Toward a Flexible Naturalism
2008 SAAP Discussion Paper Submission
This paper attempts to develop the idea of a flexible naturalism by examining the roots of contemporary philosophical naturalism in American Philosophy. By incorporating pragmatic and pluralistic influences into a naturalistic theory it is possible to account for the diversity of human experiences of nature while denying that science is the only means of procuring knowledge about nature. As such, naturalism should not be seen as requiring a commitment to physicalism because nature itself is essentially pluralistic and admits of non-physical unifications. This paper argues that since nature can only be know through the mediation of the context of inquiry any form of naturalism that attempts to reduce all areas of inquiry to scientific inquiry will inevitably fall short of a completely satisfying understanding of the natural world.
Naturalism, as a philosophical temperament and methodology, is a description of the relationship between science and philosophy. Yet, the term ‘naturalism’ is often used to refer to a variety of divergent, if not conflicting, doctrines. In its various forms naturalism may be construed as materialism, eliminative, reductive, non-reductive, scientistic, pragmatic, holistic, “soft” and many other, sometimes pejorative, descriptions. Given the multitude of views regarding what naturalism is, it can prove difficult to delineate the ontological and methodological implications of being a naturalist. A good place to start untangling this confusing knot is by focusing on what naturalism has traditionally denied. For all varieties of naturalism there is a denial of the supernatural as being applicable to the descriptions of causes, processes and phenomena that take place in the natural world. On this view the natural world is a causally closed system where for every natural event there is a corresponding natural cause. In this sense naturalism is at once wedded to the empirical method, as the means through which humans traditionally observe a natural occurrence is through the methods of observation, verification and repeatability that have become pillars of the scientific method. Because a commitment to the scientific method as the method of inquiry that results in the best production of knowledge is a central tenet of naturalism, broadly construed, it has often been assumed that an implication of adopting naturalism is the view that science can replace philosophy or more specifically that evaluative expressions, such as those found in ethics and aesthetics, can be reduced to the descriptive, non-evaluative statements of the physical sciences. It is the purpose of this paper to sketch a version of naturalism that, while remaining committed to the scientific method as a means of acquiring knowledge does not attempt to explain away entire areas of human culture into the language or ontology of the physical sciences.
The wide-ranging adoption of naturalism by many contemporary philosophers has led to the entrenchment of two rather destructive views about naturalism that ought to be reconsidered. The first is that naturalism is essentially reductionistic. Reductionism is the view that in the absence of supernatural causes everything can, and should be reduced to (or at least their explanation expressed in) the ontology of the physical sciences. The methodological correlate of this view is that the natural sciences are uniquely suited to the investigation of nature. The ontological thesis that “nature” is synonymous with “physical” has entrenched a view within philosophy that any project of naturalization ought to proceed by reducing emergent phenomena to their underlying physical components. This has led some to charge that any naturalism that is not reductionist is “soft” and fails to be rigorous where the paragon of rigor is embodied by the methodology of the natural sciences. Naturalism, then, is nothing other than “the philosophical generalization of the natural sciences” and the job of philosophers is to make philosophy continuous with science. This paper argues that overly reductionistic models of the relationship between science and philosophy, the physical and the natural, has led to a picture that fails to capture the richness of the human experience within the natural world. For, as Dewey says, human beings are both in and of the natural world. In this Deweyan expression of naturalism it is impossible for something that is human to be non-natural yet, there are certainly aspects of being human that are not physical. Therefore, any naturalism that truly wants to capture the richness or thickness of the human condition would certainly fail by being over reductionist on Dewey’s account.
