13 July 2010

Scientific Materialism and Cultural Naturalism

First Things (R.R. Reno):  The Gospel of Scientific Materialism, "The basic thrust of a reductive science of the mind involves a move from cultural categories—'I have an obligation to care for my children'—to biological ones—'I only feel an obligation because human DNA has evolved to promote species survival.'  It is a way, in other words, to deny the reality and authority of culture."

If I were a scientific materialist I would object:  No, SM doesn't seek to replace the cultural with the biological, but rather it seeks to explain the cultural with the biological.  In other words, the cultural imperative to care for my children is derived from the biological imperative to promote species survival.  In so far as SM seeks to explain the physical world we live in, it generally eschews drawing neat conclusions about social phenomena (e.g., family obligations).  A scientific materialist would simply shrug her shoulders at a question about the nature of the family, or the cultural norms embedded in communal practices. 

Those who hope to replace cultural imperatives with biological explanations are committed philosophically to more than scientific materialism; they are committed to a kind of cultural  naturalism that argues against the existence of truths knowable apart from materialistic-naturalistic explanations (in this case, objectively knowable moral truths).  

The $15 name for this is Non-eliminative reductive ontological naturalism.*  NEON argues that  the reality of the world we live in includes only those things that the natural sciences can describe and explain.  This means that all cultural, social, economic categories are reducible to naturalistic categories (genetics, etc.). 

Scientific materialism, when limited to its proper field of expertise, is culturally, socially neutral; that is, it makes no claims on the existence or nature of non-material entities or categories.

*cf. Paul Moser, The Evidence for God, pg. 71.

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