Not even wrong: The many problems with Naturalism

Posted on 07/18/12 62 Comments

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.

The Definitions

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.

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  • Raymond Ingles

    I think you’re a bit off in deriding ‘being open to correction in the future’ as opening one up to anything. But in any case, I’ve pointed out that ‘supernatural’ always, in practice, boils down to, ‘something humans can’t understand’.

    If somebody levitates naturalistically, it’s because of microgravity or a strong magnetic field or strings. If someone levitates supernaturally (http://www.miraclesofthesaints.com/2010/10/levitation-and-ecstatic-flights-in.html)… how do they levitate, exactly?

    So, it sure seem to me that what ‘naturalists’ are aiming for, what they actually mean, is that the causes of things in this universe are ultimately comprehensible to humans, that we can figure out how it works. (Though, as I’ve pointed out, there are those who reject those explanations: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/fcking-magnets-how-do-they-work )

    • Randal Rauser

      “I think you’re a bit off in deriding ‘being open to correction in the future’ as opening one up to anything.”

      The point here is that it is rank foolishness to stipulate a priori how science will, or will not, be defining the nature of the universe in 50, 500 or 5000 years.

      “But in any case, I’ve pointed out that ‘supernatural’ always, in practice, boils down to, ‘something humans can’t understand’.”

      We’ve had this discussion before, as you know. And there I pointed out that on your definition an atheist like Colin McGinn would be a supernaturalist. That is most emphatically NOT how the term “naturalism” is used and thus is a defeater to your claim.

      • Raymond Ingles

        And you classify Mormons as atheists, which is also emphatically not how the term ‘atheist’ is used (and they themselves reject the label vehemently). So what? The question is whether the definition ‘carves nature at the joints’ or not. The question isn’t ‘how popular is the definition’.

        • Randal Rauser

          I only define Mormons as atheists after I’ve pointed out that Mormonism rejects the most basic definition of God: i.e. a necessarily existent immaterial agent that created and sustains the universe.
          For your comparison to work, you’d have to show that naturalists in fact regularly define naturalism in the way you’re proposing. But they simply don’t. They define it broadly the way that Lowder is proposing.
          Will Mormons continue to call themselves theists? Sure. But let’s just recognize that in doing so they diverge from the way theism is defined by virtually everybody else. Can you continue to call yourself a naturalist? Sure. But let’s just recognize that in doing so you diverge from the way naturalism is defined by virtually everybody else.

          • Crude

            For my part, I think what’s really interesting about mormons is that they call themselves theists, but under the standards both Ray and Jeff give, they’d apparently qualify as naturalists.

            I suppose one could go on and say that naturalism and theism are entirely compatible.

            • Randal Rauser

              In fact, Mormonism is historically materialist in metaphysic. So classic Mormonism would be consistent not only with naturalism but with a hard-nosed, reductionistic materialism.

          • Raymond Ingles

            By your definition, wouldn’t polytheists be atheists?

            • Randal Rauser

              It would depend on what attributes one understood these many “deities” to have.

              • Raymond Ingles

                Can you give me some examples of atheist polytheists?

                • Randal Rauser

                  This is Groo’s cosmogony:

                  First there was twilight. Then the day began to dawn. As the sun appeared it warmed the earth. Three shoots appeared in the earth and began to grow. As those shoots grew one became Sky God, another became Earth God and the third became Sea God. Ever since, these three gods have struggled for supremacy leading to the various storms of life.

                  Groo is a polytheistic atheist.

                  • Raymond Ingles

                    Let me clarify. I didn’t want a hypothetical polytheistic atheist. I was asking for actual historical polytheistic schemes that you would classify as ‘atheist’.

                    For bonus points, could you point out some historical polytheistic religions that you would qualify as ‘theistic’?

                    • Randal Rauser

                      Groo’s belief system is meant to reflect a generic animism. Most animisms are atheistic by this definition.

                      The ancient Greek who believed only in the finite pantheon of Greek “deities” was also atheistic by this definition.

                      As for polytheisms, some types of Hinduism are polytheistic. Zoroastrianism is also arguably polytheistic insofar as Angra Mainyu is a separate principle over-against Ahura Mazda. However, some aspects of Zoroastrian eschatology sound more monotheistic.

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      So far as I can tell, what you’re saying is that the majority of people who’ve every lived, and around 50% of people today, think they are theists but in fact are atheists?

