Naturalism – A Good Reason to Rally?

Today, I’m featuring a special guest post from one of my former mentors, R. Scott Smith, Associate Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Dr. Smith was my adviser while I was doing my graduate studies in the Christian Apologetics Program at Biola University. I studied under him in the areas of ethics, philosophy and historical theology.

His guest post might sound a bit technical if you’re totally new to philosophy, but thinking hard about this stuff might help you understand naturalism more–maybe a bit more than your atheist friends. His latest work is aimed at the upper division undergraduate audience, or those with some philosophy training: Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality.

I’d encourage you to read his guest post and then check out the audio recording of his discussion with my friend, Brian Auten, at the end of this post.

Guest Post by R. Scott Smith

A Good Reason to Rally?

At the “Reason Rally” in Washington, secular, atheistic people gathered in support of “reason” over [mere] “faith” of religious people. Not so hidden in the background was the widely-held cultural mindset that science uses reason and uniquely gives us knowledge of truth (the facts). But religion gives us just personal opinions and preferences, not knowledge. This bifurcation often is called the “fact-value split.”

Naturalism: “There Is No God”

This science is naturalistic; only what is scientifically knowable (i.e., by the five senses) is real. In principle, such things as God, souls, and mental states (i.e., non-physical things like thoughts, beliefs, and experiences) cannot be known to be real. Or, simplifying, they don’t exist. Yet, we can test natural, physical stuff scientifically, so that is what is believed to be real. That view of reality is the philosophy undergirding atheistic evolution by natural selection (NS) – naturalism. There’s only the physical universe, without anything non-physical.

Until Darwin, many believed there were non-physical essential natures that separated living things into kinds. Afterwards, biological classification is understood as one interconnected “tree of life” – all living things share a common ancestor.

Naturalism, Truth and Knowledge

Now, how do we know what’s true on this view? Consider Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher, neuroscientist, and New Atheist, who takes evolution by NS very seriously. For him, NS is blind – without any goal planning, thinking about some desired outcome, believing something, or trying to make something happen. And since non-physical mental states aren’t real, the qualities they would have, e.g., their representing something (their being of or about something) also would not be real. There are only brain states, physical patterns, and behavior we take (interpret) to be about something.

Dennett realizes that if there were real, intrinsic (something that’s so due to what kind of thing it is), essential natures, there could be a “deeper” fact (beyond just behavior) of what our thoughts (or beliefs, experiences) are really about. Just due to what those mental states would be essentially, they really could be of their objects, and not something else.

But, since evolution by NS denies any such essences, Dennett says we only interpret the behavior of people (and sophisticated computers and robots) as being “about” their objects. But that’s all we have to go on – just our interpretations, which we attribute to a person. Based on someone’s behaviors, we interpret them to mean the person is thinking “about” something (e.g., an errand to Lowe’s), but that’s just how we talk. In reality, there isn’t any real “aboutness” to us.

But, there could be other interpretations too. Maybe the thought is “of” something else (e.g., a movie on HBO). But, there’s no fact of the matter we can appeal to, to settle the issue. Dennett admits for that to be so, there would have to be an essence to the thought’s being of something, so that it really is about the errand, not the movie.

But without essences, we’re left only with interpretations; but, of what? Apparently, another interpretation; but if we keep pressing that question, we’re left just with interpretations of interpretations, etc., without any way to get started and experience something as it is, simply because no mental state is really about anything.

Bu the same problem applies to our own mental life. Any mental state doesn’t have an essence to be about anything in particular. If they cannot really be about something, then how would we ever know how things really are?

Our Experience Tells a Different Story

Fortunately, that’s not how we experience life. Our mental states seem to have three essential features:

  1. They’re “particularized.” My thought about tonight’s dinner, or my experience of drinking a Starbuck’s chocolate smoothie, is not generic or unspecified. Each is about something particular.
  2. These mental states must be about something. It doesn’t seem we could have one that lacks this quality. (Try having a thought that isn’t about anything!)
  3. That “ofness” seems to be intrinsic, or essential, to each mental state. My thought about last night’s dinner could not be about anything else and still be the thought it is. I could observe the price of gas at the Exxon station, but that experience couldn’t have been of my dinner.

