Friday, June 04, 2010

On a Common Apologetic Strategy

I. A Common Apologetic Strategy
Many apologetic critiques of naturalism share a common basic strategy: point to a piece of data (e.g., abstract objects, morality, consciousness, the apparent fine-tuning of the universe, the apparent contingency of the universe, etc.), say that it doesn't fit in the naturalist's sparse ontology, and then argue that the data is better explained on the hypothesis of theism. Call this form of argumentation The Common Apologetic Strategy.

What to make of arguments that instantiate The Common Apologetic Strategy? Instead of evaluating particular instances of this strategy -- i.e., evaluating this or that theistic argument from morality, or consciousness, or cosmic fine-tuning, etc. -- I'd like to raise a worry about the general line of reasoning such arguments take, as outlined above. In order to do so, I'll need to spend some time making some basic distinctions. This in turn will provide a framework that (I hope) will help in evaluating such arguments.

II. First Preliminary: Varieties of Naturalism
There are several versions of naturalism. Naturalists share in common the view that the natural world is all there is -- there is no supernatural realm of spiritual beings. However, naturalists differ in how they define 'the natural world'. Now there are at least three broad ways of characterizing "the natural world", and so there are at least three kinds of naturalists -- let's call them 'Conservatives', 'Moderates', and 'Liberals'.

Conservative naturalists are straight physicalists -- nothing exists but the physical, and the physical is characterized by all and only the properties listed in physics and chemistry textbooks. Recent proponents include Andrew Melnyk, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and some of the members of the so-called New Atheist movement.

Moderate naturalists differ from Conservative naturalists, in that they expand their conception of the natural world so as to include abstract objects (e.g., propositions, properties, possible worlds, etc.). Recent proponents include Tyler Burge, Jeff King, W.V.O. Quine, and Kit Fine.

Finally, Liberal naturalists differ from Moderates and Conservatives, in that they admit into their ontology of the natural world the abstracta of the Moderates, but they also allow for a conception of concreta according to which they have more properties and powers than the Conservatives and Moderates allow. Thus, perhaps they're straight Spinozists, or type-F monists, or panprotopsychists, etc. Famous past Liberal naturalists include people like Spinoza; more recent Liberal Naturalists include Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers, Daniel Stoljar, and Derk Pereboom. Since liberal forms of naturalism are no doubt the least familiar, perhaps it'll help to sketch one such account. David Chalmers' version of contemporary Liberal Naturalism is representative, so I'll sketch his version (call it 'CLN'):

(CLN) the world of concrete objects is composed of just one kind of substance, and its essence has both physical and phenomenological or proto-phenomenal (or at least representational or proto-representational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed of it).

III. Second Preliminary: Two Basic Explanatory Approaches Available to Naturalists
There are two basic approaches a naturalist can take to explaining the relevant data. According to one, one keeps one's ontology sparse by adopting (say) Conservative Naturalism, and then tries to explain all the data in terms of of the entities in that limited ontology. Furthermore, if something doesn't "fit", then one eliminates it -- i.e., one says that such entities aren't real. Call this approach, the Shoehorning Approach.

Now if naturalism were limited to Conservative Naturalism, The Shoehorning Approach would be the naturalist's only option. But as we have seen above, naturalists are not so limited -- Moderate and Liberal forms of naturalism are live possibilities as well, and there is no a priori or a posteriori basis for ruling them out. This fact about naturalism leaves room for a second approach to explanation, which I will call The Base-Expanding Approach. The Base-Expanding Approach starts out like the Shoehorning Approach: start with a sparser ontology, and then try to explain all the data in terms of it. However, the Base-Expanding Approach diverges from the Shoehorn Approach when it comes to entities that don't fit: if the data to be explained cannot be reduced to the sparser ontology, but the data really seem to be recalcitrant, then one does not eliminate them. Rather, one expands one's ontology. So, for example, a naturalist might start out tentatively adopting Conservative Naturalism as a working hypothesis, and then find that he can't reduce abstract objects to such a sparse ontology; nor can he plausibly eliminate them. He may then broaden his ontology by allowing for abstract objects, thereby moving from Conservative to Moderate Naturalism.

