An Epistemological Argument Against Naturalism

Consider the following epistemological argument against Naturalism (as defined below):

  1. If Naturalism is true, then all factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of facts) is acquired empirically.
  2. Knowledge of necessary facts cannot be acquired empirically.
  3. We have some knowledge of necessary facts.
  4. Therefore, Naturalism is not true.

The insights behind the argument aren’t original to me, but the formulation is mine. Before I defend the three premises, let me clarify the key terms used in the argument.

Naturalism refers to the ontological thesis that only natural things exist, that is, things that exist spatiotemporally and can be described according to our best physical theories. On this definition, Naturalism is roughly equivalent to physicalism, the view that the fundamental ‘stuff’ of reality is physical and whatever exists can be accounted for (in principle) in terms of physical reality (physical particles, physical forces, etc.).1

Factual knowledge refers to knowledge of facts about the world; specifically, facts about an external world that exists independently of our minds. Factual knowledge is distinct from (1) analytical knowledge (i.e., knowledge of logical or conceptual truths, such as that a triangle is a polygon) and (2) knowledge of internal mental states (e.g., that I am currently experiencing pain). A simple example of factual knowledge would be that there are, at this present moment, more than two turtles in Turtle Pond.

Empirically means by way of sense experience or observation, that is, by means of our sensory organs (the standard five senses or any others we might have that operate on a similar basis).

Necessary facts are facts about what must be the case, as opposed to what merely is the case or could be the case. To know a necessary fact is to know not merely that something actually is the case, but also that it could not possibly have failed to be the case. Knowledge of necessary facts is a species of factual knowledge (as defined above).

Now, back to the argument. I think it’s fairly clear that the argument is logically valid: the conclusion follows from the three premises. If premises 2 and 3 are true, it follows that some factual knowledge is not acquired empirically, in which case — by modus tollens from premise 1 — Naturalism is not true.

So why think that the premises are true? Consider each in turn.

  1. The physicalism could be reductive or non-reductive; I don’t think it makes a difference to the argument. Some self-professed naturalists hold to a more liberal ontology, e.g., allowing for sets or abstract mathematical objects. Whether those more liberal versions of naturalism are vulnerable to this argument is an open question that I won’t address here.

Suggested Readings on Epistemology

I was recently asked to suggest reading lists on (1) epistemology in general, (2) religious epistemology, and (3) Reformed presuppositional/Van Tilian/Framean epistemology. Here’s my response, in case it’s useful for other folk. Obviously these are just start-up lists, and there may be better introductory texts/articles that I haven’t come across. (Registered users, feel free to make further recommendations in the comments.)

I think the following books should get you up to speed on contemporary epistemology in general (and religious epistemology more specifically):

  • Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (3rd ed.)
  • Ernest Sosa et al, eds., Epistemology: An Anthology (2nd ed.)
  • Matthias Steup et al, eds., Contemporary Debates in Epistemology (2nd ed.)
  • William Alston, Perceiving God
  • Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, Warrant and Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief
  • Richard Swinburne, Epistemic Justification
  • John M. DePoe & Tyler McNabb, eds., Debating Christian Religious Epistemology

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has many helpful articles on topics in epistemology, but start with these:

Kelly James Clark’s article “Religious Epistemology” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good overview of the contemporary landscape (along with a helpful bibliography).

On Reformed presuppositional/Van Tilian/Framean epistemology, I recommend the following for starters:

What is the Problem of Induction, and Why are Christians Uniquely Situated to Answer It?

[From a short article written for the ILIAD Forum.]

The problem of induction is a notorious philosophical problem concerning inductive inferences; more specifically, whether that form of reasoning is generally reliable or rationally justified. An inductive inference aims to draw a general conclusion from a series of particular observations. For example, if I observe one thousand swans, and every one of those swans is white, I can infer inductively that probably all swans are white, and on that basis predict that any future swans I observe will (probably) be white. Unlike deductive inferences, in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises, inductive inferences cannot deliver absolute certainty—for example, the possibility of observing a non-white swan in the future cannot be decisively ruled out—but all else being equal, the greater the number of past observations confirming a general law or pattern, the stronger the inductive conclusion becomes.

