Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

Notes on Victor Reppert’s Book: ‘C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea’- Pt1: Criticisms of Naturalism.

April 18, 2016 6 comments

Reppert’s book focuses primarily on naturalism, using various rationalistic¹ arguments against such in an attempt to promote theistic conceptions of the mind, and the world (namely, that God, as defined by Christianity exists). I want to generally share some notes on this today, firstly we might want to see how Reppert defines and treats naturalism:

Naturalism is the view that the natural world is all there is and that there are no supernatural beings. Whatever takes place in the universe takes place through natural processes and not as a result of supernatural causation. The most popular kind of naturalism is known as materialism or physicalism. Materialism maintains that the basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter, and physicalism maintains that those pieces of matter are properly understood by the discipline of physics. (Reppert, 2003, p.46-7)

He notes that there might be some slight differences in naturalism and materialism (relating to the status of non-matter linguistic structures such as propositions for example), but argues for the sake of his purposes that anything counts as naturalistic if it:

… posits a closed “basic level of analysis,” and if all other levels have the characteristics they have in virtue of those the basic level has. If the base level is mechanistic but is not composed of matter, then we would have naturalism without materialism. If we have a basic level that is composed of matter but it is not to be described by physicalism (I’m not sure how that’s possible), then we have materialism without physicalism. However, if the argument that I am proposing works against physicalism, it will work against nonphysicalist forms of naturalism as well. (Reppert, 2003, p. 47)

He continues by way of example, and as a bridge to his argument, how a purely physical universe, defined by science as starting with the big bang, containing material substances that act without purpose (being based on the laws of the universe) come together, guided by evolution, to further propagate the species. Reppert states that the issue for him likes in our brains, which use “rational inference”, but if they are created and driven by evolution, as they seemingly are on a physicalist’s worldview, they must also be explained at the most basic level of analysis. But, he asks, the most basic level of analysis is physics, and rational inference does not operate at this level, and thus we have our first problem with explanations proposed by physicalism.

Here he turns to secular philosophers Keith Parsons and Daniel Dennett to try and tease out what exactly is meant by the term “most basic level of analysis”. Parsons states that to explain material bodies, we can look at more fundamental bodies to explain them, and even more fundamental bodies to explain them. But, the problem is we must hit a rock bottom, or fundamental explanation (if we want to avoid absurdities like an infinite regress). Parsons doesn’t see this as a problem at all:

At present, rock bottom would be the powers and liabilities of such entities as quarks and electrons… to say that there is no explanation why a quark, given that it is a fundamental particle, has the powers and liabilities it possess, seems tantamount to saying that there is no explanation of why a quark is a quark. Surely, anything with different powers and liabilities would not be a quark. (Parsons, 1989, p. 91-2 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p. 48)

With this Reppert has shown that fundamental explanations within physicalist philosophy are flawed, that is, flawed in the sense that under the physicalist view we have properties (rational inference for example) that need explanation, that currently do not have one. To Reppert naturalistic explanations are fundamentally “nonpurposive” ones:

For if some purposive or intentional explanation can be given and no further analysis can be given in nonpurposive and nonrational terms, then reason must be viewed as a fundamental cause in the universe, and this strikes me as a huge concession to position such as theism, idealism and pantheism, which maintain that reasons are fundamental to the universe.(Reppert, 2003, p. 51)

More than just nonpurposive, naturalistic explanations at the most basic level occur either out of natural necessity or chance (p. 87), which problematizes the question of rational inference even more. Do we have free will under such a system? Could we? How can we make purposive, rational decisions when at our most fundamental level we are a closed system, based on random physics?

… it is my contention that a consistent physicalism leads to the conclusion that there are no mental states with propositional content, and if such states were to exist they would be epiphenonmenal, that is, without any causal efficacy. What is more, there is certainly the possibility that what is conducive to discovering the truth might not be conducive to survival and vice versa. We night survive better not knowing the truth but by believing just those falsehoods that would be most conducive to survival. (Reppert, 2003, p. 89)

Citing Dennett the author asks what purpose could there possibly be in a physicalist view of the world, one in which rational inference seems unlikely or is at the very least, problematic? To quote Dennett:

Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is independent of “meaning” or “purpose”. [Evolutionary theory] assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist’s sense of the term: not ludicrous or pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition for any non-question-begging account of purpose. (Dennett, 1976, p.171 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p.49)

Reppert states that under the physicalist view the only “purpose” one can speak of is that of the function of something, and a Darwinian one at that, for example the function of the heart is to pump blood. More than this, to Reppert “meaning” and “reasoning” must also have similar explanations, that is in the final analysis the explanation must be mechanistic and nonpurposive (and as we’ve seen, borne out of physical necessity or chance).

