apologetics, atheism, Book Reviews, naturalism, philosophy

The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism

What does naturalism entail? This is largely a discussion of the ideas contained within the book World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism by Michael C. Rea. An outline of his ideas comes first, followed by a look at a critique of his work.

Michael C. Rea has lofty goals for his book World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism. He lays them out almost immediately: to show that naturalists are 1. committed to rejecting realism about material objects (RMO), 2. are forced to reject materialism,  and 3. cannot accept the reality of other minds (ROM) (Rea, 8).

Naturalism, according to Rea, is best understood as a research program. This he defines as: “a set of methodological dispositions” (Rea, 3). He argues that research programs cannot be accepted based on evidence, but can be discarded based on evidence. “[T]here is no method-neutral basis on which to assess the decision to adopt a particular research program” (Rea, 7). He pushes for acceptance of this view of naturalism as opposed to epistemological, metaphysical, etc. naturalism. While I believe that naturalism can certainly be viewed as a research program (using his definition), I think it is unclear from his arguments as to why exactly the other views of naturalism are to be rejected. Interestingly, however, it seems that Rea’s definition of research program manages to include these various types of naturalism.

Whether or not Rea is successful in his arguments to refocus naturalism as a research program, his arguments stand, as they are directed at this kind of “naturalism-at-large.”

It is important to note that a central concept that must be understood in order to discern Rea’s argument is that he is almost certainly attacking what seems to be most naturalists views that naturalism is unapproachable. Rea’s argument for viewing naturalism as a research method becomes stronger when taking this into account–for if naturalism is accepted without justification, it fits his definition of research program. He quotes Quine (who is extremely important in many fields of philosophy [such as logic], not just naturalism): “The proper answer to questions like ‘What justifies me in believing what I learn by way of scientific method?’ is simply ‘Do not ask that question'” (Rea, 44).

I believe that this stance should be, at the very least, uncomfortable for naturalists, or at least naturalists who attack theists for similar responses as to justification for belief in God, but that’s a whole different subject. I believe that, however, both cases need at least some kind of warrant or justification.

But let’s delve into the meat of World Without Design. Rea, as was said before, argues that naturalists are forced to ontologically give up RMO, ROM, and materialism. What grounds does he have for making these claims? I was initially quite skeptical. Obviously, I have every reason to rejoice in any attempts to undermine naturalism, but to claim that naturalism cannot even justify reality about material objects is, as I said, a lofty claim.

Rea cites The Discover Problem as the main reason naturalists are forced to these consequences. The Discovery Problem is “…just the fact that intrinsic modal properties seem to be undiscoverable by the methods of the natural sciences. Modal properties are properties involving necessities or possibilities for the objects that have them” (Rea, 77). It is this Problem that Rea continues to press against naturalists, and after analyzing his exhaustive arguments, I believe he succeeds.

The problem is that science can discover, at most, extrinsic modal properties, but not those that are intrinsic. Rea frames one of the problems that follows from the Discovery Problem as follows (paraphrased): one man owes another a debt. When the one to whom the debt is owed confronts the debtor about it, he argues that he is not the same person he was when the debt was incurred, for, after all, large amounts of the molecules in his body are no longer there, or have rearranged somehow, etc. The one owed the debt promptly punches him on the nose (Rea, 79ff).

But how is it that one can prove he is the same person? What makes it so that the matter can be said to be arranged “human-wise” instead of merely “collection-wise“? The answer is modal properties. The problem, however, is that in order to successfully point to the debtor as being the same person, one must use intrinsic modal properties, which are undetectable via scientific method, and, according to naturalism, must therefore be rejected.

I can’t type out the whole book here for a number of reasons, so I’ll highlight a few arguments:

“[I]t is possible for belief in material objects to be justified only if it is possible to have at least one justified M[odal]P[roperties] belief” (Rea, 83). This is because 1. one must be able to say this is a material object, 2. that belief can only be justified by beliefs in certain properties that are essential to the object (essential in the philosophical sense), and 3. these kinds of beliefs are MP beliefs (Rea, 83-84).

There are a number of ways naturalists have tried to get around this problem, but ultimately they can, at most, only grant extrinsic modal properties. In order to grant intrinsic modal values, on naturalism, “(a) we must observe it, (b) we posit its existence to explain our observations, or (c)we discover that our theorizing is simplified or otherwise significantly pragmatically enhanced by supposing that it exists” (Rea, 104). But modal properties are not observable, so only (b) or (c) are possibilities.

The possible solution (b) generally points to tying modal properties in with Proper Function. Proper Function is, generally, the belief that certain things that occupy a certain region have an objective function that they are supposed to perform. But even granting that empirical techniques can somehow claim this about anything, Proper Function can only grant extrinsic modal properties (such as saying that cat-arranged things have the proper function of “operating” as cats). The problem remains.

Solution (c) presents a pragmatic argument. Now setting aside some of the blatant flaws with pragmatism in general (i.e. the absurdity that, on pragmatism, it follows that if there are no people, there is no truth), this pragmatic consideration within naturalism doesn’t help in discovering intrinsic modal properties as it is completely unclear as to what pragmatic value there is in considering intrinsic modal properties on naturalism. Not only that, but Rea presents another valuable argument: “If, for example, it cannot be a truth that a thing x has a property p unless it is somehow useful or convenient for human beings to believe that x has p, then it is hard to see how x could have p in a world that does not include human beings.” [As I mentioned.] “So pragmatic theories of truth seem to imply (perhaps absurdly) that every property is extrinsic [ed: in that properties are assigned pragmatically]. hence, they also imply that modal and sortal properties are extrinsic. Thus they are incompatible with R[eality about]M[aterial]O[bjects]” (Rea, 146).

