Posted by: dacalu | 5 October 2013

Naturalism VIII (The Ideal Critique)

This is the seventh 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 then spoke to the two major critiques I am aware of.  Here I turn to what I see as the most serious critique.

The Ideal Argument

At the end of the day, the strongest argument against naturalism has to do with a question of values.    I noted in installment IV that I see no way for physical naturalism to speak of values.  It may be easy to think that by values, I mean some supernatural imposition of merit or blame.  Indeed, we have come to think in those terms in the modern world, and both Christians and Atheists have emphasized connections between nature, non-nature, and values.  That type of value does exist for me, but a more fundamental type of value exists as well.

For me, any time we prefer one option to another, we have made a value judgment.  It does not matter whether we can achieve what we prefer, though that too is an interesting argument.  What matters is that some notion of better and worse has been introduced to the world, some notion of good and bad.  Note that I do not go to Good and Evil; those turn out to be rather messy ontological concepts.  I’m interested here with bald preference and whether there exist any preferences which transcend our individual perspectives.

I follow the tradition Is/Ought divide of Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804).  We may state what is and we may state what ought to be, but there are no logical operations that will convert the former statements into the latter.  As far as I can tell, this has to do with what philosophers call contrapositives.  A contrapositive is something contrary to what may be positively asserted about the universe.  If the light is red and I speak of the light being green, then I am speaking of a contrapositive.  What if reality were other than it is?

Hopefully the blindness of science and naturalism to contrapositives is obvious.  There was a long debate about this very topic in the middle ages and by the Enlightenment, we had by and large come to the conclusion that possible entities had entirely too many variables to meaningfully discuss.  After all, just how contrapositive is it?  What if I started talking about the happy green light?  Or the green light that travels faster than c (the speed of light)?  Or the green light that gleams from a unicorn’s horn?  Once you have wandered away from the positive, you have free reign to suppose any imaginable entity or any imaginable chain of events.

In fact, one of the key purposes of naturalism in the enlightenment was to rule out things like arguing from the possible God, to the possible greatest of all things, to the actual greatest of all things, to the actual God.  After all, actuality is the best form of possibility…  Or so the argument goes.  Possible entities can have any property imaginable, so science and nature have been limited to actual things.

Wait, you say, doesn’t science make predictions and are not predictions, possible things?  Yes and no.  Predictions deal with future things, but always compatible future things.  We imagine what outcomes would be consistent with present causes and assess our confidence in each one occurring.  Preferences call for a different kind of possibility.  Preferences deal with incompatible things.  What if the light were green instead of being red?  They suppose that the universe could (or could have) taken multiple trajectories.  Only one trajectory is observed.  Only one trajectory can be observed, because all physical effects come from events operating in that one sequence.

If naturalism means anything, it means that nothing outside of the string of observed physical causes imposes on the chain of events.  Mind you, the events need not be predictable.  I’m not messing with stochasticity here.  If you want to know more about that, see here.   The chain of events is determinate and unbranching because nothing other than physical causality matters and within physical causality any forces pushing in different directions can easily be resolved by summing their vectors.  In layman’s terms, when you have a bunch of cords pulling you in different directions, you need only add up all the forces to find out which way you will end up moving.  Naturalism will not allow contradictory possible things.

Naturalism cannot meaningfully speak of preferring one situation over another, because there is only one situation of which we can meaningfully speak.  No preferences.

I hope I haven’t belabored the point, but I find this to be an area ripe for miscommunication.  Of course, evolution and chemistry condition us to make particular choices.  Of course evolution and chemistry condition us to have models of values in our heads that influence those choices.  Those are different from stating that values or preferences exist outside of our subjective models.  Naturalism will even give us communal values to which we may or may not subscribe, depending on our interest.  The precise thing that naturalism denies us is some sort of brute reality preference (moral realism).


The Evolutionary Rebuttal (and why it doesn’t work this time)

As with the reason critique, I think we can live with this diminishing of value in most of our lives.  It leads to humility, curiosity, and caution, all of which I value; all of which science values; all of which my religion values.  There is only one area in which I am utterly unwilling to give up value and that is my value for truth.  What standard exists that forces us (and you must admit, we need to be forced on occasion) to prefer the internal model that matches the external world?

Self interest regularly encourages us to favor happy fiction to fact.  Evolutionary forces demonstrably push us to evaluate the world in a biased fashion.  The forces of society, ideology, and (yes) religion regularly push us away from inconvenient facts.  Naturalism simply will not push us over the line into that realm of reason where inconvenient naturalism can trump convenient non-naturalism.  Some form of idealism will need to intervene.  Some value outside of evolutionary forces and natural laws will need to step into the gap and compel us to take up the burden of rationality.

This is what I find so incomprehensible about dogmatic naturalists.  They take a doctrine they know to be counter-intuitive and difficult to master and then present it as something we would be irrational to accept.  They want us to accept a costly new belief and the only justification they can give is “this is the truth.”  What’s so good about truth?

I far prefer my theism that tells me truth is an ideal because God made the world good and it is, therefore, good to know it.  My non-naturalist ontology turns out to be the only thing underlying my naturalist methodology.


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