A Metaphysical Naturalist Manifesto

Keith Parsons, in his inaugural blog, declares that he is “new to this whole blogging thing, but [he] thought [he] would start off with a big post”—and thus provided us with his “Atheist Manifesto.” He expressed the desire “to hear what some of you think, and maybe get some others to submit their own manifestoes.” Well, what follows is my manifesto since I too am new to this whole blogging thing and thought I should also start off with a big post.

By metaphysical naturalist I mean someone who holds either that supernatural agents do not exist, or that their existence is antecedently improbable and that this antecedent improbability has not yet been satisfactorily overridden or discharged by available plausible evidences and arguments. What is a supernatural agent? It is any (physically) disembodied personal being such as God (as conceived in traditional theism), demi-gods, angels, and disembodied souls (i.e. spiritual substances which at one time animated human bodies). [The term disembodied person is qualified by a parenthesized “physically” so that the term supernatural person embraces persons who animate bodies (i.e., spatially extended substances) but are imperceptible (via ordinary sense perception) to humans or animals.] Although Keith Parsons refers to himself as being an atheist,[1] his published writings disclose that he is a metaphysical naturalist—as I use the term.

Now there are metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical naturalists; just as there are theologically conservative Christians and theologically conservative Christians. By all this I mean that there may be, and indeed are, some very sharp differences of belief or opinion among metaphysical naturalists just as there are among Christians. I do not regard someone as being a philosophical or ideological ally or a fellow team member, just because he is a fellow metaphysical naturalist. Of course, we can all profit from intellectual discourse, whether or not with naturalists or Christians of whatever school, or with other ists.

What kind of naturalist am I? I am (what I call) a commonsensible naturalist. So what is commonsensible naturalism? The term is inspired by Christian philosopher William Hasker’s article “What About a Sensible Naturalism? A Response to Victor Reppert”[2] By “sensible naturalism” Hasker means “a [metaphysical] naturalism that makes a really serious effort to accommodate, or at least to make sense of, our ordinary convictions about the mind and its operations-the things we all think we ‘know’ about the mind, when we are not doing philosophy.”[3] The notion can usefully be extended to those fundamental deliverances of natural reason which constitute first principles pertaining to such matters as our knowledge of the external world, other minds, memory, and causation. I prefer to use the term commonsensible instead of sensible naturalism because it is a metaphysical naturalist version of a foundationalist philosophy based upon common sense.

Metaphysical naturalists who reject a commonsense foundationalist philosophy (or any other first philosophy) may not like to be called non-sensible naturalists. But they are likely not to mind being called non-commonsensible naturalists; and perhaps some even might take pride in being so called since rejection of the so-called deliverances of a commonsense first philosophy is considered chic in some quarters.

I now should like to set forth some important components of commonsensible naturalism.[4]

First: an emphatic rejection of the principle of causal closure in the physical domain and its twin-sibling– epiphenomenalism, with an equally emphatic affirmation of mind-body interaction. In short, some physical and mental events or state are severally caused by some other mental events or states, whether qualia or intentional (i.e., having the quality of aboutness, e.g. volitions or purposings, beliefs, desires). To be sure, there are physical events, states, or processes necessary for mental events or states to be causally efficacious.

Second: an affirmation that human practical and theoretical reasoning encompasses more than just computational thinking–that mechanistic “manipulation” of information by logistical rules, whether or not accompanied by consciousness. But reasoning involves conscious apprehension of the logical relations among propositions, classes, and the like—so that we intuit, for example, that proposition r must be true because propositions p and q are true, and that their logical relation entails the truth of proposition r. We know, in some cases, that we believe proposition r to be true because we have apprehended the true logical relation subsisting between propositions p, q, and r, and that these propositions are true. Similar considerations apply, necessary changes being made, to inductive reasoning. Humans are unique among all sentient animals in having the power of propositional speech and reasoning.

Third: given mind-body interaction, the commonsensible naturalist might conceivably be an emergent substance-dualist—someone who holds that the mind is an emergent, immaterial entity produced by the human body (specifically the brain) when it becomes sufficiently configured in an appropriate way and which will cease to exist when the brain ceases to so configured. Another possible scenario, which I prefer, is that the human mind is the human brain which when appropriately configured has various mental powers or capacities (or the capacity to have such capacities), such as that of reasoning, imagining, perceiving, remembering, willing, and so forth. And there are other possible scenarios consistent with the overall view of the commonsensible naturalist that mind-body interaction obtains and that minds necessarily be embodied.

