Armstrong on Naturalism and Empiricism

I was reading the NPDR reviewof a recent book on the philosophy of David Armstrong. I found this review very interesting as I have been very influenced by David Armstrong myself (and have even had the privilege of auditing his course on truthmakers at the Graduate Center) though I can’t say I agree with all of his views. At anyrate, in light of all of the zombie stuff lately this got me to thinking.

Naturalismis a metaphysical thesis that claims that everything that exists does so entirely in one single space-time system. Both idealists and materialists/physicalists can be naturalists in this sense.  This is to be distinguished from empiricism which is the epistemological thesis that claims that the only way to acquire knowledge is the empirical a posterori way used by science. Armstrong’s main argument for naturalism relies on what he calls the  Eleatic principle. This principle says that we ought NOT to posit the existence of entities that have no causal powers. So, if empiricism is correct then the Eleatic principle offers strong support for naturalism and from naturalism to materialism/physicalism.

Why should we adopt empiricism? The best argument I have seen is Devitt’s abduction. He argues that when we have two competing theoretical explanations we should opt for the one that is better understood. I think there are other, related reasons for adopting empiricism. In the first case we have never had to appeal to non-natural entities in any succesful explanation. Each time we have appealed to some non-natural entity we have eventually discovered a plausible candidate for a natural explanation. I have also argued that if anything like evolution turns out to be true then we cannot appeal to intuition as evidence for rationalism (and against empiricism). This is because, given that the our experience of the world has been regular and uniform up until now, we would expect that there would be certain truths which seem to be self-evident but are really just the product of a long process of natural selection in response to a stable environment. If this were the case we would have the very same intuitions that the rationalist appeals to and so the rationalist must have another argument. But none that I know of have been given.

The Eleatic principle also is wielded as an argument from naturalism to materialism. If a non-material entity has no causal powers then according to empiricism we cannot know about it and so would never have any reason to posit its existence. If it does have causal efficacy then it is of a type that is completely mysterious and unlike anything that we have hitherto encountered. So materialism is itself an empirical hypothesis.

 So, if one were to ask ‘but why is it matter rather than something else?’ The answer would be ‘because we discovered that waht it is’. If one wanted more than this, and insisted on asking ‘but what is the reason that it was that way to be discovered?’ The answer would be that it happens to be the case that the actual world is one where there is causation and you need material for that.

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12 thoughts on “Armstrong on Naturalism and Empiricism

  1. This is because, given that the our experience of the world has been regular and uniform up until now, we would expect that there would be certain truths which seem to be self-evident but are really just the product of a long process of natural selection in response to a stable environment.

    Why would we expect that? It doesn’t seem obvious to me.

  2. ***CORRECTION:***

    “[The Eleatic Principle] says that we ought NOT posit the existence of entities that have no causal powers.”

    ***/CORRECTION:***

  3. Naturalismis a metaphysical thesis that claims that everything that exists does so in one single space-time system. Both idealists and materialists/physicalists can be naturalists in this sense.

    That’s a strange way to state the thesis. Lots of supernaturalists qualify as naturalists under that thesis.

  4. Like who, Mike!?

    The only ones that I can remotely think of are perhaps Berkeley who argued that everything was in the mind of God, or perhaps Newton, or Clarke, who believed space-time to be God’s “sensorium.” I’m sure there are many more, but I’m at a loss

  5. First, by way of introduction, I want to say that I enjoy your blog very much. It’s very stimulating for my philosophical development, which is good because I’ll commence grad. study in philosophy this fall. I’ve also enjoyed the zombie scuffle.

    Having said the above, there’s a lot for me to disagree with here. For starters, I’ve got to agree with Mike that the thesis is stated oddly. I’m a theist, and I could perhaps qualify as a naturalist. It depends on how you define “in” (e.g. if we were Platonists who define universals as “in” a thing, but don’t literally mean “in”) and how we define “space-time system”. Plenty of theists believe God to be inside time, in fact the position is quite popular among Christian philosophers (e.g. Wolterstorff and Zimmerman, I believe).

