Core features of naturalism?

I’m working on a paper on whether Nz is a naturalist, so I’ve been forced to think about what naturalism is. I don’t think it’s enough to simply say “it’s the denial of supernatural stuff” (since then I need to know what “supernatural” is) or to say “it’s what physicists/chemists/biologists presume for their theories” (since you actually don’t need to be a naturalist to be a card-carrying natural scientist, or to propose a theory).

So I’ve hit upon two core features of naturalism — or I think they’re core features; any objections?

1. Theories should be nonteleological, meaning that –ultimately — what forces change in a system can be adequately described without reference to any future state of the system.
2. Any predicate required by a theory should be attributable intersubjectively — i.e., there should be some public sort of measurement or procedure to determine whether that predicate is rightly attributed to an individual or system.

This doesn’t force a naturalist to be a materialist, and I think that’s a good thing (though in fact I think materialism is true). It also doesn’t presume determinism is true, which again seems right. I can’t think of a theory I’d call “naturalist” that isn’t (in the above senses) nonteleological and intersubjective. Am I missing anything?

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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20 Responses to Core features of naturalism?

  1. It’s hard for me to see these as distinctively marking out naturalism. It seems to me you could have a nonnaturalism (or dualism, or whatever) without any teleology. In fact, contemporary dualism seems to have this cast (in that consciousness is ontologically fundamental but causally epiphenomenal).

    Intersubjectivity, on the other hand, just seems so second-order. We’d want to say that naturalism is a view about aspects of the world (the empirical world, the “real” world, whatever); it doesn’t seem like it could be a “core” feature of such a view that its object has such-and-such effects on human (or appropriately conscious) observers.

    Sometimes I think the naturalism/non-naturalism dichotomy is false, or muddled. Either something is part of reality or it isn’t. One might want to define “naturalism” as the view that the only things that exist are those that have causal efficacy in the empirical world. But this doesn’t help much, for several reasons, among them that (1) if God (in the popular sense) exists, he has causal efficacy in the empirical world; and (2) the metaphysical world that God otherwise inhabits might itself be subject to laws.


  2. Rob says:

    Those seem to me plausible core features of a methodological naturalism, but it makes me wonder how much of a naturalist Nietzsche really is since his most distinctive sorts of explanations usually resort to drives, which are often conceptualized, specified or rendered in terms of intentional contents (i.e. what they are to, or for, future states). The presence of those drives may admit of nonteleological explanation, but it’s not clear to me that their activity as explainers is, for Nietzsche, always nonteleological.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the feedback. Michael, couldn’t there be a naturalistic dualism? I can’t think of any historical instances, except for a variation on Mormon metaphysics: one could come to believe in an extra kind of stuff that interacts with known matter through some additional force or dimension, stuff that has its own nonteleological dynamics. And i agree that the “intersubjective” criterion is second-order in the way you describe, but I guess I’m trying to fold in methodology, as Rob says. Still, maybe the honest way to characterize naturalism is just to baldly state what naturalists believe: evolution, materialism, deep time, no miracles, etc.

    Rob, yes I really do wonder whether Nietzsche is rightly called a naturalist (or even a “natschuralist). It’s not only that the drives seem to be used teleologically, but they are used in weird ways — at the levels of social groups, or cultures, or breeds. Nz often gives a sort of “group psychoanalysis” that seems odd, at least to contemporary naturalist thinking.

    I wonder if Michael is right to sometimes reject the dichotomy. Maybe it’s a murky, high-level dispute between those who really want some magic left in the world and those who really don’t, without any clear idea of what is at stake.


  4. Sure, and in fact I think naturalistic dualism is the prevailing dualist view in philosophy of mind, viz., Chalmers’ property dualism. I was only making the point that nonnaturalism need not be teleological, and that (accordingly) the lack of teleology doesn’t peculiarly mark out naturalism.

    I would agree that intersubjectivity is a “core” aspect of methodological naturalism.

    And it’s Natzschüralist, dammit.


  5. Rob says:

    My sense is that there are perhaps a few phases or stages of Nietzsche the Natzschüralist.

    In footnote 12 of “Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will” I think Leiter gets at the circa-DAYBREAK, Book Two-phase:

    Nietzsche’s “official” view seems to be that physiology is primary, but he
    mostly concentrates on psychological claims, most obviously because he is
    no physiologist!

