atheism and explanatory monism

I’ve quite enjoyed reading through “Is Nature Enough: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science“, by John Haught.  One of the many points he articulates well is what he refers to as “layered explanation”.

Layered Explanation.

In the science/religion ‘debate’ (as if it needed to be a debate – which, as we shall see, is the whole point of this post), I think one of the most urgently needed concepts is that of “layered explanation”.  What is meant here is that there can be more than one layer/level/kind of explanation for a given phenomenon.

Here’s a quote from the book:

“Naturalists put too heavy a burden on evolutionary science whenever they turn it into ultimate explanation.  What I shall propose instead, as a way of giving a place to both science and religion is layered explanation.  By this I mean that everything in the universe is open to a plurality of layers of explanation.  The alternative to layered explanation, or to explanatory pluralism, is explanatory monism, an approach dear to the heart of most naturalists.” (p. 16 – italics in original)

Science: enemy or fount of all knowledge?

I think two kinds of people will benefit most from this: fundamentalist religious believers (who either a) make an enemy of science, or b) attempt to create a ‘better’ kind of science) and convinced philosophical naturalists (who generally both a) think religion ‘poisons everything’, and b) think science is the ultimate way to explain everything); they both happen to agree that religion and science are directly and totally incompatible (at least for some definitions of ‘religion’ and of ‘science’). One – religious fundamentalism – demonises science as anti-God, and the other – scientism (another kind of fundamentalism) heralds science as the ultimate key to any and all kinds of knowledge.

Fencing reality – fencing explanations

When a theist (of any kind) suggests to a science-heralding atheist that there are ‘limits’ to what science will ever be able to explain, he/she is sometimes sharply reprimanded for attempting to maliciously ‘ring-fence’ reality, with the obvious motivation of keeping some bits safe for theistic belief.  But the science-heralding atheist does his/her own kind of explanatory ‘ring-fencing’, when she/he restricts ultimate explanation to the tool of science.

Science – a powerful tool, but with limited uses

What I appreciate about John Haught is that he passionately and repeatedly affirms the need to encourage science to go as far as it possibly can in it’s scientific explanation of phenomena.  But there are modes of knowing which are sourced by methods other than methodological naturalism, such as the realm of ethics.

For example, science can offer ever-increasingly detailed accounts of the biological journey in which sperm, egg, placenta and foetus/baby have starring roles.  This kind of account is infinitely valuable (and I’m conscious that this statement is a non-scientific one!), and constitutes a powerful tool of knowledge to be used in many situations… but scientific accounts are unable to provide any guidance whatsoever concerning ethical questions such as: how to (or whether we even should!) reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion, or when/if a developing foetus can/cannot be ‘terminated’ (on which – just to ground this quickly and easily in reality – it has seriously been proposed by ethicist Peter Singer that ‘termination’ can ethically occur as late as 1 month after birth! – see Singerian principle #9 here).

As valuable as scientific explanations are, they remain (if I may use the strongest language that comes to mind) utterly impotent for the grounding of values from which ethical decisions are made.  However one does ground (or not ground!) the values for their ethical life, they are not using the knowledge arrived at via methodological naturalism, but rather some kind of tradition, philosophy/logic or life-value-system – which can broadly be called their ‘religion’.

54 thoughts on “atheism and explanatory monism”

  1. Thanks Ken,
    I think there are two areas which have been slightly problematic in our exchange here; 1) words/labels and 2) the ‘philosophical level’

    On Words/Labels:
    I can understand why you avoid giving what you would see as a ‘naive and inhibiting’ label to your philosophy; and how this relates to your problems with terms like ‘naturalist’, ‘materialist’, etc. I can fully understand how it may feel to be mis-represented and labeled in an unfair way – and I appreciate your desire not to do so to me here. I would like to make a very key distinction here though regarding the use of words (in general) and labels (in particular). I’ll use the word/label ‘scientism’ as an example.

    Rather than carelessly trying to hurl that (philosophical) label upon you and affix it permanently to you, I’ve instead preferred to define how I understand the term, and let you (or Ian) say whether or not it should apply to you. I think the word/label ‘scientism’ is a helpful and simply-understood word to refer (quite simply and straightforwardly) to the philosophical view that ‘science’ can explain and investigate anything and everything. This leads (as it has here) to discussion on the terms used in that definition; like what ‘science’ is, what it means to ‘explain’ or ‘investigate’ things, and what we mean when we refer to ‘everything’, etc., etc.

    On ‘the philosophical level’
    At this point (working out the terms within that definition, etc.), the conversation really is at the philosophical level. The issue of how/when to use words like ‘nature’ and ‘reality’ are profoundly philosophical ones. That is why I wanted to see what summary term or ‘label’ would best describe your current philosophical perspective. The nuance and further clarifications that would certainly be needed should not prevent us from using any ‘labels’ as a short-hand way of summarising a view that we have.

    For example, you self-identify your views with the summary term or label ‘non-theist’, and I self-identify my views with the summary term or label ‘Christian-theist’. No doubt, further clarifications have to be made – but that’s what conversation/discussion is all about. The meaning(s) of labels/terms/words are not always clear, but conversation helps us (at least try) to achieve at least understanding (even agreement sometimes!). I quite like Mark Strom’s notion about the difference between ‘communication’ and ‘conversation’: “Communication is the sharing of created meaning – conversation is the creation of shared meaning.”

