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.)


  1. Anderson: "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."

    kvond; This sounds a bit off to my ear. "Correct"? Correct usually means according to some authority or standard. What would be the standard which would establish which "ontology" (ontological assumption) is the correct one? Is this word spelled correctly? Is this mathematical problem done correctly? But the correct ontology?

    Is it not the question of what works?

  2. Hi, Anderson. I'm going to do something potentially quite annoying and illustrate your point that "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." I think you should talk to a physical anthropologist about the possibility of being both a naturalist and a humanist, or much more likely an anti-antihumanist. I have a sense that sapiens is unique and can be meaningfully differentiated from erectus, for instance. Your linguist friends may be telling you a version of the same story. A naturalist has no reasonable justification for disregarding what is unique to sapiens that I can see, or the usefulness of uniquely identifying species of organism, but of course there is much that I cannot see. Your critique of representationalist views of psychic processes interests me and I have a vague sense of why this would be a challenge to much contemporary cognitive science. Perhaps you are indeed a naturalist or an empiricist on some level. Just passing by and thought I'd comment.

  3. I'm not sure what the problem is with applying correctness to ontology - a correct ontology countenances the things that exist "cutting nature at the joints" - the standard, if you like, is the world. A dualist ontology, for example., is incorrect if there are no mental substances (or properties). And no, it is not a question of what works unless you have prior, independent reasons for an instrumentalist (and notably, anti-realist) view.

  4. Anderson,

    Would you mind expanding a bit on 1.b? What motivates your rejection of mental content and what bearing do you think this has on the mind-body problem (and is the rejection independent of your view of the mind-body problem)?

  5. I, too, am curious about your denial of mental content, or maybe I'm just curious about your philosophy of denying. When one says, "there are no mental contents" (or "there are no witches"), I find it puzzling to identify what exactly they are talking about. (Surely there are permissible ways of believing that witches exist--such as by believing that their spells never do any causal work--just as there are permissible ways of believing that they don't. It matters how 'witch' is definable.) How do you characterize the objects of your denial?

  6. Three responses to the various comments:
    1) In response to Kevin, I think that the very essence of the activity of metaphysics and epistemology is as originally explained by Socrates: we must try to fix what it is that we truly believe to be true (relativists, according to Socrates, are running from their own nature), and then try to state what that is as clearly and courageously as possible. In the present example, one thinks either that immaterial minds are possible, or not. I see no reason to try to avoid a literal interpretation of this question.
    2) In response to Fido (and this is something that I find myself repeating when talking to professionals), yes, human beings are distinct from other things, and yes, they are very fancy things. Very fancy indeed. But if we ever hope to understand them (to understand the origins of language for example), we must see that they are continuous with the rest of nature. Starting off with human exceptionalism is backwards: we must go from animal genera to human specifics.
    3) As to the other questions, my eliminativism about mental content is one of my basic themes, so for now I must simply refer everyone to the main body of posts here. Better still, look for these ideas in Wittgenstein.

  7. Pressed on the same question as you, John McDowell has several times stated that his self-labelled "naturalism" does not amount to much more than simply denying the "super-natural", i.e. to more than not doing ghost and goblins, angels and demons.

    I don't think there is any reason to embrassed just because one does not do neuro-psychology or does not belong to the Churchland-family.

    Who said that something like that exclusively deserves the label "naturalism"?

    Really, it seems that it's people "like that" that saddles the concept of naturalism with more than it, so to speak, naturally contains.

    In brief, I guess my point is: Don't worry.

    PS: But I am more curious to know which part of Wittgenstein's writings that might commit him to anything like eliminativism about mental content?

  8. Presskorn, I read the PI as a sustained attack on mental content. The private language argument being the most prominent example. Language is intersubjective, out in the world (outside bodies). I can no more tell myself something than I can give myself a dollar. Programmatically, if W. can persuade us that our experience of the world is not mediated by an "inner" representation of the world, Cartesian scepticism is undone (shown to be based on an error), and the problem of "intentionality" disappears. In the case of phenomenal "properties," while we can intelligibly use the word "blue," there is no such use for "blue-for-me," etc., thus "phenomenology" is a conceptually confused attempt to transgress the limits of language. Sorry this is so cryptic. Many of the earlier posts rehearse these ideas (ab nauseum I'm afraid).