“Adversaries of piety and proof”

Peter Slezak of the University of New South Wales has an interesting article, “Adversaries of piety and proof”, in November 19th’s The Australian.

It’s rare to find a piece in the popular press that is this straightforward in explaining why naturalism is compelling and how theistic philosophers are engaged in special pleading.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    I think the article does more than Taner Edis suggests. The article throws out philosophy with theology, on the grounds that neither is scientific. The article’s author, Slezak, says, “Naturalism is just the picture provided by our current science and is, therefore, the best we’ve got. Fancy philosophical talk of metaphysical options can’t change the fact that naturalism is the only game in town, since it is simply the totality of our theories in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, geology and so on.”

    So is naturalism a scientific or a philosophical theory? If it’s philosophical, why can’t there be philosophical alternatives to it? If it’s scientific, show me the pure scientific methods that establish “the totality” of scientific theories from particular sciences.

    Slezak goes on to say “Naturalism is just shorthand for the overall picture” presented by particular sciences. I wonder what precisely is involved in this “shorthand.” No room for conceptual analysis, no philosophical speculation, no imagination, no creative vision? Is the shorthand that arrives at naturalism from scientific theories comparable just to the arbitrary choice of short words to represent long ones? I wonder what Slezak thinks naturalism actually states. Are the shorthand propositions of naturalism philosophical, scientific, or something else, and what exactly are these propositions?

    Slezak says, “Plantinga gives elaborate arguments for a ‘new epistemology’, but this is just philosophical code for belief without evidence.” So argument in epistemology is the offering of beliefs without evidence. If the kind of evidence at issue is scientific, then of course epistemology involves belief without evidence: epistemology is philosophy, not science. The question is whether a naturalist, as such, can get away with having no such beliefs without evidence. Can a naturalist get away with doing no philosophy apart from science?

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

    Philip: “The article throws out philosophy with theology, on the grounds that neither is scientific.”

    If philosophy was something sharply marked off from science, perhaps as a kind of armchair dreaming-up-of-metaphysics, this would be a good idea. If most philosophers conceived of their activity in that way, it would be doubly good idea. Who would want to have anything to do with them?

    My impression is that this is not true of philosophers in general. (It’s merely an annoying streak within philosophy, that is particularly apparent among religious philosophers.) And I suspect that Slezak conceives of his and his colleagues’ philosophical activity as something continuous with the rest of intellectual life, rather than a separate task of pontification.

    “. . . pure scientific methods . . .”

    No such thing. The notion of a Scientific Method has its use in freshman biology textbooks, but that’s about it.

    “No room for conceptual analysis, no philosophical speculation, no imagination, no creative vision?”

    Funny how the actual practice of science is full of just these things. Another reason, perhaps, to discard ideas of purely scientific evidence and purely philosophical reasons? Why police a boundary that really isn’t there?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    I agree that philosophical arguments ought to be consistent with scientific theories, and that many philosophers would say the same thing. Indeed, speaking of naturalism, that is particularly true of naturalistic philosophers. My point was that whatever Slezak may say about philosophy in other contexts, what he says here about naturalism suggests that he may not be entitled to any pro-philosophy position, that he’s committed to a negative view of philosophy in general, whether he appreciates that fact or not. In other words, he may be a positivist in the worst sense, a writer who lacks self-awareness about when he is doing philosophy.

    In the article, he’s focused on theistic philosophy, and I think it’s fine to attack that kind of philosophy. But Slezak goes on to speak very narrowly of naturalism as simply the totality of scientific theories. Is the totality itself a scientific theory? Is the use of shorthand what Slezak takes naturalism to be? In that case, were naturalism a philosophical theory, doing whatever philosophy is involved in naturalism would be similar merely to making the arbitrary choice of short words to stand in for long ones. Philosophy would indeed be cut down to size.

    Slezak also speaks negatively of “elaborate arguments for a new epistemology.” Perhaps he meant just Plantinga’s own such arguments, and it would be fine to attack them. But is the point instead that any argument for a new epistemology is necessarily empty? What would that say about epistemology in general? And what would it say about the kind of epistemology a naturalist needs?

    On “Scientific Method,” note that instead of speaking of any such thing, I spoke of “scientific methods,” precisely to steer clear of that typical oversimplification. Surely, science has some distinctive features, though, such as the testing of hypotheses, the premium put on observation, and so on. If scientists have no methods that distinguish scientific practice from other practices, then I wonder why all Slezak’s fuss about mere “fancy philosophical footwork”? Presumably, Slezak is assuming that science does not engage in mere fancy footwork. That means scientific practice must be distinguished in certain ways from theistic philosophy. Take those distinguishing features, call them methods, and you’ll have my point about pure scientific methods.