In light of the preceding, we can now provide a broad characterization of the ontologies and explanatory strategies available to naturalists. Thus, naturalists have available to them at least three basic ontologies: Conservative, Moderate, and Liberal. Conservatives are straight physicalists; Moderates go further by adding abstract objects to the ontology of Conservative Naturalism; and Liberals go further than both Conservatives and Moderates by positing a richer nature to concrete objects by allowing representational or proto-representational properties to be part of the essence of matter.

Furthermore, given that naturalists aren't limited to Conservative Naturalism, they have two basic explanatory approaches available to them: the Shoehorning Approach and the Base-Expanding Approach. Shoehorners reduce all phenomena they can to the fundamental elements of the naturalistic ontology they've adopted, and eliminate all else that they cannot so reduce. And Base-Expanders, by contrast, add more elements to their ontology when they cannot reduce or plausibly eliminate a given phenomenon to their fundamental ontology.

IV. The Framework Applied: Two Examples
In light of the preceding preliminaries, we are in a better position to evaluate The Common Apologetic Strategy outlined at the beginning of our discussion. First of all, we see that apologists who adopt it fail to appreciate that naturalists need not adopt Conservative Naturalism. And because of this, they fail to appreciate that naturalists need not adopt the Shoehorning Approach to explanation. Therefore, pending good arguments against other versions of naturalism and against the Base-Expanding Approach, arguments that adopt The Common Apologetic Strategy are bound to fail.

At least two contemporary naturalists --David Chalmers and Erik Wielenberg -- exemplify the success of the Base-Expanding Approach in their work. In so doing, they expose the inadequacy of The Common Apologetic Strategy.

Case 1: Erik Wielenberg, Moderate Naturalism, and the theistic argument from morality
Erik Wielenberg's version of Moderate Naturalism exposes the inadequacy of a contemporary apologetic argument from morality to theism, the latter of which exemplifies the Common Apologetic Strategy. The argument states that the naturalist is limited to the ontology of Conservative Naturalism, and that the data of moral facts cannot be shoehorned into such a sparse ontology; nor can it be plausibly eliminated. By contrast, theism can, with God as the ground of moral facts. Therefore, the data of moral facts is best explained in terms of theism and not naturalism.

Wielenberg agrees that moral facts cannot be adequately reduced to the ontology of Conservative Naturalism; he also agrees that they cannot be plausibly eliminated. However, he also thinks there are good reasons to reject theism. He therefore feels pressure to expand the base of his ontology and move from Conservative to Moderate Naturalism. Thus, he posits abstract objects such as properties and states of affairs. These abstract objects ground the necessity of basic moral truths, such as that it's wrong to cause a person or animal significant pain without a sufficient reason for doing so. And given that this view is epistemically possible, the theistic argument from morality is undercut.

Case 2: David Chalmers, Liberal Naturalism, and the theistic argument from consciousness
David Chalmers' version of Liberal Naturalism exposes the inadequacy of a contemporary apologetic argument from consciousness to theism, the latter of which also exemplifies the Common Apologetic Strategy. The argument states that the naturalist is limited to the sparse ontology of Conservative Naturalism, and that the data of phenomenal consciousness cannot be shoehorned into such a sparse ontology; nor can it be plausibly eliminated. By contrast, theism can, with its substance dualist ontology. Therefore, the data of phenomenal consciousness is best explained in terms of theism and not naturalism.

