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  • Naturalism: So Easily Wrong
  • Robert Cummings Neville (bio)

I. Introduction

One of the things right about naturalism as an ideology is its rejection of authoritarianism and its insistence on experiential inquiry. One of the things often wrong with some naturalist positions is their insistence that only natural science constitutes valid inquiry. Another of the things right about naturalism is its rejection of literal supernaturalism as having explanatory or hermeneutical power. And yet, one of the things often wrong with some naturalist positions is tone-deafness with respect to the symbolic power of supernaturalistic thinking, resulting in a religiously flat grasp of ultimate realities.

My purpose here is to present a particular naturalist Positive Thesis, plus two corollary theses, about ultimate reality through a form of hypothetical, empirical inquiry that is not supernaturalistic. It is empirical but not limited to the natural sciences. In fact, the sciences at most provide interesting symbols for ultimacy and are in danger of being reductionistic in a bad sense. I call this corollary of my Positive Thesis the “UnFrankenberry Thesis” because our colleague Nancy Frankenberry has sometimes been taken to believe that science has the last word about the world. My Positive Thesis includes the claim that ultimate reality, although not knowable in an iconic sense, is indeed knowable in indexical senses that elaborate fundamental symbols or metaphors for that which is beyond iconic reference. I call this corollary of my Positive Thesis the “UnWildman Thesis” because our colleague Wesley Wildman is so irritated by supernaturalistic theological claims that he rarely allows them to sing. Frankenberry and Wildman will surely dissociate themselves from the negative criticisms in my remarks and tease back.1 [End Page 199]

II. The Positive Thesis

The Positive Thesis has two basic parts. The first is the observation that anything in the world is determinate in some respects, determinately different from other things and determinately what it is rather than nothing at all. The second is the observation that determinate things are possible only as the end products of an ontological creative act. The creative act, including what it creates as its end products, is the ontological ultimate reality and is what I think we should mean by “nature.” I shall explain why this is a naturalistic philosophical theology after glossing the two observations.

The first observation sets the level of discussion at the most abstract and universal level possible, that of the nature of determinateness itself.2 At this level it does not matter what the world contains, so long as what it contains is something rather than nothing. To put the point another way, this theory of determinateness tolerates all possible conceptions of the world and what it is to be a thing. The theory articulates the conditions for all distinctions, including those such as earlier and later or hotter and colder. So, the possibility that the Big Bang happened is conditional upon the nature of determinateness.

To be determinate is to be something, to be anything that is “this” rather than “that.” One thing can be determinate only with respect to some other things, the “thats” to its “this.” Therefore, if there is anything determinate, there must be a plurality of things that are determinate with respect to one another. If there is a plurality of things determinate with respect to one another, then each must have components that are conditions given by the other things; call them “conditional components.” But each must also have “essential components” of its own so as to be external to the others and not wholly swallowed up in them. Therefore, each determinate thing is a harmony of at least two kinds of components, conditional and essential.

A “harmony” is just the way the components fit together. This is the most basic aspect of determinateness—a plurality of fittings together. If the harmony were some sort of Aristotelian “third term” that sits atop and unifies the components, it would be just another determinate thing, another determinate harmony with its own conditional and essential components. Then there would [End Page 200] have to be a determinate harmony that integrates the top with the original components, and so on.

Harmonies are subject to four kinds...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2156-4795
Print ISSN
0194-3448
Pages
pp. 199-213
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-22
Open Access
No
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