Naturalism: Either Vacuous or False

We hear talk of ‘naturalistic’ metaphysics, ethics, science, and epistemology, but it is never quite clear just what work it does when prefixed to any of these – or at least, it is not clear to me.  Now, in practise ‘naturalistic’ can often be taken as a code-word that stands in for something like ‘atheistic’ or ‘non-supernatural’, and that is fine (so far as it goes), but if naturalism is nothing besides atheism or anti-supernaturalism, what point is there in using that word instead of one of the others?  Unless, of course, its use is meant to disguise the actual content of the view in question (whatever motivation  there might be to do so, I’m sure I don’t know what it is) or because, by design or accident, it helps views to slip past the critical faculties of reasoners without sounding alarms.  This is not so outlandish – think about the effect that terms like (to choose two) ‘Christian’ or ‘Democrat’ have on people’s faculties of critical reasoning.  And as a concept naturalism lends itself quite well to this sort of role for, despite its being appealed to so very, very frequently, it is sometimes hard to sort out just what its supposed contents are.  Personally, I think the concept is either vacuous or false and so should be junked.

This is a strong claim, but I think it to be the right one.  Thinking about what naturalism might mean, it clearly has something to do with the denial of supernatural entities or phenomena – but in what does that denial consist?  On its simplest plausible construal, naturalism is the claim that there is no such thing as ghosts, say, because ghosts are super-natural entities that don’t observe the natural laws of the universe.  This is true, of course – there are no ghosts – but it is a perfectly meaningless statement.  Imagine for a moment that we lived in a world like our own in most relevant respects (for example, gravity has the same force and effects on matter, etc.) but with the exception that this world contains ghosts.  Obviously, the ghosts must in at least some ways causally interact with that world, else we couldn’t know of their existence.  Moreover, the ghosts would exhibit certain regularities in their existence, behaviours, and powers.  They must, since everything that exists does – in fact, it is due to the exhibited regularities of things that we can agree that there are such things as cocker spaniels and mousetraps and that they are different sorts of things.  Since the ghosts would causally interact with the world in regular ways, we would be able to postulate and identify mechanisms and laws [1] by which such interaction is possible.  So in this world ghosts exist and are governed by the laws of that world, which makes them a natural part of that world – naturalism would be every bit as true in that world as in our own, even though it is a world that possesses ‘supernatural’ entities!

A critic could object, of course, that this is simply a counterfactual scenario and that of course he doesn’t mean that ghosts are compatible with some postulated set of natural laws, but that there are no supernatural elements that are allowed by our set, the actual physical laws.  But what exactly might he mean by ‘the actual set of physical laws’? 

If by this he means to say the set of laws as revealed by a future ideal science[2], then he is again saying nothing of substance – if, on the way to our ideal science, we discover that telekinesis is real and governed by natural laws, then it would be (and always have been) part of our ‘naturalistic’ universe, skeptics be damned!  Moreover, if our ideal science is the litmus test of what counts as ‘natural’ then, since it accurately describes the actual laws of the universe, of course there could be no ‘supernatural’ phenomena – such phenomena would simply be those that are impossible under that set of laws.  If, on the other hand, our critic means by the actual set of physical laws those that are revealed by our current best physics, two things fall out of this.  Firstly, he should not properly be called a ‘naturalist’ – he is, more accurately, a physicalist.  Secondly, if he is a physicalist, then he is almost certainly wrong.  Honest scientists are rather open about the fact that modern physics is not an ideal science and, consequently, that cherished theories may have to be altered or abandoned on our way to such an ideal science.

If my reasoning is correct, then, ‘naturalism’ is either vacuous or false and can be usefully disposed of without doing harm to any philosophical or scientific enterprise.


[1] Even if such laws/mechanisms were found to be ‘fuzzy’.  Fuzziness is not a thing that should bother the denizens of an age comfortable with quantum mechanics.

[2] For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that an ideal science is capable of fully explaining all possible phenomena within the world to which it pertains.  I don’t know that this is true, but that is beside the point here.


About AtaraxJim
What would you like to know?

2 Responses to Naturalism: Either Vacuous or False

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    I wonder if “Evidentialist” would be useful, or perhaps “Ghost-Free-ist” would be better.
    James: may I suggest taking time to spice up your posts with some carefully chosen pics or diagrams.

    Plain print is an acquired taste — especially a vice of graduate students: “Hell, I had to do it!”

  2. James says:

    Hi Sabio,

    Duly noted about the pictures! I have been in school too long, you see… when I pick up a graphic novel I think “whaa?”

    I don’t mind when people use naturalism in plain conversation as a sort of shorthand for “not-Christian and not-Muslim and not-Jewish and not-… but definitely something informed by our best science and reason.” I was just reading a paper that was about a ‘naturalized metaphysics’ and several neurons died because nowhere was the term defined and it did no theoretical work, it just dangled there, assuming that all would have given it the same meaning, etc.

    Thanks for dropping by and the tip.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: