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Thread: Weaknesses of Naturalism

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    Weaknesses of Naturalism

    I read a couple of short essays in "The Stone Reader in Modern Philosophy". One set of essays is an argument between Timothy Williamson (Professor at Oxford) and Alex Rosenberg (Professor at Duke) about the flaws (or lack thereof) of Naturalism. Some of the issues they discuss are similar to those in the "What is History" thread.

    Rosenberg describes himself as a Naturalist: "Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge." He goes on to state that science uses, "experimental / observational methods".

    Williamson's objections (some of which mirror my objections in the other thread) include:

    1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."

    2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.

    3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"

    4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.
    Last edited by Ecurb; 03-21-2016 at 01:24 PM.

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    I agree with all three of the points you mentioned that Williamson made as well as your position in the "What is History" thread.

    The fourth item you made coming from a different essay highlights the difference between objective facts about something that might get stored in a book or computer and the subjectivity needed to know those facts. There is a difference between everything science can know about color recognition that is stored in some computer or book and a scientist who actually knows everything that science can know about color recognition. The problem of her subjectivity starts immediately whether she is blind or not. The existence of knowledge depends upon subjectivity. This may be what that essay was trying to say.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    I read a couple of short essays in "The Stone Reader in Modern Philosophy". One set of essays is an argument between Timothy Williamson (Professor at Oxford) and Alex Rosenberg (Professor at Duke) about the flaws (or lack thereof) of Naturalism. Some of the issues they discuss are similar to those in the "What is History" thread.

    Rosenberg describes himself as a Naturalist: "Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge." He goes on to state that science uses, "experimental / observational methods".

    Williamson's objections (some of which mirror my objections in the other thread) include:

    1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."
    This reminds of a book I read recently called Infinitesimal. The Jesuits started teaching mathematics because it was a branch of thought they could feel certain about. If they could clear away uncertainty in at least that branch of reasoning, perhaps they could eventually defeat their opponents in philosophy. The branch of mathematics they admired the most was geometry, because from a set of simple truths they could prove more and more complex things. The problem was there were certain things they could not prove with geometry, which you could with infinitesimals, and the problem with infinitesimals is that they led to mathematical paradoxes. Galileo and his Italian mathematician followers supported the study of infinitesimals; the Jesuits wanted to ban it, and eventually they won. Later Thomas Hobbes wanted to suborn geometry in the same way as the Jesuits did: in order to show philosophical problems could be proved beyond doubt. His opponents included John Wallis who backed the use of infinitesimals. Wallis and his friends preferred knowledge acquisition via experiment and observation over pure reasoning. Part of their objection to Hobbes was that they considered the horrors of the English Civil War to having been caused largely by people being intolerant and dogmatic.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post

    2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.
    A lecturer in social sciences told us there were five classes of real things. There were naturally real things like mountains and trees. There were artefacts, which are tangible objects made by humans. I suppose the reason they are classed apart is that artefacts have been made for a purpose and you need to know to to use them. Then there are ideally real things like poems, which are intangible. They are thought patterns. You can write a poem down but it is not the ink and paper that is the poem. Then there are social constructs, which may be a thing like 'sexual discrimination' or 'gross domestic product', which are concepts agreed upon by society that relate to society. He said there was a fifth class of reality which he could not remember the definition of (I am not sure what class of reality 'the economy' belongs to because it seems more than a social construct. It seems more like an emergent property than a socially agreed upon definition). Natural science could explain naturally real things like mountains and trees, and could be used to design and build artefacts, but would not be much help in explaining poems or sexual discrimination.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"
    I think it was mathematically proved that not all truths are discoverable by hard science. Alan Turing and Alonzo Church independently discovered a mathematical proof that showed that a general purpose algorithm could not solve any close-ended question. This was in response to the so-called Entscheidungsproblem. Some questions it could answer yes, some no, others it would take a long time to answer, and some it would never answer.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post

    4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.
    This is interesting because red, green and blue do not really exist. They are just different frequencies of light that stimulate different cone cells in the retina. The brain must paint them in.
    Last edited by kev67; 03-21-2016 at 06:07 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    I read a couple of short essays in "The Stone Reader in Modern Philosophy".

