Middle Way for scientific naturalists

Scientific naturalism is the belief that the universe (or ‘nature’) is correctly described by scientific theory. This is usually justified by the argument that scientific method investigates our experience systematically so as to rule out bias of any kind and produce the most objective account available. Scientific method takes for granted that all theory is provisional and could be overthrown by further investigation, but scientific naturalism nevertheless affirms that science offers us the best available account of how the universe is. Where science’s account of the universe conflicts with other accounts, as is said to be the case with ‘supernatural’ explanations, the scientific account is to be preferred. This is the basic view offered by many scientists, analytic philosophers, and humanist campaigners – for example, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

All of this might lead scientific naturalists to a premature assumption either that scientific naturalism is the same as the Middle Way, or that it is to be preferred over the Middle Way. After all, science has a track record of overthrowing dogmas, such as those of the geocentric universe or of Creationism, and might be assumed to offer the best method of asserting the value of experience over metaphysics. However, this assumption is mistaken: scientific naturalism does itself offer metaphysical assumptions, with dogmatic effects of which scientific naturalists are themselves inclined to take too little account, and the model offered by the Middle Way is not a naturalistic one.

The major problems with naturalism are as follows:

  • It assumes a representational model of the universe which conflicts with science’s own findings about how we process meaning
  • Its model of nature is itself metaphysical
  • It divides facts from values, and thus prevents us from understanding the incremental objectivity of values in our experience

These objections to naturalism are not just minor philosophical quibbles. The puzzlement about ethics in modern society is largely a result of the last point. Because the supposed objectivity of science is understood metaphysically, it is also too fragile, and as a result relativism about science is also becoming increasingly widespread. Creationism, homeopathy and astrology can then be seen as personal choices that are just as ‘valid’ as science, and public faith in science is undermined, to the detriment of public objectivity. It is hard for people to grasp the idea of degrees of objectivity rather than just being completely right or wrong – but that’s the basis on which science can support its conclusions. Naturalism continually undermines this recognition. It is not necessary to be a naturalist to celebrate the achievements of scientific method, and naturalism has served science ill.

Cognitive science has offered increasing support for an embodied rather than representational account of meaning. The way in which we process our understanding of the universe is not a picture in our heads which in some way corresponds to the real universe: rather our understanding is based in metaphorical cognitive models, which in turn are only meaningful to us because of their relationship with basic bodily experience. This implies that the whole way in which scientific theory is meaningful to us depends on our interaction with it, and that the justification of that theory is based on the adequacy of the judgements it’s based on rather than a correspondence with reality out there. By this means science itself is in the process of undermining the traditional scientific naturalist view of what scientific theory means and how it is justified.

This point has also been offered for many centuries by sceptical arguments in philosophy, which show that even the most obvious direct observations do not give us certainty about what we are observing. Even something as simple as seeing a table and believing that a table exists is subject to sceptical doubts. I could be mistaken in my senses, in my mental processing of what they tell me, in the context in which I believe the table exists, or in my very use of the category ‘table’, which is just a product of my cultural background. In practice, of course, we constantly assume that things like tables exist, but such assumptions need to remain provisional rather than becoming part of an ultimate material explanation. I do not know ultimately whether there is or is not a table, any more than I know whether there is or is not a God. Claims about ultimate tables can be just as metaphysical as claims about God.

Scientific naturalists routinely attempt to ignore or sideline such sceptical questions because they wrongly assume them to be in conflict with science, but they only challenge the over-interpretation of science, not the provisional conclusions of scientific method itself. If our beliefs are genuinely provisional and held with a confidence that is proportionate to the evidence, then they are compatible with scepticism. It is only ultimate certainty of any kind that is undermined by scepticism. To try to ensure that scientific beliefs are treated provisionally, though, it might be better to stop talking about ‘nature’, and about scientific ‘laws’. Provisionality is hard to maintain at the best of times, and needs all the help it can get.

Another aspect of metaphysics in naturalism is negative, and consists in the denial of supernatural explanations. However, experience gives us no more grounds to deny metaphysical claims than it does to assert them. See Middle Way for atheists for more about this area.

