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A Meticulous, Yet Brief Critique of Naturalism
on October 7, 2008
This is a fascinating, yet concise book. At only 122 pages (including the appendix) one might assume that the book is too short to argue against a philosophical methodology such as naturalism, yet this is not the case. In fact, the brevity serves a greater purpose that I will mention below. Let me begin with a brief discussion of the title followed by some strengths and weaknesses.
A commenter above suggests that the title is misleading, and states, "Given the title, you would think this book would introduce and explain 'Naturalism.'" I'm assuming that the reviewer merely skimmed the book for one cannot deny that the book does introduce and explain both strict and broad naturalism. Outside of the final chapter (and a few very brief sections in the first four chapters) this book could very easily have been written by naturalists. The book actually excels in describing both strict and broad naturalistic worldviews, mainly relying on extensive quotes from some of naturalism's most well respected proponents. It then suggests gaps and logical problems within their methodologies. The book could have very well been written (with the few exceptions mentioned above) by a naturalist, and then simply replaced the final chapter with a naturalistic attempt to answer the critiques of the previous four chapters. Books like this are typical in every field, and thus I must contend that "Naturalism" is the correct title for the work, that the previous reviewer was unjustified, and that naturalism is the topic of discussion throughout. Now for some strengths and weaknesses:
1. The language is easily understandable for the average reader. The book avoids philosophical language when possible, which is to its benefit. Occasionally the authors are required to use philosophical language, but I believe that this will not be an issue for anyone who has had at least an introductory philosophy course in high school or college.
2. The book is brief. This may be a weakness for some (as I'll discuss below), but for me added value to the book. The work is not intended to answer the questions as much as give trajectories through which the reader may find an answer. As such, in response to the brevity and the quality of the arguments, I often found myself taking the arguments much further, and also coming up with other arguments and responses. I believe the success in prompting the reader to think through the issues more thoroughly for themselves is due much in part to the brevity of the work combined with the strong arguments.
3. The argument is strong and builds throughout the work. As I read the first chapter I was not entirely sure where the discussion was headed. In the next few chapters the argument grew extensively, and by the section on naturalism and values, it was clear that the case being made was both extensive and strong. As such, I must agree with Robert P. George (on the back of the book), when he says, "Patiently, gently, but in the end decisively, Goetz and Taliaferro demolish the dogmas of naturalism." The strength of the argument has affected me personally as well. I'm someone who, though a theist, tends to side with non-reductive physicalists more often than not. This work has opened my thinking to certain forms of non-Cartesian dualism.
4. The quotes from external sources are usually long and shown in proper context. Too often in critiques quotes are taken radically out of context in order to make a point. This is not the case with this book as it is clear that the authors both understand and respect the naturalists they are critiquing.
1. Many will see the brevity of this work as a weakness. The book may not provide all of the answers you may be seeking in response to the critique of the naturalistic worldview. I personally see this as a strength since it provides trajectories for self-thought, but others may see this as a weakness.
2. The book ends as a critique. The final chapter assesses some of the stronger naturalistic arguments against theism showing their weaknesses, and thus indirectly (until the final line quoted in another review above) suggesting that the best interpretation of the world (beliefs, reason, intention, causality, free will, etc.) comes through a theistic worldview. As such, a reader may be left wanting more information as to how a theistic worldview better represents reality than the brief suggestions within the book. Fortunately, the book does include a good (and current) bibliography including (among many others) works by Goetz and Taliaferro that with more specificity and depth describe the theistic worldview.
In the end, I must say that I truly enjoyed this book. Having never read either of the authors, I was initially interested in reading it as a result of the strong endorsements by John Milbank and John F. Haught, both of whom I highly respect. Now I am intrigued to read more by each of these authors as this book has shown that they rigorously make an argument, but have the ability to do this in an easily understood and readable style.