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Smith, R. Scott
Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality. Testing Religious Thruth-claims
Farnham u. a.: Ashgate 2012. XI, 241 S. = Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies. Lw. £ 65,00. ISBN 978-1-4094-3486-3.
Michael Ch. Rodgers
According to the opening pages of Scott R. Smith’s Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality, »naturalism« (in some form or another) is the dominant philosophical position of our time. Those seeking »scholarly respectability must operate under the assumptions of naturalism, whether in its more philosophical or methodological forms, or both« (1). This has the unfortunate result of relegating such subjects as religion and ethics to the arena of »mere opinion«, not capable of reaching the lofty heights of »knowledge«. S. quickly notes that this position is regularly challenged by »postmodernism« (broadly conceived). Yet S. does not adopt a version of postmodernism in his critique of naturalism. He wants to insist, appar-ently unlike the »postmodernists« but with the naturalists, that »we do know reality, in science … as well as in our daily lives« (5).
The emphasized »do know« plays an important role for S., for in the following chapters he attempts to show why and how natur-alism is a failure (and must always be so) in guaranteeing or explaining our knowledge of the world. But if naturalism fails, and is at the same time the main game in town, then S. is ready to replace the naturalistic ontology (and even methodology!) with another: namely, a robust substance dualism. My exclamation is also telling, for S. is not content merely to disrupt the dominance of naturalist ontology. For S., naturalist methodology is also epistemologically bankrupt and cannot adequately account for the admitted success of modern science.
So just what is the problem with naturalism, and why does S. think it is beyond repair? In the first chapter, S. sets out the issue with respect to the direct realism of D. M. Armstrong. Noting that certainly not all naturalists or even all direct realists will share Armstrong’s version of direct realism, S. takes Armstrong’s account to be indicative of the problems faced by naturalism more generally. Following Armstrong, S. defines direct realism as follows: »the view that the immediate objects of awareness in perception are physical entities that exist independently of our sense experiences of them« (10). In Armstrong’s version of direct realism, we avoid the problems of representationalism and phenomenalism by insisting »that having immediate, veridical perception is just the same as the event of acquiring immediate knowledge« (12). Armstrong is try-ing to keep from generating an infinite regress of justifications, and as S. quotes Armstrong, »proof must begin somewhere« (13). Fair enough perhaps, but here we arrive at S.’s objections. The problem involves »intentionality«: beliefs are about something, a point Armstrong readily accepts. But if one has a belief about an object – say the straitness or bentness of a stick in water – then there must be some way to test the veracity of this belief. If our sensory generated beliefs were always correct, we would not have this worry. Given that they are not, however, and that our beliefs always stand in the possibility of correction, we must have some method for adjudi-cating between contradictory beliefs. If we had direct, immediate access to the object which started the process, things would be clear. Yet given the parameters of naturalism, we do not. Our be-liefs are themselves physical states, and any correcting belief is itself another physical state. We are left with physical states about physical states about physical states about.
Here S. moves to a second problem he believes is generated by naturalistic commitments. That is, Armstrong would likely respond to the preceding argument by pointing out that our cogni-tive faculties are, it turns out, generally reliable. Because of their general reliability, we can rest confidently that we have knowledge, not entering in long and devolving causal chains of representa-tions. Thus in »reliabalism« we trust our sense experience until we are presented with good reasons to not do so. S. is certainly sympathetic to this position, but introduces an argument that resurfaces throughout the following chapters. Namely, this argument depends on an understanding of an established concept of »what it means to function reliably« (18). How is it, S. asks, that we come to have such a concept (or any concept) as reliability? Apparently we come to have concepts by comparing experiences one with another. But are we comparing experiences of the objects themselves or of something else? The problem with reliabalism, S. argues, is that it is incapable of answering this question (as it would need to invoke itself to justify itself) and thus leaves us once again unable to guarantee that our beliefs are in fact about reality or with any way of adjudicating between true and false beliefs.
In the following seven chapters, S. looks at other naturalists and their various attempts to defend naturalism against the kinds of arguments he raises. He takes up, for instance, the positions of Fred Dretske, Michael Tye, William Lycan, John Searle, David Papineau, Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland (in a guest chapter by Errin D. Clark), and briefly discusses other possibilities for na-turalism including John Pollock’s internalism, Jaegwon Kim’s functionalism, and externalism generally. Although S.’s arguments are specific with respect to each of these, the arguments mirror his complaints from the Armstrong chapter. Namely, it appears that there is simply no way, given the tenants of naturalism, to »know whether a given perceptual belief was caused by a real object or not« (151). In an attempt to make his case as strong as possible, S. offers future paths for naturalism that might answer his objections. Not surprisingly, however, he concludes that even these possibilities will not do. Want knowledge? Look elsewhere than naturalism tells us S., and he has a particular direction in mind.
Given the extensive treatment of the various naturalist posi-tions, the penultimate chapter, »A Positive Case for Our Knowledge of Reality«, is relatively short. Here S. combines a Husserlian understanding of intentionality with S.’s argument that internal review of our experiences demands a stability in concepts that naturalism alone cannot account for. He concludes: »philosophical, or meta-physical, naturalism cannot be true. Instead, a radically different ontology must be true, namely, a robust form of dualism (indeed, substance dualism), and not merely property dualism with mental states with intrinsic intentionality« (194). In the final chapter S. makes clear his objection to methodological naturalism as well. Namely, methodological naturalism must be clear about its own commitments, and S. argues that whether the methodological naturalist likes it or not, her own methods depend on ontological dualism. And, with ontological (substance) dualism restored, S. finishes with surprisingly brief reflections on the consequences for religious and moral knowledge (given the subtitle of the book) .
While S.’s analysis of the problems facing naturalism are thorough and compelling, his positive offerings are, at least to this reader, somewhat less so. The main problem arises already in the introduction, to which I alluded in my first paragraph. Namely, the argument for ontological dualism (as a replacement for na-turalism) hinges on the italicized »do know«. S. takes it for granted that any version of postmodernism must fail since, allegedly, postmodernists deny this. But surely the issue at stake is not whether or not we »do know« things but what we mean by »knowledge«. Emphasizing the »do« here does not qualify as a full blown response to postmodernism in any of but its most trivial forms. Finally, this issue over the meaning of »knowledge« leads to a question lingering behind the text. Namely, there seem to be at least two questions presented in the text, but which S. roles into one. These are: 1. Can we have knowledge of reality (in the sense of knowledge of real, particular objects in the world)?, and 2. Can we have knowledge that we have knowledge of reality? I suspect that S. would see these two questions as one and the same, or at the least that we are unable to answer question 1. without dealing with question 2. But if the second question turns out to be a skeptical chimera, what does this say about the first? – In any case, S.’s text is a provocative response to a prevailing contemporary philosophical position. Those interested in the merits and faults of philosophical naturalism will find much with which to engage.