Nonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 3)

Originally I had thought I’d break a long post into two parts, but then I got carried away. So this ended up as a kind of online note-taking and thinking out loud prompted by some recent books I’ve read. Oh well, here goes again…

I’ve said I’m partial to the idea of rehabilitating metaphysics, bringing it out of the realm of armchair reflection and Platonic rationalism and seeing how it might play a role in systems that make contact with reality tests. There is, I think, another advantage to doing this. We can thereby assimilate rehabilitated metaphysical claims to the more innocent and unavoidable existence claims we find in science and in everyday life.

One motivation for a return to metaphysics seems to have been a realization that scientific theories include catalogs of objects that are supposed to exist and behave in certain ways. The existence of these objects does genuine explanatory work, even if they are not directly observable. For example, according to quantum chromodynamics, we cannot detect unconfined quarks. This doesn’t greatly bother physicists, and we generally think quarks are quite real. (Though interestingly, physicists will also shy away from claiming things are real in contexts where “real” stands for some metaphysical Realness.)

I can be tempted, in an antimetaphysical mood, to flirt with instrumentalism, saying that such objects are convenient fictions. But that would be overdoing things. It invites questions such as whether ordinary rocks are also convenient fictions. Moreover, in the name of opposing metaphysics, instrumentalists might be introducing a disguised idealist or dualist metaphysics, making everything real happen in the observing mind. We should avoid taking commonsense views of observation and mind as givens.

It is better, I think, to accept that existence claims in everyday and scientific contexts are innocuous. In any case, such claims tread much more lightly than claims about metaphysical insight into Ultimate Reality. In physics, for example, we can take particles or fields to be the more fundamental entities in the context of our present theories. But the difference here is a matter of emphasis and conceptual clarity; particles and fields are inseparable however we choose our emphasis. And if, in the future, we end up adopting a different description of the basic furniture of the universe according to physics, we will do this because of the usual mutual interaction between theory and experiment that fixes belief in physics, not because of some kind of metaphysical reflection.

Now, if we rehabilitate metaphysical naturalism by using this more innocuous kind of existence claims, we can get a fallible, broadly scientific claim about the nature of our world. Instead of being a metaphysical doctrine in the classic sense, naturalism becomes akin to an ambitious scientific theory with very broad scope.

Consider physicalism, perhaps the most uncompromising version of naturalism available. The kind of physicalism I am partial to is, I think, a broadly scientific theory rather than a metaphysical doctrine. Andrew Melnyck’s “realization physicalism” is along these lines, and I largely agree with Melnyk. Moreover, mounting another of my hobbyhorses, I like to argue that physical explanations that combine chance and necessity suffice to describe all we know in the world, including intelligence and so forth. There is no need to make claims about Ultimate Reality in any of this—only ambitious claims analogous to the way physicists expect the known laws of physics to apply everywhere in the universe and make predictions based on this expectation. Saying that we can best understand the world without supernatural or transcendent realities is not radically different from claiming that we can do biology better without postulating the existence of animal spirits or life forces.

Emphasizing on natural science as a model of avoiding metaphysics is bound to raise questions about scientism. Doesn’t this ignore realms of genuine knowledge where Platonic metaphysics is legitimate, such as mathematics? Aren’t I pushed toward assimilating everything into some scientific method, even discourses such as ethics and possibly religion? I’ll try to get to these next, though I really have to figure out how to stop this before I find myself typing part 58.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

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

    “Instead of being a metaphysical doctrine in the classic sense, naturalism becomes akin to an ambitious scientific theory with very broad scope.”

    I like this, but of course the naturalist then has to defend her commitment to science against other ways of justifying beliefs about the world, for instance what theologian John Haught calls the “richer empiricism” of non-analytical, non-theoretic modes of knowing (see http://www.naturalism.org/haught.htm ). This argument is about epistemology, not metaphysics, but it seems equally intractable in the sense that it’s mostly conducted from the armchair, without any clear agreed-upon decision criteria that both sides will accept.

    I hope you’ll continue these reflections, and I’ll let the gang over at the Naturalism Philosophy Forum know about them.

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

    Taner writes: Instead of being a metaphysical doctrine in the classic sense, naturalism becomes akin to an ambitious scientific theory with very broad scope

    The net of all this is – Taner wants us all to just be physicists, because physicists are just swell and philosophizing just isn’t what Taner is into. Taner doesn’t really understand naturalism. Naturalism is about a worldview; it is a system that tries to explain things that physicists don’t deal with, Taner – like propositions, reference, meaning, ethics, etc. Scientists simply are not interested in, or trained properly, to even contemplate such things.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18201878060264233090 B H

    alex write: it is a system that tries to explain things that physicists don’t deal with, Taner – like propositions, reference, meaning, ethics, etc. Scientists simply are not interested in, or trained properly, to even contemplate such things.

    And the people who are doing social, psychological, and neurological work on those subjects are… not scientists? delusional?

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

    Taner writes: Instead of being a metaphysical doctrine in the classic sense, naturalism becomes akin to an ambitious scientific theory with very broad scope

    bh writes: Scientists simply are not interested in, or trained properly, to even contemplate such things

    In my own opinion, I think everyone is qualified to examine philosophical questions regardless of how much or how little academic training they have. I think that all scientists can — and should — examine the philosophical implications of their work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18201878060264233090 B H

    Oh, I definitely agree that all scientists should examine the implications of their own work. My point was more that some of us at least make an attempt to scientifically examine one or more of the things Alex listed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18201878060264233090 B H

    Ack, and then – only after hitting submit – I notice you were quoting me quoting Alex. >.

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

    Tom Clark:“. . . the naturalist then has to defend her commitment to science against other ways of justifying beliefs about the world, for instance what theologian John Haught calls the ‘richer empiricism’ of non-analytical, non-theoretic modes of knowing . . .”

    Yes, certainly. I think it can be done. I might try and say something about this, though I’m worried about where I get to stop.

    My usual take on proposals like Haught’s is that there’s nothing wrong with proposing extensions or corrections of science as we understand it. We’ll just have to see if the proposal flies. But I think the way to do that is in the context of methods being results. That is, I don’t think of methods for gaining knowledge as being on another plane compared to knowledge about the world. Good (or bad) ways of obtaining knowledge depend on what kind of world we live in.

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

    bh: And the people who are doing social, psychological, and neurological work on those subjects are… not scientists? delusional?

    Alex: There aren’t too many psychologists or neurologists doing work on reference, meaning, the nature of propositions, abstract objects, etc.

    And when it comes to ethics, we might be describing the ethical behavior of certain cultures, the evolutionary history of, and forces involved in the shaping of, morality, etc. But seldom do you see scientists dealing with matters relevant to truth-value of ethical systems: normativity of ethics, the truth or falisty of ethical realism/objectivism, etc.

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

    Dawkins agrees with me in the Devil’s Chaplain btw: “Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    “But seldom do you see scientists dealing with matters relevant to truth-value of ethical systems: normativity of ethics, the truth or falisty of ethical realism/objectivism, etc.”

    Understanding the causes of human moral intuitions and mechanisms of human moral judgments are certainly relevant to understanding ethics, and are areas where there has been recent scientific progress. Philosophers who consider that scientific evidence irrelevant to ethics are just as impoverished, if not more so, than scientists who consider philosophy irrelevant to science.

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

    I don’t say science is irrelevant to ethics; clearly it is not. But Ethics – deliberation about what actually is right or wrong, or whether or not anything is – is not typically something that scientists do, though their work is relevant to it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    “But Ethics – deliberation about what actually is right or wrong, or whether or not anything is – is not typically something that scientists do, though their work is relevant to it.”

    Is there any adult human who hasn’t deliberated about what actually is right or wrong, both in particular cases and in formulating generalizations for the purposes of guiding actions of themselves and others?

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

    Typically adult humans will not attempt to delineate a coherent system of ethics throughout the course of their day-to-day lives, or ponder the ontology of ethical truths. If they do, they are being highly philosophical (but not professionally so).


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