Not even wrong: The many problems with Naturalism
The phrase “not even wrong” is commonly used as a quip directed at an allegedly scientific claim which is not falsifiable. More generally, it is used as a description of any statement or question which is so off-base, which assumes so much baggage, that one cannot begin to engage it on its own terms.
An example of the latter, broader usage: Yesterday a student came to my office and mentioned how he’d seen an informal poll on the internet asking “Is Jesus more powerful than Hollywood?” He winced as he shared this and I responded with an “Aw man, that’s not even wrong!” This isn’t a simple matter of checking “yes” or “no” on a box. Instead, we need to begin from the ground up by deconstructing the question itself.
Naturalism as not even wrong
My attitude toward naturalism is similar. It is not even wrong. And that response is fueled both by the narrower scientific usage and broader usage of the phase. I’m going to explain why this is so in dialogue with Jeffrey Jay Lowder’s definitions of naturalism in his revised version of “The Evidential Argument from the History of Science.” Lowder says “That article should be treated as my definitive source for definitions.” So we shall treat them as such.
It should be obvious why it is crucial for Lowder to be able to define clearly what he means by naturalism. He is claiming that naturalism offers a better explanation for the success of science than does theism. Presumably then he should be able to tell us what naturalism is!
Randy pulls into the Dairy Queen on his Honda Magna.
Jeff walks up. “Nice bike, but mine’s faster.”
“Really?” Randy says. “What kind of bike do you ride?”
“It’s um, uh, faster.”
If we’re going to assess the superiority of naturalism over theism to explain something, we should need to have an idea of what naturalism is. Hopefully Lowder’s definitions will help us out in that regard.
Unfortunately, in his definitive list of definitions Lowder doesn’t provide a definition for metaphysical naturalism. If I didn’t know better I would have thought that Lowder was skittish about providing such a definition due to the recognition that it would likely be untenable and thus render his position eminently open to refutation.
“It’s parked over there.”
“Really? Which bike is it?”
“It’s, um, over there.”
Let’s make the best of the situation by considering a few of the definitions Lowder does provide:
nature: the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities. Note: there may be additional entities currently unknown to physics but which may be discovered in the future. If and when such entities are discovered, they may be called physical and natural based on their relationship to known physical or natural entities. Thus, this definition of “nature” may only capture nature as currently understood
supernatural person: a person that is not part of nature but can affect nature. Examples of supernatural persons include God, angels, Satan, demons, ghosts, etc.
presumption of naturalism: prior to investigation, the probability that the immediate cause of any given natural event is very high.
First a correction to this third definition. I am proceeding under the assumption that Lowder means to say this:
presumption of naturalism: prior to investigation, the probability that the immediate cause of any given natural event is itself natural is very high.
Based on these definitions and our past conversations, I’m going to reconstruct Lowder’s metaphysical naturalism like this:
metaphysical naturalism: nature is all that exists (with the possible exception of inert abstract objects) and thus every cause of every event is natural.
Now for the not even wrong bit.
Becoming mindful of a serious problem
It has been said that he who marries the spirit of the age is soon a widower. The same goes for fashions, fads, and scientific hypotheses, conjectures and theories.
Lowder knows this. He knows that science is always changing, and that the science of fifty years from now is something we cannot begin to imagine. With that in mind he tries to lock in a definition of nature that is open to the ever changing descriptions we have of nature. His catch-all proviso is found in his statement that when new “entities are discovered, they may be called physical and natural based on their relationship to known physical or natural entities.”
Thus, nature is defined in such a way that it encompasses whatever science describes in the future as either natural or in relationship with the natural.
Now let’s explore this a bit. Neuroscience is, it may be said, taking the first few baby steps into understanding the brain. So it would be completely foolhardy to make any sweeping a priori claims on what theories of the brain and/or mind might look like in fifty years. With that in mind, it is possible that a future neuroscience may have reason to affirm the existence of a non-physical substance that interacts with the brain. In the same way that the existence of subatomic particles can be inferred from their effects, so it is conceivable that a soul could be inferred from its effects.
In this way, the soul could be confirmed from a scientific perspective based on its relationship to known physical or natural entities. Did you get that? Lowder’s naturalism is consistent with science establishing the existence of a non-physical substance that interacts causally with the realm of nature.
Now since we have no idea about science in the next fifty years (let alone the next five hundred), it is completely conceivable that science may confirm other non-physical substances that interact in nature. In virtue of their interaction with physical and natural entities those non-physical substances would also be encompassed in Lowder’s naturalism.