Fourth: commonsensible naturalism includes an acceptance of a first philosophy: namely metaphysically necessary synthetic principles or postulates (none self-evident in the usual strict senses or a falsifiable empirical generalization), which are presupposed and implicit in the making of our properly basic and incorrigible commonsense beliefs (such as the existence of the external world or of other minds), and in the making of generalizations and inferences in ordinary life, as well as in historical, scientific, and forensic inquiry. These first principles are what some call the fundamental deliverances of natural reason. [Among these principles is the causal principle that whatever begins to exist must have a temporally prior cause for its beginning. (I do not concern myself here quite different issues pertaining to epistemic or ontic determinism.) For the commonsensible naturalist, the cause for the beginning of any natural substantive entity in our universe is itself natural—and this applies as well to the universe as a whole if it is the case that it began to exist. That temporal series which includes (or is constituted by) the history of this universe is of infinite duration and consists of denumerably infinite natural events.[5]]

Fifth: commonsensible naturalism, as I use the term, involves acceptance of some version of the dynamic or tensed A-theory of time, according to which events are temporarily ordered by tensed determinations as past, present, and future, and so temporal becoming is ontologically objective (i.e., mind ind

ependent)—thereby rejecting the B-theory of time according to which events are only ordered by the tensiveless relations of earlier than, simultaneous with, and later then, such that temporal becoming is ontologically subjective (i.e., mind dependent).

Last, but not least, commonsensible naturalism is committed to some version of an (at least epistemologically) objective moral order (i.e., a natural morality), understood to embrace what are commonly understood among men and women of good will to be basic moral principles, precepts and norms universally binding on humanity for reasons other than being required by customary mores, or human or divine positive law, or as having been supernaturally revealed.

Keith Parsons invited comments with respect to his manifesto. Here are a few. At the outset, I should like express my appreciation for his scholarly articles, which I have often found very instructive and with which I agree on many issues.[6] Nevertheless, he is not a commonsensible naturalist. Quite evidently, he does not accept the principle that every natural event must have another event as a temporarily prior causal ancestor. Regretfully, he claims that “most people reply with amateur versions of the first cause or design arguments.” A reader might naturally infer or suspect (and, if so erroneously) that intelligent theists (William Lane Craig, for example) do not agree that to say that nothing existed before the big bang simply means “There wasn’t anything prior to the big bang.” Some readers might also erroneously think that intelligent theists (again Craig, for example) typically maintain the patently ridiculous position the first cause argument involves the principle that everything had to have a cause—rather than there must be a cause (but not necessarily a determinative one) for every beginning of the existence of a substantive entity. [Where Craig is definitely wrong, in my opinion, is that he holds upon philosophical grounds that any infinite temporal series (whether or not of infinite duration) is metaphysically impossible, and asserts that the Big Bang standard model confirms his thesis.]

Parsons appears to think it at least factually possible (based upon physical cosmology) that this universe had an absolute temporal beginning. However, the post by bpabbott is right on point when he declares: “due to the physical limitations of space and time, we are effectively censored from events prior to the big bang. Although, the events, following the big bang, exhibit no discernible effects respecting pre-big-bang causes, it is erroneous to infer/imply/assume there were no “pre-big-bang” causes.”

Parsons claims that our “common-sense intuitions simply might not apply to the realities studied by fundamental physics.” True enough; but some alleged realities of fundamental physics are (or may be) just theoretical constructs of a high-level scientific model highly instrumental in organizing and predicting observations. So it is just begging the question to assert that some theoretical constructs of fundamental physics denote realities. And then it is (or may be) the case that many commonsense intuitions are not indefeasible because they are not actually constitutive of a first philosophy. [Parsons evidently thinks that the proposition that one and the same electron can simultaneously be in two places is true. I believe it to be false—even though it is derived from a scientific model which is very useful in organizing and predicting observations.]

And here is Guminski’s complaint: It is unfortunate that metaphysical naturalism is so frequently expounded (whether explicitly or not) as necessarily incompatible with fundamental and indefeasible common-sense principles which reasonable men and women are not going to reject just because such principles are supposed to be inconsistent with the deliverances of some natural scientists and some philosophers of natural science. And here is Guminski’s major thesis: commonsensible naturalism has all the resources necessary to defeat the plausible claims and arguments of supernaturalists, including those of any positive religion such as Christianity.

[1] There are some atheists (whether they simply assert that they do not believe that God exists or instead positively deny his existence) who are not metaphysical naturalists because they believe that there are disembodied spirits—such as human souls while in a disembodied state.
[2] Philosophia Christi 5 (2003) 53-62.
[3] Ibid., 53.
[4] See my “The Moral Argument for God’s Existence, the Natural Moral Law, and Conservative Metaphysical Naturalism” (2004) http://www.theologyforum.net/ for a description of what in this article I call commensensible naturalism. Upon reflection, I have abandoned the word “conservative” as having been improvidently chosen.
[5] See my three articles on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (available on the Secular Web www.infidels.org/library/modern/arnold_guminski/index.shtml) in which I argue for the metaphysical possibility of an infinite temporal series of infinite duration consisting of denumerably infinite events.
[6] Unfortunately, Parsons mars his manifesto by referring to James Dobson as a “neanderthal…type.” Is this kind of public bashing of Dobson a good thing?