Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Naturalism: Not Even Wrong?

When you say that something is "not even wrong" it usually means that it's so incoherent that it's not even worth considering right. It's supposed to be so badly constructed that saying it's merely wrong would be a compliment. I was recently linked to a blog post that argues that the worldview of naturalism is so ill-defined that it's not even wrong. And since I am a naturalist, (and a staunch one at that) my curiosity couldn't resist investigating as to whether there was something to this claim.

The blog post, called Not even wrong: The many problems with Naturalism, written by Randal Rauser, who is a Canadian Christian theologian and apologist, criticizes an argument from Jeffrey Jay Lowder called the The Evidential Argument from the History of Science. Lowder, (who by the way writes an excellent counter-apologetic blog called the Secular Outpost) is accused of defining naturalism in such away that makes it open to the existence of an immaterial soul. This is suppose to highlight the problem naturalists face. Naturalism is so ill-defined, according to some of its critics like Rauser, that there is little point in considering it seriously. After all, it could be argued that if immaterial souls are compatible with a definition of naturalism, then why not immaterial gods?

The definition of naturalism

In my mini-biography, Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey, I defined naturalism as “a worldview with a philosophical aspect which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences” or “the thesis that nothing besides the natural world, or nature, exists.” But this definition doesn't define what "natural" is and isn't, and many think this therefore begs the question. So what is the difference between something natural and something supernatural? Suppose for example that we lived in a world where ghosts existed and everyone had empirical evidence that they existed since the beginning of recorded history. Would ghosts be natural or supernatural in such a world? Trying to define what is natural can be difficult if you don't know what nature is. To compound the problem, consider that if someone who lived 2000 years ago was exposed to modern technology, they would most likely think it was supernatural. Indeed, Arthur C. Clarke's third law states that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If such a statement is true, then how could we ever know what is and is not natural given future advancements in technology due to a greater understanding of the laws of physics?

In thinking about naturalism and coming up with a definition for it, one has to acknowledge all of these considerations. A useful definition of naturalism should include a clear line of demarcation for what is and is not permissible under it. In his paper, Lowder provides the following definitions for nature:

nature: the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities.
Note: there may be additional entities currently unknown to physics but which may be discovered in the future. If and when such entities are discovered, they may be called physical and natural based on their relationship to known physical or natural entities. Thus, this definition of “nature” may only capture nature as currently understood.

 It is in this note by Lowder that Rauser jumps on Lowder's definition, writing:

[Lowder] knows that science is always changing, and that the science of fifty years from now is something we cannot begin to imagine. With that in mind he tries to lock in a definition of nature that is open to the ever changing descriptions we have of nature. His catch-all proviso is found in his statement that when new “entities are discovered, they may be called physical and natural based on their relationship to known physical or natural entities.” 
Thus, nature is defined in such a way that it encompasses whatever science describes in the future as either natural or in relationship with the natural.

In this way, the soul could be confirmed from a scientific perspective based on its relationship to known physical or natural entities. Did you get that? Lowder’s naturalism is consistent with science establishing the existence of a non-physical substance that interacts causally with the realm of nature.

Is this true? Is nature defined in such a way by Lowder that makes it open to the existence of the soul? I think it does. What Lowder could have simply done in his note on nature is say that it cannot include any non-physical sentience that interacts causally with the realm of nature. Under Lowder's definition of nature, a non-physical substance that was sentient would be a supernatural person. That might have prevented Rauser's objection. Lowder defines a supernatural person as:

supernatural person: a person that is not part of nature but can affect nature. Examples of supernatural persons include God, angels, Satan, demons, ghosts, etc.

OK. So the god of Western monotheism would certainly be a supernatural person, as would the bevy of angels and demons that exist in various religions. So under naturalism, no non-physical beings can exist that can break the laws of physics or have any affect on nature. 

I would agree with Lowder that a supernatural person is a being that is not part of the physical world that can affect it. That's generally agreed upon by most theists. But there are god concepts that are physical like Zeus, or even Jesus Christ.  Naturalism's definition shouldn't allow such beings to exist, so it seems that a robust definition of a supernatural person is any sentient being, physical or non-physical that can defy the laws of physics. Physical beings like myself can affect nature, but I cannot violate the laws of physics. Non-physical beings like angels and demons cannot exist at all. A physical god like Zeus would posses powers that violate the laws of physics. That is incompatible with naturalism.

The problem we face when finding a definition of naturalism is finding one that can accommodate these complexities. In other words, the problem isn't whether naturalism itself is ill-defined, the problem is whether Lowder's definition of naturalism is ill-defined. As such, I'm not going to focus on defending Lowder's definition so much as so much as to find a definition of naturalism without this apparent problem.

One could define naturalism as:
the worldview that there are no supernatural entities that exist. 
But that would of course beg the question over what are supernatural entities. So a longer definition of naturalism could be:
the worldview that no beings exist that are not a part of nature that can affect nature. 
But that begs the question over what is nature. So an even longer definition of naturalism could be:
the worldview that no beings exist that are not a part of the spatio-temporal universe that can affect it. 
We're inching our way closer.

Mind you, the word "religion" isn't incoherent because there's no single agreed upon definition. And the definition of something isn't supposed to define all the words used in it. Otherwise every definition of something would have to define all the words in the definition, and that would make every definition extremely long. But still, the challenge with defining naturalism and many philosophical terms is similar to the challenge in defining religion.

