Thursday, April 16, 2015

What is naturalism?

The following is not a defense of naturalism, just a quick summary of the basic outlook and philosophical practice of naturalized philosophers, finishing with some standard criticisms and an indication of its current popularity. (Written for tonight's Philosophy Club discussion on naturalism at Professor Dowden's home.)

Naturalism and human knowledge 

Naturalism is associated with the rejection of First Philosophy (the idea that philosophical inquiry is logically prior to scientific inquiry, and that part of the task of philosophy is to determine the scope, limits, and proper method of the latter by a priori means.) Following Hume, naturalists tend to regard FP as historically unproductive and probably incoherent.  Naturalists tend to emphasize the fact that philosophers don't have special tools or methods unavailable to scientists. Hence, they tend to see philosophical knowledge and scientific knowledge as continuous rather than categorically distinct. Naturalists tend to approve of Otto Neurath's metaphor that "We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom." 

Naturalism and human understanding

Naturalists tend to think that improving our understanding of the world amounts to developing theories that provide better explanations of it, which at least partly means theories that improve our ability to predict and control the future. They tend to see this process as something that is inherently unkind to existing beliefs and intuitions. As such, naturalists tend to be very dubious about philosophical inquiries that begin with questions like "What is the nature of ___?" (where the blank is filled in with words like: knowledge, time, free will, self, goodness, etc.) and which proceed by exploring our ordinary intuitions about the meaning of these words.

Naturalism and human cognition

Naturalists take it as well-established that human beings are animals and that human knowledge and understanding is an evolved capacity. They believe our claims about the world have to be compatible with a scientific understanding of our perceptual and cognitive mechanisms (which of course is still in its infancy.) This, of course, means that naturalists reject supernatural knowledge and understanding. So, for example, the idea that some of our knowledge was simply revealed to us by a supernatural agent is a non starter from a naturalistic perspective.  In a similar vein, naturalists also reject the Cartesian and Platonic view that humans are born with ideas of divine origin.  (They do not reject innate ideas of evolutionary origin.) Naturalists also tend to reject the idea that there are categorically distinct realms of, say, moral, aesthetic, logical and mathematical knowledge, which can be apprehended in ways that aren't answerable to a scientific understanding of our perceptual and cognitive abilities.

Naturalism and the value of philosophical inquiry

Naturalism is not associated with a distinct view of the value of philosophical inquiry. Some naturalists, such as those who participate in experimental philosophy, see themselves as scientists who study questions that have been traditionally conceived as philosophical in nature. Generally speaking they deal with naturalized versions of these questions. For example, our newest faculty member Dan Weijers, is an experimental philosopher who does empirical research on happiness. Conceived as ethics, his work might be characterized as addressing a naturalized version of a traditional ethical question: What causes happiness and how can we make more of it? 

Other naturalistic philosophers see themselves as trying to make a distinct contribution to scientific problems at a conceptual level. They analyze scientific concepts and propose ways of improving them for scientific purposes. They also participate in the development of emerging conceptual frameworks, such as those that are currently being developed for scientific inquiry into consciousness, cognition, and communication. Often this involves explicating a term, the familiar meaning of which seems to be essentially supernatural or non natural, in a way that is susceptible to scientific inquiry. For example, the idea that personal identity consists in an unchanging 'self' that is the owner of its thoughts, feelings and body parts does not make sense in naturalistic terms. But there is little question that human beings have a distinct feeling of ownership and of being self aware, so the naturalistic project is to explicate a concept of self that will serve scientific inquiry into how and why this occurs.

Still other naturalistic philosophers explore the way that different areas of scientific inquiry are related and specifically how knowledge claims at different levels (e.g., physics, biology, psychology, sociology) are related. This approach is basically in accord with Wilfrid Sellars' view that philosophy is the study of "how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term."

Critical stances on naturalism

Most critiques of naturalism focus on naturalism as a prescriptive account about the right way to do philosophy. The main problem with prescribing naturalism to others is that it will typically seem to involve making the kind of a priori claims that naturalists themselves reject. For example, naturalists who insist that there is, and can be, no perspective outside of science from which to evaluate scientific knowledge and understanding may appear to need to inhabit that perspective in order to substantiate the claim.  Metaphysical naturalists who claim to know that there are no non-natural properties are susceptible to the same kind of criticism.

Naturalism may also appear to be self-defeating. Some, for example, believe that a fundamentally scientific perspective on human perception and cognition (specifically an evolutionary one that holds that our mental capacities evolved to serve the ends of survival, not truth) leads to the view that scientific knowledge is either not achievable or miraculous.

Naturalists also find it challenging to produce a compelling account of the nature of logical and mathematical knowledge, which may seem to entail the existence of abstract objects that we know by means that are inscrutable from a naturalistic perspective.

Naturalism as described here is not in any way committed to the so-called naturalistic fallacy or the is-ought fallacy. 

The current status of naturalism

According to a survey conducted by David Chalmers and David Bourget, about 50% of professional philosophers describe themselves as accepting or leaning toward naturalism, whereas about 26% accept or lean toward anti-naturalism. The remaining 24% declined to answer for one reason or another.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Randy, this is the best little summary of naturalism I've ever read. I wish I had read it before last night's philosophy club discussion of the topic. It went on until 1:00 A.M. I hope you will teach the naturalism seminar very frequently. I am very curious about the 24% of those surveyed by Chalmers and Bourget who declined to answer whether they lean toward or against naturalism. Specifically I wonder what percentage of those declined to answer because they follow the Logical Positivists who believe such questions are cognitively nonsense. I also wonder whether the 50% number of professional philosophers who like naturalism is a stable number or one that is trending up or down. I suspect you don't know the answers to these questions. Do you happen to know what percentage of the surveyed philosophers teach at religious colleges?

  2. Brad, thanks! And thanks very much for hosting phil club. Those are great questions and, you're right, I don't know the answers to any of them, including your last one. The article does explore lots of interesting connections like these, though. I sure do suspect that there are really strong correlations between anti-naturalism and theism as well as naturalism and atheism/agnosticism. Stronger, I bet in the first case than the second.

  3. Professor Mayes, as professor Dowden mentioned, this article is an excellent summary of naturalism.
    Under the section, "Critical stances on naturalism", you mentioned that the naturalists have a hard time of producing compelling accounts of the nature of logical and mathematical knowledge, yet as mentioned by the article, 50% of philosophers find naturalism attractive. So, knowing that math and the realm of logic are substantial areas of our knowledge, why do you think that this view is so popular among philosophers?

  4. Thanks Hesam. It's a good question. I think the general answer is (a) that they see the alternative, anti-naturalism, as being even more problematic and (b) because they think the problem of mathematical and logical knowledge is soluble in naturalistic terms. My own view is that there is no specific problem with mathematical objects. I think the problem is with our continuing to think of knowing in terms of a correspondence or resemblance relation with an external reality. When you think of things that way,how we can come to know external physical objects is no less vexing than how we can come to know abstract ones.