The second view about naturalism that ought to be reconsidered is scientism. Roughly put, scientism is the view that the only proper methodology for philosophy is the methodology of the natural sciences. This places philosophy as a subdivision of psychology and not as an independent discipline. However, one must be careful in admitting that there are various versions of naturalism that are not readily distinguishable from scientism. Scientism, further clarified, is the view that only the scientific method can produce knowledge. For the proponent of scientism all knowledge about the world is a product of the natural sciences. A naturalist of the Deweyan stripe would not deny that many diverse areas of human culture outside the scope of science can be better understood and enriched by incorporating the general outlook of science. This is one aspect of what is meant by “naturalization.” However, whereas scientism rejects knowledge claims that do not belong to the findings of science, naturalism ought to show how diverse areas of human life and thought can be incorporated and understood within a broadly conceived natural or scientific outlook. As Abraham Edel points out in his discussion of the driving force behind the organization of the indispensable volume Naturalism and the Human Spirit, a non-reductive (Columbian) naturalism is one that has as a goal “an extension of the scientific approach to encompass the phenomena of the human spirit. It was the naturalization of value and ethics, of art and religion, of history and inquiry, of politics and purposive action. It looked back on the history of philosophy not as the errors of past ignorance enshrined in metaphysics, but as the growth of human awareness leavened by the growth of the scientific outlook permeating field after field from the physical study of nature and the biological study of life through the psychological study of mind and the social study of society and its ways.” The result of the extension of the scientific approach to the various areas of inquiry found within human life is not the limiting of knowledge to the natural sciences but rather an enrichment of humanities’ knowledge of itself within the natural world by broadening the general outlook of the scientific approach to fields not normally considered to be part of science. This is why Edel speaks of the leavening effect of science where science may be likened to the yeast the causes bread to rise. No one would agree to the assertion that the best understanding of bread is to reduce it to the scientific explanation of the role of yeast! Yet, scientism makes the corresponding claim about the relationship between science and philosophy. The extension of the scientific outlook to ethics, art, religion, and society is itself a rejection of scientism as it implicitly and explicitly widens and deepens our understanding of the nature, both as its investigator and as one of its component parts.
A flexible naturalism, as I shall endeavor to describe it, is a naturalism that begins with a rejection of both reductionism and scientism. Its goal is to provide a theoretical foundation in which to better understand the richness of human experience while resisting the temptation to give ultimate descriptions, fateful pronouncements or irrefutable evidence on the one true “nature” of the world. It is the philosophical recognition of the fact that experience refuses to irrevocably yield to only one understanding while admitting that the scientific approach provides the best method (pragmatically justified) for acquiring knowledge.
Flexibility and Flexible Naturalism
Flexible naturalism is an application and extension of the idea of a flexible realism that has been developed by Peter Hare. In a discussion of the relationship between photographs and epistemic standards Hare says that a flexible realism “adjusts epistemic standards to the context and warrants assertions about the world accordingly.” The flexibility relation obtains between justificatory standards and areas of inquiry where standards are free to conform to the particular needs of any context in which inquiry takes place. As such, flexible realism is a form of epistemic contextualism. However, Hare pairs this contextualism with a theory of epistemic virtue and, as such, is far more robust that traditional versions of epistemic contextualism. Often enough contextualist theories are accused of failing to provide a compelling account of knowledge or justification because it is obvious and uninformative that in our epistemic practices we often provide for different standards of justification in more or less strenuous contexts. Of course the scientist, the argument goes, will appeal to a more strenuous standard of knowledge than that of the average person but that does not imply that there is not one account of epistemic justification that applies to both contexts. If knowledge is to have any normative force then there needs to be one standard account of the minimum requirements that must be met in order to have knowledge. This implies that knowledge itself, as a natural kind, has a particular nature that is expressed in terms of the one minimum justificatory standard for it. Therefore, if we are to have any knowledge at all it will be in virtue of the fact that a belief fulfills this minimum requirement for knowledge that remains consistent across all possible areas of inquiry. Thus, claims from diverse areas of inquiry can be compared because there is a single justificatory standard for knowledge.
In contrast to the position just sketched, flexible realism attempts to develop a coherent account of a virtue epistemology that allows an epistemic agent to identify which standards best apply to which contexts by appealing to the contexts themselves independent of arguments that try to establish a single criteria grounded to the essential features of knowledge itself. For Hare, flexible realism responds to a specific context (in his case photography) and as such represents an ability (where this ability is an epistemic virtue) to navigate the relationship between that context and the world. It is this sense that flexible realism is the merging of virtue epistemology and epistemic contextualism. The context of inquiry provides the standards of justification or warranted assertibility for claims about the world as seen from the needs of the epistemic agent fluent, so to speak, in the language of that context. However, these standards are not exhausted by the needs of a specific person or context for they also include “the social and physical structures of the environment.” Thus, for Hare, flexible realism is still a form of realism. There is a fact of the matter about the world but the world itself, as pluralistic, will admit of numerous correct descriptions which can only be analyzed by fixing these descriptions to the needs and goals of the contexts from which they emerge. A flexible realism minimizes the risk of our epistemic processes leading to unwarranted assertions about the world by assuring that the context of inquiry provides the standard by which our epistemic practices are warranted.
