Thursday, December 3, 2009

Spectaclism versus naturalism

Let’s define spectaclism as the theory that what exists is what my spectacles “tell me” exists, i.e. what I am able to see using spectacles. Naturalism is the theory that what exists is what the natural sciences “tell us” exists, i.e. what we are able to learn via their methods.

In support of their theory, naturalists point to the many predictive and technological successes of the natural sciences. In favor of their own theory, spectaclists could also point to the great predictive and technological accomplishments of spectacle-wearers.

Still, no one believes in spectaclism, and the reason is obvious: That a certain method provides us with reliable and useful information about some domain gives us no reason whatsoever to think that what it tells us exists is all that exists. There are other problems too: What sorts of spectacles are the ones we should rely on to tell us what exists? Bifocals? Sunglasses? What color? And why those, exactly?

Notice that the problem here is a failure to keep in mind that metaphysical questions are prior to epistemological or methodological ones. You have to determine first what exists before you can find out whether spectacles tell you all there is to know about it, exactly which spectacles do the job, etc. Spectaclism, in short, gets things back-asswards.

But here’s the thing: Naturalism is exactly as back-asswards as spectaclism is. It is silly to suggest that what exists is only what natural science tells you exists unless you already know through independent means what exists, can compare the deliverances of all putative natural sciences to it, and determine on that basis that such-and-such putative natural sciences alone capture everything there is.

Of course, naturalists will tell us that there is no alternative to natural science – that common sense perceptual experience, introspection, putative religious experiences, and metaphysical inquiry are trustworthy only to the extent that they are vindicated by the natural sciences. But spectaclists could say something similar: Putative alternative sources of knowledge are to be trusted only to the extent that they can be given a respectable spectaclist foundation. “But that’s ridiculous!” Sure it is. So is naturalism.

“Oh come on, we have independent grounds for holding that more exists than is dreamed of in the spectaclist’s philosophy!” Sure we do, but we also have independent grounds for holding that more exists than is dreamed of in the naturalist’s philosophy – for example, grounds derived from common sense perceptual experience, introspection, putative religious experiences, and metaphysical inquiry. “But those aren’t reliable sources of knowledge!” Oh, you mean the way non-spectaclist sources are not reliable? What’s the difference, exactly? And try not to beg the question this time.

“But, but, but, but… naturalism just can’t be as groundless as that!” Wanna bet?

“But most contemporary academic philosophers are naturalists! How can they all be wrong?” Tsk tsk, come now, everyone knows that arguments from authority went out with the Middle Ages…

25 comments:

Maolsheachlann said...

I saw an interview with the late Isaac Asimov where he said he was a rationalist and a humanist because science was the only field where there was such a thing as a compelling argument or demonstration. There is no such thing as a knock-down philosophical or ethical or aesthetic or mystical argument, but there is (I presume) a knock-down scientific argument. So, if you think there's no reason in principle that science can't invade the realms of aesthetics, ethics, mysticism-- or explode them-- it seems fair enough to claim that scientific explanation is the ultimate authority. In TLS, Professor, you've made a strong case, even to a bonehead like me, that philosophy can never become simply the handmaiden of science, through irreducible aspects of the world such as consciousness. But I guess I'm saying the naturalist's claim that other knowledge should be assessed by the light of scientific knowledge isn't arbitrary, for the reason Dr. Asimov gave.

Edward Feser said...

Well, the problem with that is that we now need to know what counts as a "compelling argument or demonstration." I maintain, for example, that there are compelling metaphysical arguments for the existence of God and the immateriality of the mind. Thus, Asimov was wrong to claim that only scientific arguments are compelling.

To respond "Well, they're not scientific arguments, and so they can't really be compelling" would be to beg the question. To respond "But people disagree about whether such metaphysical arguments really are compelling" would be irrelevant -- whether an argument is good has no essential connection to how many people accept it -- and (for the same reason) would undermine science too (since lots of people reject e.g. Darwinism, as naturalists never tire of complaining).

So, it seems to me that the Asimovian response just amounts to yet more question-begging.

Crude said...

Maolsheachlann,

I'd have to agree with Ed. I'd also mention that just what is and isn't "science" happens to be a source of contention even for scientists.

