Nonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 1)

There’s something about the description of this blog that bothers me, especially since inadvertently I’ve ended up as the most frequent voice here. Apparently this blog is centered on metaphysical naturalism. What if you’re a naturalist who is suspicious of any and all metaphysical enterprises, and who is inclined to think that most of what goes on in the philosophy of religion is so much wheel-spinning? Someone like me, in other words.

Now, I can see why we might want to attach “metaphysical” to naturalism. Naturalists are sympathetic to claims such as that made by David Armstrong, that there is nothing that exists beyond or above the space-time realm. On the face of it, this appears to be a kind of claim about ultimate reality that contrasts with, say, idealism or theism. That is, a naturalistic metaphysics that rivals other metaphysical systems. And if you want to adjudicate between such rivals, it seems you might want to ask a metaphysician. Physicists, for example, may well be reluctant to go there: a physicist can say a lot about what exists within space and time, but may be at a loss about what may or may not go on beyond space and time. Questions about what is really Real at the bottom of it all are classic philosophical questions, not the sort of thing you approach by tinkering with equations and setting up experiments.

There are, however, reasons to distrust armchair reflections about Deep Reality or any claim that philosophers are specially equipped to discover necessary truths of existence as opposed to the mere contingent facts gathered by the sciences. Indeed, these suspicions are especially compelling from a naturalistic point of view. If, for example, you are attracted to naturalism because you find a broadly scientific picture of our world compelling, you might be disinclined to look for further metaphysical endorsement. For that matter, there is a broad current within modern philosophy that dissents from the notion that philosophy is an armchair pursuit of First Principles that stand in judgment upon everything else. And this anti-metaphysical current has typically been associated with naturalism and nontheistic views.

Insisting on metaphysical naturalism would unnecessarily exclude many nontheists and naturalists. Even confining ourselves to philosophy (which we should not), and even just looking at recent times, there are some very significant naturalistic thinkers who have been positivists of one sort or other, who have been influenced by Wittgenstein, or who fall under the broad description of pragmatists or neopragmatists. Distrust of metaphysics, even arguments that metaphysics of all sorts might be sheer nonsense, takes a large part in the naturalism of such thinkers.

Indeed, I would expect many naturalists to be sympathetic to the the claim that there is some intellectual pathology in metaphysics as it has been practiced in the mainstream philosophical tradition. Metaphysicians invariably end up supporting their views by an appeal to some kind of supposed rational necessity or metaphysical intuition. These look uncomfortably similar to claims of revelation; we should be suspicious of this sort of thing even in a secular context, even if these kinds of intuitions are deployed against theism. It would be more in keeping with the temper of naturalism to appeal to support of a more broadly scientific sort, or a kind of critical common sense, or at least something that does not appear to be rationalism gone wild.

It is also worth pointing out how historically metaphysics has been allied with non-naturalistic views. In fact, metaphysics has typically been the intellectual language of Abrahamic religion, and metaphysical thinking has a significant role in the sophisticated versions of many supernatural belief systems. However intuitively appealing, metaphysical thinking is often used to isolate claims from criticism, to avoid reality tests. So perhaps naturalists especially should get out of the metaphysical game. We should not present an alternative set of declarations about what is really Real (whatever that might mean) but stop engaging in that kind of talk altogether. More ordinary and scientific senses of small-r reality are good enough, and it makes perfectly good sense to talk of the supernatural and the transcendent having no part in that small-r reality, as best as we can tell by getting out of our armchairs and investigating things.

So at the least, speaking of metaphysical naturalism is overly restrictive. At worst, it risks portraying naturalism as yet another doctrine metaphysicians pull out of thin air. So we should, perhaps, be some variety of naturalist, but not necessarily metaphysical naturalists.

I will be saying more about this.