Naturalism and metaphysics

That “Back to Nietzsche” post set off a firefight (a philosophically friendly one, I hope), and one of the issues that came up has to do with the relation between naturalism and metaphysics.

“Naturalism” can mean many things, but one widespread meaning in philosophy is this: naturalism is the view that contemporary science is (roughly) right, leaving room open for future progress and changes, and there isn’t anything more to the world than what contemporary science discloses. (Again, this has to be understood in such a way as to allow for further developments in science that are continuous with it — like another kind of subatomic particle, further laws of nature, etc.) It is often linked up with materialism, though I really think “materialism” is losing its meaning. Naturalism takes as real stuff like matter, energy, forces and lines of force, probability distributions — anything that we can causally interact with, or (as Quine put it) anything that we have to quantify over when we put our understanding in its simplest expressions. (Quine said that “To be is to be the value of a bound variable” — how poetic!)

Now I understand that some philosophers object that there must be more to the world than naturalism claims. “More” could be souls, God, miracles, or final causes, intentionality, moral facts. And then the battle begins to see whether the naturalist can “explain away” the seeming presence of these things with the materials at hand. It is a battle I’ve been known to wage from time to time.

But in the end, my heart really isn’t in the battle, I guess because of the following line of thought. Working scientists chop away at the stuff they are trying to understand, predict, and explain. Never once do they say to themselves something like: “Damn! What we really need here is something from Aquinas!” and rush over to the Summa for some help. They just putter along, in relative philosophical ignorance, mapping the genome and making computers that play chess and creating new life forms and finding ways to get more crop production out of dirt and countless other amazing things.

Philosophers may complain: “There are so many metaphysical matters you scientists are ignoring or taking for granted!” But what does that show? To me it shows that metaphysics — at least as traditionally defined — doesn’t really matter when it comes to understanding the world. (Indeed, you could well argue that Galileo, Newton, and Einstein made progress precisely by ignoring metaphysical questions and sticking to measurement.) I just can’t bring myself to say, “You scientists, you think you understand the world, but you really don’t, unless you work out the metaphysics.” Any philosophical position which implies that philosophers have a better understanding of nature than scientists do seems to me plainly ridiculous. So, I say: so much the worse for traditional metaphysics.

“Metaphysics is dead! We have killed it!”

But why then am I a philosopher instead of a scientist? Because, in my view, a philosopher’s job is to try to put together a more global view of things than scientists can, in conjunction with philosophical concerns. Smashing atoms (or whatever) is a full-time job, and reading a mix of (more or less popularized) accounts of physics, biology, psychology, whatever, and asking philosophical questions about all the results, is a full-time job, so we need all kinds of people. It shouldn’t be a competition (science vs. philosophy), in my view, but a conjunctive effort. Some people advance knowledge, and other people try to piece it together and see what it means. I’d like to do more of this in the future: so far, I have limited myself mainly to the historical periods when doing philosophy was the primary way of gaining an understanding of the world! (Namely, before science gained its wings.) Philosophy is a handmaiden to science, I would admit.

All that being said, I do not want to insist that everyone should uncritically accept what scientists say. Some philosophers are raising intelligent objections to the stories scientists say, and that battle over science’s adequacy should continue. As I’ve said, my heart’s not in that battle, since no objection I’ve heard is as compelling to me as the prospect of a natural explanation for the phenomena in question; but if others want to argue over it, they should! And keep me posted. Heck, I’ll even join in from time to time!

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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10 Responses to Naturalism and metaphysics

  1. Kleiner says:

    While I am not a naturalist, I am in no way threatened by science. I am not anti-science. I applaud the work, think much of it is real knowledge about the natural world, and I encourage them to continue.

    And I don’t think scientists should say that they have a better understanding of “nature” (I presume that Huenemann is using this word in the narrow, naturalistic sense) than scientists do. That would, as Huenemann says, be silly. And you don’t need to do metaphysics to do science. Most scientists don’t know anything about metaphysics!

    My point – and in the end it may not be that different than Huenemann’s – is that while science is valid and good, science is not capable of providing us with a comprehensive picture of things. The scientific view gives us one view, one perspective on things. It is a legitimate perspective and they really know things. But it is not an absolute perspective, and the scientist does not know everything. Let me strengthen that – it is not just that the scientist does not know everying in the sense that he has not yet discovered it. Rather, there are some things that the scientific method cannot discover and explain. When science tries to become a theory of everything (when it pretends to be a metaphysics!), it gets silly. I know Huenemann disagrees, but it is just patently obvious to me that love means more than chemical reactions and patterns of behavior.

    If this is what Huenemann means by philosophers taking a more “global view” that tries to explain what things mean, then I agree with him.

    I might also point out, the “global view” that philosophers trade in includes concepts that scientists must assume. For instance – final cause / teleology. I don’t care if scientists explore the foundations of teleology. Frankly, it is not their “business”. But scientific explanations always end up having teleological significations. I don’t find this the least bit surprising, because teleology is a fact about the “cosmos” (whereas scientists study what we might call a subset of this, the “natural world”).


