Monday, January 03, 2005

The Naturalist's Version of Fides Quaerens Intellectum

Theism in its various forms faces numerous threats to its truth and coherence. Christianity, for example, is committed to doctrines such as the Trinity whose very coherence is in doubt. And all classical theists face the problem of evil, the problem of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Faced with an objection like the one from evil, theists typically don’t give up their belief; keeping the faith, they seek an understanding both of it and its compatibility with the facts and considerations alleged to be inconsistent with it.

What I want to argue is that naturalists employ the principle of Faith Seeking Understanding no less than theists. Naturalism faces numerous threats to its truth and coherence. Let’s start with what philosophers call the phenomenon of intentionality, the peculiar directedness to an object that characterizes (some) mental states. It is very difficult to understand how a purely physical state, a state of the brain for example, could be of, or about, something distinct from it, something that need not exist to be the object of the state in question. How could a physical state have semantic properties, or be true or false? How could a piece of meat be in states that MEAN anything? How do you get meaning out of meat? By squeezing hard? By injecting it with steroids? Does a sufficiently complex hunk of meat suddenly become a semantic engine? How could a brain state, for example, be either true or false? This suggests an argument:

Every belief is either true or false
No brain state is either true or false
So, No belief is a brain state.

Now ask yourself: would any self-respecting naturalist throw up his hands and concede defeat when presented with such an argument? Of course not. He will do exactly the same thing the theist does. Holding fast to his conviction, the naturalist will seek to defuse the anti-naturalist argument. He will deny the minor premise of the above syllogism and try to show how some physical states could be true/false.

In general, for every phenomenon that the theist points to as incompatible with the truth of naturalism, the naturalist will do one of two things. He will either deny that there is any such phenomenon -- thus there are mad-dog naturalists called eliminativists who actually deny that there are beliefs and desires – or he will try to ‘naturalize’ the phenomenon in question, i.e., give an account of it in wholly naturalistic terms, terms that do not involve appeal to anything beyond the world of space-time-matter.

Thus naturalists work at naturalizing meaning, reference, truth, intentionality, non-intentional qualitative states of consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, conscience, free agency, property-possession and so on. A variation on this riff is to argue that intentionality, say, doesn’t need to be naturalized: it already is a phenomenonon encountered in nature below the level of mind (Dretske).

So what is the difference between the theist and the naturalist? In both cases we find a deep and abiding conviction that seeks to transform itself into clear and broad understanding armed at every point against every possible objection. Just like the theist, the naturalist, operating under the aegis of his overarching conviction, never gives up. No matter how often you slap down his theory of intentionality, say, he goes back to the drawing board. Naturalism, he feels, just MUST be true, and the arguments against it just MUST be unsound.

The situation appears to be one of epistemic parity: the naturalist is no better off, epistemically speaking, than the theist. But let’s pause for an objection.

The theist believes in something that lies beyond sense experience, something for which is no empirical evidence. The naturalist, however, confines himself to matters for which there is empirical evidence. The naturalist has no faith in the unseen in the manner of the theist. Therefore, it is a stretch to say that the naturalist has a faith that seeks understanding. The naturalist has no faith at all; what he has is evidence.

I don’t find this objection convincing. True, the theist posits an entity, God, for which there is no sensory evidence. But the naturalist does something equally questionable: he takes phenomena that are given, intentionality, qualia, etc. and either denies their very existence, or attempts to interpret them in naturalistic terms that are incompatible with their own nature. He does this because of his faith that only what lies within the space-time world is real. Clearly, this faith is empirically unverifiable. What it amount to is a decision to count as real only what can be encountered in the world of space-time. This is why the naturalist does not give up when his arguments are shown to fail. Abandoning naturalism is not an option for him.