    Of course, science has some features in common with other practices. For example, both science and philosophy are practiced by humans. Scientists and philosophers both employ arguments, they both try to think logically, and so on. But my point was that Slezak’s characterization of naturalism as shorthand for scientific theories leaves no room even for the most general kind of reflection on those theories. Shorthand is a matter of arbitrary, conventional choice, so allegedly not even the most basic methods that philosophy shares with science come into play in formulating naturalism.

    Thus, in attacking theistic philosophy, Slezak leaves no room for a good kind of philosophy, that is, for a kind of philosophy that isn’t itself just science, but that takes science into account. According to the way I’m understanding Slezak, there is science on the one hand, there is bad, theistic philosophy on the other, and in between there is, for example, naturalism which is merely the “totality of scientific theories” and a “shorthand” way of talking about these theories.

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

    Philip: “in attacking theistic philosophy, Slezak leaves no room for a good kind of philosophy, that is, for a kind of philosophy that isn’t itself just science, but that takes science into account. According to the way I’m understanding Slezak . . .”

    Fair enough. It’s certainly possible that I read Slezak overly charitably. It’s hard to say without the context Slezak’s other writings might provide for what is after all a short opinion piece.

    Unless one of us (not me!) reads a lot more by Slezak, or Slezak sees this and adds a comment himself, I doubt there’s much more we can say.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    I haven’t read any of his other writings, but I have found a debate between William Lane Craig and him on YouTube. At one point, when he criticizes Craig’s cosmological argument, and specifically Craig’s appeal to the intuitiveness of the principle that every event has a cause, Slezak says that Craig appeals to this principle “as a first principle of metaphysics,” and then asks “what are the rules for metaphysics? Where does your metaphysics come from? If it transcends science in some sense, if it goes beyond the bounds of science, which is our only reliable form of inquiry, the only thing for which we have systematic and reliable beliefs, what are your rules for metaphysics? How does Craig get his metaphysical intuitions? When he asserts that things are metaphysically impossible, what’s the determinant of what’s metaphysically impossible? Is it just what you feel? I went to some trouble to explain that one’s feelings of plausibility and implausibility don’t count for anything” (part 7 of 10, starting at 2:30 minutes into the part).

    I think this shows that Slezak is against metaphysics in general. Science is “the only reliable form of inquiry.” So the questions need to be put to him: What does he mean by “naturalism”? Isn’t naturalism, in part, a metaphysical position? Is he against only some bogus methods of metaphysicians (“fancy footwork” and armchair speculation, etc), holding out the possibility of metaphysical questions that can be addressed in some other way? If naturalism addresses metaphysical rather than strictly scientific questions, what methods does the naturalist use to formulate and to justify naturalism? Philosophical or scientific ones? Can naturalism, as a philosophical position, be justified without the appeal to intuition? (How about the intuition to which Hume called attention, that nature is uniform and that there are natural laws corresponding to necessary connections in nature?) Is naturalism entirely counter-intuitive, granting that purely scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics and big bang cosmology, may not be at all intuitive?

    There’s a real danger for a scientific, anti-philosophical, or positivistic atheist: such an atheist is a sitting duck for a theistic philosopher when it comes to the philosophical questions separating the atheist from the theist, just as the theistic philosopher is a sitting duck when it comes to the scientific questions separating them (evolution vs creationism, the historicity of biblical events, etc). The anti-philosophical atheist needs to appreciate the extent to which he has to do philosophy, and not just science, to justify his science-centered, naturalistic worldview.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16718427136116646031 Keith

    I think that Slezak’s primary point is that when you base your beliefs upon only the most reliable, objective evidence, naturalism is the end result. That’s a contingent fact: Propositions about the nature of supernatural entities or forces are not really known in the way that scientific or historical propositions are known. If the supernatural were real, it could’ve been otherwise, of course. The fact that we have no knowledge of supernatural things, just beliefs, tends to suggest that the supernatural (in any of its forms) is not real.

