A Critique of Naturalism

The ‘traditional’ objections to a wholly naturalistic metaphysics, within the modern Western philosophical tradition, involve the vexed notions of freedom and consciousness.   But there is, I think, a much deeper and more interesting line of criticism to naturalism, and that involves the notion of intentionality and its closely correlated notion of normativity.

What is involved in my belief that I’m drinking a beer as I type this?  Well, my belief is about something — namely, the beer that I’m drinking.  But what does this “aboutness” consist of?   It requires, among other things, a commitment that I have undertaken — that I am prepared to respond to the appropriate sorts of challenges and criticisms of my belief.  I’m willing to play the game of giving and asking for reasons, and my willingness to be so treated is central to how others regard me as their epistemic peer.  But there doesn’t seem to be any way that the reason-giving game can be explained entirely in terms of the neurophysiological story of what’s going on inside my cranium.  That neurophysiological story is a story of is the case, and the reason-giving story is essentially a normative story — of what ought to be the case.

And if Hume is right — as he certainly seems to be! — in saying that one cannot derive an ought-statement from an is-statement,and if naturalism is an entirely descriptive/explanatory story that has no room for norms, then in light of the central role that norms play in human life (including their role in belief, desire, perception, and action), it is reasonable to conclude that naturalism cannot be right.

(Of course, it does not follow from this that any version of theism or ‘supernaturalism’ must be right, either.)

 

727 thoughts on “A Critique of Naturalism

  1. OMagain: Do you pull the lever William?

    I once took a driver’s ed course in lieu of paying a speeding ticket. ( I suppose that already compromises me, but whatever.)

    One of the scenarios presented in the class asked what to do if faced with a car driving on the wrong side of the highway, on a collision course, and your path to the shoulder is blocked by a car to your right.

    The terms of the scenario are rather arbitrary, but are defined so the only choices are to ram the oncoming car or veer right, forcing another car off the road.

    The official, government sanctioned, choice is to force the car off the road.

    The reasoning is that any consequence is less catastrophic that two cars crashing head on.

    I’m 68 years old and have never faced one of these deadly dilemmas. Perhaps I’m lucky, but every situation I’ve been in has had opportunities for creative action. More importantly, when I’m been squeezed to choose between bad outcomes, it’s generally because I haven’t taken some rather obvious preventive measure and have allowed myself to get in the pickle.

  2. keiths:
    So-called “self-evident moral truths” aren’t necessarily true.Their negation causes no logical inconsistencies.

    Keith:

    Here are some thoughts I’ll put forward just for the intellectual challenge to trying to defend the position on a cloudy day when I probably should be doing something else, but…

    If a “self evident proposition” is one which is true to anyone who understands the meaning of the proposition, we’d first need to unpack the meaning of “torturing babies” You could try: “inflicting pain to no purpose on others who are innocent”.

    Aztecs who torture by sacrificing babies think it has a purpose, but perhaps they would agree with the above reformulation.

    You could also argue that psychopaths don’t really understand what it means for others to have pain, so they cannot understand the sentence either. If you extend that to mean that no one who lacks empathy for the suffering of others can understand the meaning of the phrase, then you might be able to conclude it is self-evident to all normal people.

    Whether self evident is the same as necessary requires venturing into modal logic and I won’t go there without a trained guide.

  3. William J. Murray: No, it isn’t, because god in my system doesn’t decide or pick what is good; it is an unalterable aspect of its fundamental nature that cannot be changed by will.

    So your god could equally well be called physics, because that’s what physics seeks, the unalterable ground plane of existence.

    A number of physicists have put it this way.

  4. Gregory has an interesting interview on the Extended Mind Thesis which overlaps some of the points KN made in his original post on intentionality, brain states, and norms. In fact, one of the interviewees mentions that one reason he was attracted to the EMT was to get a better understanding of norms, although there is not a lot of direct exploration of that aspect.

    Given my lack of knowledge of the details of the field that Gregory specializes in, I expected not to be able to follow the details of the conversation. So I was surprised by how much of the conversation reflects topics and theories that are bandied about at TSZ.

    You also get to hear that Gregory speaks with a voice which has a Canadian accent (that is, no accent).

  5. petrushka: pickle

    My interest lies mostly along the lines of the idea that the set of people who claim some access/interest/X about “objective morality” should answer such dilemmas in similar ways. There are of course others tests of a similar nature too, more in depth and again I don’t see why these should not also be answered in similar ways.

