The Need for Naturalism in a Scientific Age

May 18, 2010

It’s only natural to wonder if any philosophy is really needed anymore, in this age of science. Isn’t the point of science to replace sheer speculation and metaphysics?

One philosophy is compatible with science, because it is the worldview that results when people take science seriously. That philosophy is naturalism. Still, people may wonder why any "ism" is still needed when we have all the knowledge that the sciences provide. What sort of knowledge, over and above science, could be possible or useful? Religion tries to supplement science, so when science replaces religion, doesn’t that mean that all philosophy is committed to the flames as well?

Let’s first be clear about what naturalism basically is.

Naturalism is a worldview, a philosophy – a general understanding of reality and humanity’s place within reality. Naturalism can be briefly defined as the philosophical conclusion that the only reality is what is discovered by our intelligence using the tools of observation, reason, and science.

As a philosophy, naturalism is far more than just empirical science, but it does depend on science. Naturalism is useful precisely because no particular science could have the task of experimentally confirming that the only reality is what is discovered by our intelligence. Science points towards, but does not verify, such a general conclusion. Naturalism is also useful because no particular science could have the task of empirically confirming the validity of scientific methodology. Looking outwards from the conclusions of science, and looking inwards into science’s workings, is philosophical work. It is also necessary work.

What exactly has naturalism been doing?

Naturalism emphasizes the progressive and expanding knowledge that observation and science provides. Science continually revises its understanding of natural reality. Naturalists from the ancient Greeks to modern times have tried to keep up with the science of its age. Today’s scientists have new conceptions of energy and matter that most 19th century scientists would have found incomprehensible. 21st century scientists will likely demand major revisions to today’s best theorizing about what nature. Because science’s best ideas about nature undergo improvement, naturalism is a philosophy that requires intellectual humility: while nature is discoverable by science, naturalism cannot offer any final and perfect picture of exactly what this reality is like. Therefore, the primary task of philosophical naturalism is not to defend science’s current best theories about reality – science itself is responsible for reasonably justifying its own hypotheses. Philosophical naturalism undertakes the responsibility for elaborating a comprehensive and coherent worldview based on experience, reason, and science, and for defending science’s exclusive right to explore and theorize about all of reality, without any interference from tradition, superstition, mysticism, religious dogmatism, or priestly authority.

Science therefore has four close relationships with naturalistic philosophy.

First, when the various sciences question their ultimate principles and ponder how these principles can reasonably cohere together, science becomes philosophy and intellectuals undertaking these problems are both philosophers and scientists. For example, leaders of scientific revolutions, from Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton to Helmholtz, Mach, and Einstein, are justly recognized for their major philosophical contributions. Naturalism is the effort to make sure that the separate social and physical sciences remain coherent and consistent with each other. Ensuring that all the sciences are describing the same reality cannot be task of any particular scientific discipline.

Second, when the logical reasoning of scientific method requires scrutiny so that it can be better understood or improved, naturalistic philosophers explain and justify scientific method without resorting to any unnatural principles. The investigations and improvements upon logical methods of inference, the very engine of scientific methodology which justifies science’s conclusions, is philosophical logic—the normative inquiry into rational inquiry. Furthermore, theology want to credit a god for our powers of reason, but naturalism makes sure that we can explain human intelligence only in terms of our own brain functioning.

Third, when the sciences are under intellectual attack by jealous rivals offering supernatural hypotheses or paranormal modes of knowledge, science turns to naturalistic philosophy for explanations why these unscientific alternatives are irrational and unnecessary. Skepticism is grounded on naturalism. Naturalism is the best rival to religion , since no particular scientific field could have the task of empirically refuting sweeping metaphysical or theological claims. Specifically, philosophical naturalism supplies the philosophical atheology to counter the arguments over the existence of god against philosophical theology. Furthermore, naturalism can explain the origins of religion itself .

Fourth, when the sciences are under political attack by hostile forces wanting to obstruct scientific research or inhibit scientific teaching, science turns to naturalistic philosophy for staunch defenses of ethical humanism, intellectual freedom, and democratic secularism. Naturalism is the best philosophical foundation for explaining why people can be good without god , why we don’t need spooky free will, why the humanistic defense of human rights is so crucial , why democracy can work without divine or priestly decrees, why religions cannot be trusted with political power, and why the separation of church and state is necessary for human welfare.

In summary, science occasionally rises to the level of naturalistic philosophy; naturalistic philosophy explains, justifies, and improves scientific method; naturalistic philosophy defends science and reason against supernaturalism and irrationalism; and naturalistic philosophy supports a liberal political order capable of protecting science.

All four essential tasks of philosophical naturalism cannot be done by any of the sciences themselves. That’s a good thing, because we want the sciences to stay closely focused on their own task: discovering how the world actually works.

