Review of Jack Ritchie's Understanding Naturalism

David Macarthur (University of Sydney) reviews the book for NDPR. Here's the link.

Like me, Macarthur holds to a "liberal" conception of naturalism. The following passage from MacArthur's review captures my sentiments about more conservative forms of naturalism:

"Ritchie's strategy of taking up a position within the landscape of current scientific naturalism, however, leads to a blindspot about the range of viable naturalisms on offer in contemporary philosophy. He misses the possibility of a non-scientific or liberal naturalism that is arguably associated with such leading philosophers as Dewey, McDowell, Putnam and Wittgenstein. Such naturalism lies in the largely unexplored conceptual space between scientific naturalism and supernaturalism. It allows that one can respect science without supposing that science is our only resource for understanding humanity. Not everything that exists is explicable, or fully explicable, by science. There are many things in our everyday world of which there is no complete scientific theory but that are, nonetheless, presupposed by science -- e.g. tables, persons, artworks, institutions, rational norms. A liberal naturalism can more readily do justice to such things. It is also in a better position to ask whether there exist non-scientific modes of knowing and understanding tables, persons, reasons, etc. The best prospects for an account of rational or conceptual normativity ("the hardest task") are, presumably, neither scientific nor supernatural."


Luke said...

I'm a conservative naturalist, but of course I'm open to liberal naturalism if it could be demonstrated that we have reliable means of knowing about non-natural (but not supernatural) entities - roughly as reliable as science is for discovering facts about the (conservatively) natural world.

What gives you access to knowledge about those things that exist in the "liberal" space of naturalism? For example, whose positive arguments move you towards ethical non-naturalism? (as opposed to negative arguments, like those of Moore)

exapologist said...


Yeah, I'm a huge waffler on this. I often say I'm a liberal naturalist, but really I have no firm convictions here: the strength of my convictions about this issue vary from week to week (and sometimes day to day).

I guess I'm a tentative disjunctivist: tentatively, I think that either a liberal, moderate, or conservative naturalism is true (given this characterization of the varieties of naturalism).

Do I have arguments for a liberal naturalist account of substance, or of ethical non-naturalism that I expect would convince the unconvinced? Nah. I'm just aware of arguments that prevent me from being a convinced conservative or moderate naturalist. So all three varieties of naturalism remain live possibilities to me.

Wes said...


Forgive me for my ignorance but how can one be anything but a conservative naturalist and remain philosophically consistent with metaphysical naturalism?

I did read your post on the differences between the two, but, at root, I think all naturalism boils down to the same thing. "Nature is all that there is." "What we see is the whole show." Something of that nature seems inevitable from the worldview of a closed universe.

I'm new to your blog and am myself a Christian who is just getting into apologetics. I see from your username you must have been there and done that? ;)

Don't feel obligated to respond if you don't want, I'm just trying to figure out the atheist worldview. And, on the surface, I just don't see the room for these divisions in naturalism as you've described them.

Perhaps there is a difference between what one does in practice and what one holds in theory? Much like Christians do who believe certain things but act as though God does not exist at all?

From the surface it looks like the Liberal Naturalist practices his faith in naturalism so that his behavior mirrors that of a theist. This is no different from a theist who practices his faith in God so that his behavior mirrors that of an atheist.

Where is the philosophical consistency in this? Or have I just misunderstood metaphysical naturalism?

exapologist said...

Hi, Wes.

Hmm. I guess I'm not sure I see the inconsistency in non-conservative forms of naturalism. True enough: naturalists think that nature is all there is. But why is that incompatible with thinking that nature includes entities beyond those listed in, say, physics and chemistry textbooks?

As Plantinga has put it, naturalism is the view that there is no such person as God. But that leaves room for all sorts of entities that are neither gods nor particles, no?