Thursday, December 2, 2010

Naturalism and the A Priori

Developments in epistemology over the last 100 years have shifted the ground under the feet of philosophers of religion, including many fighting the good fight for atheism.  In particular, the a priori aint what it used to be.  Once upon a time, philosophers thought that a priori reasoning provided us with the strongest, and most compelling forms of arguments in natural theology and atheology.  But after Godel, Carnap, Quine, and many others, a priori knowledge has taken on a decidedly conventionalist flavor.  

I've been reading an article by Penelope Maddy called Naturalism and the A Priori that is very interesting.  While her topic is not proofs or disproofs of God, much of what she has to say about naturalism and the epistemological foundations is directly relevant.  A couple of choice paragraphs:

To describe naturalistic philosophy in general. Quine appeals to a favourite image:

Neurath has likened science to a boat which if we are to rebuild it. we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. (Quine 1960: 3) The naturalistic philosopher begins his reasoning within the inherited world theory as a going concern. He tentatively believes all of it, but believes also that some unidentified portions are wrong. He tries to improve, clarify, and understand the system from within. He is the busy sailor adrift on Neurath's boat. (Quine 1975: 72)

For the naturalist, there is no higher perspective, where transcendental or other extra-scientific considerations hold sway. The naturalist operates 'from the point of view of our own science, which is the only point of view I can offer' (Quine 1981b: 181).

A similar rejection of the transcendental level is found in Arthur Fine's 'natural ontological attitude', or NOA?l The context here is the realism-anti-realism debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s, exemplified, for example, by Putnam's attack on 'metaphysical realism' and van Fraassen's agnosticism about unobservables.  As Fine understands it, the impulse towards realism is actually based in 'homely' beliefs, which, he says,

I will put it in the first person. I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole, with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the system of 'check, double-check, check, triple-check' of scientific investigation, as well as the other safeguards built into the institutions of science.  So, if the scientists tell me that there really are molecules, and atoms, and y/J particles, and, who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. (Fine 1986: 126-7)

From this point of view, we can ask after the relations between humans, as described in psychology, physiology, linguistics, etc., and the world, as described in physics, chemistry, geology, etc., and draw conclusions about the relations between sentences and the world, an investigation that may result in a correspondence theory of truth or a deflationary theory of truth or some other theory of truth or no theory of truth at all, depending how things go.  But however they go, this theory will be just one part of our overall scientific theory of the world.

On these matters, Putnam and van Fraassen agree with the NOAer [someone who adopts a Natural Ontological Attitude], but they don't stop here; each, in his own way, goes beyond science, to a higher level. There Putnam distinguishes metaphysical realism, which adds to NOA's core an extra scientific correspondence theory of truth, and internal realism, which  adds to the same core a Peircean analysis of truth as warranted assertability in the ideal limit.  Focused on the problem of ontology rather than truth, van Fraassen adds an extra level of epistemological analysis where we must abstain from belief in molecules and atoms and electrons, despite our acceptance of these same entities for scientific purposes, Here the holder of our homely beliefs will be tempted to object that atoms really do exist, thus embodying  Kant's 'incautious.. listener', faced with 'a question. . . absurd in itself', who then gives 'an answer where none is required' (A58/B82-3): he wants to insist on the reality of atoms, but all the genuine scientific evidence, though accepted at the lower level, has been ruled out of bounds at the higher level; the frustrated Scientific Realist ends by stomping his foot. Fine's proposal is that we rest with the natural ontological attitude and resist the temptation to engage in extra-scientific debate.

To subject our naturalism to the same challenge put to both Kant and Carnap, we should ask: is naturalism itself a scientific thesis? I think the right answer to this question is that naturalism is not a thesis at all, but an approach. The naturalistic philosopher is the Neurathian sailor, working within science to understand, clarify, and improve science; she will treat philosophical questions on a par with other scientific questions, insofar as this is possible; faced with first philosophical demands-that is, questions and solutions that require extra-scientific methods-she will respond with befuddlement, for she knows no such methods; from her scientific perspective, she is sceptical that there are such methods, but she has no a priori argument that there are such methods, but she has no a priori argument that there are none; until such methods are explained and justified, she will simply set aside the challenges of first philosophy and get on with her naturalistic business. Naturalism contrasts with both Kantianism and Carnpianism in forgoing any 'higher-level' considerations.



Anonymous said...

