Want to Be a Consistent Naturalist?

Then you have to deny the existence of meaning:

"The reason is that Rosenberg is more consistent than these other writers, and he is more consistent because he understands (as they do not) the grave philosophical challenges facing naturalism.  In particular, he understands that a consistent naturalist must take a radically eliminativist line vis-à-vis intentionality -- that the naturalist must deny that meaning of any sort exists, even at the level of human thought and language.  And he understands that the reason why the naturalist must take this line is that it follows from the claim that there is no teleology or final causality inherent in the natural order.  Or at least, once you make that anti-Aristotelian move -- a move which (as I have argued at length) was definitive of modern philosophy -- and you affirm also that the natural order is all that exists, there is no way consistently to affirm that intentionality is a real feature of the world.  For intentionality essentially involves “directedness” toward an object, as a thought is “directed” toward what the thought is about or a word is “directed” toward what the word means.  And to deny that there is any teleology or final causality immanent to the natural order just is to deny that there is any “directedness” of any sort in it -- that there is anything that points beyond itself to some end, goal, or object.  (For more on intentionality, see the relevant posts among my many posts on the mind-body problem.)"


  1. I'm just not convinced meaning and intentionality are the same thing. I think I'm convinced of the opposite, actually: they are NOT the same thing.

  2. Thanks for this: you've made me want to read more of Edward Feser. I am not a naturalist, but I'm not a theist either. Naturalism can't explain the "authority" of norms and the whole enterprise of science fails if some norms governing what to believe are not authoritative. And just as Feser says, the phenomenon of responding to the authority of norms is an example of final causation. Can I be a non-naturalist on these grounds without accepting theism?

  3. Jim, meaning and intentionality are not the same thing, but meaning clearly implies intentionality, i.e., it is about something.

    Kevin, many Buddhists might be examples of what you ask about.

  4. So, he's not aware of naturalist expositions of intentionality that don't seem to be bothered by this supposed lack of "meaning" in naturalism? Or he thinks this is a knock-down approach to anything that could ever exist in any possible naturalist paradigm whatsoever?

    I guess I just don't see why a naturalist would be bothered by this line of reasoning. "Oh, I reject meaning? That's nice. I'll just get back to discovering more stuff about the world, and you can declare victory over the younguns. Have a nice day."

  5. Silas, man, why you so determined to make a fool of yourself? You didn't notice that Feser is describing the conclusions of Rosenberg, a very prominent *naturalist* philosopher? That it is *Rosenberg*, who certainly is not trying to present a "knock-down approach" to naturalism, since his whole book is a *defense* of naturalism, who is saying these things? And, as a very prominent *naturalist* philosopher, he is certainly aware of the many attempts that have been made to preserve meaning and intentionality in naturalism. What this prominent *naturalist* philosopher says is, 'You're all being inconsistent. You should just man up and face the fact that meaning is an illusion.'

    Feser role here is just to say, "Yep, Rosenberg has gotten this exactly right."

    "Oh, I reject meaning? That's nice. I'll just get back to discovering more stuff about the world..."

    That's hilarious, Silas. Exactly which scientific discoveries have you made?

  6. Or, Kevin, a non-theistic Aristotelian.

  7. So the argument is that because one naturalist allows that his position does away with intentionality, naturalists can't possibly allow for "meaning"? That's not much stronger, or "knock-downer".

    That's hilarious, Silas. Exactly which scientific discoveries have you made?

    I was referring to the response of a naturalist.

    Yeah, they've made quite a few discoveries, if you hadn't noticed.

  8. "So the argument is that because one naturalist allows that his position does away with intentionality..."

    No, the argument is that one prominent naturalist has *convincingly demonstrated* that naturalism itself does away with intentionality. He could be wrong about that, of course, but then you'd have to actually read his argument as to why he thinks this and offer a refutation.

    "Yeah, [naturalists have] made quite a few discoveries, if you hadn't noticed."

    As have theists (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Mendel, Lemaître, Whitehead, Godel, Boyle, Faraday, Kelvin, Planck, Pascal, etc.). So obviously both naturalists and theists are capable of making scientific advances, so it has no bearing on the debate whatsoever.

  9. Gene, sure. I get that meaning is probably a sufficient condition for intentionality. (At some level.) I just don't think it's a necessary condition.

    Secondarily, I grant that the real way to settle this is to read Feser on Rosenberg, AND read Rosenberg, AND read the naturalists Rosenberg, by Feser's lights, demolishes, and so on up the chain. And I should do a lot of other things too.

    Because I should do a lot of other things, I have to triage somewhat. So I look at what Feser's doing here, and I see him blessing conclusions of one member of a set of philosophical opponents whose argument is congenial to Feser's own. My analogy is, imagine I am a hardcore libertarian. (Again!) I hate social democracy because I hate all socialism. I note that one VI Lenin has written tomes authoritatively "demonstrating" that social democracy is not a viable alternative to real socialism or straight capitalism. And I say, see? "VI Lenin is much smarter than all these other leftists because he recognizes that there is no left alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Therefore all leftists are either dopes or bolsheviks."

    Now, you could say, "Wow. Jim has really shown those pinkos!" Or you could say, "This is intriguing. To responsibly differ with Jim I should read VI Lenin, and then Marx, Bakunin, Say, Ricardo, Hegel and maybe Montaigne while I'm at it." Or you could say:

    "1. Jim hates him some leftists.

    2. Plenty of thinkers on the left disagree with Lenin.

    3. I am living in a social democracy right now." (Relocate your hypothetical self to Denmark if it helps.)

  10. Well, Jim, of course, what I present here is notes. I treat this blog like a writer's notebook, which I am grateful some people occasionally read. Some of these notes will become papers, or book reviews, or wind up in books, and some will die here.

    I throw out ideas here, and of course, this whole business hinges on whether or not Rosenberg is correct, something for which I have unapologetically offered no proof: those who are intrigued by this issue can go read more. Those who aren't may go on to the next post.

  11. Mostly unrelated, but I thought you might get a kick out of this atrocious William Lane Craig take-down attempt: http://tinyurl.com/7jhteke

    "Thunderf00t" is a popular polemicist in youtube's community of atheists.

    It's surreal that he experiences Craig's casual, critical summing-up as a monstrous barrage of insults.

  12. Oh, and Jim, the psychological explanation a la your three steps is made irrelevant if, in fact, Rosenberg is correct! It might make Feser gleeful that this is so, because he despises naturalism, but his glee is no counter-argument!

  13. @Gene: Oh, sure. If Rosenberg or Lenin are correct, that's trumps.

    And it goes without saying that: blogs are where we throw out ideas; I found the post worth reading enough to comment on it multiple times. Plus, it made me think of Branagh's Hamlet again, which always counts as a win. And I turned that into a blog post of my own this morning, so I consider myself to have been well-served.

  14. You blog, Jim? I didn't know that.


  15. I frequently intend to blog, but that doesn't mean that I actually do. ;)


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