The Naturalism elephant in the middle of the room

"It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty." --Charles Darwin, 2 April, 1873. From: Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, (New York: Appleton and Co.), 1905, 276-277.
Better commentators than me have wrestled with the above quote for more than a hundred years. Many now interpret this quote as uncovering the internal ambiguity and struggle felt by Darwin toward the end of his life as he watched the logical consequences of the natural selection theory (which he merely introduced)--a struggle that Darwin was reticent to share with even his closest friends. T.H. Huxley (Darwin's "bulldog") and his grandson Julian (brother of author/philosopher/stoner Aldous and co-formulator of "neo-Darwinism") certainly interpreted this letter that way. They each were initially downright embarrassed that the great Evolutionist did not know how to neatly tie-up his theory, to dive completely and unreservedly into the implications of materialist Darwinism. But as he, too, passed into old age, T.H. Huxley--after defending Darwin for much of his career by hook or by crook--took the end of his life to attempt to temper the worst social effects of Darwinism. In one of his most famous essays from the end of his life, Huxley wrote:
"Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it." ("Evolution and Ethics," 9:83).
But why should Huxley turn his back on a raw social interpretation of Darwinism and toward some sense of existentialism? Was he actually disavowing the persuasiveness of evolutionary theory? Not at all. Instead, Huxley had moved from seeing man as animal only to seeing man as a walking material/ethical dialectic. This notion of human as both physical and non-physical (ideal, extra-physical, epi-phenomenal, spiritual, whatever) is the same notion Darwin was afraid of losing--as indicated by his little phrase "...but man can do his duty." What duty was Darwin talking about? What ethical progress was Huxley referring to?

What they feared was not the theory of evolution itself. After all, neither Darwin nor Huxley spoke of retracting the science. In other letters, Darwin explicitly states that he found evolution as a science to be in accord with a vaguely Judaeo-Christian concept of anthropology (i.e., what it means to be human in society). What they feared was metaphysical naturalism. They feared that evolution was being used to support metaphysical naturalism. And though both Darwin and Huxley ended their lives as more-or-less agnostics (Huxley coined the term), they were agnostics in the sense that they couldn't say for certain. Neither man believed that one couldn't know anything about the non-material world at all (a species of metaphysical naturalism).

Metaphysical naturalism implies a few concepts, not the least of which is that the material world is the only thing we can know exists for certain. It also indicates, when it becomes positivism, that only science can discover "truth" and, since science can only discover truth empirically (through observation and testing) that the only thing that is real is, you guessed it, the empirically-verifiable world. This type of metaphysical naturalism is known as anti-realism, in part because the only things that are real are the things science can tell us about. A non-positivist might say, Well, we can't say for certain that other things aren't real, but we certainly can't say that they are, so let's forget about that question and focus on what we can prove empirically. You see that the point is the same--the uninvestigatable, the unknowable (what Kant called the noumena) isn't worth our time. Why does metaphysical naturalism make a difference for Darwin and Huxley? I'm not sure about Darwin--other than the fact that earlier in his life he wanted to be clergy and didn't like the fact that, according to him and many of his current prophets including Dawkins and Dennett, metaphysical naturalism means that the only point to existence for "this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves" is a material one: one that can be measured and sorted out. Enlightened self-interest, I believe they call it. And enlightened self-interest rarely leads in a positive direction without concomitant "enlightened others-interest." At least, this was Huxley's major fear. Unlike Darwin, Huxley grew up working class and knew the shit that poor folk have to go through when the rich are acting out of "enlightened self-interest." Whereas upper-crust Darwin perhaps feared Marxism or anarchy, Huxley feared the Victorian coal mines, textile mills, and blast furnaces would proliferate over the entire globe--and what that would do to the working classes worldwide.

Materialism, or naturalism if you like, did not provide any physical or metaphysical foundation point from which to build an ethic. If you stuck to your metaphysical naturalist guns, there was no compelling reason to stop "natural" selection from taking every ounce out of an individual, out of a society, or even out of planet Earth. (Herbert Spencer saw this clearly and knew there was money to be made for those with a leg up in the world--which is why he invented and supported social "Darwinism" throughout his career.)

