Methodological Naturalism …

So, I was looking at a post on Metholodological Naturalism when I came across the post on epistemology that I did last week. Today, I’m going to go through Pearce’s defense of methodological naturalism.

I won’t quote it all here, but Pearce is replying to a comment or post or something from someone else that asks why we should accept that “This is accepted by science” is sufficient to claim that it is the best or preferred explanation, especially given that Pearce assumes there is nothing else. As another example, it seems a reasonable question to ask whether or not epiphenomenalism, for example, could raise doubts about whether or not the mental really can reduce to merely neural firings and structure. I obviously think it does, but doubt Pearce does. But then how does he justify that?

At any rate, what Pearce seems to do instead is defend methodological naturalism against what he will call methodological supernaturalism. I expect — or, rather, hope — that this move made sense in context, because it doesn’t in the context of the posted quote, at least not to me. But methodological naturalism is an interest of mine as well, so let me look at it:

OK, so this is a position against methodological naturalism (MN). The first question is, what are you doing? I assume you are trying to find out explanationns of how the world round us, including us, works.

So what tools can we use? Well, MN assumes that natural phenomena are all that we can use to do science, to work out the natural world around us. Why? Well, this is because positing anything else is, by definition, unobservable and untestable.

A professor I had a course with once had a habit of constantly asking “Who says?!?” in relation to a lot of philosophical assertions. I keep getting reminded of that when I read a lot of these sorts of posts. Who says that anything other than natural phenomena is, by definition, unobservable and untestable? All Pearce does here is assume that only the “natural” — whatever that means — can be observed or interact with the “natural” and anything else can’t. But that’s what someone who challenges methodological naturalism is going to deny: we have real things in the world that we can interact with or at least come to know the existence of that don’t fit, at least, what science thinks counts as “natural”. So either Pearce defines “natural” so broadly that it means “existent” by definition or else if it is true that the supernatural or even non-natural is unobservable and untestable then Pearce needs to provide evidence for that contention. If the former is true, then the person who rejects methodological naturalism has two options. First, they can reject Pearce’s definition. Second, they can accept it and insist that then the properties that they thought the object had that made it non-natural count as natural properties, and so their explanation is now just as natural as any other, meaning that Pearce can’t use their not being natural against them. For example, if we are talking about mind and Pearce insists that anything that exists — or could possibly interact with the world — is natural, then the dualist can either refuse to accept that definition — which means that Pearce’s attempt to use that definition gets him no where — or can accept it but then say that a disembodied mind, if it exists, is natural and that the properties the dualist used argue that mind is not natural now at least still mean that it is not brain … which would mean that he can’t use those properties against the idea of dualism, as that separate mind, if it exists, is as natural as anything else.

And, of course, if the latter is true then this entire argument is meaningless.

This does not invalidate your claim a priori. However, if naturalism has an explanation which is equally good in scope and power, then Ockham’s Razor would set preference for the simplest explanation.

But who says that the natural explanation is necessarily the simplest by an objective standard of “simplest”? It’s only if he assumes that “natural” is to be preferred that he can make that move … but, then, he wouldn’t be using Ockham’s Razor anymore but instead using that presumption. And those who are not naturalists are not, in fact, going to accept that presumption. So doing so gets him nowhere.

Here are a few good reasons that MN is good: testability, the use of laws in explanations, fruitfulness, the promotion of agreement and cooperation, and the avoidance of blocked inquiry. Blocked enquiry is important because what using methodological supernaturalism (MS) does is prevent further enquiry from taking place. It’s God of the Gaps, and stops further enquiry.

Why? Can we not study supernatural claims further? Is it not possible for there to be “supernatural laws” just like there are natural laws? Or is he again going to insist that having any of these things makes it “natural”, and thus all of those magical systems — for example — in fantasy works that posit rather strict laws on how magic can be used are, in fact, really “natural” after all? Which also applies to supernatural creatures. Vampires, for example, always have fairly strict laws on what their abilities and weaknesses are, which by this view would make them natural, too. Huh. If your concept of natural means that all magical systems ever written about in fantasy are really “natural” and not supernatural, then you’ve probably done something wrong.

But if he doesn’t take this tack, then he can’t argue that a supernatural explanation won’t have all of those properties he claims are benefits of methodological naturalism. So again it would come down to him simply asserting that natural explanations are to be preferred. But that assertion isn’t an argument.

Pearce ends with the common assertion that natural explanations are to be preferred because when purportedly supernatural explanations came up against natural ones, the natural ones ended up winning. Before he can make this move, however, he’d have to tell us how to differentiate between natural and supernatural explanations so that we can go and check. It would be just as reasonable for most of the explanations given to say that the distinction was really intentional explanations vs “natural” explanations, and that our error was really just thinking that more things acted intentionally than actually did. Thus, he’d need to define natural in such a way that it no longer merely means “existent”, invalidating his first argument.

But even worse, science and knowledge acquisition, in general, doesn’t work that way. Just because a certain method has won out doesn’t mean that it should be considered the front runner in any future contest. If, say, in any competition between two labs one particular lab always ended up with the correct theory, surely in science we would not then immediately assume that the answer that lab put forward this time is the one that’s true. Surely we’d look at the evidence for each theory and run the experiments, wouldn’t we? And this pretty much applies to any philosophy or method you care to name, especially if philosophy gets into the picture and argues, for example, that a naturalistic approach can’t work when dealing with specifically purportedly supernatural explanations, because it would always assume that the supernatural ones are incorrect, which is assuming the conclusion. So we’d want to examine the evidence and see where it goes.

This, then, undercuts the whole defense. If science cuts itself off from the supernatural by adopting methodological naturalism, then we cannot simply accept science’s word when it says that this natural explanation is to be preferred to the supernatural explanation(s). What we’d need to do is look at the evidence and look at the methods, even to the point of questioning whether a naturalistic approach is even relevant here. So either science places the supernatural outside of itself and thus cannot be trusted to evaluate natural vs supernatural explanations, or else it doesn’t do that but then doesn’t adopt methodological naturalism. No matter which Pearce picks, it seems that his defense of methodological naturalism will not answer the original question.


2 Responses to “Methodological Naturalism …”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    Hi there

    I’ll try and get round to reading this this week, and responding when I can. My post was indeed a snippet taken from the middle of a larger conversation off site, if that’s worth anything.



    • verbosestoic Says:

      I look forward to it.

      The comment there was mostly that moving from a question of why we ought to just accept when science says something is the case to a defense of methodological naturalism doesn’t really follow directly. So I assumed that something in the original context made the question more about methodological naturalism than it appeared from the comment.

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