real at the bottom of it all are classic philosophical questions, not the sort of thing you approach by tinkering with equations and setting up experiments.

There are, however, reasons to distrust armchair reflections about Deep Reality or any claim that philosophers are specially equipped to discover necessary truths of existence as opposed to the mere contingent facts gathered by the sciences. Indeed, these suspicions are especially compelling from a naturalistic point of view. If, for example, you are attracted to naturalism because you find a broadly scientific picture of our world compelling, you might be disinclined to look for further metaphysical endorsement. For that matter, there is a broad current within modern philosophy that dissents from the notion that philosophy is an armchair pursuit of First Principles that stand in judgment upon everything else. And this anti-metaphysical current has typically been associated with naturalism and nontheistic views.

Insisting on metaphysical naturalism would unnecessarily exclude many nontheists and naturalists. Even confining ourselves to philosophy (which we should not), and even just looking at recent times, there are some very significant naturalistic thinkers who have been positivists of one sort or other, who have been influenced by Wittgenstein, or who fall under the broad description of pragmatists or neopragmatists. Distrust of metaphysics, even arguments that metaphysics of all sorts might be sheer nonsense, takes a large part in the naturalism of such thinkers.

Indeed, I would expect many naturalists to be sympathetic to the the claim that there is some intellectual pathology in metaphysics as it has been practiced in the mainstream philosophical tradition. Metaphysicians invariably end up supporting their views by an appeal to some kind of supposed rational necessity or metaphysical intuition. These look uncomfortably similar to claims of revelation; we should be suspicious of this sort of thing even in a secular context, even if these kinds of intuitions are deployed against theism. It would be more in keeping with the temper of naturalism to appeal to support of a more broadly scientific sort, or a kind of critical common sense, or at least something that does not appear to be rationalism gone wild.

It is also worth pointing out how historically metaphysics has been allied with non-naturalistic views. In fact, metaphysics has typically been the intellectual language of Abrahamic religion, and metaphysical thinking has a significant role in the sophisticated versions of many supernatural belief systems. However intuitively appealing, metaphysical thinking is often used to isolate claims from criticism, to avoid reality tests. So perhaps naturalists especially should get out of the metaphysical game. We should not present an alternative set of declarations about what is really Real (whatever that might mean) but stop engaging in that kind of talk altogether. More ordinary and scientific senses of small-r reality are good enough, and it makes perfectly good sense to talk of the supernatural and the transcendent having no part in that small-r reality, as best as we can tell by getting out of our armchairs and investigating things.

So at the least, speaking of metaphysical naturalism is overly restrictive. At worst, it risks portraying naturalism as yet another doctrine metaphysicians pull out of thin air. So we should, perhaps, be some variety of naturalist, but not necessarily metaphysical naturalists.

I will be saying more about this.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09565179884099473943 Hallq

    I think the intended contrast is with “methodological naturalism”–just that science is limited to discussing the natural. Metaphysical naturalism differs from methodoligical naturalism in that it takes a stand on what’s actually out there. I wouldn’t read much more into it than that.

    And remember, whenever you complain about philosophers, you’re basically doing philosophy yourself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17125168195651153271 tomas

    >>And remember, whenever you complain about philosophers, you’re basically doing philosophy yourself.>>

    I second that motion.

    As FH Bradley said, “The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible… is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08414754510736349472 Tom Clark

    “So perhaps naturalists especially should get out of the metaphysical game. We should not present an alternative set of declarations about what is really Real (whatever that might mean) but stop engaging in that kind of talk altogether. More ordinary and scientific senses of small-r reality are good enough, and it makes perfectly good sense to talk of the supernatural and the transcendent having no part in that small-r reality, as best as we can tell by getting out of our armchairs and investigating things.”

    When you exclude the supernatural and transcendent, you’re making a fairly substantial metaphysical claim, one based on an empiricist epistemology (getting out the armchair). There’s nothing wrong or extravagant about this, so I don’t think we need be bashful about being metaphysical naturalists, and we don’t need any endorsement from card-carrying metaphysicians.

    To be a metaphysical naturalist in this sense isn’t to be dogmatic or a priori or rationalistic about our ontology. Nature might contain all sorts of crazy stuff. It’s just that we decide about what’s real (big or small r, don’t matter to me) on the basis of what we determine is the most reliable way of grounding beliefs about the world. And that isn’t theology, it’s science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Hallq, seconded by Tomas: remember, whenever you complain about philosophers, you’re basically doing philosophy yourself.