Reppert has more to say on naturalism, materialism and physicalism, but for now, lest you become bored, let us leave it here for today. If you’re looking for a quick response to some of this, check out my blog on Nielsen’s naturalism, here).


Reppert, V. (2003). C.S Lewis’ Dangerous Idea. Downers Grove IL.  Intervarsity Press.

1: That is, the use of reason as a grounding for knowledge rather than, say, experience.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Social Naturalism.

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

So, I haven’t posted on here for a few months, partly due to a holiday to Japan for my sisters wedding, then the collapse of the gym I was working for and the following mad scramble for employment, and then losing track of my thought process with Nielsen’s incredibly complex work. With that in mind, I’m going to scrap the previous investigation I was doing and focus instead on the naturalism that Nielsen actually espouses, namely: social naturalism.

To Nielsen we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” (p. 57)

This social naturalism is also a nonscientistic naturalism. It rejects, as a piece of incoherent metaphysics, the Quinean, Smartian, Armstrongian belief – the belief of metaphysical or “scientific” realists – that physics, or natural science more generally, yields our best approximation of the one true description of the world and that any further filling in of that must be done by physics or a science based on physics… I think that is nothing more than a scientistic metaphysical dogma. By contrast I argue that there is no one vocabulary – or for that matter several vocabularies taken in conjunction – that can tell it like it is and that science is not privileged here such that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 57)

Nielsen goes further to state in Wittgensteinian fashion that our “knowing and conceptualization” is perspectival, that is there are different “discourses” and “language-games” that we use to explain different social practices for different purposes.  Nielsen thinks it a mistake to put the discourse of physics ahead of say the discourses of politics, literature, social anthropology, poetry etc, as if these disciplines were not discussing reality, or indeed had nothing to say about it. They all have their place, but no one discipline leads us closer to the “truth” about reality or even “ultimate reality” Nielsen states, anymore than the other, nor can we even make any sense of what “ultimate reality” is like from the sciences over what poetry might be able to tell us or indeed, what it even is:

We do not know what we are talking about in speaking of “ultimate reality” or of “reality in itself” or even about just plain old reality full stop. Both the sciences and poetry as well help us cope with reality though in quite different ways and for very different purposes. We learn from reading poetry about human sensibilities, feelings, and conceptions of life. These tell us about realities, but different realities, realities we can be interested in for different reasons than the realities chemistry and physics tell us about. But there is no sense in saying that one reality rather than the other is “really reality”. Both tell us about things that are “equally real” but answer to very different human interests.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 58)

From here Nielsen states that his social naturalism is a form of historicism in that there is no “over-leaping history”, that to Nielsen our attitudes, conceptions and beliefs are embedded and part of social practices that are located historically and are culturally “distinctive and determinate” (p. 58) He is quick to note that this does not relegate us to “imprisonment” in relativism, of any kind. We can alter our social practices as they come in contact with others and indeed as they come into contact with other cultures. Through this process Nielsen believes we can critically alter our social practices, as we operate in them, we can operate on them, but he states we can never stand completely free of them to the point of view from the universe: “There is no ahistorical perspective – no “perspectiveless perspective” or “God’s-eye perspective” (p. 59) Again he denies relativism here stating that it is possible to, from wherever we stand, “look back at previous ways of life or look sideways at other extant ways of life, and sometimes see how we have now come to have either a more adequate or less adequate cluster of social practices than these other ways of life.” (p. 59) To Nielsen we can never stand free of culture, but this does not mean that these are bounded systems in which we cannot escape entirely, sometimes we remain untouched within our own cultures of certain cultural practices, without ever standing outside of it.