                    • Randal Rauser

                      You seem to think there is something perplexing here but there isn’t. Same word, two different uses. Plato and Aristotle recognized this. I don’t know why you’re having trouble.

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      Which word, exactly? “Theist” or “atheist”?

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      Oh, and, precisely define the two different usages. Please, indulge me, I honestly want this clarified.

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      Okay, no response. I’ll have to guess.

                      Apparently you’re differentiating between how ‘theist’ is used in Christian philosophy (you’re a monotheist or you’re an atheist) and how ‘theist’ is used by, well, everyone else in the entire world for all of history.

                      Every discipline develops a specialized vocabulary, sure. But when using a specialized term among a general audience, you have to ‘unpack’ the word and make sure people understand what you are really saying. I’ve called you out on this before.

                      In any case, I cannot see how you can sensibly object to me proposing and defending a definition of ‘naturalism’ if you’re going to use words like ‘theist’ in a nonstandard manner.

                    • Randal Rauser

                      Theologians would minimally describe God like this: “a non-physical, omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good agent who created and sustains all things.” Take a definition like that, and begin to survey the population of theists. You’ll find the vast majority in fundamental agreement, even if they would not have articulated their own belief that way (because they’re not theologians who think about these things every day).

                    • Raymond Ingles

                      Can you point me to a source that defines terms in that way and explicitly claims that polytheists are atheists?

                    • Randal Rauser

                      Obviously if “Theist” has two different meanings then it follows that placing an alpha privative in front of those two definitions yields two meanings for atheist as well.

    • Raymond Ingles
      • Randal Rauser

        Thanks for providing that link.

    • Crude

      The idea that the universe is comprehensible is actually pretty amusing as a standard, since one theistic reply is that the universe is comprehensible on theism, but not on naturalism. Remember that plenty of naturalists invoke brute explanations (events happening with absolutely no cause, out of utter nothingness), in addition to the McGinn example Rauser points out.

      Worse, a la CS Peirce, the comprehensibility of the universe would seem to be evidence for the theist – a ‘natural’ universe could have been radically incomprehensible in principle (see Einstein’s pretty famous comment about this.) Comprehensibility is a statement about a universe’s relationship to a mind.

      I could go on (the in principle comprehensibility of God, etc), but really, the standard of ‘incomprehensible to humans’ is a pretty terrible standard for a would-be naturalist defense.

      • Crude

        Curse these comboxes and their unique foibles.

        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/02/can-we-make-sense-of-world.html

      • Raymond Ingles

        I can post links too. http://ingles.homeunix.net/rants/atheism/rational.html

        The main issue, of course, is that assuming that there are things that are incomprehensible (which even Feser does, note; he’s a devotee of Aquinas, who was a devotee of Apophatic theology – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophatic_theology – ‘we can’t understand what God is, only what God is not‘) is intrinsically self-defeating.

        It’s like a singularity in physics, or dividing by zero in math; the laws break down, anything’s possible. (Like, say, it being a good thing to order babies slaughtered – Joshua 10:40.)

        In the end, you either assume we can (eventually) understand everything, or you wind up saying we can’t be sure of anything.

        • Randal Rauser

          It is true that Aquinas affirms apophasis (the way of negation) but you miss the fact that he also affirms the way of analogy.

          • Raymond Ingles

            “Sure, I believe in dividing by zero. But I also believe in association and commutation!”

        • Crude


          I can post links too.

          Great, just start posting relevant ones and you’ll be up to speed.

          The main issue, of course, is that assuming that there are things that are incomprehensible (which even Feser does, note; he’s a devotee of Aquinas, who was a devotee of Apophatic theology

          Did you read your own link? The only mention of Aquinas it has, aside from referencing his quotes of Pseudo-Dionysius, was affirming that Aquinas believed both positive and negative theology worked together. So no, it’s not that we can’t understand what God is, only that God is not – it’s that understanding what God is not is important, and understanding what God is is also important.

          Nice non-sequiturs, by the way. ;)

          In the end, you either assume we can (eventually) understand everything, or you wind up saying we can’t be sure of anything. By Feser’s classification scheme, I would say that A is the only practical option. B winds up devolving to C in practice, which winds up being indistinguishable in practice from F.