Given this description of flexible realism a preliminary description of flexible naturalism can now be put forward. Flexible naturalism is flexible insofar as it recognizes that what counts as the “naturalization” of one area of inquiry may require diverse and unique methodological practices that are inappropriate for another. Further, these methods may produce results that while firmly grounded by the epistemic requirements of a specific area of inquiry do not seek to further establish those requirements as applying to all contexts of inquiry. In this way flexible naturalism is able to accommodate the views of history, sociology and religion alongside those of physics, chemistry and biology within a broadly conceived naturalistic perspective by expanding the flexibility of nature itself to our epistemic practices. If nature is pluralistic then the methodology of naturalism should accordingly be pluralistic in order to better understand nature. This view precludes reductionism and scientism as ways of understanding naturalism because nature does not express itself as a single, unified view to which all others can be reduced. Therefore, for a flexible naturalism reducing all knowledge to scientific knowledge is to impoverish nature itself rather than to better understand it. In sum, flexible naturalism is a scientific pluralism where the viewpoints of various areas of human endeavor harmonizes into a cohesive whole but which at the same time can bend to accommodate the specific needs of one context over another. Flexible naturalism can take any shape that is required by the needs of inquiry without asserting that reality comes in only one shape or that there is one fundamental shape of reality in which all others must ultimately be expressed. A flexible naturalism can be described in part by what philosophical positions it endorses or denies. It endorses 1) epistemic contextualism combined with an account of epistemic virtues, 2) coherentism over foundationalism, 3) ontological and methodological pluralism 4) the extension of the general outlook of science to diverse areas of human thought while denying 1) reductionism 2) scientism 3) ontological priority 4) the existence of the supernatural as causes or explanations. The overarching goal of this paper is to provide the historical groundwork in which the future systematic development of the philosophical notion of flexibility can take place. In order to achieve that end this paper will first focus on James’ notion of thickness as a precursor of the flexibility notion and then examine the role of context in John Herman Randall’s naturalism. The paper will conclude by showing how a form of conceptual pluralism recently put forward by Hilary Putnam can be instructive for the development of a flexible naturalism.
In A Pluralistic Universe William James makes a distinction between what he called “thick” and “thin” descriptions and calls forth to philosophy to “thicken up.” James’s use of the thick/thin dichotomy is methodological in its focus and should be rightly counted as a historical antecedent to the notion of “flexibility” that I am putting forwarding. For James, a “thin” merely logical description of the world, one that would hold across all possible worlds, leads to the unwanted result that “the actual peculiarities of the world that is were entirely irrelevant to the content of truth.” Insofar as truth must hold across all possible worlds for a thin description truth is located outside of the realm of possible experience. For James, truth should take into account the “peculiarities” that are to be found in experience which include (but are by no means limited to) religious experience, psychical research and descriptive psychology. These are viewpoints that philosophy has summarily ignored in the pursuit of a thin logical understanding of truth and the world and which James thinks should be included in a sufficiently thick description.
Ironically, for our present purposes, James points to science as a model of thickness to which philosophy should imitate in incorporating the “peculiarities of life” into discourse and inquiry. For our present purposes, it is exactly the thin scientisitic understanding of naturalism that now needs “thickening up” by incorporating the varieties of naturalistic experience that have tended to be ignored by those who claim that science has a special and fundamentally privileged role in understanding the world. However, the thinness of logic that James finds abhorrent and the thinness of naturalism both fundamentally ignore the call to pluralism and the importance of context in explicating the notion of truth. Both begin with the presupposition that there is only one way that the world is and that the truth will consist in describing the world through a single method. Rather than providing thin descriptions that only take into account one sort of understanding (either logical or scientisitic) a flexible naturalism strives to incorporate, into a coherent framework, various outlooks on the world in a way that fails to give privilege to any one viewpoint. In this way, flexible naturalism provides a thickening of naturalism if a “thin naturalism” is taken to entail a commitment to excluding potential future experiences from the naturalistic framework a priori as matter of principle. If James is correct in claiming that philosophy is more a matter of “passionate vision than logic” where “logic only finds reason for the vision afterwards,” then a flexible naturalism, insofar as it attempts to provide thick descriptions of the world, is concerned with providing a vision of nature where science afterwards modifies and constrains the vision.