    “He argues that when we have two competing theoretical explanations we should opt for the one that is better understood.”

    Prima Facie, I’m not sure I agree. That would have to be fleshed out more, but certainly some of the most high-level theoretical physics is not well understood by anyone and yet taken to be better than systems and models which more people can make sense of. We get some pretty “mysterious” and hard-to-understand views in theoretical physics (e.g. that my desk is made of mostly empty space), yet I don’t think that means the most recent views of theoretical physics shouldn’t be accepted (if there is an “accepted” view).

    “In the first case we have never had to appeal to non-natural entities in any succesful explanation. Each time we have appealed to some non-natural entity we have eventually discovered a plausible candidate for a natural explanation.”

    I agree and I don’t. There are pesky phenomena–such as mind, math, universals, normativity–in which we don’t “have” to appeal to non-natural entities, but I wouldn’t exactly call such explanations successful. If completely natural explanations were so successful then debates such as the one you had with RC wouldn’t be raging on even today. And so sure, there are always “plausible candidates for a natural explanation”, but that’s not to say that these candidates are better. It seems to me that your reasoning for being empiricist, based on the above quote, is: Be one because you can be one.

    To drive home my point, later on you say, “If it [non-material entities] does have causal efficacy then it is of a type that is completely mysterious and unlike anything that we have hitherto encountered.” In context, this is the 2nd of 2 options when considering non-material entities, and this 2nd option is meant to seem negative. However, I, as a theist, agree with this point, and then say that God, angels, etc. are quite mysterious and unlike anything *natural* that we have hitherto encountered. My point is that “better” or “successful” arguments are sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

    I’m also not sure evolution precludes intuition as evidence for rationalism. I suppose I just don’t think your reasoning pans out in real life. I don’t see how I can’t both agree with this: “we would expect that there would be certain truths which seem to be self-evident but are really just the product of a long process of natural selection in response to a stable environment”, and not believe in rationalism. Can’t I tell an equally nice just-so story like this: I agree with RB’s quote, but at a certain stage of complexity it’s been found that animals begin to intuit other actually self-evident beliefs, which then survive natural selection in virtue of their fitness. The end. I’m sure you disagree, however.

    Finally, we’re probably both aware of David Lewis’ feelings on the matter, which he speaks on in Plurality of Worlds. Lewis thinks that if the causal theory of knowledge isn’t working out for us in regard to math, then all the worse for the causal theory of knowledge. Theories of knowledge have been widely debated for eons, while practicing mathematicians have presupposed mathematical realism for eons. Better, he says, to accept the certainty of math than to change our theory of math for a widely debated theory of epistemology. You are, of course, free to disagree. Lewis isn’t the end all of every debate. I just thought I’d bring him up for good measure. Never hurts.

  6. Hey Marc, thanks for catching that typo!

    Hi Mike, thanks for commenting,

    Well, you must be using ‘supernatuarlilsts’ in some other way, so I am not sure what the complaint is actually supposed to be. According to Armstrong, and it seems reasonable to me, a natuarlist is someone who thinks that everything that exists does so in space and time. So, if there is someone who thinks that God exists in space and time (as JS) points out, then that person is a naturalist. Non-natural phenomena on this way of defining naturalism are those things which are posited to exist outside of space and time (like Cartesian minds, Plantonic forms, Kantian noumena, etc,). So, to take a current example, a moral Realist like Shafer-Landou (who thinks that moral properties are ‘non-natural’ properties really just means that they are non-physical or non-material. They are more like the functional properties that are posited in the philosophy of mind. But he is still a naturalist in the above sense. Now this kind of view is not a materialist one, but he clearly doesn’t posit any unnatural properties in some sense.

    Hi JS, nice to meet you, and thanks fro the comment!

    I think the above comments to Mike address your point of agreement with him.

