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Why The World Does Not Exist But Unicorns Do

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Markus Gabriel broods on why the world doesn’t exist and never stops wondering about Kant, existence, pluralism, fields of sense, Huw Price, about why he isn’t po-mo, nor a Meinongian, about why unicorns exist, about why he’s a realist, about dissolving the hard problem, about why naturalism and physicalism are wrong, about Schelling and post-Kantian idealism, about Badiou and Meillassouz, Heidegger, about resisting skepticism, about negative philosophy, mythology, madness, laughter and the need for illusions in metaphysics, and about the insult that is the continental/analytic divide . Gird up for an amazing story…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Markus Gabriel: Here is how I remember the outlines of my initiation story (leaving out some darker aspects of it). When I was 14 or 15, I attended a party where someone quite late at night read out a passage from Schopenhauer. In this passage, Schopenhauer roughly presents his version of the allegory of the cave: Imagine you wake up at a party with a heavy hangover and all. You start wandering around to figure out where you can find something to drink and to eat, where the restrooms are etc. At some point, you might also be able to explore the relations between the various people present at the scene. Schopenhauer writes that all of this corresponds to what the natural and social sciences do: they figure out how things and people hang together at this weird place where we happen to find ourselves. Yet, Schopenhauer adds, you become a philosopher if you ask additional questions like: what the heck is going on here? How did I get here, where is this place, and what, if anything, does it all mean? At the time I immediately found this incredibly convincing, as it helped me to explain why I had always believed in primary and high school that there was something arbitrary and unjustified in the way in which the various scientific disciplines are presented. What was missing now seemed to me to be their integration into a justified conception of the world that goes beyond any specifically scientific and/or mathematical question.

Roughly around the same time I broke my ankle while skateboarding and was told in the hospital that I should really never get onto a skateboard again. So, I had to stay in bed for a few weeks and started actually reading Schopenhauer, then Kierkegaard. However, I thought that what they were writing did not live up to acceptable standards of justification. Hence, I decided to work through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It took a long time for me to recover from all these heavy-weight forms of idealism, but this is what made me a philosophy addict. I decided that the only way to engage in the questions I thought were the most vital questions ever is to become a philosophy professor which, fortunately, worked out.

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3:AM: Let’s start with your arguments about ontology. You argue that the world doesn’t exist and you want to be very clear that this isn’t what Kant, Heidegger or Gadamer might claim and then smuggle in a way round the claim – cheating! So can you first outline what philosophical position you are disagreeing with with your ‘real predicate’ argument? Metaphysics of a certain stripe collapses according to your idea doesn’t it?

MG: I agree with certain versions of the famous Kantian line of thought according to which existence is not what I call a proper property. In the first step of the overall argument, by a “proper property” I mean a property reference to which puts one in a position to distinguish an object in the world from other objects in the world. Existence certainly is not a property that divides the world up into two realms: that of the existing things on the one hand and that of the non-existing things (things lacking the feature of existence) on the other hand. That would be a weird world-picture.

Against this background, Kant has argued that existence is world-containment, that is, the world’s property to contain spatiotemporal individuals. On this construal, existence is precisely not a proper property of individuals. To assert that some object x exists is to say something about the world, namely that x is to be found in the world. However, this immediately raises the question whether the world itself can exist on this model? Is the world contained by the world? What exactly is the relation of containment supposed to be? Is the world some kind of set or a mereological whole? Would it even make sense to say that the world is a spatiotemporal individual located within the world and to be met with in it? What kind of totality is the world? All of Kant’s answers hinge on his notion of the world as the “field of possible experience” (CPR, A 227/B 280f.).

This creates all sorts of problems. Yet, what is right about his view is that to exist is a property of a field or a domain and not an ordinary discriminatory property of objects we encounter within the domain. As I read him, Kant distinguished between questions concerning the existence of individuals (which he takes to be a function mapping individuals onto the field of possible experience) and questions concerning the world itself. The latter, metaphysical questions, for him, are famously unanswerable.

If this is right, the question is what we mean when in metaphysics we search for the furniture of reality or the fundamental structure of the world. If “the world” is explicitly or implicitly modeled along the lines of a huge spatio-temporal container inhabited by the totality of individuals, this creates the problem that it is entirely unclear in what sense such a container is supposed to exist. Kant thought that a realist container model – according to which the world is a big mind-independent object encompassing all entities – should be replaced by a transcendetanl idealist horizon model according to which the world is not an object of enquiry at all – neither a big container nor a “big physical object” (David Lewis) –, let alone one of the individuals to be met with within the world. This ultimately means that the world is not an extant entity grounding our claims to objectivity, realism etc., but a kind of necessary fiction or a “natural illusion,” as Kant puts it.

