Notes On Nicholas Rescher’s ‘A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. II': Values – Rationality And Cultivation Hierarchies.
Rescher’s ultimate goal in this work is to outline the significance of values and evaluation in his overall theme of philosophical idealism, but more than this he focuses on values because of their centrality to understanding, both of ourselves and the world we live in.
[His book] It’s key thesis – which is argued pragmatically from various angles and points of departure – is that rationality as such and in general is bound up with the theory and practice of rational evaluation. A rational being must view in the light of this rationality not only its beliefs but it’s values as well. Valuation is an inherent part of the life of reason – moral evaluation included. For such a perspective to make sense it must show that value is not merely a matter of taste… Evaluation must be acknowledged in its objective, rational mode as dealing with facts of the matter (albeit evaluative rather than descriptive facts). (Rescher, 1993, Introduction)
And it’s in this section that the focus of this particular blog will be, after all the ‘subject/object split’ has been a problem for philosophers for centuries, made even more problematic when we move from the realism of simply coming to know what exists external to us (which has its own problems), to the axiological nature of ‘what values should be interpreted from what exists?’ Rescher’s project aims at discovering how one might go about combining two seemingly in-congruent positions, (1) the claim to objective (one might assume this to mean transcendent, or perhaps absolute) values and valuation, and (2) the subjective versions of such. But, how can a theory of rationality, especially regarding something as seemingly relative as values, claim to be transcendent to the subject perceiving such? What is a value, but what we make it to be, based on our specific cultural, historical epoch (as Foucault might say, see here and here)?
Rescher begins broadly with rationality, which he describes as the “intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives – of proceeding in what we do with cogent reasons.” (p.3) As such to him rationality has two aspects, and its in these differences that we can see the germ of how one might separate the relativism of the subjects particular valuation from the overall process of valuation that applies to us all.
- The personal/private/particular: to Rescher at this level of rationality what is rational or not turns on what is so for the agent, “duly considering his or her own personal situation and circumstances” (p. 3). More than this however this level also relies on a host of other subjective rules, such as: “the agent’s idiosyncratic information, experience, opportunities, capabilities, talents, objectives, aspirations, needs and wants.” (p.3) Inclusive in the list Rescher notes is not just the outward situational aspects but also the inner states related to a specific persons psychology or physiology.
- The impersonal/public/universal: this level relies on advisable standards that are “person indifferent and objectively cogent for anyone in those circumstances to proceed in a ‘rationally appropriate’ way…” (p.3) These standards fall at the highest level of abstraction, being general and unrestricted, meaning that what is rational for one person to do, would also be rational for anyone in the same position,
Rescher states this standard of rationality to be relatively trivial in nature, and that moreover this is how rationality is standardly conceived, but what exactly does it mean to be rational?
For a belief, action or evaluation to qualify as rational, the agent must (in theory at least) be in a position to give a “proper account” of it on whose basis others can see that “it is only right and proper” to resolve the issue in that way.” (Rescher, 1993, p.3)
To Rescher a rational act is such that a detached, intelligent observer could observe the facts of the matter (of someone else s particular choice) and be in a position to see that action as the rational thing to do even if they do not value the particular observed choice. To Rescher circumstances differ but the standards of rationality do not, and it’s in the very nature of rationality that this pertains: “It lies in the very meaning of the concept of rationality as such that if something is indeed the ‘rational thing to do’, then it must be possible in principle for anyone to recognize the rational sense of it once enough information is secured.” (p. 3) Moreover, the matter of good reasons and cogent grounds for action or belief is not something subjective, but rather is such that good reasons are good reasons for everyone, and thus objective.
It is important to note that just because there are standards of rationality, does not mean there is only one rational thing to do in a given situation, Rescher speaks of a rational resolution rather than the rational resolution to a given problem, meaning there might be a number of significantly reasonable options for a subject given a particular choice or situation.
Rescher recognizes all too well that the circumstantiality of reason contains “an unavoidable element of person relativity.” (p.4)
Our concrete rational commitments are indeed universal, but only circumstantially universal in a way that makes room for the variation of times, places, and the thousands of details of each individual and situation. (Rescher, 1993, p.4)
This speaks to the fact that what is rational for one to do or think hinges on the particulars of how one might be circumstanced, which will differ from person to person. Specifically Rescher notes that the subject acts rationally only when ones actions are subsumed under a universal principle of rationality that holds for everyone. (p.5)
This might seem to cloud the issue somewhat, after all, how can we have a standard of rationality that caters to the relativity of the subject, but which also pertains to us all? Moreover how can this standard have any meaning at all in light of such? Rescher answers this via his “cultivation hierarchies” in which he breaks rationality up into different “intermediate levels, or strata” of consideration in which the basic principles of rationality are broken up into general rational guidelines that eventually get more specific in nature, finally ending the particulars, which I will now share with you:
Display 1.1 Stratification Levels of the Norms of Rationality
Characterizing aims of rationality. Rationality calls for the intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives.