          Simply telling me “Yeah well, I don’t like Feser’s list or his explanations, so I disagree” doesn’t say much to me. But really, it’s worse than that: it illustrates that, even by your own standards, plenty – probably the majority – of naturalists are entirely fine with an incomprehensible universe. That part isn’t really controversial, especially nowadays. You can embrace A if you like, but it comes with a price (aside from being a kind of extreme position, even among philosophers): it insists on a correspondence between mind and the universe so powerful, that superficially it’s far more compatible with theism than atheism. Back to the CS Peirce argument I mentioned.

          • Raymond Ingles

            Wait, you’re quoting Feser and you need me to establish that he’s a Thomist? He frickin’ wrote the book: http://www.amazon.com/Aquinas-Beginners-Guide-Edward-Feser/dp/1851686908

            Saying we can’t grasp what God is, only what It isn’t, has consequences for comprehensibility. Such as Feser straightforwardly acknowledges. From your link: “The world is thoroughly intelligible in itself but only partially intelligible to us: We might call this the “moderate rationalist” position. It was the view of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas”.

            That’s what he calls position B, and endorses. “The only truly coherent positions one could take on the question of the world’s intelligibility, then, are A and B. And A is, needless to say, not very plausible, even if coherent.”

            My point is that there’s no practical difference between B and F. Which my link (and this one http://ingles.homeunix.net/rants/atheism/faith.html ) argues.

            • Crude


              Wait, you’re quoting Feser and you need meto establish that he’s a Thomist?

              What in the world are you talking about? You and I have talked on Ed’s blog before – where did you get the idea that I disputed Ed is a Thomist? I certainly sad nothing of the sort here, so you’re off into “wild misreading” or “making stuff up” land. Either-or.

              What I disputed was the charge that Aquinas embraced only negative theology. By your own link, Aquinas embraced both negative and positive theology: “While Aquinas felt positive and negative theology should be seen as dialetical correctives to each other, like thesis and antithesis producing a synthesis, Lossky argues, based on his reading of Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, that positive theology is always inferior to negative theology, a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation.”

              Did you miss this part when you linked it?

              My point is that there’s no practical difference between B and F.

              Your link hardly touches on that – it’s mostly some weird rant about caricatures of theology and philosophy.

              Worse, as I said, and as Feser’s argument gives evidence for – this strikes at naturalism more than it does theism. There’s a reason why the principle of sufficient reason is routinely targeted by atheists and naturalists, and upheld by theists.

              Really, it seems like you don’t really understand what’s being argued with regards to Feser’s article, if your response is to argue about practical considerations. You definitely have yet to understand what comes with arguing that the world is not only completely intelligible, but completely intelligible *to us*, or even to apparently realize that the partial intelligibility *in itself* of nature isn’t some obscure position – it’s extremely popular with naturalists and atheists.

              • Raymond Ingles

                I did misread you, because I think you misread me. My point was directed at negative theology, precisely because it contains an element of incomprehensibility.

                And as I’m arguing, that’s fatal. In math, if you can divide by zero, you can prove that 1=2. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_by_zero#Fallacies_based_on_division_by_zero ) As I’ve pointed out, if you allow incomprehensibility at any point, you can likewise ‘prove’ absurdities. Like ordering the slaughter of infants.

                So it doesn’t matter if Aquinas (and therefore Feser) accept positive theology too. As I’ve already pointed out, that’s like saying, “Sure, I accept division by zero, but I also accept association and commutation!” The latter is irrelevant in light of the former.

                I realize that ‘partial intelligibility’ is popular. So what? If I was concerned with popularity, I’d be a theist. I’m arguing that you and other ‘partial intelligibility’ adherents have yet to understand what comes with arguing that the world is only partially intelligible to us.

                Amateur philosophers flirt with solipsism. Really amateur philosophers it to think about ‘what if our universe is just an atom in a bigger universe?’ Both of those prospects are entirely safe from being disproved… but so what? Even if either was true, it would have no practical effect whatsoever.

                What I’m pointing out is that even if there are things we can’t ever understand… it makes no difference, because there’s no way to tell which things are ‘forever beyond us’ and which things are just ‘stuff we don’t understand yet.’

                The only practical effect of assuming some things are incomprehensible is that you stop trying to understand them. I think that’s a bad effect, and I think history supports that.

