An Argument Against Naturalism from the Desire to Know

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by saying something about human nature, “All men by nature desire to know” (Met. A, 980b22).  If it is by our nature, we might be so bold as to count it among our essential properties.  But, what does it mean to “desire”?  And in particular, what does it mean to desire knowledge? Socrates provides the following account of “desire” in Plato’s Symposium:

Then this is what it is to love something which is not at hand, which the lover does not have: it is to desire the preservation of what he now has in time to come, so that he will have it then… So such a man or anyone else who has a desire desires what is not at hand and not present, what he does not have, and what he is not, and that of which he is in need; for such are the objects of desire and love… (Symposium 200d-e).

If this is so, to desire knowledge is to love something that is not at hand.  It is to want and to keep knowledge.  This also means that to have and to hold knowledge satisfies the desire for it.  Such a situation is reflected in a quote that I saw posted on the blog of a friend and colleague.  The quote is from an article by Lorraine Daston.  The quote is as follows:

Therein lies the paradox of wonder: it is the beginning of inquiry (Descartes remarks that people deficient in wonder “are ordinarily quite ignorant”), but the end of inquiry also puts an end to wonder. The marvel that stopped us in our tracks—an aurora borealis, cognate words in languages separated by continents and centuries, the peacock’s tail—becomes only an apparent marvel once explained. Aesthetic appreciation may linger (it is no accident that the vernacular descendants of the Latin word for wonder, admiratio, convey esteem), but composure has returned. We are delighted but no longer discombobulated; what was once an earthquake of the soul is subdued into an agreeable frisson. At least within the classical philosophical tradition, from Aristotle to Descartes (and arguably beyond, to Adam Smith and even to Kant), this negative correlation between wonder and explanation is strong and tenacious. Explanation lies at the heart of the distinction between marvels and miracles in the Latin Christian tradition. What is the difference? Thomas Aquinas answers: marvels (mirabilia) are inexplicable to most but not all people (e.g. the eclipse that transfixes the ignorant peasant but not the learned astronomer); miracles (miracula) are inexplicable to everyone. Wonder is a barometer of ignorance: the learned experience it rarely; God, never. Wonder is not only a peculiarly human passion; it is also one that, at least on this account, underscores the limits of human knowledge. The more we know, the less we wonder.

Daston’s thesis is actually moves in quite the opposite.  She holds that our understanding of “wonder” has evolved and adapted such that wonder is not snuffed out by knowledge, but is generated by knowledge.  Not to disregard her thesis, but I do want to consider this more ancient notion of wonder for a moment.  As Aristotle tells us that:

…it is owing to their wonder that men both now being and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and the stars, and about the genesis of the universe.  And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end (Met. A, 982b11-22).

Now if naturalism is true, then the world may be filled with marvels, perhaps very inexplicable marvels like consciousness, but it is not filled with that which is, in principle, inexplicable for us.  This does not mean that, on naturalism, reality could ever be fully disenchanted.  There seems to be practical limitations that would prevent us from explaining everything.  At the same time, it does mean that the relationship between reality and our minds is such that it is merely accidental that we have the desire to know.  We could, in principle, uncover all of the marvels that exist and satisfy this desire.  In snuffing it out, the desire would cease to exist in us.  So actually having the desire for knowledge would be accidental if everything in existence were knowable for us.  But, if the actuality of desiring knowledge is an essential feature of the human intellect, then there must be some sense in which, in principle, reality is not fully knowable or explicable.  This would be true if there were true supernatural miracles and mysteries. The argument would be as follows:

1.  All humans actually desire knowledge essentially. [Premise]

2. If naturalism is true, then the actuality of human desire for knowledge is accidental. [Premise]

3. If the actuality of human desire for knowledge is accidental, then it is not the case that all humans actually desire knowledge essentially. [Premise]

4. Therefore, it is not the case that naturalism is true.

Now there are a few ways the naturalist could object:

Objection 1: Though naturalism is true, there are some natural mysteries that are unknowable, intractable, or inexplicable in principle. For instance, we may not be able to know or understand why there is something rather than nothing. We might not be able to know if there is a multiverse, or what occurred before the big bang. We might not be able to explain consciousness. We might not be able to fully explain those soft sciences that involve human behavior (owing to human freedom, or chaos, or indeterminism).

Reply to 1: It seems to me that if there are per se mysterious features of reality, there is no reason to be a naturalist. I take naturalism to be the claim that all of reality can be accounted for by the natural sciences. If certain aspects of reality are not merely really difficult to account for by natural scientific methodology, but intrinsically and essentially beyond the scope of the natural sciences, then I would say that metaphysical naturalism is a failure (or just a vacuous metaphysical position).

Objection 2: One could bite the bullet and say that humans don’t actually desire knowledge in an essential way. It is merely an accidental property of our mental constitution. Perhaps the capacity to desire knowledge is essential to humans, but not the actuality.

Reply to 2: This seems like a more powerful objection than the first. Humans satisfy desires all the time. In fact, there is a famous argument from desire put forth by C.S. Lewis, which argues that all natural desires have an object in reality that can satisfy their desires. So it might seem that the existence of the humanly unknowable or inexplicable contradicts this premise. However, the argument from desire does not hold that all desires are satisfied. The hungry child who is a victim of famine may never get the food that satisfies her, though such food exists. There may be knowledge that exists, say in the mind of an omniscient God, that we desire, but can never possess (due to our natural limitations). So the fact that we cannot completely satisfy our desire for knowledge, and that all natural desires have corresponding objects, does not mean that there is nothing to know when it comes to the truly miraculous or mysterious.

Now one might say that nothing really is truly miraculous or mysterious. We can, in principle, explain everything naturally, we are just limited by time and other pressing needs. And one might even be willing to grant that humans possess the capacity to desire wisdom in an essential way (the potential/power to desire knowledge), but that capacity can be fulfilled in the following way: we actually desire knowledge when we are actually ignorant and potentially in a state of knowledge. When we change to a state of potentially desiring knowledge, we are actually in a state of knowledge and are potentially ignorant. We could, in principle, be in a state of potentially desiring all knowledge, if we can be in a state of actually knowing all things (potentially ignorant). So this objection amounts to the claim that we humans have the capacity for omniscience essentially (perhaps as a collective and through various mediums of storing knowledge).

I find this response too strong. I don’t think any naturalist would want to hold it either. Ultimately, I think the idea that humans will always be in some actual state of desire for knowledge rests on a certain intuition about the relationship between the human capacity for knowledge and the way reality is. My intuition is that not everything can be known by us. And this, to me, stands in the way of metaphysical naturalism. For what else is the naturalist claiming than that reality falls completely under the genus “natural”. And so reality can be completely defined and comprehended by our intellects. If this is not the naturalist’s claim, then I am not sure what naturalism is supposed to be (at times I suspect it really is just the denial of souls and God, but that is not a positive metaphysical position).

One might point out that we don’t always actually desire knowledge (small babies, the sleeping, etc.). Furthermore, some desire knowledge more than others. Doesn’t this indicate that, while the capacity to desire knowledge may be essential, the actuality of that desire can change and is accidental to our circumstances and personal dispositions. A response might be to consider Aristotle’s musical man. In a sense, one can argue that all humans, sleeping, and even the very young, have a natural desire to know is a first actuality insofar as one has an intellect that is always deprived of knowledge that it desires to have. The second actuality might be something like the active awareness of that desire, which motivates one’s investigations. Even the very young explore their world with their eyes, hands, and mouth. So, I don’t think it is the case that even the very young escape this state.

Posted on January 25, 2015, in Naturalism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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