Skip to main content

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?


Popular posts from this blog

Epicurean Cosmological Arguments for Matter's Necessity

One can find, through the writings of Lucretius, a powerful yet simple Epicurean argument for matter's (factual or metaphysical) necessity. In simplest terms, the argument is that since matter exists, and since nothing can come from nothing, matter is eternal and uncreated, and is therefore at least a factually necessary being. 
A stronger version of Epicurus' core argument can be developed by adding an appeal to something in the neighborhood of origin essentialism. The basic line of reasoning here is that being uncreated is an essential property of matter, and thus that the matter at the actual world is essentially uncreated.
Yet stronger versions of the argument could go on from there by appealing to the principle of sufficient reason to argue that whatever plays the role of being eternal and essentially uncreated does not vary from world to world, and thus that matter is a metaphysically necessary being.
It seems to me that this broadly Epicurean line of reasoning is a co…

CfP: Inquiry: New Work on the Existence of God

In recent years, methods and concepts in logic, metaphysics and epistemology have become more and more sophisticated. For example, much new, subtle and interesting work has been done on modality, grounding, explanation and infinity, in both logic, metaphysics as well as epistemology. The three classical arguments for the existence of God – ontological arguments, cosmological arguments and fine-tuning arguments – all turn on issues of modality, grounding, explanation and infinity. In light of recent work, these arguments can - and to some extent have - become more sophisticated as well. Inquiry hereby calls for new and original papers in the intersection of recent work in logic, metaphysics and epistemology and the three main types of arguments for the existence of God. 

The deadline is 31 January 2017. Direct queries to einar.d.bohn at

Andrew Moon's New Paper on Recent Work in Reformed Epistemology... the latest issue of Philosophy Compass. Here's the abstract:
Reformed epistemology, roughly, is the thesis that religious belief can be rational without argument. After providing some background, I present Plantinga's defense of reformed epistemology and its influence on religious debunking arguments. I then discuss three objections to Plantinga's arguments that arise from the following topics: skeptical theism, cognitive science of religion, and basicality. I then show how reformed epistemology has recently been undergirded by a number of epistemological theories, including phenomenal conservatism and virtue epistemology. I end by noting that a good objection to reformed epistemology must criticize either a substantive epistemological theory or the application of that theory to religious belief; I also show that the famous Great Pumpkin Objection is an example of the former. And if a copy should make its way to my inbox...

UPDATE: Thanks!