Maolsheachlann said...

Maybe it's not irrelevant that Asimov, famously, published books in every category of the Dewey Decimal Code...except for philosophy!

Interstellar Bill said...

Besides being no philosopher, Asimov was no patriot either. When asked why sci-fi rarely mentioned any future United States, he scornfully replied that in a future of world government, the U.S. will be no more important than Virginia is now, having been absorbed into the greater whole.

This shows that Asimov know little politics either, else he would know that a world government couldn't possibly be accountable to all of humanity, and thus would necessarily be a dictatorship. His silly Galactic Empire was even more unreal, a product of historical naivete and a Toynbee fetish.
Are there any ardent atheists who aren't totally shallow?

Maolsheachlann said...

Agreed, Interstellar Bill. Asimov was quite an endearing character in some ways (and was actually a lot more respectful of religion and tradition than most modern atheists) but the whole science-fictiony humanism/progressivism is pretty glib and shallow. And (although I don't really know what I'm talking about here) it seems to have collapsed into cyberpunk and cynicism after a few decades; all those materialist brave new worlds seem to do that, eventually. And I agree with you about patriotism, too. Personally, I detest secular humanism both for its scientism and its internationalism. Even if you could have a democratic and accountable world government, who would want to do away with the nation?

Sorry for straying from the topic, though.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it false that most contemporary philosophers are naturalists in the sense you describe in this post? You're here attacking the claim that the methods of the natural sciences provide the only way towards knowledge. But even if we ignore all of the Continental traditions (which, if we were to include them, would probably be sufficient to falsify the claim), it's hard to see how you could interpret many big name philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that way: Davidson? Putnam? Williams? Rorty? McDowell? Nagel? Searle? van Inwagen? van Fraassen? Goodman? Anyone significantly influenced by Wittgenstein (Kenny, Hacker, Cavell, Diamond)? Most ethicists and political philosophers (Rawls, Taylor, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Finnis, Korsgaard, Brink, Boyd, Sturgeon, even Peter Singer)? Important epistemologists (Plantinga, Bonjour, Sosa, Audi, Greco)? Most of the people on this list are huge names in recent analytic philosophy, but none of them comes anywhere close to the kind of scientism you're attacking here. If the argument from authority has any weight whatsoever, it weighs against the view that the methods of the natural sciences are the only respectable methods of inquiry and ways of knowing.

Edward Feser said...

Anon,

I agree, though some of the folks you mention would count as naturalists in a broad sense, and be regarded by the sort of naturalist I'm attacking as obscurantist and unwilling to follow naturalism where it leads. But again, you're right. And you could throw in lots of other people too (e.g. more traditional Thomists who, unlike those of us who come from an analytic background, have no institutional connection to what is considered "mainstream" academic philosophy). What I'm attacking is the sort of attitude that says that such views "don't count" because all "serious" philosophers are naturalists.

Oliver Fugate said...

"See, I've overturned your point by putting words in your mouth that emphasize how stunned you are at my brilliance! Hear me and fear, O non-Christian philosophers!"

I tend to see the Straw Man approach more from your type than the others -- and I ain't no naturalist.

Why is this? Why don't you quote actual people? You seem to just trail off into a rant.

Frankly, it's childish.

Edward Feser said...

"Why don't you quote actual people?"

You mean like Rosenberg, about whom I just wrote a long post? Or Quine, who is also mentioned in that post? Or Dennett, whose views on this topic I discuss at length in TLS? Or other folks I've discussed in TLS, in my book Philosophy of Mind, and in previous posts?

"You seem to just trail off into a rant."

You mean like your comment?

Anonymous said...

I'd agree that this post sets up something of a strawman; but I don't think a blog post comparing a certain breed of naturalism with 'spectaclism' expects itself to be taken as much besides philosophical comedy. It's worth remembering, though, that the logical positivists in the first part of the 20th century laid out a very sophisticated set of arguments for an even more austere sort of scientism than Ed describes here, and it's completely fair to respond to their sophistication by simply pointing out that the whole position is absurd because its central thesis (the verification theory of meaning) is self-refuting (i.e., the verification thesis is neither a tautology nor an empirical proposition). Ed would deserve your disdain if he took his post to be presenting a serious challenge to those who hold the position he ridicules. I expect he rather takes himself to be having fun ridiculing them. After all, he's now written at least three books in which he presents serious arguments against the view that the natural sciences offer the only path to knowledge.

