01
Feb
10

Naturalism, Naturalism, or Naturalism, recap

I feel I have sufficiently cleared the three major ideas typically meant by the term “naturalism.” Henceforth, I shall refer to them as follows:

  1. Natural History=biological naturalism
  2. Scientific Naturalism=methodological naturalism
  3. Naturalism=ontological naturalism

Now we can get to the fun parts of understanding how a naturalist (sense 3) perceives the world. This form of naturalist is often described as a “skeptic,” but this is misleading. The initial starting point for any idea, in this view, is the position of doubt, this does not mean the naturalist is not capable of coming to rather firm conclusions. Indeed, naturalism, in this sense, simply implies that one requires a standard of evidence must be surpassed. Scientific research, itself, is subject to this same skepticism of the naturalist. For example, when a scientist makes a claim about anatomy, the initial response isn’t “that can’t be right,” it is “how do you know?” To better illustrate my point, see Brian Switek’s coverage of the recent Darwinius masillae fiasco. Just because an experiment is controlled does not mean it is methodologically sound. This is (almost) exactly how one should respond to claims that a finding will “change everything.” One must first look closely at the methods, then the findings and any ulterior motivations for the claim. Only after the methods, findings, and possible ulterior motives are established, then it is safe to explore how it would actually impact the facts (observations) currently supporting the theory (model).

The scientific naturalist can still be mislead by incomplete information, and this is indeed often the case. The ontological naturalist can, in the same sense, be wrong if a conclusion is reached prematurely. With additional information, however, these incorrect theories can be remodeled when contradictory observations are made. An example might go as such:

  1. It is found that the common ancestor of humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees (Pan genus) was almost exclusively bipedal
  2. These same conclusions are verified by numerous researchers through independent methods, all establishing that the fossil species in question is both a common ancestor or representative of the ancestral type and it was bipedal
  3. We then would have to conclude that chimpanzees (+bonobos) and gorillas are secondary quadrupeds, with humans actually having a more primitive method of locomotion than these species.

The above is purely fiction; it is simply to illustrate a point.

Finally, the more supported a theory is by research, the more compelling the evidence for it’s upheaval is required. Thousands of observations of apples falling to the ground won’t be completely overturned by a balloon floating upwards. The same is true of any theory. If, however, an apple identical to all of the others floats upwards one day, I would, of course, want to know why. I would not initially state “HAHA, Newton, Einstein, Copernicus, and Galileo were all wrong, gravity doesn’t exist!!1eleven!11!!one!” Of course, the observation was not expected, but this does not mean we had all the relevant information. If you saw a video of a mouse floating an inch above the ground inside of a cylinder, you may initially wonder why it doesn’t fall, but I doubt you would conclude gravity doesn’t exist on Earth. You may think it was on the space station in microgravity. You might be wrong.

I cannot tell you how many times I have read a phrase in natural history journals worded in this manner: “More research is necessary on […] to explain […] before any firm conclusions can be drawn.”

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4 Responses to “Naturalism, Naturalism, or Naturalism, recap”


  1. 1 Pliny-the-in-Between
    February 2, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Great series which does an excellent job of correcting a lot of misunderstanding.

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    February 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you, I know I could have elaborated more, but it’s a balance between too much information to keep someone’s interest, and not enough detail to explain the specific ideas. My writing style could actually be considered a form of artificial selection; I wrote several varying iterations of these posts and picked the most succinct ones of each that still managed to convey most of my points…


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