    In this phase, the psychological could perhaps in principle be superseded by the non-psychological — the “physiological” or some other nonteleological and familiarly “naturalistic” mode of explanation without recourse to the mentalistic, representational powers, propositional contents, etc.
    But I think a mature phase of Natzschüralist finds expression in, for instance, Nietzsche’s insistence at the end of GM 3.16 on being “the strictest opponent of all materialism.” I take it he means that he’s dissociating his characteristic form of inquiry from methodological naturalism – the latter understood in a rigidly nonteleological manner wherein “that which is actually effective, leading, decisive” is located in what is “blind [..,] mechanism [..,] purely passive, automatic, reflexive, molecular and fundamentally mindless” (GM 1.1). In other words, instead of, as in the previous phase, merely pursing knowledge of “morality as consequence, as symptom, as mask, as Tartuffery, as sickness, as misunderstanding” of the stuff brought to light by the nonteleological and familiarly “naturalistic” mode of inquiry (physiology), Nietzsche is interested in “morality as cause, as medicine, as stimulus, as inhibitor, as poison” (GM P6), which involves psychology and the normative order of propositional attitudes and the “space of reasons”, and whatever else can’t be explicated by rigidly “naturalistic” inquiry. Psychology is, as he puts it in BGE the “queen of the sciences” and “path to the fundamental problems”, not merely the best available tool until superseded by “physiology”…
    Clark and Dudrick’s piece in the “Freedom and Autonomy” collection (as well as their “The Naturalisms of BGE”) invokes Dennett to explicate at the “top down” mode of explanation Nietzsche seems to be most characteristically interested in developing with his drive psychology. I’m really eager for their book to appear because I think their reading of Nietzsche poses serious challenges to the scope of Leiter’s naturalist reading of Nietzsche, and is based on surprisingly novel attention to his texts (as illustrated in the “Freedom and Autonomy” piece).


    • I continue to be puzzled by N’s remarks at the end of 3.16, but I do have a few thoughts.

      At the threshold, consider the sentence in full: “With such a conception one can, between ourselves, still be the sternest opponent of all materialism.” The conception referred to is “psychological” pain as “indigestion.” Setting aside what N means by this analogy, it is this conception that N says can be accepted without accepting “materialism.”

      First thought: mark the ‘can’. N is not expressing his own opposition to materialism; he is merely saying that it is possible accept his interpretation of psychological pain and yet be anti-materialist. (I would grant that the ‘between ourselves’ runs against this distancing interpretation.)

      Second thought: mark “materialism.” It’s not at all clear that the word in this context means what we mean by “naturalism.” The German materialism of the day encompassed more than a bland ontological assessment of the materiality of the cosmos; it also encompassed moral, political, social, psychological and more broadly epistemological programmes. (In particular, on the latter point, consider that German materialism cast science as knowledge of the ding an sich.)

      Third thought: consider how much weight should be accorded to this passage. How focussed was N’s thinking on “materialism” when he wrote this passage? Not much, it would seem. The word shows up for the first time in the third essay – in a single sentence tacked on at the end of a long section about physiological sickness. The word does not appear anywhere else in the book. Rather than viewing the passage as the key to decoding the mature N on naturalism, it seems to me more appropriate to view N’s remark here as a very casual, perhaps suggestive aside, perhaps about something else entirely.


  6. Rob says:

    These are good points, Michael. I just take Nietzsche in 3.16 to be distinguishing his area of inquiry from that of “naturalism” minimally understood as pursuing non-teleological and non-mentalistic explanation; a methodological rather than a metaphysical or ontological point. He’s certainly interested in keeping us mindful of the general fact that physiological influences are motivating and influencing the “moral-religious perspective” and the “interpretation (causal interpretation)” of that physiological background, but I take it that his strict opposition to all materialism is an insistence on the importance of understanding how that perspective and its interpretations operate qua perspectives and interpretations.

    The penultimate sentence in 3.16 suggests as much, I think. Psychological indigestion, he says, is no less physiological than the literally understood kind, and “in many cases in fact only one of the consequences” of the latter, but he’s more interested in understanding the kinds of indigestion whose proximal causes are explicated at the psychological, intentional-content level of the mental.

    “The Pale Criminal” might serve as an illustration of this, where he discusses the “madness” both before and after the deed. There, the “poor soul” of the criminal has “interpreted” the suffering and desire of his sick “poor body” as “murderous pleasure and greed for the joy of the knife”; and after the deed a further level of interpretive mediation, on the part of his “meagre reason”, rationalizes it as theft. And then there’s that stuff about how the sick make sense of themselves in terms of the prevailing “good and evil” of their time/environment.