    Mere beliefs don’t rise to the level of knowledge. Basic beliefs aside, if you restrict what you believe to that for which we have probable knowledge, naturalism follows. Metaphysics only comes into play when considering higher-level basic beliefs, like whether solipsism is true or false, or whether we can have knowledge of an external world, or of other minds, and so on. But issues about basic beliefs don’t really concern the science vs. religion issue. Both naturalists and supernaturalists generally assume a sort of realism about the external world; that we can know other minds; and so on. That is a sort of common ground between naturalists and supernaturalists. As part of that common ground, both camps usually assume that what history and science reveal is in some sense knowledge. What the supernaturalist does is tag on some extra bit of unwarranted baggage to the picture revealed by science and history. That essentially indoctrinated (not warranted) baggage might be about an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God, or about the pantheon of Greek gods, or about guardian angels, etc.

    Slezak is right to point out that in doing this the supernaturalist is essentially substituting the non-basic beliefs for which we are most rationally justified in assenting (naturalism) with another set of beliefs for which there is less rational justification (Judeo-Christian monotheism, Greek polytheism, shamanism, whatever). The addition of the beliefs for which there is no evidential warrant where evidence should be relevant (since supernatural entities have some role in the natural world, they “make things happen” here) decreases the rationality of the overall set of beliefs.

    That this stuff doesn’t rise to the level of probable knowledge, and thus shouldn’t be believed, is evident in the fact that there is no independent means for evaluating whether Christianity is a better explanation than various New Age beliefs. So long as supernaturalist beliefs are internally consistent, anything goes. But not so for the accounts of science and history. They have to be tested against experience. Armchair theological speculations do not. Naturalism is just assenting to those non-basic beliefs which have evidential warrant where evidence should be relevant to the issue at hand.

    Surely a naturalist can concede that supernatural agencies might still exist in some technical but trivial sense, with the same degree of concern that he can concede that Descartes’ evil genius might exist, or we might be brains in a vat. But these merely hypothetical musings should be no cause for concern for the naturalist. This is the sense in which naturalism is the only game in town. The supernaturalist alternatives are less credible because they tag on non-basic beliefs which fall short of probable knowledge, and there is no reason to treat any one of them (traditional theism) as more warranted than any other (such as Voodun).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip


    You say naturalism follows from our probable knowledge. So what does naturalism say? Is naturalism just the sum of scientific theories or does naturalism transcend them somehow? Is naturalism a scientific or a philosophical position?

    You say, “Metaphysics only comes into play when considering higher-level basic beliefs.” The notion of a higher-level basic belief seems oxymoronic.

    You say “issues about basic beliefs don’t really concern the science vs. religion issue.” I don’t know exactly what you mean by “basic beliefs,” but it seems to me the naturalist and the supernaturalist have fundamental disagreements, such as epistemological ones (reason vs faith).

    You say “Both naturalists and supernaturalists generally assume a sort of realism about the external world.” Berkeley didn’t, and members of Eastern religion often take the subjective world to be more real than the objective, external one. Many Christians have a Platonic view of reality, according to which the spatiotemporal world, which alone can be called “external” or objective in a naturalistic sense, is a mere copy of abstract reality.

    You seem to be saying there’s little metaphysical disagreement between the naturalist and the supernaturalist. Perhaps you mean to imply that if even these folks don’t have any metaphysical disagreement, there mustn’t be any worthwhile metaphysical issues, which is what Slezak seems to believe. But to the extent that metaphysics is about characterizing what is fundamentally real, surely the naturalist and the supernaturalist have a metaphysical dispute: the naturalist is a physicalist (physics is the science of ultimate reality), whereas the supernaturalist is either a substance dualist or a metaphysical idealist (the theistic supernaturalist makes God, a person, what is ultimately real, and theology the “science” of ultimate reality).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Slezak asserts that (1) naturalism is “simply the totality our [current scientific] theories” and that (2) the claim that God created the universe “is a substantive claim about the nature of the universe and the causal influence of a purported being.”

    As with Dawkins, Slezak views the existence of God as an empirical hypothesis. But on these assumptions, it is possible that at some point in the future this empirical hypothesis will be confirmed and thus become part of the totality of our current scientific theories.

    This implies that while naturalism currently favors atheism, it might one day make an about-face and support theism. Slezak leaves open the possiblilty that naturalism will one day include belief in the existence of God.

    This seems to be an odd way of conceiving of naturalism.

    In any case, on this view theists could simply be looked at as scientists who are pressing for a scientific revolution, a rejection of an atheistic paradigm in favor of a theistic paradigm. As such there would be nothing particularly unscientific about theism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    What is “odd” about Slezak’s concept of naturalism is that it does NOT imply the falsehood of theism. This seems to be a radical departure from more common concpetions of naturalism, in which this theory logically excludes theism.

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