The biggest practical problem with naturalism, though, is its relationship to the fact-value distinction. Most naturalism involves making a distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, with the idea that ‘facts’ can be justified objectively in a way that ‘values’ cannot. This assumption ignores what cognitive science itself can tell us about the meaning of facts and values for us: they are completely interdependent. Any claim that we, as flesh and blood beings, make about a fact will also contain some assumptions about the values we hold in relation to this supposed fact, and similarly any value claim will also assume certain facts.

The Middle Way, then, provides a far better set of philosophical assumptions within which to apply scientific method than those of naturalism. Scientific method involves a disciplined attempt to investigate the world as objectively as possible, and we can explain both why scientific method supports objectivity and how it can remain provisional using the Middle Way. Scientific method can be incrementally objective in its judgements, according to both the individual and social conditions applied in those judgements, not in creating an absolutely objective (“God’s-eye”) picture of the world. This is a picture of objectivity that fits far better with how science works in practice, taking into account the scientists and their approaches as well as the theory and the evidence.

Scientific method will remain provisional to the extent that it succeeds in avoiding either positive or negative metaphysical assumptions, and thus remains genuinely open to experience as a guide to its conclusions. Some scientists do manage such provisionality, and are willing to admit that their theory is wrong when the evidence against it becomes clear. However, they can also be very resistant to changes in paradigm (basic theory), and often do not treat alternative paradigms that they are not used to with the seriousness they deserve.

Finally, the Middle Way also makes the objectivity of science compatible with that of ethics, and ends the conflict that has been falsely created between the two. Both science and ethics are, in practice, dependent on the judgements of people, which can be more or less objective according to their coherence and awareness of fallibility. Accepting this psychological basis for objectivity levels the field between science and ethics.

20 thoughts on “Middle Way for scientific naturalists

  1. As a scientist and a science educator, I’m concerned about the mischaracterization of science. While the scientific method may be used in classrooms, science educators are opposed to this representation of science. We suggest that science teachers should be teaching a more complex process. This process is well-summarized but this website and the many resources on it. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/howscienceworks_01 I would like you to reconsider your description of science and how the middle way interacts with it. I do think that there is a place for it. We scientists should definitely remember that there are no unbiased conclusions.

    1. Hi Kathryn,
      Sorry, but I don’t quite understand what your point is. What exactly do you think it is about science that is mischaracterised here? Basically I make a distinction between scientific method, which is a process of investigation compatible with the Middle Way, and scientific naturalism, which is a metaphysical interpretation of science. Are you objecting to the characterisation of scientific method, or are you arguing that scientific naturalism is essential to science?

      1. Let me go line by line:

        Scientific naturalism is the belief that the universe (or ‘nature’) is correctly described by scientific theory. (This sound like scientists are 100% sure that scientific theories accurately describe the natural world (this is what science describes, not the universe or nature). However, this is not true. Scientists use evidence to develop explanations, and as such, with the collection of new evidence scientific explanations change. A more accurate statement would be something like “Scientific naturalism is the belief that the evidence collected through scientific investigation can be used to explain the natural world.”)

        This is usually justified by the argument that scientific method investigates our experience systematically so as to rule out bias of any kind and produce the most objective account available. (Scientists don’t use the scientific method. This is a misconception brought about through schooling. See website provided in last comment. Scientists also don’t believe that the process of science rules out any kind of bias. It does, however, minimize bias. A more accurate statement would read “This is usually justified by the argument that through the process of conducting science the scientific community works to minimize bias. The claims generated from scientific research, therefore, are the most accurate explanations of the natural world available at the time because the scientific community agrees that they are supported by a preponderance of data. As more data is collected, however, scientific claims will be refuted, modified, or generated to more accurately reflect our growing knowledge.”

        Scientific method takes for granted that all theory is provisional and could be overthrown by further investigation, but scientific naturalism nevertheless affirms that science offers us the best available account of how the universe is. (Again, the scientific method isn’t what scientists use, so this is a straw man argument. Even if it did exist as taught in schools, I don’t know any school teacher who would tell you that science is fact that never changes. No scientist would tell you that the process of conducting science takes for granted that all theory is provisional. For 1, scientists use the word “theory” to mean an explanation that has been repeatedly confirmed . It’s not a provisional claim. It’s unlikely that the cell theory or the theory of relativity will be completely thrown out. Therefore, theory is not provisional. A claim might be. For 2, the process of science is never-ending (not linear), thereby ensuring that our explanations of the natural world will continue to change. This statement is completely inaccurate. I cannot produce a more accurate version. It should be completely stricken from the article.)

