Jack Ritchie

Understanding Naturalism


Review by Ashley Theuring (2013)

Review by Lancelot Watson (2010)

Review by Ashley Theuring (2013)

Understanding Naturalism. Jack Ritchie. Acumen Publishing Company, 2009, 232 pages, $24.95.

Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism is a helpful and concise introductory text to the naturalist view within “epistemology, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language” (2). Overall, the book’s purpose is to map the varieties of naturalism and discuss some of the underlying philosophical questions with which naturalism grapples. Understanding Naturalism is a unique approach to naturalism from a strictly philosophical point of view. Throughout the book, the author makes several broad distinctions between specific camps within naturalism. He lays out a clear division between methodological naturalists and metaphysical naturalists. There is further breakdown within both of these camps: methodological naturalists are divided based on whether they are constructive or deflationary, while metaphysical naturalists are divided into physicalists and non-physicalists. Ritchie situates himself within the methodological deflationary naturalists, also known as the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA), that was influenced heavily by the philosophies of Arthur Fine and Penelope Maddy. Ritchie’s philosophical explanations and examples are numerous and easily grasped. It is clear Ritchie is a highly trained insider on the topic of naturalist philosophy. While Ritchie’s book effortlessly covers a large amount of philosophical ground, his examples remain solely in the theoretical realm, unapplied to practical situations. This leaves the reader to deal with difficult, practical questions of ethics and morality without guidance.

Ritchie’s introduction focuses on defining naturalism. He begins with listing some general “slogans” for naturalist, including the statements “there is no first philosophy” and “philosophy is continuous with the natural sciences” (1). Ritchie narrows his focus for this book onto “prominent variations in naturalist thinking over the last fifty or so years” (2). He then finishes the introduction by bringing the term “naturalism” into conversation with three other terms: supernatural, artificial, and normative. Although norms are not natural, Ritchie argues throughout his book that norms are a “special case” that allows science to be done well (6). In the discussion around norms, Ritchie avoids giving any real critique of norms and their ability to oppress. Ritchie’s later use of norms as a rhetorical device would have been more compelling by more thoroughly addressing their dangers and why they are not natural more thoroughly in the introduction

In the first chapter, “First philosophy,” Ritchie discusses why naturalists do not hold the philosophical concept of “first philosophy” (8). Ritchie covers several philosophers and their first philosophy concerns in this chapter, including Rene Descartes with his notions of skepticism and David Hume with his critique of induction. Ritchie does a fantastic job covering both of these philosophers in succinct and understandable ways. The transcendental philosophers (Kant, Locke, and Berkely) attempt to overcome skepticism and induction, but their philosophies do not hold in the light of twentieth century physics. Ritchie also discusses Frege’s logical empiricism and Carnap’s linguistic framework, which he continues to discuss into the second chapter.

In the second chapter, “Quine and naturalized epistemology,” Ritchie continues with Carnap by introducing Quine, whose main criticism of Carnap is the lack of “holism” in the idea of multiple linguistic frameworks. Quine counters Carnap’s idea of multiple linguistic frameworks with a “methodological monism” (30). Quine holds himself to several pragmatic standards, including simplicity, fruitfulness, conservativeness, modesty and refutability. Ritchie deftly compares Quine’s ideas of sensory input as the primary way of knowing and naturalized epistemology, which depends on the findings of empirical research. Although Ritchie makes it clear that Quine is not the naturalist’s answer for epistemology, his argument would have been strengthened by addressing more practical applications of Quine’s theories. For example, Ritchie critiques Quine’s assumption that sensory input will have similar triggers for different people, using the example of what one person recognizes as a duck may be recognized as a swan by a different person (48-49). Ritchie’s critique remains superficial, while any type of ethical line of questioning, such as looking at the triggered reaction of a trauma survivor to a smell or sound compared to a non-traumatized person’s reaction, would have made the point a lot stronger, or at least more relevant to personal contexts.

The third chapter, “Reliabilism,” focuses on the ideas of justification, true belief, and reliability. Ritchie quickly problematizes Plato, who defines knowledge as justified true belief, and turns to the notion of Reliabilism, held by Alvin Goldman and Fred Dretske, who argue that justification is unimportant as long as you are right more often than wrong. The author finishes this chapter by setting out his arguments against reliabilism, which include its inability to be fully naturalistic and its irreverence for the distinctiveness of science (73).

Chapter four, “Naturalized philosophy and science,” continues Ritchie’s point on the distinctiveness of science, citing the ideas of method and norms as key pieces to Ritchie’s own philosophy. Ritchie focuses on Kuhn and Feyerabend’s argument that there is no single scientific method, arguing science often suffers from incommensurability. Ritchie brings into the discussion Laudan’s naturalized methodology, which allows for different aims to have different methods, giving more fluid ebb and flow between aims, methods, and theories. The question then becomes why should someone choose science over religion if science can change depending on the aim? Here Ritchie discusses realism and anti-realism, but finishes with his own method the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). Ritchie cites NOA’s disposition to “[avoid] making any commitments to extra-scientific claims such as the correspondence theory of truth, the explanatory power of realism or the progress of science” as the main reasons why NOA would be helpful for developing a naturalist philosophy (97-98).

