The Gadfly: A Socratic Interrogation of Naturalism, by B. T. Newberg
Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with B. T. Newberg’s Socratic interrogation of naturalism.
Socrates was known as the gadfly of Athens because he asked the questions no one wanted to answer. While waiting in line for his impiety trial, for example, he struck up a conversation about piety with a priest named Euthyphro. Surely a priest would know what piety is, right? Yet Socrates’ questions revealed a concept Euthyphro thought he understood was actually far more elusive than he’d realized.
In the same way, we naturalists may do well to look into our own favorite concept: naturalism. Do we really understand it as well as we think? If not, what do we stand to gain from unmasking false certainties?
There are numerous definitions of this worldview. Some of them are here. Unfortunately – and I’m not going to mince words here – none of them are very good. The truth is we’ll get more from exploring the ambiguities of the concept than from any definition. By doing so, we’ll learn something about a humble approach to knowledge, a little about seeing from the perspective of other people, and finally, just a bit about ourselves.
Instead of starting with definitions, then, let’s look at the word itself, and work outward from there. You can see right away that it contains the word natural. We naturalists are people concerned with the natural, or nature. We care about what’s real, and we want the way we live to be based not on speculative metaphysics or fantasies, but on what’s really going on.
How do we know what’s real, though? We look to science, which is far and away the most successful means available today for modeling the universe. Yet, there’s something funny about referring to science in this way. Science itself presupposes naturalism, at least in practice. Regardless of what religious ideas the scientist may believe in the privacy of her heart, she does not let them enter into the laboratory. This kind of naturalism – called methodological naturalism – defines science. It seems rather circular to define naturalism by science while defining science by naturalism, doesn’t it?
There’s another kind of naturalism that goes by a variety of names – philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism – which holds that only those things that are in principle discoverable by science are real. There’s something funny here too, though. You can’t prove something doesn’t exist just because you can’t find it using the tools you have, however good those tools might be. The best this kind of naturalism can hope to show is that whatever is not discoverable by science cannot affect causation in our universe, and hence is irrelevant. But that seems like a dodge, doesn’t it? Besides, there’s no escape from circularity here. What’s real is defined by science, and science by what’s real.
Well, if we can’t define what’s real by science, then maybe we should define it by what it isn’t: the supernatural. Gods and ghosts and spirits and souls – all that stuff that requires faith to believe in – all those are what naturalism rejects. True, but on what grounds do we reject them? There is no evidence to support them, we say, but what do we mean by evidence? Ask any religious person why they believe and they will give you evidence – faith-based reasons, intuitive feelings, or even empirical experiences. Yet, we don’t accept those things, because they’re not scientific evidence. Oops, we’re back to circularity again.
The… (giving up)
One could go on like this for quite a while, proposing and striking down arguments, but it gets tiresome rather quickly. It makes you want to throw your hands up like one of Socrates’ frustrated interlocutors. There is a temptation to resort to Justice Potter Stewart’s strategy for defining obscenity: “I know when it when I see it!”
What I want to suggest is that we should neither throw our hands up nor jump to foregone conclusions. Instead, let it be an ongoing process of investigation. There are very few of us naturalists who bother to interrogate our beliefs to the degree we demand from people of faith. If we are not to become hypocrites, we ought to do so. More importantly, though, it’s healthy to examine our beliefs. It sharpens our reason, makes us a bit more humble, and opens a space of compassion for others of different beliefs. Socrates didn’t assume the role of gadfly just to be sadistic. He believed something could be gained from unmasking false certainties.
When we reach the point where we can’t quite define what we believe, and we are tempted to throw our hands up, that is a moment of rational discovery. We see what we thought we knew was not so certain, and we reevaluate who we are and what we know. Further, we’re humbled – just a little – when we see how far we have yet to go in understanding even something so basic as this. Finally, we gain a bit of compassion for others of different beliefs when we realize that the questions on which we differ are by no means easy to answer.
Now, I’m not advocating some warm and fuzzy relativism. I am a naturalist, after all, and I think there are indeed good ways to define naturalism, which I’ve published elsewhere, although in the end I may prove as clueless about naturalism as Euthyphro was about piety. In any case, the important thing is that each person struggle with these questions for themselves.
So, what have we learned? Naturalism is by no means easy to define. It is associated with science, but its relationship to it is more problematic than normally thought. It contrasts with the supernatural, but there too the water gets murky as soon as we look a little closer. Circular reasoning tends to crop up in the most unexpected places. How easy it is to notice flaws in others’ thinking, yet how difficult to see it in our own! Once we do recognize it, though, we come away with enhanced humility, compassion, and self-knowledge.
In the end, what worldview naturalism comes down to, at the very least, is a way of life rooted in reality, with the nature of that reality as an open question. We embrace scientific evidence as the best indicators available today for determining what’s real. Yet, since all facts are liable to being overturned by new evidence, this embrace must be provisional. Moreover, the very bedrock of naturalism can be probed without necessarily proving rock steady. That means we must never ignore the gadfly, that little voice in our heads that asks, like Socrates:
What is naturalism?
P.S. Want to continue the dialogue about naturalism? Leave a comment!
B. T. Newberg founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013. His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at Patheos, Pagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.
Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective. After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Humanism. Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.
In 2009, he completed a 365-day challenge recorded at One Good Deed Per Day. As a Pagan, he has published frequently at The Witch’s Voice as well as Oak Leaves and the podcast Tribeways, and has written a book on the ritual order of Druid organization Ar nDriocht Fein called Ancient Symbols, Modern Rites. He headed the Google Group Polytheist Charity, and organized the international interfaith event The Genocide Prevention Ritual.
Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language. He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com. After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in St Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.
B. T. currently serves as the treasurer and advising editor for HP.
To speak with B. T. Newberg, find him on Twitter at @BTNewberg, or contact him here.
This Friday, John Halstead reviews Brendan Myer’s book, The Earth, The Gods and The Soul – A History of Pagan Philosophy: From the Iron Age to the 21st Century.