The attitude Ritchie recommends for the genuine or serious naturalist is metaphysical agnosticism (cf. 104, 143, 148, 158). Like Fine’s Natural Ontological Attitude, the naturalist should not take sides in the metaphysical debates between physicalists and nonphysicalists, or between “realists” and “antirealists” about theoretical posits, universals, possible worlds, numbers, and the like. Metaphysics wants to tell us how things must be, or can be, once and for all, but “science forces us to revise our conceptions of what is and is not possible, of where a concept can be meaningfully deployed and where it can’t” (147). Further, it is idle speculation to try to foresee how our future science might develop. Philosophy should purge itself of scientific soothsaying. In light of these considerations Ritchie interestingly suggests a reconception of metaphysics as metaphor: “Thinking of metaphysical theories as inspirational pictures or metaphors strikes me as . . . perhaps the best way to understand how science and metaphysics relate to one another from a deflationary naturalist perspective” (158). . . . In general, for the deflationary naturalist there is no unified story to tell about what exists: all he can do is to endorse “the many different things that our many empirically well-supported sciences say about the world” (158).
Richie, in other words, wants the deflationary naturalist to be conservative about knowledge, to hold close to empiricism, and to regard expansive metaphysical system-building as one of the spells that language casts. This sounds an awful lot like the antimetaphysical position of the Buddha to me. Wasn’t it the Buddha who taught his followers to resist the mesmerizations of “idle speculaton”? And I wonder, if we accept Ritchie’s constraint on naturalism’s range, whether atheism isn’t also a kind of metaphysical position that should be resisted as well. Maybe the agnostic spirit is most in accord with naturalism, not the atheist spirit.
Oh, and isn’t deflationary naturalism also Socrates—and Henry David Thoreau?
Thoreau said in Walden:
To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.
Gods? No gods? Who knows?
Thoreau’s quote sounds to me like a concise summing up of what Ritchie might mean by “deflationary naturalism”, but I ordered the book to see if that is just my own oversimplification—or even misunderstanding of the concept. Perhaps more anon.