This is not to say however, that science can justify any vision of the world that one finds pleasing to postulate. Rather, the point of a thickened naturalism is to not exclude any possibility at the onset of inquiry, but rather to allow inquiry to modify methodologically as dictated by the context under which any investigation may take place. This means that one important task for the naturalist may be to incorporate conclusions that were once considered to be anti-naturalistic into the naturalistic perspective if, for example, rational intuition where to be found by science to have a foundation in the brain. In this sense a thickened naturalism is thoroughgoing epistemic contextualism. Thin logical descriptions of the world are themselves part of nature but they do not exhaust all the ways that nature is experienced. To claim that experience is limited by thin descriptions is to deny the plurality of experience that is central to James’ philosophy. It is perhaps misleading however to speak of thick and thin descriptions. It is the world that is thick and our descriptions of it must strive to better accommodate this feature of the world. An important step toward this end is recognizing that no single methodological practice is sufficient in capturing the thickness of the world. In fact, as Vincent Colapietro suggests the thickness of the world, if it is to be captured in a form of realism at all (I take “thick realism” to be an important part of flexible naturalism) “must mean that the world may turn out to be other than any one of us, or finite group, happens to suppose” and this includes scientists as well as philosophers. This kind of realism recognizes the fact that the interdependence between the knower and the known is itself a feature of the objective world but this alone cannot provide for the infallible certainty of our knowledge about the world. For Colapietro, a thick realism may often result in our being surprised by the way the world is and that a thick realism (equipped with a strong sense of Peircean fallibilism) is better suited to understand this fact. Pragmatic clarifications (thick descriptions) are better suited than abstract definitions (thin descriptions) for a “realist” explanation of the world because “meaning is bound up with the efficacy and frustration of our habits.” Thus, if we are to capture the thickness of experience we must recognize that experience itself is bound up with the idea of a reality somehow beyond experience even though a description of the world independent of our inquiries is chimerical. Thin descriptions take this idea of reality independent of experience as adequately capturing the world as it is experienced whereas a thick description does not reduce reality to abstract logical definitions that may, as Colapietro warns, turn out to be false.
Although the history of philosophy has not treated James as a paradigm of naturalism, his radical empiricism provides a good conceptual model of what a sufficiently flexible naturalism should take to be the objects of inquiry. In a similar vein to the way in which James understood his own empiricism to be radical, flexible naturalism can also be considered to be radical. It will be useful to explore how James classifies his own radical empiricism in order to better illustrate in what sense flexible naturalism is radical. For James, a radical empiricism “must neither admit into its construction any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experience.” James thought it necessary to add the epithet “radical” to distinguish his theory from a Humean empiricism that failed to take into account the reality of disjunctive relations. Thus a radical empiricism takes both continuity and disunity as equally given in the field of “pure experience.” And they are only differentiated by the relations that one bit of pure experience enters into with another. For James, experience is chaotic and it is a disservice to the multiplicity of experience to try to explain it by reference to only on kind of relation. This, it should be noted, is the same type of move that motivates James’ call for a thickening of philosophy. By doing justice to the chaos and various relations found in experience James is in effect thickening Hume’s empiricism of conjunctive relations.