There seems to be a chasm between the naturalist going about their business and any first philosophy. One might wonder, is there any way to bridge this gap? Of course, the answer depends on the situation, for many fields of inquiry do not require foundations for the practitioners to go about their business. Physicists, economists and mathematicians can still go about experimenting, analyzing and deducing without some requisite first philosophy. Nevertheless, each of these fields has been improved the more we inquire into their foundations.

Can the same be said with regard to naturalism? I agree that naturalism is more like an approach than a thesis. The way you have presented naturalism, it seems to fall into a peculiar spot that other fields do not. We can question the foundations of mathematics, not through algebra or topology but through mathematical logic. We can inquire into economic assumptions with psychology and mathematics. The same goes for other sciences. But this naturalist approach cannot be justified by any other way than the scientific methods on which the approach provides. It would be like defining a word by using the same word or founding algebra on a theory of algebra.

There is no problem with lacking a first philosophy, but it seems you want to suggest abandoning any such questions altogether. That would do a disservice to science. The business of science does not require such discussion, this much is true. But there seems to be no good reason to avoid asking questions into its first philosophy.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for reading Bryan. I'm not sure who the comment is directed to, me or Penelope Maddy. The bulk of this post is a quote from her article which is linked. For answers to your questions, you'll need to go read the whole article.

Unknown said...

My comment is not going to be nearly as sophisticated as the first, or the original post, for that matter. I did begin to read her paper and found myself utterly lacking in the appropriate background material.

I was not surprised.

Headaches aside for the moment, I did want to focus on the realist vs. anti-realist controversy:

As I understand it, the realist infers the existence of those things that the anti-realist remains agnostic about. Whether it be sub-atomic particles, universal forces, or what-not. What I found striking, as I read a quote by Van Fraassen describing the anti-realist view (quite simply), is that I instantly intuitively knew he was religious.

His postulate that what phenomena remains unobserved, is in fact unobservable troubles me. This, drawn to it's logical conclusion, allows one to create small holes into which the concept of god could fit. Now, as an explanation, that's fine. However there remains no argument (to my knowledge), no reason to suggest it is so.

I want to know your thoughts on his idea. Do you think it's logical? It seems to smack of similarity to Hume's various arguments on induction and skepticism.

When I look at an idea like that (assuming I am representing it correctly), and see something that seems awfully strange.


Do we not infer the existence of everything (sans our own minds), based on it's interactions with our senses?

It doesn't seem any different to me logically, to infer the existence of something based on it's interactions with, and effects on, reality (that we also sense).

Is anti-realism just picking and choosing what it wants to question the existence of? The only consistency that I can see is that it questions our ability to know things that our intuition would lead us to hesitate to say "it exists" with the same conviction that we would say "the Earth exists."

In fact, as both are perceived by our same senses, (an object acts directly on our sense of sight and touch while a sub-atomic particle acts on other things that we perceive with our senses), is it not inconsistent to claim that one can be known and the other not?

I apologize for all the long-winded questions.

TaiChi said...

" I think the right answer to this question is that naturalism is not a thesis at all, but an approach."

Maddy's not so clear here as she is in Second Philosophy. From what I recall, "method" would have been a better word than "approach", since her point is that the naturalistic philosopher is concerned to fill out a theory of the world, and that naturalistic methods are suited for the task, where it is dubious whether the 'higher-level' methods of anti-naturalists help to flesh out that theory. But, if the higher-level methods do not help us build a theory of the world, what, precisely, are they for? What is the motivation for adopting them? Maddy doesn't think there's a good answer to this question, and nor do I. Pending an answer, we should stick with what works, and that is naturalism.

She has a particularly good discussion of Descartes in this regard: the Cartesian method of universal doubt is proposed to us as a way to place our scientific knowledge on firm a priori foundations. Notoriously, it fails to do so, and the legacy of that failure has been to establish skeptcism as a perennial philosophical issue. But, having seen that the method fails, why should we adopt its presuppositions about how one gains knowledge of the world? Why should we eschew the messy coherentism of ordinary empirical science in favor of a foundationalism which promises certain knowledge but never delivers? Obviously, we shouldn't. But then the Cartesian point of view, and with it the problem of skepticism, fail to get a grip on us.

There's some blogging on the book, starting here. Unfortunately the blogger only covers the part one of four, but you'll find it interesting nevertheless.