Monday, February 01, 2010

What is Naturalism?

Larry Moran inquires as to the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism.

The biggest issue, however, is that we don't have a rigorous, precise and most of all consistent, definition of any sort of "naturalism", methodological, intrinsic, qualified or otherwise.

There are at least three definitions I'm aware of. (I've applied entirely ad hoc, arbitrary labels.)
  1. Nonteleological Naturalism: the universe is fundamentally not intelligent, sentient or conscious.
  2. Internal Naturalism: all scientific explanations should reference causes "inside" the universe.
  3. Epistemic Naturalism: science can only establish empirically falsifiable explanations by trying and failing to falsify them.
It's tough to pin them down, but its my understanding that theists typically define "supernaturalism" as contravening all three definitions: God is a teleological being, outside the (physical) universe, who cannot be explained or described using empirical falsification.

Nonteleological Naturalism is fuzzy; we don't understand teleology very well. Furthermore, if we provisionally define "teleology" as "the sort of thing that human beings do (whatever that might happen to be)" it's fairly obvious that teleology is operative within the physical universe. It is both unjustified and unnecessary to assume the universe is fundamentally nonteleological; we can instead draw conclusions about fundamental teleology or nonteleology from empirical evidence.

Internal Naturalism is in one sense incoherent: one definition of "universe" is "everything that exists"; if a god exists, it is by definition part of the universe or the universe itself.

Adding a qualifier and talking about just the "physical" universe doesn't help much: what precisely does one mean by "physical" in this context? Furthermore, even if we could adequately define "physical", an interventionist god would by definition have to have to leave some sort of physical "fingerprint", which would then be by definition within the domain of science (and from which we might draw conclusions about the "part" of God outside the "physical" universe.)

This leaves us (assuming there are no alternative definitions) with Epistemic Naturalism: science can deal only with falsifiable theories (note that a statement that is confirmable is also falsifiable).

This definition has the added advantage that there seem to be statements — even seemingly prosaic statements — that seem semantically propositional (i.e. truth-apt, could be true or false) that talk about existence, and that are not falsifiable: statements about "the matrix", the assertion that not the real Mona Lisa but a perfect replica hangs in The Louvre, etc. The existence of unfalsifiable ontological propositions injects "philosophical life" into the discussion: we have real, constructable, apparently comprehensible sentences about the world that at least seem to have truth value, and which science seems to exclude a priori from consideration.


  1. When doing my own research on "philosophical" naturalism, I found four common propositions:

    1: only the world of nature is real (if something or someplace exists, it is, by definition, a part of the natural world and subject to its fundamental laws)

    2: nothing outside nature is necessary to account for its origin or ontological ground

    3: nature as a whole can be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent (nature as a whole is non-teleological)

    4: all natural events are caused by other natural events in accordance with universal physical laws

    It is, in essence, monist: there is only one "stuff" which we can call energy/matter, and only one set of laws that applies consistently in all places depending on the conditions (e.g. the effects on matter are different on the surface of a planet vs the surface of a black hole, but the laws are consistent within planetary and black hole domains).

    Naturalism doesn't claim that, say, ghosts can't be real, only that they would be part of the natural world, obey physical laws, and be, in principle, subject to scientific study. Naturalism *does* claim that an entity, such as a ghost, that violates any of these conditions cannot be real.

  2. Ash: I'm sure you're aware that forms 1, 2 and 4 are more or less circular. Your (3) is the same as my (1).

    I'm also becoming more suspicious about monism vs. dualism vs. pluralism: I'm not sure this distinction is meaningful. Consider energy and mass, for example. Clearly they're in some sense related, but in another sense distinct. Is the mass-energy distinction dualism (mass & energy) or monism (mass-energy)?

    Similarly, consciousness "dualists" say there is "mind-stuff" and "physical-stuff"; they are also related but distinct (unless you go all the way down to Leibniz preestablished harmony, which seems unnecessarily weird). Is this dualism (mind & matter), or monism (one stuff, some of which is mind-stuff and other is matter-stuff)?

  3. (Note too that mass-energy is IIRC not the description of fundamental reality that physicist prefer: they seem to prefer the relativistic quantum field, both mass-energy (or mass and energy) emerge are supposed to emerge from the RQF.)

  4. 1,2, and 4 aren't so much circular as distinctions, I think, that build up to an essential claim. That claim is not yet fully established, as you mentioned in the post. But it seems to say that the universe is, at some level, made of one thing (whether it be matter/energy, quantum field, or whatever) that consistently obeys one set of laws; is, in principle, subject to scientific investigation; and has no purpose or personality.

    I know that some people like to think of mind and brain as being two different "things". But then, there are people who like to think that God answers prayers with miracles, that immaterial souls will travel to Heaven after body death, or that the Universe has a purpose for each of us. People have a right to believe all of those things, but those beliefs would not be naturalistic, at least until science validates them, which would lead to a fundamental redefinition of what "naturalism" means... :)

  5. ...which would lead to a fundamental redefinition of what "naturalism" means.

    Note that until we first have some definition, it would seem difficult to redefine naturalism.

  6. Richard Carrier did a fairly long post into defining 'supernatural'

    I thought it might help the discussion here.

  7. I disagree considerably with Richard in this case. Remember too that he's an historian by education, not a philosopher or scientist.

  8. Note that until we first have some definition, it would seem difficult to redefine naturalism.

    As I understand it, the vagueness of the definition is by design, because various philosophers want varying degrees of qualification. As such, it might be best to think of "naturalism" as an umbrella term for related branches of thought. Those branches of thought basically seem to agree that what we think we know to be true and how we know it is deeply intertwined with the methods and findings of science. Said another way, there is nothing we cannot understand, *in principle*, by using the scientific method, and that, conversely, there is nothing real that is outside the scope of scientific investigation, again in principle. As I understand it, that is the core of naturalism.

  9. As I understand it, the vagueness of the definition is by design...

    As a professional computer programmer and an amateur philosopher of some sophistication, and a literate scientific layman, I can say without hesitation vagueness is terrible design. Indeed it is not design: it is the refusal to create a design.

    Now, there are circumstances where design is disadvantageous. However, if the term doesn't mean anything, or if it means too many things, it's completely and utterly pointless to discuss whether science is or is not "naturalistic"; likewise its pointless to argue about whether religion is or is not "supernatural".

    In closing, as observation rather than censure, I would note that you and I have spent a couple of thousand words and probably a couple hours between us, and we are saying nothing more than that we're talking about nothing specific, and arguing over whether we should be specific.

    (Let me also note, since you appear to be a new reader, that I do not hold the philosophy profession in high esteem. I don't find the argument at persuasive that professional philosophers might have some purpose in doing one thing or another; I do not grant legitimacy of expertise to professional philosophers as I do to professional scientists.

  10. To state the last paragraph more succinctly, I think professional philosophers are little (if anything) more than professional bullshit artists, whose training consists of using as many words as possible to say as little as possible (if anything at all) while still appearing profound enough to get paid without having to perform any sort of productive labor.

    When you say that philosophers might have a reason to be vague about something, I'm going to look first at the reason of being able to bullshit efficiently.

    I've studied philosophy as an amateur for many years, and thisis my conclusion. YMMV, and I really don't care if you personally disagree, but if you resent my dismissal of professional philosophers' competence and intellectual integrity, you and I are probably not going to get along.


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