God: The Best Explanation

How do we best explain these three apparently essential features of mental states? Dennett realizes that if mental states had essential natures, they really could be of their intended objects, so we could know them.

If athesitic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we know many things. So, naturalism & NS are false – non-physical essences exist. But, what’s their explanation? Being non-physical, it can’t be evolution. So, maybe we have souls that use them. It seems likely their best explanation is there’s a Creator after all.

Listen to This

Check out R. Scott Smith’s interview with my friend, Brian Auten, at Apologetics 315. In this interview, he talks about what naturalism is, why people want to be naturalists, the evolutionary argument against naturalism and how to test religious truth-claims. Listen now.

 

12 Responses to “Naturalism – A Good Reason to Rally?”

  1. Eric Burton May 7, 2012 4:13 PM
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    “This science is naturalistic; only what is scientifically knowable (i.e., by the five senses) is real. In principle, such things as God, souls, and mental states (i.e., non-physical things like thoughts, beliefs, and experiences) cannot be known to be real. Or, simplifying, they don’t exist.”

    If you are claiming that science as a whole thinks this way or that there is a “branch” of science that thinks like this, I disagree, but perhaps only a little. I think the distinction should be between things that we can test (natural world) and things we cannot (faith). Science doesn’t (and can’t) necessarily rule out the existence of the supernatural world, but cannot accept it as an explanation for anything, since it’s not scientific. Of course there are many believing scientists, which you are no doubt aware of.

    “And since non-physical mental states aren’t real”

    Could you explain what you mean by this, and what your justification is?

  2. Nathaniel May 7, 2012 9:07 PM
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    “only what is scientifically knowable (i.e., by the five senses) is real”
    Not so. There are numerous things we know, scientifically or mathematically, without having observed with any of the five senses.

    “That view of reality is the philosophy undergirding atheistic evolution by natural selection (NS) – naturalism. There’s only the physical universe, without anything non-physical.”
    I don’t like this definition of naturalism. I’d define it more as “only things that exist exist and things that exist drip with the properties of something that exists and not the properties of something that does not exist”. Whether we know what all the properties of existence are is not for certain by any means (probably not), but we can judge certain things to not exist if they seem to have the properties of an invented existence. And for the record, most people who believe in evolution by NS are also theists.

    “And since non-physical mental states aren’t real”
    I doubt it’s that simple and I doubt even further that this would be an accurate assessment of Daniel Dennett’s view. I would say that mental states are real in the sense that something physical is actually happening but, like everything else, our brains create a sort of conceptual interpretation of what is happening. So, for example, when you get angry about something, your body is actually doing something- reacting to a circumstance; but we don’t experience anger as a chemical reaction, we experience it as an emotion, but the emotion itself is an illusion created by the brain. It’s mind-boggling and I have no idea if it’s correct…or if I even understand it, but it’s something to chew on anyway. It could also be the opposite- that physical reality is a robust reactionary illusion to a conceptual reality, or spiritual reality. Who knows? The point is, it’s not that simple.

    “But, since evolution by NS denies any such essences”
    It does not.

    “But without essences, we’re left only with interpretations”
    In principle, yes. But it is the same with essences. Nobody can avoid making assumptions and interpretations about just about everything. Philosophy 101.

    “Fortunately, that’s not how we experience life.”
    Agreed.

    “If athesitic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we know many things”
    Ironic how many unjustified assumptions were made in that last sentence.

    “So, naturalism & NS are false – non-physical essences exist.”
    Natural Selection has nothing to do with this topic; as for the statement “non-physical essences exist”…did I miss something? At what point in this article does he establish that all these things that could be illusions are, in fact, definitely not illusions? He never even makes an argument for this point.

    “But, what’s their explanation? Being non-physical, it can’t be evolution. So, maybe we have souls that use them. It seems likely their best explanation is there’s a Creator after all.”
    So, to explain the seeming existence of seemingly non-physical experiences he assumes the existence of something non-physical that we have no experience of (the soul) and then assumes those non-physical inexperienced vessels owe their origin to something else non-physical and non-comprehensible that also happened to create everything else. This is supposed to be an explanation? No, you’re just adding a bunch of useless appendages onto the already confusing and over-complex beast of metaphysics.

