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OnDuckingChallengestoNaturalismTheNewYorkTimes

OnDuckingChallengestoNaturalism
ByTimothyWilliamson

September28,20118:15pm

TheStoneisaforumforcontemporaryphilosophersandotherthinkerson
issuesbothtimelyandtimeless.

InresponsetothequestionposedinmypreviousessayinTheStone
Whatisnaturalism?AlexRosenbergdefinesitasthephilosophical
theorythattreatsscienceasourmostreliablesourceofknowledgeand
scientificmethodasthemosteffectiveroutetoknowledge.Hispost,Why
IAmaNaturalist,nicelyexemplifiesoneofmymaincomplaints,by
leavingitunclearwhathemeansbyscienceorscientificmethod,even
thoughitiscrucialforwhatheiscommittinghimselftoasanaturalist.
Still,thereareclues.Hedescribesthetestofknowledgethatscientific
findingsattainasexperimental/observationalmethods,whichsuggests
thattheoremsofmathematicswouldnotcountasscientificfindings.The
impressionisconfirmedbyProfessorRosenbergsphrasemathematicians
andscientists,asthoughhedoesntseemathematiciansasscientists.
Thatsbadnewsforhisnaturalism,formathematicalproofisjustas
effectivearoutetoknowledgeasexperimental/observationalmethods.Of
course,sincethenaturalsciencesdependonmathematics,Rosenberg
desirestofindaplaceforitbutadmitsthathedoesntknowhow.
Injustthewaynotedinmypost,ProfessorRosenbergsdefenseof
naturalismtradesonambiguities.Interpretedoneway,somenaturalist

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claimsareboringtruthsinterpretedanotherway,theyareobvious
falsehoods.Rightlynotingthesuccessesofphysics,hesaysWeshouldbe
confidentthatitwilldobetterthananyotherapproachatgettingthings
right.Whatthings?Ifhemeansquestionsofphysics,whatreasonable
persondeniesthatphysicswilldobetterthananyotherapproachat
answeringthosequestions?Butifhemeansallquestions,whyshouldwebe
confidentthatphysicswilldobetterthanhistoryatgettingrightwhat
happenedatGettysburg?
Iraisedhistoryandliterarytheoryastestcases.AccordingtoProfessor
Rosenberg,naturalismtreatsliterarycriticismasfun,butnotasknowledge.
DoeshereallynotknowwhetherMr.CollinsistheheroofPrideand
Prejudice?Everynormalreaderhasthatsortofelementaryliterarycritical
knowledge.Thosewhoknowfarmoreaboutthehistoricalcontextinwhich
literaryworkswereproduced,readthemmanytimeswithunusual
attention,carefullyanalyzetheirstructure,andsoon,naturallyhavefar
moreknowledgeofthoseworksthancasualreadersdo,whateverthe
excessesofpostmodernism.
Asforhistory,Rosenbergconvenientlyavoidsdiscussingit.Heseems
nottoregarditasascience,butdoesnotcomeoutandsaythatthereisno
historicalknowledge,ornoneworthhaving.Itmightsuitsomepoliticians
fortheretobenohistoricalknowledgetherestofusmusthopethatthey
dontattainorretainpower.Itisntevenclearhownaturalsciencecould
managewithouthistoricalknowledge,asR.G.Collingwoodlongago
pointedout,sinceknowledgeoftheresultsofpastexperimentsand
observationsisitselfhistorical.
ForProfessorRosenberg,itmayturnoutthatrealitycontainsonlythe
kindsofthingsthathardsciencerecognizes.Byhardscienceheseemsto
meansomethinglikephysics.Hedoesntexplainhowthatcouldturnout.
Howcouldphysicsshowthatrealitycontainsonlythekindsofthingsthat
physicsrecognizes?Itsoundsembarrassinglylikephysicsactingasjudge
andjuryinitsowncase.Thatphysicsdoesnotshowthatthereissucha
thingasadebtcrisisdoesnotmeanthatphysicsshowsthatthereisnosuch

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thingasadebtcrisis:physicssimplydoesnotaddressthequestion.Thatis
nocriticismofphysicsithasotherworktodo.Forittoturnoutthatreality
containsonlythekindsofthingsthathardsciencerecognizes,wherethey
excludethingslikedebtcrises,itwouldhavetoturnoutthataradically
reductionistmetaphysicaltheoryistrue.Thatinturnwouldrequire
industrialscaleargumentatacharacteristicallyphilosophicallevelof
reasoning.ButIdoubtthatProfessorRosenbergcountsphilosophyashard
science.
Wecanformulatetheunderlyingworryasasharpargumentagainst
theextremenaturalistclaimthatalltruthsarediscoverablebyhardscience.
Ifitistruethatalltruthsarediscoverablebyhardscience,thenitis
discoverablebyhardsciencethatalltruthsarediscoverablebyhard
science.Butitisnotdiscoverablebyhardsciencethatalltruthsare
discoverablebyhardscience.Arealltruthsdiscoverablebyhardscience?
isnotaquestionofhardscience.Thereforetheextremenaturalistclaimis
nottrue.
Suchproblemsposefarlessthreattomoremoderateformsof
naturalism,basedonabroaderconceptionofsciencethatincludes
mathematics,history,muchofphilosophy,andthesensiblepartsofliterary
criticism,aswellasthenaturalandsocialsciences.Butweshouldnottake
forgrantedthatrealitycontainsonlythekindsofthingsthatscienceevenin
thebroadsenserecognizes.Mycautioncomesnotfromanysympathyfor
mysteriouskindsofcognitionalientoscienceinthebroadsense,but
simplyfromthedifficultyofestablishinginanyremotelyscientificwaythat
realitycontainsonlythekindsofthingthatwearecapableofrecognizingat
all.Inanycase,ProfessorRosenbergdoesnotrestcontentwithsome
moderateformofnaturalism.Hegoesforsomethingfarmoreextreme,in
theprocesslapsingintohardscientism.
ProfessorRosenbergconcludes:Whatnaturalistsreallyfearisnot
becomingdogmaticorgivingupthescientificspirit.Itsthethreatthatthe
sciencewillendupshowingthatmuchofwhatwecherishasmeaningfulin
humanlifeisillusory.Butwhatpeoplereallyfearisnotalwayswhatmost

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endangersthem.Thosemostconfidentofbeingundogmaticandpossessing
thescientificspiritmaytherebybecomeallthelessabletodetect
dogmatismandfailuresofthescientificspiritinthemselves.Ifonetriesto
assessnaturalisminascientificspirit,onewillwanttogetmoreprecise
thanmostselflabellednaturalists(andantinaturalists)doaboutwhat
hypothesisisundertest.Norwillonedogmaticallyassumethat,oncea
clearhypothesisisonthetable,testingitwillbejustamatterforhard
science.Theevidencesofarsuggestsotherwise.
TimothyWilliamsonistheWykehamProfessorofLogicatOxford
University,aFellowoftheBritishAcademyandaForeignHonorary
MemberoftheAmericanAcademyofArtsandSciences.Hehasbeena
visitingprofessoratM.I.T.andPrinceton.HisbooksincludeVagueness
(1994),KnowledgeanditsLimits(2000)andThePhilosophyof
Philosophy(2007).

2015TheNewYorkTimesCompany

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