This is an invited response to Alex Rosenberg’s essay at On the Human, The disenchanted naturalist's guide to reality
, in which he suggests that naturalism leads to scientism and thence to nihilism. Nothing remotely like this is true, and seeing why not is a good opportunity to make some observations about naturalism and normativity – about where standards of right and wrong, and true and false come from if nature is all there is. I’m happy to report that most of the other commentators declined Rosenberg’s gambit, so they rightly remain un
-disenchanted naturalists. The supposed relationship between naturalism and nihilism has been debunked previously at Memeing Naturalism, see here
as Rosenberg describes it isn’t equivalent to or implied by naturalism, a worldview that takes science as its guide to reality. He says “Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.” But science alone isn’t in a position to be nihilistic. Science arguably provides the best answers to factual questions about what exists, but doesn’t itself have the resources or competence to answer (in the negative, as Rosenberg would have it) the “persistent questions” of human meaning, purpose and morality. To suppose science alone can
answer such questions is indeed to be scientistic in the original and rightly pejorative sense. After all, when considering the big questions, we ordinarily avail ourselves of all the philosophical and practical resources outside
science, such as ethical and political theory, religious and secular traditions, maxims, rules of thumb, and other sources of wisdom on how best to live and find meaning.
It isn’t surprising that Rosenberg’s hyper-reductive scientism ends up in nihilism, since of course we don’t find values or purpose or meaning at the level of what he thinks science shows to be the only reality: fermions and bosons. But such austere physicalism isn’t forced on the naturalist, who can countenance higher-level ontologies, including mental states, so long as they play useful roles in our best (most predictive, transparent and unifying) explanations and theories. So far as science can tell, human beings (physical organisms) and their projects (their behavior) are just as real as their sub-atomic constituents, which after all are not directly observed but theoretical posits par excellence. Naturalism still leaves plenty of room for purpose, meaning and morality so long as these are understood as what they actually are under naturalism: human, creaturely concerns that need no cosmic or sub-atomic backup. To see this is to naturalize
purpose, meaning and morality, to relativize them to naturally occurring needs and interests; it isn’t to annihilate them.
Rosenberg underestimates the extent to which scientific explanations can be understood and found inspirational by non-scientists, for instance the grand stories of cosmic and biological evolution. To discover ourselves full participants in nature, historically and in the present moment, need not be demoralizing as Carl Sagan so wonderfully demonstrated. Crucially, scientific explanations don’t entail that human existential and ethical concerns are unreal or unfulfillable, only that they are situated in a natural world that, logically enough, has no capacity to validate them. Only the assumption that addressing such concerns requires an appeal to supernatural or extra-human standards would lead us to suppose that naturalized meaning and morality aren’t the real thing. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption.
Rosenberg says that “If the physical facts fix all the facts…then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes.” But the physical level of description doesn’t compete with, or supplant, higher level descriptions of human behavior involving purposes and other intentional states, conscious and unconscious. There’s no making sense of behavior at our level without them. True, science reveals no purpose in evolution or nature, but that doesn’t show that our purposes are illusions, that we don’t really
believe, desire, plan, etc. Purposes and intentional states are real
-ized in physical organisms such as ourselves.
He makes the same sort of claim about morality: “There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon.” Agreed: for the naturalist norms aren’t free floating, but are rooted in our evolved needs and desires for flourishing in community with others (hence ethical norms of fairness and reciprocity) and for making accurate predictions about the world (hence cognitive norms of rationality, evidence and inference). But even though we don’t find anything intrinsically normative in nature taken as a whole, or at the level of physical facts about fermions and bosons, these norms are just as real as the human beings that depend on them for getting by in the world. From a naturalistic standpoint, the normative force attached to our moral core – our judgment that it’s correct
– can only be a function of the fact that it serves basic human needs as shaped by evolution: if you want to get along with others (and you likely do) then you should
in general behave morally. That this explanation shows our moral core to be an adaptation, along with much else about us, doesn’t debunk normativity as unreal, only naturalizes it.
Rosenberg’s reductive stripping away of higher level human perspectives continues down the line, for meaning, history, consciousness, the self, free will, and even knowledge (a perilously self-undermining tack to take). But the mistake in all this is to suppose that physicalist, mechanistic, sub-personal and selectionist explanations leave no room in naturalism for the higher level ontologies and explanations that comprise the need-driven normative realms of cognition, meaning and morality. That the brain doesn’t traffic in propositions, and that consciousness isn’t a direct mirroring of the world, doesn’t mean that language-using persons
don’t have propositional knowledge or entertain accurate beliefs. That semantic meaning isn’t a “fact about reality” considered at the sub-atomic level doesn’t render unreal our linguistic referential capacities, or our ability to tell truthful and instructive stories about historical events. No original intentionality is needed, only the constructed
intentionality made possible by being creatures whose brains instantiate mental models that track the world. Seeing that the consciously experienced self is naturalistically not a soul, but a neurally realized pattern (a “real pattern” Dennett would say) is to explain selves and self-concern, not to explain them away. That we aren’t contra-causally free doesn’t mean we cease being moral agents responsive to the prospect of rewards and sanctions, although it might entail that we rethink some of our more punitive responsibility practices.
The processes of naturalization spurred by science may indeed upset some cherished supernatural and theistic conceptions of the self, freedom, consciousness, morality, meaning and knowledge, which may in turn prompt changes in mainstream concepts and practices. But naturalism does not entail the scientistic elimination and debunking of all that matters to human beings; it simply places this mattering within nature as a set of creaturely concerns that other sentient beings might conceivably share with us. That nature, taken as a whole, or understood sub-atomically, does not validate our naturally occurring concerns and capacities isn’t a reason to give up on them, and indeed we’re pretty much constitutionally unable to do so. So naturalists need not be, shouldn’t be, and in the end can’t
be, scientistic eliminativists or nihilists.