It's also getting rather tiresome to see arguments against eliminative and reductive naturalism treated as arguments against "non-Christian philosophers." I've already provided a list of philosophers who would agree with the sentiment of Ed's post; you might have noticed that a majority of them are not religious.

Anonymous said...

29 philosophers, in fact, off the top of my head, all very influential in their fields, some with claims to be among the best academic philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, of whom 6 are Catholic, 1 Episcopalian, 1 a Calvinist, 2 practicing Jews but theological anti-realists, 1 an agnostic, and 18 atheists or sufficiently indifferent that they have nothing much to say about religion. The rejection of scientism is not a religious issue.

Edward Feser said...

Yes, the post is obviously meant to be flippant. But it does have a serious point that could be spelled out politely with all the philosophical bells and whistles if need be. Moreover, I don't think the "straw man" accusation is fair in any event. The claim that what exists is just what natural science tells us exists is cetainly not a straw man, since that just is the basic naturalist idea, at least as Rosenberg is using the label, a usage which is very common (even if there are other kinds of "naturalism" -- e.g. Wittgenstein's position is sometimes described that way -- which are certainly not "naturalistic" in Rosenberg's sense).

What is true is that very few people would actually come out and say things like "Most contemporary philosophers believe it, so it must be right." But I never said most naturalists really say that. The point was just to imagine a last desperate response some frustrated naturalist might give if backed into a corner. And I do think there are some people who evince that sort of attitude.

But enough, on the comedic principle that "if ya gotta explain it..."

Eric said...

"What is true is that very few people would actually come out and say things like "Most contemporary philosophers believe it, so it must be right." But I never said most naturalists really say that. The point was just to imagine a last desperate response some frustrated naturalist might give if backed into a corner. And I do think there are some people who evince that sort of attitude."

Isn't this pretty much Dennett's main argument against dualism? And if so, what could his "last desperate response" possibly be? ;)

Anonymous said...

"Notice that the problem here is a failure to keep in mind that metaphysical questions are prior to epistemological or methodological ones."


Strange. In a recent discussion with one of my phil. professors (who is undoubtedly some type of naturalist), he stated the EXACT opposite of what you said here, Dr. Feser. In fact, he claimed that what makes modern philosophy totally superior to ancient and medieval philosophy is that it takes a more "humbler" (his words) approach by concerning itself chiefly with epistemology before engaging in "speculative" metaphysics. According to him, prior to Descartes, philosophers held that metaphysics was fundamental. But the "glorious" thing about Descartes is that he was the first to introduce epistemology and TIE it together with metaphysics by asking the preliminary and more fundamental question of "How do we even come to know anything at all?" Unlike those who came before them, the modern philosophers up till the present day were and are concerned with the actual foundations of knowledge. Apparently, sorting out epistemological and methodological puzzles is, for them, absolutely prior to engaging in metaphysics.


I wonder what your thoughts on this are. Presumably, many people think this way. I agree with what you say in TLS, so I myself don't buy my prof's analysis for a second, because I just can't see how the realism/anti-realism debate hinges on epistemology. (Not to mention the myriad of problems that the abandonment of classical/medieval philosophy unleashed upon mankind....but then again, arguments of the form "X must be wrong because the adoption of X led to deleterious effects in human history" don't appear to be very good)

Ranger said...

Dr. Feser,
I'm still working through TLS and thoroughly enjoying it. I'm ashamed to admit that I have a couple of theology degrees under my belt from protestant institutions and I've never read (nor been asked to read Aquinas). We read Augustine of course, a little of the Capodocians and Athanasius, a quote or two from Anselm...and then we skip right to the Reformation. As I'm quickly learning, this method is a tragedy.

