Posted by: gcarkner | October 23, 2015

Compatibility Test #1: Ethics and Materialistic Naturalism?

  1. Can scientific naturalism even begin to explain ethics?

R. Scott Smith, PhD, Biola University

In the west, until the Enlightenment, both ethics and religion tended to be seen as areas in which we could have knowledge. But with the historical rise of 1) the view that the universe is a closed, mechanistic, and material system, 2) the view that science is the pinnacle of the disciplines, and 3) empiricism (the theory that all knowledge comes by the five senses), science came to be viewed as the unique set of disciplines that gives us knowledge of facts. Instead, ethics and religion were relegated to the realm of mere values, personal preferences, and opinions. This, of course, is known as the “fact-value split.”

Before the Enlightenment, and even the rise of naturalism to prominence in the modern era, moral principles and virtues generally tended to be seen as the kinds of things that can be universal, objectively real, transcendent, and even immaterial, being knowable by reason and/or revelation. By and large, people then tended to see morals as having an essential nature. But that mindset shifted in light of empiricism and naturalism. For if 1) all knowledge comes by the five senses, 2) there are no real, immaterial universals, and 3) all that exists is made up of physical stuff, then morals also came to be viewed as the kind of thing amenable to being studied empirically by science.

 Now, naturalists have proposed many alternative views about morals. E.g., some argue that they are just biological adaptations, while others contend they are just our constructions. Some focus on the meaning of moral statements and our language use. Some of these conclude that moral statements do not have any cognitive content, while others disagree, being subjectivists or objectivists. Still others embrace “error” theory, and so on.

 Yet, they all hold in common a rejection of any real, intrinsically valid moral facts or properties, because there are no essential natures. This gives rise to a problem for any naturalist, for as Simon Blackburn explains, “The problem is one of finding room for ethics, or placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part” (Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 49).

 But I will argue that if we take naturalism seriously, and what it claims is real is indeed so, then we cannot know anything (even in science, business, etc.). To do this, I will examine the claims of Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher of neuroscience. If I am correct, then the fact-value split is false. But, we do know many things, even a few widely held, clear examples in ethics. These findings will help show that naturalism is false. But that means a radically different worldview, and ontology, must be true.

(For more on this topic, see my In Search of Moral Knowledge (2014) and Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality (2012).)

See also Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos.

Blog Posts: Quality of the Will.

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