Saturday, December 6, 2008

Naturalism's Definitions and Their Deficiencies

This description of "naturalism" is a "cut and paste" from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia [CA]. I rely on it for much of my information, but usually with a grain of salt, because usually there is something in it to be debated.

There are two parts to each discourse on any subject in the CA. I call them the "part above the blue line," and "the part below the blue line." This "blue line" is a separation line put there by the CA. Above it, the idea is for the CA to be objective and definitive, so that what is below the blue line--Catholic Dogma, literally--can be understood. Above the blue line is the information needed for anyone to begin to try to understand the Dogma.

Essentially, the CA's definitions are good, but the CA is old, dating back to 1907. I have no idea which parts are updated, if any, nor who is doing the updating. Though I often use what is above the "blue line" I do find much of it debatable, as I said.

That said, read the CA's description of naturalism. My comments follow.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia

"Naturalism is not so much a special system as a point of view or tendency common to a number of philosophical and religious systems; not so much a well-defined set of positive and negative doctrines as an attitude or spirit pervading and influencing many doctrines. As the name implies, this tendency consists essentially in looking upon nature as the one original and fundamental source of all that exists, and in attempting to explain everything in terms of nature. Either the limits of nature are also the limits of existing reality, or at least the first cause, if its existence is found necessary, has nothing to do with the working of natural agencies. All events, therefore, find their adequate explanation within nature itself. But, as the terms nature and natural are themselves used in more than one sense, the term naturalism is also far from having one fixed meaning.

"(I) If nature is understood in the restricted sense of physical, or material, nature, naturalism will be the tendency to look upon the material universe as the only reality, to reduce all laws to mechanical uniformities and to deny the dualism of spirit and matter. Mental and moral processes will be but special manifestations of matter rigorously governed by its laws.

"(II) The
dualism of mind and matter may be admitted, but only as a dualism of modes or appearances of the same identical substance. Nature includes manifold phenomena and a common substratum of the phenomena, but for its actual course and for its ultimate explanation, it requires no principle distinct from itself. In this supposition, naturalism denies the existence of a transcendent cause of the world and endeavours to give a full account of all processes by the unfolding of potencies essential to the universe under laws that are necessary and eternal.

"(III) Finally, if the existence of a transcendent First Cause, or personal God, is admitted as the only satisfactory explanation of the world, Naturalism claims that the laws governing the activity and development of irrational and of rational beings are never interfered with. It denies the possibility, or at least the fact, of any transitory intervention of God in nature, and of any revelation and permanent supernatural order for man.

"These three forms are not mutually exclusive; what the third denies the first and the second, a fortiori, also deny; all agree in rejecting every explanation which would have recourse to causes outside of nature. The reasons of this denial — i.e., the philosophical views of nature on which it is based — and, in consequence, the extent to which explanations within nature itself are held to suffice, vary greatly and constitute essential differences between these three tendencies." [exact page Catholic Encyclopedia ]

My Critique (Not to be taken as exhaustive)

"[A]ttempting to explain everything in terms of nature" is correct. But to claim that naturalism is "not so much a well-defined set of positive and negative doctrines as an attitude or spirit pervading and influencing many doctrines" denies that well defined definitions, used as doctrines, do exist. The Academy's "Strong" Position on Naturalism, originally written by B.A.G. Fuller and then altered by me, are two such doctrines. (The source of Fuller's definition can be found in the link above.)

Why did I alter Fuller's? For the same reason I do not agree totally with the CA's definition. Apparently Objectivism is foreign to definitions other than my own; it is my Objectivism that causes me to debate the definitions of others.

But where the CA says "Mental and moral processes will be but special manifestations of matter rigorously governed by its laws", it is defining perfectly the subjectivness of scientific naturalism (SN). SN, as defined by the most prominent and apparently most influential website on the subject, The Center for Naturalism, with its sister site Naturalism.Org, describe mental and moral processes as non-contra causal.

This is a straw man argument. Its ostensive purpose is to say that because we live in a world we did not create, and among forces we cannot control, and being influenced by our genes, our nurturing, memes*, people stepping on our toes, the rain falling from the sky and other forces which are the result of living in existence, we have no free will. We are forced to always apply our will toward dealing with existence, over which we have no control. If we had such control, that would constitute free will. Hence, we have no contra-causal, i.e., free, will.

I say this is a straw man argument because if existence did not exist, you would have no will at all; and as Ayn Rand so famously pointed out, what we call free will is our freedom to think or not. This carries two implications, at least. One, that we can sleepwalk through life or that we can choose to accept the things we cannot change, have courage to change the things we can, and hope to know the difference.

Yes, Ayn Rand defended the first verse of the Serenity Prayer, with the caveats that men must not operate by asking for serenity to be granted, nor that they accept the existence of the supernatural, as when they ask "God, Grant me the Serenity...". [see "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made"; Philosophy: Who Needs It; 1982]

So, part (1) of the CA's definition is descriptive of scientific naturalism.

Monday, I will examine parts (2) and (3).

*"[C]ulture is carried forward by memes, [which are] units of ideas, habits, skills, stories, customs, and beliefs that are passed from one person to another by imitation or teaching. Memes are, in effect, units of information that are self-replicating and changeable, just as genes are." [italics added]

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