Comments:

#1 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday May 18, 2010 at 12:25pm

——Naturalism can be briefly defined as the philosophical conclusion that the only reality is what is discovered by our intelligence using the tools of observation, reason, and science. J.S.

Not to get too philosophical about it, but what do you mean by “reality” in this context.  If you mean what most people seem to mean when they talk about “reality”, as if it was the actual totality of what is really out there (and, in some cases, in there) then naturalism is clearly unrealistic.  Our intelligence is limited by our abilities as individuals and as a species. There is more in just the physical universe than we can ever get to, even those things within our limits and things outside of those limits will never be vulnerable to discovery by our intelligence, reason and, most certainly, not our science. 

It’s ragingly anthropomorphic to think that our species is the measure of the universe, bizarrely unreflected in those who believe themselves to be the champions of reason and science and entirely premature. 

—- Philosophical naturalism undertakes the responsibility for elaborating a comprehensive and coherent worldview based on experience, reason, and science, and for defending science’s exclusive right to explore and theorize about all of reality, JS

Well, I don’t know who died and made philosophical naturalism the one true faith but this is just silly for far more than the reasons just stated. 

“A comprehensive and coherent worldview based on experience,”  but only of experience deemed valid by the PN’s prior dogma.  Most people seem to claim a right to their own experience and the conclusions they draw from it, oddly enough.

—- defending science’s exclusive right to explore and theorize about all of reality J.S.

I’ve got a feeling that, for a starter, some mathematicians might not be too impressed with this idea.  Not to mention a lot of scientists, some of them quite eminent and quite a few on record on the topic.

I’m wondering, where is this “science” that has this exclusive right you talk about.  Is it out there, somewhere?  Does it have an autonomous existence?  Where is it?  And what about those things for which there is insufficient data?  Are we all bound to wait on those until science collects the data and analyzes and publishes and the collegial review is well underway before we can act?  Or come to tentative conclusions in the mean time?  Because just about every single political decision, not to mention personal ones, are pending and rather urgent and “science” doesn’t seem close to coming up with an answer. 

How do you propose that this science is going to exercise its exclusive rights in history, the law, hey, even within philosophy?  I’d love to have your explanation of the scientific methodology for dealing with any of them.


——why we don’t need spooky free will JS

Really, Mr. Shook. Considering how spooky your view of science seems to be, and the experience of the results of the denial of free will, I’ll take my chances with the spooks on that one.

#2 Stormy Fairweather (Guest) on Wednesday May 19, 2010 at 7:34am

I have said this a few times, but it still seems so elegent…

Science is the philosphy of nature, and philosophy is the application of reason.

When it comes down to it, science is what is reasonable, and the rest is what is unreasonable.

So, anytime someone says something is outside the purview of science, they are stating they are not willing to be reasonable on the issue.

#3 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Wednesday May 19, 2010 at 10:19am

Science is a set of methods for collecting and evaluating data,  the analysis of the results, the publication of the results and the replication and evaluation of the publication by others who practice science. 

Science is the tentative agreement that is the product of that effort.

It’s only one of a number of ways in which reason is used in life, it’s a particularly specialized use of reason applied to a specific kind of information about the physical universe, it only works within those limits.

There are other areas of life which need and benefit from the use of reason, which have little to nothing to do with science. 

Scientism is the belief that only those things discovered by science should be held to be valid and that all else is false.  It is also the unreflective denial that no one really lives that way.

#4 John Shook on Wednesday May 19, 2010 at 11:08am

@ Anthony #1

Somehow my explicit warning that naturalism must remain as humble as science itself, stated in my posting, got overlooked. But I can respond to a couple of other matters.

You write,

“There is more in just the physical universe than we can ever get to, even those things within our limits and things outside of those limits will never be vulnerable to discovery by our intelligence, reason and, most certainly, not our science.”

Yes, I agree, because science itself confirms this. Because science can study the observer (us) too, science does understand the notion of limits to current exploration and understanding. What is left to discover is called “unexplored nature” and science needs more time. This is consistent with naturalism. Or maybe Anthony has other powers of knowledge, aside from science, that tells him about inaccessible realities?  Who is the one resting on a faith, here?

You mention ‘experience’. Naturalism is the combination of observation, reason, and science to seek maximum coherence. In a future post this combination deserves elaboration. But if you know about some fourth mode of learning, Anthony, do enlighten us. I’m skeptical.

And on the subject of science and ethics, my earlier posts will serve in reply to how o get started there. Not that Anthony would be impressed, we get that. But maybe Anthony can tell us his anti-science, anti-naturalistic way of answering moral issues. Oh wait, he’s just a skeptic, I guess. Better, then to let religion give us the urgently needed answers, huh?

Re: mathematics. Mathematics, by itself, does not describe realities. Mathematicians get that. Unless Anthony is an idealistic Platonist, figuring that math describes a ghostly supernatural reality?