                • Crude

                  And as I’m arguing, that’s fatal. In math, if you can divide by zero, you can prove that 1=2. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ) As I’ve pointed out, if you allow incomprehensibility at any point, you can likewise ‘prove’ absurdities. Like ordering the slaughter of infants.

                  There is nothing incomprehensible of establishing what something is not. Why you would think so is absolutely boggling.

                  Here, let’s try it: “A dog is not a type of lizard.”

                  Was this incomprehensible to you? If not, congratulations! You’re reasonable. Also, your complaints about negative theology are largely sunk.

                  I realize that ‘partial intelligibility’ is popular. So what? If I was concerned with popularity, I’d be a theist. I’m arguing that youand other ‘partial intelligibility’ adherents have yet to understand what comes with arguing that the world is only partially intelligible to us.

                  Until you grapple with why the Principle of Sufficient Reason is the bane of atheists and naturalists, and the friend of theists, I think the most charitable thing is to say that this topic is only partially intelligible to you.

                  • Raymond Ingles

                    Here, let’s try it: “A dog is not a type of lizard.”

                    That’s a problem if you can only define a dog by saying it isn’t a lizard or an insect or a bacterium or a rat or…

                    But the thing is, we can make a rather comprehensive positive definition of a dog. They are tail-possessing forward-facing-eyes, grasping-paws, hair-possessing milk-giving
                    amniote-possessing tetrapodal jawed vertebrate notochord-possessing
                    multicellular non-chloroplast mitochondrial eukaryotes.

                    There is no necessity to classify a dog by what it isn’t. But negative theology insists that we can’t comprehend (at least major aspects of) God as It is, and can only specify them by what It’s not.

                    Can you name anything else like that?

                  • Raymond Ingles

                    Until you grapple with why the Principle of Sufficient Reason is the
                    bane of atheists and naturalists, and the friend of theists, I think the
                    most charitable thing is to say that this topic is only partially
                    intelligible to you.

                    I don’t have to refute all of classical theism to point out a serious practical problem with assuming stuff that’s fundamentally incomprehensible. And since Feser’s trying to demonstrate classical theism for practical purposes, practical considerations do come into play.

                    That said, I do think the case for ‘classical theism’ is rather weak. I’ve been slowly working through TLS for a while now, making sure I understand the vocabulary.

                    • Crude

                      I don’t have to refute all of classical theism to point out a serious practical problem with assuming stuff that’s fundamentally incomprehensible.

                      It’s not “fundamentally incomprehensible”. That’s part of your misunderstanding – on classical theism, the universe is wholly comprehensible. God is comprehensible, but not to us.

                      Meanwhile – and here’s the important part – the universe is not wholly comprehensible on naturalism. Not practically, not in principle.

                      That’s a problem if you can only define a dog by saying it isn’t a lizard or an insect or a bacterium or a rat or…

                      And Aquinas doesn’t “only” define God by means of negative theology.

                      The “can you name anything else like that?” is silly even when applied to pure negative theology, since unique conditions for approaching the subject is exactly what divides various fields, including fields of science. Psychology treats humans in a way that physics never does or would.

          • Raymond Ingles

            “You can embrace A if you like, but it comes with a price (aside from
            being a kind of extreme position, even among philosophers): it insists
            on a correspondence between mind and the universe so powerful, that
            superficially it’s far more compatible with theism than atheism.”

            My point is a practical one. Let’s say you come across a phenomenon you don’t understand. How do you tell if it’s incomprehensible or not? What do you do?

            ( http://ingles.homeunix.net/rants/atheism/unknowable.html )

            The only thing you can do is try to understand it. If you don’t try to understand it, you won’t understand it. (Duh.)

            And if you fail, you can’t conclude “that’s incomprehensible”. The most you can say is, “I don’t understand it yet.” Haldane gave up ( http://ingles.homeunix.net/rants/haldane.html ) but then a ‘mechanistic theory’ was figured out.

            “The incomprehensible” is a philosophical concept with no practical utility whatsoever. Indeed, to the extent that it induces people to give up understanding things that are comprehensible, it’s actively harmful.

  • Crude

    Thanks for the nod, Randal. I’m glad to see someone else making these points, because I’ve been harping on it for years and I felt like the only one doing so at times. The van Fraassen paper is a favorite of mine.

