Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Comments Elsewhere: On Foundations

This was a comment on a post on Philosophy, Etc. (Slightly edited.)

From Barry's post:

According to our putatively final metaphysics, the world is one big chunk of matter. I think this leaves us with two questions, which the naturalist lacks the resources to answer. (1) Why is the world made of this stuff, and not some other stuff? (2) Why is there this stuff and not nothing at all?

Our explanans must always be explanatorily broader than our explanandum. You cannot explain alpha with alpha; you must explain it with some beta that may include alpha. (The fact that the girl crossed the road does not explain the fact that the girl crossed the road, but it might explain the fact that the girl crossed some part of the road.) As the Aristotelians say, explanations must involve not just the 'that' but also some 'because.'

My response:

In Nozick's Philosophical Explanations, he says something like: "What did philosophers expect? Of course if they keep investigating things they're going to reach something that can't be explained, an intractable problem: why is there something rather than nothing?"

But the solution need not be some brute fact. Rather, I see three possibilities:

1. The series of explanations is infinite. Every explanandum has its explanans, forever.

2. There really is some starting point, some brute fact of the matter. The world just is, full stop (some sort of recursive explanation might fit here).

3. It's circular: A is explained by B, which is explained by C, which is explained... which is explained by A.

I find all of these profoundly unsatisfying, but I know of no other options. Infinity's unpalatable, a brute fact seems arbitrary, and circularity is widely considered erroneous.* This dilemma (trilemma) shows up in various areas.

Think of justification of beliefs: do we have to 1. justify every belief with some other belief, ad infinitum? Or 2. take some beliefs as brute facts? Or 3. are beliefs justified in a circular fashion?

Or think of the creation of the Universe. Was 1. God created by meta-God, who in turn was created by meta-meta-God, ad infinitum? Or is 2. God a primitive? Or 3. did God create us so we can later create him?

*I have heard that the viability of circular arguments is not logically impossible. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I do admit that I seem to be able to conceive of a circular argument proving something--whereas I certainly cannot conceive of a four-sided triangle, or the like. If so, there's nothing logically wrong with the circular argument--the problem is elsewhere. Alternatively, I simply haven't reflected enough on the problem, when, if I did so, it would become apparent that circular arguments really are necessarily invalid.


Micha Ghertner said...

Right. Whether or not we find these three options fully satisfying, the fact remains that this is not a problem for naturalism; this is a problem for any kind of metaphysics. The important point is recognizing this so that anti-naturalists can stop bashing naturalists over the head with a problem that effects everyone, including themselves.

Scott said...

From Barry's post, it seems he finds this challenge to naturalism particularly poignant, but, if the scenario is as you describe it, there's no reason for this: his position is no more flawed than any other.

Here's why I think Barry's troubled:

1. One of the naturalist's greatest strengths is his appeal to simplicity in his ontology--no need for anything magic.

2. Following from 1, the naturalist stresses that the world is all there is and thus, naturalism is quite appealing.

3. But, if his argument is right, the world can't be all there is, because it requires an explanans.

4. Therefore the simple ontology of naturalism is an illusion, or exaggerated.

5. Naturalism no longer looks so appetizing.

But why, you might ask, when the same metaphysical problems apply to anti-naturalists, too?

Because the anti-naturalist, in my experience, has no commitment to the world being all there is--indeed, to anything being all there is. So the same criticism falls flat: the anti-naturalist is likely to respond with a "duh."

Micha Ghertner said...

I think the problem here is a misunderstanding of what naturalism is. Barry defines it as "the research project whose goal is the reduction of everything to matter. ... Matter is whatever the theoretical physicists tell us the world is made of."

As Barry correctly (I think) points out, if this is naturalism, then naturalism can never have an answer to every philosophical question of metaphysics, because it can never satisfactorily answer the two questions given.

But as Pablo points out in the comments, this is not the best way to think about naturalism. Writes Pablo,

"I don’t think we should understand naturalism as being defined by a particular ontology; I would instead propose that this research program is at its core committed to a certain methodology—the methodology of the natural sciences. The link between naturalism and materialism is rather an a posteriori consequence of the fact that the world uncovered by this methodological approach appears to be ultimately made of matter. Yet if it turns out that certain recalcitrant phenomena cannot find a place in this picture of reality, then those same methodological commitments call for an expansion of our ontology beyond materialism."

It's perfectly consistent, and indeed, necessary, for a naturalist to admit that there are certain kinds of metaphysical questions that may forever remain unanswered. It would be presumptuous to think otherwise.

So long as naturalism acknowledges our inability to answer these ultimate questions, it is not vulnerable to this criticism. A naturalist need not--and cannot--commit to the proposition that the world is all there is, because there is no way scientifically valid way to know this. All naturalism commits to is the proposition that the world is all that we know to exist. If we later discover entities or substances outside our existing metaphysics, this will be incorporated into future versions of our physics.

It is the anti-naturalist position that is problematic: simply positing the possible but unconfirmed, undetectable, indescribable existence of metaphysical stuff is not a serious position grounded in reason. Naturalism allows for the existence of the unknown, but once we discover the unknown, it becomes known. Whereas anti-naturalism embraces the contradiction that the unknown can be known in advance.

To acknowledge the existence of unanswered questions is not to acknowledge the existence of the unknown, for there may ultimately be no answer to these questions.

Scott said...

If all the naturalist is saying is that all that can be known is that which can be known, then *yawn*. I was under the impression that the position had more to it than mere tautology. Who the hell would disagree with it?

No matter which definition you use--Barry's more interesting physicalism, or your and Pablo's watered-down truism--the end result is still a pair of unanswered questions. If you want to say that pair of danglers doesn't matter, then you can counter that at either version.

I will acknowledge that my previous response on the loss of simplicity doesn't touch your definition of naturalism--but that's because I was responding to Barry's post, and the definition of the word he explicitly used. I do think physicalism or materialism would be a better word for that position--so so far as you want to restore the good name of "naturalism," you've done so, since what you mean by the term was not under discussion.

Micha Ghertner said...

It's not a tautology, or at least not to those who believe that faith is as legitimate a source of truth as reason. Who the hell would disagree with it? Well, theists, for one.

I do think physicalism or materialism would be a better word for that position

I don't. Physicalism and materialism have the same problem as using the term naturalism. I am a naturalist, a physicalist, and a materialist. As Pablo pointed out, "The link between naturalism and materialism is rather an a posteriori consequence of the fact that the world uncovered by this methodological approach appears to be ultimately made of matter."

Or are you defining materialism to just mean an apriori conception of reality, an unfounded assumption? If so, are there any actual materialists who believe that our present conception of the physical substances and laws in the universe is full and complete? That we may never discover a law or substance that does not fit within our present conception, thus necessitating a modification to the conception? Because I don't know of any such materialists.