        These are just the first three lines. I have similar concerns throughout. I hope that you will take these ideas into consideration and revise the way you speak about scientific naturalism and science. Thank you.

  2. Hi Kathryn,
    We are talking at cross-purposes due to different uses of terms here. Again, I would draw your attention to my central point, which is the distinction between scientific naturalism and scientific method.

    The link you give protests against over-simplification of scientific method, and I agree that we should try to take into account the full complexity of what scientists do, but it seems absurd to say that “Scientists don’t use the scientific method”. Scientists almost by definition use a scientific method, however you choose to characterise it, which links evidence to theory in simpler or more complex ways.

    What I mean by scientific naturalism should not be confused with science in general, which you seem to be doing. Scientific naturalism is a philosophical interpretation of the results of scientific investigation as describing ‘nature’. If your assertion is correct that most scientists do not think like this, and maintain provisional views of the status of their results, then that’s good – and it means that they are not scientific naturalists in the sense that I am using the term.

    Again, we also seem to be using the term ‘provisional’ differently. I use ‘provisional’ to refer to any claim for which a lack of certainty is effectively recognised. You may be using it in a more immediate scientific sense to refer to something that is still under active investigation.

    The way I have written this page uses terms in a specific way which has been thought out for specific purposes. I claim a philosopher’s right to stipulate. You are right to ask me to clarify my terms if you find them confusing, but not to merely dismiss them as wrong because their sense is different from one you may have used elsewhere.

    1. Robert, I wonder if the Middle Way is compatible with naturalism in a methodological sense, as described here:

      In some philosophy of religion circles, ‘methodological naturalism’ is understood…as a thesis about natural scientific method itself, not about philosophical method. In this sense, ‘methodological naturalism’ asserts that religious commitments have no relevance within science: natural science itself requires no specific attitude to religion, and can be practised just as well by adherents of religious faiths as by atheists or agnostics…This thesis is of interest to philosophers of religion because many of them want to deny that methodological naturalism in this sense entails ‘philosophical naturalism’, understood as atheism or agnosticism. You can practice natural science in just the same way as non-believers, so this line of thought goes, yet remain a believer when it comes to religious questions.


      Mind you, I do not mean to ask if the goal of the religious believer described here – that is, to “remain a believer” in some religious metaphysical doctrine – is compatible with the Middle Way. I assume that it is not, given the Middle Way’s strongly agnostic stance towards such beliefs.

      But I admit that this sense of “naturalism” does seem neutral enough to me with regard to metaphysical belief as to be compatible with the Middle Way, so I wonder if you agree or disagree.

      1. Hi Jason,
        Thanks for this interesting question. One question I would have about ‘methodological naturalism’ is why it needs to be called naturalism – but of course I do try to extend the same stipulation rights as I assume for myself if there is a good reason for using them.

        In the quotation you give, I would still disagree with the idea that ‘religious commitments have no relevance in science’. If ‘religious commitments’ means metaphysical commitments, then I would expect them to disrupt the objectivity applied to scientific method, as they seem to do for Creationists. So if the main motive for ‘methodological naturalism’ is to make space for religious metaphysics in scientific investigation, this seems worth avoiding.

        There may be other ways of redefining naturalism. I recently had a discussion with Mufi in the comments after the interview Justin Whitaker did with me, where I quoted an email discussion I had with Mark Johnson: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/2013/10/introducing-the-middle-way-society-an-interview-with-robert-m-ellis.html#disqus_thread . I’m very impressed and influenced by Johnson’s work, and he continues to call himself a naturalist – but I still disagree with his attitude to scepticism, which seems to be behind this. Continuing to see ‘radical’ scepticism as a threat or a distraction may be another residual problem creating incompatibility with the Middle Way even with other weakened versions of naturalism.

