The Coming Age of Post-Naturalism
Conceptual Frameworks and Emergent Complexities of the Far Future
In Analytical Metaphysics in the Age of Naturalism I proposed an analogy between the role of Scholasticism in the medieval work with the role of naturalism in the modern world:
“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.”
One could argue that we are already seeing the beginnings of the breakdown of naturalism. In 2012, when Thomas Nagel published Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the book came in for surprisingly harsh criticism, simply for Nagel being a philosopher of his stature questioning the now received presumption of physicalism. This controversy over Nagel’s book, however, is a conflict internal to naturalism — specifically, a conflict between a narrowly conceived physicalism (but still conceived within the framework of naturalism) and any alternative (but still naturalistic) explanatory framework. There are any number of naturalistic interpretations of mind (or consciousness, if you prefer), so that insisting upon an eliminationist account seems unnecessarily extreme, as though there were something more going on here than the mere formulation of a philosophical position. The eliminationists protest too much.
Just as logical positivism was a particularly narrow form of naturalism in the early twentieth century (similar in many respects to contemporary physicalism), physicalism is the particularly narrow form of naturalism prevalent today. Perhaps it is the character of naturalism to be repeatedly expressed in minimalist forms like this until their manifest inadequacy has been demonstrated to the current generation of philosophers. Minimalist forms of naturalism have the virtues of parsimony, both ontological and theoretical, and the kind of elegant argumentation often associated with parsimony, but there are limits beyond which minimalism passes from being merely austere to being downright perverse and no longer being parsimonious in terms of what it requires that one believe.
A conceptual framework as robust as naturalism can be expected to endure for many centuries, as indeed the Scholastic conceptual framework endured for many centuries. The efflorescence of the Scholastic synthesis (as it is sometimes called) is usually associated with the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, with the work of William of Ockham marking the unraveling of the Scholastic synthesis. But while the Scholastic synthesis may have declined in the late middle ages, with its replacement with the rising scientific synthesis (part of the rise of naturalism) in the early modern period, the better part of the European conceptual framework remained essentially Scholastic for hundreds of years yet to come.
E. M. W. Tillyard’s classic study The Elizabethan World Picture emphasized the essentially medieval character of the Elizabethan world picture (“…it was still solidly theocentric, and that it was a simplified version of a much more complicated medieval picture…”), and Carl Becker’s equally famous lectures The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, extends the influence of the Scholastic conceptual framework into the Enlightenment: “…the underlying preconceptions of eighteenth-century thought are still, allowance made for certain important alterations in the bias, essentially the same as those of the thirteenth century.” (From the final paragraph of lecture 1.) If we are permissive in the range of dates we give for Scholasticism, this was a conceptual framework that endured for well over a thousand years, and fifteen hundred years by some measures.
The replacement of Scholasticism by naturalism begs the question as to what conceptual framework eventually will follow naturalism, when naturalism itself follows Scholasticism into the dustbin of history. Suppose after another several hundred years, when the naturalistic conceptual framework has run its course and has been exhausted, that some other conceptual framework begins to replace naturalism, a process as gradual and as piecemeal as the replacement of Scholasticism by naturalism. What might this post-naturalism conceptual framework look like? Can we even imagine such a thing, or are we too much the products of naturalism ourselves that we cannot free ourselves from it even if we try to do so?
Merely to ask the question is to build certain assumptions into our conception of history. There is, most obviously, the presupposition of the possibility of a sequence of co-equal conceptual frameworks, the later frameworks supplanting the earlier, but not being an improvement over the earlier (or a decline compared to the earlier framework). This is somewhat like the Thomas Kuhn idea of a paradigm, which has prompted an enormous commentary. There is also the related presupposition that there will be a sequence of conceptual frameworks like this, rather than a linear development in which the human conceptual framework comes to maturity, and, having come to maturity, can only decay and then disappear — but this decline and disappearance is part of an organic life-cycle of conceptual frameworks, and not an arbitrary sequence of conceptual frameworks in which the historical process of succession is essentially irrational.