To Nieslen his social naturalism is nonscientistic and “nonutterly biological”, moreover it is a “contextual-historicist naturalism”, which he believes escapes the common criticism of naturalism that it makes a religion, or ideology out of the natural sciences that are supposedly there to tell us how the world really is for humans and nonhumans alike, with all other perspectives being illusory. Nielsen thinks that scientific naturalisms claim to be continuous with science, and scientific themselves but end up being “ersatz science”, and although these type of naturalisms reject, as Nielsen does, appeals to the spiritual entities of theistic metaphysics, they no more “fix belief” by the scientific method “than does Thomistic-Aristotelianism”. No, Nielsen claims that in both cases we have metaphysical theories “whose theories are so problematical as to be arguably incoherent or at least best set aside as yielding very little, if anything in way of understanding. Nielsen’s social naturalism, according to him, is not metaphysical and thus not held hostage to said difficulties. (p. 60)

Nielsen does still want to address, indeed needs to how the scientific picture fits into his social naturalism; how does he think at one time that as stated above “we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” while accepting a scientific view of the universe, how does he avoid reductionism and scientism?

In fleshing out what he means by human beings being complicated animals, Rorty stresses the usual thing that they are language-using animals and that with that there goes the ability to think, to reflect, to be self interpretive, to make critical and reflective endorsements – all the conceptual reflectiveness that McDowell takes to be essential to his relaxed naturalism or what Putnam calls a sane naturalism (McDowell 2998; Bernstein 1995). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

It is in this line of thought that Nielsen places his naturalism:

Complicated language-using animals are still animals, macroscopic objects, part of the space-time world. Still reason – it is no longer viewed as Reason – has been naturalized without losing its normativity… There is no conflict between my social naturalism and anti-scientism, on the one hand, and my regarding, on the other hand “that over and above the space-time world, there is nothing further that exists” (Armstrong 1999, 86).  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

Nielsen’s naturalism is not a “scientific naturalism” nor is it an unscientific or antiscientific one, instead and in the vain (as mentioned above) of Putnam and McDowell it is a relaxed one that does not consider there to be one way to view the world, no “one true description”  of the world or one way it has to be, there are Nielsen states: “various accounts embedded in different practices answering to different interests and needs none of which are “closer to reality” or more of a telling it like it is than the others. What should be thought and said depends on the context and what interests are at issue. What is apposite to believe depends on the context.” (p. 443) For Nielsen, it is a piece of common sense that the sciences are the best way to understand the structure of the physical world, he does hold to a cosmological naturalism that the object of the sciences, that is the spatio-temporal world is the only reality we can talk about, where it is coherent to do so at all. There may be other context dependent realities, or worlds to talk about, as in the political, the artistic, the human, the moral, things that lead to Nielsen’s social naturalism, but they are so because they are not independent of the physical world, indeed “there would be none of these realities if there were not physical-realities – space-time entities.” (p. 446)

This is only a very brief look at what Nielsen’s social naturalism entails, consider it a taste if you will. Whether I investigate it further or offer strict arguments for it, will depend on my capricious nature, as such you can accept it or deny it as you will. I have not demonstrated it to be true, only briefly what it entails.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.



Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Methodological Naturalism.

January 11, 2014 Comments off

Thus far we have looked at some basic terminology regarding naturalism (see here), we have very basically looked at cosmological naturalism (see here), we have looked at some criticisms of cosmological naturalism (that may also apply to naturalism as a whole, for them see here), and we will continue to develop and address those criticisms over the course of the series, but for now, let us look at methodological naturalism and allow Nielsen to briefly define it for us:

2. Methodological naturalism is a methodological commitment to employing inquiry only the norms and methods of inquiry of the empirical sciences together with their logico-mathematical auxiliaries. This the claim is, is the only way we legitimate and securely can fix belief. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

As stated it is the sciences which are used to determine both the categorical terms that are taken as basic, including those terms used to characterize the generic traits of nature, as Nielsen states:

Different naturalists will take different categories to be basic, but they will all agree on the use of the scientific method as the proper way of fixing belief – including belief concerning which categorical terms to adopt. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 145)