Why then, you ask, do people like Dawkins and Dennett say that they still support things like welfare and tsunami relief if they're committed naturalists? Well, I dunno exactly. It seems inconsistent with their metaphysic. Or maybe I should say that sometimes they fall into the "naturalistic fallacy" and sometimes they don't. The naturalistic fallacy (not to be confused with natural-ism) is a philosophical term describing the mistake made those that derive an "ought"--things that we should do/behavioral norms--from an "is"--things the way we currently find them. For instance, if we note that many societies espouse the practice of slavery (the "is"), it doesn't mean that ethically slavery should be practiced or is somehow ethically okay (or even neutral; the "ought"). Richard Dawkins would not believe that, just because natural selection weeds out the weak (the "is"), we should weed out the physically handicapped or allow nature to do so (the "ought"). What he would espouse (perhaps tacitly) is that, because the world is only observable through empirical means--the "is" (though this is itself a philosophical claim)--than we ought to believe that the empirical is all that exists. The fact that not everyone does believe this is due, in Dawkins' mind, to their naivety, brainwashing of religion, the fact that the brain "codes for" religion, etc.--something quite naturalistic. So thought Dawkins is not following into the naturalistic fallacy at all points, he is falling into it at least some of the time.

By definition, metaphysical naturalism precludes knowledge or belief in the existence of God or anything like God. Therefore it is completely incommensurate with Christianity and doesn't really sit that well with the claims of science in general (even evolutionary science) according to prominent scientists and philosophers of science--a major point we'll need to come back to, so suspend judgement on that particular claim for now if you please.

As to the point that I've attempted to make that metaphysical naturalism is a belief/faith-claim (holding aside whether it is a good claim or not), all I can say is that there is no way to assess whether or not naturalism is true empirically since metaphysics are by definition above the physical order and epiphenomenal. Therefore anyone who claims something is or is not true using the preconception of metaphysical naturalism is making a claim based on an evaluation of belief or faith. (**The claim I am making here is a definitional one and is open to refutation by a counter-definition assuming that the counter-definition itself utilizes fairly commonly understood foundational definitions. In other words, one who asserts metaphysical naturalism is not a belief/faith-claim must do so by following conventional definitions of faith, belief, metaphysics, and claim, as I have attempted to do. In order to help with that let me say--and then let the readers decide--that I am defining belief/faith-claim as an evaluative statement bridging the gap between evidence and hypothesis in order to maintain a higher-level structure. We can go into "for instances" if we need to.**) The end goal of making the claim that metaphysical naturalism is a belief/faith-claim is to demonstrate that those that hold to this metaphysical belief do so in part (though not wholly) to position themselves counter to not only the greater metaphysical stipulants that come along with a non-naturalism/materialism but to avoid the categorical imperatives implicitly and explicitly foisted upon the individual once they acknowledge the knowable non-natural/material metaphysic.

In other words, naturalism--as it has been said of Christianity many gazillions of times over the last few decades--is a crutch that has little to do directly with validity of evolutionary theory but says that it does. As one of my professors often says, when Dawkins wakes up in the morning, he argues with the God he doesn't want to be there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

SO you basically admit that Dawkins is bad and you're just as bad. (spy vs spy)

Jeez Luise, all those eloquent statements and not one damn shred of evidence for your god.

I still contend that you cannot see beyond your own crutch.. your own narcissistic desire for an afterlife and ultimate purpose.

Tell ya what Erik, if you want to convince us skeptics that we need to believe in Jebus, just invite him to appear in person.. let us know the time and place and we'll be there. Then I can inspect the scars for myself, do some video taping and question asking THEN I'll believe. Until then your just spinning your jets...

2/11/2005 1:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You gave us plenty to continue this thread. I will reread "The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design" so that I can get some context from the author for balance.

The topic of I.D. vs Evolution was written about in a periodical called C&EN. The article can be found on the page...


It would not be wise for me to make claims about the article since I am an employee of the parent company. I dont want to loose my job over a disagreement in opinion.

However, I can pose a few questions for fodder. "Since when is the ability to compose skeletons and stand them next to eachother scientific proof of common descent?"

In a related question, "Why do the museums that create these displays not tell us the composition, integrity and location of the fossils that made their models?"

Or, how can macro-evolution be considered a science and not a philosophy when the ability to observe data is not complete, or can the data set be reproduced, then independently tested?"

Full-disclosure: As a scientist, I fully support micro-evolution and do not find this inconsitent with the Judeo-Christian ethics on Genesis 1-3. Specifically, modification within Species is consistent scientifically and theologically, whereas modification at the Kingdom level has been published, but yet to be accepted as scientific fact. Reference: Chemical Abstracts Service database scan on documents regarding evolution evidence at the kingdom level resulting in 1 document published by
Baldauf, S (et. al.) Science, 2000; 290(5493), 972-977.