    In response to you point about understanding. I guess I was a bit hasty and expected that people would read the linked post in conjunction with the claim, but in retrospect why would anyone do that :) Anyway, what I meant by ‘beter understood’ doesn’t quite work that way. So, what I meant was that when you have two theories each tryiong to explain the same thing we should opt for the theory that is better understood (theoretically). What this means is that it is the theory that has its terms defined in an appropriate way, and which relies on an appropriate method, etc. I do not mean that it is understoodd by each and every individual person, but more generally that it is well understood by the scientific/interested parties. So your example of the table is a perfectly good one. We should believe that because the theory that says that is a fairly well worked out theory. True, there are fringes where we are iuncertain and where there is a lot of debate; thgere always is at the cutting egde. But nevertheless the Standard Model of physics is well understood and extremely useful. It is thus to be preferred to a theory that appeals to more obsure notions.

    So, the real point here is that we have the empirical way of knowing and we have the rationalist way of knowing. The empirical way is fairly well worked out (not perfect but we see how the theory would be in broad strokes (and some detail)). But no satisfactory account of a priori knowledge has ever been offered. The best that we have is a weak analogy with the empirical way (we ‘see’ that it is true via reason). So, you are right that there are relcalcitrant and obstinate people like RC who rely on their intuitions over science. But that isn’t an argument against what I was saying. The point that Devitt makes, and that I agree with, is that if it is possible to give a materialist/physicalist account of numbers, the mind, etc, then that is to be preferred over a non-physicalists account simply because the empirical way of knowing is better worked out and obviously correct for most every case. Why should we think that a less well understood view that has never been succesful is to be preferred over a well understood very succsesful theory?

    I agree that it never hurts to bring up Lewis!! But, I disagree that the causal theory can’t deliver a suitible account of math truths. And whether or not math is certain is of course itself up for debate…which brings me to your (and Brandon’s) question about the evolutionary argument…I have decided to answer that in a seperate post as this is already getting long.

  7. Like who, Mike!?

    The only ones that I can remotely think of are perhaps Berkeley who argued that everything was in the mind of God, or perhaps Newton, or Clarke, who believed space-time to be God’s “sensorium.” I’m sure there are many more, but I’m at a loss

    I can’t follow that. The analysis of naturalism has everything existing in space/time. You proposed Berkeley as one who holds that space/time is in the mind of God. I’m not sure how that is relevant to the proposed analysis of naturalism, but maybe I’m missing something.

    What I had in mind is the very common theistic view that God is omnipresent. That is a pretty familiar view, and it would include God in space-time. It is also a very common view among theists that God sustains (whatever that comes to) everything in existence, and so clearly is an immanent being. But I would not call those who hold this either of these beliefs naturalists. Any clearer?

  8. Mike, if those people held that God was only omnipresent in space-time and had no parts/attributs that existed outside of space-time then they would be a naturalist in this sense. But the claim is that that is all there is to reality. So too with the sustaining view. But if, as I suspect, these theories also hold that there are non-immanent/non-locatable in space-time then they would not count as naturalist.

    Do you find it odd to call someone who thinks that God is omnipresent (only) in space-time a naturalist?

  9. One difficulty with blog discussion, you’ll agree, is keeping everyone on the same page. It’s a bit boring, I know. Anyway, the claim I was referring to was the one you originally made here,

    Naturalism is a metaphysical thesis that claims that everything that exists does so in one single space-time system.

    That is importantly, and I think obviously, different from this latest view,

    [everything that exists is] in space-time and had no parts/attributs that existed outside of space-time then they would be a naturalist in this sense.

    God exists in one single space-time, as the conditions state in the original post. He also exists outside of space-time, as is consistent with the original conditions. What you now offer is a modification of the original conditions, and I’m all for it. My cautionary comments (see above) were just that the original conditions will include theists as naturalists. Your latest set of conditions likely exclude theists as naturalists, and that seems right to me.

  10. Ah, thanks for that Mike. I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t included an ‘entirely’ in the original post, but that’s what I meant. I’ll fix that.

    That’s also one of the difficulties with blog discussion: bloggers who don’t proof read enough!

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