As with the definition of religion there may never be a single, all-encompassing definition of naturalism. Wikipedia defines metaphysical naturalism as:
a form of naturalism that holds that the cosmos consists only of objects studied by the natural sciences, and does not include any immaterial or intentional realities
The second part of the definition would negate the existence of gods, angels, demons or spirits. Pantheistic gods would be negated too because that would consist of an intentional reality. Thus this definition makes it clear that under naturalism there is no consciousness to the cosmos. The definition Wikipedia gives of naturalism as a philosophy is:
any of several philosophical stances wherein all phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural are either false or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses.
A further explanation of metaphysical naturalism according to Wikipedia is:
Metaphysical naturalism is a philosophy which maintains that nature encompasses all that exists throughout space and time. Nature (the universe or cosmos) consists only of natural elements, that is, of spatiotemporal physical substance—mass–energy. For example, astronomer Carl Sagan, an agnostic, described the cosmos as "all that is or ever was or ever will be." Non-physical or quasi-physical substance, such as information, ideas, values, logic, mathematics, intellect, and other emergent phenomena, either supervene upon the physical or can be reduced to a physical account. The supernatural does not exist, which is to say, only nature is real.
Perhaps naturalism is best defined with a description as opposed to a single sentence definition. I like this definition above because the existence of an immaterial soul that could exist independently of a physical body is not possible. However, this definition leaves out the possibility of platonism being true within naturalism. I think naturalism is compatible with both platonism or nominalism. Naturalism is not necessarily the same as physicalism. If abstract objects exist, which is the view under platonism, they would be natural because they are not supernatural persons; they're not sentient and they do not affect the physical universe.*

Given these definitions of naturalism, is it crystal clear where the demarcation line between the natural and the supernatural lies? Not exactly. Although we have a pretty good estimation, the demarcation problem we face here is a problem that exists elsewhere too.

To me, if scientists confirmed the existence of non-physical agents who could affect the material world, that would almost certainly confirm supernaturalism and falsify naturalism. But even this would come with it's own set of complexities. Suppose we did have empirical evidence for an immaterial being breaking the laws of physics but it was because we were living in a vast and complex computer simulation run by regular, material, intelligent beings with incredibly sophisticated technology. In this picture, the "immaterial being" would really just be the result of a regular physical being who was toying with the simulation for its own amusement. As such, the "supernatural" wouldn't actually prove the existence of an immaterial being that existed outside of all of spacetime. So it appears that one has to reject the simulation hypothesis in order to accept supernaturalism under such conditions.

Rauser's claims that naturalism is just "attitude"

Towards the end of the post Rauser argues that naturalists aren't really making a claim on what exists, but are really expressing "a particular kind of attitude." He cites an essay by Bas van Fraassen  called “Science, Materialism, and False Consciousness,” in which Fraassen critiques J.J.C. Smart’s attempt to define “materialism” saying:

“Smart may believe, or think he believes, the ‘theory’ here formulated; but if he does, he certainly does not know what he believes. For of course he has no more idea than you or I of what physics will postulate in the future. It is a truly courageous faith, that believes in an ‘I know not what’—isn’t it?” (168)

Smart's definition of materialism cited by van Fraassen was:

“By ‘materialism’ I mean the theory that there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics (or, of course, those entities which will be postulated by future and more adequate physical theories.” 

The argument van Fraassen seems to be making, and that Rauser seems to think makes naturalism "not even wrong," is that to define materialism (or naturalism) as a theory that the world is made up of only what physics (or any of the natural sciences) has or will discover is to allow it to be in a sense unflasifiable, and that makes it really just a commitment to scientific inquiry and not an ontological claim on the nature of reality. If we were to empirically verify the supernatural, critics like Rauser argue, under such definitions of naturalism we'd still not be able to falsify naturalism.

I think I agree with this criticism, but I don't think it makes naturalism, not even wrong. Rather, it makes certain definitions of naturalism not even wrong, or at least incomplete. I asked Rauser himself how he defines supernaturalism, and he wrote this:

You ask me to define "supernaturalism". Sure. I believe that God exists and the product of his agent causal action exists.

Rauser just offers his opinion of what he believes, it's not really a definition of supernaturalism. I couldn't find a formal definition of supernaturalism anywhere on his website, and it seems to me that if the definition of naturalism faces such problems as Rauser has described, than supernaturalism faces just as much trouble. If I take Rauser's answer and use it to define what naturalism is not, then at the very least, naturalism is a worldview where there is nothing like the classical god of theism that exists and thus there is no causal action in the universe by any such kinds of beings. And any scientific evidence that a god exists would falsify this view, and that makes naturalism falsifiable (something every belief should strive for).

I'm not done exploring the semantics and metaphysics regarding naturalism and supernaturalism, but for now I think naturalism is far from being not even wrong. It can be defined in such a way that it makes claims as to what exists and doesn't, and is falsifiable - two pertinent criterion for establishing a coherent worldview.

*There is a hypothesis by a physicist named Max Tegmark called the Mathematical Universe, where he argues that numbers could exist in the platonic sense and numbers themselves could be the ultimate nature of reality, meaning everything is all math. In such a view, math creates the physical universe and therefore affects it, although not apparently with a will or a sentience.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...