  7. Rob says:

    Note also TI. In “Skirmishes” 36, he concludes with the notion of the psychological/mental being merely the consequence of the “physiological” (pessimism as “an expression of decadence”). This smacks of DAYBREAK, Book 2. But in the previous section (35) he’s operating in his more characteristically mature Natzschüralist mode: “altruistic morality” is indeed a “moral fig leaf” for a “physiological state of affairs”, but it can develop into “tropical vegetation” which I take it Nietzsche thinks is itself perniciously efficacious at the level of the “soul”/mental/ psychological/social-selection, etc., and it’s this latter area of inquiry he is so strictly opposed to approaching with the nonteleogical explanatory instruments of “materialism”.


  8. Rob, I doubt there are very many Nietzsche scholars who know the texts as well as you do.

    Here’s my impressionistic, glib response: Nietzsche is ontologically naturalist, but methodologically* dualist. (!)

    *With respect to his method, of course.


  9. Huenemann says:

    I wonder to what extent Nz’s apparent distaste for materialism is bound up with his distaste for materialists. I don’t have my texts with me right now, but in BGE he accuses materialists of being too bound up with ledgers and accounts (too shopkeeperish and too “English,” as he might say). Plus, there is also the materialist conception of nature as essentially passive, which certainly runs against any will to power metaphysic, and probably, to Nz’s mind, is a conception indebted to the ascetic denial of the value of nature (nature is passive, dead, lifeless, etc.). For Nz, it’s enough to show a doctrine stems from some psychological or spiritual sickness to give one license to reject it.

    An idea he keeps returning to in his later notes is an idea of nature as a Heraclitean flux of forces. This also underlies his criticism of atomism — he thinks that nature can’t ultimately be built of little “noun-like” things (that’s just our grammar talking), and is maybe composed of fluid verbs. That goes some way toward correcting the ascetic downgrading of nature, and restores some liveliness to it.

    But it’s still naturalism through and through. OOPS! Natzschüralism — sorry!


    • I like the adjective “noun-like.” (Is that N’s or yours?) One could make the corresponding complaint about Nietzsche, namely, that he perhaps viewed nouns as too “atom-like.”

      I’m glad we’ve got the orthography straight on Natzschüralism.


  10. Rob says:

    Kail addresses this issue, too, in his paper on Janaway’s book:

    To be critical of the direction in which some science is going is consistent with results continuity with the best sciences. Now, Janaway asks the following questions in connection with this issue: what if turns out that the direction of the best sciences goes squarely against the biological models congenial to the will to power? Would Nietzsche then be prepared to abandon the will to power as unconfirmed? That is a difficult, perhaps impossible, question to answer, but it is not obvious on the other hand (and neither does Janaway take it to be so) that Nietzche would not abandon it. In the section that Janaway quotes in support of his contention that Nietzsche is critical of science, Nietzsche decries the placement of ‘adaption’ over ‘true activity’ at the centre of biology, mentioning Herbert Spencer in this connection. It might therefore seem that a certain metaphysical commitment concerning causal efficacy drives his objection. But questions about the nature of causation, and explanation, needn’t be seen as separable from questions about the proper conduct of science or indeed conceptually prior. Naturalists can be (and should be) holists after all. Nietzsche sides with the biological sciences which he thinks make the best sense of activity per se and takes his psychology to gain support from them. On the supposition that he finds the science appealing on grounds of its explanatory power (and the alternative’s lack of it), he might indeed abandon it if a genuinely superior explanatory alternative emerges.

    (“Naturalism, Method and Genealogy in Beyond Selflessness”, EJP, Volume 17, Issue 1, Pages 113-120)

    And Janaway replies:

    Kail urges us not to assume with any confidence that Nietzsche would stick to his own doctrine at the expense of continuity with the sciences. I agree. Nietzsche was familiar with scientific views of his day that posited internal will-like activity and competition as forces that would explain the functioning of living beings and their organs, for example. He may have been holding out for biological science to come down on this side of the debate and conclude that there is an essence of life irreducible to the mechanistic and adaptationist terms whose domination of science he criticizes in the aforementioned section of GM II. But my question was how confident we should be in the other direction. The prominence Leiter gives to Nietzsche’s commitment to continuity with the results of the sciences could be taken to imply that, were he following his true guiding principles, Nietzsche’s priority would be to fall in line with mechanism and adaptation if these became recognized as providing the best scientific account available. But I do not think there is unequivocal evidence that Nietzsche would consider whatever happened in the natural sciences as the highest court of appeal on such a matter.

    (“Response to Commentators”, page 132-151)


    • Rob, I wonder why we should read a commitment to continuity with the sciences to imply that prospectively we must fall in line with what ever it may tell us in the future, no matter what. I consider myself “committed” to naturalism; but I also consider my commitment defeasible, both epistemically and pragmatically. (This is independent of my Nietzschean sympathies; I’m also a radical fallibilist.) So I’m inclined to think that whether Nietzsche was a “committed naturalist” turns only on whether he viewed his program as consistent with (and perhaps motivated by) the science of his day, and perhaps on whether he viewed it as important that we be “at least that honest with ourselves.”


