Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality

Written by R. Scott Smith Reviewed By Benjamin H. Arbour

Since Alvin Plantinga first suggested that evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating, philosophers have taken significant interest in the subject. R. Scott Smith addresses this issue in a book-length treatment, understanding “philosophical naturalism to be a thesis that reality consists solely of the physical, spatiotemporal world; thus there are no supernatural or nonnatural entities or beings” (p. 1). Smith argues cogently and compellingly that philosophical naturalism lacks the resources to allow for knowledge of reality. Believing that humans enjoy knowledge of reality, Smith concludes against philosophical naturalism.

This book helpfully surveys contemporary naturalistic epistemology and philosophy of mind theories. Those unfamiliar with contemporary epistemology and topics like reliability, internalism/externalism, intentionality, and qualia will likely find the book foreboding. But those willing to cast off into the deep, rigorous waters of contemporary analytic epistemology will be richly rewarded.

Smith begins by introducing direct realism, as advocated by naturalist D. M. Armstrong. According to Armstrong, our brains directly and accurately perceive reality. Smith critiques Armstrong's failure to account for intentionality-the idea that we intend to behold in the understanding what we think about. Smith also uses Frank Jackson's argument concerning epiphenomenalism and the concept of qualia (which is an individual's conscious experience of subjective phenomena), which Armstrong's epistemology struggles to account for.

Smith also interacts with Fred Drestske, Michael Tye, and William Lycan, each advancing beyond Armstrong in postulating direct representionalism to account for qualia. However, direct representationalism fails to account for conceptualization. There is nothing physical that enables the process by which we come to have concepts of anything at all-including concepts of reliability, representation, causation, etc., which are necessary to make sense of direct representationalism.

Next Smith takes on John Searle, who argues that everything that exists is composed solely of physical particles. Despite his naturalism, social realities force Searle to acknowledge, “there is more to the world than just brute physical facts” (p. 56). To explain this, Searle posits, “the Background,” a neuropsychological mechanism that supposedly accounts for how our beliefs “hook-up” with reality. Smith realizes that Searle's attempts to stave off attacks with philosophy of language (owing to the later Wittgenstein) fail to achieve what is needed, for “Searle owes us an account of which linguistic community it is out of which he speaks,” and “whatsoever claims we make, these are done once we have [already] adopted a way of speaking” (pp. 66-67). He argues that Searle's views don't guarantee that locutions actually represent reality, but rather represent the view(s) of a particular linguistic community-which may or may not be true.

Discussing David Papineau, Smith helps readers understand the philosophy of science that drives Papineau's project-a sophisticated version of scientism without the philosophical naïveté so frequently accompanying such views (p. 72). Papineau denies that anything other than empirically verified information should serve as a “first philosophy.” Smith clarifies how Papineau distinguishes between the physical and the material, noting that the latter is broader than the former. As an ontological monist, Papineau affirms conceptual dualism to account for certain properties of mental states, even though these mental states reduce to brain states. Smith explains the teleological theory of mental representation which, when coupled together with reliabilism, Papineau believes is enough to account for intentionality and concept formation (pp. 74-77). However, Smith argues that because Papineau maintains that experience need not be truthful, the issue of concept formation is just as much a problem of him as for Drestske, Tyle, and Lycan.

Daniel Dennett's radical proposal includes rejecting the “self.” By adopting what Dennett calls “the Intentional Stance,” one can see that science regulates philosophy. Smith summarizes by showing that Dennett's proposal assumes the existence of a self as a pragmatically valuable heuristic. Dennett's naturalized epistemology is based on a realist philosophy of science. But Smith notes that Dennett's views are self-referentially incoherent and end up denying a genuinely realist account of even scientific knowledge. Dennett's project fails because his view reduces everything in the world, including knowledge (which is really nothing more than brain states), to something requiring interpretation. Accordingly, Smith contends that this leads to radical postmodernism à la Derrida's contention that everything is a text in need of interpretation (pp. 101-6).

Errin D. Clark's chapter on Paul and Patricia Churchland's naturalized epistemology details the cognitive neuromechanics that underlie their project(s), and explains how such epistemology is both realist and epistemically pluralistic. Clark argues, “their project . . . violates conditions I set forth as necessary for an epistemology worth pursuing” (p. 110) for three reasons. First, their project faces problems concerning perception and experience. Second, their project cannot adequately map onto any correspondence theory of truth, or at least, there is no way to know whether what we seem to know is really the truth or just our interpretation thereof (pp. 124-29). Third, the Churchlands's project really amounts to a type of idealism rather than realism (pp. 129-32).

Smith makes efforts to see if any naturalized epistemology can succeed. He considers John Pollock's view, noting that epistemological internalism differentiates his proposal from externalists. But internalism does nothing to help Pollock avoid the problems that Smith raises. Peggy Burke summarizes Jaegwon Kim's views, noting that he advocates a physicalist functionalism in part because of problems of multiple realization and epiphenomenalism. Although functionalism allows for the preservation of the mental, the moves Kim makes either eliminate pure physicalism or fail to account for qualia. Additionally, Kim's account faces problems for epistemic intentionality, so his views should be rejected because “knowledge” is merely one's interpreting something as such-and-such. Smith also considers whether naturalism could offer alternative externalist epistemologies to mitigate these concerns but concludes that those proposals would create tensions that render the overall naturalistic outlook internally inconsistent.

Considering potential responses, including how immanent universals, moderate nominalism, and trope theory might accommodate naturalism, Smith shows that such suggestions fail to overcome his central concerns. He also considers Nancy Murphy's proposal, which involves Wittgenstein's later philosophy of language, which MacIntyre and Hauerwas have taken up. But Smith notes, again, that appeals to philosophy language don't help naturalists.

A naturalist could admit that we don't actually know reality. This might appeal to some, perhaps as a gesture of intellectual humility, but it leads to self-referential incoherence. Besides, Smith offers numerous case studies demonstrating that we do have genuine knowledge of reality (pp. 184-87). Thus, philosophical naturalism is false, so some other ontology is necessary for knowledge of reality.

Philosophers of science might object that this leads to the rejection of methodological naturalism. But rejecting philosophical naturalism doesn't mean that methodological naturalism offers nothing valuable for scientific inquiry. Methodological naturalism is often the best way to seek out interpretations of data. But Smith cautions against any model that rules out the possibility of supernatural involvement because such models beg the question in favor of naturalism (pp. 197-204).

Smith concludes the book with a discussion of moral and religious knowledge, showing that many of the arguments against the possibility of knowledge of moral and religious truths (assuming such truths exist) rely on philosophical naturalism. But these arguments against moral and religious knowledge are undermined by Smith's arguments that philosophical naturalism is necessarily false (p. 207). Hence, our knowledge of reality includes religious and moral knowledge-even that God desires that we know reality. Smith suggests that his project has significant implications for other fields of inquiry, such as bioethics, education, and public policy. It is easy to see why Smith's ideas should be considered by biologists, educators, political philosophers, and policy makers. The irrationality of philosophical naturalism should influence those fields and the areas of life they impact.

All told, Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality devastatingly critiques philosophical naturalism, given knowledge of reality. Philosophers need to familiarize themselves with this important work. Christians should hope that Smith's arguments will gain traction in the academy, leading many away from atheism and agnosticism towards theism and, ultimately, to Jesus Christ, by whom, and through whom, all things were made.

Benjamin H. Arbour

Benjamin H. Arbour
University of Bristol
Bristol, England, UK

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