Article on Naturalism and Religion Published in the TLS

My review of the following books is published in the TLS 5981 (17th November, 2017): online here (with subscription).

Jason Blakely
Reunifying political theory and social science
136pp. University of Notre Dame Press. $35.

Anthony Carroll and Richard Norman, editors
Beyond the divide
260pp. Routledge. £24.99.

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Death of a Naturalist” evokes a change in the poet’s perspective on the natural world. We see the detached, naive viewpoint of the child “naturalist” replaced with a more sophisticated and poetic vision of a world saturated with meaning. While in the first stanza, the life cycle of the frog is a matter of detached observation, sanitized by his school teacher, the poet awakens in the second to the frogs’ “bass chorus”, the experience of “their slap and plop” as “obscene threats”, and finally to the chilling knowledge that “if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it”.

While the poet perhaps regrets the loss of innocence that this experience entailed, his readers may be more grateful. For Heaney’s poem shows that, for him, the death of naturalism was the birth of poetry. Heaney’s poem documents the metaphorical death of the callow student of natural history. But Jason Blakely’s book suggests that there’s an equally unsophisticated kind of naturalism whose demise should be considered, even celebrated. Blakely defines naturalism as a false and usually implicit philosophical view of the nature, scope and limitations of the natural sciences. It’s the reductionist assumption, based on a dichotomy between facts and values, that the natural sciences are properly concerned with objective, verifiable facts while the social sciences are too often distracted by subjective values, meanings and beliefs.

As Blakely argues, what makes naturalism reductionist is its confidence that these subjective, human dimensions of reality will one day be entirely explicable in terms of objective data, such as “brute facts about demography, surrounding environments, or neurobiology”. If naturalism is true, then the explanatory scope of such data could one day be fully extended into the subjective realms explored by the social sciences, and evaluative terms could eventually be eliminated from rational discourse.

Blakely’s book narrates the intellectual development of two philosophers who have systematically criticized a philosophical assumption underlying much social scientific research. But we are not only given a readable and sympathetic account of the views of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. The book is also an attempt to convince the reader of naturalism’s perniciousness. For during the twentieth century, Blakely says, naturalism ramified far beyond the academy, infiltrating some of the central institutions of modern power.

While his argument for the latter view is too sketchy to be fully convincing, Blakely succeeds admirably in his primary project. He shows in detail how the two philosophers, with shared intellectual roots in the British New Left, turned analytic philosophy against itself to reveal that naturalist social scientific research programmes like behaviourism were mired in conceptual confusion. Taylor and MacIntyre concluded that there is an inescapably subjective, evaluative and contextual dimension to all supposedly objective social scientific inquiry. A distinction between facts and values may be useful, but Taylor and MacIntyre showed that naturalism’s dualistic assumption of a dichotomy between them is unworkable in this demesne.

Blakely is as informative on his subjects’ proposed alternative to naturalism as he is on their critique. He shows how Taylor drew on European phenomenology and hermeneutics to build a case for the irreducibility of values, concluding that a workable conception of truth must admit a subjective, interpretative and narrative dimension. For Taylor, the true aim of the social sciences should be less to establish objective facts than to build up the most comprehensive narrative possible, including a plurality of mutually correcting perspectives and interpretations. While the phenomenologists who influenced Taylor think of understanding as a perpetually incomplete process, this doesn’t entail the bolder, postmodernist claim that there’s no truth – only that there can be no truth stripped of our human points of view.

Fiona Ellis’s contribution to Religion and Atheism: Beyond the divide complicates Blakely’s picture by cataloguing the variety of meanings bestowed on “naturalism” by contemporary philosophy. But this makes helpfully clear how naturalism, in the bald sense used by Blakely, implies an even cruder perspective – also called “naturalism” – the rejection of anything “supernatural”. It’s immediately clear how naturalism, in either sense, could significantly divide the atheist from the religious person, but the subtitle of Religion and Atheism advertises the book as an ambitious attempt to transcend this division. Ellis’s suggestion that these bald, divisive naturalisms be replaced with a more sophisticated, inclusive version is an important thrust in this direction.

Yet it remains to be seen whether such a theory could in practice unite an atheist with a theist – let alone an adherent to an actual religion. While the volume’s transcribed conversation between Raymond Tallis and Rowan Williams shows an atheist agreeing with a former archbishop about naturalism’s intellectual paucity, it leaves the reader with the sobering sense that even these seasoned interlocutors are far from converging on the “Archimedean point” they seek.

In the contemporary world, the practical questions prompted by religions are becoming increasingly urgent. In this context, atheists and people of faith are well advised to commit themselves to the joint project of guarding the irreducibly human experience of the transcendent from all dogmatically religious, and otherwise superstitious, misinterpretations – naturalism included. Christopher Hitchens concurred with philosophers and theologians like Karl Jaspers and Paul Tillich when he identified this as “the great cultural task” of the future.