The fifth chapter, “Naturalizing metaphysics,” looks at the option of physicalism as a metaphysic for naturalists. Physicalism can be divided into two camps: reductive and non-reductive physicalism. Physicalists all agree that physics is a causally complete discipline and the ideas of supervenience and superdupervenience are used to explain how this is possible. Ritchie outlines several issues with physicalism. Ritchie seems most comfortable with Frank Jackson’s a priori approach to physicalism in which he argues that even the seemingly non-physical things can fit into the physical world (133).

Chapter five’s discussion spills over into chapter six, “Naturalism without Physicalism.” Here, Ritchie discusses the non-physicalist side of naturalist metaphysics. There are two camps of non-physicalists, including those who reject the premise of causal agreement and those who reject physics application universally. The former includes Thomas Nagel, who argues that “qualia” is not physical; Frank Jackson, who argues there are non-physical facts such as experiences of seeing color; and David Chalmers, who argues that consciousness is not physical. Ritchie critiques all three thinkers, arguing there is an ontological gap that leads these philosophers to extra-scientific assumptions, such as epiphenomenalism and panprotopychism, which lead to dualism (139). Unfortunately, Ritchie’s argument here becomes muddled. He does not ground his critique in anything applied, but rather stays in the realm of philosophical metaphors, opting to pick apart Chalmer’s theory of “zombies” by talking about theoretical “zombies.” While entertaining, “zombies” have no pertinence to life and perhaps a more powerful example would strengthen Ritchie’s case. The other non-physicalist included in this chapter is Nancy Cartwright, who argues physics is not universally applicable. Ritchie’s main point in this chapter and the previous chapter is to show the varieties of metaphysical paths taken by naturalists. Ritchie argues against physicalism, but also against the idea of a unified metaphysics in general. Again, Ritchie makes clear his position as a NOA naturalist.

The final chapter, “Meaning and truth,” digs into the philosophy of language. First Ritchie begins with a discussion on misrepresentations and malfunctions of the brain. In this chapter, as in others, Ritchie makes it clear that the terms of the discussion are rarely agreed upon, strengthening his argument in this chapter that “truth” as a totalizing whole maybe ungraspable. Ritchie uses Dretske and Millikan as examples to show how terms such as “representation” can have two different meanings in discussion of philosophy of language. For Dretske “representation” is linked to the stimulus, while for Millikan “representation” is linked to the benefits. Ritchie goes into further detail around the ideas of conceptual role semantics (CRS), which argues a word develops its meaning through use. He also touches on the unlikely possibility of shared meaning. Ritchie concludes this chapter, as several others, with tying the discussion back to NOA, arguing that considering the varieties of philosophies of language, it may be best to wait and see which philosophies are supported by empirical data.

In the conclusion, Ritchie reminds the reader why naturalism is a fruitful and worthwhile approach to philosophy. He also summarizes the varieties of naturalism and discusses the troubles naturalism can face. Overall, the book does a great job covering a lot of thinkers and philosophies in just over two-hundred pages. It is an accessible read, but the author’s argument for his own brand of naturalist philosophy is weakened by the lack of practical applications of the philosophies discussed.

Review by Lancelot Watson (2010)

Understanding Naturalism. Jack Ritchie. Acumen Publishing Company, 2008, 218 pages, $20.65.

Jack Ritchie makes the bold claim that “Naturalism is the current philosophical fashion” (1). As fashionable as it is, Naturalists are divided on most issues. What they do have in common, according to Ritchie, is an acceptance of science and their rejection of the supernatural. Ritchie in Understanding Naturalism attempts to lay out in a systematic fashion an ontology that provides naturalists a system consistent with science and philosophy. Ritchie is aware that his system requires philosophy to take a back seat to science and this will only happen if he provides answers to critical philosophical issues. He finds it necessary therefore to examine what he calls “the most prominent variations of naturalist thinking over the last fifty years” (2). This means an examination of epistemology, philosophy of science, metaphysics and the philosophy of language.

Ritchie begins with an attempt to determine what naturalism is, what it is not and what philosophers mean by the term. To this end he contrasts “Natural versus the supernatural”, “Natural versus artificial” and “Natural versus normative”. It is in this discussion that he tells us the brand of naturalism that he favors and is advocating, “Deflationary Methodological Naturalism” a view influenced by Arthur Fine’s Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA) and Penelope Maddy’s position on philosophy. NOA figures prominently in Ritchie’s system as it allows a less critical attitude towards science with its recommendation that philosophers “try to take science on its own terms, and try not to read things into science” (3). Alongside NOA is Maddy’s attitude toward philosophy, “Philosophers should not try to interfere with successful practices like science but simply accept that science (or mathematics) is successful and strive to understand its success” (4). A conflation of these attitudes towards science and philosophy gives Ritchie the framework to lay out his system. Understanding Naturalism could therefore be viewed as an apologetic work for Deflationary Methodological naturalism. Ritchie develops his work in seven chapters.