        So, of course, I can’t rule out that someone may stipulate naturalism in a way that is compatible with the Middle Way, but if so they will already have moved some way from the way I define it here, and I would want to know what their purpose was in doing so, and how it fitted with their other approaches to key philosophical issues.

      2. Thanks, Robert.

        “Mufi” is a nickname that I use in other forums, so you might say that my latest question is continuous with my previous one re: Johnson’s use of “naturalism” as it relates to the Middle Way.

        Whereas Johnson’s purpose in using that term is apparently as a short-hand way to describe Dewey’s continuity principle (e.g. “we must be able to move, without any ontological or epistemological rupture, from the body-based meaning of spatial and perceptual experience …all the way up to abstract conceptualization and reasoning”), I would agree that religion circles seem to have rather different purposes in mind here – for example, to guard against secular critics of religious scientists, as well as to comfort the religious scientists themselves with the idea that any supposed tension between their faiths and their day jobs is fallacious.

        Be that as it may, it’s not hard to imagine a devout Christian, who is willing to “play along” with Dewey’s continuity principle, even if its basic assumptions do not “sit well” with one or more articles of her faith – for example, those which concern an eternal soul or claims of divine, miraculous intervention in the so-called “natural course of events.”

        More to the point, while I get why you use “naturalism” the way that you do here (that is, to connote a kind of secular dogmatism and/or scientistic arrogance), it may take some time for some readers to adjust to that usage, if they’re like me and they already read such features as provisionality and metaphysical agnosticism (or at least flexibility) into the term.

      3. Hi Jason,
        You’re confronting me with my projections based on mere names now! I always thought that Mufi was a much gentler chap than the sometimes rather mordant Jason Malfatto. Is it entirely projection on my part, or do you have a strategy of adopting slightly different personae under each name? 🙂

        I know that I do make controversial stipulations sometimes, but I’m not sure that ‘naturalism’ is one of them. Here are some definitions from a couple of Philosophical Dictionaries on my shelf: (1) “A sympathy with the view that ultimately nothing resists explanation by the methods characteristic of natural science” (Oxford, Simon Blackburn); (2)”Naturalists reject all forms of supernaturalism, holding that reality, including human life and culture, is exhausted by what exists in the causal order of nature.”(Routledge). Both of these definitions contain the idea that what science discovers is “reality” in a metaphysical sense. This is a sense reinforced by the assertion in both cases that an explanation in these terms is complete or exhaustive. This is what I understand as the mainstream meaning of ‘scientific naturalism’, not just my stipulation. That also makes the ‘scientistic arrogance’ pretty mainstream too.

        My point is that such an approach contains a dogmatic element that can only be maintained dogmatically. This would be the case whatever other elements are added to it. So the assertion that the position is provisional because it is justified by scientific method only applies to the scientific discoveries involved – not to the naturalistic interpretation of them. If you turned this round and made a comparison with a similar supernaturalist position, it would be like a Christian believer saying she was being provisional because her Christian practice took the form of biblical scholarship which could change in the light of new evidence about the meaning of the texts given their context. This might well be the case, but there would still be base metaphysical views which were not provisional and not open to any negotiation.

        You can indeed read provisionality into naturalism, but provisionality about what? ‘Metaphysical agnosticism’, however, is not at all compatible with naturalism because its basic structure is metaphysical. The very idea of a metaphysical foundation of this kind is in any case in conflict with embodied meaning.

  3. Robert: There isn’t much of a strategy to my choice of names, and I apologize for any mordant comments that I may have made in the past. I’ll try harder to avoid any more of those.

    Based on the two definitions of “naturalism” that you presented above, I see what you mean about a “dogmatic element.” I don’t sense that element in Johnson (or, by extension, Dewey), despite his comfort with that term, but then Johnson also suggests that his pragmatic, embodied approach is currently outside the mainstream of Western academic philosophy (which he suggests is ruled by “objectivist metaphysics and objectivist theories of knowledge”), so to that extent I suppose that what you say about “the mainstream meaning” jibes with his account.

