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  • A Kind of Naturalism
  • Lawrence Cahoone (bio)

This paper suggests a kind of naturalism that, while based in the natural sciences, can address questions of value and meaning, including the compatibility of religion and naturalism. Certainly any of its details may be wrong, and other theories may be more deeply or more comprehensively true. Nevertheless I think it is likely approximately true, and its direction should be capable of incorporation into successor theories (should any successors be interested). It is built to respond to three problems. First, its approach to general metaphysics avoids a number of criticisms of the genre, problems with conceiving the Whole, views from nowhere, and other methodological issues philosophers worry about. Second, its account of what some call emergence and reductive explanation makes the two compatible. Third, while accepting the natural sciences as a robust source of metaphysical information, it rejects physicalism and materialism. It draws from the natural sciences a pluralistic conception of nature hospitable to the objects of the human sciences.

We may begin with historical connections. Americanist philosophy—in which we may include Whitehead—is the sole living philosophical legatee of what could be called post-Darwinian naturalism. Following Darwin, its practitioners asked whether evolution could be extended to nonliving nature and could account for qualitatively novel realities. In their receptivity to natural science, they mimicked the great seventeenth century scientist-meta-physicians, but with two differences: they had to take into account multiple sciences, not just physics, and they had to deal with an evolving nature. Early lights included Henri Bergson, C. S. Peirce, William James, and G. H. Lewes. The discussion peaked in the Roaring ’20’s, which saw the most prominent works of the British Emergentists (Samuel Alexander, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, C. D. Broad) and their American counterparts (Roy Wood Sellars and W.M. Wheeler); along with Dewey’s Experience and Nature; Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature, Science and the Modern World, and Process and Reality; and George Herbert Mead’s lectures, published in 1931 as Mind, Self, and Society. Despite their disagreements, all were part of one conversation. (It [End Page 214] is striking that they did all this before science concluded that the physical universe itself has evolved.)

Within a decade or so, this multiscientific naturalism disappeared from the most prominent forums of philosophy. There was a reassertion of the chronic bipolar disorder of modern thought: the belief that reality is divisible at most into two kinds of things, properties, or processes, the physical and the mental, a disorder shared by idealism, physicalism, and dualism. Thereafter, philosophy of science largely became the epistemology of physics, and other philosophers dropped the scientific view of the world as colleague to segregate themselves into what C. P. Snow called “the two cultures.” Simultaneously Western philosophy congealed into two opposing traditions, analytic and continental philosophy, one ostensibly logical or scientific, the other mostly antiscientific, but both largely antimetaphysical. While I believe none of the three traditions—Americanist, analytic, or continental—is generically more right than the others, analytic and continental philosophy have been far more prone to the restriction of the universe of discourse to the language of one’s journal of choice. Perhaps those are the inevitable wages of success. Not that there is any point in romantic bemoaning of specialization; it is crucial to the modern way of knowing. But somebody has to figure out how all these specializations relate to each other, and for that one’s language must be less specialized. Today the bipolar disorder is as evident as ever: in the belief of most continental philosophers that any use of natural science is a political crime; in the widespread analytic endorsement of physicalism and the priority of physics; the restriction of epistemology and philosophy of mind to human objects; and in the almost utter philosophical neglect of chemistry, the Earth sciences, ethology, and paleoanthropology (biology has fared better in recent decades). Until recently, pluralist naturalism survived among interdisciplinary scientists of emergence, systems theory, and complexity, like Michael Polanyi, Konrad Lorenz, Herbert Simon, Donald Campbell, and Ilya Prigogine.

I. An Approach to Metaphysics

Now to methodology. The metaphysics that follows is fallibilist. Fallibilism holds that we cannot...


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pp. 214-225
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