Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Naturalism and disenchantment

Alex Rosenberg's Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality seems like an important piece of work. He asks that people not quote from it without permission (for which I can't be bothered to ask), so I'll try to discuss it fairly without repeating his actual words. Actually I won't say much directly about it, because I can't hope to engage with his arguments here. Skim the whole thing yourself. It seems important because Rosenberg is well respected and, more importantly, because it summarizes a set of conclusions that are a) acknowledged to be harsh, lacking in hope, unappealing, etc., and b) forced on us (if Rosenberg is right) by naturalism, the dominant '-ism' of contemporary philosophy. These conclusions concern such central and perennial philosophical topics as morality, free will, and the nature of reality.

Wittgenstein offers an interesting perspective on the debate about naturalism and nihilism. Rosenberg tries to reclaim the word ‘scientism’ from those, such as most Wittgensteinains, who regard it as a bad thing. In response to Rosenberg’s argument, Brian Leiter responds with an affirmation of Nietzsche’s assertion that:

Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it.

Leiter goes on to say, still following Nietzsche, that projected values can nevertheless be embraced and, in at least some cases, when the values in question are necessary, should be. He rejects the “value” that “falsity is an objection to embracing the value of something,” and encourages Rosenberg to go farther with his Nietzscheanism: “from the correct observation that most of what we believe is false, to the conclusion that since such beliefs are essential for life, we should not give them up.” Rosenberg responds that he is prepared to accept this as long as what we have bestowed is understood to be something that does not exist, like the Ashes in cricket.

Leiter’s position looks very difficult to maintain: certain beliefs are to be recognized as false and yet maintained nonetheless because they are essential for life. In what sense are they not given up just as soon as they are regarded as false? I don't mean to suggest that Leiter’s position is simply untenable. Rather, I think it forces us to ask about the meaning of his words. I suspect that a Wittgensteinian interpretation of them might offer the best answer. The same goes for Rosenberg’s comic and mysterious idea that we can bestow something that does not exist. This would be a very puzzling riddle did he not give a kind of solution along with it: what is given is like the Ashes, once an actual heap of ashes but now, by association, simply the grand container that once held them or else simply the victory that earns this trophy.

Rosenberg is giving a précis of an argument, and Leiter summarizes some of this précis as suggesting (correctly, in his view) that "most of what we believe is false." So I should not treat this claim as being all that Rosenberg means to say, but I want to anyway. If it is a fact that most of what we believe is not true in the sense that scientifically-established facts are true, it does not follow that it is false in this sense. It could be nonsense, or it could be some other kind of sense, such as secondary sense. For instance, if I say that all members of Rusted Root ought to be coshed, I don't actually mean that criminal violence should be done to innocent musicians, but nor do I simply mean that I don't like them.* I might have strong feelings that coshing is precisely what they deserve. What I say is not straightforwardly true, false, or nonsense. Many, perhaps most, of the beliefs that Leiter/Rosenberg considers false might be like this.

As comments in a blog thread, naturally what Rosenberg and Leiter say is unelaborated. Wittgenstein’s view has the advantage of being less cryptic and less seemingly impossible to believe than their (understandably and perhaps inevitably) rather gnomic remarks. Ethical ‘statements’ are neither false, nor straightforwardly true, nor nonsense, nor merely expressive of some attitude. They are, rather, perfect examples of the use of words in a secondary sense.

*I do hate Rusted Root, but not because they are hippies or liberal or anything like that. I prefer my hippies like this and my politics are probably the same as yours.

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