In a recent post, the Christian apologist and philosopher Victor Reppert presents the view that things are ‘supernatural’ if there are mental properties “on the ground floor” of existence, at the most basic level of existence and explanation. This view was linked to sympathetically in a post by the naturalist Robert Oerter , and has also been championed by the naturalist philosopher and historian Richard Carrier (e.g. here), among others. Let’s call this the “Fundamental Materialism” thesis – it posits that naturalism maintains that at bottom, there is only inanimate matter.
I don’t understand why naturalists – those who reject the supernatural – take this position. I think it’s mistaken on several levels.
Perhaps most importantly, the fundamental materialism thesis doesn’t understand what naturalism is. If there is a slogan for naturalism, it is “everything is the same”. When lightning is understood to be just another instance of electrical discharge, just like numerous other phenomena all around us – then it becomes natural. When lightning is unlike other things, unlike the normal course of nature – when, for example, it is a bolt thrown by an angry Zeus – it is then that lightning is supernatural.
Given this understanding of ‘natural’ – what is the place of the mental in the universe? There are two options. One is to extend the uniformity that is at the core of naturalism to the mental domain, and maintain that “everything is the same” also in the sense that everything is mental. On this view every thing – every fundamental particle – has some mental content, such as some consciousness; although not every complex thing has a full mind, with unity, will, purpose, or so on. This position is known as Panpsychism.
The other option is to maintain that “everything is the same” in the sense that mental properties emerge from certain configurations of regular, non-mental matter, much like ‘pressure’ is only emerges when there are lots of atoms impinging on a surface. This view is known as emergence.
Personally, I think emergence makes no sense (due to what David Chalmers called the Hard Problem of Consciousness, see e.g. here), so I’m a panpsychist . But the important point is that both views are forms of naturalism! In both cases reality is uniform. There is no special pleading, no ‘thinking matter’ set apart from ‘extended matter’ (as in Cartesian dualism), no ‘souls’ set apart from ‘matter’, no violations of the laws of physics – there is just nature. So naturalism may include mental stuff at the bottom (panpsyhcism), or not (emergence) – it doesn’t matter.
Now Victor Reppert raises three conditions on what would constitute a naturalistic world-view, and I think the first one exemplifies a second major point of confusion: the erroneous belief that ascribing mental properties to things means they can step outside the laws of physics. He writes
First, the “basic level” must be mechanistic, and by that I mean that it is free of purpose, free of intentionality, free of normativity, and free of subjectivity. It is not implied here that a naturalistic world must be deterministic. However, whatever is not deterministic in such a world is brute chance and nothing more.
Notice the implicit assumption here, that mental causation is incompatible with mechanistic causation. If an agent acts with purpose, then his actions are not caused by (say) quantum mechanics. Reppert limits the condition to the basic level only, but the point stands – an electron cannot have some subjective consciousness (‘subjectivity’) and at the same time follow quantum mechanics.
But this is the very thesis that naturalist theories of mind maintain – that an agent acts in a mechanistic way, yet at the same time in a purposeful way. So the naturalist rejects the implicit assumption – the fact that the physical stuff moves in mechanistic ways does not imply it doesn’t have mental content, and having mental content doesn’t imply freedom from physics.
Reppert’s assumption that what is mental is not mechanistic is understandable in a theist – this metaphysical intuition is what allows them to hold at the same time that God is a mind and that god is not physical.
But I cannot understand how naturalists fall to this trap. They too often seem to think that putting in mental stuff at the bottom level would invalidate physics, so it’s not in agreement with naturalism. But yet at the same time they maintain that ascribing mental properties to brains (say) doesn’t mean that brains violate the laws of physics. I don’t understand why they can’t see that their second point stands in regards to mental properties at the bottom just as much as it applies to those at the higher, complex, levels such as the human brain.
I don’t really have much of a point. I just wanted to say – boo on this dreadful definition of the ‘supernatural’. In addition to being wrong, putting the emphasis on the place of consciousness is just not productive. We are not served by a definition of naturalism that speaks about the place of consciousness in nature, but doesn’t speak about the content of nature! Carrier’s definition that “every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things” tells us nothing about what the reality that these fundamental (supposedly nonmental) things constitute. It tells us nothing about the fact that lightning is just an electrical discharge; about the regularities and sameness in nature, which is what allows us to explore it, understand it, and call it ‘nature’. It’s useless for building a picture of what the world is like, irrespective of the metaphysical status of consciousness in it.
We naturalists need a definition that leads to the fact that the world behaves naturally, which is what the naturalism-as-uniformity definition does. When everything is the same then, implicitly, the place of consciousness in nature is revealed to be not independent of the laws of physics. But the focus is on the general principle of uniformity, that underlies contemporary physics and naturalistic explanations in general and that, ever since David Hume, defines what ‘nature’ and laws of nature are all about.
 That’s how I know of Reppert’s post – I follow Oerter’s blog.
 Chalmers prefers terms like panprotopanpsychism to emphasize that the fundamental mental properties are not full minds; I’m not sure that’s helpful. Since one of the things he’s trying to imply here is that they have no phenomenal properties, no ‘subjecivity’, which is not my position – I prefer to stick to the more conventional panpsychism.