Chalmers agrees that the data of phenomenal consciousness cannot be adequately reduced by means of the sparse ontology of Conservative Naturalism. He also rejects the strategy of eliminating the data, as the Churchlands do. However, he also finds theism implausible. He therefore opts for the Base-Expanding approach, thus moving from Conservative to Liberal Naturalism. Thus, he grants that consciousness can't be squeezed out of the properties of objects listed in physics and chemistry textbooks, and thus posits that they must therefore have more properties as a part of their essence -- proto-phenomenal or proto-represenational properties. This account allows that simpler concrete objects aren't conscious, but it also entails that when a complex collection of such objects exists and is suitably arranged, it necessarily exemplifies consciousness. But if this account of the origin of phenomenal consciousness is epistemically possible, then the theistic argument from consciousness to theism is undercut.

What went wrong with the theistic arguments above? I submit that my framework sketched above provides the means for an illuminating diagnosis: In both cases, the flaw was not with something particular to either argument. Rather, the problem was with the Common Apologetic Strategy exemplified by both arguments. Thus, both arguments assumed that the naturalist was limited to Conservative Naturalism, and thus that the naturalist was stuck with the Shoehorning Approach to explaining the relevant data (moral facts in the first case, phenomenal consciousness in the second). But we saw that both assumptions were false: Moderate and Liberal versions of naturalism are prima facie epistemically possible, in which case Wielenberg and Chalmers were free to opt for the Base-Expanding approach to explanation, which they did: Wielenberg broadened his ontology to adopt Moderate Naturalism, thereby allowing him to account for necessary truths about morality within a naturalist framework; and Chalmers broadened his ontology to adopt Liberal Naturalism, thereby allowing him to account for phenomenal consciousness within a naturalist framework.

12 comments:

exapologist said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for linking to my post!

You may or may not be right about the truth of Conservative Naturalism. But one point I'm trying to bring out here is that, whether or not Conservative Naturalism turns out to be true, the truth of naturalism doesn't require the truth of Conservative Naturalism, in which case arguments that instantiate The Common Apologetic Strategy are bound to fail. This is a point that naturalists of all stripes can accept.

Best,
EA

exapologist said...

Blogger was down a while ago, and so James Gibson emailed me the following comment, which is pertinent to this post:

Interesting post. I am not as convinced as your other commentators. I am not sure, yet, that there is a general problem with the line of reasoning because I don't know what you mean by "better explained". Your objection, I take it, is just that there are more liberal versions of naturalism, which allow for abstract objects, non-reducible entitles like states of affairs, and so on. So since there are such versions (granting that naturalism is the substantial thesis you claim is common to all three versions), it is mistaken to think that refuting the Conservative version thereby gives evidence for theism - perhaps this is too strong and should be weakened by does not provide evidence sufficient for theistic belief. After all the liberal versions with expanded ontologies are still epistemically viable.

Still, it doesn't follow from any of this that theism does not *better* explain any of the given phenomena you cited than the three versions of naturalism articulated above. As you are probably aware, there can be two competing hypotheses which each explain some phenomenon P, H1 and H2. Now suppose H2 does an initially less good job explaining P; say it's predictive power is slightly off. Does everyone conclude H1 is true and H2 is false? Of course not. H2 proponents come up with ancillary hypotheses to preserve H2. Whether H1 better explains P than does (H2 & ancillary claim) depends on what makes something a better explanation. And as far as I can tell, you haven't said anything about that. Lay out a good theory of explanation and you've got something more interesting.

exapologist said...

Hi James,

re: your first paragraph: Sorry if I wasn't sufficiently clear. My main point is closer to the second one you mention at the end of your first paragraph.

re: your second paragraph: Perhaps I wasn't sufficiently clear. I don't disagree with what you say in your second paragraph. I'm not here making any claims about which hypothesis is actually the best explanation. For all I've said in this post, theism could turn out the best explanation of all the relevant data. My point is that a certain range of arguments for theism, viz., arguments that instantiate The Common Apologetic Strategy, fail to adequately address all the viable naturalistic hypotheses before concluding that the data in question favor theism over naturalism.

Best,
EA

Kel said...

Very nice post, it sums up very well the arguments I've been in with apologists looking for that "gotcha" in which my whole world-view is meant to come tumbling down.

