AGAINST METAPHYSICAL NATURALISM

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On some dogmatic elements in the "naturalist" turn
A)Introduction: Naturalism vs Continental Philosophy? There is a persistent and pernicious cliché repeated ad nauseam by those who would denigrate continental philosophy as being unscientific and even irrational. According to this stereotype continental philosophy is bogged down in commentary on texts, does not engage with the real world, and shows signs of immobilism rather than progress, whereas natural science (and scienceinfluenced philosophy, it is insinuated) explains the world. This vsion is based on a rather naïve and thoroughly refuted idea of science as giving pure objective explanations of the natural world uncontaminated by interpretative elements. The foundation for this deprecatory view of continental philosophy dissolves when we realise that there is a whole hermeneutic dimension to science, emphasised by such creators as Bohr and Einstein, that requires a familiarity with texts and the sequence of past developments and excluded possibilities to give content to current theories and to allow us the possibility of going beyond them. Thus it would be wrong to cast the difference between analytic and continental philosophy as grounded in taking seriously both the method of science and its purported "naturalistic" worldview in the one case and of the ignorance or neglect of such naturalism in the other. The problem is not the rejection (or not) of supernatural causation, but the use of such a rejection as a metaphysical principle that unifies all science (in fact, there is no unified worldview of “science”) and that is supposed to describe the historical practice of science (when we know that many scientists that made important contributions to its development had theological or hermetic worldviews) and so guide both future scientific practice and philosophy too. The chimera of “naturalism-the-worldviewof-science” combines all these errors into a still popular but erroneous vision of science and legitimates the totalitarian impulse that animates contemporary scientism. Even a cursory familiarity with the work of Bruno Latour should be enough to dissolve this false image of science and the bogus opposition with continental philosphy. Latour has recently presented himself as the inheritor of Deleuze and Derrida, and so I would say by implication of Foucault and of Bourdieu ie of that whole generation of philosophers convergent on the incommensurability of the different régimes of énunciation (a Lyotardian theme as well) or of the different modes of existence. I think that we must beware of word magic, of being dramatically misled by focusing on words to the detriment of the concepts that should be our real focus in philosophical discussion. My thesis for a while now has been that philosophical movements such as the "nouveau philosophes" (remember them?) and more recently OOO are concept-blind and in place of concepts and arguments fetishise some words and ritual phrases, preferring to fight other words rather than fighting concepts. In the case of phenomenology for example, just because it makes use of what it calls bracketing the “natural” attitude does not mean it is anti-naturalist, au contraire! However it does mean that we are not naive objectivists and that we want in fact to subject the environing mixture of commonsensism and scientism to critical scrutiny. Once again we have a furtive shifting between an extended concept of naturalism as the suspending of transcendence: naturalism as immanence (the thesis that “there is nothing outside the world”), and a more restricted notion of naturalism as the extrapolated unifying framework of the sciences. On the extended sense of naturalism, nothing can be ruled out a priori except transcendence and transcendent causation. In this sense a naturalist could accept teleological causes, whether we need to resort to them or not as explanatory hypotheses would be a matter of research, not arbitrary a priori decree. Similarly, Husserl is a philosopher of immanence and the bracketing of the natural attitude brackets out concepts and assumptions that are transcendent to this field, thus widening the domain of investigation and experimentation.

