9 dic. 2007

Positive and skeptical naturalism

To the extent that we banish the rest of life, we will impoverish our own species all times. And if we should surrender our genetic nature to machine-aide ratiocination, and our ethics and art and our very meaning to a habit of careless discursion in the name of progress, imagining ourselves godlike and abosolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing.

- E.O. Wilson, Consilience. The unity of knowledge
Thomas W. Clark is the author of Encountering naturalism. A worldview and its uses, published by the Center for Naturalism. He also blogs at Memeing naturalism. In 2003 Clark published Toward a positive naturalism, summarizing the major tenets of naturalist philosophy and its most salient (political, social, moral) practical implications. "Positive naturalism" was defined as follows:
  • It’s a constructive naturalism that shows the beneficial consequences of the naturalistic, non-dual view of ourselves, a view that’s quite different from traditional dualistic views.
  • Also, it’s positive in the sense of not being merely critical of religion and superstition. We can give good reasons to follow naturalism in addition to reasons for not following the alternatives.
  • And by positive, I don’t mean to suggest a positivist denial of all metaphysical claims, since after all naturalism as we assert it does make a claim about what exists, and what doesn’t
In a previous post, I also supported the idea of a positive naturalism, in sharp contrast to the a-theist negative denominations and simple critiques of religion. Now, I would like to comment briefly its scope, and its strength and limits -according to my own "skeptical" or conservative version of philosophical naturalism.

Rather than reject the so called "dualist" philosopical tradition as a whole, erroneously believing ourselves to be the founders of a brave new philosophy, we must focus our attention in the various ways traditional philosophy enhanced non dualist and materialist conceptions. For example, in the XIII century controversy over the nature of Intellectus agens (nous poietikós), Thomas Aquinas defended a prenaturalist individual-human-mind-based conception (even though Active Intellect is understand as an Esse comune, but certainly not in the sense that all men participate in the same proportion), in permanent contrast with Averroe's interpretation of a collective mind. Not to mention the Augustine's rationalist campaign against roman gods and pagan superstitions in The city of god (De Civitate Dei contra Paganos).

The fact is that sometimes are not theologians and religionists, but mainly secular intellectualls those who support trascendentalist conceptions of morality and society (see Pinker's former misconceptions about free-will, or Dawkin's "rebellion" against the genes). So, as long as intellectuals, biologists or philosophers support trascendentalist -and therefore non empirical- views on human nature, we may consider them as "false friends" of naturalism.

Naturalist ethics isn't, of course, a "free-floating" philosophical doctrine. Natural virtues as compassion, empathy and forgiveness are all grounded on our religious moral traditions and philosophy. This is not to say that morality is founded upon the divine commandment; quite on the contrary, moral capacity is first embedded in our natural order (genetic dispositions, behavorial predispositions and epigenetic rules, etc) but later expressed in customary orders and cultural traditions. In fact, Clark recognizes that (positive) naturalism isn't a "magic bullet" to happiness and instant compassion. In a sense, the "myth of secular prosperity" could be seen as the naturalist utopian counterpart of the "myth of secular moral chaos".

Along with "positive naturalism" skeptical naturalism supports the project of the secular society, it assumes that we're not "self caused" (as the Aristotelian god) and rejects the trascendentalist conception of free will and liberty. But, of course, this is really nothing new. According to the stoic ethics, freedom and virtue are not contrasted with neccesity: Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. Or Baruch de Spinoza: "By virtue and power I mean the same thing; that is, virtue, in so far as it is referred to man, is a man's nature or essence, in so far as it has the power of effecting what can only be understood by the laws of the nature".

Skeptical naturalism promotes a gradualist rather than a revolutionary naturalist conception. It rests upon the assumption that there's no "magic bullet", that secularism does not neccesarily lead us to "a more florishing, humane and non-punitive world". It suggests a naturalist re-interpretation of the theological and philosophical tradition. And it claims the true meaning of "conservatism" as "the ethic that cherishes and sustains the resources and proven best institutions of a community", whether they're secular or religious, modern or traditional.