Nonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 5)

I’ll wrap this up by saying why I care about the whole metaphysics and naturalism issue. I don’t know if it’s of any wide significance; after all, I’ve mainly been picking out a strand in naturalistic thinking and saying something about why I like it and why it fits my more science-centered prejudices. But in certain debates that I happen to care about, it matters.

What I have foremost in mind is the unending struggle over creation and evolution. Due, I suppose, to the nature of political disputes, defenders of evolution and divine design have both coalesced around what have become standard positions for each. Both involve views about metaphysics.

Almost everyone I know who defends evolution agrees that evolutionary science on its own does not settle questions about the gods. There are broader concerns here that go beyond a narrowly biological context, and certainly beyond anything that can be handled in a science classroom. But what has become the standard position in defense of evolution in education hardens this pragmatic stance. It makes a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical or metaphysical naturalism. Science, in this account, is defined by methodological naturalism, in that it is strictly a search for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Supernatural explanations cannot even be considered within science, and hence nothing in science can count for or against suitably transcendent supernatural realities. Again, this is a pretty hard stance. It doesn’t just mean that the philosophy department is the proper place to discuss the gods. (There may be very good pragmatic reasons why this is true.) It shades into saying that this belongs to the philosophers because it all comes down to a metaphysics of ultimate things, and philosophers are the ones to sort that out, if it can be done at all.

Now, I clearly think this view is mistaken. But I can see its attraction. It draws a hard and fast line to protect science in the classroom. It does not offend liberal religious supporters of evolution, because it blocks science-based critiques of supernatural claims. If a scientist, for example Richard Dawkins, argues that evolution counts against the reality of the gods (without settling the question), they can also be ruled out of bounds. Naturalism becomes just another metaphysical position, and therefore on all fours with other metaphysical positions as far as science is concerned. Politically, in an public environment where creationist sentiment is strong, such a view has a lot to recommend it.

But it has its vulnerabilities, and creationists can exploit them. My chief worry is this. One of the greatest assets defenders of evolution have is how creationism is associated with a lack of intellectual sophistication, even outright anti-intellectual attitudes. Many people who like to identify proper expertise and trust it will support evolution even without a deep knowledge of the science, because they can tell who in the public debate has the signs of substance and who does not. Put crudely, if distrust of evolution is associated with hicks, that can only help. But especially with the intelligent design movement, some of that advantage may be eroding. One reason, I think, is that intellectuals supporting ID spend a lot of effort criticizing the standard evolution-supporting conception of science and metaphysics. Some of that criticism has real bite, because the standard stance is at least unnecessarily hard. And even having a real intellectual debate at that level can only help the intellectual image of critics of evolution.

Now, politically, I’m not sure what is the best way to respond. The advantages of the standard view remain compelling, and I’ll go along with an awful lot that I don’t fully agree with if it helps keep creationist influence down. But those of us who think of ourselves as naturalists, and furthermore want to have an intellectually cogent critique of intelligent design (aside from considerations of political effectiveness), should, I think, move away from the standard view. That conception of science, metaphysics and naturalism is mistaken. In the long run, it may not even be the most effective.

This is just one example—one that is closest to my particular interests. But, as I have been trying to indicate, there are good reasons to think that a nonmetaphysical naturalism makes better sense. Perhaps there are even some more practical contexts, such as the creation-evolution wars, where shifting emphasis away from metaphysics is a good idea.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02829663209999473530 Philip

    The creationism issue seems simple enough. The creationist makes two kinds of claims, metaphysical (also epistemic and more broadly philosophical) and empirical ones, which need to be confronted in the appropriate ways. The creationist does indeed attack materialism and naturalism at the philosophical level, and the response here should be philosophical, albeit naturalistic and therefore grounded in science.

    But the creationist also makes empirical claims which can be refuted on pure scientific grounds; here, the issue is whether the creationist theories of the universe’s age, of the lack of certain fossils, and so forth, have any scientific evidence, or whether the theories have been peer-reviewed. Taner’s claim seems to be that because philosophy gives even the slightest aid to creationism, just by giving creationists the playing field of metaphysics, scientific theories should replace philosophical theories, at least when it comes to metaphysics, and the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.