    That said, I would not be at all surprised if the “methodological” sense of the term is also outside of the mainstream of academic philosophy (except perhaps for those who teach the philosophy of religion, as per the SEP article that I cited above), but it is nonetheless one that I’ve come across numerous times over the years, usually in the context of battles over neo-creationism, which you may know has been a controversial issue here in the US. Public critics of neo-creationism, like Eugenie Scott (executive director of the National Center for Science Education), have to deployed the term when arguing for the religious neutrality of science. That’s partly the basis for my statement re: “metaphysical neutrality”, along with statements like these, by philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci (from his book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk):

    Methodological naturalism is at the core of science because it doesn’t commit a scientist to atheism; it simply says that – since science cannot possibly investigate the supernatural – the supernatural, if it exists, cannot factor into scientific explanations of how the world works. That is not at all the same as saying that the supernatural doesn’t exist; it is simply, in a sense, to admit the limitations of science in being able to deal with natural causes and empirical evidence. At the same time, it frees science from any close tie with religion and allows scientists to pursue their work independently of their private religious beliefs.

    I recognize how this much begs the question of how we distinguish “natural” from “supernatural” causes, but suffice it to say that I sense, not only provisionality in these pragmatic and methodological uses of “naturalism”, but also a degree of metaphysical neutrality, insofar as these “naturalists” admit that it’s humanly impossible to scientifically test metaphysical doctrines.

    1. Hi Jason,
      Mordancy isn’t entirely negative – after all, it means something similar to ‘incisiveness’, which usually has positive connotations! I was only commenting on an apparent difference in temperament, which now seems to have been entirely my own construction – revealing something about the limitations of the way we view people on the internet.

      I’d agree with you that Pigliucci’s approach seems to be pretty much metaphysically agnostic judging from this quotation. I’d only make the reservation here that it depends on interaction with his wider views (with which I am unfamiliar).

      1. Thanks, Robert.

        Re: Pigliucci: Based on my reading of his Rationally Speaking blog over the years, I doubt that he would embrace the Middle Way (e.g. see this post, entitled “Theories of Truth”). I only cited him here, so as to illustrate what appears to me to be a common ground, shared by methodological naturalism and the Middle Way.

  4. Hi,

    I can’t comment on then finer philosophical points here but I would like something clarified about my own views on Science and the Scientific Method. I believe that Science (and the language of Mathematics) provides human beings with the most accurate description of ‘nature’ (by which I mean the fundamental processes that exist in the universe). Although this is the most accurate description, it is – and always will be only an approximation or interpretation. Although I consider ethics to be vitally important to the human experience they are arbitrary and, dare I say it, even metaphysical. Ethics are what we choose them to be, this is not the case with quantum theory or microbiology for example. My question here is; would I be considered a scientific naturalist?

    I would also suggest that just because a metaphysical claim can not be proven either way (the existence of God, for example), this does not mean that the likelihood of such a thing ‘being so’ is 50/50 (as the term agnostic can be misinterpreted as), or that we should not make a judgement based on the likelihood of such a claim being correct (or not). These metaphysical decisions can have important practical applications, I will use Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) as an example (and analogy). During his trial, and in the time since, Sutcliffe made the claim that he was directed by God to carry out his attacks. Even if Sutcliffe was declared as mentally ill and as having paranoid delusions, one can never prove whether God was or was not directing him in his actions. In this case, I believe that it is appropriate to look at the evidence, make a judgement based on likelihood of his claims being true and in this case declare that God was not directing him in his actions. I have not used this example to demonstrate the likelihood of God existing (it would be useless for that) but rather to make a point about some decisions about Metaphysical claims being necessary.

    As you know Robert, if asked I would say I am an atheist. What I mean by this is that, given the evidence available, I have made the judgement that God (specifically meaning a conscious creator of the universe) does not exist. This is not the same as saying ‘I am 100% certain that God does not exist’. My honest answer to the question ‘does God exist?’ is ‘I don’t know’. My answer to the question ‘do I think that God exists?’ is ‘no’. I could choose to call myself agnostic but, as hinted above I believe that this might sometimes give the false impression that I think that the likelihood of God existing is 50/50. I think that the amount of atheists that are 100% certain that God does not exist (which would be a purely Metaphysical claim) would constitute a significant minority, so where, if at all, might my ideas fit into a Middle Way Philosophy?