Inductive inferences have been widely used in scientific research to discover laws of nature. To take one example, Newton’s universal law of gravitation was inferred inductively from empirical observations of the attractive forces between two masses. We haven’t observed the forces between every pair of masses in the universe at every point in time, of course, so we don’t have direct and infallible knowledge of a universal law. Nevertheless, we have made enough observations to be confident that they are instances of a universal law, and we can make reliable predictions about future events by positing that the universal law holds.

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In What Ways is God the Foundation for all Knowledge?

[From a short article written for the ILIAD Forum.]

According to a Christian worldview, God is the foundation of all knowledge simply because God is the ultimate foundation for everything in the most general sense. God is a maximally perfect being and therefore is perfect in knowledge: God knows infallibly and comprehensively every truth that there is to know (Ps. 139:1–16; Isa. 44:6–7; Isa: 46:8–11; Heb. 4:13). Furthermore, God is the creator and sustainer of everything else, including human beings and any other creatures (e.g., angels) who have the capacity for knowledge (Gen. 1:1, 27; Heb. 1:1–3; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11). In other words, our knowledge—like everything else we possess—is a gift from God, and all human knowledge is derivative of divine knowledge. As it has often been said, we have been created by God “to think God’s thoughts after him.” Although from our perspective we regularly discover “new truths” and extend our collective knowledge, human knowledge is never truly original in any absolute sense, but only reflective and reconstructive of God’s knowledge (and even then, in a very limited fashion).

Thus, we might say, the Christian worldview affirms a “revelational epistemology”: all human knowledge is ultimately dependent upon divine revelation. Put simply, we can know truth only because God has revealed truth to us—about himself, about ourselves, and about the world around us (scientific truths, historical truths, and so forth). Christian theologians have often distinguished between two basic forms of divine revelation:

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Adventures in Branch-Cutting

Here’s a remarkable paragraph from Graham Oppy’s Atheism and Agnosticism, which appears in a discussion of whether theism or naturalism better explains our mental faculties:

Some – e.g. Plantinga (2012) and Reppert (2009) – argue that our reasoning capacities could not be a socially moulded mix of evolutionary adaptations and exaptations. But those arguments assume the reliability of our reasoning capacities in domains in which it is obvious that our reasoning capacities are highly unreliable: philosophy, religion, politics, and the like. When we make a more accurate assessment of the reliability of our reasoning capacities, we see that that assessment supports the claim that our reasoning capacities are a socially moulded mix of evolutionary adaptations and exaptations. (p. 42)

I had to read these sentences several times to confirm that Oppy really was saying what he seemed to be saying. Note two claims being made here:

  1. Plantinga and Reppert’s arguments assume that our reasoning capacities are reliable in the domain of philosophy (among other domains).
  2. That assumption is false.

In fact, Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) does not make that assumption, except in the trivial sense that EAAN is a philosophical argument and thus we have to assume that our capacity for philosophical reasoning is generally reliable if we’re to understand and evaluate the argument (in the same way that we have to assume the general reliability of our sense faculties when reading Plantinga’s books and articles). Plantinga’s argument is this: if naturalism is true, there’s no reason to think that our reasoning capacities are reliably truth-directed in any domain. (Actually, that’s a crude summary of a much more subtle argument, but it will do for now.)

The same goes for Reppert’s various versions of the Argument from Reason. In none of Plantinga and Reppert’s arguments does this unavoidable assumption — that our capacity for philosophical reasoning is generally reliable — feature as an assumption distinctive to the arguments themselves (i.e., in a way that doesn’t apply to philosophical arguments in general).

But the real surprise is that Oppy apparently rejects the assumption. He says it’s obvious (!) that our reasoning capacities are “highly unreliable” in the domain of philosophy. Yet he makes this claim as part of a philosophical rebuttal of Plantinga and Reppert, in the course of a philosophical case for naturalism, in a philosophical book written by a professional philosopher. If our reasoning capacities are highly unreliable in the domain of philosophy, what on earth does Oppy think he’s doing? This isn’t so much cutting the branch you’re sitting on as felling the tree and grinding the stump.

It’s so odd that I feel I must be missing something important.

Still, Oppy’s right about one thing: if our cognitive faculties are the product of undirected naturalistic evolution — which is to say, if evolutionary naturalism is true — then it’s highly unlikely that those faculties are reliable when it comes to philosophical matters. That’s a big problem for philosophical naturalists like Oppy.

All that said, Atheism and Agnosticism is still a useful primer on the subject.

Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.