    That test IIRC goes on to note that the number of people who would actively push someone off a bridge to achieve the same outcome is less then when ‘merely’ pulling the lever. For the objective moralists out there I’d expect the same answer for pulling a lever as pushing them off, otherwise how can these objective morals be played out in alien civilisations? Does morality take into account we perceive pulling a lever to achieve an outcome differently from using our arms (levers) directly to achieve the exact same outcome? Those aliens, presumably, have access (well, most likely a small sub-set of the population claims to have such) to this objective morality too, so why should a quirk of evolution that resulted in our arms and brain wiring being the way it is (ha) change anything about what’s moral or not?

    I seem to recall asking some of the folks at UD making claims about morality to take these tests at some point….

    hey William, what about that alien world where the children are essentially vegetables and unless the adults gratuitously torture them then their essential beings won’t be stimulated sufficiently to mature into the adult form???

    Eh Eh? Think of the damm alien children just this once!

  6. petrushka

    So your god could equally well be called physics, because that’s what physics seeks, the unalterable ground plane of existence.

    Well, we’re talking about morality, which requires purpose, and it’s not the only existential commodity I use the term “god” to account for. Physics, which is a collection of models that describe the regularities of physical interactions, is something I would also ground in god, as well as causation (to avoid infinite regress or causal loops), math, geometry, and logic.

    I think that the fundamental root of these aspects of existence and being, which require aspects not accounted for by physics (IMO), can appropriately be called “god”. It’s just not the kind of god most people think of when they use the term.

  7. William J. Murray: Well, we’re talking about morality, which requires purpose

    The word purpose implies choice, which you have denied to your god (which can be no otherwise).

  8. petrushka said:

    The word purpose implies choice,

    No, it doesn’t.

    Purpose, from merriam-webster:

    the reason why something is done or used : the aim or intention of something

    .

    petrushka:

    which you have denied to your god (which can be no otherwise).

    I think choice only exists for individuated entities with limited, contextual knowledge and a framework of self & other demarcation. God doesn’t select from various purposes; god is the white light of pure, fundamental purpose; all other purposes are prism refractions, so to speak of that pure purpose; or exist as the rationally necessary lack thereof (not-A).

    God is not an really, really powerful entity like us; god is something profoundly different.

  9. keiths, to William:

    For each of the following, tell us

    a) whether it reflects a moral obligation or prohibition, and
    b) the exact reasoning that leads you to that conclusion.

    Try to avoid circularity this time.

    The three actions are

    1) dropping eggs on concrete,
    2) eating pork, and
    3) killing someone.

    These all have “necessary consequences”, courtesy of the “ground of being”, so you’ll need to identify a separate criterion to distinguish the moral issues from the non-moral ones.

    William:

    I can’t tell if any of your examples have a moral component. You’ve provided no motive or context and none of them alert my conscience as-is.

    Are you saying that for something to be morally obligatory, it must a) have necessary consequences and b) “alert” your conscience?

  10. William,

    As per your pimply-faced basement universe creator (PFBUC)… If the system can be set up differently, or if the moral rules can be changed, the consequences that result are not necessary because the system or the rules can be changed…

    The consequences of such a PFBUC system are not necessary because the system itself is arbitrary.

    Okay, then let’s specify that the pimply-faced teenager is incorrigibly horny, and will always, by his very nature, punish the inhabitants of the basement universe if they refuse to have sex for his voyeuristic pleasure.

    There are necessary consequences, and they aren’t arbitrary — they flow out of the very nature of the creator. Are the inhabitants morally obligated to obey the PFT? Why or why not?

  11. Recently, my wife was driving home late at night. The roads here are narrow with lots of curves but generally without much traffic. She found herself being followed very closely by another vehicle which she assumed wanted to go faster than she felt safe so she pulled in and allowed them to pass. A few moments later she witnessed the car get out of control and end up in the ditch. The two young girls were not badly hurt but very shaken. It could have been worse. My wife is still beating herself up over whether she would have been better to have not worried about impeding someone and thus preventing an accident.

  12. Are you saying that for something to be morally obligatory, it must a) have necessary consequences and b) “alert” your conscience?

    No.

  13. Okay, then let’s specify that the pimply-faced teenager …

    That’s priceless.

  14. Uh-oh. It looks like we’re back to William’s “name, rank, and serial number” MO, in which he refuses to answer questions or answers them in a way that reveals the least information possible, instead of forthrightly trying to explain his views.