      • Rob says:

        I like Sebastian Gardner’s take, in the “Freedom and Autonomy” collection — the third part of which is, in my opinion, the most profound synopsis of the ultimate thrust of the Genealogy I’ve encountered (perhaps, admittedly, because it confirms my own reading!) — on the issue of Nietzsche’s naturalism:

        “If Nietzsche were to be a consistent naturalist, then he would have to agree that the need for Sinn can be explained as some kind of evolutionary or whatever Nebenwirkung, to be resolved back into a naturalized, mechanistic, hedonistic psychology. But — if naturalization of the need for Sinn were to have the meaning for Nietzsche that it has for the consistent naturalist — Nietzsche would then have to take Freud’s line [in “Civilization and It’s Discontents”], that the need for Sinn cannot be taken with philosophical seriousness, and his practical philosophy would crumble. Because Nietzsche instead holds fast to the internal, practical perspective from which the question of Sinn is ‘really’ nothing but another natural drive or accidental by-product of such is not a real possibility; the need cannot be de-validated through an exercise of theoretical reason.” (page 28)


  11. Rob says:

    Also, looking at GM 2.3, it’s interesting to note how Nietzsche summarizes “in a certain sense the entirety of asceticism”: the ascetic procedures and practices secure and fix a set of ideas which do the proximal work of “hypnotizing the entire nervous and intellectual system.” By the way I’ve suggested Nietzsche might characterize “materialism” as a methodology, it doesn’t seem like it would have the resources to explicate asceticism with the richness Nietzsche requires of his own form of inquiry.


  12. Rob says:

    Whoops, I screwed up on the Gardner quotation, which, corrected is:

    “If Nietzsche were to be a consistent naturalist, then he would have to agree that the need for Sinn can be explained as some kind of evolutionary or whatever Nebenwirkung, to be resolved back into a naturalized, mechanistic, hedonistic psychology. But — if naturalization of the need for Sinn were to have the meaning for Nietzsche that it has for the consistent naturalist — Nietzsche would then have to take Freud’s line [in “Civilization and It’s Discontents”], that the need for Sinn cannot be taken with philosophical seriousness, and his practical philosophy would crumble. Because Nietzsche instead holds fast to the internal, practical perspective from which the question of Sinn is genuine and ineluctable, he cannot regard the question of whether the need for Sinn is ‘naturalizable’ as a real question; the possibility that our need for Sinn is ‘really’ nothing but another natural drive or accidental by-product of such is not a real possibility; the need cannot be de-validated through an exercise of theoretical reason.”

    This cuts to the heart of why I have more sympathy with Kierkegaard than with most atheists, especially the “new atheists”, and why I keep invoking David Benatar’s “The Optimist Delusion”:


    • I think I could agree with Gardner with this correction: “If Nietzsche were to be a consistent naturalist, then he would have to agree that the need for Sinn can ultimately be explained as some kind of evolutionary or whatever Grund or Ursache, to be resolved back into a naturalized, mechanistic, hedonistic psychology.”

      This is key, because there’s no reason to suppose that we have the kinds of minds equipped to perform the required translation in a way that could inform our psychological reflection and practical reason. (The point is semi-related to my observations here about Mary the Color Scientist: we don’t have the kinds of minds equipped to translate complete physical descriptions of the neurological states and processes that subtend or instantiate phenomenal red-experience (for example) into phenomenal, red-experiential content.)


  13. Rob says:

    I wonder, though, if Nietzsche doesn’t regard “the need for Sinn” as somehow constitutive of human being, such that it’s not simply (!) a matter of our minds’ inability to incorporate its naturalization into our psychological reflection and practical reason. Though perhaps eternal recurrence and the Overhuman involve some kind of self-cancellation of “the need for Sinn”?


  14. Rob says:

    Just noticed the addition of this to the Nietzsche conference you are attending:

    “…on Friday, 11 September 2009, 9pm, concert pianist Michael Krücker will perform Nietzsche’s Solo Piano Works in the Music Room of St. Peter’s College.”

    Although I don’t expect to enjoy it, and you’ve mentioned that you are unimpressed by Nietzsche’s music, I might get this out of sheer curiosity:


  15. Huenemann says:

    Yes, I’m excited about that. I’ve had a recording of Nz’s music in a playlist on my ipod, and it sort of grows on you. (The playlist also includes old Caruso recordings, and Glass’s soundtrack to “The Hours” — don’t ask me what principle of unity is supposed to be there!)


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