Anyways, as I was looking around for rebuttals of the First Way, I came across Dr. Joseph Magee's website on Thomism. Despite clearly being a Catholic, he seems to think that the First Way fails and has made some YouTube videos about it. What are your thoughts on his critique?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urj4K1blY3w&feature=player_embedded

http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/firstway-assess.pdf

Thanks!

Ranger said...

This comment is because I forgot to select for responses to be e-mailed...sorry.

Edward Feser said...

Anon,

Yes, that's part of the standard account of the ancient/medieval vs. modern difference on this subject. But that your professor is wrong to think it an improvement is indicated by the fact that any account of how we know presupposes an account of what a knower is and what the things we know are -- which are metaphysical questions. Even Descartes' radical doubt presupposes e.g. that it is at least possible for there to be an appearance/reality gap of the sort described in the dreaming and evil genius arguments. And that is a metaphysical assumption.

Re: the bad consequences of modern phil, the argument in TLS is not "The basic assumptions of modern phil had bad social effects, etc., therefore they must be wrong", which would by itself not be a strong argument, since a view might be true even if it has such effects. The argument is rather "These basic assumptions make such-and-such phenomena (causation, the mind-body relationship, personal identity, etc.) unintelligible, and also lead when combined with naturalism to outright incoherence." Consequences of that sort constitute a very good reason to think the metaphysical assumptions leading to them are false.

Edward Feser said...

Ranger,

I'll have to look when I have a chance, but my new book on Aquinas does deal with both the usual and the less-well-known objections to the First Way (and the rest of the Five Ways too, for that matter) in detail (much more detail than TLS does).

Anonymous said...

Another thing to point out to the anonymous whose philosophy professor takes the modern epistemological project to be superior is that plenty of philosophers who have no interest in medieval or ancient philosophy have been critiquing modern philosophy on the same grounds for a while now. In one way, the whole Continental tradition from Husserl on down is a rejection of part of the idea that we should begin with epistemology (though Husserl himself retained lots of Cartesian assumptions, including the idea that we should not first try to do ontology). Wittgenstein and his followers also largely reject the epistemological project, though it's easier to see in the work of, say, Anscombe than in Wittgenstein himself. Even Quine and many naturalists who follow him basically agree that it's a mistake to insist on first figuring out your epistemology and only then allowing yourself to consider what the world is like (the project is called 'naturalized epistemology,' and more than a few scholars have compared its basic strategy to the Aristotelian approach). There are even some philosophers who are willing to talk about the epistemological project in the past tense and maintain that the only philosophers who are still working within that paradigm are basically just dinosaurs (Charles Taylor often talks that way; see, e.g., his "Overcoming Epistemology" http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/taylor.htm.

In general, lots of philosophers of lots of different persuasions fundamentally disagree with your professor. The main difference between most of them and Aristotelians is that few of the contemporary philosophers who reject the epistemological project do so in the name of traditional metaphysics; the ones who do (e.g., Quineans) tend to do so in the name of natural science, and are perhaps open to the objection that they're still basically stuck in that framework.

Rest assured that it's not only reactionary medieval conservatives like Feser who disagree with your prof.

The Gnu said...

It seems to me that the point made in the "specticalism" post is the same that William Alston made (quoting O.K. Bousma) in his essay "What is Naturalism that we should be mindful of it?".

Namely that by saying that science alone brings knowledge must be understood in the same sense as all the boys of the alley saying, "The only gal for us is our gal Sally".

Anonymous said...

Spectaclism?

It is a sad surrender being masqueraded as enlightenment when you have to invent a philosophy no one subscribes to. Worse when you then liken it to an established field that is responsible for all knowledge known to mankind.

Spectaclism does not work as an example because there are alternate methods that can be demonstrated to gain knowledge.

When you demonstrate an alternate method to naturalistic sciences, then you can reduce it to the same level as spectaclism.

What counts as a demonstration? Anything that makes the method verifiable, and falsifiable by independent entities.

Heck, if you get close enough to demonstrate a God exists, I'll accept it.

Something as close to demonstrating that New York exists, or that Giuliani exists.

Philosophy has never provided an answer to nature's unknowns, because it does not provide any means of verifying or falsifying the answer.

Anonymous said...