    The trouble with this is that the issue isn’t just about what to call things. Either science has the methods to address certain questions or it doesn’t. Just because it doesn’t doesn’t necessarily mean the questions are meaningless or illegitimate. Saying otherwise is to lend support to the creationist’s claim that naturalism is a religion which rests on faith in science. Anyway, just because creationism may have some philosophical ground to stand on doesn’t mean this ground gives the slightest support to the creationist’s empirical claims. The view that Genesis contains literal truths can be attacked on pure scientific grounds without getting into any metaphysical or philosophical debate. Clearly, the creationist may try to evade the scientific debate by switching to a philosophical one, but this tactic can be identified for what it is; there’s no need here to be an eliminativist with regard to metaphysical questions.

    Also, just because past metaphysics has been done from the armchair and rationalist metaphysics has relied on magical notions of rational intuition, doesn’t mean there are no legitimate metaphysical questions. In any case, naturalistic metaphysics needn’t be tied to the armchair, since scientific knowledge and methodology can inform the metaphysical debate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07152701961591425730 Greyface

    It is sad that human nature makes ‘debate’ and ‘argument’ synonomous. The holy rollers make evolution a test-case without challenging the scientific method of which evolution is a single part. They even announce their embrace of ingnorance by inciting followers to ‘teach the controversy’. Of course, in their context, this means ‘doubt everything scientists say’, rather than the scientific method: ‘doubt everything’.
    Evolutionists, and other science-minded folk will readily admit that the theory of evolution is a work in progress. So are physics, chemistry, even mathematics. Rationalists can learn from history that ‘answers’ are temporary things. That is the sticking point for faith-based protesters–for them, all answers must be static and unquestioned.
    They don’t like questioning, and what else could one call Science?

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

    Philip: “Taner’s claim seems to be that because philosophy gives even the slightest aid to creationism, just by giving creationists the playing field of metaphysics, scientific theories should replace philosophical theories, at least when it comes to metaphysics, and the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.”

    That’s not what I’m claiming, though I’m certainly more skeptical of the existence of any specially metaphysical baby in the bathwater here.

    “In any case, naturalistic metaphysics needn’t be tied to the armchair, since scientific knowledge and methodology can inform the metaphysical debate.”

    Fair enough. But in that case are we really that far apart? What I’ve been calling “rehabiliating metaphysics” (you can phrase it differently if you like), is, by and large, an effort to take traditionally metaphysical disputes and try to make some progress by turning them into a debate that can be informed by science, among other things.

    So, what are we really disagreeing about?

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

    Taner writes: I’ll go along with an awful lot that I don’t fully agree with if it helps keep creationist influence down.

    Alex: And here we see, as throughout this latest post, that he’s a great politician, but not overly concerned with truth. Hey, at least it explains love of “rants” and neglect of argument and reason.

    BTW, see Tomas’s response to Taner, and Taner’s dodge in the first post in this series if you want to see why his views don’t get off the ground.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00029694152838347722 Sastra

    Very interesting series of posts. For the most part, I think I agree with you, but I’ve got a couple of questions.

    First — exactly how are you defining “metaphysics?” I’m not sure if you ever say, specifically. You seem to be taking it as the nature of “ultimate reality” — but the word “ultimate” seems rather hazy and vague. Can metaphysics be considered a theory, as opposed to a starting point? A theory on what is likely to be real and/or true, but falsifiable and open to change? Or is that breaking the definition?

    The second question has to do with the role of “the paranormal” in all this. What do you think the difference is between the supernatural and the paranormal? Is there a clear dividing line? It does seem to be generally conceded that science can rule one way or the other on ESP and PK — by the very same folks who think God is an entirely different thing, and not subject in any way to the same criteria.

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

    Alex: It’s interesting to read your comments throughout this series of posts, which consist mostly of you engaging in argument by assertion and ad hominem, and very little in the way of actual argument. You’re not even being a gadfly in the Socratic manner.

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

    Well, Jim, yes — that is the problem with rants and other such non-rational/non-argumentative expressions of viewpoints. They sort of engender this sort of behavior. Careful – you’re getting caught in the web yourself.


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