A most unnatural alliance

Is naturalism on the wane in philosophy? Even more so than with other -isms in our field, the precise meaning of “naturalism” is widely disputed. By and large, it stands for two substantially different positions, each of which, naturally, lends itself to further conceptual hair-splitting [1, 2]. Perhaps the best way to understand the broad difference is to compare their respective counterparts. What does it mean to oppose naturalism?

To be an anti-naturalist in the first sense is to posit the existence of supernatural beings or entities beyond the natural realm: gods, demons, ghosts, spiritual realms, the afterlife. Naturalism, then, is simply the thesis that none of these things exist. The natural universe, consisting of matter and energy or whatever the latest entities postulated by modern physics (snares, waves, fields…), is all there is. Let’s call this worldview naturalism.

The second brand of anti-naturalism, by contrast, is a normative thesis about the proper role of philosophy, about what philosophy oughtto be. It claims that philosophy has certain proprietary methods and ways of knowing, which should be distinguished from those of science. To be a naturalist, in this sense, is to reject this alleged special role for philosophy. Naturalists do not believe that there is any such thing as a philosophical “way of knowing”, or that philosophers are charged with a special task in regard to science, for instance to provide its epistemological foundations [3, 4]. Instead, naturalists see philosophy and the sciences (in the plural) as cut from the same cloth, and as mutually dependent. Both are enmeshed in the same web of knowledge. Disciplinary boundaries reflect accidents of history, and may have some pragmatic justification (division of cognitive labor), but they carry little epistemic import. Let’s call this holistic naturalism

On the face of it, these respective forms of anti-naturalism seem to have little to do with each other. Many proponents of aprioristic “pure” philosophy are staunch atheists, and of course most believers in the paranormal and supernatural have no truck with highfalutin academic philosophy. Still, both forms of naturalism have come under fire in philosophy, and the attacks are not completely unrelated. In some cases, we even see a most “unnatural” alliance emerging. Opponents of holistic naturalism, by carving out a special niche for Pure Philosophy insulated from the empirical sciences, have provided a perfect refuge for speculation about the supernatural, largely unconstrained by empirical facts. Such a safe haven from science has been welcomed by opponents of worldview naturalism (mostly, theists) who are worried about encroachments of science upon their territory. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that God has reared his head again in the most abstruse and rarefied quarters of academic philosophy – i.e. analytic metaphysics – even though the majority of philosophers in that field remain as godless as ever.

One of the worst offenders on both anti-naturalist fronts is Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga [5, 6], renowned for his contributions to modal logic – a family of logical systems which contain operators for what is ‘possible’ and ‘necessary’ – and in particular to the so-called possible world semantics of such logical systems. In terms of metaphysical extravagance, this branch of anti-naturalist philosophy has fulfilled the worst nightmares of philosopher W.V.O. Quine, the godfather of holistic naturalism who was suspicious of modal logic right from its inception. Although arguably modal logic by itself is a legitimate topic and has some useful applications, its possible world semantics has quickly spawned a proliferation of unactualized possibilities, necessary and accidental properties, (un)exemplified essences, and all other sorts of abstract entities, if not wholesale invisible universes [7]. In principle, Plantinga’s own approach to possible worlds, called actualism, has no bearing on the existence of supernatural entities, though it is metaphysically extravagant in its own right (with an infinite number of invisible unexemplified essences squeezed into the actual world). But Plantinga, a Reformed Protestant, has wielded the tools of modal logic and necessary/contingent properties to resurrect and refurbish that old darling of metaphysics, the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, and has also applied possible world semantics to “study” the problem of evil and theological determinism. In any sensible universe, such antics would’ve been regarded as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole enterprise, but Plantinga is hailed by some as one of the greatest philosophers of his generation. There is also a stream of publications on his argument against evolutionary naturalism (i.e. evolution without supernatural guidance), including a collection of essays by distinguished philosophers [8]. In his attack on evolutionary naturalism and elsewhere, Plantinga combines a pseudo-rigorous brand of analytic formalism, largely detached from empirical reality, with an unflinching defense of Christian dogmas, including Biblical infallibility, the doctrine of Original Sin, the Resurrection of Jesus, and of course Intelligent Design creationism [9, 10].

Is naturalism really on the wane?

It is hard to dispel the impression that we are witnessing a re-emergence of both supernaturalism and aprioristic metaphysics in philosophy. But I still think that the overall trend among philosophers is toward naturalism in both senses (and certainly worldview naturalism). I may be overly optimistic, but I think anti-naturalism is actually a rearguard fight in philosophy, and will eventually run out of steam. So what reasons are there to suspect that the rumors of the demise of naturalism have been somewhat exaggerated?