Crude said...
Maolsheachlann,

I'd have to agree with Ed. I'd also mention that just what is and isn't "science" happens to be a source of contention even for scientists.

December 3, 2009 1:21 PM
==

Such as?

Leo Carton Mollica said...

Since several commenters seem to be focusing on how many actual philosophers subscribe to the sort of naturalism Ed is lampooning, I'd like to make a point that such disputes fail to notice.

Speaking as a layman, I encounter the "science is the one correct method of discerning Truth" line a lot from people who couldn't tell the difference between Foucault and Carnap. I once, for example, spent a not insignificant amount of time laying out to a man Aquinas' existential argument to have my efforts dismissed as "stupid" because only science, not philosophy, can discover truth. (To defend this thesis he gave the unanswerable argument that great philosophers like Aristotle thought there were five elements before the heroic age of science convinced them otherwise.) When I pointed out that his position was incoherent (scientism being philosophical), he replied that I was being "circular" and left.

Opinions like this are very common, and they, just as much as the views of a Quine or a Rosenberg, need to be addressed. The fact that a heretic is unsophisticated does not save him from Hell.

Ismael said...

@ Anon January 19, 2010 10:06 AM

YOu make several mistakes.

It is a sad surrender being masqueraded as enlightenment when you have to invent a philosophy no one subscribes to.

Why? The point is that! Those who follow scientism are following a philosophical position that makes no sense, like Spectaclism!


Worse when you then liken it to an established field that is responsible for all knowledge known to mankind.

All knowledge regarding nature, perhaps, not ALL knowledge.

This is the typical 'head in ass' argument naturalists use... an arguments that is plainly NOT scientifically justifiable at all (and false too).


Spectaclism does not work as an example because there are alternate methods that can be demonstrated to gain knowledge.

When you demonstrate an alternate method to naturalistic sciences, then you can reduce it to the same level as spectaclism.


You MISS the point entirely. Prof. Feser is NOT attacking Natural sciences (that’s how they are called, not 'naturalistic’) but "Naturalism" and “scientism”. That’s a HUUUGE difference!

Refuting naturalism does not mean in any way refuting natural sciences and the 'scientific method' as tools to reveal (some of) the truth about the material world.

Naturalism claims that science is the ONLY method and only what can be investigated scientifically is true (i.e. sweeping all other truths and whatever does not 'fit the picture' under the rug)

What counts as a demonstration? Anything that makes the method verifiable, and falsifiable by independent entities.

Heck, if you get close enough to demonstrate a God exists, I'll accept it.

Something as close to demonstrating that New York exists, or that Giuliani exists.



This is hardly a good argument. I could ask you to Demonstrate YOU exist and you are not just a figment of my mind.

There are several compelling arguments for God, but people like you refute the a priori without even trying to read them, let alone understand them.

Heck! you do not even understand what Feser wrote here and the difference between science and scientism (or naturalism)! Heck! I have serious doubts you even know yourself what you mean by 'demonstration'.

Philosophy has never provided an answer to nature's unknowns, because it does not provide any means of verifying or falsifying the answer.


What you mean is:
"I know little or nothing about philosophy but I assume I am right so I dismiss it even if I have no idea of what I am talking about"


it does not provide any means of verifying or falsifying the answer

Strangely enough the idea of falsification and 'verification' are PHILOSPHYCAL IDEAS. Duhhhh

Philosophy is the backbone of science!

ALSO: science is often about 'interpretation' of the data.
And the more fundamental questions get the more science tend to blur with

I am a physicist myself
and I believe that natural
sciences can tell us many truths.

This does not mean I accept naturalism or scientism.

----------

Two additional points:

1- Because a technology works it does not mean we understand it fully. The example of organic semiconductors (like in AMOLEDs) and although our devices work, conduction in such devices is still researched.

2- What we now think it’s true might not be. Perhaps some modern theories only appear to reflect reality but they are fundamentally not true. For example most scientist accept General Relativity as true… and GR makes ‘predictions’ that come true, yet there are several other theories that also make true predictions (albeit less popular)… which one is true now? And that’s only one example.

Evidently it is not as easy-peasy as you suppose dear anon.