If we make these presuppositions about one conceptual framework following another without rhyme or reason, why not go even further? Why not posit a cyclical development of conceptual frameworks, such that framework A is followed by framework B, framework B is followed by framework C, but human beings have run out of new ideas at this point, so that framework C is followed once again by framework A (or its functional equivalent), and so on, ad infinitum. One could even argue that the conceptual framework of classical antiquity was more-or-less naturalistic, so that the rise of naturalism with the scientific revolution was actually the recrudescence of naturalism. Thus when this current age of naturalism has exhausted itself, we are likely to see the recrudescence of non-naturalism, mysticism, and mythology. In fact, the sharp criticism of Nagel might be credited to a concern on the part of his critics that any non-reductive, non-physicalist theory of mind was the opening of a Pandora’s box of mystification, which lid needs to be kept firmly shut so as to avoid the return of a non-naturalistic conceptual framework (a slippery slope fallacy).
N.B. — Nagel’s critics may well be right: those who hope for a future of rationalist and Enlightenment values may have a legitimate reason to be concerned about the influence of such a book from a prominent philosopher. In the same way that A. J. Ayer was said to have had a deathbed conversion (the circumstances of which are insufficiently known to the public to make sense of the contradictory accounts that have been published — cf. “An Atheist Meets the Masters of the Universe” by Peter Foges and An Analysis of the Near-Death Experiences of Atheists), and in the same way that Bertrand Russell’s casual mention of “Christian love” was immediately taken as a sign that Russell himself now had a more charitable view of traditional systems of belief (what Russell said was, “The thing I mean — please forgive me for mentioning it — is love, Christian love or compassion. If you feel like this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessary for intellectual honesty”; Russell briefly addressed the response to this passage in his essay, “What is an Agnostic?”), Nagel’s book is viewed by some as a means to worm their way into otherwise reasonable discussions in order to strike a blow for unreconstructed supernaturalism.
By definition, any conceptual framework that follows naturalism but which is not itself naturalism would be non-naturalistic, though it would not necessarily be non-naturalistic in the sense of being supernaturalistic. A post-naturalistic conceptual framework would be, by definition, non-naturalistic, but we are only limited to non-naturalistic supernaturalism if we believe that there are no further conceptual possibilities for human beings, i.e., if we are unable to conceive of any non-naturalism that is not supernaturalistic, which I will here assume posits the existence of a realm of reality inaccessible to empirical investigation. Whether or not we can conceive of a non-supernatural non-naturalism remains an open question at this time — not surprisingly, as comparatively little effort (to my knowledge) has been invested in the possibility.
I have myself benefited greatly from making the attempt, over many years, and going over the same ground time and again, to imagine forms of emergent complexity not realized on Earth, as well as forms of civilization not yet realized. At first, one is simply lost when questioning fundamental presuppositions, but, if persistent, one can begin to make very small changes in one’s presuppositions, like a hole in the dike of pervasive matters of fact with no countervailing experiences, and, once imagination begins flowing ever so slowly through these holes in the dike, the dike itself becomes unstable and one can begin to picture scenarios in which the dike is washed away and the landscape appears transformed.
Thus would it be in any attempt we could make today, with naturalism at the fullness of its power, waxing in its influence, to conceive of a non-naturalistic conceptual framework. This is not a project to be taken up lightly, but a kind of meditation to which one might return repeatedly over many years as a longitudinal thought experiment on the emergence of a radically new conceptual framework. However, the fact that a naturalistic conceptual framework likely would be gradually replaced by a future non-naturalistic conceptual framework, in a piecemeal fashion, could be our point of entry into another way of thinking about the world. If we could identify isolated non-naturalistic concepts with some future promise (I can offer no instances at this time, so my positing of such concepts must remain non-constructive for the time being), we could take these promising concepts and attempt to construct with them and around them a conceptual framework that extends, elaborates, and applies this promising non-naturalistic concept. Eventually, a conceptual framework begins to form, and, when sufficiently elaborated, some other concepts within that framework present themselves as those concepts whose initial adoption would form the basis of gradual adoption of the framework entire.
This thought experiment implies another thought experiment, to which it is related, but with which it is not identical, that that is the thought experiment of a radically novel form of emergent complexity appearing within the emergent complexities familiar to us on Earth. This is a distinct but overlapping thought experiment with that which seeks to project a future non-naturalistic conceptual framework because a conceptual framework could be a novel emergent, but it not necessarily a novel emergent complexity. And the most radical forms of novel emergent complexity would not be anything as predictable and projectable as a novel conceptual framework. Thus in attempting to imagine a new form of emergent complexity coming into being we might consider radically new conceptual frameworks, but we would also want to go beyond this and try to conceive of emergent complexities that would have nothing whatsoever to do with conceptual frameworks, that are already familiar to us in several distinct forms.