    I’d quite like to continue discussing issues to do with use of the words ‘nature’ and ‘reality’, etc, and also ‘ethics’/’morals’. But (these are key points, I think) we’ll have to remember the following points if we’re to do so in a fruitful way:

    Philosophical topics are discussed at the philosophical level.
    Philosophical statements are justified in philosophical terms.
    Philosophical evidence is not the same as physical/empirical evidence.

    So – to the question “Can you get by without putting a label on a discussion partner?”, I would say “yes”. I don’t need to force labels onto people. But words, terms and yes, ‘labels’ do carry meaning and if we are to use words at all (nature, reality, right, wrong, knowledge, evidence, etc.) we have to do the often-difficult but always-fruitful work of conversation. I’m open to this, and I think you are too.

  2. Labels do carry meaning – and that’s part of the problem as that meaning can obscure what is being labelled.

    Regarding you comments on philosophy and its role. Of course even the statement of such a thing implies a philosophical viewpoint/approach.

    There are philosophies and “philosophies”. I find some people hide behind the word as if there was just one accepted philosophy and dishonestly use that label to give authority to views/approaches which are very suspect. The Talking Matters people often do this – really meaning by “philosophy” their own narrow and dogmatic theology. (Incidentally this comes into labels as well. They accuse me of scientism and provide their own definition which means any non-theist must suffer from scientism).

    From my philosophical perspective I find your statements on philosophy rather mechanical. I don’t think one can divorce philosophy from reality and the pursuit of our knowledge about, and understanding of, reality. This does very much bring up the matters of evidence and validation – of science.

    Years ago I was very impressed by one of Marx’s statements – something along the lines “that up until now philosophers have only tried to interpret the world – the point however is to change the world.” (Not a literal quote). Now I am sure this has been interpreted in all sorts of opportunist ways (for example Stalinists used in their campaign against fundamental science). But here is my interpretation (and I like to think this is what Marx actually meant):

    Philosophers can sit back and build all sorts of schemes and models of the world. But these are of no practical use because they are not based on interaction with the world. They often describe how philosophers would like the world to be rather than how it is.

    A scientific philosophy (I am not going to bring in loaded words like “naturalism”, “materialism”) is very much involved in and informed by practical and objective reality. This will influence the development of abstract philosophical principles. Those principles will often consciously or unconsciously inform and help scientists in their day to day work. (This becomes very dangerous when it gets imposed as a dogma which did happen with Mao and Stalin and is also what the Wedge strategists want to do).

    So I don’t accept the mechanical definition and the arguments (again from Talking Matters) that investigation of the origins and evolution of the universe and life is outside the role of science – that only philosophy/theology can answer such questions.

    By the way, I think these people often refer to logic (in their case a very naive logic) in this mechanical, separatist way to. I can see them fuming at the recent comment by Frank Wilczek that:

    “The classic structures of logic are really far from adequate to do justice to what we find in the physical world.”

    In other words a logic separated mechanically from reality and science proves to be inadequate when it comes to investigating the complexity of the real world.

  3. Ken,
    Thanks again for the comments,
    I only have time for brief comments (Thomas had his ‘jabs’ today, and we’re [intentionally] a 1 car family, so it’s been here, there and everywhere :) )…

    From my philosophical perspective I find your statements on philosophy rather mechanical. I don’t think one can divorce philosophy from reality and the pursuit of our knowledge about, and understanding of, reality. This does very much bring up the matters of evidence and validation – of science.

    I certainly agree that philosophy cannot be at all divorced from ‘reality’. But there’s that word again (‘reality’), as well as the others ‘evidence’, and ‘validation’.

    Philosophers can sit back and build all sorts of schemes and models of the world. But these are of no practical use because they are not based on interaction with the world.

    That’s a pretty sweeping (vague) reference to ‘philosophers’. Which one’s? Surely, some ‘philosophers’ schemes/models are of great practical use and very based on how the world is. The key thing is what makes their models useful/un-useful or practical/impractical.

    They often describe how philosophers would like the world to be rather than how it is.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting the world to be different! The Marx quote is soaking with that desire. The key thing is discerning what is ‘wrong’ with the real world and what ways of changing it really work.

    the recent comment by Frank Wilczek… “The classic structures of logic are really far from adequate to do justice to what we find in the physical world.”

    That’s a great quote. Strangely, though, I think such observations about physics and the need to not have our expectations too ‘logical’ and ‘rigid’ can be taken in more than one way concerning a metaphysical/philosophical perspective.

    You’re using this quote, for example, to counter the ‘logic’ of the Thinking Matters folk and others. You’re saying that their ‘logic’ should always be subject to empirical observation – even when that seems to be ‘illogical’. However, the ‘illogical’ observations of quantum physics can also be taken to imply that we should ALL be a bit less certain about the fundamental nature of reality. For example, perhaps there is more than enough mystery left for both science and philosophy/theology to humbly continue at their particular levels of enquiry/discovery for quite some time.

    In sum, I think ‘illogical’ quantum behaviour can humble both the apologist who wishes to prove God with ‘logic’ and the person (whoever that may be) who wishes to deny that there could ever be anything other than nature to reality.

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