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Naturalism Verses the Scientific Spirit

Tim_WilliamsonIn a provocative article for the New York Times, philosopher Timothy Williamson considers whether naturalism as popularly conceived is at best self-refuting and at worst religious dogma. Williamson is clear that his critique is not the product of a religious position (he’s an atheist) and is not a critique of science. Rather, he’s critical of the idea that what commonly passes for naturalism is so restrictive that it doesn’t provide enough intellectual headroom for things as foundational as mathematics – something upon which science entirely depends. He says, “The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite….But if they are too exclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its credibility, by imposing a method appropriate to natural science on areas where it is inappropriate.”

As a framework, the standard definition of naturalism and the “enthusiasm” that surrounds it by some of its adherents, creates an intellectual framework which makes it impossible to fully explore the world. Naturalists (like many religious ideologies) describe the way the world is first and tell us what we’re allowed to find in that world. He writes, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as ‘inconsistent with naturalism’ is little better than dismissing it as ‘inconsistent with Christianity.’” I think he’s right. (As an example of what Williamson’s is criticizing, I came across this rather amusing article in which the author attempts to argue using a symbolic language that philosophy should be subsumed under science because it’s imprecise.)

What Williamson does promote is the scientific spirit. This, he says is a discipline that focuses on “curiosity, honesty, accuracy, precision and rigor” and those are qualities that any discipline can and every discipline should espouse. If we promote the scientific spirit over naturalism or any other ontological dogma, we allow ourselves to explore the world as it “carve it up at the joints” as it were drawing conclusions based on our findings not on what we’ve already assumed must be true.

Well said. For my own take on the value of philosophy, see this article.

Link to Williamson’s NYT piece here.

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