    From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.
    Wouldn´t that be the difference between theory and empirical experience?
    Last edited by Danik 2016; 03-21-2016 at 10:28 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Danik 2016 View Post
    Wouldn´t that be the difference between theory and empirical experience?
    I supposes so. Perhaps another weakness of "Naturalism" (scientific knowledge) is that it trivializes experience. A physicist might know theoretically why people are able to balance while riding a bicycle, but still not know how to ride a bike. The bike rider might lack the theoretical knowledge, but that doesn't affect his ability to ride to the library and take out a book on physics. In any event, when it comes to bike riding, it is clear that the scientific method is NOT the only way to "know"
    how to ride.

    Theory (it seems to me, as opposed to seeming to the professional philosophers I cited earlier, who know way more about it than I do) is dependent on language. Mathematical theories are linguistic games, using the language of math and following the linguistic rules of logic. Scientific theories are stated linguistically (whether in mathematical language or not). But knowing what red looks like, or how to ride a bike is not (and perhaps cannot be) stated in language. That alone might put it outside of the realm of science (or math, or history, for that matter) which deals with knowledge shared through language. Nonetheless, it seems limiting to state (as the Naturalists do, acc. the philosophers cited above) that science is "our most effective (source of and route to) knowledge."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post

    Williamson's objections (some of which mirror my objections in the other thread) include:

    1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."
    For now, naturalism is the best tool we have for getting at physical truth. That does not mean it will always be. Math appears to have limits, but science may not, as it can be redefined and might even evolve away from numbers.

    Who knows? A little genetic tweaking, easy surgery or computer add-ons to our brains could bring abilities to the forefront that supplant math as the truth giver. We walk around all day without using any math for navigation. Literally "seeing" truth like Danial Tammet may be the future. Seeing is fast and math is very slow. Someone like Tesla seems to have had abilities in both directions--a good technical education and a strong reliance on what we might call intuitionalism but which really seems to have had a degree of synesthesia mixed in. I believe we will disvover some easy tweaks for synesthesia--to bring it on, not cure it!

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    2) But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.
    That is about where I would leave it--science cannot speak to them. I never thought it could. I would call whether Mr. Collins was the hero an opinion.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"

    I love the sophism of the so-called paradox. But this: But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes I love even more because I agree so strongly with it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.
    This is very fine, indeed lovely. I can play with the example all day.

    The big problem I have with many science kickers is that often they are blaming science for ills it had nothing to do with perpetuating, like wars, or expecting things out of it they should not expect. Sometimes they seem to be calling almost for its overthrow, as if alternative methods of reliably finding truths of pranormal variety, for example, are easily at hand.

    Science must be forgiven for trying sometimes in areas where it seems unequipped to add much to our knowledge of truth. You only know if you tried whether it can be done.

    Remember, those trying to encode consciousness itself in a Li algebra matrix of immense dimensions have not yet failed or given up. Knowing you have limits is less informed than knowing what they are.
    Last edited by desiresjab; 03-27-2016 at 04:53 AM.

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    By way of giving this thread new life, here is a comment about mathematics and the observer problem of quantum physics.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."
    What mathematics is hopefully able to show is what is happening when we are not observing something. This leads to determinism because mathematics is deterministic. A future observed result depends only upon initial conditions--what is actually observed now. As long as determinism is empirically verifiable by experiment (observing), Naturalism has no problem with mathematics, nor does mathematics limit it.

    Since quantum physics is indeterministic all we know is a probability of what the next observation will be. Mathematics is still useful for Naturalism, even though the underlying reality is not deterministic. However, the indeterminism raises the question of what the quantum object is doing when we are not looking at it. As far as science goes, it doesn't matter. The empirical results still lead to useful predictions although probabilistic. As far as philosophy goes, it matters a great deal what is being observed and what the observed is doing when it is not being observed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    I read a couple of short essays in "The Stone Reader in Modern Philosophy". One set of essays is an argument between Timothy Williamson (Professor at Oxford) and Alex Rosenberg (Professor at Duke) about the flaws (or lack thereof) of Naturalism. Some of the issues they discuss are similar to those in the "What is History" thread.

    Rosenberg describes himself as a Naturalist: "Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge." He goes on to state that science uses, "experimental / observational methods".

