P1: If Naturalism is true, then all factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of facts) is acquired empirically.
P2: Knowledge of necessary facts cannot be acquired empirically.
P3: We have some knowledge of necessary facts.
C: Therefore, Naturalism is not true.
Of course, we might ask: what would be an alternative to something natural? To exist is to be something, to have a nature, to have identity. This is the case whether it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon or something man-made. There is no such thing as an existent that has no nature. But what alternative to natural things would there be if not supposed existents lacking a nature, lacking an identity? Is our epistemology consistent with the Law if Identity throughout, or do we pretend that some things are exempt from having an identity? To object to the view that “only natural things exist,” then, is to grant validity, however tacitly, to the notion that things can exist without identity. But this is a contradiction in terms at the most fundamental metaphysical level – the level of existence itself.
Again, there are many notions in Anderson’s paper which can – and should - be challenged, such as the rationalism-empiricism dichotomy, the necessary-contingent dichotomy, the imaginative notion of “possible worlds,” the notion of “exist[ing] spatiotemporally,” the notion of “a priori factual knowledge,” etc., all of which weigh down Anderson’s philosophical plights and hide from audiences the fact that his overall worldview has no objective starting point, no grasp of the issue of metaphysical primacy, no understanding of the nature of concepts. Consequently, it is not an epistemological argument that Anderson presents, but in fact an anti-epistemological argument taking for granted a whole host of invalid and false ideas.
This comes out even when presuming to speak on behalf of Naturalism, Anderson writes:
the only way for factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of how things are in the external world) to get into the brain is by way of physical sensory organs, or, more loosely, physical ‘input devices’.
My first objection really has to do with what Anderson’s own argument actually concedes. What Anderson does not argue is that conscious activity as such is incompatible with the view that “only natural things exist.” Fundamentally, he grants that sense experience and observation – even factual knowledge as such (at least in terms of “how things are”) – are compatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.” This is a self-detonating concession, for if it is granted that conscious activity of any kind is compatible with the view that “only natural things exist,” then that should be sufficient to suppose that other kinds of conscious activity are also compatible with the view that “only natural things exist.” Anderson nowhere argues that only certain kinds of conscious activity are compatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist” while others are not. By granting that the natural structures of human physiology support conscious activity (which he does by allowing sense perception and observation to be available on the Naturalist view), he thereby concedes that conscious activity as such is not incompatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.”
Objectivism observes that we find three levels of consciousness in nature: the level of sensational level, the perceptual level, and the conceptual level. Ayn Rand presents these distinctions as follows:
Man’s consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state, conceptions, that makes him man. Sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically, by the brain of a man or of an animal. But to integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction, is a feat that man alone has the power to perform—and he has to perform it by choice. (For the New Intellectual, p. 11)
We can therefore observe that the human mind, given its natural endowments, is capable of identifying the material provided by the senses in conceptual form. This is possible through a process of abstraction. Children start to do this almost universally from a young age. The concepts which the human mind form can in tern be integrated into statements denoting things we observe in the world around us. We build our knowledge upwards, from the basis of perception, which is the mind’s firsthand contact with reality. For example, we can form the concepts ‘tree’, ‘height’, ‘tall’, etc., and observe “this tree is taller than that tree.” We call these propositions truths, which means the human mind – again, given its natural endowments – is capable of perceiving things and formulating true statements about those things. This puts knowledge of facts within reach of the human mind, since knowledge is conceptual in nature.
Now, this is not some “back door” trying to skirt around the thrust of Anderson’s argument. On the contrary, my objection here uncovers a glaring deficiency in the overall strategy of his argument by observing that its own terms make enough of a concession to admit its own defeat. The vulnerability here cannot be solved for by re-arranging certain assumptions already present in Anderson’s argument; rather, it stems from epistemological deficiencies which are a direct result of a failure of Anderson’s worldview to provide a good understanding of how concepts are formed from our perception of the world. It would have been more profitable for Anderson simply to announce, “we do have knowledge of all kinds of facts, but my worldview does not equip me to explain this.” Of course, it would not follow from this admission, which is very much in order given the tortured logic he has presented to the world, that his worldview is the only one which can “account for” the “necessary preconditions” of knowledge. Rather, it would be a sober starting point for some actual learning.
Of course, it may be that “Naturalism” as a philosophy includes other stipulations not considered here which in fact make it incompatible with the human capacity to form concepts. For example, the report among committed Naturalists may be that they accept the Empiricist horn of the Rationalist-Empiricist dichotomy and thus have no philosophical room for abstractions to begin with. However, the idea that “only natural things exist” by itself is not sufficient to create such an incompatibility (even Anderson apparently finds no tension between this aspect of “Naturalism” and sense perception – which is a type of conscious activity). But if Naturalism does in fact entail such stipulations, so much the worse for Naturalism. If Naturalism rejects the conceptual level of consciousness, then Naturalism should be rejected. However, Anderson does not raise this objection against Naturalism explicitly. His argument is not:
P1’: If Naturalism were true, then human beings would not be capable of forming concepts from perceptual input.