“Oh, is it that bike?”
“Uh, well, yeah.”
“But Jeff, that’s a Shadow 600. That’s not a fast bike at all!”
So now we’ve identified that Lowder’s naturalism is consistent with the existence of an indefinite range of non-physical substances interacting in nature. Whether or not we can identify one of those substances as God from within scientific discourse is quite irrelevant. The point remains that Lowder’s naturalism is consistent with God interacting in the physical world.
And that means that Lowder’s naturalism is (how can I put this charitably?) a mere vacuous cipher.
Contradiction duly noted
Elsewhere in “The Evidential Argument from the History of Science, Part 2: Detailed Reply to Randal Rauser” Lowder does provide a description, if not quite a definition, of metaphysical naturalism. It goes like this:
Metaphysical naturalists, on the other hand, hold that the universe is a closed system, which means that nothing that is not part of the natural world affects it. Metaphysical naturalism (N) denies the existence of all supernatural beings, including God. Therefore, N entails that any true scientific explanations must be naturalistic (i.e., non-supernatural) ones.
This seems to be a case of the left hand not telling the right hand what it is doing. On the one hand, Lowder’s naturalism is open to the existence of non-physical substances causally interacting in the physical world. On the other hand, it categorically denies this. So which is it?
Not even wrong explained
People commonly assume that metaphysical naturalism and/or materialism are claims about what exists. But that isn’t actually that obvious. In fact, there is a good reason to think that naturalists are not expressing a claim about what exists at all but rather a particular kind of attitude.
To my knowledge the earliest discussion of this point is in O.K. Bouwsma’s essay “Naturalism”. (Though originally written in the 1940s, you can find it in his Philosophical Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).)
This thesis is also helpfully (if less humorously) explored in Bas van Fraassen’s essay “Science, Materialism, and False Consciousness,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology, ed. Jonathan Kvanvig (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) from page 163 ff. I’ll interact with van Fraassen’s essay for the remainder of this article.
Van Fraassen begins this section of the essay with J.J.C. Smart’s attempt to define “materialism”:
“By ‘materialism’ I mean the theory that there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics (or, of course, those entities which will be postulated by future and more adequate physical theories.” (Cited in van Fraassen, 167)
Van Fraassen comments:
“Smart may believe, or think he believes, the ‘theory’ here formulated; but if he does, he certainly does not know what he believes. For of course he has no more idea than you or I of what physics will postulate in the future. It is a truly courageous faith, that believes in an ‘I know not what’—isn’t it?” (168)
As van Fraassen points out, it could be that physics will forever postulate different accounts of physical reality, never reaching a final, settled conclusion. In that case, “Smart’s so-called theory—as formulated above—entails that there is nothing.” (168)
So how should we interpret these apparent claims about reality that are made by self-described naturalists like Lowder and Smart? Van Fraassen proposes that what is really operative here is the spirit of materialism. He defines it as follows:
“it is not identifiable with a theory about what there is, but only with an attitude or cluster of attitudes. These attitudes include strong deference to science in matters of opinion about what there is, and the inclination to accept (approximate) completeness claims for science as actually constituted at any given time.” (170)
In his essay Bouwsma characterized this humorously as an attitude of preference for scientific knowledge much like a gentleman might prefer blondes or a circus might prefer big elephants.
And why does van Fraassen call this “false consciousness”? Because the naturalists think they’re offering some claim about the way the world is when in fact they’re not. All they’re really saying is that they really like, and are committed to scientific enquiry.
Well gosh darn it, I like science too!
Later in the essay van Fraassen helpfully summarizes the dilemma in the terms of the familiar two horns of the snorting bull:
“Horn One: the thesis [of materialism or naturalism] can be given the form of a specific scientific hypothesis. In that case it cannot be proposed as basis for a lasting philosophy. To be scientific, it must be yoked to science in progress, and so be hostage to the fortunes of future experience and future scientific development. This implies for every empirical thesis the prospect of being given up eventually, however well-grounded it may be in present science. Horn Two: the thesis can be given the form of a completeness claim for a specific science, say physics. But completeness claimed for today’s science reduces to the previous case. Aiming the completeness claim at science in the long run empties it of content, since no one today can know what science will eventually be like.” (173)
And that is why naturalism is not even wrong.
Thanks to Crude for raising these issues against Lowder, thereby prompting me to write this essay.