There is a tendency in recent productions of OOO to downplay or even give up their once flagship term “correlationism”. This is a wise choice as it designates a bogus concept of minimum intension but maximum, and arbitrary, extension. It also sounds too continental. So now it has trouble finding a new negatively valued critical term. Sometimes it has toyed with the term “anthropocentric” but that is of dubious use in todays postmodern world of technological hybrids and transhumanist aspirations, and has the disadvantage of not sounding very philosophical. Increasingly we see the deployment of the label“anti-naturalist” to permit blanket criticism of all that does not accord with OOO's strategical aims in the world of theory, as if this term can inherit the aura and extension of the first term (correlationism), and the intuitive facility of the second (anthropocentrism). But it will have problems demonstrating how, for example, “social constructivism” (I suppose one can think of the strong programme of the sociology of knowledge here) is "anti-naturalist" when its whole point is naturalist, giving a naturalistic account of science by applying its own methods to the study of the actual practice and material inscription of scientific endeavours. I think this whole philosophical promotion of naturalism falls foul of the Laruellian critique that it posits naturalism twice: an extended but weak sense as a synonym of immanence, and then some hodgepodge that it can never decide on once and for all, containing whatever ad hoc specific hypotheses it needs at the moment of proclamation to give specific content to its metaphyical espousal of naturalism. The strong sense of naturalism, which is in fact always changinng and ever oscillating between or combining incoherently the divergent positions of mechanism, materialism and physicalism, is somehow meant to be reinforced by the weaker more philosophical sense of naturalism, which is itself reinforced by the specific “scientific” content. Having two forms of immanence it can exclude a maximum of potential rivals. With weak philosophical immanence it pretends it can exclude teleology in the sciences (but it can’t!) and with strong scientific immanence it purports to exclude Husserl and Foucault and whoeve may be the object of its ire at any given moment. But research (and here I include both philosophy and science) is not so much about demarcation and exclusion as critical investigation and experimentation. B) Bruno Latour against synchronic materialism All this is far from Bruno Latour's vision of science as precisely not unified nor unifiable under a general principle, not even that of materialism. Latour in his book ENQUÊTE SUR LES MODES D’EXISTENCE declares“There is no matter”, I think it could equally be regarded as a Derridean slogan. In the interview POLITICS AND FRIENDSHIP Derrida talks about his misgivings over Althusserianism and over the naive and uncritical use of notions such as object and objectivity in relation to science and about how Husserl helped him to see more complexity there. I hasten to add that I don’t see any incompatibility between Latour or Derrida and naturalism, as long as one is willing to examine the ambiguities in such concepts as nature and science. This seems to be the import of Latour's distinction between "Nature one" as the object of premature unification and simplification, and "Nature two", the multiple, animated, and disputed object of ongoing research. In his new book ENQUÊTE SUR LES MODES D’EXISTENCE, Bruno Latour talks about the “institution” of matter, a horrible simplification of the diverse materials put into play in our practices. This leads him to say: “There is no matter at all”. That is to say that materialism is a metaphysical principle, a lowest common denominator, to unify and homogenise the heterogeneous materials deployed by different networks of knowledge and existence. There is no matter in this metaphysical sense because there is no unity of science, and I would emphasise no unity of common sense either. Latour summons us to just start measuring things around us and try to sketch out and colour a drawing of them. He claims that we will soon recognise that we do not live in a unified homogeneous Euclidean space filled with lumps of matter. Any materialism or naturalism would have to be totally empty of content amounting to just a meaningless ritual formula, or it would have to be judged on its consequences for our knowledge both present and future. As to the historical question of the so-called idealism of continental philosophy, I think that scientistic commentators give a very misleading picture. Althusser, Rancière, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault (despite the silly equivocations of OOO that the notion of “power” is somehow

“anthropocentric”), Michel Serres, Bernard Stiegler are all materialists – though in order to avoid the aporia indicated above I have argued that their ontology is diachronic. OOO however as I have argued in my text IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID? is proposing yet another synchronic ontology and is apparently incapable of doing justice to such diachronic materialism. C) The Case of Levi Bryant: 1)Metaphysical Naturalism is Reductionism An interesting example of the pseudo-philosophical deployment of the notion of naturalism can be seen in the declarations of the OOO philosopher Levi Bryant. Levi Bryant has on several occasions condemned the whole of Continental Philosophy “with few exceptions” for its anti-naturalist bent, criticising it for not “choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being”. Astonishingly, he makes clear that one of the exceptions is Jacques Lacan. Discussing how a naturalistic theory of memes can account for motivations beyond that of mere biological survival and reproduction, Bryant affirms: “I think Lacan’s theory of desire nicely outlines these sorts of motivation”. So Foucault is idealist in Bryant’s book, but Lacan is a naturalist! Already Bryant has given up the critique of correlationism, preferring to critique anthropocentrism, which somehow gets to be a synonym for idealist. He then proceeds to give this new bogus concept such an all-encompassing extension that it can include almost all continental philosophy. The corollary is that he can declare anybody he chooses (including Lacan) to be non-anthropocentric and so naturalist. It’s very strange as I was just watching on French TV (Arte) Raphael Enthoven who was speaking with a high school student and quoting Sartre to demonstrate that the basic task of philosophy was to think the world prior to (logically prior to: “en amont de”) man. He (and the young woman he was talking to) seemed utterly unaware that Sartre is totally anthropocentric and idealist, as is virtually all Continental Philosophy. Bryant should come to France and set these people right on their own ideas and intellectual history. 2) Concept-Blindness and Affective Naturalism Bryant’s “naturalism” is an empty abstraction that is conceptually dependent on his affective choices. Freud and Lacan are naturalists whereas Marx and Foucault are not. No analysis is given and confrontation with rival views is steadfastly avoided. Instead we have a Farenheit 451 fantasy of demarcation and exclusion. Naturalism expresses the synthesis of Darwin and Lacan (or of genes and memes, as if that were the same thing), and is thus declared to be “non-reductionist”. In a first post Bryant gives a metaphysically reductionist Darwinian diatribe and in a sequel he just arbitrarily grafts on something else he likes, a Lacanian memetics, and calls this incoherent hodgepodge an “open-ended project”, ie a pious wish for a future theory: “we need to account for how, within a naturalist framework, it is possible for people like Kant to live their lives as bachelors, devoting themselves to their philosophical work”. This naturalism “entails that we transform our understanding of nature” to account for culture, so Lacan is in. The coral reef example is just embarrasing in its incoherence. This is concept-blindness in a big way! 3) Against Levi Bryant’s “naturalist hypothesis” Levi Bryant’s “naturalist hypothesis” is neither naturalist (it includes Lacan but not Marx), nor a hypothesis (it is asserted dogmatically as a condition of dialogue:”The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here – is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today”). Nature is asserted by Bryant to be nothing less than “the ground of being” and all other orientations deserve to be “committed to flames”. I have nothing against naturalism as such. What I do object to is a vast and empty “naturalist hypothesis” on the analogy with Badiou’s “communist hypothesis”, which can assemble and include in its framework whatever one may wish to approve of and with equal plausibility exclude whatever one wishes to reject. The inclusion into the metaphysical naturalist framework comes at