As for the apparent rise of supernaturalism, we should keep in mind that God-loving philosophers make for a good story. In an era of secularization, and especially in a traditional bulwark of atheism such as Anglo-Saxon philosophy, displays of religion devotion strike many people as unusual and noteworthy. There is more attention for religious philosophers precisely because, by and large, both academia and society at large are becoming less religious. The media love stories of philosophers cum Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. Philosophers themselves have always put a premium on bold and radical ideas that challenge what is seemingly obvious, and for a long time, atheism was indeed the default position in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Moreover, like many other academic researchers, philosophers feel the temptations of the Templeton Foundation, with its explicitly religious and spiritual goals. If you are willing to say something nice about religion and faith, or at least challenge naturalism and “scientism”, you are more likely to get Templeton money. Plausibly, the Templeton Factor alone has artificially inflated the apparent appeal of religiosity and anti-naturalism in the academic world. It remains an open question whether those philosophers (and other academics) working on Templeton grants really harbor any sympathy for the “big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality”, as Templeton’s mission statements puts it. Perhaps they are just bending over backwards to please their creditors, and their enthusiasm for religion and spirituality will not outlive their grant terms.

As for the pushback against holistic naturalism, we should keep in mind that naturalist philosophers are by definition less visible, precisely because they ally themselves more closely to the sciences, and tend to downplay their credentials as philosophers. Many card-carrying philosophers out there are just constructively working on various issues such as self-deception, animal cognition, transhumanism, cultural evolution, using all the intellectual tools and resources at their disposal, while caring little about whether or not they are doing ‘proper’ philosophy. Many of them are collaborating closely with scientists and publish in interdisciplinary journal, where the borderline between science and philosophy are increasingly blurring, and where few people care about labels.

Finally, I think the resurgence of both forms of anti-naturalism should be regarded as a backlash against, and further demonstration of, existing naturalist trends. Just as, on a larger and more dramatic scale, religious fundamentalism is a reaction against the threats posed to religion by Enlightenment and modernity, anti-naturalists are (rightly) worried about the encroachments of science on every domain of reality. It is really true that science is unraveling many traditional doctrines that used to hold sway over people’s minds, and that its overwhelming success is endangering other ways of knowing. With every advance made by science, people have expressed worries about science overstepping its proper limits and encroaching on foreign territory [11].

Most of these worries are actually well-founded. Science beats all other approaches hollow, and the worldview emerging in its wake is devoid of anything supernatural. As physicist Sean Carroll explains in his latest book The Big Picture, many people underestimate the extent to which the framework of modern physics – quantum field theory – has tightened around a small number of forces and particles, leaving no wiggling room at all for anything spooky or supernatural [12]. Science also presents a worldview that renders much of a priori analytic metaphysics completely obsolete [13]. Everything in nature is composed of inanimate matter and energy, nature is all there is, and there are no “other ways of knowing”. Both forms of anti-naturalism can be seen as rearguard fights against the rising tide of scientific naturalism.

And if I am wrong on that last count, and philosophy is increasingly dominated by the forces of anti-naturalism, then it will indeed render itself obsolete, becoming little more than an “idle tea-table amusement”, as Bertrand Russell put it. But until that day arrives, I still call myself a proud philosopher, joining the ranks of the naturalists (in both senses) in their midst.

 (Free Inquiry, December 2017/January 2018)

1.     Stroud, B., The charm of naturalism. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 1996. 70(2): p. 43-55.

2.     Papineau, D., Naturalism. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, 2010.

3.     Quine, W.V.O., Ontological relativity and other essays. 1969: Columbia University Press.

4.     Haack, S., Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. 2007: Prometheus Books.

5.     Plantinga, A., Warrant and proper function. 1993, New York: Oxford University Press.

6.     Plantinga, A., Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. 2011: Oxford University Press, USA.

7.     Schwartz, S.P., A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. 2012: Wiley.

8.     Beilby, J.K., Naturalism defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. 2002, New York: Cornell University Press.

9.     Boudry, M., Alvin Plantinga: Where the Conflict Really Lies. Science, Religion and Naturalism. Science & Education, 2013. 22(5): p. 1219-1227.

10.   Dennett, D.C. and A. Plantinga, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? 2010: Oxford University Press.

11.   Boudry, M. and M. Pigliucci, eds. Science Unlimited? On the challenges of scientism. in press, University of Chicago Press.

12.   Carroll, S., The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. 2016: Penguin Publishing Group.

13.   Ladyman, J. and D. Ross, Every thing must go: Metaphysics naturalized. 2007, Oxford: Oxford University Press