    1. Hi Rich,
      Some interesting issues here.

      I’d start with a similar point to one I made to Jason above – that naturalists can be provisional in their way of interpreting scientific evidence, yet not provisional in the status they give the conclusions of the investigation. It depends what you mean by science as a ‘description’ of the universe. It’s not a description in the sense of a representation, even a sketchy one. Rather it’s a set of models based on metaphors that we can consistently apply. See the ’embodied meaning’ page for more on the issues with representation if that’s unclear. I do think that a representational interpretation of scientific theory will have a tendency to bring naturalists back to metaphysical interpretations of the world, even when they are also trying to avoid them in some ways. The idea that we carry a picture of the world in our heads is just basically misleading.

      I’d disagree with you in a basic way in the following:
      “Although I consider ethics to be vitally important to the human experience they are arbitrary and, dare I say it, even metaphysical. Ethics are what we choose them to be, this is not the case with quantum theory or microbiology for example. My question here is; would I be considered a scientific naturalist?”
      This suggests that you’re attached to the fact-value distinction, which I do take to be one of the basic features of scientific naturalism, yes. See the page on the fact-value distinction. Ethics, like science, is a matter of judgement made by flesh and blood people. Both kinds of judgements involve a complex interplay between choice and conditioning, progress and limitations. I think it’s crucial not to pre-judge that complex interplay by interpreting it all in terms of determinism or freewill, both of which are metaphysical beliefs. Scientists do exercise some choice over their judgements, however compelling the evidence, and we are also subject to the effects of conditions in our moral choices, meaning that ethics are not simply ‘what we choose them to be’.

      This then takes us to your idea that metaphysical agnosticism might involve an assumption that the issues are 50/50. I’d very much disagree with this as well. Metaphysics is just not within the field of probability. To make a meaningful probability, we have to have experience of the frequencies of past events to draw on so as to estimate the likelihood of them recurring. The whole problem with metaphysical claims is that they are not within the field of experience at all. The problem with Peter Sutcliffe’s claims to be directed by God is not whether they are unlikely to be true, but that they involve an authority claim directed beyond experience as a rationalisation of his actions (and thus also an avoidance of responsibility for them).

      If there is anyone who thinks that if you are an agnostic then you think the chances of God are 50/50, I’d suggest that they are not only confused about agnosticism, but also about probability. I have called myself an atheist at some points in the past too, but if you say you are an atheist that will probably challenge nothing about people’s belief systems- they will just register you as another sort of believer who has made another sort of apparently random “personal choice”. On the other hand, if you say you are a hard agnostic, and explain that this has nothing to do with nonsensical probabilities of God existing, in my experience this sometimes does make people think a little.

  5. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your detailed response, it has as always, given me a lot to think about.

    I certainly agree when you state that science is ‘a set of models based on metaphors that we can consistently apply’. However, I feel that this still constitutes a representation of the universe. In language a ‘metaphor’ is a representation of something (a), with the representation being something else (b) which is deemed to have similar/ relatable qualities. This is not the same as saying a = b, so when I say science is a representation of the universe I am not saying that science = the universe. I am not even saying that it is an accurate representation of the universe (although I think that it is the most accurate one that we have). With regards to embodied meaning, I fully accept that in my brain (and every other persons) cognitive and emotional thought both play a fundamental part in all thought processes, however science and mathematics attempts to overcome this (not always successfully). So, 1 + 1 = 2 and although I cannot look at this without cognitive and emotional response, I cannot change the outcome. I could, of course, write 1 + 1 = grapefruit but this is no longer mathematics and describes (represents?) something else. If somebody that I have never met, but understands and applies mathematics (and the mathematical language that we use) sees 1 + 1 they will, regardless of emotional response, come to the same answer (2, not grapefruit!). In both cases the thought process’s (cognitive/ emotional) might be very different but the answer will still be the same. Science should be the same, if I determine the speed of sound through water by way of a repeatable experiment and then send the experiment to somebody that I have never met then (if the conditions are the same etc, etc), regardless of cognitive/ emotional thought, the result (speed of sound through water) will be the same. My thought process does not effect the outcome of 1 + 1 or the speed of sound through water. So, in summary, I agree entirely that all thought constitutes the emotional and cognitive but I think that the results of (properly done) science and mathematics are not affected by this process. How I interpret this information and the model of the universe I construct will be affected by my thought process (it has to be) and therefore different from somebody else’s, but I still regard it as a representation. I should just point out that I am not trying to give some kind of lesson in mathematics and science but rather explain and justify my thought processes and conclusions.