    • soku

      @bfcca99aa8ff45388fffdee6c9617889:disqus , nice job. You’ve been saying a lot of same things I’d be saying if I were not so lazy sometimes. ;)

      • Crude

        Thanks for the encouraging words! I’m actually in the process of writing a book about this, only because it seems like this subject is almost entirely ignored in the literature I’m aware of. Even van Fraassen’s paper is something you have to dig pretty deep to find.

        • soku

          I hope you let us know when you finish the book! I’d love to give it a read. By the way, have you read Daniel Stoljar’s book “Physicalism”? It is a great, great read and he basically comes up with a new (more formidable, IMO) version of Hempel’s Dilemma cashed out in terms of possible worlds. He comes to the conclusion that there is no variety of physicalism that is a) worthy of the name or b) true.

          Here’s a nice review:

          http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/31706-physicalism/

          • Crude

            Thanks for the ref! I’ve heard of Stoljar’s work here before – Feser has gotten into the subject – but that’s an interesting summary. It’s also interesting that the reviewer kept making reference to Chomsky’s standards, since Chomsky’s view of the whole debate was pretty fascinating to me when I first encountered it.

            And I’ll let everyone know, absolutely. Hopefully I can do the entire subject justice.

        • Randal Rauser

          Do you have a publisher? What level are you writing at?

          • Crude

            No publisher. Really, I’m working on my own here, collecting data and references, writing out arguments, tidying things up. Popular audience level – I’m just some amateur on the internet, but as I said, I’ve seen almost zero treatment of this idea, and I think it’s extremely important. So, I’ll do what I have to.

            I wouldn’t even know how to approach a publisher. If you have any advice at all in that regard, let me know – I was going to just do an eBook, but if you think there’s other routes worth pursuing, I welcome the advice.

            • Randal Rauser

              Often the way you make initial contact with the editors of various publishing houses is by attenting academic conferences and pitching your book to them at the book tables. You could also try just doing a “cold call” email out of the blue with your proposal. Often, however, it is difficult to be considered if you do not have a prior affiliation with an institution, e.g. as a professor at a university or a director at a parachurch organization, et cetera.

              A proposal typically needs chapter summaries, anticipated word length, a brief bio, a description of target audience, a list of other books in the area and how yours is different, title and subtitle, and about 15,000 words of sample text.

              • Crude

                Thank you! Advice taken.

  • Crude

    Pardon my excessive contribution to this particular series, but this is kind of a pet issue of mine – and I’m going to keep hammering at the problems to prove my points.

    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.

    Except angels, Satan, demons, ghosts, etc, were all conceived of as created parts of the natural order. Granted, this was an understanding of the natural order that differs from what we currently have – but so were the Galilean and Newtonian understandings.

    As mentioned in discussions below, even God (and certainly, gods) were part of the natural order in a variety of religions – Zeus is one example, Mormonism is another. This is all before noting that, in loose and popular discussions, humans are seen as being constituted differently under naturalism than ‘non-naturalism’ – so it’s an open question where humans (and even animals) should be categorized, unless some kind of reductive materialism is assumed from the outset. But that’s one of the things being disputed.

    The advance of science and technology has made the naturalist’s case harder, not easier.

    • Randal Rauser

      “Pardon my excessive contribution to this particular series…”

      That’s like Bruce Springsteen saying “Pardon me for playing an encore.” :)

  • soku

    Randal, michael rea has alsso made the same point as van fraasen. He thinks naturalism isn’t an ontological thesis as all – it’s a research program.

    • Randal Rauser

      Yes, Mike’s a friend of mine and his 2002 Oxford University Press book “World Without Design” is the most developed statement of the critique of which I’m aware. Thanks for bringing it up. I’d recommend his book to anybody serious about naturalism.

  • Aaron__C

    Science of the Gaps?

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Randal —

    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.

    I take it, then, that you reject all theistic arguments which claim that some fact is evidence favoring theism over naturalism, since that would be an attempt at falsification. You also must reject the apologetic technique, common among presuppositionalists but hardly unique to them, of providing a so-called “internal critique” of naturalism, since you believe “that one cannot begin to engage it [naturalism] on its own terms.”

    Correct?

    • Randal Rauser

      Jeff: “I take it, then, that you reject all theistic arguments which claim that some fact is evidence favoring theism over naturalism, since that would be an attempt at falsification.”