    William,

    My questions stand. If you refuse to answer them, readers will draw the obvious conclusion.

  15. Bruce:

    Here are some thoughts I’ll put forward just for the intellectual challenge to trying to defend the position on a cloudy day when I probably should be doing something else, but…

    Cloudy days are perfect for internet debate. 🙂

    If a “self evident proposition” is one which is true to anyone who understands the meaning of the proposition, we’d first need to unpack the meaning of “torturing babies” You could try: “inflicting pain to no purpose on others who are innocent”.

    I would say that “self-evident” propositions are those that it would be absurd to deny. Denying that 1+1=2 (in decimal arithmetic) does lead to absurdities, but denying the objective immorality of GCT does not. It is perfectly consistent to deny it, as I explained earlier:

    If William thinks that X is objectively moral, and self-evidently so, fine; we could consistently assert that X is objectively immoral and that William’s moral compass is out of whack. No contradiction, no inconsistency.

    Bruce:

    You could also argue that psychopaths don’t really understand what it means for others to have pain, so they cannot understand the sentence either.

    Psychopaths do understand what it means for others to have pain. They just don’t care.

    If you extend that to mean that no one who lacks empathy for the suffering of others can understand the meaning of the phrase, then you might be able to conclude it is self-evident to all normal people.

    This is where my illusion example comes into play. “Normal” people experience the lines as being unequal in length. It would actually be abnormal to perceive them accurately, and it would indicate that there was something wrong with your visual system.

    In the case of the illusion, we have other ways to determine that the lines are the same length. In the case of morality, we don’t. We could be subject to a pervasive moral illusion without realizing it.

  16. keiths:

    I would say that “self-evident” propositions are those that it would be absurd to deny.

    Keith:
    Well, I never really thought one could soundly claim that “torturing babies” is self-evidently true. My post was the best I could come up with to try to justify the applying “self-evident” as Wikipedia defines the word (that is where I got the true to anyone understanding the meaning definition).

    I think you’d be able to argue “torturing babies is wrong” must be part of any moral system designed by and intended for people, which is probably closer to what I would believe. That’s different from true to anyone who understands the meaning of the words, though.

  17. Bruce,

    Yes, and all the things we’ve been discussing — the well-being of conscious minds, equity, the promotion of altruism, the protection of human rights — will also be an important part of any moral system that aspires to near-universal acceptance.

    I just don’t think that means that any of these things are objectively moral.

  18. keiths:
    Bruce,

    Yes, and all the things we’ve been discussing — the well-being of conscious minds, equity, the promotion of altruism, the protection of human rights —will also be an important part of any moral system that aspires to near-universal acceptance.

    I just don’t think that means that any of these things are objectively moral.

    Keith:
    I personally am only concerned with relative improvement, ie progress, not objective morality. OM implies the possibility of progress (towards OM), but I don’t think the converse is true.

    Now it is true that evolutionary style fitness improvement is not good enough to claim global progress: it’s a well-known fallacy to claim that evolution implies progress in any long term sense.

    Kitcher wants moral progress to avoid that type of fallacy. He claims there can be persisting properties of a progressing moral system, such as no slavery. Being a pragmatist, he would not call that “objective truth”, since any such properties are learned by experiment and post hoc recognition of persistence.

  19. Keiths:

    This is where my illusion example comes into play. “Normal” people experience the lines as being unequal in length. It would actually be abnormal to perceive them accurately, and it would indicate that there was something wrong with your visual system.

    This has no bearing on your argument, but I was once very entertained by a professor who drew the Muller Lyer figures and asked about line length. We were all familiar with the illusion and quickly piped up that they were the same length. He pulled out a yardstick and showed that he had actually drawn the line with the inward-canted arrows shorter than the other. We were fooled by our well-educated assumptions.

  20. v:But it is based on the same reasoning as your system, God’s essence as the source of ” good”. God ,by definition, cannot command anything other than ” good”, it is exactly as arbitrary as your system.

    William:No, it isn’t, because god in my system doesn’t decide or pick what is good; it is an unalterable aspect of its fundamental nature that cannot be changed by will.

    God’s commands are an unalterable aspect of His nature as well. He cannot command other than what is ” good”.

    Both are based on an arbitrary assumption of what the the nature of an assumed being is.

    In one the ” good” ,the essence of God, is assumed revealed to man by omniscient being, a hierarchical system, a trickle down . Obedience based morality. A God level view of the ” good “, which accounts for the ” good ” being drowning children as justice.