the price of an evacuation of conceptual content and the principle of demarcation becomes one of affective adhesion. Freud abandoned naturalist explanation when he took over the concept of the unconscious.(NB: This is not the case with Nietzsche’s use of the unconscious, which remains naturalist). We witness incoherent amalgams such as “Lacanian memetics”, and a travesty not just of the history of philosophy (remember most recent Continental Philosophy is anti-naturalist for Bryant, except for Lacan), but also of the history of science and mathematics. Cantor is an excellent example. Even if one can give a naturalist account of transfinite arithmetic, and I am certainly in favour of such an account, Cantor’s motivations and inspiring force were theological. And this sort of theological motivation is no isolated case in the history of science. 4) Levi Bryant’s Anxiety of Influence Bryant sets up a double-bind which makes the discussion unwinnable for the non-naturalist who enters into its terms. This is the sort of “heads I win tails you lose” situation that Deleuze analysed as typical of intellectual discussion (in tne first part of DIALOGUES )and that he called the logic of the forced choice. The double-bind is contained in the implication that if you are against antinaturalism you must be in favour of naturalism as he, Levi Bryant, presents it. Now Bryant uses Heidegggerian, and implicitly Tillichian, language to define naturalism: the naturalist is defined as “choosing nature…as the ground of being”. This is theological language indeed, in the adulterated sense in which one uses theological as a shorthand for ontotheological. The only alternative he considers is the “obscurantist gesture” of those who recoil from this “naturalist revolution” (and I think that where he says “revolution” Bryant means conversion). The list of obscurantists he cites (Hegel, Marx, Merleau-Ponty, structuralism and post-structuralism, Foucault, Gadamer are all naturalists (or at least compatible with naturalism)! Even Hegel can be given a naturalistic interpretation. The difference with Bryant’s block naturalism is that they think that nature is itself a concept that needs to be analysed and not just waved around as a flag. Bryant’s coup de force is to trick the anti-anti-naturalists into swallowing as a block his sort of metaphysical naturalism and into seeing rival naturalists as anti-naturalists. This is the anxiety of influence with a vengeance. D) In Sum My problem with Levi Bryant’s version of naturalism can be summarised as follows 1) it is virtually contentless: it requires us, if we want to give him the benefit of the doubt, to do his work for him by spelling out a contentful position that we attribute to him but in fact belongs to our own efforts 2) it is even so spelled out very much a promise rather than a present accomplishment and rests on a horizon of the unity of science (the unity of at least physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy – but he needs psychology and sociology as well – hence the empty call for a Lacanian memetics). This unity does not exist as there exist incommensurable paradigms between each of these disciplines and inside each one: even “physics” is not a unified corpus. 3) this unity even supposing that it is conceivable is typically thought to be achievable by some sort of reductionism (usually physicalist). Bryant has repeatedly denounced reductionism but propounds a reductionist metaphysical research programme. 4) it is just not true that recent post-structuralist philosophy is anti-naturalist. On my reading Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Stiegler, Serres and even Derrida are favourable to naturalism. Merleau-Ponty’s anti-naturalism is in fact an anti-redductive scientism. According to Deleuze, Bergson is a naturalist to be grouped with Lucretius and Nietzsche. The critique of scientism is a critique of reductionism, not a recourse to entities and causes “outside the world”. 5) Bryant’s vision of the history of science is false. Theological motives have propelled researchers and still do. Even today a very secularised and immanentised religiosity concerning seeing the thoughts in the mind of God inspires physicists who are in any ordinary sense atheists (Einstein, Hawking). Bryant’s disinfected (ie: commensurabilised) naturalism has trouble accomodating such