Defining principles of rationality. The basic principles that delineate and specify rationality’s requirements. (For cognitive rationality, for example, the project at issue turns on the pursuit of truth and the achievement of correct answers to questions. It seeks “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”) These principles provide our criteria for assessing acceptability and adequacy of rational norms and standards of rational procedure.
Governing norms and standards of rationality. Standards for appraising the “rules of the game” governing the rational transaction of affairs. (For cognitive rationality these norms are afforded by desiderata such as coherence, consistency, and simplicity.) These norms provide our criteria for assessing the acceptability and adequacy of our rules and practical procedures.
Rules of rational procedure. Rules for the rational resolution of choices. (In the cognitive case, rules like modus ponens in deductive inference or trend extrapolation in inductive reference.) These rules constitute our criteria for assessing the rational acceptability and adequacy of particular resolutions.
Rationally warranted rulings. Resolutions with respect to particular issues arising in particular concrete cases, such as: “Do (or accept) X in the existing circumstances.” (Rescher, 1993, p.8)
More simply Rescher notes it takes the format, (1): governing “finalities” (or governing principles), (2): implementing policies (guiding norms, desiderata etc), (3): methods of procedure (operating rules), (4): specific rulings. (p.8) As such from here we can use the example of medicine:
Finalities (defining principles). “Maintaining health,” “curing illness and disease ” “restoring and maintaining normal bodily functioning,” “removing painful symptoms.” (Note that if these things are not at issue, then medicine is not at issue. An enterprise not concerned with any of these, whatever it may be, is not medicine.)
Implementing norms, standards and criteria. “How is one to assess ‘health’?” “How is one to construe satisfactory ‘normality’?” “How is one to identify a ‘symptom’?” “Just what constitutes an ‘illness’?” (Note that for the Greeks, unlike ourselves, the idea of an illness without subject-experienced symptoms was scarcely conceivable. At this level there is already some room for variation.)
Rules and procedures. The modus operandi of medical practices – surgery or chiropractic treatment, drugs or psychotherapy, and the like. (These of course differ drastically from age to age and culture to culture.)
Rationally warranted rulings. The specific interventions, prescriptions, and medical measures adopted in particular cases. (“Take two aspirin and get some rest.”) (Rescher, 1993, p.9)
Rescher notes that his strata start at the most abstract levels of uniformity and fixity, and that as we move down to the level of particular cases we gain more and more concrete detail, and with this detail brings variation.
Thus while the top-level is itself absolute and constant, there is “slack” at each step down the ladder, leaving (appropriate) room for an increasingly large element of variability and differentiation. (Rescher, 1993, p.9)
This might be enough for today’s purposes, that is to simply outline his basic thesis (and I say basic because we have barely begun to touch on it). In the next series I can delve deeper into what exactly his theory means and how he might defend it.
Rescher, N. (1993). A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Volume II. The Validity of Values, a Normative Theory of Evaluative Rationality. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.
Schnarch attempts in his work here to deny the old adage: “save the beauty in sex for marriage” (p. 71), he is attempting to expand awareness of the beauty of sex, by looking at our sexual potential, that is he wants to “take a deeply sex-positive stance by examining a superficially sex-positive philosophy.” (p. 71) He states that saying the above adage is like saying that the beauty of sex is in sex, as if you could extract it with the one you marry if only you have love and technical proficiency, and likewise destroy it if you share it with the wrong person.
