Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Incoherence of Naturalism

In philosophical circles “naturalism” is a shibboleth. Just about all academic philosophers and most self-described intellectuals in the West are quick to reassure each other that however strange their pet philosophical beliefs might sound to the common folk, the thinkers would never even consider abandoning the ship of naturalism. “Naturalist” is an honourific term so that if you admit to being a supernaturalist, you’re revealing that you haven’t thought things through, that at best you’ve studied theology rather than philosophy. Modern philosophy has helped drive the Age of Reason, but the engine has been science, and by definition science’s subject matter is nature. Whatever scientists discover that they can explain becomes part of the natural world. Both American and French-dominated philosophies take scientific knowledge for granted, although the latter is more pessimistic about science’s social impact.

However, if naturalism is supposed to be the philosophical upshot of the scientific world picture, the standard presentation of this philosophy turns out to be a nonstarter. There’s a difference between exoteric and esoteric naturalism, and as in the case of any comparable distinction such as that between vulgar (literalistic) and enlightened (mystical or cosmicist) theism, the exoteric variety is half-baked and rife with delusions. Instead of invoking the pertinent technicalities such as “supervenience,” “physicalism,” or “nomic relation,” which function as mantras and memetic incantations that mesmerize and distract professional philosophers, we should consider a more grounded, intuitive interpretation of what’s at issue. Naturalism is set against the idea that there’s anything supernatural or unnatural. In particular, naturalism is taken to be well-established on at least three grounds. Metaphysically, science is supposed to have established that everything is part of the material world. Epistemically or methodologically, science is supposed to engage in unifying causal explanations, leaving no room for anything outside science’s purview. And institutionally or culturally, science impresses with its practitioners’ intellectual virtues which far outshine the faith-based drivel of religion, the latter being science’s arch rival. On each of these grounds, however, naturalism is incoherent. Indeed, the one ground leads to the other as a defense, so that with the collapse of cultural naturalism, that is, of rationalism or skepticism, we must look elsewhere if we wish to supply content to this shibboleth.

Miracles in the Mechanical Cosmos

The metaphysical point about nature is that nature is composed of stuff that scientists can understand. If we think in analytical terms, cognitively dividing and conquering systems, as it were, breaking them down into their constituent parts to see how the mechanisms interlock, the world is supposed to cooperate with this approach. Indeed, the Scientific Revolution was progressive in so far as these cognitive methods were applied in spite of defeatist religious traditions, and the universe turned out to be largely material and mechanical. The heavens were demystified and depersonalized, the divinities having been reduced to stars and planets. Organic design turned out not to be divinely intended, but the product of blind processes such as natural selection. And so naturalism entails, in short, that there are no miracles.

But having discovered discontinuities in the world, scientists themselves showed the limits of their analytical methods. Gödel’s Theorem showed that mathematical descriptions are necessarily incomplete, while Bell’s Theorem confirmed the direst suspicions of quantum physicists, that at the quantum level the world isn’t mechanical at all. At that level, one thing doesn’t impact another by locally pushing or pulling it, as it were. There is what Einstein mockingly called “spooky action at a distance,” when particles become entangled and affect each other irrespective of the distance between them. Moreover, singularities were discovered in black holes and at the universe’s point of origin, in which the natural laws break down. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Is Nature Beautiful or Monstrous?

Art by John Kenn
Who but a mad person would attempt to characterize the universe in its entirety? The ancient Greek conceit of all things forming a cosmos, a unified, ordered whole, seems quaint, notwithstanding the cosmologist’s persistent, utopian dream of a single Theory of Everything. Early maps of the lands and seas filled in unknown areas with pictures of monsters and captions like “Here be dragons,” and there are still voids in our knowledge of what’s out there. In addition to the singularities and thus baffling unknowns in black holes and in the Big Bang, there’s an alien weirdness to quantum, merely statistical or nonmechanical events; moreover, there’s dark matter as well as dark energy which comprise most of the universe and yet which are still enigmatic. 

Still, despite those areas of ignorance, there’s an intuitive way of summarizing not just the empirical knowledge we nevertheless have, but the limits on such knowledge to which we cynical hypermodernists are especially sensitive. This is to say that the universe, that is, all of natural reality, is monstrous. But what does it mean to blaspheme in this fashion, to tar the beautiful heavens with such an insult? Is this bit of cosmicism just a nihilistic projection of a wounded soul? No, nature is a monstrosity in every sense of the word, and seeing how this is so is vital to understanding our existential situation as metaphysically homeless individuals whose consciousness, reason, and freedom alienate us from the world. 

The Universe’s Immensity

One sense of “monstrous” is obviously fitting, this being the sense in which a monstrosity is extraordinarily great in physical size, meaning huge or immense. We take such knowledge for granted, but the ancients thought the universe is considerably smaller and indeed centered on our planet. The Age of Reason decentered us as a result of increased understanding of how life arises accidentally, without any personal creator’s plan or good intentions. This sense of never having been as important as the ancients intuited feeds into the experience of nature as horrific; at least, this experience is thrust upon those whose scientific and philosophical knowledge deprives them of the conventional feel-good delusions. So the universe is indeed monstrous in scope, not a mere terran neighbourhood but an inhuman, stupefyingly vast X in which living things aren’t even afterthoughts exactly but hapless drifters, vomited up by blind and dumb material exchanges and interlocking mathematical codes.

Even this most obvious kind of natural monstrosity is deleterious to our preferred way of life. We’re biologically driven to want to feel at home rather than lost, because we’re social mammals hormonally compelled, for the most part, to form families and thus preoccupied with the task of protecting our loved ones by laying claim to a plot of land and calling it home. Homelessness is thus a mark of evolutionary failure, since it implies either dereliction of duty towards your family members or a lack of such members to keep safe in the first place. A familiar place called home that keeps out the alien noise beyond is required to ensure the healthy upbringing of children and thus the passing on of genes to future generations. In a smaller, geocentric universe, our planet could serve as home for the extended human family because the ancients could trust in the landscape’s good intentions. In the decentered universe in which there are no such cosmic guarantees of our survival let alone our happiness, our planet begins to creek like a haunted house. How safe are we really on this rock which we’ve taken for taken for tens of thousands of years, but which must likewise be fundamentally as bizarre as the rest of the universe that pursues its strange business? With the world’s alien scope comes the high probability that our genetic code’s pointless trek through the ages will eventually cease; just as an earthquake or a tornado can rip apart a house, depriving the parents of the ability to safeguard their descendants, the universe will surge in our cozy corner of it and terminate our evolution. Along with the loss of faith in our home, there’s the growing postmodern distrust in all natural, commonsense intuitions since those too bear the world’s inhuman stamp. In short, our cosmological decentralization disaffected us with the world we’d once cheerfully interpreted as being run for some familiar, social purpose, such as its being a testing ground to prove our worth to the deities.