How then does this relate to the idea of flexible naturalism? Following James, a flexible naturalism does not admit of any element that is not natural nor does it exclude any element that is natural. It is perhaps the second half of this statement that deserves the most attention for the traditional understanding of almost all forms of naturalism exclude non-natural objects if, for the naturalist, they can even be said to exist. However, the reductive model of naturalism forces the understanding of what counts as a natural object into the scientific viewpoint. For reductionism an object is natural if it can be verified, defined or explained empirically through the methods and ontology of the science. However, a flexible naturalism, as we have seen, pays attention to the pragmatic clarification of concepts as well as to the thin abstract definitions that are to be found in the sciences. The experience of nature comes in forms other than that of scientific experience and these various ways of experiencing nature need to be including in a comprehensive understanding of philosophical naturalism. A flexible naturalism begins to trace its lines of departure from other kinds of naturalism by what it counts as being admissible into the naturalistic understanding of the universe. Thus, it is radical in the sense that it does not take the nature to be completely described by science. Rather, it admits of any object that can be rightly classified as natural no matter what area of inquiry it may be found in. This means that if flexible naturalism is to be seen as a coherent position it must offer an explanation of the empirical method that determines what objects should be counted as natural. It should be clear that this method cannot be exhausted by appealing to the scientific method, although the methods of science comprise an indispensable part of the methodology of naturalism. However, since the methodological commitments of flexible naturalism emerge from the understanding of nature as essentially plural it is necessary to further explain the justification for this understanding of nature.
One of the advantages of James’ radical empiricism is that it recognizes and emphasizes the place of both continuity and discontinuity in experience. While nature presents itself in the form of an empirical plurality it nevertheless yields to the various human unifications and descriptions that conform to this pluralism. In this regard nature itself is flexible, admitting and allowing scientific, religious, poetic and historical unifications amongst others without ultimately yielding to any single unification of the way that nature is in itself. Humanity discovers nature as a plurality and yet, as John Herman Randall, Jr. claims, “it is a fundamental metaphysical fact that Nature can become unified in human vision.” It is the mistake of reductive naturalism to take as an outcome of the various unifications of nature an understanding of the way that nature is independent of the unifying processes themselves. Reductive naturalism mistakes one unifying act (the scientific worldview) for the underlying structure of nature itself and in so doing reduces plurality to singularity. Randall avoids the reduction of the empirically given pluralism of nature to any single kind of unification of nature, in part, by claiming that all so-called “connectives” share the same metaphysical status. For Randall, “knowledge and science are certainly no less—and no more—‘human’ than are myths and symbols; and no less—or no more ‘natural.’” Scientific hypotheses and theories, myths and symbols, mathematics, religion, logic, language and inquiry and even truth are all tools used by humans to unify the plurality of nature. As such, they all share the same metaphysical status of being “functionally real.” They all serve, as unique ways of functioning, to bring about specific connections and objective relations between various parts of nature. However, in any single unification we never experience the totality of nature and as such no single unification is to be privileged over another. A significant merit of flexible naturalism is that it takes this position to be a central tenet in guiding future inquiry. While nature will always allow for the ever-widening context of inquiry, and allow and accept new unifications, human inquiry will never reach the ultimate end of nature itself. Randall, in this sense, is particularly indebted to Dewey insofar as our encounters with nature are always encounters with a “specific situation” and never with the entirety of nature as a whole. Nature is always experienced through the specific context of inquiry of a particular problematic situation. To reduce nature to any single context is to deny the metaphysical status that Randall gives to his “connectives” which, as functionally real, constitute the way that nature is encountered without constituting nature as a whole or limiting the ways in which nature may be encountered in the future.
Because for Dewey and Randall nature is always encountered in a specific context or situation that is intimately bound together with the specific aims of inquiry one can never experience the “ultimate context” of nature but can only ask what any specific context of inquiry is for. This pragmatic understanding of human inquiry results in a thoroughgoing epistemic contextualism regarding knowledge, justification and truth. It will be helpful to look at Randall’s position regarding context and how it relates to his claims regarding the empirical pluralism of nature. For Randall, following Dewey, every experience with nature is relative to context.
Every substance, every situation, every universe of action and experience—whatever name
we choose to give the complex of cooperating processes that is encountered—is always
encountered as something specific and determinable—as a substance, a situation, a universe
of interaction. We never encounter “the Universe”: we never act toward, experience, or feel
being or existence as “a whole.”… There is hence on discoverable “ultimate context,” no
“ultimate substance.” There is only the widest context that is relevant to any particular activity,
process, or specific cooperation of processes, and is hence “ultimate for” that cooperation.
