What’s Wrong with the World

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It’s just so obvious!

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.

Why not?

Well, um… it’s, you know, just so obvious!


Comments (10)

I just received your book in the mail today.

I noticed that you were a visiting assistant professor at LMU. I attended LMU from 1999-2004. If you do not mind answering, when did you teach there? Or is the answer "obvious" =)?

Hi Kurt, I was there as a part-timer from 1998-2002, and as a visiting assistant professor from 2002-04. We probably passed each other in the hallway many times!


Speaking about "naturalism" and "materialism" ...

It seems to me that in TLS, your concept of a material entity is ultimately of an entity that (i) has primary qualities of modern mechanics -- like solidity, extension, figure, motion, number, and (ii) could be a relatum of efficiently causal relations, esp. of pushing or of being pushed.

The view that all entities are material in the given sense you call "mechanicism" or "materialism."

But what about "naturalism" and "physicalism"? I'm not sure whether all (alleged) contemporary physical and natural entities satisfy (i) and (ii). Cf. Levine, Purple Haze, pp. 17-21. And as I've said elsewhere, that renders for me the discussions about "materialism," "physicalism," "naturalism," and the like muddled.

Isn't the ultimate difference just the rejection vs. the embracement of God or after-life?


I don't think I understand your point. Are you saying that, because of things like qualia (I haven't read Levine; are those the kind of entities he's referring to?), that mechanicism is clearly false? And that therefore, when people defend naturalism, what they're defending (a) can't be co-extensional with mechanicism, and must instead be (b) co-extensional with atheism and denial about an afterlife?

Incidentally, Ed, I think qualia show naturalism to be obviously false. Do you think I should be less sure of myself on that score?

Hello Vlastimil,

I do indicate in TLS that this positive characterization of matter is one that materialists, naturalists, and physicalists have all become increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to in the centuries since the original "mechanical philosophy" overthrew Aristotelianism. In its place they tend to put an entirely negative characterization, viz. that whatever matter is, qualia and intentionality cannot be regarded as irreducibly material. That is to say, whatever matter is, qualia and intentionality cannot be regarded as bedrock or bottom level features of material reality but at most as derived features. You find this in writers like Fodor and Levine.

What this amounts to, though (as I emphasize in TLS) is just a dogmatic insistence that nothing like final causality (of which intentionality is an instance) or formal causality (since "qualia" are what you get when certain kinds of form are treated as projections rather than inherent features of material objects) will be allowed to count as "material." Which iswy teh claim that Aristotelianism was somehow "refuted" by the mechanistic revolution is laughable. Mechanism is nothing more than a dogmatic refusal to admit distinctively Aristotelian categories. Or at least, that's what it's become over the centuries as whatever postive content it once had (e.g. the notion of contact causation) has been abandoned.

Hell Bobcat,

No, I think that's absolutely right. Whatever matter is, it is more or less defined by the moderns (explicitly or, more commonly, implicitly) as devoid of what we now call qualia, so that there is no way in principle to "explain" qualia in materialistic terms. Which is why (as Searle as emphasized) all attempted materialistic "explanations" are implicitly eliminativist.

It is amazing that so few contemporary philosophers see this, though some of them do (e.g. Searle and Nagel). It was something earlier moderns (e.g. Cudworth and Malebranche) perceived as a key argument for dualism, which in their view followed necessarily from mechanism, rather than being in confict with it.

Whoops, I meant "Hello Bobcat"! Typing quickly between classes, sorry...

Heavens, Bobcat. Fixed, now you are back among the angels. :)

Dr. Feser,

That is to say, whatever matter is, qualia and intentionality cannot be regarded as bedrock or bottom level features of material reality but at most as derived features.

Perhaps it is because so many other animals appear to have the experience of qualia and intentionality, albeit much less abstract than ours. Nobody thinks that animals perceive wavelengths of light full stop, they see a color or shape, hear a sound, etc. If they recognize the qualia in some positive or negative way they respond to it with an intentional stance, which is also less complex than ours but it is there.


My point has been that I'm regularly unclear on what is meant by "(anti)materialism/physicalism/naturalism." Most times the terms are not explicated. And the the early modern mechanistic explication fits no more.



"Mechanism is nothing more than a dogmatic refusal to admit distinctively Aristotelian categories."

What about "naturalism"? Esp., what about Aristotelian moral naturalism? See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism-moral/#NeoAriNat


I think you'll find that the question of what constitutes physicalism/naturalism/materialism is a controversial one. There's a fair bit written about this topic, from Naturalists (Pettit and Papineau) and non-naturalists (Tim Crane) alike. Here are two approaches:

(1) Physicalism/naturalism/materialism is the theory that reality is constituted just by whatever it is ideal physics has to postulate to make sense of its observations.
(2) Physicalism/naturalism/materialism is the theory that reality is constituted just by whatever kinds of things it is (and smaller) that make up this table in front of me.

The problem with (1), of course, is that we have no idea what an ideal physics looks like.
The problem with (2) is that it can't account for panpsychism, which isn't supposed to be a physicalist view. (This is true of (1) as well--it could end up including God as one of the things physics has to postulate.)
Another problem with (1) and (2) is that neither can accommodate alien properties, i.e., things that don't exist at all in this world but could have existed.

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