    In the other, the assumption that the ” good “can be determined thru man’s reasoning and preception or at least should be. A bottom up approach. A ” truth” implies a law implies a lawmaker, the essence of God.

    Both systems assume the essence of God as justification of the laws of morality

  21. Reciprocating Bill:

    This has no bearing on your argument, but I was once very entertained by a professor who drew the Muller Lyer figures and asked about line length. We were all familiar with the illusion and quickly piped up that they were the same length. He pulled out a yardstick and showed that he had actually drawn the line with the inward-canted arrows shorter than the other. We were fooled by our well-educated assumptions.

    That’s a great story!

  22. velikovskys said:

    But it is based on the same reasoning as your system, God’s essence as the source of ” good”. God ,by definition, cannot command anything other than ” good”, it is exactly as arbitrary as your system.

    Both systems assume the essence of God as justification of the laws of morality”.

    The pertinent point is how we are defining/describing god. “Essence of X” is not the same as “Essence of X” if we are talking about two different X’s and/or two different “essences”. If they are not equivalent, we are not making the same assumption, and thus the reasoning is not the same because we are not assuming the same thing.

    The god I assume cannot make moral “commands” in any meaningful sense of the term; it would be like saying gravity “commands” you to fall. In the same way that gravity is non-arbitrary, the moral system that is rooted in the fundamental nature of my assumed god is non-arbitrary.

  23. Bruce,

    Kitcher wants moral progress to avoid that type of fallacy. He claims there can be persisting properties of a progressing moral system, such as no slavery. Being a pragmatist, he would not call that “objective truth”, since any such properties are learned by experiment and post hoc recognition of persistence.

    I haven’t read Kitcher on this, but from your description it sounds as if he is defining moral progress relative to a ideal end state: a moral system in which all the features are persistent, because everyone is happy with it and nobody is motivated to change it.

    If so, then I would say that his argument still rests on an assumed moral axiom: one moral system is superior to another if it is preferred by more people.

    It’s not a bad axiom, but it isn’t objectively true, and it certainly wouldn’t satisfy a theist who thinks our moral obligation is to do what our creator tells us, period.

  24. William,

    The god I assume cannot make moral “commands” in any meaningful sense of the term; it would be like saying gravity “commands” you to fall. In the same way that gravity is non-arbitrary, the moral system that is rooted in the fundamental nature of my assumed god is non-arbitrary.

    My questions remain.

    Let’s assume, as you say, that God is the “ground of being” and that he created the universe to fulfill a purpose, which flows out of his very nature and cannot be amended.

    1. Why should his purpose be objectively morally binding on us? You speak of “necessary consequences”, but even the pimply-faced teenager can impose necessary consequences on the inhabitants of the basement universe. Even ones that flow out of his very nature and cannot be amended, just as for your “ground of being” God.

    2. Suppose someone is willing to accept the “necessary consequences” of an action, just as they are willing to accept the “necessary consequences” of the law of gravity. How is their action objectively moral or immoral?

    Remember, your omniscient God could have created any world he desired, including one in which it would be impossible for anyone to work against his purpose. He decided instead to give us free will, according to you.

    If so, that means that everything we do, including any rebellion against our consciences, is part of his purpose.

    3. If what makes an action morally obligatory or morally prohibited is its “necessary consequences”, then how do you distinguish a) moral issues with necessary consequences from b) non-moral issues with necessary consequences? Is it immoral to spit into the wind, since that has the necessary consequence of getting splattered? I assume you would say no, so how do you make that determination?

    You mentioned your conscience before, but now you’ve backed away from that:

    William:

    I can’t tell if any of your examples have a moral component. You’ve provided no motive or context and none of them alert my conscience as-is.

    keiths:

    Are you saying that for something to be morally obligatory, it must a) have necessary consequences and b) “alert” your conscience?

    William:

    No.

    What’s your criterion, then?

  25. I suppose my preferred solution to the topic’s question about oughts is a bit too simplistic – to rephrase ought in terms of is: something we think we ought to do is really a formalized (collective?) desire, phrased in the terms of the philosophy of morals and ethics. We can explain desires in terms of is. So my solution is really: ought does not exist. It’s something we made up to help us talk about the way we desire the world around us to be. Well, in case of moral oughts anyway. The other kind of ought (“if we require consequence B, cause A ought to be in effect”) isn’t really the issue here, right? Although they’re related, of course (“if we desire the world to be like B, we ought to behave like A”).

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