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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.

Fish at it again

Stanley Fish is at it again.  Last week, I wrote a critique of Fish’s argument that philosophy does not matter (here).  I point out that Fish demonstrates a lack of understanding of what relativism is–confusing it with a kind of moral agnosticism.  I also gave some counter-examples for why I think philosophy  matters.  Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with Fish.  He received enough negative comments that he felt the need to defend himself in the Opinionator this week.  I’d like to address his rebuttal, in particular his comments on religion and philosophy.  One of Fish’s commentators noted that religion is often inextricably linked with philosophical views and that such religious belies do travel into the everyday lives of those believes.  Fish disagrees.  The relevant section appears below.

Stanley Fish, Does Philosophy Matter? (Part 2), August 8, 2011

Excerpt:

. . . Believers, Marie Burns  (1) observes,  do rely on  their religion “to determine their views on a variety of subjects.” Many people, An Ordinary American (140) reminds us,  when asked why do you do this, would reply, “This is what my religion teaches me to do.”

The question is whether religion should be considered philosophy. For a long time, of course, philosophy was included under religion’s umbrella, not in the modern sense that leads to courses like “The Philosophy of Religion,” but in the deeper sense in which religious doctrines are accepted as foundational and philosophy proceeds within them. But for contemporary philosophers religious doctrines are not part of the enterprise but a threat to it. The spirit is as  Andrew Tyler (38) describes it:  “to be skeptical, critical and independent so that you’re not so easily duped and frightened into submission by religious dogma.” Courses in the philosophy of religion tacitly subordinate religion to philosophy by subjecting religion to philosophy’s questions and standards. Strong religious believers will resist any such subordination because, for them, religious, not philosophical, imperatives trump. The reason religion can and does serve as a normative guide to behavior is that it is not a form of philosophy, but a system of belief  that binds the believer.  (Philosophy is something you can do occasionally, religion is not.)

But aren’t beliefs and philosophies the same things? No they’re not. Beliefs such as “I believe that life  should not be taken” or “I believe in giving the other fellow the benefit of  the doubt” or “I believe  in the equality of men and women” or “I believe in turning the other cheek” are at least the partial springs of our actions and are often regarded by those who hold them as moral absolutes; no exceptions recognized. These, however, are particular beliefs which can be arrived at for any number of reasons, including things your mother told you, the reading of a powerful book, the authority of a respected  teacher, an affecting experience that you have generalized into a maxim  (“From now on I’ll speak ill of no one.”).

A belief in moral absolutes, as an abstract position, is quite another thing. It affirms no particular moral absolute (although it might lead down the road to naming some); rather, it asserts that the category of moral absolutes is full; and it does so against the arguments of those who assert that the category is empty, not with respect  to any particular moral absolute, but generally. Wherever one stands at the end of a such a philosophical argument  one will be committed not to any specific moral  stance (like turning the other cheek) but either to the thesis, again abstract,  that  moral stances are  anchored in and justified by an underlying truth about the nature of moral behavior or to the thesis that they are not.

There are a couple of points  with which I take issue here.  First, Fish tries to stipulate his way out of Marie Burns’ observation by creating a false dichotomy between religion and contemporary philosophy.  But isn’t it true that contemporary philosophy, if it has anything to do with religion, subjugates it to a critical analysis?  While it certainly is the case that some philosophers of religion are skeptical of religious doctrines, we cannot conclude from this that contemporary philosophy as a whole is antithetical to religiously based philosophical speculations.  Many philosophers of religion start with metaphysical and religious presuppositions (gasp).  I would like to assure Dr. Fish that Natural Theology is alive and well in the modern era.  Also there are the Eastern philosophical systems, many of which are inextricable tied up with metaphysical theses originating in the Vedic religious systems, Taoism, and Confucianism.  It should also be noted that many philosophers who are critical of religion are just as susceptible to having unproven metaphysical presuppositions in their writings.  This can hardly be avoided.  But, if a philosopher is open and honest that they are starting from those presuppositions, his or her arguments do not suffer for it.  It is the philosopher who pretends to be absolutely skeptical of whom we should be skeptical.  Take a careful look and you will find metaphysical naturalism, compatiblism, Platonism, nominalism, or some other exotic axiom lurking enthymematically between the lines.

Fish would like us to think that contemporary philosophy is nothing more than a meaningless chess-game, where the victor is the one who places her opponent’s cherished beliefs in checkmate.  Sure, if one thinks philosophy is just about being skeptical, one might be led to the conclusion that philosophy doesn’t travel.  But, at the end of the day we either move beyond skepticism or we won’t travel at all!  The skeptic is stuck in the mud of doubt.  But not every philosopher is a skeptical stick-in-the-mud.  In fact, most aren’t.  This is because philosophers are free to take any presuppositions they want for their starting points.  There is no rule that says one must start with only those premises that one knows to be true without any doubt.  Descartes tried it and has since become the philosophical whipping boy for his attempt.  Rather than Descartes, we should follow the example of Kant– one of the undisputed greatest philosopher of all time who leaves skepticism behind in order to make significant contributions to moral theory. In order for him to do this, Kant had to move beyond what he thought he could prove with theoretical reason.  So, what he could not prove, he postulates.  Kant’s entire moral system is built on the presumption that God exists, there is freedom, and the soul is immortal.  Without these three postulates of practical reasoning, Kant would not have been able to move much beyond his first critique.  So, philosophy doesn’t subjugate every belief.  Rather, it is a belief that is the touchstone for some insightful philosophical reflection.  Obviously some of these touchstone beliefs are religious in nature.

The second issue I have with Fish’s response has to do with the way in which he tries to separate beliefs from philosophy.  He admits that particular beliefs can be arrived at for many reasons, but it does not appear as though he is willing to explicitly admit the obvious: that particular beliefs can and often are deduced from higher and more abstract principles and that often these principles are based upon entire philosophical systems.  Philosophy does travel.  It travels up through induction, and down through deduction.  It travels sideways by analogy.  Sometimes philosophy even takes great leaps through abduction.  All the while, general principles are distilled  into particular beliefs and particular beliefs are promulgated into particular actions.

Sorry Fish, philosophy still matters.