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Naturalism and Self-Refutation


Tom Clark at Brandeis University has a blog called Naturalism.Org. On his blog he presents a lengthy defense of naturalism as a metaphysical, scientific, and social project. Clark’s blog is valuable because he presents detailed arguments in favor of naturalism, which is unusual. Much of naturalist/materialist blogging is so poorly thought-out that it’s difficult to respond to with anything except satire. Clark at least attempts a coherent logical defense of naturalism, and this opens the door to some interesting discussions.

What is naturalism? Clark defines it thus:

Naturalism asserts that the world is of a piece; everything we are and do is included in the space-time continuum whose most basic elements are those described by physics.

Already we encounter problems for naturalism. Mathematics is certainly something we do. Is mathematics “included in the space-time continuum [with] basic elements … described by physics”? It seems a stretch. What is the physics behind the Pythagorean theorem? After all, no actual triangle is perfect, and thus no actual triangle in nature has sides such that the Pythagorean theorem holds. There is no real triangle in which the sum of the squares of the sides exactly equals the square of the hypotenuse. That holds true for all of geometry. Geometry is about concepts, not about anything in the natural world or about anything that can be described by physics. What is the “physics” of the fact that the area of a circle is pi multiplied by the square of the radius? And of course what is natural and physical about imaginary numbers, infinite series, irrational numbers, and the mathematics of more than three spatial dimensions? Mathematics is entirely about concepts, which have no precise instantiation in nature as described by physics.

Clark would likely argue that the concepts of mathematics are the products of our brains, which are purely material things. But that’s merely an assertion based on metaphysical presupposition, without any basis in physics or science. The hallmarks of the mind — intentionality, qualia, restricted access, the generation of propositions and logic, etc., have nothing whatsoever to do with matter. Matter, as understood by physics, isn’t intentional — it isn’t about anything. Matter is not inherently subjective, it doesn’t generate propositions or logic, etc.

For Clark, thoughts merely appear out of matter, which has no properties, by the laws of physics, for generating thought. For Clark to assert that naturalistic matter as described by physics gives rise to the mind, without immateriality of any sort, is merely to assert magic.

Furthermore, the very framework of Clark’s argument — logic — is neither material nor natural. Logic, after all, doesn’t exist “in the space-time continuum” and isn’t described by physics. What is the location of modus ponens? How much does Gödel’s incompleteness theorem weigh? What is the physics of non-contradiction? How many millimeters long is Clark’s argument for naturalism? Ironically the very logic that Clark employs to argue for naturalism is outside of any naturalistic frame.

The strength of Clark’s defense of naturalism is that it is an attempt to present naturalism’s tenets clearly and logically. That is its weakness as well, because it exposes naturalism to scrutiny, and naturalism cannot withstand even minimal scrutiny. Even to define naturalism is to refute it.

Photo credit: WenPhotos, via Pixabay.