The Idealistic Criticism of Naturalism

Published: 29th September 2008
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The current criticism of naturalism deserves attention, for those who desire to establish an adequate naturalism must heed the objections in the controversial literature. The whole truth was by no means on the side of the older naturalism, even though it did not reside in the camp of idealism (spiritualism) either. What is desirable is not eclecticism but a thorough overhauling of assumptions.

In the main, the chief objections to naturalism of the traditional sort fall under four headings:

(1) The denial that the higher can be reduced to the lower without a remainder of supreme importance;

(2) The claim that description is not explanation;

(3) The existence of gaps in nature disastrous to naturalism; and

(4) The refutation of realism, or, as it was usually called, dualism.

We shall admit that there is much truth in the contention that the older naturalism sought to oversimplify by reduction, and we shall try to indicate the historical reasons for this mistake reasonably, without any petition writing. Probably they reduce to two: the nonage of the biological sciences and the continued dominance of the kinetic conception of all physical processes.

The idea of evolution was either unknown or its full implications unappreciated. The first tentative efforts at the application of the idea of evolution were wooden in the extreme. The fact of the matter was that the various connective sciences between physics and politics had not yet sufficiently developed to reach hands across to one another.

Naturalism desired continuity between the various apparent levels of nature, but at first could conceive it only as meaning that the higher is nothing but the lower. But supernaturalism-and idealism was often ready to give it comfort-was friendly to the idea of discontinuity. The one wished to achieve continuity by a rough and dogmatic reduction; the other to establish discontinuity. The conditions of an adequate naturalism had not yet been reached.

The claim that description is not explanation itself needs explanation. To explain an occurrence is to give its why, the cause or conditions out of which it sprung. Explanation is frequently thought of as a reference of events to an unseen essence or productive activity. When explanation is so conceived, the work of science is said to be detailed description of things and events as research presents them to our minds.

It is in some ways knowledge about the physical world. Explanation of events must rest for us in such descriptive knowledge about their conditions and setting; and the logic of investigation must convince us that there is an essential fidelity to reality in such descriptive explanation. The assumption that such description as characterizes modern science is arbitrary in anything else than the symbols used, is agnostic and unjustified. There are different logical levels of description which become evident in starting a petition.

What these critics of scientific explanation have in mind is as follows. We cannot intuit nature so as to appreciate the inner necessity which moves things to act as they do. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the inner expression of things of which their behavior is a function.

Laws give knowledge about things in relation but no living glimpse into their counsels. To say that A attracts B is to say that B approaches A. But can we sense this attraction, this dynamic continuity which has this result? Assuredly not. Hence science does not really explain.

What these critics of scientific explanation have in mind is, so far as it seems, something as follows. We cannot intuit nature so as to appreciate the inner necessity which moves things to act as they do. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the inner expression of things of which their behavior is a function.

But can any other discipline penetrate to the veritable process of change? Only the idealist makes this assumption, and he claims to achieve this ideal by analogy. Cause is desire and will. That may be, yet the scientist may well reply that what explains every event explains none. Scientific explanation with its specificity and genuine knowledge about things is as necessary and as valid as ever.

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