Posted by: dacalu | 4 October 2013

Naturalism VI (The Viewpoint Critique)

This is the sixth post in a series on Naturalism, the idea that the world is wholly made up of natural or physical objects and events.  The series starts here.  After exploring what naturalism could mean, I gave it the most sympathetic treatment I could and am now going to present why even that fails from my perspective.  The following argument is taken from Erwin Schrodinger’s essay “Mind and Matter.”  He treats it far more fully there than I can here.

Arguments against Physical Naturalism

One argument against physical naturalism arises from a critical inquiry into what it means to be a rational observer.  Remember that Descartes set up mind – body dualism in a way that allowed the non-physical mind to objectively observe and assess the physical universe.  If we get rid of the mind, will there still be rational perspective?

Put another way, one of the major reasons behind Enlightenment naturalism was a claim that explanations based on external data were far more reliable than explanations based on personal reflection or revelation.  A clear dividing line needed to be constructed between empiricism, which produced results, and a priori (before observation) reasoning which did not.  Likewise, a line needed to be made between logic (universally valid ways to work from true premises to true conclusions) and mere rhetoric (arguments which convinced people, but were not strictly speaking, fully justified).  Naturalism compromises, observation, logic, and even our value of truth, undermining the very concept of knowledge that lead us to be naturalists in the first place.  I will lay out those three arguments over the next three posts.

The Viewpoint Argument

Let us assume for the moment that physical naturalism takes its justification from science.  At the very least, we should be able to say that one of the core tenets of naturalism should be a reliance on the data of natural science over every other form of input.  So let us ask what it is that make scientific data reliable.

As naturalists, we cannot say it is objectivity.  Objectivity requires an observer wholly abstracted from the thing she observes.  We exist within the physical system and, therefore, can not objectively assess the system.

That may seem too quick to some readers.  After all, we can stand in one part of the room and look at another, and then move to look at the spot we were in.  In this, way I can perfectly well objectively judge that I am standing in a square room.  But wait.  The room metaphor requires me to move from one point in the room to another.  The point of view has to change.  When reflecting on the “observer” for science, we cannot cease to be the observer.  There is no way to take the outside perspective.  The one thing a scientist cannot do objectively is speak about herself as an observer.

Any number of physical illusions are entirely convincing from one point of view.  A circular room could be painted to look square, or a short room painted to look long.  how do we know that the same sort of thing is not occurring with our observation?  How do we know that the observer function  is not equally deceived by its functioning within a body and writing to a brain?

Science not only tells us this is possible, it suggests it is highly likely.  The chemistry and physics of human bodies regularly bias human thinking.  As naturalists we must confess that they do.  We cannot stand outside the position of “observer” to warrant an assessment that observation is objective, consistent, or reliable.

What about other observers?  The hard answer is that we only have access to one.  All statements about “other observers” must be based on our observations.  The assumption of accurate conversation is even more suspect than the assumption of objective observation.  It requires the existence of other observers sufficiently like ourselves to be comprehensible, their ability to accurately turn observation into model and model into symbol before transmitting the signal.  We then need to be able to accurately receive the signal and decode it back into a model.  Only then can we compare their model to our own.

Is all of this possible under naturalism.  Yes.  Nonetheless, we have introduced a large number of dubious internal processes that must intervene between the so called objective external observation and “knowledge.”  Without an a priori certainty about our ability to observe and communicate, we have no power to claim that a priori reasoning is less justified than observation, or even meaningfully different.

The ontologically naturalist version of science becomes an idiosyncratic way we choose to make statements about the world.  Any claim to truth must be provision, as we cannot count observations as wholly reliable.  They will be biased by our participation in the system.  Worse yet the extent and direction of the bias will remain hidden, because we cannot observe the observer.

Ontological naturalism destroys claims of objectivity, leaving us with only personal subjective experience.  No claims can be made to support the existence of objectively true rules about the universe, including physical naturalism.

This is the primary reason, I feel some form of ontological non-naturalism is necessary to justify methodological naturalism in science.



  1. […] empirical data are considered to be reliable indicators of the natural world (which they may not be under naturalism) we still have to think critically about how we move from data to theories about the natural […]

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