Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality by R. Scott Smith — Book Review
Philosophical naturalism, “a thesis that reality consists solely of the physical, spatiotemporal world,” is the dominant philosophy of the modern West. Starting from the Enlightenment, naturalism has had the effect of creating and sustaining the fact/value split, which in turn has had terrible consequences for our culture. Reason is considered separate from, and superior to, Imagination; empirical facts are considered ‘real’ over against morality, which is shoved off into a corner of private, personal opinions; and a self-fulfilling cycle is created in which scientists declare that only physical explanations of human behavior are viable explanations, and then dismiss what they cannot thereby explain as not real. The church has not been immune to this shift in culture; indeed, a tacit acceptance of the fact/value split has happened in many Christian communities, eroding the basis for solid faith and rendering evangelism both less urgent and less effective.
But what if philosophical naturalism is false, and could be shown to be false? Then the fact/value divide would be recognized as a faulty human construct, not a feature of reality; moral truth would have the same epistemological status as empirical facts; imagination would be rediscovered as an essential way of knowing; and science would be enriched by gaining firm ground for knowledge claims. The stakes are high; it is an endeavor worth pursuing.
In Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims, from Ashgate Press (2012), R. Scott Smith takes up the challenge. In the Introduction, he sets out his claim: “There have been various epistemologies offered by naturalists to explain how we have knowledge of reality. What I do not think has been undertaken, however, is a close, systematic examination of the various forms of naturalism, in terms of their ontological resources, to see if indeed they can make good on the belief that we can, and often do, know reality on that basis. That examination is what I intend to do.”
In Part I of the book, Smith assesses direct realism, considering D.M. Armstrong (Chapter 1), Dretske, Tye, and Lycan (Chapter 2), and Searle (Chapter 3). In Part II, he considers neuroscience, neurophilosophy, and naturalized epistemology, addressing Papineau (Chapter 4), Dennett (Chapter 5), and the Churchlands (Chapter 6). In Part III, Smith considers alternate proposals for naturalism to see if any of them can resolve the problems he points out in the earlier chapters, and concludes with two chapters considering the implications of his overall argument: “A Positive Case for Our Knowledge of Reality” (Chapter 9) and “Methodological Naturalism and the Scientific Method, and Other Implications” (Chapter 10).
As an apologist who works, broadly speaking, in cultural apologetics, I do not have the necessary knowledge of philosophy to evaluate Smith’s challenge to the various forms of naturalism, particularly in Chapters 1-8, and will leave that for reviewers who are more conversant with the material. What I will address, then, is a fairly narrow segment of Smith’s overall argument as set forth in this book: specifically, his articulation of the consequences of the failure of naturalism, and his positive case for our knowledge of reality. In particular, I am interested in the latter line of argument; working as I do to counter-act the pernicious effects of the fact/value split, I would welcome a robust philosophical argument for the reality of tacit and imaginative modes of knowledge.
The failure of naturalism
One potential problem with Smith’s argument about the failure of naturalism should be addressed immediately: he seems to overstate the case. That is, at various points throughout the book, Smith states that naturalism completely fails to provide knowledge of reality. He says, for instance, in the Introduction that “upon examination of each view, I believe that we will find significant reasons to show that we cannot know reality on the basis of any of these versions of naturalism, or even in principle.”
This does not seem to be the claim that he goes on to argue in the book. Rather, his claim appears to be that philosophical naturalism completely fails to account for how it is that we do have knowledge of reality. On many occasions he notes that indeed we do know reality; the question is how do we know it?
This overstatement may confuse the issue for those readers who accept philosophical or methodological naturalism; in rejecting (rightly) the overstatement, they may (wrongly) reject the more nuanced claim as well. However, I have heard Smith lecture on a number of occasions, and have always been impressed by how much effort he takes to fairly represent opposing views, and how he strives to affirm those parts of an argument that are true even while challenging the argument overall. Thus, I would say that this is a rhetorical, not a conceptual issue: in striving to be clear and emphatic, Smith has somewhat overstated the case. It will be important, therefore, for readers to assess the argument in context and to hold back from selective quoting: for instance, the following passage assessing the failure of methodological naturalism contains both an overstatement and a more nuanced claim:
…to the extent that science is tied to the ontological positions of naturalism, science will be an utter failure as a research program, for no knowledge will be possible. Scientific research would be utterly fruitless, with no actual research work being done, or progress in understanding the world scientifically. If so, then why should scientists take themselves and their claims so seriously? Moreover, why should anyone else take the claims of scientists seriously?
Still, we do have knowledge gained through science. But this means that there is more to reality (and to us, in particular) than that for which ontological or methodological naturalism can account.
The first part of this passage could be used to support an anti-intellectual position (and, sadly, many Christians take such a position); however, the second part of the passage presents Smith’s more nuanced and defensible view. Similarly, in another section, Smith correctly notes that there is an important distinction between “using an empirical method, which reliably has given us knowledge of reality…[and] an empiricist methodology, one that restricts all knowledge to what can be accessed by the five senses.” As further work is done in this area, I would welcome a heightened attention to the language used to present challenges to naturalism, to make the most effective case possible.