    • R Scott Smith July 30, 2012 3:39 PM
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      HI Nathaniel! You wrote: “’And since non-physical mental states aren’t real’
      I doubt it’s that simple and I doubt even further that this would be an accurate assessment of Daniel Dennett’s view. I would say that mental states are real in the sense that something physical is actually happening but, like everything else, our brains create a sort of conceptual interpretation of what is happening.”

      I think that is what Dennett says. Check out his book, “The Intentional Stance,” or essays in “Brain Children.” He parts company with direct realist naturalists like Dretske, Tye, or Lycan.

      But, interestingly, these folks suggest something much like what you suggested: that mental states are real, yet they are ways of conceiving of brain states. See Tye’s “Ten Problems of Consciousness,” where he distinguishes FACTS from facts. There is just the physical world for Tye (a token-reductive materialist), & the mental end up being just a way of conceiving of the physical. And, to experience a mental state (like, my paying attention to a thought of mine) requires a conceptualization, they argue.

      But that raises some questions worth considering, I think. They rightly presuppose we form concepts. But, how do we do that? What’s needed to do that? There is virtually no discussion of this (important) issue – only David Papineau has given what is, I think, a serious attempt to answer this. But, I think what we’ll find is that it is not even possible to form concepts on their views. And, what is intentionality (the aboutness of our mental states)? Is it too just a conceptualization of a brain state (despite Tye’s attempt earlier in that book to say it is a causal matter – causal covariation under optimal conditions)? It seems it must, for him & others (like Dretske & Lycan; but Dennett just denies it is real). But, can intentionality itself be reduced to a conceptualization? I doubt it, for concepts too seem to have that very quality – being about something.

      If you want to see more of my thoughts about these issues, see my chapter on Tye, Dretske, etc., in my “Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality.”

      A quick thought about evolution by ‘NS’: yes, several theists would affirm that. Of course, they would not be naturalistic evolutionists. Here, I am concerned only with naturalistic evolution – evolution by NS in a completely materialist ontology. (Interestingly, I think that many theistic evolutionists may not affirm the existence of non-physical essences.)

      I also agree – I raised just as further ‘food for thought’ (i.e., a suggestion) that souls would seem likely in order to explain the existence of non-physical essences, & in turn God’s existence would seem likely to explain souls. I didn’t make a series of arguments here to support those suggestions. But, I do make a more detailed case in the last chapter in my book…

  3. R Scott Smith May 11, 2012 5:47 PM
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    Hi Eric! Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You have raised some good points, & they help show that it is hard (for me anyway) to write something that is tightly argued for a large audience in a very limited number of words!

    Let me try to give some feedback to some of your ideas:

    1. “If you are claiming that science as a whole thinks this way or that there is a ‘branch’ of science that thinks like this, I disagree, but perhaps only a little.”

    What I had in mind here is the view of science that seems to dominate academia, that is, atheistic evolution by natural selection (a science that is wed to naturalism, in a philosophical, ontological sense, rather than just a methodological one). On this view, there is no God, no souls, & (typically) no immaterial entities (certainly not any metaphysically abstract ones – ones not located in time or space). It is the view called strict physicalism. If you look at my new book, I think everyone of the major naturalist philosophers I examine hold to this ontology.

    2. “I think the distinction should be between things that we can test (natural world) and things we cannot (faith).”

    It seems you are assuming the typical, empirical means of scientific testing (& I do not have a problem with our ability to have empirical knowledge). If that’s what you mean, there are other things that seem to be quite real that we cannot test in that way & therefore must accept by “faith” (to use your options). These would include, e.g., the laws of logic, or the law of identity. But we seem to know those are true, yet without needing empirical evidence…

    Plus, I just finished reading an interesting book, “The Kingdom Triangle,” by JP Moreland. In it, he cites his documentation for various miracle claims, one of which he was the subject of. Now, I know JP, & he wants to be pretty careful in his investigations of these claims, so as to not be gullible. But, besides that, my point would be that if these events are possible (e.g., claims to miraculous healings, & not just in remote, 3rd or 4th world countries), they would seem to be empirically verifiable.

    3. “Science doesn’t (and can’t) necessarily rule out the existence of the supernatural world, but cannot accept it as an explanation for anything, since it’s not scientific. Of course there are many believing scientists, which you are no doubt aware of.”