    I feel less sure about the fact – value distinction. I don’t consider facts to be ‘out there’ and values (by which I mean ethical) to be purely subjective and, despite what I clumsily said about ‘choosing’ ethical behaviours, I do not believe in an ultimate free will or determinism. Ethical values, like ‘facts’, are part of (and the consequence of) processes that stretch back to the ‘creation’ of the universe. I should say here that I don’t accept that anything can be unnatural. People will often argue against something (usually man made) because it is ‘unnatural’. This make no sense to me as humans are just a ‘natural’ process within the universe, anything that we create is part of a natural process. So for example, genetically modified food is natural. We just happen to have evolved to be able to manipulate the genetic structure of plants. However, that is not to say that GM food is either good or bad. While I think that total ‘free will’ is an illusion I do believe that we have some free will within a narrow boundary. While I can not choose to go out and start a killing rampage (there are powerful genetic and social factors that will not enable me to do this) I can choose which food products I buy, thereby making an ethical choice, yet no matter how I would wish it to be otherwise 1 + 1 = 2. Another point here is that in any culture 1 + 1 (although it might be represented differently) will always equal 2, yet ethical values will vary. If I went to a certain tribe in Africa and asked if female circumcision was an ethical practice, they would say yes, which is a different response to most people in the UK , so in this characteristic I do see a fact-value distinction.

    I think that your ‘hard agnosticism’ and my ‘atheism’ are not that far apart. I was not suggesting that agnosticism involves an assumption of 50/50 but that it is sometimes misunderstood as such, and I agree that a person who thinks this is confused about agnosticism, as is somebody that thinks that atheism constitutes a 100% certainty that God does not exist. The problem with what you say regarding Peter Sutcliffe’s experience of God is just that, he does have direct experience but that does not mean God has been actually been instructing him. I think that it is important to make a judgement regarding the accuracy of what he claims. I cannot prove that God did not instruct him to carry out his horrific attacks but to ignore his claim might be irresponsible. If he is right and God was communicating with him then this has many serious implications. If on the other hand he is deluded then he should be regarded as being mentally ill (only as a result of his actions, not beliefs) and treated as such and if he is lying then he should be treated as a criminal as the law would allow. I do not see how a judgement cannot be made.


  6. Rich: You said that “In language a ‘metaphor’ is a representation of something (a), with the representation being something else (b) which is deemed to have similar/ relatable qualities.” That may indeed be how many, if not most, people use the term ‘metaphor.’

    However, when Robert said “our understanding is based in metaphorical cognitive models, which in turn are only meaningful to us because of their relationship with basic bodily experience”, I interpreted his ‘metaphorical’ reference as a pointer to conceptual metaphor, which if we follow the simple Wikipedia definition, means:

    In cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor, or cognitive metaphor, refers to the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another. An example of this is the understanding of quantity in terms of directionality (e.g. “the prices are rising”).

    Now, to use the example given here, it’s perfectly acceptable to think of quantity in these terms, as we all have experience of the source (e.g. objects that move up or down, relative to the human eye), whereas our relationship to the target (e.g. the idea of prices) is rather more abstract. But the only folks that I know of who insist on a ‘similar/relatable quality’ (or realistic correspondence) between these two domains are mathematical platonists – i.e. those who argue on behalf of a metaphysical doctrine, which posits that mathematically entities are literally real (albeit, causally inert).

    I hope that Robert will say more on this and correct me, if I misinterpreted him. I just thought I’d speak to this one point about metaphor (and, by extension, embodied meaning), as I think it’s crucial to understanding why a strongly agnostic approach to metaphysical claims is warranted.

