Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rosenberg on naturalism

Alex Rosenberg has a piece in The Stone and this talk with Owen Flanagan about naturalism. His The Stone piece was pretty bad. It was a response to Timothy Williamson's piece but the only strategy Rosenberg employs to defend naturalism in response to the rather straightforward arguments of Williamson seems to either bite the bullet big time and to use an ostrich approach viz, pretend the argument doesn't exist (Williamson's rejoinder seems to echo my sentiments on it as well).

Here's my comment to the Flanagan/Rosenberg debate:

I’ve read Rosenberg’s piece in the NYTs and seen this episode but I am still not clear on what kind of naturalism he is advancing.

Anyway, here’s another thought I had while watching. Regarding Rosenberg’s responses to the moral issues Flanagan raised, it doesn’t seem to me that Rosenberg’s explanation will do the kind of work needed for any kind of theory required for a normative outlook in the world. Rosenberg says something like it may be natural to behave morally and that provides all the normativity we need. (I hope I’m accurate in capturing his expressed views and apologize if I got them wrong).

But then the problem is why ought we follow our natural moral instincts? I can imagine someone saying in response, “because we want to” but I don’t think this will do because of this. It is reasonable to me that we also have many natural instincts that may be detrimental to morality (such as instincts to rape or murder in some circumstances). It becomes difficult to see why we ought to follow or cultivate some of our instincts (namely the moral ones) rather than others (the ones detrimental to morality). A response here is that since most of our instincts are moral in nature, we ought to follow that and ignore any instincts that may go contrary and cause discord with the majority of our instincts.

But what if the classical Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu, e.g. is correct and that the majority of human natural instincts are not moral but selfish and immoral? In fact, the thesis that humans are by nature essentially wicked is supported by at least some empirical evidence. Then ought we follow our evil instincts, ignoring our moral ones and murder, rape, etc?

However, may rebuttal can actually be stated more convincingly when one accepts the seemingly obvious assumption that people, even if they happen to be mostly innately good, can cultivate their wicked side so as to become mostly bad people. The question is why shouldn't we cultivate our evil instincts so that they overwhelm the good aspects if the kind of naturalism Rosenberg is advocating is true? There seems to be no normative force behind it and that is a reductio counting against it. The extra assumption is plausible especially when you consider cases like Robert Alton Harris, who had been a seemingly normal boy, once very sensitive to the suffering of others (even cartoon characters such as Bambi according to his sister), but under severe child abuse, became one of the most notorious psychopaths ever on California's death row.


I've included another comment on the talk:

I also found Rosenberg’s answer to the political stuff intriguing but very much lacking in argumentation relying on major assumptions.

For example, he says that punishment and distributive justice itself is a leftist notion and says that his form of naturalism justifies a less punitive and more egalitarian society in terms of distributive justice. His reasoning is that [deterministic] causation makes free will and hence moral responsibility impossible. But he then goes on to say that we cannot abandon our (in P.F. Strawson’s words) reactive attitudes due to their naturalness. But presumably some of our natural reactive attitudes are retributive and its unclear that they would be assuaged by the realization that we are unfree beings without punishing (or rewarding people in the case of our inclinations to praise).Moreover, Rosenberg relies on these assumptions

1. that naturalism implies that determinism is true

2. that determinism makes free will and moral responsibility impossible

The first is an open question. Philosophers of science and physicists are not convinced that all our actions are determined. As to 2. most philosophers are compatibilists. Also even if the world were not deterministic, most philosophers would probably believe in free will since there are also libertarians and most compatibilists theories of free will does not depend on the truth determinism/indeterminism, either would do. It seems that Rosenberg would need to offer a serious rebuttal and defend the small minority of philosophers (12%!)who do not believe in free will.