Philosophers and scientists, talking to each other

Posted on June 25, 2008

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Massimo Pigliucci organised last year a meeting of philosophers and scientists on the topic of the relation between the two fields. He has made available a selection of papers arising out of that symposium. While the ones I have read thus far are quite interesting I do find myself troubled by a position that seems to be held by a number of the participants. They hold that naturalism of the ontological variety, understood as the rejection of existence of supernatural entities, is an item of faith, more or less. This seems to be wrong in any of a number of ways. If the naturalism is understood in terms of a commitment to certain fairly specific ontological claims such as that everything in the world can be understood in terms of material entities and their interactions then, I think, naturalism should be seen as a general hypothesis that, just like other such hypotheses, is justified by how fruitful it has been in terms of guiding research. On the other hand, if it is understood as a rejection of a dualist ontology that includes natural as well as supernatural entities then, I suspect, it ends up being close to logically necessary since the category of the supernatural, given the way it is normally defined, seems to be to be conceptually incoherent (not that this says anything about the existence of gods or other such beings). Either way, I think that ontological naturalism is the wrong place to be starting the whole discussion and that the basis for the ontological position is to be found in epistemic/methodological naturalism i.e. the view that all epistemic methods are a posteriori, only justified in relation to actual empirical data. This view is related to empiricism but is different in that the earlier view only held that all empirical methods use empirical data but allowed for the a priori justification of the methods, themselves.

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