    I agree; methodological naturalism does not rule out their existence. And, believing scientists are told they need to practice science in a methodologically naturalistic way, even if in their (private?) religious lives, they believe God exists.

    But, when science is combined with ontological naturalism (all that exists is the natural; there’s no supernatural), then the conclusion is there is no God. And, I think that is the view that seems to dominate academic science, like I described above.

    4. “’And since non-physical mental states aren’t real…’ Could you explain what you mean by this, and what your justification is?”

    This is Dennett’s claim, which he comes to in this way: if we take (atheistic) evolution by natural selection seriously, there are no immaterial things like thoughts, beliefs, etc. There’s only physical stuff. Plus, if beliefs, thoughts, experiences, etc., were real, these all would seem to have a “representing” quality to them – they all are of or about something (my thought of when my wife will arrive home tonight from a trip; my experience of my typing now). But, “Mother Nature” (his terms) is blind; natural selection doesn’t make any representations of anything, nor does it literally have thoughts or purposes. These are just convenient ways of talking for him.

    I hope these comments are helpful! Let me know. And, thanks for your good questions.

  4. Eric Burton May 12, 2012 4:01 PM
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    Second part:

    I feel like I am missing a larger point that you are trying to make about the importance of thinking “about” something, and that thing’s (the object’s) intrinsic essential nature. I don’t quite understand the importance of that. I imagine thinking of something just fine, like this article that I am reading.

    As a result of being a little bit lost, I cannot arrive at the same conclusion you so quickly rush to. I don’t see how it follows, but I believe that I am truly missing something here that would make your position clearer.

    “If athesitic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we know many things. So, naturalism & NS are false – non-physical essences exist. But, what’s their explanation? Being non-physical, it can’t be evolution. So, maybe we have souls that use them. It seems likely their best explanation is there’s a Creator after all.”.

    So evolution by natural selection is false. The most widely supported and tested scientific theory is proven wrong by the existence of knowledge. You’re going to have to do better than that to disprove the cornerstone of the biological sciences that has been supported by experiment and prediction for over 150 years.

    I think that you and I agree that evolution by natural selection is very difficult to sync with christianity. But to deny it makes the argument seem akin to asserting the earth is flat, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

    Again, I am missing a part of the picture here, I am convinced, so I will await a response and see if that clears it up. Thanks!

    -Eric

  5. Rob Lundberg May 14, 2012 4:40 PM
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    Eric,

    I went to the Reason Rally and had quite a few cordial conversations with some of those who profess to be atheists and skeptical of anything religious. In your statement, saying that to deny evolution is like making an argument “akin to asserting the earth is flat, despite all the evidence to the contrary.” I guess my question to you is this, where does this thinking come from that if one denies evolution that we all of a sudden believe the earth is flat. This is an absurd assertion. No Christian that I know of denying evolution believes that the earth is flat. This is nonsense. Who told you this? How do you know that those who deny evolution believe the earth is flat? Did Dawkins or Myers tell you this? Help me out here.

  6. Eric Burton May 14, 2012 4:59 PM
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    @Rob:

    I never said that people who deny evolution also think that the earth is flat, only that the denial of it is of the same caliber of those who would deny the earth has a sphere-like shape.

    If I was actually saying that everyone who denies evolution also thinks the earth is flat, that would be silly, so I can understand your incredulity. Perhaps I was not as clear as I could have been, but I think if you read what I wrote it will line up nicely. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  7. Keith Hoover May 14, 2012 5:12 PM
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    Eric, you said, “The most widely supported and tested scientific theory is proven wrong by the existence of knowledge. You’re going to have to do better than that to disprove the cornerstone of the biological sciences that has been supported by experiment and prediction for over 150 years.” What experiments can anyone perform to find out that, say, mammals evolved from reptiles or that humans evolved from an ape-like creature? And what specific predictions have been made by evolutionists?
    Here is something to consider: All scientists make assumptions that cannot be proved by science in order for science to even be possible. Whether they acknowledge it or not, all scientists MUST borrow from the Christian/Biblical worldview that gives the only basis for these assumptions. Some of these assumptions/presuppositions are:
    1. The existence of a theory-independent external world.
    2. The orderly nature of the external world.
    3. The uniformity of nature. (The same laws of nature that operate now have always operated in the past and we expect them to be the same in the future.)
    4. We are rational thinking beings that can gain knowledge of this external world.
    5. The existence of truth. (Note: it is popular for many people to claim that there is no truth. This is easily refuted by asking, “Is it true that there is no truth?”)
    6. The laws of logic and mathematics.
    7. The existence of values used in science. For example, “Test theories fairly and report test results honestly.” (Note: This is an objective moral standard).

