Saturday, August 28, 2010

Trent Doesn't Get Naturalism

I just can't take naturalism seriously. That is, I can't take seriously any view that entails either the proposition that some contingent fact occurred for no reason or that in essentials, the universe (or world or nature or whatever you want to call it) couldn't have been relevantly different from the way it in fact is. And if I had to accept some set of contingent facts as brute, I'd be strictly guided by the number of types and tokens and parameters postulated by a theory. I also find implausible impersonal accounts of a necessary ground in some "natural" force or fact.
...the fact is I try extremely hard to take seriously all positions, especially rivals to my own views.... I read every academic book I can find defending atheism.... But when it comes to "Scientific Naturalism" in its many and varied forms, I draw a total blank. The Dennet/Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris stuff is a total loss. But there's not much better.
Trent's post really gave me a jolt. I've been an atheist for many years, primarily on the basis that there is simply no good evidence for a god of any sort, let alone the sort of god that Christians or other religious people propose. But if it's reasonable for atheists to ask theists to defend their worldview, then certainly turnabout is fair play: it's reasonable for theists to ask atheists to defend their worldview, too. But, surely, the picture can't be as grim for naturalism as Trent claims?

So I decided to look into it, both for my own benefit, to develop a more coherent personal worldview, and so that I can defend that worldview if I ever run into someone like Trent: intelligent, educated, highly sophisticated philosophically, and theist.

My intuitive understanding of naturalism was in terms of reductionism: all phenomena are, at root, physical phenomena. But there are phenomena we all experience that are not obviously reducible to physical phenomena: mental phenomena like ideas and perceptions. One need not be an atheist to think that mental phenomena are of a different order than physical phenomena. For instance, a Cartesian dualist might hold that there are embodied spirits, while denying the possibility of disembodied spirits.

On a naturalist account, mental phenomena reduce to brain phenomena, brain phenomena reduce to interactions among neurons, interactions among neurons reduce to biochemical processes, and biochemical processes reduce to physical processes among protons, neutrons, and electrons. But how is this reduction to be achieved? And what, if any, reason is there to accept this view as opposed to any other view?

Next time: Naturalism, Materialism, Physicalism, Oh My!

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