In chapter one, “First philosophy,” Ritchie addresses one of the slogans of naturalistic philosophy, “there is no first philosophy” (8), he discusses the notion of a first philosophy, why several philosophers felt there was a need for it, problems associated with a first philosophy which are the basis for its rejection by naturalists. He identifies two problems, skepticism (Rene Descartes) and induction (David Hume). Two first philosophy answers are laid out, Kant’s transcendental idealism and Carnal‘s logical positivism.

Chapter two is “Quine and naturalized epistemology,” and here Quine’s naturalized epistemology is examined and discarded as Quine’s “story fails to provide an account of what knowledge is and how it is possible” (52). Ritchie finds Quine’s “attempts at naturalized philosophy disappointing” (52).

Chapter three is also on epistemology. Here the topic is “Reliabilism” and Ritchie examines the traditional view that knowledge is justified true belief. This he rejects on two grounds. First, “we have no principled way to type the belief-forming mechanisms that is fully naturalistic,” and second, “it fails to provide illumination of what is distinctive and special about scientific inquiry” (73).

Chapter four is on “Naturalized philosophy and science.” Here Ritchie looks at Kuhn’s and Feyerabend’s naturalistic accounts of science and Laudan’s naturalized philosophy of science. This discussion provides the naturalist with two ways to overcome a first philosophy. First is constructive methodological naturalism, second, the naturalist may take a stance which “takes science at face value, and not force it into preferred mould” (109). If the naturalist is uncomfortable with these two ways then the next chapter’s metaphysical solution may work.

Chapter five is about “Naturalizing metaphysics.” Here answers are sought to the question, “is there such a thing as naturalized metaphysics?” The straight up answer Ritchie gives is “physicalism,” “the successor to the materialism of Democritus and Hobbes” (110). This discussion looks at several aspects of physicalism including Davidson’s “mental events”, Kim’s “supervenience,” and other metaphysical concepts such as “epiphenomenalism,” “determinates and determinable,” “analytic functionalism,” and “mental causation.” Ritchie concludes with one approach naturalists who are physicalists may take with problems related to justification for physicalism. Ritchie recommends the solution offered by Jackson, where philosophers “show how the things that don’t seem physical – minds, meaning, morals – fit into the physical world” (133).

Chapter six discusses “Naturalism without physicalism.” This is a continuance of the theme of physicalism started in chapter 5. Here the discussion centers on the two groups of philosophers, naturalists and non-naturalists who also reject physicalism. These philosophers believe there are mental phenomena such as consciousness and qualia which do not fit in the mold of physicalism. The discussion centers on the works of Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson and David Chalmers. Ritchie tells us in the conclusion of this chapter that he is one of the naturalists who do not call themselves physicalists. His reason is two-fold. His first reason is due to the absence of a metaphysical picture supported by science and in his second one is that physicalists have a difficulty defining physics. He advocates therefore that naturalists adopt the position of “metaphysical agnosticism.”

Chapter seven focuses on “Meaning and truth.” Here different naturalistic approaches are again considered with the discussion revolving around the works of Quine, Fred Dretske, Ruth Millikan, P. Horwich, and H. Price. After a lengthy but thorough discussion, Ritchie concludes that “the problem of understanding semantic notions from a naturalistic perspective is the great unsolved problem for naturalists. It is not just that we don’t know which naturalistic theory to accept; we are not even sure of the right way to approach these questions and whether any of the approaches on offer is consistent with the general naturalist orientation” (194).

In the conclusion of the book Ritchie recapitulates the pros and cons of naturalism. For him, although naturalism does not have all the right answers it is still worthwhile for deflationary naturalists to continue their work, rejecting “simplistic oversimplifications” while focusing on the details of science and its practice.

Ritchie seems well aware of the many weaknesses associated with his system of naturalism. He suggests for instance that philosophers take science on its own terms. This seems to suggest that, for his system to work, philosophers must relinquish their responsibility to question everyone and everything. What’s the point of philosophy if we do not question what works and what does not work? If Ritchie’s reliance on science can only work if its findings are not questioned then it would seem that something is very wrong with that science.

Other areas of weakness which would seem to have serious effect on Ritchie’s system relate to the inability of science to tell what is morally right and what is morally wrong and also science’s inability to address matters of truth and meaning. Ritchie agrees that naturalism “does not have a clear answer to offer but at the same time, for him, “it is not obvious that it is inconsistent” (201). Ritchie makes a commendable effort to address these issues, but he has not made a compelling case as to their solutions.

Understanding naturalism is a must read for those persons who are new to naturalism. In an easy to read style, the author gives a concise overview of the subject and related issues.