The obvious kinds of emergent complexity (i.e., those that are predictable and projectable) that may arise on Earth would be those that develop from the already elaborated emergent complexities of consciousness, intelligence, technology, and social organization. For example, a new and unprecedented form of civilization. Possible instances are not difficult to formulate. A human civilization off the surface of Earth, whether on another planet (or on a moon), or in an artificial environment maintained in outer space, would be absolutely unprecedented: there has never before been a human civilization in outer space. Nevertheless, the existence of human civilizations on Earth gives us a clear template for constructing human civilizations in outer space, no matter how unprecedented such a development may be. This would constitute a predictable and obvious form of emergent complexity not yet realized but potentially looming large in the human future, and so it is with many of the more imaginative futurist scenarios, such as the emergence of machine consciousness, and all that implies, or our contact with another civilization from elsewhere in the universe, and so on.
Now let us try to set aside these obvious extrapolations of emergent complexity as we know it on Earth today and attempt to conceive a novel emergent complexity that is not only unprecedented, but which would be completely unexpected and as close to being incomprehensible as human cognition will allow us to conceptualize — a thought experiment on a radical new emergent, as different from mind as mind is different from the organisms upon which mind supervenes.
Say, for example, that the ocean begins to turn poison, and ocean food webs begin to collapse. Imagine that an enormous red tide algal bloom, of a slightly different chemical composition than familiar algal blooms, is the culprit, but the poison, while deadly to life as we know it, is some other kind of emergent complexity, another kind of chemical complexity, which is arising on the basis of existing chemical complexity in the oceans, and by establishing itself as the new chemical regime on Earth, becomes the basis of further kinds of emergent complexity that supervene upon it. Human beings might stand helplessly by, or we might frantically but ineffectually attempt to intervene, even as the chemistry of the world’s oceans changed and rendered our biology archaic, as though we belonged to a bygone era of Earth’s history. The nature we know today would be replaced by the nature that will represent the Earth in future ages, and this, too, would be a kind of post-natural world, and understanding it might require a post-naturalistic conceptual framework, if any human beings remained to possess a conceptual framework.
A scenario not unlike this unfolded on Earth billions of years ago. The Great Oxygen Catastrophe was a kind of poisoning of the environment on a planetary scale, though it was the poisoning of the atmosphere for the anaerobic organisms that had dominated the biosphere up to this time. Later, with the atmosphere enriched with oxygen, other kinds of life evolved that employed oxygen in metabolic processes, turning this poison to their advantage. Now imagine an oceanic parallel to the Great Oxygen Catastrophe — the Great Oceanic Catastrophe — that would leave our Earth as unrecognizable as our reconstructions of the earliest stages of Earth’s history are unrecognizable to us today. I attach no particular importance to the scenario I have just briefly sketched; it is intended only as an example, since examples of counterintuitive counterfactuals are difficult to come by, and I wanted to offer something concrete, and not merely leave the reader hanging.
I am not expecting the foundations of a new conceptual framework to begin to take shape tomorrow, nor do I expect to wake up tomorrow and hear news of a mysterious and ominous new oceanic anomaly. Indeed, I do not expect these events, or events of a similar magnitude, to begin to unfold in hundreds or perhaps even in thousands of years. So in discussing “the coming age of post-naturalism” I mean only that post-naturalism is “coming” on geological and cosmological scales of time, and to think of phenomena on this scale in terms of a human scale of time is not merely misleading, but actually fallacious.
The Age of Post-Naturalism will not arrive for several centuries at earliest, even if the conceptual framework of our civilization is such as can be replaced at regular intervals. And if naturalism is the mature conceptual framework for beings such as ourselves, then naturalism will endure as long as a civilization endures that can maintain the level of development that allows for the mature expression of the human intellect to remain. If we maintain our developmental accomplishments at the current stage of civilization that we enjoy today, or better, then naturalism would be our final conceptual framework, and this would be true also if our civilization were abruptly cut short by some terrible catastrophe. If, on the contrary, our level of civilization declines, our conceptual framework would almost certainly decline along with civilization. However, it is possible that this decline could be found in parallel with another traditional of thought gaining historical momentum. E. M. W. Tillyard, as quoted above, characterized the Elizabethan world picture as constituting a simplified iteration of the medieval world picture, but we also know that, at the same time, the scientific and naturalistic world picture was just then coming into being, parallel with the declining medieval world picture.