Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Nature is a vast thing. For philosophers, the term "naturalism" has many versions. One might be a methodological naturalist believing that one ought to proceed under the assumption that science discovers natural laws while leaving alone ontological naturalism which states that only physical objects and their causal relations exist. A very strong naturalist might be adhere to both versions. In addition, one might consider any number of philosophical descriptive accounts as natural. I might defend a version of non-cognitivism in which I need the work of the emotions as does Alan Gibbard require remorse and guilt at the agential level. Other naturalists might be skeptical that such folk psychological terms really capture any understanding about how people are when they act morally. And the battle rages on philosophically.

Now, what is the point of going through the above motions (other than the really nice picture)? Well, I drop my hat and simply say that these questions have been on my mind lately. Moreover, this blog post goes nowhere but to document my confusions on the matter.

As some of you may know, I start with phenomenological description and proceed from there as a general rule of thumb. The rule is simple: philosophy must start with our lived-experience and whatever is given to us within experience provides a leading-clue as to what ontological level of explanations suffice for philosophy. In this way, I do not think that philosophy is simply preserving biases of unscientific understanding of the world. Instead, I think that philosophy ought to contribute to understanding our worldly experience. To many times in the past, philosophy has tried to pass off concepts that are justified apart from experience, which is namely a Kantian demand. Our concepts must arise from our lived-experience in much his inquiry started with the various points-of-view he thought were basic to human life: knowing, acting and judging. Apart from Kant, the moderns did not do this. Instead, they justified everything according to their basic belief in the epistemic position as primitively basic to human life. That's a little absurd, and shows how it is that modern philosophy with its focus to the epistemic position came to infect the development of analytic philosophy with the same basic belief (such a genealogical analysis should be forthcoming from me, but it is late. In truth, that's a book right there).

What makes naturalism interesting to me is how uncritically accepted as a position it is within mainstream philosophy, and where we are in ethics with respect to what is called moral psychology taking over metaethics. Let me speak to the first and then I will elucidate the climate of ethics in relation to psychology. An anecdote will help. I studied at an all analytic department, and found the same objection constantly wielded against Husserl---Husserl's transcendental idealism is an unattractive and unscientific position. Unscientific was code for "not natural enough". The question usually went: How is it that I could even read that "stuff"? Well, it comes from the fact that I want philosophy to say something more than trailing the coattails of the blind analytic adherence and reverence to the natural sciences. This can be gleaned from ethics.

Ethics is one of the few knowledges that preserves the first-person point of view; it preserves subjectivity to point to Kierkeegard. It talks about what tests we can use to guide our current deliberations, and conceptually describes what the good life might look like. It gives us a language to reflect on the issues of our own life, and the lives of others. Within ethics, naturalism is a dominant position for those describing things like practical rationality, moral epistemology and philosophy of action. All these areas inform the backdrop of what we might call moral psychology, which assumes naturalism implicitly and strikes me as just another reincarnation of the failed attempt to naturalize explanations about laws of logic as laws of psychology. Yet, instead of laws of logic up for grabs, it is the fundamental belief that we are simply objects in an overall chain of determined physical relations deciphered by the natural sciences. This gets us away from experience entirely. It is just another veiled attempt for the natural attitude to describe what should be described in terms of lived subjectivity. Of course, this is just a phenomenologist talking.

For these reasons, I may want to research a dissertation on the foundations of ethical naturalism, or at the very least write a historical genealogy tracing out the concept in its brief history. I bet I would find a less than judicious use of Ockham's razor throughout the history of philosophy, and more to the point if I paid attention to the history of naturalism itself, I would find that the efforts to naturalize normativity with respect to agency puts me at the very start of where the Oxbridge non-naturalists were just a century ago. We have come full-circle only to think that our science is better when, in truth, we forget that science is what Husserl calls "a life-praxis." Science only achieves its meaning for us since it is accomplished by beings with lived subjectivity. When we are so convinced that science can answer all questions philosophically, we privilege science over other forms of human experience and do not see the value in the artistic, literary and cultural productions around us. These, too, aid our understanding of the world--maybe more so than science ever could since they have no real way of corroborating with truth as the scientists want us to believe. Maybe that is true?! But, the point of listening to the arts and other humanities is to show something else--the humanities and the arts contribute to the understanding of the world for us in that they provoke from us meaning. Science can do that along with these very same things, but we must view them as one of the many tools we have to understand our world. We should not let our adherence to naturalism sway us differently.

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