Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Is Naturalism Guilty of Special Pleading?

Consider an explanatory regress. This does not necessarily stretch back into the past; it could refer to a present explanatory regress (such as the existence of the plant is dependent on the Sun, which is dependent on gravity, and so on). However, it could apply to either type of series:

A is explained by B which is explained by C which is explained by D....

Now, the question that is asked by cosmological arguments is: where does this series terminate? It seems there are three choices. It could go on to infinity:

  • ABCDEFGHIJKL............

It could terminate with an unexplained brute fact, represented here by a letter:


Notice there is nothing special about O. It's just another letter like all the others, but unlike the others, it has no explanation. As Bertrand Russell puts it, "it's just there, and that is all."

And finally, it could terminate with something that cannot even in principle have an explanation. Something entirely different from the rest of the series. Something that exists by necessity, represented here by the number 4:


Now, option 1 above never terminates; it just continually defers explanation, and so this seems to be the least tenable option.

Naturalism generally uses option 2, and states that the universe or multiverse is a brute fact, with no explanation even in principle. But note that there is nothing special about the letter O (representing the universe, or some fundamental physical fact). It is a letter just like any other. For no reason at all, it just has no explanation of its existence, and there is no explanation of why it has no explanation.

But theism is option 3, and theism concludes with something entirely different from the other objects. Since it is not like the other objects, it is not an exception to the general rule.

So it appears that naturalism is guilty of special pleading: there is a general rule that everything has an explanation, and then there is just this one thing which does not. And there is no justification given for why this one thing is an exception to this general rule.


  1. It's an interesting analogy! I would interpret it very differently though...

    Naturalism rejects ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO4 because there is no good reason to believe that '4' exists.

    Naturalism also rejects ABCDEFGHIJKL............ and ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO because there is no good reason to believe either is true..

    ABCDEFGHIJKL............ and ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO are valid possibilities, just like ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO4.

    Naturalists are more inclined to believe that one of ABCDEFGHIJKL............ or ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO must be true since hypothesis '4' never explained anything and no '4's were proven to exist. However, it would be irrational to claim that we know 'ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO4' to be false.

    Special pleading actually comes from the 'ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO4' explanation which invented '4' after rejecting both ABCDEFGHIJKL............ and ABCDEFGHIJKLMNO. It's actually correct to reject both as 'unproven'; but it's wrong to then conclude that there must be a 3rd option with a '4' simply because the two '4'-less options are unproven.

  2. Hugo, your comments give me headaches.

    First you say naturalism rejects all three options. Then you say that naturalism accepts option 1 or 2.

    Then you claim that it is irrational to claim that the third option is false, but this is exactly what naturalism is, by definition, so naturalism must be irrational then.

    Then you claim that special pleading occurs in option 3, which is exactly where it doesn't occur.

    Conversations with you are rationally impossible.

  3. How can any universal self-inclusive theory be true, if according to its own assertion truth is merely the product of the comprehensively explaining or determining factors that the theory itself specifies?

    In other words, what's the criteria for saying the theory is "true" instead of merely saying that the theory is "determined by the specified factors"?

    The truth value of such reductionist theories seems to get a special arbitrary exemption from those specified factors to which all else is reduced.

    And this is hardly limited to materialism or naturalism:

    By the way, Martin, I just discovered your blog and will be linking to it shortly.


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. You don't seem to understand what special pleading means. There's special pleading when your conclusion needs to be an exception to one rule set in your own premises.
    The rule that "everything has an explanation" is yours, and a very questionable one. I can easily illustrate this by questioning, how did god create the universe out of nothing? Wasn't that supposed to be impossible?
    See? that's a perfect example of special pleading: theists claim "ex nihilo nihil fit" is a universal principle, then they use it to conclude that there must be a being capable of doing exactly that.
    If you postulate that the universe began to exist, it's equivalent to asserting a universal principle that everything begins to exist, then use that to "prove" that something else didn't begin to exist, hence, special pleading.

    Scientists don't have a problem admitting when they don't know something. Fallacies are a theist thing, sorry to be so blunt, but it is what it is.

    Causation, if accepted as a universal rule, can only lead to an infinite regression of causes. Think of it this way, even if you think that there must be an uncaused cause, why must it be the cause of the universe? why not the cause of the cause of the universe? Why not multiple causes? things rarely have a single cause anyway. The only reason to pick your favorite outcome is that you're set to prove your preconceived idea from the get go: obvious question begging, but if you were politheistic you could use the same argument to "prove" that too.

    So if infinite regression is the logical conclusion from universal causation, why dismiss it with a lazy "seems to be the least tenable option"?

    It's impossible to prove an infinite past is not possible. The typical "you could never reach the present" is a silly argument. Reach the present from when? In an infinite past, there's no point in the past from which you can't reach the present in a finite amount of time. Every argument against actual infinities only shows the inability of some people to handle the concept of infinity and cardinality