Naturalism

The advantage of science – above metaphysics, theology, and the humanities, or so we are told – is that it examines the natural world. It doesn’t rely on faith or vague abstractions, or peer into worlds we cannot directly access.

But what does this mean exactly? The question bothered Carl Hempel as he thought about the scientific method. If science examines the natural world, then is the natural world just that which science has the techniques to examine? As we develop new technologies then perhaps what we consider Nature will expand?

 

Its an issue that affects the neurosciences in particular for a number of reasons. The first is whether measuring brain structures, neural patterns and blood flow can begin to tell us something about the mind, something traditionally thought to be immaterial, and so beyond the realm of the natural sciences.

 

The second reason is perhaps peculiar to the English-speaking world, where ‘science’ and ‘nature’ are narrowly defined compared with other countries. Elsewhere, the difference between the sciences and the humanities is not so wide. In German, for example, both are considered scientists, Naturwissenschaft and Geistswissenschaft, the science of nature and spirit respectively. Only in England could CP Snow discern ‘two cultures’ in 1959. It is a national – indeed, international – distinction that still needs historical explanation.

 

The third reason why naturalism is a prickly issue in the neurosciences is related to this concern that we may have overly restricted ourselves when we study the mind. The third builds upon this and makes the issue even muddier. Science relies on the evidence of our senses – and actually this is what makes science special – but there is an air of suspicion about trusting the sense we have of our own minds. To the extent that the neurosciences and the humanities trust consciousness at all, that is.

The mind studying itself, thought trying to catch its own tail, is called ‘introspection.’ It continues to paly a part in the history of neuroscience, psychology and the humanities, although the value attached to it has fluctuated with time. Whether it could ever be considered scientific remains to be seen. If the history of science by any judge, this is unlikely to happen.

Whether the history of science should be any judge is a completely different problem…