      Incorrect. I have always maintained (both in my books and my blog) that falsification in the narrow Popperian sense is an incorrect description of hypothesis/theory testing, whether the description in question is a theological claim or a scientific one. The reason is because one can always qualify a hypothesis or theory to explain (or explain away, as the case may be) the prima facie defeating data. Since this kind of thesis revision can in principle continue in perpetuity the abandonment of hypotheses or theories is due to much more than mere “falsification”. I didn’t record that kind of nuance in the opener because it was, after all, just an opener.

      The discussion on “Not even wrong” with which I open my critique of your naturalism is akin to brass door knobs on the entrance to a house. It’s merely window dressing (or door dressing, I guess). Consequently, critiquing the door knobs leaves the structural integrity of the house untouched. The house you should be critiquing is the claim that naturalism is a vacuous cipher that is consistent with belief in the existence of an interventionist God. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet and you’re fiddling with the door knobs?

      • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

        In reply to your last paragraph, I’d hate to have someone thrown down a gauntlet and mistake it for the sound of a feather landing! This may come as a surprise, but I actually try to understand other people before replying to them. (I want to emphasize the previous sentence is not in any way intended to suggest that I think you are not doing this.)

        Regarding falsification: I see your point about falsification in the narrow Popperian sense, which isn’t what I had in mind. So allow me to rephrase without using the word “falsification.”

        I take it, then, that you reject all theistic arguments which claim that some fact is evidence favoring theism over naturalism?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Jeff, what would it mean for evidence to support naturalism? I haven’t an idea since, as I argued, naturalism doesn’t have any content beyond “I’ll believe whatever science comes up with” and we have no idea what that might be since we both lack crystal balls.

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder
    • Crude


      An entity is logically compatible with N if and only if either (a) it is a physical entity, or (b) it is ontologically or causally reducible to a physical entity. How, precisely, would a ‘soul’ be logically compatible with N? Rauser’s scientific ‘soul’ (hereafter, ‘shmoul’) cannot be ontologically reducibleto one or more physical entities, since he says it is (or is made out of?) a “non-physical substance.”

      For one thing, because the moment scientists (well, physicists/chemists) study it or include it in their explanations, it becomes physical on the spot.

      In ordinary English, however, a “soul” is not causally reducible to physical entities, i.e., a soul’s causal powers are not entirely explainable in terms of the causal powers of physical entities.

      This seems wrong. In “ordinary English”, a soul – if it is contrasted at all – is contrasted against our current understandings of physical. But our understandings of the physical also change. One comparison would be gravity under Galilean and Newtonian physics. It’s an occult power from the Galilean perspective, and ruled out. Newtonian? It’s a fundamental force, and ruled in.

      Such entities, however, must be either ontologically or causally reducible to physical entities.The theistic God, however, is neither ontologically nor causally reducible to physical entities.

      Back to the open-endedness of what can be a physical entity.

      What’s more, you’re playing a bit of bait and switch here. “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.[1]” But God/gods (see the Mormon, greek pantheon, etc examples) can be physical. Same for angels, demons, ghosts, etc, given the open-endedness of physical. (Fun question: What Ghostbusters about ghosts? Careful now.)

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Thanks for your reply to both articles. Unfortunately it stinks like blue cheese floating in buttermilk. I’ll explain why in the next couple days.

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  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Randal — I was going through some old posts of mine and came across our exchange. I was curious if you commented anywhere on the addendum at http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/07/the-evidential-argument-from-history-of.html#addendum?

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  • Luke Breuer

    Randal Rauser, have you seen Quentin Smith’s 2001 The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, Philo 4, no. 2 (2001): 4? If not, I think you’d like it; it very much bears on this conversation. Here’s a choice bit, which relates to Boghossian’s faith foolishness:

    non-theist Richard Gale (who does have an area of specialization in the philosophy of religion), whose conclusion of a 422 page book criticizing contemporary philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as well as dealing with other matters in the philosophy of religion), reads “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith”

    I found this via Paul M. Gould’s essay in the 2006 The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar, which is a redux of Charles Malik’s 1980 The Two Tasks. Hopefully you know who Charles Malik is; if not, I highly suggest that you check him out! Among other things, he chaired the committee which generated the final draft of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was a very strong Christian.

    • Luke Breuer

      @Randal_Rauser:disqus, silly Disqus killed the @-ness when I pasted a hyperlink. See the above comment. :-)