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Understanding Naturalism



Naturalism is the predominant view of modern philosophers, but there is much confusion over what that means. There is no necessary and sufficient definition of naturalism that successfully encompasses how people use the term. Ritchie examines the term “natural” in contrast to the supernatural, the artificial, and normative.

1. First philosophy

Naturalists commonly say “there is no first philosophy.” This is in part a response to Descartes’ attempt to start from the very basics (first philosophy) and build an entire worldview from there in order to solve the problem of scepticism. Similarly, grounding induction is another first philosophy problem. Attempts to create a first philosophy have failed for thousands of years, all the way up to a recent philosopher named Carnap who came up with some creative ways of levying language and pragmatic concerns to create a first philosophy. As always, these highly sophisticated attempts fail when you take a closer look.

2. Quine and naturalized epistemology

Quine acknowledged the failure of first philosophy , and more or less gives up on the attempt. Instead, his naturalized epistemology begins with the findings of science and common sense, and keeps everything open to revision, like Neurath’s boat. We start with the boat, knowing that some, if not all the planks, are in need of replacing. But we must replace them little by little so as not to sink the boat. And we need to use the boat we start with, lest we immediately sink to the bottom.

Ritchie makes a few criticisms against Quine’s epistemology. He acknowledges that Quine levied some decent criticisms against first philosophy, but Quine’s epistemology seems to suffer from the same dangers of skepticism as first philosophy. The most important objection is that it does not successfully link up our sensory data with the real world. There is always a gap, and no reason to suppose that gap is crossed successfully.

3. Reliabilism

Quine’s (allegedly) failed epistemology leads us to consider reliabilism. Instead of seeing knowledge as (consciously and explicitly) justified true belief, reliabilists see knowledge as true belief that comes from generally reliable mechanisms for obtaining truth. These mechanisms need not be understood, and conscious reasons need not be proposed to claim knowledge, but the method of obtaining the solution must be good at obtaining truth (take the example of those who know chicken sexes without knowing how they know- their method is reliable, and leads to true beliefs).

Ritchie claims two major problems for reliabilism. First, the “type” of mechanism is hard to judge. A judgment may fall into multiple different “types” that are both reliable and unreliable depending on how you look at it. When I look outside, do we judge reliability by how good sight is generally, or how good sight is when looking out a window during the day while it is snowing, etc.? This may lead to contradictory outcomes.

Second, Ritchie says reliabilism doesn’t account for science and its success. This is because it regards our immediate, unreflective judgments, not more elaborate, built up judgments, which science is all about.

To me, it seems to suffer from circularity as well. How do we judge what is reliable in the first place? We’d have to first know what is true and false to know how well our judgments come to that standard, and therefore what kinds of methods are reliable. But the only way we can do that is by using the methods we already have, for which we have no reliability data yet.

4. Naturalized philosophy of science

Naturalism is largely characterized by it’s stance regarding science. Respect for science is an essential aspect of naturalism, and yet multiple different views account for the success of science. Naturalists can be realists and anti-realists, but Ritchie prefers the stance of the natural ontological attitude, which is allegedly neither. This stance is a basic trust of what we perceive, and a basic trust of the findings of science. This somehow falls outside of both realism and anti-realism because it does not assume the correspondence theory of truth, or any theory of truth. This sounds like gobbledygook to me.

Finally, Ritchie compares the views of naturalists on what is real, and the view of scientists. Since science is an essential part of naturalism, it is pretty important that there be an agreement, but Quine’s and others’ views don’t end up actually matching the view of scientists, so Maddy offers a correction to that. There’s really no need to assume a lot of philosophical ontology regarding mathematics, because it doesn’t always fit observations perfectly, and because scientists use many kinds of constructs to get things done.

5. Naturalizing metaphysics

This chapter looks at naturalism as entailing physicalism- the view that reality can be described basically as physics says it is. The first argument for this is the argument from reductive success. Different phenomenon have been reduced to more basic levels, eventually reaching physics, therefore all things are likely to reduce as well. Biology -> chemistry -> physics. Ritchie says this argument is very bad because it only takes the hits, ignoring the misses, and applies its conclusion too broadly to everything.

Ritchie moves on to supervenience. Instead of reducing properties of things directly to physical events, properties may instead supervene on them. This means that no changes can occur in the supervening state without a change in the subvening one. So consciousness may supervene on te brain if changes in consciousness necessitate a change in the brain. Morality may supervene on the physical world if changes in whether something is “good” or “bad” necessitate a change in the physical make-up of the situation.

6. Naturalism without physicalism?

This chapter begins with a challenge to physicalism by introducing three arguments: the argument from consciousness (qualia), the Mary/bat argument, and the zombie argument. In addition, trying to define what physics is becomes very difficult. If physics is what describes subatomic things, then there is no specific content that it has. If physics is what current science says is likely to be true, then it is almost certainly false. What counts as physics is always changing, and a fairly amorphous picture, so to link oneself to it is to link oneself to an amorphous blob of changing ideas.

7. Meaning and truth

What are meaning and truth on naturalism? A good place to start is to point out that what something represents must have a causal connection to what is being represented. This can’t be quite correct, because for one, we couldn’t account for representations of false things, or things not ever present. There is also no error, no norm, simply a cause and effect relationship.

Teleosemantics attempt to solve this problem. Something’s proper function is basically the function it evolved to perform- the reason it continued as a trait. If the proper function of brains is to create correct representations of the world, then errors occur when it fails to do so.

The swampman objection takes away the evolutionary history, but leaves what intuitively looks like a thing that can create representations.

Ritchie says that meaning and truth are two unresolved problems in naturalism, with no satisfying solution just yet. I’m not sure if that means there are any satisfying solutions elsewhere, or what such an answer would even look like.

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