  8. Nick May 14, 2012 5:25 PM
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    A few statements to Eric and Nathaniel.

    First off to Eric, you speak of things that we cannot know and have this be faith. This is immediately presuming that faith is antithetical to knowledge. Could you give me your definition of faith and a source for it?

    Second, I notice that Scott spoke of atheistic evolution by NS and you when replying to it left out atheistic. Now I would have no problem with evolution by NS. It is not a problem for theism so whichever way that debate goes I don’t care, although I do think general relativity is a far more tested theory.

    Third, you seem to have a contrast in mind between natural and supernatural. Could you explain the differentiation?

    To Nathaniel, I have one question. You spoke of existing properties and seeking to explain those. How do you explain existence itself?

  9. Nathaniel May 17, 2012 8:31 PM
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    @Nick
    It depends on what you mean by existence, or whose existence. If you are talking about my own existence, I would attribute that to my parents. If you are talking about the existence of our species, I would attribute that to the workings of evolution. If you are talking about the existence of consciousness, I would attribute that to the brain. If you mean it in a much more profound sense (the existence of the universe), I’m not even going to pretend I have an answer for that one; it’s unknown.

  10. Eric Burton May 27, 2012 8:10 PM
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    Sorry for the delay in responses – final project was due, then Diablo 3 was released and I was sucked into that for a bit :D

    @ Keith:

    I am having a hard time taking your response seriously, only because of the intricate and elaborate network of presuppositions that I cannot untangle and understand where you are coming from. Regarding what the evidence for evolution is, I simply do not have time to tell you – it is that vast. I can, however, point you to some very helpful resources on the subject.

    There is a wonderful youtube channel at http://www.youtube.com/evolutiondocumentary that has hundreds of documentaries about evolution. In particular, I highly recommend “What Darwin Never Knew” from NOVA (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I91Huv4jbCk&feature=plcp)

    In addition, if you are actually interested in what the evidence for evolution is, you can google “evidence for evolution” and get millions of links.

    @ Nick:

    What I meant about faith in my earlier post is the differentiation between what we can test and what we cannot. The existence of god is something that we cannot really prove or disprove in this sense. Therefore, science as a discipline or way of thinking has nothing to say about whether or not god exists, it only seeks to learn as much as we can about the world via natural processes. God could still be the source of these natural processes, but science cannot tell us that. Faith in this sense is believing something that you cannot test to see if they are real or not.

    personally, I would define religious faith as “pretending to know what you don’t know.” But it’s unlikely that any believer would like that definition. But surely people often mean different things when they talk about faith.

    My source for this less-friendly definition is nearly every believer that I have ever known, talked to, or argued with, not to mention my own idea of faith when I was a believer.

    I left out the word atheistic in my response because the theory of evolution is not atheistic or theistic. It seemed to me that Scott was calling evolution by natural selection “atheistic.” If he was not, and was in fact trying to differentiate evolutionary theory from some sort of atheistic evolution, then I misunderstood.

    Supernatural vs natural? I would probably go by what the dictionary says. I don’t believe that you don’t know what I mean by these terms, so I will tread knowingly into your trap. ;-)

    @ Scott:

    Ok I think I see what you are trying to say a little more clearly, but I still don’t think your conclusion follows so quickly from your argument. If you are talking about what thoughts really are, then I must admit ignorance. I am not a scientist and the brain is still very mysterious to those even in the know. But I will try and explain how I see your argument.

    It seems to me that you say that Dennett believes in evolution by natural selection, and he also says that thoughts about things are really just physical brain states (interpretations of them, anyway), and thus can’t have any properties of “objects,” like a desk or my phone. A thought is not a real “thing.” And you say that this follows from evolution by natural selection, which as a process does not have an end goal or plan. I think I largely agree with that bit.

