Thursday, May 26, 2016

Unjustifiable naturalism

Bradley Bowen is a regular, longtime contributor to the Secular Outpost. I'll interact with a recent remark of his:

I am in favor of using a "naturalistic heuristic" in doing historical investigations. But this approach needs to be rationally justified.


Part of justifying this approach is clarifying the difference between a firm belief in naturalism on the one hand and a more provisional skepticism that is open to the possibility of miracles and supernatural events. 

Although that's a valid distinction, it's necessary to justify provisional skepticism as well.

But more is needed than that, since the same sort of qualification could be made in the opposite direction, and one could argue for a provisional theistic approach or provisional supernaturalism in historical investigations.

A striking concession. 

One argument for a naturalistic heuristic is based on the track record of natural vs. supernatural historical claims/hypotheses.

That's a classic uncomprehending objection which atheists repeatedly recite. The assumption is that in the past, people used to attribute more events to direct divine action, but science has replaced that through the ever-expanding discovery of natural mechanisms. Now, it's doubtless true that in the past, more events were mysterious. But Christian theology has always had a category for ordinary providence. The principle of secondary causes was in place all along, even if the examples were less readily identifiable. 

A second argument is the general need for uniformity and stability of natural laws in order for historical reasoning to be possible and successful (if most events were produced by divine or supernatural intervention, then not only would the future be highly unpredictable, but reasoning about the past would be just as dicey).

i) That argument either proves too much or too little. Humans are agents who regularly interfere with nature, resulting in outcomes that wouldn't happen if nature was allowed to take its own course. So how is that different in principle from divine intervention?

ii) His objection is reminiscent of Einstein's objection to quantum physics. There are, of course, competing interpretations of quantum physics. But you can't rule out uncertainly or indeterminism just because you think that has destabilizing consequences. We must deal with reality as it comes to us.

iii) His second argument suffers from the same oversight as the first argument: failure to appreciate the role of ordinary providence in Christian theology.

iv) As a matter of fact, naturalism is unable to justify the problem of induction. The appeal is circular. You can only justify the uniformity and stability of natural laws if, in fact, the future resembles the past. But the past can hardly count as evidence for the future unless natural laws are uniform and stable. Conversely, evidence that natural laws are uniform and stable depends on whether you can project the past into the future. Not to mention that our knowledge of the past is quite piecemeal. Indeed, we reconstruct the past based on interpolations that take for granted the uniformity of nature! That's how we plug the gaps. So there seems to be no way to justify his extrapolation from inside the circle of empirical observation itself.  

You have indicated a third reason, which is logical consistency with our approach to scientific investigations. If we employ a naturalistic heuristic in scientific investigations, then we ought to do the same in historical investigations UNLESS someone can point to a significant difference between history and science that justifies taking a radically different approach to historical investigations.

i) One elementary difference is that science tends to deal with impersonal causes or instinctive behavior whereas history tends to deal with personal agents. Natural causes are mechanical, unintelligent processes–or instinctive behavior. By contrast, rational agents are far more flexible. 

ii) There's no reason to presume a naturalistic heuristic in scientific investigations. In medical science, for instance, there's what normally occurs. But suppose a patient undergoes a naturally inexplicable healing in answer to prayer? The best explanation in any particular case depends on the specific evidence at hand.

A fourth reason for using a naturalistic heuristic is that we don't observe miracles and supernatural events in this century, so that is a good reason for presuming that miracles and supernatural events either did not occur in past centuries or were rather rare in past centuries. If we did observe miracles or supernatural events in this century, then that would provide grounds for making the opposite presumption that miracles or supernatural events have occurred in past centuries.

It's funny how he takes that for granted, as if it's indisputable. Has he even bothered to study the literature on modern miracles? 


  1. Steve, I think his first argument can be given more criticism. Here's the argument again: "One argument for a naturalistic heuristic is based on the track record of natural vs. supernatural historical claims/hypotheses." The argument has to go something like this, since we are talking about track records: (1) Lots of natural historical claims/hypotheses have been confirmed. (2) No supernaturalistic historical claims/hypotheses have been confirmed. (3) So we should favor a naturalistic heuristic.

    (1) seems true, when naturalistic means only that there need not be a reference to a supernatural entity as part of the explanation. What about (2)? Is it that no such claims/hypotheses have been confirmed because they do not fit a naturalistic norm on historical explanations adopted by historians? That would be a question begging premise. Is it that no such claims/hypotheses have been confirmed by any reasonable person who had a skeptical view but open to their possibility? Perhaps, if one is willing to say that no one could reasonably believe any such explanations. But then I thought we were trying to justify a naturalistic heuristic, which would be the basis for saying no one *could* reasonably believe such a thing. Perhaps the claim should be weaker: no one has reasonably believed any such explanations? And that line, I think, is simply ignorant of what literature is out there. Having (2) as a justification for a naturalistic heuristic doesn't look very promising to me.

    There's a more general problem with giving this sort of argument. If we are supposed to be counting up how many good and bad naturalistic and supernaturalistic historical hypotheses there are, and we understand naturalistic hypotheses to be those only that need not mention any supernatural being, then how good are we at giving accurate historical hypotheses? Why aren't my keys on the kitchen counter? Because I left my keys on the table yesterday. (I didn't.) There's an uncountable amount of such incorrect naturalistic hypotheses. How many more good ones than bad ones? What's the ratio? Hard to say. Probably impossible to say, but I'll accept that there's at least more good than bad. But that's not very compelling when we are talking about how great certain track records are. It would only make a difference that we have more good than bad when we bring in (2). And that premise is no good.