Here’s my point: there’s no beauty in sex – the beauty is in people. You can’t save the beauty in sex, you have to put it in. We all develop inner beauty to varying degrees. Sex becomes beautiful when we bring our personal beauty to it. The issue isn’t simply who your partner is, whether you’re in love, or how good you can do it. It’s who you are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 71)
Schnarch states that some of the problem comes from a common view of sexuality that we accept that make it difficult to live the above, that is: we often confuse genital prime with sexual prime. To Schnarch this mistakes a part for the whole, in that sexual prime has something to do body development, but sexual prime also has something to do with who you are as a person and that’s the authors point about needing to inject the beauty into sex: “if you’re interested in sex with intimacy there isn’t a seventeen-year-old alive who can keep up with a healthy sixty-year-old!” (p. 76) He asks us to meditate on that point, if intimacy is about disclosing yourself through sex, people who are more open to letting themselves be known are more likely to have more profound sexual experiences. A seventeen-year-old is going to get more erections and have shorter refractory periods than their older counterparts, but they are still establishing their masculinity states Schnarch, they are still developing emotionally. Think of that sixty-year-old, who has more “personhood”, that through the successes and failures of life know themselves, they may not like and accept everything about themselves but they’re on the path, Schnarch says they bring more “self” to sex, and the “differentiation to disclose themselves, unvarnished.” (p. 77)
Schnarch criticizes certain models of sex such as the reductionist “hormonal model” of sex by stating that hormones never determine when you have sex, who you have it with and what it means to you, and moreover he asks:
If our models for human sexual response have no component for intimacy or salience, how do we talk about sex having “meaning” without it sounding like conservative proselytizing or religious moralizing? If we can’t show our kids the dynamics of sexual desire or eroticism, how do we explain the sexual advantages of age and maturity? (Schnarch, 2009, p. 78)
Schnarch also criticizes what he calls the “piece of meat” model of sex, that is we have become fixated on as he states “tight buns”, and “flawless skin” as the “height of sexual attraction” (p. 79), we worship youth as the essence of eroticism, although he notes there’s no use in simply letting your body go as a response to this model, rather we could also focus on the emotional development that comes with increased sexual intimacy. But, with all this criticism what model does Schnarch himself employ? This he calls the “quantum model”, but what is it? The analogy Schnarch uses is to that of quantum physics and quantum theory which essentially studies “dynamic variables that specify a system’s behavior”, but more than that Schnarch’s quantum model offers a multilevel view of sexual functioning.
At its most basic, the quantum model explains how you function sexually – what’s required to make your genitals “work” and reach orgasm. But its real strength is helping people go beyond utilitarian genital function. At the limits of their sexual potential, humans are capable of bringing “high meaning” to sex and integrating sexuality and spirituality in mutually enhancing ways. In short the quantum model is easy to learn, and many people have used it to resolve sexual dysfunctions and explore their sexual potential. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)
Schnarch explains his thesis by starting with the physical dimensions, that is what physically happens to you during sexual stimulation, and is arguably the easy part during sex:
When your body detects sexual stimulation, it responds. The key is when your body detects it. When you are sufficiently aroused, your genitals respond. Become more aroused and your body reaches orgasm. At their simplest biological level, genital response and orgasm reflexes occur whenever sufficient stimulation has occurred. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)
Schnarch asks us to imagine that your body has two “response thresholds” that is two sexual trigger points, (1): one for arousal (genital response) and (2): one for orgasm. When your body exceeds its physiological threshold for arousal your body reacts by preparing for sex (vaginal lubrication in women and an erection in men), when your level of arousal exceeds your orgasm threshold, you reach orgasm, Schnarch states that reaching orgasm and arousal thresholds are dubbed “normal sexual functioning”.
Of course this isn’t the entire spectrum of human sexuality for Schnarch, as he states some 400,000 years ago our species underwent some extraordinary changes, in that women stopped going into “heat” and started menstruating, meaning they had year round sexual desire, this led to men and women staying together longer, and led to the rise of families, societies and most important for us here today: the neocortex evolved. This opened up new avenues and problems for human sexuality, human sex and sexuality took on a mental aspect as well as a physical one, with humans being able to emotionally connect during intercourse, and desire a specific partner rather than simply responding to sexual tension.
But when our ancestors traded hormonally programmed regularity for the ability to bring meaning to sex, we became more susceptible to sexual dysfunctions and “inhibited sexual desire”. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)
We use our neocortex for self-awareness, thus making intimacy possible, but it can also drive us crazy as Schnarch says “spectatoring” ourselves and our performance during sex. Thusly our neocortex has become integral to our sexual functioning, the meanings we perceive during sex can determine how your body functions and how satisfying that functioning is. Schnarch states his quantum model takes into account the mental and physical aspects of sex by realizing that we are biologically based creatures that can bring meaning to sex, our feelings he says can have a bigger effect on arousal than can physical touch hence why his model attempts to look at the physical aspects of sex only after he’s addressed the mental.