The Discovery Problem thus eliminates the possible of RMO, ROM, and materialism from the naturalist ontology. But these are things that naturalists will be extremely reluctant to eliminate. Rea follows with a discussion of intuitionism–which is another way naturalists might salvage RMO from the implications of naturalism, but the problem with intuitionism is that it is a version of idealism which eliminates RMO to begin with. I’m not going to go into the details of Rea’s argument here, as to do so would take quite a bit of extra space and I don’t think it is all that relevant to the current discussion.

I find Rea’s method quite sound, and his reasoning is certainly solid. Whether or not his book is successful (as I think it is), it certainly is thought-provoking. I expect many a naturalist will be forced to reconsider his or her position and attempt many a rejoinder to the arguments contained in World Without Design. One such rejoinder will be discussed next.

A critique of Rea’s work can be found here. The author (Troy Cross) was quite fair in his evaluation of Rea’s work, but I think the conclusions he drew weren’t quite spot on. For example:

“Rea’s ‘charitable’ proposal on naturalism’s behalf [that of it being a research program], by contrast, is to be avoided at all costs… Rea’s argument is not of the form: there are material objects, therefore, naturalism is false.”

But it is in Cross’ accusing Rea of being unnecessarily “charitable” that he seems to ignore one of the central arguments of the first chapters, which is an argument against naturalism as Cross seems to want to take it [though as I discussed above I am not entirely sure of its success]. Not only that, but while he states specifically what Rea’s argument is not (and I agree with him), he seems to ignore that if Rea has succeeded in his actual argument, then while naturalism may not be untrue or false on an epistemological level, naturalists are forced into some uncomfortable positions. In fact, I don’t really think that Rea is anywhere trying to prove naturalism is false, but only that naturalism forces us to give up much on an ontological level and that some of these beliefs seem basic to naturalism itself. It is in this way that many of Cross’s critiques fail. He seems to miss the general point of Rea’s book, which may perhaps be summed up in Rea’s own words:

“I think it is important to acknowledge that the theses I have said naturalists must give up are theses that many philosophers, naturalists in particular, will be very reluctant to give up.”


“We are told that if only we look in the right places we will find everything we want: realism about material objects, realism about other minds, materialism for those who want it, and much more. But when all the shells have been turned over, we find that we have been duped, and nothing is there.” (Rea, 170)

Further, Cross makes a rather bold statement by asserting, “Perception is a science-approved basic source of justification, and on a suitably robust notion, perception delivers real material objects, not merely sense data or mind-dependent objects.” Despite these claims, he offers no evidence to support it. It seems he missed the section on pragmatism, or at least chose to ignore it. In what way does naturalism, with its “science-approved” methodology somehow grant itself the assumption that perception is not mind based? How does his claim rule out idealism? He truly fails in this regard, and he falls victim to his own presuppositions.

Naturalists cannot seem to view their own worldview objectively at all (see Quine’s quote, above). Material objects are simply assumed based on perception and it is similarly assumed that materialism is true. And then it follows from these two assumptions that the mind is at the least supervenient on the physical. But this is nothing other than a circular argument. If any one of these three assumptions fails, then the circle is broken. And I don’t see any reason that all of these assumptions won’t fail. Not only that, but a circular argument is  a simple logical fallacy.

What grounds do naturalists have to accept such a statement as Cross makes? The assumption that perception somehow proves material objects flies in the face of competing metaphysical approaches such as idealism and certainly begs the question against them. And because of this, such a statement is, if not false, at least lacking any kind of epistemic value. It’s nothing but an assumption with no grounds (other than perhaps pragmatism) for accepting it. And if one would like to argue for such a view on pragmatic grounds, the arguments presented by Rea against pragmatism apply.

Naturalists seem to make these kinds of statements all the time. Whatever they say they simply grant because of either pragmatic concerns or some kind of circular argument. There is no reason to accept either of these reasons.

So Cross seems to miss the mark in a number of ways. He is attempting to argue against a point Rea didn’t make. When he argues that Rea fails to give epistemic reasons that naturalism is false, he is arguing against a straw man. Rea isn’t trying to do so to begin with. Rather, he is arguing that if naturalism is true, it forces those who want to accept it to give up many of the things that they may wish to take as truths–those things shown above, namely, ROM, RMO, and materialism. Not only that, but Cross fails to make any kind of argument for a naturalism that escapes Rea’s casting of it as a “research program.” Cross instead states “[Rea] succeeds in aiding and motivating the construction of naturalistic theories.” The problem is that the construction of those theories hasn’t happened. The current naturalism is fully subject to the arguments presented in World Without Design, and the consequences of naturalism are hard to swallow.

I should note, in closing, that the arguments I make above against Cross (particularly my statement that he is making assumptions and/or begging the question for naturalism) might be leveled against my own view of theism. It should be noted, however, that Rea himself addresses these issues briefly. But there are other reasons that such accusations don’t have merit, for theism doesn’t presuppose such things as dualism. There is a huge amount of literature dedicated to the mind-body problem that is readily accessible. Further, claims that God is the basis for intrinsic modal properties and/or intrinsic human worth have also been addressed in many formats by theists. Certainly, theists may make claims that grant certain underlying beliefs, but those beliefs themselves are building blocks that theists at least have arguments that at the least warrant, if not justify those beliefs (I can once again refer to dualism as a prime example). Naturalists have no such warrant. It is simply assumed that scientism or empiricism is the correct method (or argued on the basis of pragmatism), and that somehow this serves as a defeater for idealism, various theistic views, or other explanatory positions. But, as can be seen in Rea’s book and our brief discussion, these claims only lead us to a rejection of those things which naturalists hold most dear: material objects and materialism itself.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.



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