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Book Review - Naturalism and the Human Condition

by Frederick A. Olafson
Routledge, 2001
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Mar 22nd 2002

The subtitle to Professor Olafson’s small and engaging book is a little misleading. He is not really so much against scientism per se, as against its totalizing influence. It is very much a baby and bath water argument. It is not so much science that is the problem, but scientism as a dogma that seeks to exclude all other perspectives.

The book finds it genesis in Olafson’s concern that naturalism is in the unchallenged ascendant. He very concisely covers the major threads of the naturalist position, that is that it is only through examination of the natural world that we may be certain of anything; and he freely concedes that in many circumstances this is entirely appropriate. However, he also points out that it leaves many gaps in what is clearly our experience of the world, our phenomenological knowledge of our lives. In order to understand the implications of this, he takes the reader on a tour of areas of major concern, and areas in which naturalism may seem to have an unrivalled place, such as the nature of language or what the brain actually does. Then, with the help of a number of distinguished tour guides, to whom he pays deference such as Heidegger and his notion of being in the world, in particular but also Merleau-Ponty and his philosophy of consciousness, and others, he begins to examine some of the blind spots of naturalism.

For Olafson the search for unity in knowledge, the great project to define and categorize the world, is in fact an ideological rather than truth-seeking activity, and aims, rather contrarily, at the “uniformity of knowledge”. Thus, dogmatic scientism does not free us, it restricts us. However, and this is one of the main points of his thesis, he argues that naturalism is in the end confused, contradictory and self-defeating. It deludes itself into believing that the principles on which it rests are self-evident and beyond challenge. Yet, Olafson argues, they are in fact based on, and can only be understood by the very philosophical positions they seek to deny. Human beings, Olafson points out, live with each other in a condition of transcendence, not just of material relationships. It is only by acknowledging and examining our sense of being in the world that we can begin to understand that there is no “royal road” to the truth, but many and protean explorations. To believe in a single dogma is to lay a dead hand on what it is to be human.

Having laid out his argument Olafson asks, in a very reasonable way, where we are to go from here and whether it is possible to “think together world and nature”. He does not offer many options here; rather he is content to think his contribution as part of the process (which is after all his preferred method). Nevertheless, he does make it clear that the zero-sum game of science and religion, the sense that they are in some sort of struggle for supremacy in which one can only win if the other loses, is not either very productive, nor very helpful to any of us. The world should not be confused with nature because, in Olafson’s view, the view we have come to have of nature is in fact seen through the prism of scientism and thus defined in terms of the other rather than itself.

Olafson states that his intention in writing the book was to justify his hunch, that naturalism gets it wrong, to himself and anyone else who might be interested. It can be said with some certainty that many people are interested in just that question, and a book such as this, which is modest in ambition if not in scope, is a worthy contribution. It cannot always be said that he achieves his aim of writing for the “educated general reader”. There is often an unjustified assumption that his prose is without jargon or unnecessarily wordy. However, it is a thoughtful and provocative work that will stimulate debate, raise some pertinent questions and add a little pin prick to any smug self-satisfaction that scientism is indeed solely capable of explaining the human condition.



© 2002 Mark Welch


Dr Mark Welch is currently a Senior Lecturer and Postgraduate Coordinator in The School of Nursing at the University of Canberra, Australia. His PhD investigated the representation of madness in popular film, and his other research interests include the mental health of refugees and victims of torture, and the history of psychiatric epistemology. With his wife he has written a play, which is currently in production.