In a recent article in The Stone, Timothy Williamson has some strong opinions on the intellectual strength of naturalism as a comprehensive worldview. What does Willamson mean by naturalism? He says ” [Naturalists] believe something like this: there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.” This is supposed to be a bad thing. Why? Because, for starters, the current science of physics might be superseded by a different physics in the future. Hence, “Naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers.” And how does Williamson characterize the scientific method? “[Science] involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment. This is called the hypothetico-deductive method.”
What’s the problem? For one, Williamson doesn’t think this method can handle the science of mathematics. Moreover, “Which other disciplines count as science? Logic? Linguistics? History? Literary theory? How should we decide? The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite.” Apparently, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as “inconsistent with naturalism” is little better than dismissing it as “inconsistent with Christianity.” And coming to the crux of his attack on the intellectual respectability of naturalism, Williamson says “Where experimentation is the likeliest way to answer a question correctly, the scientific spirit calls for the experiments to be done; where other methods — mathematical proof, archival research, philosophical reasoning — are more relevant it calls for them instead…Naturalism tries to condense the scientific spirit into a philosophical theory. But no theory can replace that spirit, for any theory can be applied in an unscientific spirit, as a polemical device to reinforce prejudice. Naturalism as dogma is one more enemy of the scientific spirit.”
I find this whole article to be fantastically misguided in its attempts to attack naturalists as “dogmatic” or antiscientific in “spirit”. For one, I think Williamson has not adequately captured the intellectual core of naturalism as a worldview. In my opinion, the essence of naturalism is not a defense of the “hypothetico-deductive method” as the only worthwhile method of inquiry. Rather, the essence of naturalism is the claim that there is no supernatural realm and no supernatural entities inhabiting that realm. The essence of naturalism is thus negative, in the sense that it denies that there is something beyond the natural world (whatever that might turn out to be). But contra Williamson’s caricature, naturalism, in my view, does not impose strict edicts on the best method for investigating the natural world. Naturalism is merely the view that the natural world is all there is, with nothing extra left over.
Of course, one can step into dogmatic waters in trying to explicate what exists in the natural world. But I don’t think naturalism is required to say what the ultimate constituents of the natural world is, be that atoms or some kind of quantum foam. Is there only one universal super object and all other objects are merely modes of that super object? Or are there a lot of fundamental objects? I take it that we can’t decide on these issues from the armchair. But this is not a failure of naturalism for naturalism is essentially a reactive enterprise. Our species’ religious history has caused us to inherit theological baggage such that many people would say that there exists both a natural world and a supernatural world. Naturalism is simply the thesis that the supernatural world is a figment of our overactive imaginations. In order to make this claim, the naturalist need not say anything substantial about the best method to inquire about the natural world. It is only a thesis about the fictive status of historically proposed supernatural realms like heaven and hell as well as the supernatural entities which inhabit these realms like angels, demons, and gods.
Accordingly, we can see that Williamson has it exactly backwards in regards to the supposed “dogmatism” of naturalism and the scientific spirit. For who is more dogmatic? The naturalistic who “dogmatically” proclaims the supernatural realm is an illusion based on the latest and greatest brain science, or the supernaturalist who proclaims he “just knows” the supernatural realm exists because he has faith in it? For this is the great advantage of naturalism: what it “dogmatically” proclaims to exist (the non-supernatural reality) is, in principle, discoverable or encounterable by means of our fleshy sensory apparatuses coupled with whatever tools we can harness, like the telescope or atom-smasher. In contrast, what supernaturalism dogmatically proclaims to exist is not, in principle, encounterable by such flesh for the supernatural is defined as being outside of time and space. Of course, supernaturalists often claim that supernatural entities do in fact interact with our world, but such claims cannot be brought into the respectable scientific arena of prediction and manipulation, so the claims are often left unprincipled and taken on faith. And of course, supernaturalists often report experiences of the supernatural. But in regards to explaining such experiences, it strikes me as obvious that brain science and evolutionary theory (including theories of cultural evolution) does a better job of accounting for why people believe their experiences of the supernatural are veridical. A better explanation than “the experiences are accurate” is that the brain is capable of causing hallucinations that are triggered by specific cultural contexts such as being raised in a religious environment where the interpretational framework of supernaturalism exists. It remains to be seen if a far-future atheistic society would interpret hallucinations in the same way as most people do now.
In conclusion, I have attempted to argue that Williamson is wrong to claim naturalism’s most basic claim is about the hypothetico-deductive method being the only method of inquiry. Instead, naturalism’s most basic claim is that the supernatural realm implicitly and explicitly assumed to exist by religious people throughout history is in fact, fictive. All that exists is the natural world. But naturalism as a basic thesis makes no claims about about (1) what the natural world is most fundamentally or (2) what the best method(s) for inquiring about that world are. Both of these questions need not be completely resolved in order for us to see that supernaturalism (the only true opponent of naturalism) is intellectually bankrupt.