    Williamson's objections (some of which mirror my objections in the other thread) include:

    1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."

    2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.
    What reasonable person would think Rosenberg meant that physics will tell us if Mr. Collins is the here of P&P? A reasonable person would assume that Rosenberg did indeed mean questions that can be answered using physics (but where also all manner of superstition is and has been employed).

    3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"
    No reasonable person would think that hard science can answer any metaphysical question (except in some cases when physics advances).

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.
    As Rosenberg says, physics is an empirical science, based on observation of nature and experiments. To claim that seeing the colour red is somehow out of the realm of physical science and naturalism is absurd. Heck, seeing redshift proved that the expansion of the universe predicted by Einstein's theory of General Relativity was real. The mathematics of Einstein's equations existed first, but even Einstein thought he had made a mistake before the redshift was observed.

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    The paradox that Williamson claims discredits Naturalism only works if Naturalism claims it knows everything. On the contrary, Naturalism is lucky it knows anything at all. Thankfully mathematics is able to model adequately enough aspects of reality in some limited contexts that predictions are useful.

    This paradox is similar to the paradox about our free will and God’s omniscience. If God knows everything then He knows exactly what we are going to do next. If He knows what we are going to do, then we do not have free will.

    Both paradoxes can be viewed so they are not paradoxes, but not everyone likes these perspectives.

    On the one had, one can claim Naturalism can potentially know anything that it can know. But that assumes there exists stuff it can’t know which does not make some Naturalists happy.

    On the other hand, one can claim that God knows everything that is knowable. God is still omniscient and we still have free will since what we do next is not precisely knowable. I imagine that does not please some people either.
    Last edited by YesNo; 10-06-2017 at 01:42 PM.

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    Ignore YesNo. His argument about free will being incompatible with an omniscient God has been disposed of several times, and I won't beat a dead horse, or encourage him to do so.

    However, , Alex Rosenberg (who is chairman of the Philosophy department at Duke University, so some people, at least, find him "reasonable") does not agree that Naturalism cannot address metaphysics. Of course he knows the "Physics" cannot --but "Naturalism" is, evidently, a more comprehensive term. In fact, Rosenberg dodges and evades. He writes:

    Naturalism... won't uncritically buy into Williamson's assumption that semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, pst-structuralism, deconstruction and postmodernism transparently flout science's standards of objectivity, or if they limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can't take them seriously as knowledge.... That doesn't mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than forgoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.
    I don't buy it. Mathematics, metaphysics, and knowing whether Mr. Collins is the hero of Pride and Prejudice aren't "scientific knowledge" -- but (it seems to me) they are a kind of knowledge. Epistemology and metaphysics can be reduced to "Naturalism" only by begging the questions, or by defining "knowledge" as "only those things to which Naturalism can be applied." (That's Rosenberg's method -- and he has a reasonable point, except that so much of Naturalism's "knowledge" is dependent on mathematics, which does not admit of a naturalistic proof. Rosenberg says that just because naturalism has failed to find the naturalistic explanation of math, that doesn't mean that it never will. But until it does, what do we do?)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Ignore YesNo. His argument about free will being incompatible with an omniscient God has been disposed of several times, and I won't beat a dead horse, or encourage him to do so.
    Perhaps you misread? I am saying that free will is compatible with an omniscient God. Ask yourself, “What does it mean to be ‘omniscient’”? I would define “omniscience” as “knowing everything that can be known”. The choices that we make, if they are free, cannot be known although one might make a good guess. Therefore, an omniscient God need not know them and still be omniscient.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    so much of Naturalism's "knowledge" is dependent on mathematics, which does not admit of a naturalistic proof. Rosenberg says that just because naturalism has failed to find the naturalistic explanation of math, that doesn't mean that it never will. But until it does, what do we do?)
    You might also ask yourself if the phrase “naturalistic proof” makes sense without mathematics. When we perform experiments all we do is collect observations. No matter how many observations we collect, we never reach the point of logical proof. So Naturalism must include a logical foundation on which it can talk about proving something. That logical foundation is mathematics. Mathematics is a part of Naturalism. It does not need to be justified any more than an assumption in mathematics needs to be proven. The assumption is assumed.

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