We need a new mental picture of what constitutes sexual responsiveness. The total sexual stimulation you require to reach either your arousal or orgasm threshold stimulation is made up of sensory (mostly touch) stimulation you’re receiving from your partner plus your feelings and thoughts – feelings and thoughts about what you’re doing, whom you’re doing it with, and what it implies to you. Total stimulation is therefore more than friction of mucous membranes (as it is in more primitive species) and more friction plus fantasy. So to restate what we said earlier: when the combined stimulation of sensation plus feelings and thoughts reaches your threshold for arousal, or orgasm, the response you expect occurs. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)
Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Now that we have looked at some of Schnarch’s ideas regarding sex, intimacy and relationships lets turn our focus toward his main thesis, that is: differentiation. But, what is it?
The polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell, differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It’s the process of grinding off our rough edges through the normal abrasions of long-term relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly form arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 51)
Of course Schnarch’s thesis applies to almost anybody, in the sense that it applies to any person in relation to another person, he simply couches his terms in marriage. To Schnarch well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves”, similarly they can also disagree without feeling “alienated and embittered” (p. 56), they can “stay connected with people who disagree with them and still ‘know who they are’. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.” (p. 56) He states that a lack of differentiation can come from many sources (most notably the level of differentiation you learned from the family unit you come from), such as the perception of what he calls “fusion fantasies” that is the illusion we have that our partners are supposed to be as part of us, like one organism operating under the control of a single mind. This “emotional fusion” is the opposite of differentiation, in which he describes it as an “invisible-but-tenacious emotional connection” (p. 57), and here he states is an important lesson, differentiation is not simply a lack of connection, it is of a different kind, in which you can “stay in connection without being consumed by the other person” (p. 56), it is a ‘higher-order’ process that balances connection and autonomy. A lack of differentiation states Schnarch alienates us from those we love; emotional fusion is also a tricky problem to solve as popular culture has adopted it as the default position to be in, thus leading to us to think we’re not connected at any sign of an issue thereby forcing us to retreat in defense: “But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us. Or, unable to turn away, we turn ourselves over to the connection, but it feels engulfing.” (p. 57) It’s important to note that differentiation isn’t about alienating yourself either, Shnarch states differentiated people have strong emotional bonds, that is they “don’t require physical distance, infrequent contact or totally consuming careers to maintain their separate identities or moderate their reactivity to others” (p. 64), it is more about the ability to choose which contacts they will indulge in, out of deep liking, not compulsion. Going further Schnarch presses this point stating that those who urge for space within a relationship, are not highly differentiated people, that although defining boundaries is an important early step in differentiation, it is done so within the relationship “(that is close proximity and restricted space)” (p. 67). On the other side Schnarch states poorly differentiated people try to “keep the door open”, or “bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up.” (p. 67) Working on being able to maintain your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your own level of differentiation.
Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when your partner is away or when you are not in a primary love relationship. You value contact, but you don’t fall apart when you’re done. Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism”, which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connection. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy and independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partners needs and priorities into account. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 67)
Schnarch states that having a solid core of beliefs and values allows the differentiated self to be solid yet permeable, this way if your partner tries to mould or manipulate you, you can retain your identity, or as you choose, incorporate new information as you see fit. Schnarch is quick to note however that this can be a slow process, out of “soul-searching deliberation” , not simply as a response to the pressures posed by others. One might wonder if this is only an intellectual exercise that divorces feeling from thought, connection from relationship, Schnarch says no: “Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions…” (p. 68), it simply means that you form bonds that do not involve being swept up in such, that you don’t get caught up in your partners emotions, you can subjectively and objectively evaluate your and your partners feelings, in short: you feel, but you are not defined by your feelings. Nor is this differentiation selfish, you do not put yourself ahead of anyone, you can if you choose allow yourself to be as emotionally influenced by your partner as you want, but it is this expression of autonomy, that is an expression of differentiation. It is more about the awareness that your partner is their own person (complete with their own genetic, historical, culture familial experiences which shape who they are), and their wants and needs are just as important as yours, you allow yourself to see merit in their positions even if they aren’t congruent with yours, and even in circumstances where they conflict. Schnarch calls this “mutuality”: “Differentiation is they key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship” going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partners happiness and well-being.” (Schnarch, 2009, p. 68) (See how this touches on other philosophers thoughts here, and here). Finally Schnarch states two important principles we can look at here:
First, we emerge from our family of origin at about the highest level of differentiation our parents achieved. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)
The author states our level of differentiation is established during our adolescent years and can remain at that level for life.
