Analytical Metaphysics in the Age of Naturalism
What remains when naturalism is purged of all metaphysical fallacies?
Three developments have transformed philosophy in the past century: the exponential growth of knowledge in the natural sciences (which has given philosophers new things to think about), the convergence upon naturalism as an overarching philosophical framework, and the use of logical and linguistic analysis both to clarify and to sharpen ancient philosophical questions. One might well identify the emergence and rise to dominance of naturalism as the essential driving force: the growth of naturalism entails the growth of the natural sciences and the use of naturalistic methods such as logic (rather than, for example, relying upon intuition, poetic vision, mystical insight, or divine inspiration) in philosophy.
Naturalism stands in relationship to 21st century philosophical thought as scholasticism stood in relation to 13th century philosophical thought: it is the background conceptual framework (usually itself imperfectly and incompletely articulated, but nevertheless pervasively present) that underlies most explicit philosophical formulations. In the same way that it would be difficult to identify the exact content of scholasticism in the 13th century, it would be difficult to identify the exact content of naturalism today, and this is to be expected from a fundamental philosophical orientation in its ascendancy.
The convergence upon a naturalistic framework has led to a flowering of analytical metaphysics over the past few decades. Out of sight of the public, philosophers have been formulating metaphysical doctrines of unparalleled subtlety and sophistication in the effort both to account for the growth of scientific knowledge and to place traditional philosophical problems within this scientific context. This began tentatively at the beginning of the twentieth century with figures like Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, (I have a volume on my shelf titled Classics of Analytical Metaphysics that includes many of these early contributions to the discipline), and it continues today.
This flowering of analytical metaphysics, most of it more or less naturalistic in character, poses fundamental questions about naturalism. For example, if we purged naturalism of all metaphysical fallacies, would there be any metaphysical remainder, or does the purging of metaphysical fallacy from naturalism mean the purging of metaphysics per se? This, of course, was a question posed (albeit in different terms) by early twentieth century logical empiricism, and the answer given by the anti-metaphysical faction (not Russell and Moore, but figures like Ayer and Carnap) was a resounding “Yes!” — the purging of metaphysical fallacy means the purging of all metaphysics, or, at least, it ought to mean this.
Implicit in this assumption is that idea that naturalism is the “correct” philosophy of nature (well, not really a philosophy of nature at all, but rather the correct account of nature), and the only reason that naturalism cannot deliver to us an appropriately simple and non-controversial account of the world is because naturalism still remains in thrall to metaphysical fallacies. If we could purge the metaphysical fallacies from naturalism, we would be left with a “flatly natural” account of the world, and philosophy would simply disappear as an intellectual discipline. This kind of reminds me of Marx’s prediction that the state would wither away upon the realization of the communist utopia; for the logical empiricists, philosophy would wither away with the realization of the scientific utopia.
In my earlier post Naturalism Purged of Metaphysical Fallacies, I argued that naturalism purged of metaphysical fallacies is itself a metaphysical doctrine, and that we ought not to equivocate on that point. I am not opposed to metaphysics per se, only to bad metaphysics. If we can have a metaphysical naturalism without metaphysical fallacies, then that is all to the good as far as I am concerned. What, then, is the metaphysical content of naturalism?
Naturalism as a metaphysical doctrine could be interpreted broadly or narrowly. Narrowly, the only metaphysical content of naturalism is the denial of the supernatural or the supranatural — the denial of anything outside nature, the denial of anything above, beyond, behind, or beneath nature. Nietzsche called this the assumption of a world behind the world. Elsewhere I have called this “non-human non-agency,” meaning that anything non-human (I should have said “non-natural”) lacks the agency to affect or be affected, and thus fails Plato’s definition of being (or, alternatively, is the null case of the Platonic definition of being).
