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Graham Oppy Naturalism

Review of: Craig, William Lane, and Moreland, J. P. (eds) Naturalism: A Critical Analysis London: Routledge, 2000, pp.xv+279, £60.00


The editors claim a threefold purpose for the essays which appear in this collection. First, the essays are intended to establish that naturalism “fails to deal adequately with a number of desiderata”. Second, the essays are intended to show that a “consistent” naturalism must be a strong form of reductive physicalism. And, third, the essays are meant to showcase “the contemporary resurgence of philosophical theism”. As the title says, the volume is meant to be a critique of naturalism (from the standpoint of certain contemporary philosophical theists).

The line up of contributions is as follows:

“Preface”, by Craig and Moreland, pp.xi-xv


“Farewell to Philosophical Naturalism”, by Paul Moser and David Yandell, pp.3-23

“Knowledge and Naturalism”, by Dallas Willard, pp.24-48

“The Incompatibility of Naturalism and Scientific Realism”, pp.49-63


“Naturalism and the Ontological Status of Properties”, by Moreland, pp.67-109

“Naturalism and Material Objects”, by Michael Rea, pp.110-132

“Naturalism and the Mind”, by Charles Taliaferro, pp.133-155

“Naturalism and Libertarian Agency”, by Stewart Goetz, pp.156-186


“Naturalism and Morality”, by John Hare, pp.189-211


“Naturalism and Cosmology”, by Craig, pp.215-252

“Naturalism and Design”, by William Dembski, pp.253-280

Plainly enough, the volume accomplishes the third of its objectives: what we have here is a representative selection of the work of some of the best known contemporary philosophical theists (at least in a certain kind of analytic tradition). However, it seems to me that it doesn’t get anywhere near accomplishing either of the other objectives. What I aim to do in this review is simply to explain why this is the case.

The main difficulty is one which is tacitly acknowledged by the editors on the first page of the preface: there is no consensus amongst the various authors about what “naturalism” amounts to. Given that each author is allowed to decide for himself what “naturalism” is, there is no sense in which the essays in the volume constitute a sustained attack on a single target. Moreover, since some of the authors insist on an absurdly strong characterization of “naturalism”, there is a good sense in which some of the essays do nothing but set fire to figures of straw.

In my view, naturalism is most plausibly taken to consist of (something like) the following pair of claims: (1) there are no entities which are causally related to things hereabouts but which are not spatially related to things hereabouts (hence: no souls, no spooks, no entelechies, no gods); (2) there is no sufficiently good reason for believing in the kinds of entities which are denied to exist in (1). On this way of characterizing naturalism, it emerges as a kind of metaphysical conjecture which is justified by the observation that, hitherto, none of the kinds of entities mentioned in (1) has managed to earn its theoretical keep: hitherto, no sufficient reason for believing in souls, spooks, entelechies, gods–or any other entities which are causally related to things hereabouts but not spatially related to things hereabouts–has been discovered. Of course, on this characterization, naturalism emerges as a tentative and revisable conjecture: but that, it seems to me, is how it should be. Moreover–as the editors of the book desire–it turns out that naturalism is indeed in conflict with theism.

What else do the editors of the book want for naturalism? They suggest (3) a “naturalist epistemic attitude” which involves a rejection of “first philosophy” and an acceptance of some kind of “scientism”; (4) a Grand Story of what there is told in natural scientific terms with a central role given to the atomic theory of matter and evolutionary biology; and (5) a general ontology in which the only entities accepted are those which bear a “relevant similarity” to those expected to turn up in a completed form of physics. Moreover, they also want (6) an order of justification in which (5) is grounded in (4), and (4) is in turn grounded in (3).

Why insist on (6)? That is, why insist that a rejection of “first philosophy” and acceptance of some kind of “scientistic” Grand Story is logically prior to the adoption of a naturalistic ontology? Craig and Moreland give two reasons. First, “if this is not done, then the naturalist ontology may well amount to a mere assertion and a controversial one at that” (xii). Second, “the naturalist claims to haves epistemic, explanatory and methodological superiority on his or her side [but] in order to justify this assertion of superiority, the naturalist ontology should be located in the naturalist etiology and epistemology”. Both alleged reasons are feeble. As noted above, inter alia, there is little dispute between theists and naturalists about what the naturalist says there is; the dispute is about what the naturalist says there isn’t. What the naturalist claims is that there is no good reason to believe in the things which the theist claims there are: immaterial souls, gods, libertarian freedom, etc. How the naturalist chooses to justify this claim is up to the given naturalist; but, plainly, there is no reason at all to suppose that one could not do it without “rejecting first philosophy” and “accepting some kind of scientistic Grand Story”. Moreover, there is also no reason at all to suppose that the naturalist has to claim “epistemic, explanatory and methodological superiority”; all that the naturalist needs to contend is that, as a matter of contingent fact, there is no good reason to believe in any naturalistically unacceptable entities. (Many naturalists–consider, for example, Lewis and Jackson–allow that there could have been spooks and gods, and that we could have had good reason to believe that there are spooks and gods; however, they insist that, as a matter of fact, we don’t and there aren’t.)

The authors also claim that, while self-confessed “naturalists” disagree about the details of the views which they defend, “consistent naturalists” must hold (7) that the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities is all that there is; and (8) that all entities whatsoever must be susceptible to exhaustive description in the language of an ideal physics. Why? Because “those versions of naturalism that countenance abstract entities and knowledge thereof, supervenient mental entities, emergent libertarian agents, and so forth, do so at the price of appearing ad hoc, of giving up the claim that science and science alone is adequate to explain … everything in one’s ontology” (xiv). Again, this is pretty feeble. There is no good reason why naturalists need to claim that physics alone is able to explain everything; there is nothing in the least ad hoc about an ontological physicalism which denies that other explanatory categories are theoretically dispensible. (Consider, for example, the views defended by Jackson in his Locke lectures, and to which Craig and Moreland allude. Jackson defends the view that a complete microphysical description of the world entails a complete description of the world simpliciter; but he also holds that it is impossible for us to do, say, psychology, by doing physics. Jackson’s view does not “appear ad hoc“, but it is plainly naturalistic.) Indeed, as far as I can see, there is no good reason why naturalists need to claim that science alone is able to explain everything in one’s ontology: for starters, it could perfectly well be that there is much in one’s ontology which has no explanation; and perhaps it could even be that there are things which are spatially related to us which have an explanation which science is unable to discover.

Of course, it can hardly be denied that there are enthusiastic naturalists who fit the characterization offered by Craig and Moreland. Moreover, it is true that those naturalists are enemies of theism. However, even if the collected essays manage to land some effective blows on those naturalists, it does not follow that the cause of theism has been advanced in the least.

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