Some clarifications before we move on: what exactly is the scientific method in our conversation here today? How can it be the sole fixer of belief, and be reliable enough to establish a worldview around? (The term “fixing belief” has been used, but what does this mean? Essentially it is the method we attempt to attach our beliefs to, for example Pierce would state that the scientific method is the tool that gives us the most access to facts (others such as metaphysics or theology have been used) and thus is the most reliable method for us to fix our beliefs to, for more see here). Hook and Nagel define their use of the scientific method as an empirical one, a “hypopthetico-deductive-inductive method” (p. 169), that as Pierce called “the combined use of induction, deduction and abduction” (p. 169). Hook and Nagel’s project was to shirk extraneous philosophical posturing, to avoid the philosophical urge to look for “first principles” (naturalistic or otherwise), specifically our underlying presuppositions, to them there is “no special philosophic knowledge, or philosophic wisdom that can be otherwise gained or warranted” (p. 169) instead their focus was on the “working truths on the level of practical affairs which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs, viz., the effective use of means to achieve ends”.  (Nielsen quoting Hook, p. 159) Nielsen states that these working truths are not necessary ones, but rather more reasonable than their alternatives (whether this has been demonstrated is a source of disagreement), they avoid pedantic discussions (usually held by and between philosophers) about the problems of looking for first principles; in the same way that the results of science can be known without locking down every principle and presupposition of scientific reasoning (we can after all know that obesity is related to dietary and lifestyle factors rather than the position of the sun).  Some examples of possible categories, or working truths determined by the scientific method were mentioned in the last blog (see here), “structure, function, power, act, cause, relation, quantity and event.” (p. 145), these are not factually true or false, so the argument goes, but are “proposals about how to conceptualize things whose use is to be justified pragmatically.” (p. 162)

We are more confident of the warrant of those beliefs … than of any first principles that people might appeal to for their justification. (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2003, p. 160)

From here Hook states:

The choice… of which categories to take as basic in describing a method depends upon the degree to which they render coherent and fruitful what we learn by the use of the method… [it is a non sequitur states Nielsen] to assume that because one asserts that the fundamental categories of description are X, Y, and Z, and that they hold universally, one is therefore asserting that the world cannot be significantly described except in terms of X, Y and Z. (Hook 1961a, 191)  (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 169)

To Hook and indeed Nielsen the above is not to say that the world consists of nothing but X, Y and Z, we can also use A,B and C which might not be categorical and still say as nonreductive naturalists: “that the conditions under which any existing thing is significantly describable in terms of A, B and C are such that they are describable in terms of X, Y and Z.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p.169) The example he uses to demonstrate this is Nielsen himself moving a pen, we can describe the movements of such in terms of intentional acts, and in terms of bodily movements (without reference to intentional acts).

Let us finish with one last quote from Nielsen who asks if methodological naturalism is a good policy, in reply he states that it comes from a tradition of philosophy which has tried to explain reality via metaphysics, that has tried methods other than the scientific to fix belief, what we “might reasonably take to be true or take for truth or to be warrantedly assertable” (p. 149). Nielsen states that, as the argument goes:

But, at least during the modern period with its extensive pluralism, there never has been with these other methods of fixing belief anything but local and temporary agreement with no progress in the direction of reflective and informed consensus… The scientific method, though through and through fallibalistic, works and carries with it a considerable consensus about its working. So if we want to be reasonable we will stick with the scientific method and leave metaphysics to spirit-seekers and other crazies. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 149)

How well methodological naturalism works as a worldview will be addressed later. Of course this blog is only very short and shallow in its descriptive content, but the discerning reader will see there will be problems with questions of meaning and morality with a scientistic worldview, even if it is nonreductive, these issues and more will be addressed later.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Criticisms Of Cosmological Naturalism.

December 20, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Basic Terminology.

October 7, 2013 Leave a comment

It seems appropriate when looking at a book with naturalism in the title to begin our discussion with a look at naturalism; starting more generally, working our way to the specific naturalism Nielsen puts forth. Thusly, what is Naturalism?

Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities. There are, that is, no purely mental substances and there are no supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no sound grounds for believing that there are such realities or perhaps even for believing that there could be such realities. Naturalism has sometimes been reductionistic (claiming that all talk of the mental can be translated into purely physicalist terms) or scientistic (claiming that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know). The more plausible forms of naturalism are neither across the board reductionistic nor scientistic.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 29)

(I will go into more detail on Nielsen’s discussion on reductionism and scientism in another post.)

