Jack Ritchie’s Deflationary Naturalism: A Problem for Atheism?

Brian Leiter on Wednesday directed his blog readers’s attention to Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism (2009), quoting a recent review of the book that says in part:

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Jack Ritchie’s Deflationary Naturalism: A Problem for Atheism?

  1. malachain says:

    Part of the problem here is that when we talk about “taking sides”, as Ritchie purportedly does, it’s hard to see whether or not there are distinct sides to take. What difference on our research programs and potential results does it make if we ignore the realism/antirealism debate over the above-stated matters in the empirical sciences? Probably none. So sure, these are just metaphors, exemplary models that help us fill in our more serious picture of the world.

    But on the other hand, there really does seem to be a clear contest in some cases, and when there is a clear contest then it pays to take sides. It makes a great deal of difference to science whether we’re physicalists or not — it’s the difference between ufology and astrophysics. So let’s be physicalists. If that division is just a metaphor for Ritchie, then it’s only in the sense in which scientific principles and laws themselves are indistinguishable from the models they employ.

    At bottom, there’s this distinction that floats out there between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. But I’m not always sure what it’s meant to be doing for us. On the one hand, if metaphysical naturalism gives us something relevant to talk about as an answer of which ontology science recommends, then it must follow along with a methodological naturalism (as in the physicalist case). And on the other hand, though methodological naturalism can be indifferent to metaphysical naturalism (as in the realism/anti-realism case), it can’t be at all friendly to metaphysical supernaturalism lurking in the background (as with the non-physicalist case).

    Those are the serious cases. By contrast, almost nobody is really serious about the question of the existence of god(s), in the sense of having clear kind of metaphysical endorsement and a high degree of confidence. We now know that those that are, are bafflingly wrong in what they’ve specifically proposed as evidence. And for the unserious metaphysical religious types, it’s hard to see where the scientific method lies. But that’s not saying much for the method/metaphysics distinction.

  2. Pingback: Ritchie, Naturalism, and All That « alien eleutheronomy

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