The Real Problem with Naturalized Epistemology

Other objections aside, here is the real problem with Naturalized Epistemology as I see it. On the one hand, the principle motivator for adopting Naturalized Epistemology is the view of Metaphysical Naturalism (which is what is most often called simply ‘Naturalism’, by which I understand the general claim that “nothing exists apart from all the objects, entities and forces postulated by physics and/or those which would be postulated by the most comprehensive physics“), and on the other, adopting Naturalized Epistemology does not marry one to Naturalism. One can adopt a Naturalized Epistemology, according to which one should only believe in entities which our preferred empirically adequate theory postulates, and not end up with beliefs which fall within the orbit of Naturalism. Since Naturalized Epistemology presumes that there is no first philosophy, that foundationalism is untenable, and that, as Quine himself (the father of Naturalized Epistemology) put it, “the stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has had to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world” (Lukas Graf, Theories of Knowledge), its presumptions seem to be the deliverances of a radical empiricism which is a concomitant of Naturalism. Naturalized Epistemology begins by presuming Metaphysical Naturalism or something very much like it (I’m inclined to think there is no difference between Naturalism rightly construed and the idealism Hume inherited from Berkeley, which is just wholesale and consistent empiricism), but quickly leads one to believe in the existence of things which fall outside the boundaries of what is usually called Naturalism. For example, W.V.O. Quine himself was led to postulate and believe in the existence of sets. It isn’t hard to imagine a Naturalized Epistemologist finding similar impetus for postulating God, or a being very much like ‘God’. So, Naturalized Epistemology begins by presuming Naturalism, or something very close to Naturalism (depending on how Naturalism is construed), and may end just about anywhere, including Theism (I take it that there is hardly any view more remote from Naturalism than Theism).

Now, I believe that Naturalism is clearly false. I can think of no good arguments for its truth, and I think the attraction to it has been eroded by philosophical developments in the later part of the twentieth century, among them being the dismissal of the chronological snobbery of scientistic optimism; it is no longer a very popular prejudice to have. However, the Naturalized Epistemologist has to convince us of Naturalism in order to convince us that we should adopt Naturalized Epistemology, and yet, if we were to adopt Naturalized Epistemology, we may plausibly end by rejecting Naturalism altogether. Who would retain Naturalized Epistemology if they were no longer a Naturalist? Why?

So, Naturalized Epistemology seems completely unattractive to me; nevermind that I lean towards rationalism contra empiricism, nevermind that I think we intuit logical and mathematical truths along with some metaphysical truths, nevermind that foundationalism seems plausibly tenable to me, the real point is that Naturalized Epistemology finds its home in Naturalism, but may reach beyond the borders of Naturalism and force it’s adherents to postulate any number of entities which are not ‘naturalistic’. The epistemology makes too many metaphysical (or otherwise philosophical) assumptions, and then doesn’t guarantee those assumptions against falsification.

This is the fatal, singularly unattractive flaw of Naturalized Epistemology; in a market place of ideas it isn’t likely to be bought by anyone who isn’t a Naturalist already, and it may easily push its adherents beyond the borders of Naturalism (making it possibly and easily self-defeating unless one either constrains it more tightly by metaphysical assumptions, or defines metaphysical naturalism so broadly as to make no view ‘in principle’ opposed to it).

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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2 Responses to The Real Problem with Naturalized Epistemology

  1. “One can adopt a Naturalized Epistemology, according to which one should only believe in entities which our preferred empirically adequate theory postulates…”

    Um, no. Naturalized epistemology refers to a range of positions in which normative descriptions of belief formation (justified, warranted etc.) are replaced by or reduced to the non-normative vocabulary of causal accounts of belief formation.

    “Naturalized Epistemology begins by presuming Metaphysical Naturalism or something very much like it (I’m inclined to think there is no difference between Naturalism rightly construed and the idealism Hume inherited from Berkeley, which is just wholesale and consistent empiricism), but quickly leads one to believe in the existence of things which fall outside the boundaries of what is usually called Naturalism.”

    I agree that Hume and Berkeley represent two figures who make eloquent attempts to draw out the antirealist conclusions of wholesale and consistent Empiricism.

    But NE (actual NE) simply makes no such metaphysical presumption, as your own reference to Quine’s Platonism demonstrates. You can populate your ontology with as many ghosts and gremlins as you like, and still think the results of scientific psychology should replace or at least supplement normative epistemology.

  2. “Um, no. Naturalized epistemology refers to a range of positions in which normative descriptions of belief formation (justified, warranted etc.) are replaced by or reduced to the non-normative vocabulary of causal accounts of belief formation.”

    Yeah, and of course naturalized epistemologists have proposed more elaborate theses (take, for instance, one of my professors, Dr. Murray Clarke, who has published “restructuring reason and representation”). A popular theme of such theses, it seems to me, is that the only things which we are justified in believing in are those entities postulated by our most empirically adequate theory. But of course, that’s exactly what I said.

    “But NE (actual NE) simply makes no such metaphysical presumption, as your own reference to Quine’s Platonism demonstrates. You can populate your ontology with as many ghosts and gremlins as you like, and still think the results of scientific psychology should replace or at least supplement normative epistemology.”

    The assumptions upon which Quine founded the whole project of NE were assumptions inherited from Naturalism. He himself was true to his word insofar as he came to believe in entities beyond nature, but only because he thought he had to for consistency. Think about it: what motivation could one have for adopting an elaborate Naturalized Epistemology other than presuming that Naturalism is true? Can you think of any?

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