One approach to Naturalism/Supernaturalism

Following Plato in Laws X we can divide Naturalism and Supernaturalism by asking whether nature is prior to art or art to nature. Plato advocates Supernaturalism by an argument like this:

1a.) What initiates its own activity is causally prior to what does not.

2a.) What initiates its own activity is alive.

3a.) Nature, as such, is not alive.

4a.) Life, therefore, is causally prior to nature.

While it doesn’t get us precisely to the causal priority of art, it gets close enough – we can’t imagine a life causing the universe from outside except by art. The opposite argument is this:

1b.) Art is an activity of a living thing.

2b.) A living thing is caused by a certain degree of complexity and organization of natural things.

3b.) What is simple is causally prior to the complex reality made from it.

4b.) Nature, therefore, is causally prior to art.

There is minimal dissent from the first and third premises, so the dispute turns on the account we give of a living thing.

For convinced hylomorphists, there is a way to order the two definitions of life: 2b is clearly in the order of material cause while 2a is formal. But material causes as causes are the last things in a causal sequence (though they are sometimes first in time) and so 2b is only a cause of life in a way subordinate to 2a.

Aristotle might also argue against the primacy of 2b from his account of chance: 2b gives an account of life that could be by chance; but what cannot be by chance is prior to what might be from it. 2b speaks of order (“organization”) but chance can only account for this or that instance of an ordered thing, and not the order itself. You might set monkeys to work on typewriters and come up with the best work of literature yet produced, but this presupposes the order of the language, syntax, apt metaphor, plot, and half a dozen other things that a monkey has to get lucky enough to satisfy. So a thing could only be by chance when it presupposes another sort of order; and since 2b describes what could be by chance even if it is in fact not, then this account of life cannot be the fundamental one.

But to the extent that 2b is true, life is intelligible to us. In understanding life we gain the power to control it, and to model it in a way that we can understand it as well as any machine we might make ourselves. Our knowledge becomes more godlike and impressive us, so much so that to the extent that we successfully understand life this way it becomes difficult to see any other mode of understanding it as bona fide knowledge. Even if assuming that life is intelligible to us is a clear case of the looking-for-your-keys-under-the-lightpost, but it rings hollow when we see the sort of practical results we get from the assumption. Shouldn’t real knowledge give us power over something? And what would it even mean for something to be intelligible, but not to us?

The principle that things should be intelligible to us is older than either modern science or Kant, but both of these gave the principle a new urgency. The success of the practical method, combined with the difficulties we have in understanding things in ways less intelligible to us, makes anything else seem impotent and merely verbal.







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