    But, you say, he cannot be correct, since our thoughts are actually “about” things and we can actually know things. I have read the article several times, and I just don’t see the connection from the premises to the conclusion.

    At the very end of your article, you write:

    “If athesitic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we know many things. So, naturalism & NS are false – non-physical essences exist. But, what’s their explanation? Being non-physical, it can’t be evolution. So, maybe we have souls that use them. It seems likely their best explanation is there’s a Creator after all.”

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t find this convincing at all. Not even mildly unsettling. I simply don’t see how you get there from what you said. Are you actually claiming that evolution by natural selection is false because if it was true all we would have are interpretations of interpretations of interpretations ad infinitum? And that if we do know things, we have souls? Whoa, where did souls come from? I’m sorry, I just don’t see what is so convincing about that.

    • R Scott Smith July 30, 2012 3:40 PM
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      Eric, my apologies … I got very busy after our brief discussion, including a trip for an overseas conference, & I didn’t check on the Mikel’s site for more discussions after that. I didn’t get any notices of further replies, either – maybe my fault! I became wrapped up in end-of-semester grading, & much more. I happened to return here for info to submit a report, & then I noticed that you had made more posts. (I also am pretty new to how this all works with blog post replies.) So, I am sorry for not replying much sooner!
      You wrote in part:
      “I feel like I am missing a larger point that you are trying to make about the importance of thinking “about” something, and that thing’s (the object’s) intrinsic essential nature. I don’t quite understand the importance of that. I imagine thinking of something just fine, like this article that I am reading…As a result of being a little bit lost, I cannot arrive at the same conclusion you so quickly rush to. I don’t see how it follows, but I believe that I am truly missing something here that would make your position clearer.”
      And,
      “At the very end of your article, you write: ‘If athesitic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we know many things. So, naturalism & NS are false – non-physical essences exist. But, what’s their explanation? Being non-physical, it can’t be evolution. So, maybe we have souls that use them. It seems likely their best explanation is there’s a Creator after all’…I’m sorry, but I just don’t find this convincing at all. Not even mildly unsettling. I simply don’t see how you get there from what you said. Are you actually claiming that evolution by natural selection is false because if it was true all we would have are interpretations of interpretations of interpretations ad infinitum? And that if we do know things, we have souls? Whoa, where did souls come from? I’m sorry, I just don’t see what is so convincing about that.”
      Yes, this is a short, short article, & it is hard to make all the points in any sort of detailed fashion. And, I agree – the part about souls & God may seem like a leap! I am just trying to suggest something to ponder – that if immaterial mental states have essences, & these states are real, then that is suggestive. But, this is a suggestion, not a well-laid out argument for God’s (or souls’) existence. I do try to make a better, more detailed case in the final chapter (the implications chapter) of my Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality book.

      Let me try to approach this topic about our knowledge of reality a little different way. I start with a realization that philosophical naturalism’s greatest perceived strength (I think) is that on it, we can have knowledge of reality. We don’t need souls, nor God, nor immaterial essences. Indeed, the confidence from the fact-value split is that science uniquely gives us knowledge of reality, whereas religion & ethics (and maybe the rest of the humanities) give us opinions, preferences, etc. Or, science gives us knowledge of a vastly superior sort. And, to be true, good science, it has to be naturalistic, & not just methodologically, but also ontologically. I think that is the dominant mindset.

      And, yes, we do gain much knowledge, whether in science or other fields (including everyday life). So, I am not a skeptic about knowledge. But I think it is worth asking if that ability can be sustained if what naturalism allows to be real would in fact be real. Could we know reality (have justified true beliefs about it) if all that exists is just physical stuff?

      I don’t think so, & I think that can be approached by examining first this strange thing we call intentionality – the quality that virtually all our mental states (whatever they turn out to be, at this point in the discussion) have: the quality that our experiences, thoughts, beliefs, concepts, memories, etc., are of or about things. And, we can have mental states about things that are not real – like, we can have hallucinations, Pegasus, or thoughts about what would be the case if some scientific theory were true (which we then go & test for), yet isn’t true after all. So, just having a mental state (with its being about something) doesn’t guarantee that that thing exists – even though the mental state does.