If Anthony knows about a better method than science to get reliable information about reality, let’s hear it.

#5 Stormy Fairweather (Guest) on Wednesday May 19, 2010 at 11:17am

Quote - “If Anthony knows about a better method than science to get reliable information about reality, let’s hear it.”

I am not anthony, but this is phrased incorrectly. You cannot have science without reason (logic would work had tspock not forever made the word uncool).

So what you mean is: Is there a better method for understanding information than reason?

And while there very well may be, I can guarantee it will encompass, not eliminate, reason.

#6 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Wednesday May 19, 2010 at 1:17pm

—Or maybe Anthony has other powers of knowledge, aside from science, that tells him about inaccessible realities?  Who is the one resting on a faith, here?  JS

I’m rather surprised to see you resort to that kind of tacit and implied accusation of spookiness, when I only asserted that inabilities are inabilities and that even some rather eminent scientists have theorized parts of reality that are beyond our abilities and so will always elude science as well as our other faculties.  Though you might tactically choose to exclude what is beyond the capacities of human beings from being a part of reality, in which case you have demoted reality from containing all of the actual universe as it might be. 

But you don’t have to go to inaccessible realities to get past the proper subject matter of science.  That’s why I asked you about history and the law and philosophy, all of which deal with subject matter and questions that fall well outside of what science is able to deal with.  I’d like just as an example, your methodology to use science to explain the development and eventual persuasiveness of the idea of the separation of church and state (as I’ve been asking the devotees of scientism for years now) and why it is superior to the establishment of religion.  Only, as something of a wall of separation absolutist, I’d really like you to hurry while there’s still a chance of saving it. 

I don’t understand what part of what I said could lead you to ask me that question. 

As to mathematics dealing with reality, I’m certain that it would be a surprise to many mathematicians to find that, for example, geometry, in all its extensions and analytical forms,  and the mathematical symbolism of space and other vectors wasn’t an aspect of reality.  But, if mathematics doesn’t deal with reality, then how do you account for its notable success when, by your own definition, it falls short of science, which has sole rights to defining reality?

—But maybe Anthony can tell us his anti-science, anti-naturalistic way of answering moral issues.

“Anti-science”?  Saying that when science is possible that it gives us the most reliable information we have about the physical universe, is “anti-science”?  To say that science works within its abilities?  My. Why are you so opposed to mathematics, history, the law, etc? 

What I am is opposed to the irrational and superstitious extension of science beyond its competence and abilities and the pretense that what you get from that is science when it’s the degredation of science into some kind of ideological muddle. 

I am not a devotee of naturalism because I think the ideology is wrong.  I know that ideologues often like to pretend that there is some moral obligation to assert belief in their chosen credo but I would be dishonest if I did that.  Which would be immoral, by my lights. 

I’d start with honesty about motives would be a good foundation for acting morally,  the belief in political equality and the identification of human beings as the possessors of intrinsic rights.  I’m a lot more interested in how people act than I am in what they believe or assert they believe. 

—-  You mention ‘experience’. Naturalism is the combination of observation, reason, and science to seek maximum coherence. In a future post this combination deserves elaboration.  But if you know about some fourth mode of learning, Anthony, do enlighten us.  J.S. 

I’m wondering what I said that led to your asking me this,  is it my assertion of the fact of experience?  Because experience is prior to everything you’ve listed,  without our experiencing the world and ourselves in it observation,  reason and science aren’t possible.  And we experinece a lot more than will fit into the necessarily conscious and articulated parts of experinece which are the only things that can be the subject of reason and science.  To deny or attempt to degrade experience would be like denying or degrading the words syllables and sentence structure, which reason and science and the articulation of experience also depend on. 

However, you made claims for science that are grandiose in the extreme.  I don’t see that you’ve overturned the limits that I noted. 

I’m quite shocked that any of this has to be explained.

#7 gray1 on Friday May 21, 2010 at 10:31am

Not that we’re sticking strictly with the science vein by this but it would appear that what might be termed naturalism has evolved somewhat given the apparent past necessity to invoke “God given rights” in order to justify a certain rebellion which also involved numerous cases of oath breaking per the following:
 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language”[2] and “the most potent and consequential words in American history”.[3] The passage has often been used to promote the rights of marginalized groups, and came to represent for many people a moral standard for which the United States should strive.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Declaration_of_Independence)

God given rights or natural rights?  Either term seems reasonable enough but rights continue to be fought for one way or another.  I guess that we now just have to yell “unfair!” and then start the bloodletting, but there’s still some romance with the old ways of fighting for God and country as opposed to what might have once been for king and country.

Philosophy engages itself in attempting to tackle the broad range of all possibilities while science is engaged in best describing how much it is that we actually don’t know.  Things unknown seem to be increasing all the time, however, this is great for job security as long as finances hold out.

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