Nielsen continues stating that (where consistent) naturalism is a type of atheism, although it “need not be a militant atheism and it should not be dogmatic: it should not claim that it is certain that theism is either false or incoherent.” (p. 30) This fallibalism however does not mean that a naturalist should be an agnostic, that is; to be consistent such a naturalist would be “an atheist arguing, or at least presupposing, that theism is either false or incoherent or in some other way unbelievable.” (p. 30) To Nielsen naturalism is incompatible with belief in God (or a belief that God exists), therefore a naturalist cannot be an agnostic: “saying, as agnostics do, that we do not know, or perhaps even cannot know, whether or not God does or does not exist. In accepting naturalism, a naturalist is also accepting that there is no God.” (p. 30) Nielsen is quick to add however that the spirit of fallibalism is at the heart of a reasonable naturalists philosophy, that is they will “argue for atheism in a fallibalistic, and sometimes even moderately skeptical, manner: a manner characteristic of modernity including that peculiar form of modernity that some call postmodernity.” (p. 30) A naturalist should be sceptical as in the fashion of Hume, that is in a “limited and moderate sense”, although they should not, and indeed cannot be a sceptic “through and through”; moreover, Nielsen adds, that a sceptic, “limited or otherwise, need not be a naturalist, atheist, or even an agnostic as the fideistic stances of Pascal and Kierkegaard brilliantly exemplify.” (p. 30) As stated Nielsen puts a high premium on fallibalism, stating that whether or not a sceptic, a naturalist will be (if she is reasonable) a fallibalist, “but that notwithstanding, still an atheist. “Dogmatic atheism” is not a pleonasm and “fallibalistic atheism” is not an oxymoron.” (p. 30)

As a small digression here, it might be important to note that to Nielsen there is not a sharp distinction between atheism and agnosticism, that is atheism is defined as:

In speaking of an atheist, I refer to someone who rejects belief in God either (a) because she believes that it is false or highly unlikely that God exists, (b) because that the concept of God is incoherent or so problematic as to make such belief impossible or irrational, or (c) because she believes that the term “God” is being used in such a manner that it is so devoid of substance as to make religious belief, rhetorical effects aside, indistinguishable from purely secular beliefs except for the fact that religious beliefs are associated with certain religiously distinctive stories which in turn are stories which (on such an account) the religious believer, though she must entertain them in a vivid and lively way, may or may not believe. (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 56-7)

From this Nielsen adds the atheist bases her rejection on how “God” is being construed by religious people; moreover Nielsen defines his personal atheism as that of someone who rejects (i) anthropomorphic conceptions of God on the basis of (a), (ii) belief in the God of developed Judaism, Christianity, or Islam on the basis of (b), and (iii) purely symbolic conception of God such as Richard Braithwaite’s and R.M. Hare’s on the basis of (c). (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 57)

Continuing on Nielsen states that most naturalists reject the conception common to the Abrahamic theisms (“where they are being even remotely orthodox”, p. 31) that “human beings are sinful, utterly dependent on God, and can only make adequate sense of their lives by accepting without question God’s ordinances for them.” (p. 31) Moreover such a naturalism rejects that particular conception of human beings as well as the associated morality that comes with those beliefs. Naturalists believe that people can “make sense of their lives and reasonably order their lives as moral beings without any belief in God or any other spiritual realities.” (p. 31)

Nielsen states that naturalists engage in both critique and explanation of religion, and that in some cases, if successful, such investigation also becomes a critique of religious belief and practice. Some critics of naturalism such as Robin Horton have stated that naturalistic explanations of religion simply “explain religion away and are superficial to boot.” (Nielsen quoting Norton, p. 31) Nielsen agrees with Horton that Bertrand Russell’s and Baron d’Holbach’s critiques are such examples that align with Horton’s view, but others such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Emile Durkehim (both of whom Nielsen draws on quite heavily in his chapter: “Naturalistic Explanations of Religion“) do not. Nielsen argues that a naturalistic conception of religion will “explain religion as a function of human needs and of the conditions of life which give rise to those needs.” (p. 31) Nielsen does ponder what if anything would constitute an adequate naturalistic explanation of religion, citing Marx Wartofsky who states “that a viable conception of religion is one which doesn’t explain religion away, but rather explains its origins, its distinctive cultural and historical forms, its persistence in various institutions, its changing contexts and development, its continuing and present existence in the modes of belief and actions of individuals.” (Nielsen quoting Wartofsky, p. 31)

