Suppose you were a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century British Idealist. In particular, suppose you were Bernard Bosanquet. You’d have had a tough row to hoe, no? I mean, trying to show that the world is mental through and through, that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality, that naturalism is false – surely a very daunting task in any age, but especially so in the era of Maxwell, Lyell, Darwin, et al.!
Not really, as it happens. Why not? Thus spake Bosanquet:
“I didn’t say anything about Naturalism. I don’t think it important; the universe is so obviously experience, and it must all be of one tissue.” (Letter to C. J. Webb, Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends, p. 243, emphasis added)
See? Idealism is just so obviously true that no argument for it is needed, and naturalism is not even important enough to waste time trying to refute. That was easy!
Seriously, though, how could Bosanquet, or any philosopher, get away with such breathtaking dogmatism? Quite easily, for idealism really did seem quite obviously to be true to generations of post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophers, and not without good reason. Given certain subjectivist epistemological-cum-metaphysical assumptions having their origins in Descartes and the early empiricists, the idealistic consequences drawn from them by Kant, Hegel, and succeeding generations of German and British philosophers were, if not quite inevitable, at least extremely natural. Nor did the progress of natural science provide any reason whatsoever to think naturalism more likely to be true than idealism. For (then as now) naturalism is not an empirical or scientific thesis at all, but a purely philosophical one. And as philosophy, it simply could not stand up to scrutiny given what so many philosophers thought they knew about how we know the world (and “therefore”) what we know about it. If all we ever know or can know is experience, we cannot so much as form a concept of that which is other than experience. Idealism follows straightaway, or at least is hard to avoid. Naturalism, materialism, etc. can’t even get off the ground, or at least are extremely hard to justify in light of this widespread subjectivist starting point. Even irreligious or anti-religious philosophers of the time often acknowledged this (as I have noted elsewhere), and staked their position on some non-materialistic metaphysics or other.
But we’re well beyond such dogmatic Idealism now. Because we’ve replaced it with other kinds of dogmatism. Some of my readers recently alerted me to this Bosanquet-style dismissal of theism by my old sparring partner Will Wilkinson, a noted expert in philosophy of religion. (Or at least, a noted expert in whatever Bluffer’s Guide clichés about the subject Wilkinson picked up before dropping out of grad school.) And anyone who’s waded through the comboxes of philosophy blogs covering the APA petition controversy will find not a few professional philosophers lamenting that there is still anyone who thinks the morality of homosexual acts is even worth debating. You see, it’s just “so obvious” that the classical theistic proofs are no good. It’s just “so obvious” that the essentialist-cum-teleological metaphysics undergirding classical natural law theory is indefensible today. It’s just “so obvious” that the attitudes toward sex taken for granted by your typical liberal academic or journalist are the mark of Enlightenment, rather than (to take, entirely at random, just one possible alternative explanation) extreme moral degeneracy. No need to waste time reading books claiming to show otherwise. It’s all just so obvious!
But could contemporary secularist and liberal philosophers really be as blinkered as Bosanquet? Surely not!
It couldn’t possibly be true that what they know of the traditional theistic proofs and of classical natural law theory is really nothing more than a bunch of stupid caricatures. It couldn’t possibly be true that they are simply dogmatically beholden to certain post-positivist and post-Quinean naturalistic philosophical assumptions they picked up unreflectively as grad students and have had reinforced by their utter unfamiliarity with any school of thought currently out of favor within a narrow academic philosophical culture. It couldn’t possibly be true that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t know that they don’t know.
Well, um… it’s, you know, just so obvious!