“Ultimate,” that is, is always relative, never “absolute”; it is always “ultimate for.” Talking,
discourse, has the widest context of all: we can even talk significantly of any or all universes of
discourse, and these universes of discourse tend to become more and more unified in the talking.
The only sense in which we can speak meaningfully of “the universe” is as the widest “universe
of discourse.” But there is no discoverable “ultimate context” of discourse, save all the other
contexts: there is no discoverable “context of contexts.”
 Although naturalism is generally regarding as the current dominate meta-philosophical position, few contemporary analytic philosophers have acknowledged its roots in American Philosophy of the mid-20th Century. For one notable exception see Jaegwon Kim “The American Origins of Philosophical Naturalism” Journal of Philosophical Research, Vol. 32, 2003. p.83-89. This paper is intended to bring further attention to the ways in which American Philosophy can illuminate naturalism.
 Ralph Barton Perry quoted in Farber, Marvin. Naturalism and Subjectivism. Charles C Thomas,
Springfield, Illinois. 1959. Page 3.
 Since holding that the scientific method is the only reliable method of knowledge production is a central thesis for the American Naturalists it may be argued that denying this thesis, even in part, contradicts the naturalist thesis. However, as I shall argue the modification of the scientific method in light of the context of inquiry is an important distinction between a flexible naturalism and scientism.
 Edel, Abraham. “Contemporary Naturalism among the Isms: Yervant Kirkorian and the Human Spirit”.
Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. Summer, 2004, Vol. XL, No. 3
 Hare, Peter H. “Photography, Popular Epistemology, Flexible Realism and Holistic Pragmatism”
Forthcoming in Photography and Philosophy. Open Court, Chicago.
 James, William. A Pluralistic Universe. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 1977. Page 149.
 Ibid, Page 81.
 In fact in introducing this distinction James references a certain “philosophical crank” from his past, a category in which he included Peirce, who claimed that the world was only made up of two elements the thick and the thin (PU page 64). It is interesting to note that the paradigm case of thinness that James points to are the followers of Hegel (Green) who posit that nature is made up exhaustively of relations and thus require the absolute mind to experience these relations. James “pure experience” falls into a similar philosophical predicament and it is interesting to speculate that his decision to adopt a panpsychic view is due to the thinness of the alternative (positing a absolute mind that can experience the relations between things). For a study of the reasons that James’ doctrine of pure experience led him to adopt a version of panpsychism see Mark Moller, “James, Perception and the Miller-Bode Objections” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Fall 2001; 37(4) 609-626.
 Colapietro, Vincent. “ Realism Thick and Thin” in Pragmatic Naturalism and Realism.
John Shook, Editor. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. 2003. Page 112.
 Ibid, Page 107.
 James, William “A World of Pure Experiences” in The Writings of William James. John Mcdermott,
Editor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1977. Page 194.
 Randall, Jr., John Herman. Nature and Historical Experience. Columbia University Press, New York.
1958. Page 195.
 Ibid, Page 196.
 Peirce, of course, would hold this view as well regarding not only nature but also truth. What sort of things (nature, truth, etc…) one should hold fallibilistic positions about is part of the project of flexible naturalism.
 It is interesting to note that the way in which Randall describes connectives as being functionally real insofar as they bring about objectively real relations through the process of their functioning is similar to the way in which pure experience is grouped into “subject” and “object,” “knower” and “known,” “thing” and “thought” in James’s radical empiricism. For James, these dualisms, insofar as they represent a practical distinction are functionally real. They are not, for James, picking out ontological categories that result in classical dualism. Likewise, for Randall the unification of nature by relations that are functionally real does not imply that nature is ontologically of a single character. For both, these relations are part of the experience of nature and as such are part of the subject matter of inquiry. Further, relations are facts about the world because they are ways in which humans can understand, classify and interact with other natural processes.
 Randall, Jr., John Herman. Nature and Historical Experience. Page 198-99.
 Putnam, Hilary “The Content and Appeal of “Naturalism””. in Naturalism in Question. Mario De Caro,
and David Macarthur, Editors. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 2004. Page 61.
 Ibid, Page 61.