Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2013

Naturalism V (Science)

I have set out to cover the topic of naturalism, roughly the idea that only natural/physical things exist or are worth talking about.  The series starts here.  In the first post, I talk about naturalism in general terms and speak to my unease that it has become such a popular and yet poorly defined school of thought.  The next two posts cover what I think are two of the most common foundations for modern naturalism, (Anti-)Thomistic Naturalism after Thomas Aquinas and Cartesian Naturalism after Rene Descartes.  Those summaries explain (in hideously broad strokes) how I think we got where we are today.  Post IV covers what I think of as modern physical naturalism.

I found the last post, on physical naturalism, much harder to write than I thought I would.  After all, as a natural scientist, I thought I used (methodological) physical naturalism on a regular basis.  I find it useful to constrain scientific theories to nature even though I’m willing to invoke other kinds of theories in other parts of my life.  Nonetheless, physical naturalism gave me pause.

Throughout the writing processes I wanted to say something along these lines:

Physical naturalism limits us to explanations of things and events based on what we can perceive through observation.

Set aside for the moment the question of how we reason, from observed things (like metal) to inferred things (like atoms).  There was still serious question in mind about what it means to perceive something in that definition.  Under Cartesian naturalism, perception meant mapping physical reality onto a non-physical mind.  That won’t do if you don’t believe in non-physical minds.  So what process was I referring to?

It seems to me that a fully naturalist observation or perception will require some form of modeling or data compression.  Again, I want to say that the external object is mapped to an internal one, but there is no external and internal in physical naturalism.  Those are relative terms and, as we are trying to figure out whether they are meaningful and what they are relative to, invoking them begs the question.  Somehow, then, perception involves the mapping of larger phenomena onto some local storage medium.  Let us say for the sake of argument that organisms exist as some form of local organization, so that we have an interior and an exterior.  Let us further simplify by saying that the information storage capacity of an organism will be found in the brain.  Both of those turn out to be somewhat difficult claims; I’m not sure how I would fully justify them, but I will take them as generally reasonable for the moment.  I suspect they could be justified.  This allows us to say:

Perception involves mapping the world onto the neuronal structure of a brain.

Science only deals with data that can be generated in the same way for multiple observers, therefore science only deals with things that map to multiple brains, forming models that have the same outputs.  That sounds complicated, but all I’m really saying here is that you and I both call the barn red.  I just need to do it without invoking “you” or “I” or an ambiguous concept of observation.  Even “models” here is a bit dubious.  Perhaps the inputs and outputs of the brain involve no systematic mapping, no pictures of reality.  Perhaps cause and effect require no truth claims at all.  This may be the case, but I don’t think it would allow us “science” precisely because brain a and brain b need to communicate about the world in order to verify that they have the same inputs.  That communication requires symbols that represent the inputs.  Thus models and outputs are required.

In plain English, I’m saying physical naturalism calls for things we all see and label the same way.  For me this is an incredibly important, near indispensable way to look at the universe.  I want to deconstruct it a bit, though, so that you, and I, can see and label exactly what “all see and label in the same way” means.  It sounds very straightforward, but once looked at through a naturalist lens, it provokes all sorts of questions about whether it ever actually happens.  In the next three posts, I will attempt to lay out two major critiques of naturalism, which find their basis in this deconstruction.

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