That said, I still can't go past conservative naturalism (as you put it, I just call it physicalism). It has a solid foundation in physics, and I haven't heard a convincing case yet for such phenomena having a non-physical basis and retaining their properties.

Ian Andreas Miller said...

Interesting post. I appreciate this very much.

I have a question. Is it possible to be a conservative naturalist who adopts The Base-Expanding Approach by, for example, stuffing more into what is meant by physical (to "make matter more," as Sagan said) and saying that the statement "is characterized by all and only the properties listed in physics and chemistry textbooks" applies descriptively instead of prescriptively such that there is always the option of including other -ologies with their own lists of properties?

Matt McCormick said...

First rate post and excellent blog! The analysis of the CAS is pretty much spot on, I think. You characterize their mistake as artificially confining naturalism to conservative naturalism. It's worth noting that even if conservative naturalism is the only variety of naturalism we are considering, the CAS approach is still mistaken because it consistently poses a false dilemma in these attacks: either explain phenomena X in natural terms, or accept that God must be the source. Clearly, there is a long list of other possibilities that renders this approach invalid, so I'd propose that false dilemmas are a deeper and broader way to identify the mistake in the CAS approach.

Matt McCormick
Atheism: Proving the Negative

exapologist said...

@Kel:
Thanks! Yes, I agree that naturalists will differ with respect to relating data to theory. Thus, some will judge that all the relevant data is reducible to the ontology of Conservative Naturalism; other naturlists will judge that some of the data can't be reduced, but conclude that the appropriate response is to keep their ontology sparse and eliminate the data that can't be reduced; and others will judge that the appropriate response is to do some Base Expanding. For my part, I tend to think the data is sufficiently messy to allow for reasonable disagreements among naturalists regarding which sort of response is appropriate. This is all fully compatible with my main point, which is that, whether or not Conservative Naturalism turns out to be true, the truth of naturalism doesn't require the truth of Conservative Naturalism, in which case arguments that instantiate The Common Apologetic Strategy are bound to fail.

exapologist said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the kind words!

I agree with your characterization completely: Arguments that instantiate The Common Apologetic Strategy thereby instantiate a false dilemma, as they falsely assume that the only options are Conservative Naturalism and theism.

exapologist said...

Hi Ian.

Thanks!

Good question. I guess in at least one sense it's possible to do some base-expanding while remaining a Conservative Naturalist. So, for example, our understanding of the nature and properties of the physical universe have changed a lot over the last few milenia or so. We've moved from an account of matter as tiny little atoms that can only act in virtue of collisions with other atoms. We've since "broadened" our account of the physical world so as to include fields, forces, quantum entanglement, and a host of other amazing properties. So in these sorts of cases, at least, it seems possible to adopt a Base Expanding approach and yet remain a Conservative Naturalist.

However, given the way I've defined the notions of Conservative, Moderate, and Liberal Naturalism (although my "definitions" are admittedly very rough!), it seems to me that my framework (as it is currently sketched) doesn't allow on to make a Base-Expanding move from (say) Melnyk-style physicalism to Chalmersian panprotopsychism, and yet remain a Conservative Naturalist. I suppose one could change the characterizations of the varieties of naturalism, but then my framework would seem to lose much of the utility for which it was originally constructed.

In any case, good question!

Blue Devil Knight said...

Minor point: the Churchlands aren't eliminativists about consciousness. They are eliminativists about propositional attitude pscyhology (Fodor's language of thought hypothesis in particular).

The Charger said...

Interesting. But I have a question. What is not natural according to all of these definitions? Where is the line drawn between what is natural and what is supernatural?

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

If you define naturalism as this:

"Naturalists share in common the view that the natural world is all there is -- there is no supernatural realm of spiritual beings."

then it seems false to say that naturalism (so defined) is logically compatible with abstract objects. At least, I'm not aware of anyone who says that abstract objects are "part of the natural world."