Of course I am being very vague in what a naturalism might be about, after all the number of different naturalisms Nielsen looks at reflects the large number of thinkers who have discussed, defended and criticised this philosophical tradition. It becomes difficult to define any particular naturalism as Nielsen spends much of the book comparing the naturalisms of a wide range of thinkers, against their critics, and each other; some naturalisms on offer are Nielsen’s own social naturalism, Nagel’s methodological naturalism, Hook’s pragmatic naturalism, Dewey’s (et al.) ethical naturalism, Quine’s cosmological naturalism etc. Made all the more confusing when we see that many of these thinkers held more than one naturalism to be true, or very likely true, or espoused subcategories or situational naturalisms that amount to the same thing (e.g.: “Nagel characterized his naturalism as a contextualistic naturalism and Hook characterized his as an experimental or pragmatic naturalism, though as we shall see, they come to much the same thing.” Nielsen, p.138), there are even cases of some theists holding to some form of naturalism (as in the cases of Jacques Maritain, Richard Neibuhr, and C.S. Pierce), obviously these would be very nuanced positions to both hold to the title naturalism and for these thinkers to retain their theism.

It might be better, now that we have very simply touched on some of the basic ideas of naturalism, that is its varieties, its relation to atheism, fallibalism etc, we can explore different naturalisms, what Nielsen thinks of them, how strong they fare against their critics, and some of the outlier issues involved in this worldview such as the pragmatists tendency to drop metaphysical talk, the rejection of reductionism and scientism, and Nielsen’s own use of verifiability principles.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Specific Reflections.

October 4, 2013 3 comments

What about reflections more specific to Harris’ theory, that is the so-called “is/ought” problem:

The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality). (p. 10)

Harris states the problem as an issue between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, that philosophers and scientists such as Hume, G.E Moore, Jerry Fodor and Karl Popper have “fallen into the trap” (p. 10) of creating a firewall between facts and values, by thinking there is a problem here.  Scientists often study the “is” Harris states, that is they study “human happiness, positive emotions, and moral reasoning, they rarely draw conclusions about how human beings ought to think or behave in light of their findings. (p. 10) Moreover Harris states that it is generally considered “intellectually disreputable, even vaguely authoritarian” (pp. 10-11) for scientists to suggest that their work has implications for the moral life of others. Harris considers this kind of thinking to be a “faith in the intrinsic limits of reason” (p. 11) Harris believes that the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value – must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;

  2. the very idea  of “objective” knowledge (i.e. knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon the principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony etc.);

  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. (Harris, 2010, p. 11)

To Harris, defining goodness in terms of well-being reduces the gulf between facts and values, in that well-being will be tied to the experience of conscious creatures,  and thus part of natural laws and discoverable by science. (p. 13)

What can we say here? Nielsen 2001 might be able to help us again,  in his discussion on the meaning of life in his book ‘Naturalism & Religion’, Nielsen states:

… we want an answer that is more than just an explanation or description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for is a justification of our existence. We are asking for why life is as it is, and not even the most complete explanation and/or description of how things are ordered can answer these quite different question.  The person who demands that some general description of man and his place in nature should entail a statement that man ought to live and die in a certain way is asking for something that can no more be the case than it can be the case that ice can gossip. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 109)

Nielsen continues, pace Harris, that no statement of fact about how we in fact do live can, by itself, be sufficient to answer the question of meaning and in Harris’ case, morality.  “No statement of what ought to be the case can be deduced from a statement of what is the case.” (p. 109) It is important to note that when we say cannot get an “is” deduced from a ought”, we are saying that we logically cannot.  In defending his moral view, that of “wide reflective equilibrium” (which will be discussed in an upcoming post on his book) Nielsen does agree with Harris insofar as there is “no moral difference without a factual difference”, when we critique Harris, it is not so much that his moral theory relies on facts, as much as it reduces all morality to facts, and facts only. There seems to be no reason why we need to restrict ourselves to a seemingly fallacious mode of thought, that, even if not fallacious, ignores “the plausible fit between our various moral judgements and actual beliefs, including for us our reflective beliefs about the (for us now) best established “substantiative and methodological elements of empirical science.” (Nielsen, quoting Railton, 2001, p. 220)  We can, and according to Craig and Moreland 2006 should use philosophy as a second-order discipline, that is a discipline that discusses primary schools of thought (such as, say, the facts of science, and other schools), to draw out the logical and otherwise philosophical implications of the facts we find in our world. Simply reducing values to facts in such a scientistic way by Harris, seems to miss a whole gamut of reflective experience that could influence the so-called moral landscape.


Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Abstract Reflections.