  2. Kleiner says:

    I said,
    “And I don’t think scientists should say that they have a better understanding of “nature” (I presume that Huenemann is using this word in the narrow, naturalistic sense) than scientists do. ”

    But of course it should read “And I don’t think philosophers … “


  3. Kleiner says:

    Let me add something:

    Just because scientists don’t have to work out their metaphysics in order to do their scientific work, does not mean that their work does not have metaphysical “baggage”.

    I can drive my car, change its oil, and fill up its gas. I can do those things without an underlying understanding of how the car works. In fact, I don’t have an underlying understanding of how the engine works.

    Here is my point: our minds work in a certain way, and our minds are related to the world in a particular way. You don’t have to reflect on that in order for your mind to work and in order for you to relate to the world.

    Here is how things seem to work: I sense a tree. Then I know a tree. Then I know that I know a tree. Then I know that I am a knower.

    Philosophical knowledge (of epistemology and metaphysics) comes last, not first. And having that philosophical knowledge is not a condition of the possibility of having scientific knowledge. In fact, the empirical understanding of things is the condition for the possibility of having metaphysical and epistemological understanding!

    Scientists know what trees are (I am using “know” in some general sense here, following Huenemann). They are just not as self-reflective on their own act of knowing as philosophers are. That is okay. I happen to think it is good to be more self-reflective. But I am also, I guess, glad that not everyone is so self-reflective. Frankly, self-reflective people don’t get as much “work” done!!!


  4. Mike says:

    All I would say at this point has been better said by Montaigne.


  5. Mike says:

    Some thoughts on the philosopher-scholar.

    Philosophy as a profession which is practiced in universities implies the forms of scholar, teacher and perhaps schoolmaster. The analytic tradition especially focuses on clarity (which usually also implies complexity) of thought. Philosophy as a discipline may or may not be making progress but it is as valuable a profession as any other. Some of these philosophers focus on contemporary translations, elucidating complex thought and bringing past thoughts to bear on the present. Others are focused on the limitations of language and science. Philosophers like Will Durant attempt to survey the sciences and bring the most important results to the attention of the public in as clear a form as possible. In the best cases, the philosopher-scholar gives us a full serving of intellectual honesty and the associated honesty to oneself — this is no small task.


  6. Mike says:

    Philosophical knowledge (of epistemology and metaphysics) comes last, not first. And having that philosophical knowledge is not a condition of the possibility of having scientific knowledge. In fact, the empirical understanding of things is the condition for the possibility of having metaphysical and epistemological understanding!

    From this statement I would say that since “empirical understanding of things is the condition for the possibility” it is the ultimate ground. What the skeptics would call bios. Which itself seems to be in some flux if we take Charlie’s post about the new crazy world seriously.

    Other philosophers like to think a more well defined metaphysics is some sort of “ultimate” grounding but the real disagreement I have is with what part of all this is the “ultimate” part. I can only see this as an aesthetic judgement.

    Kleiner is right that I seem to be one of the only philosophers who feels this way. I’m a nutjob. On the other hand it sure does free me up to do other sorts of work.

    Philosophers have been making that other alternative judgement for far too long. It’s time to move on. We’ll all be better off if, instead, philosophers start engaging the world. Maybe if we’re lucky, one or two philosophers, somewhere, will be heard again. People are inundated with constant chatter, don’t we have some duty to try to break through all that noise?


  7. Kleiner says:

    Call it “bios” if you want. All I was doing was articulating a Thomistic empiricism. And I don’t think this is in flux. Even if the (socio-political) world has changed, human nature has not.

    Note, by the way, that I do not think that an “ultimate” metaphysics is possible. Since all of our understanding begins in sense experience, we cannot have a positive idea of infinity and eternity. So, unlike Descartes, I deny that we could have a dogmatic metaphysics. At best, metaphysics (theology) will be apaphatic and negative.


  8. Mike says:

    Ahh, the via negativa. Been there. Great place. I have some friends lingering there.

    The important question at this point to ask is your relationship with the church. That’s really what differentiates most mystics. Or that’s the way it seems to me. Sometimes it’s also related to the relationship they have with various other texts.

    In some ways I think i’m Gadamerian from there on out but I need to get a better handle on what I’m thinking of. It has something to do with the historical context. If we fail to understand our historical context, especially when we don’t understand ourselves as a subsequent generation, we fail to understand ourselves. The world, existence always has to be the main text. Not to imply obedience to the previous generations, just engagement.


  9. Mike says:

    The First Book

    Warning from title page: Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!
    [ 118 ]

    Verse 1: All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies. [ 4 ]

    Verses 2-4 (?): In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

    And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

    “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

    “Certainly,” said man.

    “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

    And He went away. [ 118 ]

    Verse 5: Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. [ frontispiece ]

    From “The Books of Bokonon“.


  10. Mike says:

    I wonder if this Quine essay on Two Dogmas of Empiricism is relevant here.

    One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.

    Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic.

    I don’t understand the essay very well yet but it seemed to be touching upon some of the same ideas so I thought it was worth a read.


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