elements, thus his desperate bluff of appealing to a revamped Lacanian unconscious whenever he is in a tight spot (ie in danger of falling into physicalistic reductionism). E) Against narssistic naturalism For me the most convincing argument against proclamations on naturalism as the underlying philosophy of scientific practice is heuristic and historical: much of what is important in science was created by scientists who did not situate themselves in a naturalist paradigm We can cite Newton, whose inspiration was theological and alchemical, and Wolfgang Pauli who tried to create a wider paradigm based on combining physics with the jungian unconscious, but there are many other examples. Another important objection is that one can be both in favour of pluralism (which OOO is not) and a defender of naturalism. The pluralism will nuance the naturalism in making it less metaphysical: naturalism is an open research programme and not a fait accompli; other paradigms can give content to, enrich, and complexify the naturalist paradigm; each scientific style of research will have its own naturalism: a Newtonian naturalism , if we could amputate the theological substrate from Newton’s research paradigm, will be different to, and I would argue less satisfying and fecund than, a Machian naturalism etc. The epistemologist and sociologist of science Steve Fuller has condemned, in several books, the continuing narcissism of naturalism on the simple ground that many of our most important scientific theories were created by people whose motivation was not naturalistic but religious, mystical, or hermetic. The paradox is that naturalism if it had been universally espoused would not have led to the discoveries that seem to confirm it. This is the simple Feyerabendian point that the practice of science contains important elements that are repressed or occulted in the presentation of its results, but that are essential to its progress. Feyerabend himself was very favorable to naturalism, but emphasised that it was untestable if not confronted with rival metaphysical research programs. A further point is that Being cannot be exhausted by any one particular worldview, and that taking one’s worldview for the very nature of Being is a form of metaphysical narcissism. (NB: So when Levi Bryant affirms that “these other orientations have failed to make contributions to our understanding of the natural world”, he is just historically wrong. These “other orientations” have been central to figures like Kepler, Newton, and to Einstein, not to mention Schrödinger, Bohr, and Pauli). Popper regarded the Darwinian theory of evolution as just such a metaphysical programme, perhaps producing hypotheses that themselves are testable, but remaining itself in its generality untestable. It is truly amusing to see an attempt to buttress this ontological myth of the triumph of naturalism with an appeal to the an even more metaphysical theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the much lauded and blindly repeated edifying tale of psychoanalysis as the “third blow” to our narcissism. The only narcisssism here is Freud’s, when he compares himself (in 1917!) to Copernicus and Darwin. As Michel Onfray remarks this declaration came soon after Freud learnt that he would not be receiving the Nobel Prize that in his opinion he deserved, so the whole concept of the narcissistic wound is a projection. Freudian psychoanalysis, that still finds favour with Bryant, is not at all a naturalism. It appeals to non-naturalistic entities such as the “unconscious”, the psyche, the id, the ego, and the superego, that Freud makes no attempt to establish as or anchor in material or natural agencies. The birth of Freudian psychoanalysis lies in a retreat from naturalism, and also from testability. The organisation of the psychoanalytic movement was based on the ruthless imposition of Freud’s narcissistic authority in matters theoretical and practical. Rival theorists and rival hypotheses were expelled in as humiliating a manner as possible. Freudian psychoanalysis is narcissistic denial. This raises the question of the role of the unconscious, or of what the post-jungian analyst James Hillman calls the “imaginal”. Scientism gives it a very reduced role, limiting it to a sort of regional ontology inside a literalist naturalist paradigm. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the productive unconscious in parallel with James Hillman’s idea of the anima mundi suggest a very different

perspective, where the role of the unconscious is much greater and more pervasive, informing all our theories and practices.

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