P2’: Human beings can and do form concepts from perceptual input.
C’: Therefore, Naturalism is not true.
The other objection I wanted to raise here can be fleshed out with a quick review of Anderson’s examples of “necessary facts.” They are as follows:
- “No physical object is entirely red and entirely green at the same time.”
- “No water molecule contains a carbon atom.”
- “If there’s one stone in the bucket, and I add another stone, there will be two stones in the bucket.”
- “It is morally wrong to torture infants for fun.”
The first is that each of these propositions is composed of concepts. That should not be a controversial point, but it is sufficient to tell us that we cannot treat either of these propositions as irreducible primaries. It should be obvious that we would have to grasp the meaning of these statements before we could accept them as true. However, in order to grasp the meaning of these propositions, we would first need to have grasped the meaning of the constituent concepts informing these propositions denoting “necessary facts.” There is an order to understanding because knowledge has a hierarchical structure: we need to understand why 2+2=4 long before we’ll be able to tackle differential calculus. As pointed out above, we build our knowledge upwards, from the raw material provided by the senses to ever-higher abstractions. Leonard Peikoff illustrates this principle as follows:
Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on the still lower, until one reaches the foundation, where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 130.)
More to the point, one cannot observe that “no physical object is entirely red and entirely green at the same time” without first having formed the concepts ‘physical’, ‘object’, ‘red’, ‘green’, ‘entirely’, ‘time’, ‘same’ and any other concept which the statement incorporates. And several of these concepts are in fact formed on the basis of direct perceptual input. Indeed, apart from the ability to see colors generally, concepts denoting particular colors or color categories would be meaningless. The same is the case for concepts such as ‘water’, ‘stone’, ‘bucket’, ‘infants’, and others which denote similar concretes. More advanced concepts such as ‘molecule’, ‘morally wrong’, ‘torture’, ‘fun’, etc., are abstractions which are not available to the mind prior to forming concepts of concretes (see chapter 3, “Abstraction from Abstractions,” of Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology).
Suppose I make the following statement:
“My wife just bought a new vutorisant, and it fits perfectly!”
So the very constituent concepts of these statements denoting “necessary facts” would not be available to the human mind without either the perceptual activity necessary to provide awareness of the kinds of concretes to which they relate, or the mental activity needed to integrate those concretes into conceptual form, including the higher-level abstractions present in these and other propositions we form on a daily basis.
If it can be the case that (a) “only natural things exist” and (b) human beings can perform conscious activity, including the formation of concepts, then why would these facts be beyond the reach of human consciousness? Blank out. Moreover, if the constituent concepts of statements denoting “necessary truths” are only available to the human mind by forming concepts from perceptual input, what is it about this category of facts in particular that makes them incompatible with “Naturalism” qua “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist”? Again, blank out.
The other objection that can be raised here is that all four of the examples of “necessary facts” which Anderson presents share something critical in common, namely: they all presuppose the truth of the axiom of existence. None of these “necessary facts” could obtain if it were not the case that existence exists. If “necessary facts” is a valid concept, then there could be no fact more “necessary” than the ultra-fundamental fact that existence exists. Yet that is the founding recognition of Objectivism. If Anderson’s examples qualify as “necessary facts,” how much more is the axiom of existence itself an even more fundamental “necessary fact”? And I know of no contradiction between recognizing the fact that existence exists on the one hand, and on the other supposing that “only natural things exist” (again, with the qualification that man-made things also exist, which are made from natural things anyway). And Anderson does not show any incompatibility between these two positions. So not only do the “necessary facts” which Anderson presents as examples for his case depend on the truth of Objectivism’s initial axiom, there’s no tension to be found between Objectivism’s initial axiom and “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.”
The answer to Anderson’s argument, then, is a good understanding of the nature of concepts, of how we form them from perceptual input, of how concepts expand our awareness beyond the perceptual level to broader identifications encompassing entire categories of things, both natural and man-made, all without the need to pretend that imaginary agents are real things. What is certain is that supernatural entities are not necessary for human beings to discover and validate knowledge of the kinds of facts Anderson calls “necessary facts.” What we need is reason. What a novel concept!
So there you have it. Just a couple pokes, and the would-be menace of presuppositional apologetics simply evaporates into the ether.
by Dawson Bethrick