Rosenberg on naturalism

A reader writes to inform me of Alex Rosenberg’s very interesting essay “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.” Rosenberg’s thesis? That naturalism entails nihilism; in particular, that it entails denying the existence of objective moral value, of beliefs and desires, of the self, of linguistic meaning, and indeed of meaning or purpose of any sort. All attempts to evade this conclusion, to reconcile naturalism with our common sense understanding of human life, inevitably fail. Naturalism, when consistently worked out, leads to a radical eliminativism. Says my informant: “Why, it sounds shockingly similar to some things you once wrote in a book that was all about sperm, does it not?” Indeed, except that when I said it I was a “religiously inspired bigot,” whereas when Rosenberg says it he gets a respectful link, complete with a fanboyish exclamation point. Odd, no?

Not really. Because in The Last Superstition I argue that the implications in question constitute a reductio ad absurdum of naturalism, whereas Rosenberg (who is himself a naturalist) regards them instead as a set of depressing truths we must learn to live with. As you’ll see from Rosenberg’s combox, not all naturalists agree with him. But naturalist religionists are an ecumenical bunch. They’ll allow you to draw any absurd conclusion you wish from naturalist premises, as long as (naturally enough) you never under any circumstances question the premises themselves.

As TLS argues at length, the position Rosenberg rightly takes to follow from naturalism is not only depressing; it is incoherent. Therefore, naturalism is false. Furthermore (and as I also argue at length in TLS) there are no non-question-begging arguments for naturalism in the first place. Its hegemony over contemporary intellectual life owes entirely to a mixture of philosophical muddleheadedness, ignorance of philosophical history, and anti-religious animus. (Again, see TLS for the details.)

Rosenberg’s essay only bolsters the already ample evidence for these claims. Let’s take them in order:

1. Naturalism is incoherent: Suppose (as I argue in TLS) that Rosenberg is right about what naturalism implies. In that case there are no beliefs or desires, nor is there any such thing as the “original intentionality” or meaning that common sense says thoughts have, and which it takes to be the source of the derived intentionality exhibited by language. But then, Rosenberg rightly concludes, there’s no such thing as “the” real or actual meaning of a work of art, a human action, or indeed of anything else. There is simply no fact of the matter about what anything means. So far so good, and so far what Rosenberg is doing is simply noting that Quine’s famous thesis of the indeterminacy of meaning is not some eccentricity on Quine’s part, but follows from the naturalistic assumptions Quine shares with most contemporary academic philosophers.

The trouble is that if this is correct, then there is in particular no fact of the matter about what Rosenberg or any other naturalist means when he puts forward a naturalistic thesis. Objectively speaking there is no more reason to think that their utterances express a naturalistic position than that they express a Cartesian one or an Islamic one, or indeed that they are anything more than empty verbiage. The choice is purely pragmatic, or determined by social or economic forces or toilet training, or by Darwinian selection pressures, or by whatever it is this year’s clever young naturalistic philosophers are saying determines it.

Now this is absurd enough, but naturalists have already long inured themselves to accepting such nonsense. Writers like John Searle have been pointing out the paradox for years, to no effect. It doesn’t phase the average naturalist, any more than the hardened criminal feels even a twinge of guilt upon committing his 345th felony. The mental calluses are too thick. You see, if naturalism leads to absurdity, then it must not really be absurdity; because, kids, naturalism just can’t be wrong. Only those dogmatic religious types think otherwise.

But it’s worse than all that. For it won’t do for the naturalist to say: “OK, so we’ve got to swallow some bizarre stuff. But we’re just following the argument where it leads!” What argument? There’s no fact of the matter here either – no fact of the matter about which argument one is presenting, and in particular no fact of the matter about whether one’s arguments conform to valid patterns of inference. In the case at hand, there is simply no fact of the matter about whether Rosenberg’s own arguments (or those of any other naturalist) are sound or entirely fallacious. So why should we accept them? I suppose Rosenberg could always do what any serious philosopher would when dealing with those who stubbornly disagree with him – start a petition to pressure the APA to settle the question in his favor. But until that happens, we’ll just have to wait on pins and needles.

So, that’s one fatal problem, and there’s more to be said about it. If you simply cannot bear the thought of helping to fund the purchase of my next martini or holy card by ordering a copy of TLS, then at least read James F. Ross’s unjustly neglected article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”

There are other incoherencies too. For example, Rosenberg keeps telling us that this or that commonsense feature of human nature is an “illusion” – despite the fact that illusions themselves are intentional phenomena, and thus the sort of thing which, on Rosenberg’s account, naturalism entails doesn’t exist. Rosenberg also seems to think that blindsight phenomena give us a reason to be eliminativists about phenomenal consciousness. But this is incoherent too, because the only reason we judge something to be a case of blindsight in the first place is that we have phenomenally conscious experiences to compare it to. Furthermore, Rosenberg assures us that the mind is merely the product of a long process of selection which favored those who were skilled at detecting other people’s motives. But since “motives” are themselves intentional mental phenomena, they can hardly coherently be appealed to in an account of how the mind originated. (Nor will it do to suggest that Rosenberg means only that our more complex minds evolved in order to detect other people’s motives; for it is the existence of any intentionality at all which poses a uniquely difficult problem for naturalism, not merely the existence of complex minds like ours.)

