Friday, July 25, 2014

Blogging Through Smith's Naturalism and our Knowledge of Reality

I'll be blogging through R. Scott Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality for a bit. The aim is not to thoroughly exposit the ins and outs of each chapter, but to briefly summarize a chapter per post, and to take up a key point or argument in each one. To start off, though, I should offer a bird's eye view of the book. 

In this ambitious book, R. Scott Smith aims to show that philosophical naturalists can’t account for our knowledge of the world. In particular, philosophical naturalism lacks the ontological resources to account for direct access to the external world, accurate concept formation of entities within the external world, and genuine intentionality, which in turn (argues Smith) are necessary conditions for the possibility of knowledge. 

We can summarize Smith’s core argument as follows:

1. If naturalism is true and we can have knowledge of the external world, then such knowledge can be adequately accounted for in terms of the naturalist’s ontology.
2. We can have knowledge of the external world.
3. Knowledge of the external world can’t be adequately accounted for in terms of the naturalist’s ontology.
4. Therefore, naturalism is false.

(1) looks to be something on the order of an analytic truth, and (2) will only be rejected by radical skeptics. The bulk of Smith’s book is therefore devoted to supporting (3). His strategy is to explicate and critique a sufficiently representative sampling of naturalistic accounts of some necessary prerequisites for knowledge (esp. those listed above), and to argue that each such account is deeply inadequate. The book ends with a brief defense of Christian theism and some supposed implications for public policy.

Here are two initial comments. First, very little time is given to characterizing and clarifying the notion of naturalism at issue. In fact, the first and perhaps most detailed characterization of naturalism is found in a footnote in the Introduction. There is also no index entry for the term. This is surprising and puzzling, given that the book is 
a sustained critique of naturalism.

Second, the brief characterization of naturalism Smith does offer suggests that the primary aim of his critique is not naturalism proper, but rather physicalism. Here is the characterization he offers in footnote 1 of the Introduction:
Though we will see nuances and variations in the naturalists' works that follow, very roughly I take philosophical naturalism to be a thesis that reality consists solely of the physical, spatiotemporal world; thus there are no supernatural or nonnatural entities or beings. From that stance surface epistemological, moral, and other positions.
One might raise worries about obscurity and circularity in this definition, but I will leave these concerns aside for now. Here I just want to point out that there are many versions of naturalism, including many that are incompatible with the characterization offered by Smith. And because of this, the claim that
(i) The physicalist's ontology lacks adequate ontological resources for the possibility of knowledge.
is compatible with
(ii) The naturalist's ontology has adequate ontological resources for the possibility of knowledge.
To put it another way, my second worry is that Smith's case commits (what I have elsewhere called) the Common Apologetic Fallacy.

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