Naturalistic fallacy – when what ‘ought to be’ is derived from what ‘is’; also known as a perspective which reduces the question of values to that of facts; logically classified as a fallacy of definition, diversion or irrelevance.
Naturalistic fallacy was originally presented by G.E. Moore in his book Principia Ethics in 1903, though first addressed by David Hume in the 18th century. In the 21st century, it deals with ethics as well as other philosophical topics in natural science, social science and humanities.
Naturalistic fallacy addresses the ‘nature’ of what is natural and what is not natural. Even the prospect that there are non-natural things or propositions can be considered illogical or alien to naturalistic thinkers. A naturalistic fallacy is therefore not simply a logical fallacy, but must be considered within a wider context.
Naturalism (as ideology) is a direct effect or benefactor of the naturalistic fallacy – naturalism being the idea that all explanations and descriptions of the universe and humankind must be based on a ‘natural’ understanding of our-selves and universe, given that human beings are a part of nature.
If a person semantically equates a natural category with a non-natural category (e.g. ‘pleasure is good’), they commit a naturalistic fallacy. The type of linguistic reductionism exhibited by a naturalistic fallacy restricts the input of metaphysics from defining any ethical value. In this way, making the claim that morality and ethics are based inevitably and solely on what is ‘natural’ is an example of such a restricted view.
Likewise, to say that something is ‘more evolved’ than something else, and to infer terms such as ‘better’ or ‘higher’ for that particular ‘stage of evolution’ also displays a naturalistic fallacy. Higher and better imply qualitative judgements upon what is considered lower and worse, which makes an extemely tenuous linkage in such areas as social-cultural or ethical theory. This is the context in which G.E. Moore framed his critique of reductionism and his insistence on ethical non-naturalism.
The topic of naturalizing things that are not natural or of categorizing things that are beyond natural explanations can be found in Aristotle and Plato, as well as other philosophers and theologians throughout history, such as Lucretius, Athanasius, Augustine, Avicenna, Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Occam, Copernicus, Spinoza, Newton, Goethe, W. Paley, Comte, H. Spencer, Nietzsche, Einstein, Berdyaev, M. Mead, J. Dewey and many others.
Modern versions of the fallacy are often traced to C. Darwin and to neo-Darwinism, whereby naturalistic thought is elevated into a philosophical worldview known as naturalism. Darwin was a ‘naturalist’ on an around-the-world journey. Naturalism is now often defined as anti-theistic, or simply as a secular philosophy of the world and human existence, which is fully self-contained and driven primarily by the central process-oriented concept of evolution.
“The Nature of Nature” conference held at Baylor University in 2000 was a staging point for discussions about what is natural and what nature encompasses in a post-modern arena of academia. It incorporated the views of theologians, philosophers and scientists from a variety of religious and secular backgrounds. This conference left open many questions for diverse viewpoints on nature, the super-natural and the non-natural, and provided a platform for the intelligent design movement (IDM) to further elaborate upon its investigations into finding purpose and meaning in nature.
“Even leaving aside the creation of the world and focussing solely on human acts of creation, do we find that naturalistic categories have fully explained human creativity?” – W. Dembski (Intelligent Design, 1999)
What alternatives or comparatives are available to the concept of ‘natural’? Several options are offered: social, cultural, historical, linguistic, logical, physical, biotic, spatial, numerical or spiritual; these are all respective concepts or categories for humankind that contain a different message than what is ‘purely’ natural. Outside of the disciplines/fields of natural science, these concepts hold their own communicative legitimacy, even if they are deemed secondary or less than fundamental to natural scientists. Indeed, the hierarchical priority of current academic science is a direct corollary of the naturalistic fallacy, where importance is placed upon natural-scientific explanations and methods ahead of others.
Naturalistic fallacies may therefore be seen as a legacy of Enlightenment thinking, as far as they perpetuate the myth that Reason, Science and Progress are sole referents to meaning, value and order in human life. As far as evolutionary theory has contributed to the respectability of natural sciences, including, but not exclusive of biology, chemistry, botany, geology, ecology, zoology, and general physiology, it is fair to say that evolutionism (as ideology) is the greatest modern example of a naturalistic fallacy.
If everything evolves, then there ought to be nothing that cannot be explained by evolutionary theories, including the writing of ‘these words here’ that are being used to describe evolution and naturalistic fallacy. All things evolve and thus all things are natural. It is the nature of things to be natural. This is the end of metaphysical-naturalist stories, a fallacy that is only sometimes revealed for what it truly is.
Contemporary scholars and thinkers need not, however, succumb to such hegemony among scientific ideas. For notions like basic change-over-time, organic development and genetic non-determinism, there are non-naturalistic explanations and categories to be found that alleviate over-dependence on what is natural. Likewise, methodological naturalism need not promote scientific, linguistic or ethical relativism as a common rule of contemporary academic propriety.
A naturalistic fallacy is found both in the wording and in interpretation. The influence of language and linguistic theory must be contextualized in any discussion of naturalism and scientism, especially as they relate to the limits of natural law. Science and nature cannot be considered self-sufficient terms with which to understand human life and existence on topics such as origins, meaning, human purpose and teleology. Other ideas and concepts/percepts can and ought to be used to supplement science and nature in this regard. The author(s) of any scientific, philosophical or theological text is still relevant, but his or her authority has by now been called into question.
One example of a naturalistic fallacy is ‘ethical naturalism,’ which reduces ethics to only natural explanations. All ethical things are said to be explainable naturally, which then leads to viewpoints of ethical relativity and social chaos or anomie.
“It has been rightly stated that morality – and this must include both theory and the practice of ethics – is in the throes of an appalling crisis.” – E. Durkheim (The Division of Labour in Society, <1893> 1984)
Secondly, there is a reverse perspective available for natural science toward evolution. An explosion (e.g. as in the geologically so-called ‘Cambrian Explosion’) doesn’t happen gradually and cannot be a mere trial and error adaptation caused by natural selection. An explosion is normally considered the result of human selection or invention, which necessitates a different conversational dynamic than what is primarily accessible through evolutionary principles. Naturalism is thus not a philosophical inevitability; even for those working in natural sciences. It is thus a naturalistic fallacy to insist an explosion ought to happen gradually by a natural process of species variation and differentiation enacted through random mutations.
Thirdly, the emergence of a new challenge to naturalistic thought and naturalistic fallacies may now be cited. Theories of intelligent design (ID) invoke a design theoretic to challenge naturalism, secularism and anti-theism of the neo-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm. Though the ‘science of design’ is still not without contention and doesn’t enjoy a singular elaboration, a post-Darwinian challenge to naturalistic ideology is clearly implied by the IDM.
Care is required to protect evolution from the naturalistic fallacy. Claims to justify divine realism, as in a neo-Pascalian wager, or to invoke a rationalistic or positivistic proof of divinity, could lead to a case where theological ethics fall prey their own forms of naturalistic fallacy. This happens when prescribing duties and responsibilities on the basis of purely descriptive theological premises. Such potentiality shows the multiplicity of sides to a pluralistic understanding of naturalistic fallacy early in the 21st century.
“Whence did the wond’rous mystic art arise,
Of painting SPEECH and speaking to the eyes?
That we by tracing magic lines are taught,
How to embody and to colour THOUGHT?”
– Alexander Pope
(In Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, 1967)
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Web Resources On Naturalistic Fallacy
Principia Ethics by G.E. Moore
"Moore, Spencer and the Naturalistic Fallacy" by James Fieser
Editor(s): Gregory Arago