A positive case for knowledge of reality
Smith states in the Introduction that “though we do have knowledge from science, it cannot be on the basis of naturalism, philosophical or methodological. If I am correct, this will mean that the ‘fact’ side of the split is radically mistaken and false. And, if naturalism and naturalistic science cannot give us knowledge of reality, perhaps we have been too hasty in ethics and religion to think that, in these subjects, we only can have personal opinions and preferences, but not knowledge. At the least, we would be mistaken to relegate religion and ethics to that realm for the reason that naturalism is the basis by which we know reality.”
It is interesting to note, here, that in addressing this claim, Smith works almost exclusively with 20th and 21st century sources. To a certain extent, this is understandable, as he wishes to engage with the most current debate about philosophical naturalism. However, it seems to me that Smith has unnecessarily limited himself by making this choice. Since naturalism is a product of the Enlightenment, and has moved into its dominant position gradually rather than instantly, if we look back to medieval, Renaissance, or even 18th century thought we will find useful arguments in support of Smith’s claim against naturalism and against the fact/value split.
For instance, one of the strongest claims of naturalistic philosophers is that methodological naturalism is the only basis by which we can do effective science. However, the intellectual history of the medieval period offers important evidence to challenge naturalism’s dominance, and to support Smith’s claim. Despite the common myth that the medieval period was the “Dark Ages,” the darkness of the era had to do with the ravages of plague and war, not the stultifying of science; advances in science and technology were made, and the great universities of Europe founded, during the medieval period. It would strengthen the argument in this book if connections such as these were made.
In an important section in Chapter 9, Smith makes a strong and effective argument for “felt experience” being part of knowledge. Drawing on the example of surf fishing, he notes that “What each fisherman (expert or beginner) needs is not just a know-how of fishing, which could be described in third-person terms. Becoming a good fisherman requires more than just reading about fishing, or moving one’s body parts in certain ways. It requires one’s own experience, which cannot be gained by the corrections of a trainer.”
This affirmation of tacit, experiential knowledge as genuine knowledge is central to the project of dismantling the fact/value split. It is a very good thing that Smith makes this claim clearly, yet here we again run into the limitations imposed by working primarily with the terms provided by the contemporary, naturalistic philosophical context. Smith’s argument would, I think, be enriched considerably by drawing on philosophers who are working on the other side of the fact/value split, as it were; I am thinking in particular of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose critical/philosophical work is essential to any serious consideration of the role of imagination in knowledge, and of Owen Barfield, who is a 20th century philosopher of extraordinary insight whose work was ahead of its time but is now, considering Smith’s assessment of the situation, suited to the work at hand.
What, then, does Smith present as the basis for knowledge of reality? It is somewhat difficult to track down the specific argument, as Smith frequently shifts gears to address the ways in which competing naturalistic claims or objections fail, but in the end his argument appears to be based on Edmund Husserl’s work, which presents a way in which “a mental act can reach beyond itself and be ‘together’ (or, enter into a relation) with its intended object.” Smith develops an extended argument as to how Husserl’s concepts present a viable way to understand how we can know reality, and then adds to it the necessity of substance dualism:
From Husserl, how we know whether we match up with reality requires the ability to pay close attention to our mental life, to see that what is represented in experience matches up with our concepts of such a thing. This is a decidedly internalist criteria for matching up, and for the normative condition for knowledge. If this ability to introspect and pay attention to our experiences were always conceptual, we would be unable to form concepts in the first place, much less match up with objects in the real world. This implies strongly that there is a self performing as an agent in the acts of paying close attention to what is represented in experience. But knowledge of reality involves much more: following through on a series of noticings, comparings, forming concepts; adjusting or correcting concepts, and more. There is, that is, an active agent that owns and possesses these states, and does these activities.
Where do we go from here?
As an apologist who works in imaginative apologetics, I am eager to see work that breaks down the false dichotomy between facts and values, the empirical world and the world of inner experience. I would have liked to have seen the implications of the positive argument for knowledge developed in more detail, but it is perhaps best to see Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality as a starting point from which further work can be done.
Certainly it is encouraging to see a philosopher making a robust argument for an integrated worldview. Smith closes by pointing out that more work remains to be done, and I hope that he and others will follow through: “It is time to apply ourselves afresh to rethinking through these and other aspects of academia, culture, public policy, research funding, science, and more, including ethics and religion… we can apply ourselves to careful, diligent reflection across the disciplines, including religious considerations such as the ones I have discussed in this chapter, to reassess the metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and religious underpinnings of life and society.”
 Smith, R. Scott. Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2012. 1.
 ibid, 2. Emphasis in original.
 ibid, 200.
 ibid, 199.
 ibid, 5. Emphasis in the original.
 ibid, 186.
 ibid, 187.
 ibid, 193-194.
 ibid, 231.