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

In this series now we have looked at Sam Harris’ moral landscape very briefly (see here), and looked at some other terms, clarifications and confusions (on our part and others, see here). Today, I plan to offer some simple reflections, there has been great critical engagement with his theory by far better thinkers than me in other places (see Shook here, Benson here and Carrier here). Today I’ll start with some more abstract thoughts on Harris’ theory and philosophical assumptions, specializing to some more specific problems with his theory in another post.

Harris only attempts a definition and defence of physicalism at a very shallow level, and without critical engagement:

A dualist who believes in the existence of immaterial souls, might say that the entire field of neuroscience is beholden to the philosophy of physicalism (the view that mental events should be understood as physical events), and he would be right. the assumption that the mind is the product of the brain is integral  to almost everything neuroscientists do. Is physicalism a matter of “philosophy” or “neuroscience”? The answer may depend on where one is standing on the university campus. Even if we grant that only philosophers tend to think about “physicalism” per se, it remains a fact that any argument or experiment that put this philosophical assumption in doubt would be a landmark finding for neuroscience – likely the most important in history.  (Harris, 2010, pp. 179-180)

It is unclear how to specifically engage and indeed understand what Harris’ base assumptions are here, it seems he follows some kind of physicalism, but of which branch or brand?  It is clear it contains reductionism, and as Nielson 2001 states it is hard to imagine how we could have a reductionistic physicalism that relies on the sciences as it’s base without it being just another metaphysical (and dogmatic) system, a material one that replaces a theistic one, what Nielsen calls a “scientific mythology”, that is most importantly, not continuous with science, hence internally inconsistent. (pp. 57, 61) The problem is his reductionism and scientism is linked or perhaps even grounded in his physicalism, with that in mind, what are we supposed to make of his defence of reductionism and scientism?

There is no denying, however, that the effort to reduce all human values to biology can produce howlers. (Harris, 2010, p. 48)

Not much there.

From here Harris addresses why a scientific morality need not be a simple evolutionary account, that it would include “the totality of scientific facts that govern the range of conscious experiences that are possible for us.” (Harris, 2010, p. 49) And, he does address his scientism too:

Charges of “scientism” cannot be long in coming. No doubt, there are still some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter. (Harris, 2010, p. 46)

But does one really need to be with him, or someone who gets their morality from scripture? Given that there are a plethora of secular moral theories which do not rely purely on the sciences for their dictums, it would seem not (Mackie, 1977, Martin 2002 for examples). And that goes to the problem with Harris’ assumptions, if not his theory, he assumes there is no atheistic, even naturalistic position that would disagree with him. Not only has he avoided giving his theistic, idealistic opponents a fair treatment, but he has not given his naturalistic ones one either.

None of this engages with what are serious concerns about the grounding of his theory in coherency. One might argue his is a pragmatic case to make, that the functionality of neuroscience to explain brain mechanisms and resulting behaviour is supported by both practice, theory and indeed praxis. But, and although it would seem the stronger case to make, with a great philosophical and naturalistic tradition (in Quine, Dewey, Hook, Pierce etc), Harris ignores a pragmatic approach to his naturalistic moral theory, instead seeking at a shallow level to defend the strongest and some might argue, incoherent form of physicalism, that is linked to scientism and reductionism. What about intersubjectivity, and the social aspect of humans? Nielsen argues that we are not just biological machinelike beings, explainable only by the hard or natural sciences, rather a holistic explanation of morality needs to include a macroscopic view that includes descriptions of us as “irreducibly social beings and the human animal as a self-reflecting animal.” (p. 57) We want to include in our worldview explanations that cater to all of reality; are anthropologists studying reality? Are cultural theorists? Are political scientists? Are economists? These are not hard sciences, if they are sciences at all, but it is hard to believe these people aren’t studying reality, and that their investigations have nothing to say about morality. Harris, by definitional fiat, is ruling out that these people will have anything to say; this is dogmatic physicalism of the kind even atheists can, and indeed should reject, at least insofar as Nielsen (an atheist philosopher) would argue.

Obviously these thoughts are not conclusive, and to many, not even on point. Of course they aren’t meant to be decisive, and I am a fallibalist after all, I of course could be way off.


Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Mackie, J., L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong. Strand, London. Penguin Books.

Martin, M. (2002). Atheism, Morality And Meaning.  Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

%d bloggers like this: