Nonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 4)

Well, what about knowledge apart from science? Can reasoning about morality be reduced to a form of science? Can mathematics? Or the multiple discourses of everyday life, from cooking to religion, that might be nonscientific but no less legitimate on their own terms? Even many naturalists leave these alone, resisting what they view as scientism or reductionism—particularly naturalist philosophers of a neopragmatic bent, such as Kai Nielsen. Pragmatists still shun metaphysics, but then, what if metaphysics is also a perfectly legitimate discourse on its own terms?

Let me start with mathematics, as it is a perennial temptation to metaphysics of a very straightforwardly Platonic sort. Indeed, many mathematicians think of their own work in Platonic terms, so this a view to be taken seriously. Now, as it happens, I find views such as that expressed by Reuben Hersh, that mathematics is a social construction, to be much closer to being on the right track. The reason is that such a naturalistic approach gives us a much better prospect of understanding the process of doing mathematics. The problem with mathematical Platonism (to my mind, a likely unsolvable problem) is that it has to resort to an equivalent of magic or revelation to account for how the timeless truths about abstract objects such as numbers impress themselves on our brains.

Naturalists, in contrast, should get further in explaining what mathematicians actually do. If mathematicians deal with abstract patterns, well, so they do. This is something material brains can handle without a need for an underlying Platonic Reality. And if many of these patterns are not physically realized, so be it. This is no more problematic than scenarios for future events being represented by material brains, scenarios that may or may not come to pass. Abstraction also seems akin to the way we can recognize multiple realizations of a pattern. Indeed, it seems very plausible that abstraction draws on such mundane capabilities of our brains. And then, we can follow Hersh and try to bring the social context into the picture as well. It’s a complicated task, but it seems doable and partly done.

In other words, we can do metaphysical rehabilitation here as well. Platonism always involves claims about how knowledge is acquired. We can bring such claims down to earth, and have them compete against naturalistic approaches that draw on cognitive science and notions such as social constructions. There should be little doubt that, given our present understanding of how the world works, naturalistic accounts of abstract reasoning are more promising.

Now on to morality. The naturalistic move is similar: we ask how moral knowledge is acquired, and see if we can account for this within the natural world. I think we can. The options I’m partial to incorporate something from error theories, claiming that our normal perception that prescriptive, objective, transcendent moral truths exist and can be intuited is mistaken. They also draw on the cognitive neuroscience of moral perception, social science about negotiating competing interests, evolutionary biology to see what stable interests we have, and so on. Though far from complete, we still can see the outline of a complex, broadly scientific description of our moral ecology. It is superior, I think, to competing metaethics.

All the explanations of our moral lives will not give us any palpable “oughtness.” They will not determine our choices when we face any real moral dilemma. Nonetheless, I don’t know if there is anything more for naturalism to achieve here. Understanding our moral lives in terms of interests and agreements within nature and nothing beyond does not change the fact that we, when personally in a situation where we make choices, have to make the choice. That shift to a personal perspective—you have to be there, in person—is unavoidable, but it is also innocuous.

Indeed, I think that the ability to fruitfully investigate and account for multiple forms of discourse within nature, including natural science itself, is one of the strongest recommendations for an unapologetically scientific naturalism. Naturalistic explanations for our ability to do mathematics, ethics, religion and so on can be contrasted to rehabilitated metaphysical explanations for these abilities, which will usually propose some kind of power of illumination or supernatural intuition. As usual, I think that naturalistic explanations are superior.

Let me put this another way. I envision scientific, nonmetaphysical naturalism as providing us with the best explanation of what we are doing when engaging in various discourses. But this naturalistic understanding does not substitute for these discourses. It does not, in particular, require us to assimilate mathematics, ethics and so forth into a generalized scientific enterprise. It does not, for much the same reason that engineering is not a mere extension of science, while not working with anything supernatural. For one thing, there is no such thing as The Scientific Method. More important, we have multiple aims in life, and we cannot expect all our aims to be served by an enterprise devoted to explaining how the world works.

I really need to figure out how to wrap all this up.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: Understanding our moral lives in terms of interests and agreements within nature and nothing beyond does not change the fact that we, when personally in a situation where we make choices, have to make the choice.

    So… What would be the point? I’m sure that many (or even all) of the foundations of morality can be discovered in our evolutionary past, in anthroplogy and in game theory… but if you can’t get from is to ought then it doesn’t really help us very much. Despite all of the best scientific endeavours moral philosophy will remain untouched by the findings.

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

    Cyberkitten: “. . . if you can’t get from is to ought then it doesn’t really help us very much. Despite all of the best scientific endeavours moral philosophy will remain untouched by the findings.”

    I don’t know about “untouched.” If we have a more naturalistic conception of what we are doing when we’re discussing morality, that can influence our moral perceptions and convictions. (Just influence, not necessarily overhaul.) Some kinds of ought will, perhaps, become more or less plausible than otherwise.

    For example, consider creationist fears about evolution and morality. On the face of it, their worries about a general moral collapse accompanying an evolutionary understanding of human nature seems overblown. But I think there is something to their fear nonetheless. Many creationists tend to think that morally significant design and purpose is a palpable reality in nature. Gender roles, for example, are a divine design, reflected in biology. And they often conceive of species not as populations that vary, but as reflections of a Platonic form, in such a way that they see not just variations within a population but morally significant deviations.

    If you don’t think of morality as such a palpable reality shaping nature, well, it’s hard to see moral convictions remaining unaffected. Yes, someone can sing the praises of traditional gender roles etc. without being a creationist. But it does matter, not being able to say that the nature of morality is such that a divine purpose is woven into biology.

    So I’m not sure moral philosophy should remain untouched. And as far as I can see, it hasn’t been untouched. But if you mean that there will always be a job for moral philosophers, that what they do can’t be outsourced to a bunch of biologists, psychologists and so forth, then you’re right.

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

    TE said: our normal perception that prescriptive, objective, transcendent moral truths exist and can be intuited is mistaken

    I think the idea of prescriptive, objective, transcendent morals is a “necessary evil”; it is better to act on the presumption that they exist than if they do not, even if I rationally know they probably don’t exist. Think about it — laws and basic rules-of-thumb that most people actually do use in everyday situations all make that assumption. Our “consciences” aren’t supernatural nor are they set in stone, and relying too much on intuition is dangerous. Yet I still think the presumption of objective morals is still useful (to me personally, at the very least.)

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

    “Despite all of the best scientific endeavours moral philosophy will remain untouched by the findings.”

    I don’t see how you can say this, when neuroscience is already beginning to shed some light on how our brains perform moral decision-making in different contexts. Any good moral theory needs to be consistent with and actually touch the facts of what human beings are actually doing.

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

    Rourke: “I think the idea of prescriptive, objective, transcendent morals is a “necessary evil”; it is better to act on the presumption that they exist than if they do not . . .”

    That could be true, or at least reasonable.

    I think the notion of objective moral truths becomes dubious only in certain infrequent contexts. That is when we insist on some kind of hard objectivity that goes beyond reasonably secure agreements, when we think we know moral facts that are similar to the hard facts in chemistry, and so forth. But as a rule of thumb in everyday life when we have to make quick decisions without the large cost of taking a more complex theory about the nature of morality on board, what you say sounds reasonable. To me, anyway.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X