    Is this in the same sense that when you complain about religion, you’re doing religion? Or that nonbelief is just another faith?

    Never mind. Yes, it is typically philosophers who engage in metaphilosophy, if we exclude the occasional scientist who rolls their eyes at the mention of philosophy. But then, I would still be in good company. There are no shortage of philosophers who are dubious about the value of philosophizing in the traditional manner.

    From what I’ve read by Tom Clark, we do not disagree in any deep fashion here. My further posts on this topic will, I think, bring this out. For now, I’ve leave it at saying that I’m wary of taking on the label “metaphysical.” Without some heavy-duty clarification, it would seem to entangle naturalism too much in the armchair metaphysical tradition.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05516574151553582372 Mitch I. Gann

    As a newcomer here, I can tell you my initial reaction to the phrase “metaphysical naturalists” in the description. I assumed that whoever wrote that was attempting to say, “this is not a blog about botany and zoology.”

    It’s that bug, plant and bird studying type of person that I normally think of when I see the word “naturalist.” So it would seem useful to have some adjective in front; however, many readers will come to this blog from the web site’s homepage, on which the “naturalistic world view” is defined. Given that context, no adjective is needed — and the fewer adjectives, the better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    Taner,

    I think Mitch Gann makes a good point — in this context, “metaphysical” is simply a useful adjective to use to distinguish this blog’s “naturalism” from other definitions of the word. I agree with you as well as Tom Clark, in that yes, making naturalist claims is science, not a priori belief. I add that, as one personally interested in philosophy, I think metaphysics deserves its bad reputation among scientists — it really is rather silly. So, in other words, I think you make salient points, and I look forward to your next post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Rourke: “in this context, “metaphysical” is simply a useful adjective to use to distinguish this blog’s “naturalism” from other definitions of the word.”

    Fair enough. I don’t want to read too much into the blog description. After all, as far as I’m concerned, all this is mainly an excuse for me to say certain things about metaphysics and naturalism in general. And these things have been prompted mainly by some books I have read recently, rather than anything blog-related.

    Still, even in that case I maintain that we should think of a better description here. “Metaphysical” is not, I think, the right adjective here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17125168195651153271 tomas

    Taner,
    FH Bradley said, “The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible… is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles.”

    You replied:
    >>Is this in the same sense that when you complain about religion, you’re doing religion? Or that nonbelief is just another faith?>>

    No. What I mean to point out is this. You say you are skeptical about the way metaphysics is done, with frequent appeals to a priori intuition. Specifically, you said:
    >>Metaphysicians invariably end up supporting their views by an appeal to some kind of supposed rational necessity or metaphysical intuition.>>

    The problem Taner is that whatever view on this subject that you end up espousing will invariably rely on a priori intuition. Even in order to reject metaphysics, you must do metaphysics. You can run but you can’t hide.

    You can try to prove me wrong though, and the effort would be instructive. Try to form an argument for your desired conclusion that doesn’t ultimately rest on a priori intuition. My guess is that at least one premise or inference will be ultimately justified solely by intuition, that sui generis intellectual episode in which a proposition just “seems” true. (For example, the episode you have when you consider the proposition that no prime minister could be a prime number. Yep, you can “just see” the truth of that proposition.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Tomas: “whatever view on this subject that you end up espousing will invariably rely on a priori intuition. Even in order to reject metaphysics, you must do metaphysics.”

    When confronted with someone who is convinced that it is impossible that they are wrong, I think the best policy is to smile politely and move away. I will take my own advice and not engage in this conversation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17125168195651153271 tomas

    Taner,
    You said:
    >>When confronted with someone who is convinced that it is impossible that they are wrong, I think the best policy is to smile politely and move away. I will take my own advice and not engage in this conversation.>>

    What? I’m not convinced that it is impossible that I am wrong. I believe that your position is self-defeating, and I believe that I’m right, of course (just as you believe that you are right).

    But I don’t think it’s impossible that I’m wrong. I’m not certain that I’m correct in this.

    In fact, I even invited you to prove me wrong. The challenge was this: “Try to form an argument for your desired conclusion that doesn’t ultimately rest on a priori intuition.” I said that my guess is that you won’t be able to do this, but if your position is right, you should be able to do this.

    I wish you the best of luck in defending your position. Please bear this rightful burden of proof.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Tomas – very good points.

    But, as you can see, Taner just likes to rant. He is not into arguing or reasoning. That is apparently too philosophical.


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