      To have knowledge, it seems our thoughts & beliefs have to be able to be “together with” reality – they are about something real, & we can know that to be the case. So, they seem to need this feature we call intentionality (again, whatever we find it is ontologically at the end of the discussion).

      So, what kinds of options do naturalists have? They seem to divide into two main camps, & my book is an attempt to survey these major options. One main option is suggested by reductive physicalists (all that exists is the physical; mental states may be considered to be real on this view, but they must be reducible to physical states), such as Michael Tye, Fred Dretske, Bill Lycan, John Searle, or David Papineau. Their writings are very interesting & thoughtful, & I especially appreciate their confidence that we can know reality (even directly). They all tend to argue that there is a physical, causal story to be told about what intentionality is, & why our mental states can be together with their objects in the real world. E.g., a light wave bounces off an apple, causing a physical series to travel to my eye, impinging on my retina & causing more states in my optic nerve & eventually my brain. (I agree – there is a physical story like this one involved with how we experience things in the physical world. I just don’t think it is the whole story.)

      But they all need to say that a mental state, like my experience of seeing that apple, ends up being reducible to a brain state. Or, maybe the experience is just a way of conceiving of a brain state (e.g., Tye, Searle, Papineau). Either way, though these people may claim that mental states are real, they still are reducible to physical states (or conceptualizations of physical states). They have to do this because all that exists for them is the physical. So, there cannot be any immaterial essences either.

      I don’t think this first kind of option will work to enable us to know reality. Despite Dretske’s replies to my objection, I still don’t see how we (whatever kind of thing we are on this view) can traverse a long, physical, causal series & arrive at the originating object (like, the apple) that is causing the experience of the apple in me. I would be physical stuff, too, so how can I (assuming for a moment that it makes sense that “I” am a unified, whole being, & not just an aggregate of lots of physical parts) get past the intervening physical states & arrive at the apple? It seems I can only take (interpret, conceive) it to be the case that the apple is causing it in me, but how can I know that to be so? Seems like a faith posit. (I reply to Dretske’s objections in my chapter on him, Tye & Lycan in my book.)

      Another issue with this kind of approach arises if the mental is just a conceptualization of brain states. If so, then so must intentionality. But, if intentionality is just a way of conceiving of a brain state, there’s a problem – for concepts also have intentionality. So, it won’t work to reduce intentionality to a concept. That just presupposes the very thing in question. [Plus, there’s more – there’s no way to directly introspect our mental states on Tye, Lycan, or Dretske’s kind of view, for they all think that to do so would be to insert something physical between ‘us’ and the intended object in the real world. That is like a sense datum view, which they want to avoid, for then they would run into the problems with being unable to get past that “datum” (or physical thing) to the actual object (e.g., the apple). Instead, they say that all introspection requires concepts. But that raises issues about how we form concepts in the first place – & I just don’t think that is how it works (see that chapter for more).]

      Then, the other main kind of option is the one Dennett takes; he just denies that mental states (or essences, or intentionality) are real. There’s only the physical world, with brains & real, physical patterns. So, what someone intended to do, or meant, ends up being just our way of interpreting that thing’s (or person’s) behavior. There is no real intentionality; that there could be a real fact of the matter of what someone meant when he or she wrote X is something that could be true only if real essences exist – what the person really had in mind, or really was experiencing.

      So, when I come to interpret someone’s behavior, I take it to be the case that my experience is about that behavior. But, there’s no fact of the matter even about my experience & what it is of – that would require an essence, as he admits. So, I just have my interpretation (conceptualization, taking) that my experience is of that behavior. Is there any way on his views to overcome this issue & know that I am accessing the behavior itself? No, for that would require an experience & an essence to it – so, I just have an interpretation (allegedly) of my previous interpretation. And so would continue to be the case with every subsequent experience (or, observation)… all without a way to actually access & know reality, even the prior interpretation.

      So, there’s a quick overview of a central problem. I explore these & many more details in the book, if you like. I believe a key to how we can know reality is that intentionality is irreducibly immaterial, & that mental states have their intentionality intrinsically – essentially – like my case study examples in the essay. That means there are essences, even to immaterial states, yet there’s no room for them in philosophical naturalism; so, it must be false.

      I hope this helps clarify a bit more; again, I am sorry for my being so long in replying!