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Robert Audi, Naturalism, Normativity, and Explanation, 2014

Robert Audi is a well-known American philosopher, Professor at Notre
Dame University, whose major work has focused on epistemology, ethics, and theory of action. Some of his most acclaimed books are The architecture of Reason, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, and Practical Reasoning and Ethical Decision. The present volume gathers papers delivered in Kraków and Oxford between 2012 and 2014. It is  conceived as an exploration of naturalism and its relation to science,  ethics, philosophy of mind, and (to a lesser degree) theology. “A crucial support for naturalism is its promise of unifying intellectual inquiry by taking science as a paradigm for epistemology, metaphysics, and explanation in any domain. This book critically explores that prospect and, in doing so, offers positive accounts of normativity and explanation” (p. 5). The cornerstone of Audi’s strategy is the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism, which makes it possible to argue for a scientifically informed epistemology that is not committed to the former. He is willing to integrate as many aspects of naturalism as seems justified, but he rejects the main naturalistic tenet, namely, that all concrete entities possess only natural properties. The background from which he argues is both metaphysical and moral realism, a moderate rationalism, and the claim that it is possible to achieve objectivity in both normative and philosophical matters.


Chapter 1, “Naturalism as a Philosophical and Scientific Framework: A
Critical Perspective”, is a perceptive analysis of different sorts of naturalism and their philosophical claims. Though naturalism is understood and positively assessed as an expression of a drive for intellectual economy, the main thesis is clear: “As a philosophical framework appropriate to a scientific habit of mind and supportive of the progress of science, methodological naturalism is as strong a naturalistic position as required” (p. 29). This point is further developed through two other assertions, namely, that the naturalistic project of reducing non-natural properties to natural ones is not fully feasible (the problem lies not so much in mental properties, but in abstract and normative ones) and that causal closure of the world (the view that all causes are physical) is not even required by the problematic ideal of unifying science under physical laws, as causal sufficiency (a principle of plenitude which sustains that there is a nomically sufficient physical condition for every physical event) satisfies the demands of such an ideal. Causal sufficiency leaves open the existence of non-natural causes as well as the possibility of non-natural causal events overdetermining some natural events, or at least originally producing them. Unlike the causal closure principle, this view does not rule out supernatural causation.


Chapter 2, “The Nature of Normativity and the Project of Naturalizing
the Normative”, reviews different attempts at naturalizing the normative (not only in the moral domain but also in the epistemic and the linguistic ones). Despite failing, such attempts do help us to see some of the reasons why a good normative theory should have what Audi calls a naturalistic anchor: “Normative properties are grounded on properties that it is plausible to call natural, and this relation provides the appropriate realistic anchoring for normative judgments” (p. 75). Such a grounding does not imply that there are no irreducibly normative properties, although this possibility cannot be completely discounted. But that is enough to legitimate an experientialist general theory of normativity which accommodates the causal role of (moral) perception, guarantees the objectivity of ethics, and accounts for the motivational aspects (believability, desirability) as well as for the epistemic autonomy of normative judgments.


Chapter 3, “Moral properties: Some Epistemological, Ontological, and
Normative Dimensions”, expands on the same problems, focusing on the case of moral discourse. It tries to show that moral properties are consequential on non-moral ones, a priori, and objective. The naturalistic anchor we have talked about above is explained here in terms of consequentiality, which goes beyond supervenience: moral properties not only supervene on base, descriptive properties (mostly natural, save in theology’s view) but are grounded in those. It is important to see that this grounding is a non-causal relation, more precisely: a necessary and explanatory determination relation. Audi argues for its apriority, as this best explains its necessity and its role in the functioning of moral concepts. But it can be constitutive and objective without being a priori. Once more, Audi leaves open the possibility of naturalization of moral properties, although he states clearly that it does not seem well supported.


Chapter 4, “The Theory of Action-Explanation: Some Dimensions”, explores the nature and apparent success of explanations in which mentalistic concepts and properties are used to understand human action. First, Audi examines different aspects of explanation. He focuses on the so-called explanations why and their relation to laws covering the phenomena in question. Such laws need not be universal, and that implies that inductive explanations should not be ruled out. This is a crucial point for explaining human behavior. There is no good reason to deny that such explanations can be intentionalistic. It follows an enlightening analysis of the problem of mental causation. The main lines of Audi’s approach are already known to us: supervenience, consequentiality, and irresolution of the question of the identity of properties: “My purpose here is… only to argue that mental properties have explanatory power, and, given a kind of anchoring in the physical, can figure in causal explanations of action, whether or not they are identical with physical properties” (p. 130). This leads to the conclusion: “I see no ultimate conflict… between the idea that human beings are rational agents of the kind capable of freedom and moral agency and the view that they are part of the natural world” (p. 135).


Chapter 5, “A Priori Explanation”, deals with the nature and role of such types of explanation. A priori explanations are non-scientific, but that does not mean that they are unscientific. Logic and pure mathematics are essential for science, but they make use of a priori explanations. The normative realm, in all its diversity, is also rich in a priori explanations. A crucial move to sustain their legitimacy is the distinction between scientific and theoretical method: “The former is empirical and, broadly speaking, experimental. The latter is a more general method of building and rebuilding theories in relation to data… Theoretical method is not the property of empiricism” (p. 145). This amounts to questioning the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method. The rest of the chapter examines the possibility of proof in philosophy and the essential connection between explanation and understanding, showing the limits of scientific understanding.
This book is not easy reading, but it is undoubtedly worthwhile. The confrontation with naturalism is set in a wider context than the one common in science-and-religion. This applies especially to the question of normativity. Audi’s analyses are perceptive, and his arguments sharp and clearsighted. Distinctions like those between causal closure and sufficiency, or between scientific and theoretical method, and the idea of a naturalistic anchor, are of great help for any person interested in these matters. Most valuable is his attitude toward naturalism, both extremely critical to its philosophical inflation and open to dialogue about its justified claims. One may not agree in all details, but still, his reflections remain challenging.

José Manuel Lozano
Independent Scholar
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 27:2 (June 2017), pp. 23-26.