Of course, these are very old and very well-known problem with eliminative materialism, and eliminative materialists typically pooh-pooh them or (more commonly) simply ignore them. Even non-eliminativist naturalists do the same. What none of them do is actually answer such objections, except with “solutions” which also presuppose intentionality and/or consciousness and thus simply raise the same difficulty at a higher level. The problem is obvious, and obviously fatal, and yet amazingly, it is rarely addressed (Rosenberg’s essay completely ignores it). Victor Reppert and William Hasker have put forward what I think is the correct explanation of this bizarre state of denial: Even naturalists who are not eliminative materialists suspect that their position may inevitably lead them in an eliminativist direction, and they want to keep the option open. Precisely because the obviously fatal objection to eliminative materialism is so obvious and so fatal, the typical naturalist pays it little or no heed, lest he be forced by it to give up naturalism itself – a position which is, as Hasker puts it, something like “a theological dogma” for those philosophers committed to it. Like children, they hope the problem will just go away if they pay it no attention.

Let’s move on to the second claim I have said is given some further confirmation by Rosenberg’s essay:

2. There are no non-question-begging arguments for naturalism: Rosenberg’s thinks we have to accept the depressing consequences he outlines because he thinks naturalism is clearly true. Why?

The only argument he gives – implies, really – is the standard, tired “heroic age of science” argument: Modern science implies naturalism, so it must be true. But why accept this conditional? It would certainly come as news to Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, and many of the other founders of modern science and philosophy who (given that they were theists and/or dualists of one stripe or another) rejected naturalism (not to mention the many non-naturalist scientists and philosophers who have succeeded them, down to the present day). It also comes as news to us reactionary Aristotelians and Thomists, who hold that an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and philosophy of nature is perfectly compatible with the findings of modern science.

But Rosenberg assures us that 17th century scientists and philosophers of the stripe just mentioned “purged” or “ruled out” Aristotelian formal and final causes and the like. If what Rosenberg means by this is that they decided simply to ignore formal and final causes, then he is right. But if what he means is that they somehow refuted the claim that formal and final causes exist, or even cast the slightest doubt on their existence, then he is most definitely wrong, as I have argued at length in several places, including TLS and Aquinas. Indeed, as I argue there, the reality of formal and final causes is in fact rationally unavoidable.

But even if we A-T types are wrong, that would do nothing to show that naturalism is true, because there is still the non-naturalistic interpretation of science defended by dualists, idealists, and representatives of other modern schools of thought which accept the broadly mechanistic or non-teleological conception of nature endorsed by naturalists, but deny that nature so conceived is all that exists. True, their position is currently a minority view. But X is the majority view among contemporary academic philosophers does not entail X is true or even X is the only view worth taking seriously. Indeed, by itself it does not even entail X is plausible.

Anyway, whenever Rosenberg or some other naturalist tells you that “Science has shown such-and-such,” what he really means is “Science as interpreted in light of a naturalistic metaphysics has shown such-and-such.” And when he is telling you specifically that what science has shown is that naturalism is true, what he is doing, accordingly, is begging the question. Nothing more. Which brings us to:

3. The hegemony of naturalism over contemporary intellectual life owes entirely to philosophical muddleheadedness, ignorance of philosophical history, and anti-religious animus: We’ve already noted a fair bit of muddleheadedness. Rosenberg’s implicit assumption that realism about the mental entails the view that a thought is a kind of inner “representation” is a possible instance of ignorance of (a big chunk of) philosophical history. As I have noted in several earlier posts (e.g. here), this “representationalist” conception of thought is a modern, Cartesian, and entirely contingent assumption that classical and medieval thinkers would have rejected (rightly, in my view).

In general, contemporary naturalistic philosophers – or at least those whose naturalism is “scientistic,” as Rosenberg’s self-consciously is – tend to have little or no knowledge of the many deep differences between modern, Cartesian versions of dualism and classical (Platonic or Aristotelian-Thomistic) ones, between modern rationalist and empiricist arguments for God’s existence and classical (Neo-Platonic or A-T) ones, and so on. They assimilate the classical theories to the modern ones and thus falsely assume that refuting the latter suffices to refute the former. (Even then, their understanding of modern forms of non-naturalism is often laughable; e.g. they often claim that Cartesian dualism involves “positing” the existence of “mind-stuff” or “ectoplasm.”)

How about the animus against religion? Well, Rosenberg tells us that a belief in meanings and purposes is what puts us on a “slippery slope” to religion. About that he is, I would say, absolutely right. But of course, that gives us a reason to endorse Rosenberg’s rejection of purposes and meanings (as he seems to think it does) only if we already know that no religion is true. Naturalism, we all thought, was supposed to show us that religion is an illusion; now, it turns out, naturalism merely assumes this.

Beg the question much?

UPDATE: Rosenberg has now replied to his critics (scroll to the bottom of his combox) and I comment on his reply here.
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