Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Criticisms Of Cosmological Naturalism.
Now that we have looked at defining and very basically defending the view of cosmological naturalism let us turn to some criticisms of it. When the cosmological naturalist states, to put it rather crudely, but accurately, that nature is all, we see that, as Jean Hampton states we have no understanding of what naturalism is, no notion of the natural, or what natural entities are or what a nonnatural entity is or what makes a theory scientifically acceptable or unacceptable. (p. 138) and Nielsen might add, that it is hard to find those answers without begging the question.
Nielsen sets the scene by stating: “Naturalism sets out to accept only natural categories and to reject all supernatural or transempirical categories and to show how this is justified…” (p. 154) Hook and Nagel at least (as well as Dewey) as we have seen were proponents of an antireductionistic naturalism; “Of course, if in its aversion to reductionism, it simply says whatever we encounter in whatever way is natural, then, to put it minimally, little is accomplished.” (p. 154) To Nielsen we need some way to demarcate the two positions of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ or ‘nonnatural’ to show that “the former alone are real or nonillusory.” (p. 154) Traditionally naturalists had simply stated that their “basic category was matter or material substance” (p. 154) and this alone had independent substance, the problem has been that the current developments in physics has made such an explanation “nonexplanatory”. To get around this Hook and Nagel have changed the definition of “material” to “refer to ‘the subject matter of the physical sciences.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 155) Other naturalists have more recently articulated the basic categories of naturalism as: “event, relation, and quality and it is the factors of process, quality and relation ‘which contemporary naturalism takes to be the constituents of all that occurs, of all that exists.'” (Nielsen quoting Dennes, 2001, p. 155) This definition works, so the argument goes, because on such an account the explanation of a natural event does not require an external grounding or cause, on this view only other events could cause events to occur as “the constituents of all that is real are events, relations or qualities and the processes that go with them. (Qualities and relations being qualities and relations of events). When we ask for a cause on such a view we are asking for some “stretch of natural processes (a distinctive relation between events) and an explanation of events could only be found in the qualities and relations of such events.” (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 155) The charge of circularity is in this definition too states Murphy, in that it is tautologically, and thus trivially so “if events, qualities, and relations are basically, or in the final analysis, the constituents of all there is. If this naturalistic claim is right then nothing else at all could serve as an explanation (Murphy 1963, 207). (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 155)
So the fundamental naturalistic claim, Murphy has it, is the momentous one that “nature is all that natural processes (including those of human living) do not imply anything beyond themselves and do not require for their existence or for their explanation any grounds but the further stretches of natural processes which we observe or inductively refer or to be their contexts, that in the world in which there is one event (that is, in which anything happens) we can distinguish and significantly infer or speculatively suppose nothing, but further events and their relations and qualities” (Murphy 1963, 207 quoting Dennes 1944, 288). (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 156)
From here Nielsen asks how one might justify such a claim, as he states we would not want to simply and arbitrarily stipulate it as so, nor would a naturalist want to take it as dogma, or as a synthetic a priori truth (that we somehow know by intuition). Nielsen asks, that to see these claims as “very general empirical hypotheses we would have to be able to say what it would be like for them to be false or at least to be able to say what it would like to infirm them. (p. 156) Can we do this? How would we go about doing this? Again as we will see, in finding our way around this dilemma we come up against the charge of circularity yet again, for example, Nielsen asks how we can know that the only existents are event, relation and qualities? We can’t intuit it, if we state it as an empirical claim we must then provide its testability, truth or at the very least assertability conditions, and also we would need to determine what would need to be the case for that statement (about relations and qualities) to be false, or disconfirmed, or infirmed. We cannot say that an observation of a supernatural substance is disconfirming (directly or indirectly Nielsen states) as the naturalist would “deny that that could be a genuine falsification or disconfirming instance because such substances are not discoverable or in any way ascertainable by the use of the scientific method – even in principle by the use of the scientific method.” (p. 157) Nor are they he continues “observable or inferable from what is observable.” (p. 157) What does Nielsen mean here? He states that no such “spiritual substances are recognizable or acceptable or even coherently describable given such categories.” (p. 157) This too might appear as question-begging, in that we seem to a priori be ruling out other assumptions (say Christian or Aristotelian ones), Nielsen says, combating this that we want our categories to fit the facts, and our naturalistic categories do just that, but yet again the question returns “how do we know or even warrantedly believe that is so?” (p. 157)
Do we just intuit it? Do we without categories just observe it to be so? But how can we possibly make such observations? Moreover, and perhaps more fundamentally, what do we mean when we say a set of categories fits or fails to fit the facts? We have little in the way of lucidity here. Indeed it does not look like we have anything coherent here. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 157)
Moreover Nielsen states we could look at our categories as a fundamental linguistic framework or proposal concerning “how to talk and how to conceptualize things” (p. 157) and of course we can and should ask why we should accept this, with question-begging following us all the way down. One possible hope for this quagmire is in what Nielsen calls the “Kantian-historicist” turn or the “historicist-Kantian” turn, what is this?
Naturalists should not take “The only existents are qualified and related events” as a synthetic statement, either empirical or a priori, of the way things are, or worse still of the way things must be, however tempting the former may be, but as a fundamental proposal about how best to describe things at a very basic level and to conceptualize the world. We should not be fooled by its surface grammar into thinking it makes sense to take it as anything other than a proposal about how to conceptualize and categorize the world. There are, we should realize, just different ways of talking and coping with things, things, none of which are specifiable or even thinkable independently of some particular conceptual framework with its categories, which are not found but somehow “chosen” – perhaps as the result of “historical choices” – choices made, and in return repeatedly modified, over a long period of time which by now are so firmly socialized in us that they do not feel like choices at all. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 158)
In this we seem some of what will be articulated as Nielsen’s social naturalism, that is a naturalism located within a human context (in this case largely a historic one), with principles coming naturally from human development. There are Nielsen states however, problems even with this turn in that it opens us up to what he calls “linguistic idealism” which forces this supposed answer into being a reductio, and we need to head back to the drawing board to find a “proper form of naturalism”.
This might be a good time to leave it here. There are of course more rebuttals and criticisms to follow, which I may do after my next post on methodological naturalism. At the very least we see there are logical problems even at the definitional level with (some?) naturalism(s?), and the use of science as part of an atheistic worldview, this is why philosophy can be important to us. Without it’s guiding light, these questions are left to naturalisms detractors, with nary a response. To be consistent, to be robust, we need to tackle these questions, and most importantly, to be justified, we need to answer them.
Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.