Broadly construed, the picture of naturalism becomes much more interesting, because the narrow content of naturalism is consistent with a great many different theories of analytical metaphysics. Contemporary analytical metaphysics mostly takes place within a naturalistic framework (whether openly acknowledged or furtively avoided), so that there are potentially as many metaphysical naturalisms as there are naturalistic formulations of metaphysics today. In this sense, my own thought exemplifies the principle of mediocrity, as my formulations also are framed in the context of naturalism, albeit a metaphysics-tolerant naturalism. On the other hand, metaphysics-intolerant naturalism must hold that there is only one, true naturalism, and that is the naturalism that is the remainder following the purge of metaphysical fallacy.
Of the plethora of naturalistic metaphysical doctrines being explored today (within metaphysics-tolerant naturalism), no doubt some will come to be seen as metaphysical fallacies in their time, while others will survive and undergo adaptive radiation as they extend their influence and become influential philosophies in their own right. The work of rooting out metaphysical fallacy is never complete; the mistakes being made today, and yet to be made tomorrow, will continue to trip us up on occasion. As metaphysics both expands and deepens as a discipline, mistakes will be made at the cutting edge, but progress will also be made.
What ought to most concern us is not the ongoing human fallibility that is part of the human condition, but rather the all-too-present danger of repeating ancient and familiar fallacies in new forms. The experience of past failures in metaphysical reasoning should, if nothing else, make us aware of the perennial failures to which human reason is subject. Knowing our cognitive weaknesses and vulnerabilities by knowing our past fallacies deprives the future commission of fallacies of this same kind of even a fig leaf of concealment.
With the decline of philosophy as an institution (and by “decline” I mean a decline in social and academic prestige) and the rise of science to take the place of philosophy as the ultimate scholarly undertaking, there is in many quarters a contempt for traditional philosophical problems and formulations. The idea is that we are modern and know so much more than our predecessors that we can dispense with the long history of errors that is philosophy. One can immediately see, in stating the attitude in this way, how this both drives and is driven by the idea of a perfectly simple naturalism that will remain once we have purged our thought of metaphysical fallacies.
In the scientific implementation of this idea, in contradistinction to the philosophical implementation, we merely need kick philosophy to the curb and we will be free of it and its errors; in the philosophical version, we must actually make the effort to unravel and resolve past errors, rather than merely abandon them. We need not look far to see the simple-minded result of the scientific strategy for the extirpation of philosophy: we get otherwise very sophisticated minds making elementary errors, like debates over the “fine-tuning” of physical constants — a transparent design argument that puts the cart before the horse. Darwin had to struggle mightily with this kind of naive but pervasive teleology, but many have allowed themselves to comfortably slip back into this rut.
Philosophy cannot be avoided by ignoring it and wishing it away. What you get from avoiding or ignoring philosophy is not a philosophy-free discourse, but a position with concealed and sophomoric philosophical presuppositions. We can go better than this — much better. We need to actively combine the methods and insights of philosophy and science into a whole greater than the parts defined by disciplinary silos. There are, to be sure, intimations of this even today, but these intimations are uncertain, tentative, hesitant, and fragmentary, and there is always a danger of taking the easy path because it is easier and one does not wish to invest serious effort in an enterprise that is, at present, plagued with doubts and second thoughts.
Generations of philosophers have aspired to a scientific metaphysics, and we will know that we have begun down this route when we can confidently build upon the foundations of our predecessors, rather than starting anew each generation, which mostly has been the custom in philosophy, when new doctrines are put forward with pragmatic regularity. Scientists have not been equally as keen to aspire to a philosophically-informed science, though some have, in practice, done exactly this (Mach, Einstein, etc.).
- Metaphysical Fallacies
- Metaphysical Biases
- Pernicious Metaphysics
- Metaphysical Fallacies Again
- Forms of Metaphysical Bias
- Metaphysical Pathology
- Addendum on Metaphysical Pathology
- Revolutionary Metaphysics
- Metaphysical Paradox
- Addendum on Metaphysical Paradox
- Naturalism Purged of Metaphysical Fallacies
- Metaphysical Conflation
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