Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is Naturalism Nihilistic?

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.

Scientism 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.


Blogger Winstanley said...

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.

I think you are very right in adding the word "core".

You don't need to assume that morality per se is a darwinian adaptation in order to naturalize it. Our brains are ungistinguishible from that of our pleistocene ancestors but our moral standars are definetely not theirs. Morality has been and is developing quite independetly from, in fact despite, our primitive biological adaptations.

I other words, philosophers have been naturalizing morality before Darwin and at least since the Enlightenment.

Having said that, nice piece.

Nov 15, 2009, 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Alberto said...

I´m sorry. Bad news. Our moral core is not an adaptation, but a set of beliefs, if core is the idea that "all men are created equals" or the golden rule "do to others what you want others to do to you". Not to say "reuturn good for evil".

No, our moral core that darwinian adaptation gave us is the reciprocal altruism of nepotistic gangs of few selected individuals united by internal-only notions of friendship and fairness, but that act as psychopaths with the rest. This is our core morality.

The rest is a painful exercise of progressive civilization that can be reversed in a generation and ever is at the rish of falling back by corruption in disentangled groups. This process start again and again with every child born. Don´t forget that.

In this process of civilization, religion has taken the most part of the merit. Even if any philospher as Confucius was involved, obedience to a Philosopher can not be without its veneration, that is, without creating a religion around it.

I wish you good look (and you really will need it) whith your children when you'll say to them "do to others what you would like to receive from them, life has no meaning"

Dec 9, 2009, 5:35:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy S said...

Alberto: Unfortunately, your conception of morality as practiced by the non-religious sounds straw-man like. We are human beings too...and thus we do have some of the foibles that religious folk have.

The difference is that we do try to give proper credit where it is due: people vastly underestimate their capacity to help others [and themselves] as moral agents. In other words, when someone performs a good act--like guiding down a damaged plane to safety--I would not attribute this to any supernatural agent...but I would give credit to the pilot/s on board.

In fact, the progress of morality of our modern world was possible, due to the hard work and activism of concerned people--which in turn came from the hard-earnt values of the Enlightenment [including Hobbes, Kant and John S. Mill to name a few.]

Yes...I'm willing to concede that some of the Enlightenment individuals were religious. This, though, should not distract us from the actual achievements they made to improve the standings of less fortunate people.

BTW: What do you mean by "life has no meaning"? [It sounds like as if we can't...unless we are committed to a religion.]

Jan 10, 2010, 4:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Bill Herd said...

In your previously posted article on "Relativism and the Limits of Rationality" you do a superb job of showing how it is inevitable,given the kind of creatures we are, that we value things (e-valuate,to put in process terms). Even a person on the verge of committing suicide is responding to a value. They value the perceived lack of suffering they expect. So it would seem that the concept of nihilism may be like the concept of god-seemingly impossible to coherently formulate.
Bill Herd

Apr 23, 2010, 2:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your article and found it to be very interesting. I do however have a question: Moral nihilism, as I have understood it, states that moral values are baseless, that we cannot rationally defend them. In your article, you say that naturalism does not entail nihilism (and since your article talks about morality, I assume that you mean moral nihilism). Now, you say that of course there is morality because of what is observed in cultures and because certain things are thought of as desirable by most human beings. (“Agreed: for the naturalist norms aren’t free floating, but are rooted in our evolved needs and desires for flourishing in community with others (…).”)
But this does not in any way refute moral nihilism! Moral nihilism grants that there are subjective and intersubjective values. It merely states that moral are baseless.
How would you explain/argue against this?

Sep 4, 2010, 5:36:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Anonymous says: "Moral nihilism, as I have understood it, states that moral values are baseless, that we cannot rationally defend them."

What the moral nihilist seems to find missing is a purely rational basis for norms that will compel assent whatever one's makeup, independent of any *motivational* basis. But the rational basis of saying one should do x can only derive from an antecedent desire on some agent’s part in which achieving x helps fulfill that desire, so norms are inevitably motivational phenomena. Given that we are naturally bequeathed a nearly universal set of desires for personal and social flourishing, moral norms are those somewhat variable but nearly universal shoulds which get us from those desires to their fulfillment.

If the nihilist says there has to be a *deeper* basis for morality than this, I think he has to show this basis is a live possibility - that there really could be a further justification for norms beyond shared motives and desires. Divine command theory doesn't work, nor is there any naturalistic analog of that forthcoming, so there is no non-motivational objective basis for morality. But that doesn't mean that moral values are baseless. They have all the basis they could possibly have.

Sep 4, 2010, 9:43:00 AM  

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