The database has a concept for Evolution and occurs in 310508 out of 25,000,000 and growing entries; whereas intelligent design occurs 66 times and less than 10 are related to this context. The others focus on metals and engineering applications. The best scientific example is "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of Intelligent Design" by Jim Giles in Nature 2004; 431(7005), 114


2/11/2005 7:29 AM  
Blogger Ray said...

When I read the first comment, I thought I was on a different weblog. I'm used to more intelligent responses here than that, but oh well...

I really need to track down a book that I skimmed recently that worked to demonstrate from an entirely naturalistic viewpoint that it is in the best interests of many species (especially homo sapiens) to not always engage in "survival of the fittest" behavior. Survival of the fittest is just one tool used by species to ensure their own survival, but it's not the only means and there are times that is actually in their own interests or the interests of the community (hence the gene pool) to put others first. This is why I don't buy the argument from many Christians that the acceptance of evolution automatically assumes a "morality" based in eugenics.

In either case, we all know that we are capable of rising above such instincts, so the idea that we harm each other because of mere scientific observations (which has happened) does not make those observations false. It simply means that we have acted wrongly (rather myopically) based on what we believed the implications of those observations to be.

To play the devil's advocate, some people use the Bible and "Christianity" to justify a needless war that has killed thousands of innocent people. Does this make the bible wrong or those who have wrongly interpreted it?

2/11/2005 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry my comment wasn't intelligent enough for you Ray. I do admit it was late and I had a few beers in me :-0

Anyhow, I agree with what you say. I only take issue with the last statement due to the fact that bible god himself endorsed a lot of war and unnecessary harm. As such, perhaps christians aren't so unjustified doing so themselves after all...


2/11/2005 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found some good refutations to your post on the internets (pardon my laziness)




I think Jay Lowder sums it up nicely-

"I think the metaphysical naturalist is amply justified in concluding that the universe is a closed system, and I therefore strongly disagree with Johnson's portrayal of metaphysical naturalism as an arbitrary, a priori assumption. It follows that even if evolution were based on metaphysical naturalism (which it is not), that dependency would be a strength, not a weakness. Metaphysical naturalism may be a philosophical belief, but it is a belief supported by empirical evidence."


2/12/2005 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops! Almost forgot.. happy Darwin day!


2/12/2005 3:07 PM  
Blogger e said...

Randy, I love you either despite or because of your contentiousness and (at times) hubris. Because I believe the universe to be acting according to some plan or another, in some loose sense, I hope to one day see how your contribution to the state of the world works itself out for the betterment of everyone. In other words, I hope God goes easy on you (and me!) in the End. And if I'm wrong and nothing exists behind this something, oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

I read your links. I happen to be familiar with Barbara Forrest's work. She wrote a book called the Wedge of Creationism or something like that, criticizing the ID movement. A lot of non-ID people called 'foul' due to her at times circular, though complex, reasoning, but overall, I found it persuasive. You really should read more books, though. The internet is loaded with spurious shit like this blog.

In any case, especially lest any reader think that the sheer quantity of people posting on this issue in the world know something watertight that hasn't been considered before, I'll just say that the particular issue of metaphysical/philosophical naturalism was in debate in the 1600s and intensified by the French proto-biologists in the 1700s, long before Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Robert Chambers, Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, T.H. Huxley and the gang posited any form of methodological naturalism. So for Forrest to imply that metaphysical naturalism came directly out of methodological naturalism is just plain wrong. In fact, Buffon and his ilk were talking about metaphysical naturalism long before anyone knew how to get any empirical evidence for it.

So it's disingenuous to conclude that metaphysical naturalism is simply the "best evidenced hypothesis." Methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism did not arise at the same point and did not crystalize into epistemically valuable theories completed with hardened "facts" at the same time or in some simple relationship with each other. This stuff is much, much more complex than that and Forrest should know better (but she's a philosopher of science not a historian, so who can blame her?).

Anyway, all this stuff supports my point: that we all gotta believe what we believe and find "evidence" for it where we will. If you or Forrest need someone to conjure up "natural" evidence for you to believe in something extra-natural, physical evidence for something metaphysical, then you're going to be waiting a hell of a long time (no pun intended).

Not to throw scripture out there for you to scoff at but, as Abraham says to the rich man (in Sheol) in the parable of Lazarus, "If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they would not be convinced even if somebody were to rise from the dead."

2/12/2005 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I haven't seen those around for like almost 10 years!


2/13/2005 8:02 PM  

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