Scientific Naturalism and the Argument from Consciousness

Saints and Sceptics

What is Scientific Naturalism?

Scientific naturalism, or strict naturalism, is the view that the spatio-temporal universe of entities postulated by our best current (or ideal) sciences, particularly physics, is all there is (Moreland, 2012, p.284) This world-view aims to provide an event-causal, scientific account of how everything has come to be and a general ontology in which the only entities which exist are those which bear a relevant similarity to those which would characterise a completed form of physics (Moreland, 2012, pp.282-285).

If naturalism is true, all of reality can be accounted for by physics, cosmology, and the processes of evolution. The two core theories of scientific naturalism are the atomic theory of matter and evolutionary theory (Moreland, 2012, p. 285)  These scientific theories use combinatorial modes of explanation. Wholes at each level above the ground level of elementary microphysics are explained by the composition of the separable parts at lower levels. So living organisms are composed of cells; cells are composed of molecules, which in turn are composed of atoms, which are composed of subatomic parts, which are composed of microphysical entities.

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Every physical event has physical causes which are sufficient to produce it; therefore, scientific naturalism subscribes to “the causal closure of the physical domain” (Goetz, 2011; Reppert,2003, p.52). Whenever we seek to explain an event or entity we need appeal only to physical laws and physical objects. This entails that we need never appeal to subjective consciousness, thoughts, plans, intentions or desires to explain the properties of any organism. The scientific naturalist can either attempt to reduce mental properties, like “intentions” and “beliefs”, to physical properties ( for example, the neuro-phsyiological states of organisms); or, the scientific naturalist might argue that mental properties supervene on, or are emergent from, physical properties. In this case mental properties would be determined by physical properties.

Arguably, conscious experience presents a problem for scientific naturalism. If we describe every physical fact about an organism we still leave out its conscious state (“what it is like” to be that organism: what it experiences). An “explanatory gap” emerges: physical theories only allow us to predict physical phenomena. Nothing about charge or mass, or any other physical property, explains the emergence of mental properties. There is absolutely nothing about a collection of physical parts that explains the emergence of thought; thoughts and atoms are just too dissimilar…


Scientific Naturalism and the Argument from Consciousness – Saints and Sceptics