Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Does "Naturalism" Mean Anything?

Yesterday I made a presentation of my work on the mind/body problem on the occasion of inaugurating a student philosophy colloquium here at UPR/M. It turned out to be a pretty good event and thoughtful responses from some good students (and from some generous faculty members) gave me much to think about.
A book-length project is hard to set up for an hour or so of informal discussion. One can't expect an audience of undergraduates (or of faculty with dissimilar interests for that matter) to simply jump in. It would be easy to spend an hour just lecturing on the nature and scope of "metaphysics." So I did something at the beginning that is fairly standard for me in class: I said that my interest in the metaphysics of the mind/body problem was motivated by an interest in "naturalizing psychology." All I want to do with this phrase is indicate something about my attitude; "I don't do ghosts and goblins, I don't do angels and demons," is something else that I say (and said yesterday). But a smart sociology major fixed on this issue of naturalism and the graybeards picked up on it and collectively they convinced me that this little bit of introductory business is too glib as it stands. Two things:
1) a) I don't actually know (news flash) all about the metaphysics of the universe. I have a programmatic "antihumanism": I do insist that humans are not exceptional, or miraculous, or otherwise different from the rest of nature. Resistance to this basic (metaphysical) fact (if it is a fact), for example among the linguists, hampers on my view progress in cognitive science and psychology. Nature might be as miraculous, mysterious and magical as you like, my claim is just that whatever nature in general is like, humans are like that.
b) I think that there are two claims that are both common and false in discussions about the mind/body problem: 1. That mental processes involve representations; that there is mental content. 2. That physical descriptions and explanations do not convey the quality of individual experiences ("qualia"), and therefore an autonomous "phenomenology" will always coexist with physical psychology (I disagree with the part after the "therefore").
I think an important thing I learned yesterday is that in my introductory exposition I should maybe limit myself to those more specific claims. Otherwise I commit myself to defending more than I am able, or care to, defend: I'm not writing a book an "naturalism." I don't even know what that means, it's way too broad of a concept and sweeping of a claim. A tricky thing in philosophy is not to toss out some bone that is not really essential to the argument, that people will then pick up and worry, at the expense of the intended project. Once I received the comments from two blind reviewers who had read an article of mine: both reviewers complained that I had not defined "behaviorism" properly, and both offered their own definitions, mutually contradictory. Moral of the story? Don't define it! We are too much ships passing in the night. I think that I should definitely not have a full-blown section advocating "metaphysical naturalism" in the introduction. My aims are much more specific.
2) Nonetheless there is a rich discussion to be had. It's got to mean something, after all, to say that one is a materialist. I think that that means that the metaphysical assertion has to have some sort of epistemological implication. Like Aristotle, like the functionalists, I eventually want to help myself to some sort of "nonreductive materialism," but I wonder if we are entitled to help ourselves to that. Aristotle thought that he had taken Plato's insight into the distinction between form and matter and "naturalized" it with his claim that substance, the unity of form and matter, was primary being. Nonreductive materialism: every token of form is material. Is that satisfactory? (As to that, some functionalists point out that functionalism need not commit itself to a materialist ontology. That might be fair enough, but there is still a question as to whether or not a materialist ontology is correct.)