There’s a thought-provoking podcast on Randal Rauser’s blog, featuring philosopher Michael Rea on naturalism. He starts by carefully defining “naturalism” in accordance with those who most espouse it in the academic literature (because it’s one of those words that has ended up meaning almost anything and everything). His main conclusion is hardly new – that naturalism, understood as the decision to accept as authoritative only scientific epistemology, cannot be justified by naturalism.
In other words, science presents no compelling grounds for taking up such an epistemological framework in the first place. One interesting thing is that he does not couch this conclusion in terms of self-referentialism, as others have, but more irenically in terms of a “research program” (to use philosophy of science jargon). What that means is that it is, in the end, a choice to pursue such a frame of reference where it might lead, which might well include all kinds of useful stuff like mobile phones and landing spacecraft on Mars, yet still be false.
Implicit in the need for such an analysis is the fact that so many naturalists have no concept that they have made a choice of “research program”, but then the same is in many cases true for non-naturalists. And, as Rea says, that explains the tendency for people to argue past each other:
“There is no evidence for anything beyond the material.”
“Yes there is.”
“But it’s not scientific evidence, so is not valid.”
“Why should only scientific evidence be valid?”
“Because science describes all that is material, and there is no evidence of anything beyond the material…”
The bottom line is that the decision to embrace naturalism is, in the end, non-rational (as opposed to irrational). Rather than argue the toss about that conclusion, for which I’ve yet to see any good attempt at refutation, I want to see whether we can learn anything from what lies behind such decisions – as also the, perhaps, similarly non-rational decisions made for our “research programs” by the rest of us non-naturalists. We can only take that so far for, as Blaise Pascal, a supremely rational man, said, “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”
In the podcast, Rauser suggests one such reason from the writing of atheist Thomas Nagel, who has honestly admitted that he does not want there to be a God because he dislikes the idea of that kind of universe. As Rauser suggests, that is because he does not want to contemplate an unknowable mind that nevertheless knows him. Rea replies that that is undoubtedly one reason, if only for Nagel, but that he’s met others who seem to have been brought up as believers and have come to think it’s all nonsense, or have never seen any sense in it anything beyond the material. One can think of other testimonies too – of coming to believe that certain scientific theories, or their philosophical baggage, make a creator God implausible (leading to the non sequitur that only the material exists); of experiencing evil personally or at second-hand and rejecting, along with a moral Deity, everything beyond the physical realm. Such reasons constitute those of the bulk of those elite scientists who claim to be naturalists in surveys.
In other words, there are likely to be as many non-rational and personal reasons for embracing naturalism as there are for any other belief, the point being that they are personal. I have no problem with that, believing (for my own set of personal reasons) that subjects are more fundamental than objects. But since such reasons involve choices, they may in the final analysis be inadequate, or even culpable.
Now exactly the same is true for non-naturalist beliefs. The reasons for opting for any of the variety of non-naturalist “research programs” may be more or less conscious, but will certainly be just as personal and, in that sense, non-rational – though no more intrinsically likely to be irrational. Thus, to reformulate the reasons already suggested for choosing naturalism, someone might feel it absolutely fitting that the Universe has a universal, omniscient Father; being raised in materialism they might suddenly be persuaded by historical or other evidence for faith; they might never have doubted the existence of the numinous; they might come to believe that certain scientific theories make a creator God inevitable; or they might directly encounter the love of God so overwhelmingly that naturalist conceptions are swept away.
Now it’s not my aim to evaluate here whose particular personal journeys carry most weight, but just to note that there is little or no weight to be granted to the naturalistic research program per se, for it cannot be self-sufficient. We could even all grant that some personal reasons are inadequate foundations for epistemology, whichever way they fall. For example, being brought up unquestioningly in one worldview does not say much about whether it is true or false. So, in the worst case, it might even be that there are insufficient grounds available to any of us as human beings to take up any particular position with unassailable confidence.
But there does seem to me to be an asymmetry between the two broad categories of “naturalist” and “non-naturalist”, as defined by Rea. For if a non-naturalist reaches his or her view of the world by means that are not purely empirical and rational, there is no necessary contradiction involved: if you allow the reality of intuition, or divine grace, or an inborn sensus divinitatis, in addition to the powers of logic and investigation, it is no embarrassment if such factors are included in the grounds of your beliefs.
But conversly, if you hold only reason and empirical investigation to be valid, it’s intensely problematic if your epistemological system cannot be shown to be soundly rationally or empirically grounded. One cannot, in other words, go beyond Rea’s claim that one has simply made a personal choice to deal with the world in a naturalistic fashion.
It’s considerably worse, though, if the particular version of naturalism one pursues believes that free will is an illusion, because ones beliefs then cannot be even non-rational choices, but only an arbitrary outcome of forces beyond yourself. Even more is that the case if you believe that human reason evolved to ensure survival, rather than truth, a conclusion that damages naturalism far more than it damages religion, for in the latter God might still stand sovereign over the outcomes of evolution, whereas in naturalism blind forces are the entirety of truth.
Against that, I suppose, might be offset a naturalistic belief that chance always leads to order, in thought as well as in anything else. Naturalism would then be accidentally correct. That just leaves the anomaly of non-naturalism to be accounted for.