In the process of regulating their own emotions, poorly differentiated parents pressure their children for togetherness or distance, which stops children from developing their ability to think, feel, and act for themselves. They learn to conduct themselves only in reaction to others. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)
How do we escape this conditioning? Schnarch states it isn’t easy, and that we can raise our level of differentiation through concentrated effort (like therapy), or through crisis (as commonly occurs through marriage, family, friendship and career). Mostly our level of differentiation stays as it is generation to generation, and usually only changes when a family member is motivated to do so. This view too differs from the popular one that our spouse is our supposed to be our savior, pulling us out of our woes, or your family’s grasp.
Second, we always pick a martial partner who’s at the same level of differentiation as we are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)
To Schnarch if one partner is disproportionately differentiated to the other, the relationship generally ends, sometimes one is only a half-step further along their path than the other (he accentuates that they’re only a half-step). Thus we need to give up the illusion that we might be so much further along than our partners or so much more healthy, moreover Schnarch states three things are implicated when you think/argue this way:
You have about the same tolerance for intimacy, although you may express it differently.
You and your spouse make splendid sparring partners because you have roughly the same level of differentiation.
Assume you are emotional “equals” even if you’d like to believe otherwise. If you want to discover important but difficult truths hidden in your marriage, stop assuming you’re more differentiated than your partner. Look at things from the view that you’re at the same level and you’ll soon see the trade-offs in your relationship. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)
As Schnarch states becoming differentiated is the most loving thing you can do in your lifetime, for those you love and yourself. This process however is not easy, as he says no-one ever wants to differentiate, and you’ll probably do it for the same reasons everyone else does: “differentiating eventually becomes less painful than other alternatives.” (p. 74) Don’t’ expect the process to be pain-free, as love can be both beautiful and painful, so too can differentiation. The reward is, at a high level of differentiation you will be able to tolerate, enjoy and see the meaning in the pains and joys of love.
Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Schnarch has some interesting ideas regarding marriage, intimacy and relationships that I intend to share here, to him society generally has distorted our view of sexuality, love, relationships, communication and intimacy. For example we have taken an idea about intimacy, namely that our partner accepts and validates us, and convinced ourselves that this is the totality of what intimacy has to offer, thus placing the burden of being accepted and validated exclusively on our partners. He states that sociologists have suggested we crave “intimate union”, but Schnarch disagrees in that he believes something else is going on, in that we appear to crave intimacy but what we actually are searching for is someone to make us feel “acceptable and worthwhile” (p. 39).
We’ve assigned the label “intimacy” to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us – while keeping true intimacy away. We’ve distorted what intimacy is, how it really feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 39)
Similarly Schnarch states we do something similar with communication, in that we expect to be understood the way we want and be answered with the response we want, he wants however to shift the focus away from making our partners do the impossible task of fulfilling our thoughts, desires and projections (they are not mind readers, they can only accidentally get your expectations right), and to turn the compass inwards, to look at ourselves as the source of our validation, or at least able to structure intimacy in a way that our partners aid us in a “self-validating” intimacy. Thus in turn reflectively enhancing your relationships net intimacy and sexual connection.
This goes too for sex in which Schnarch believes we have rooted sex and sexuality in a “biological hunger”, much like the desire for food, and thus low sexual functioning is labelled “sexual anorexia”, a sexual “eating disorder”. This places couples under an enormous amount of pressure to fulfill their partners and perhaps even their own expectations about sex and sexuality, after all how messed up would you be if you didn’t want to eat? The same is thought of sex.
We don’t realize that seeing sex as a “drive” makes us focus on relieving sexual tension rather than wanting our partner. It may be true that the more tension (“horny”) people feel, the more they tend to seek relief – but if that’s the only reason you think your partner wants to be with you it tends to kill sex and intimacy in marriage. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)
Thinking of sex as a biological drive states Schnarch sets us up to believe we’re supposed to know how to have, enjoy and appreciate sex, and it also makes us think we should want it all the time, but this does not take into account the mental aspects of sex and sexuality:
Until couples go beyond viewing sex as a biological drive, they presume sexual behavior is a good measure of sexual desire and orgasm always involves high arousal and satisfaction. Common experiences of married couples disprove both assumptions.(Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)
Just what alternative view should we have of sex? Schnarch does offer some insights here (p. 75), but perhaps we can look at that later. In our next post we will begin to discuss Schnarch’s interesting and complicated differentiation thesis.
Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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.
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.
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:
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;
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.);
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.