  7. Typo correction (since I’m unable to edit or delete my own comments): Make that “…that mathematical entities are literally real…”

  8. Hi Jason,

    I think that even with the statement ‘prices are rising’ I would say that ‘rising’ is a ‘representation’ of the abstract concept of increased prices, so to re-write my sentence;

    “In language a ‘metaphor’ is a representation of something (increase of price), with the representation being something else (the physical act of rising) which is deemed to have similar and/ or relatable qualities.”

    I have put ‘and/ or’ in between ‘similar’ and’ relateble’ because I didn’t mean that a metaphor has to have ‘realistic correspondence’, although it can be. Another good example (which I think is clearer than ‘price increase’ and ‘rising’) is that of blue to represent masculinity and pink to represent femininity. Clearly, there is no actual similarity (pink represented masculinity not all that long ago) but, for various reasons, people regard them as being related to each other. If I have got this wrong, please put me right as I have not come across the term ‘conceptual metaphor’ before.

    Perhaps the issue is that Robert and I are using the word ‘representation’ differently. I was using it quite casually whereas I suspect that Robert is using it very specifically, and if this is the case I am happy for the word to be replaced with something else, description or model perhaps?


  9. Hi Rich,
    I agree with you that we do construct what we regard as representations, and also that there is a good deal of consistency between the representations created by science and maths. As long as we recognise their limitations this is fine. I also agree with Jason’s point about metaphor, except with the clarification that I don’t there can be a single source domain that all metaphors have to relate to (I don’t know whether Jason meant to imply this). Metaphorical extension in embodied meaning relates a metaphorical model to a physical schema, not to a base representation.

    I’d also agree that generally speaking socially accepted moral claims vary more than scientific ones. However, I am thinking of ethics prescriptively rather than descriptively: how we should act rather than what people conventionally say is ethical. I’d argue that a better moral judgement in a specific situation can be as well justified as a better judgement about fact. It may still be harder to reach agreement between people using different moral models than it is to reach scientific agreement, but this is at least partly because we’re so used to thinking of ethics as a matter of appealing to unsupportable metaphysics rather than as reaching as objective a view as possible based on our experience. If we were prepared to work with our moral models and scrutinise them for improvement in the same way that scientists routinely do with scientific models, we might find the comparability more obvious.

    I wouldn’t argue that we should ignore Peter Sutcliffe’s claim to be instructed by God, but I do think we should discount it and take it as an attempt to avoid responsibility, rather than take it seriously as a claim. The problem with such a claim is not that God may have been communicating with him, but that if he was then Sutcliffe is not taking responsibility for his interpretation of that message. I would want to make a judgement – one that obliged Sutcliffe to take responsibility for his actions.

  10. Thank you Robert,

    This all sounds much clearer to me. “If we were prepared to work with our moral models and scrutinise them for improvement in the same way that scientists routinely do with scientific models, we might find the comparability more obvious.” I think that this is a very important point and I hope that we, as a species can reach a point where this happens we would all be the better for it.

    A final point on Sutcliffe. My personal view is that he is not schizophrenic and he does not believe that God was instructing him to do what he did, and so I agree that he is attempting to relinquish responsibility for his actions. If he really is schizophrenic then I think the issue of personal responsibility is more complex. You or I might imagine that if we heard a voice telling us to do something horrific that we would rationalize and just say no, for some people that suffer from this disease it is not always so simple. I would also like to point out that the example of Sutcliffe and the media caricature of the dangerous ‘schizo’ is in no way representative of this disease or the overwhelming people that suffer form it.


  11. Rich: Yes, I suppose that I did have a more specific (if not wonky) definition of “representation” in mind – namely, one that philosopher Mark Johnson relates to the correspondence theory of truth. Much of Johnson’s work on embodied meaning boils down to a skeptical critique of that theory, which (at least on his account) still dominates the Anglo-American school of analytic philosophy, as well as some remnants of cognitive science.

    Robert: Just to clarify, I did not mean to suggest that all metaphors have a single source (I’m not even sure how that message possibly came across in my previous comment), unless perhaps by ‘single source’ we mean human sensory-motor experience writ large (e.g. if averaged out over the entire course of human biological and cultural evolution).

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