However, this only postpones the problem: if the world is a horizon, we might still wonder whether it exists and what this would mean. The problem is that Kant seems to be committed to a very substantive metaphysical account, namely a form of metaphysical fictionalism according to which the illusion of the existence of the world is a purportedly natural, that is to say, inevitable side-effect of human thought, a feature of conceiving of things “from the human standpoint” (CPR, A 26/B 42).

Even though I do not buy Kant’s own ontology (his transcendental idealist view of existence), I employ arguments found in the tradition of ontology or rather metaontology departing from Kant in order to argue against the coherence of metaphysics as a first-order investigation into the world in its entirety, reality as a whole, the universe as the place where everything takes place etc. Notice how sloppy most contemporary metaphysicians are when it comes to characterizing their subject matter: words like “the universe,” “the world,” “reality,” “the cosmos” are often used interchangeably and without further clarifications. In my view, those totality words do not refer to anything which is capable of having the property of existence.
In this context, I try to revive the tradition of metaontology and metametaphysics that departs from Kant. As has been noticed, Heidegger introduced the term metaontology and he also clearly states that Kant’s philosophy is a “metaphysics about metaphysics.” I call metametaphysical nihilism the view that there is no such thing as the world such that questions regarding its ultimate nature, essence, structure, composition, categorical outlines etc. are devoid of the intended conceptual content. The idea that there is a big thing comprising absolutely everything is an illusion, albeit neither a natural one nor an inevitable feature of reason as such. Of course, there is an influential Neo-Carnapian strand in the contemporary debate which comes to similar conclusions. I agree with a lot of what is going on in this area of research and I try to combine it with the metaontological/metametaphysical tradition of Kantian and Post-Kantian philosophy.

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Generally, I draw a distinction between metaphysics and ontology. In this context, metaphysics1 is the theory of absolutely everything there is, whereas ontology is the somewhat more modest systematic investigation into the meaning of “existence,” or rather into existence itself (among other things: by way of giving an account of the meaning of existence terms in various languages). Metaphysics1 has no object, it is an empty discipline in need of a suitable error theory. For this purpose I draw on ontological considerations and try to work out an ontology that does not require the existence of the world in the metaphysical1 sense of the term. Of course, there are other ways of looking at metaphysics. For instance, you might think that there is metaphysics2, a discipline which draws a broad distinction between how things really are and how they appear to us under species-relative conditions. As long as this does not lead back to metaphysics1, the theory of totality, I am fine with this. However, it is obviously not easy to draw the line between metaphysics1 and metaphysics2. There is also metaphysics3, where one is a metaphysician if one believes that physics is not a theory of absolutely everything because there are non-physical things. My ontology can be seen as contributing to metaphysics2 and metaphysics3 while constantly trying to be cautious not to get entangled in metaphysics1.

3:AM: Your position sounds like a post modern position but you’re very clear that your claim of the plurality of realms has a very different status to that of the po-mo crowd such as Rorty or Goodman. What’s the argument here?

MG: Not all forms of pluralism are alike. What matters here are the details. The brand of ontological pluralism I am advocating is realist in nature. There really is a plurality of domains regardless of the additional fact that we are able to epistemically individuate those domains (say by an adequate scientific division of labor, where each discipline attempts to carve some domains out of the plurality of domains at their joints). Concepts like “conceptual schemes,” “language games,” “world-making” play no role in my account. My name for domains is “fields of sense,” a term I mainly introduced to highlight their distinction from both sets and domains of objects where the latter can be understood in purely extensionalist terms as collections of objects such that for each of them we – or some ideal observer – can refer to it with a logical proper name. The “sense”-part in “fields of sense” stems from a realist interpretation of Fregean senses according to which Fregean senses are what we capture in a true thought which grasps that things are such-and-so. Things being such-and-so is generally as mind-independent, ontologically and epistemologically objective as anything could be. I was recently (first by Arata Hamawaki and then by Michael Forster) made aware of the fact that Mark Johnston has a very similar reading of Fregean senses as features of objects (of things in themselves, as I like to say). Fields of sense are like domains of objects with the additional feature that they are intensionally individuated. What it is for something to exist in a field of sense is a function of the descriptions that objectively hold good of the objects to be encountered in the field.

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This precisely does not mean that we construct the plurality of fields or that they are somehow essentially tied to features that only exist as a consequence of the existence of conceptual schemes brought about by intentionally gifted animals like us. Otherwise put: we do not make it the case that there is no all-encompassing domain or big physical object of which everything is a part. It is not that the world would have been just one unity or totality had we not divided it up in the course of history. There never was, is or will be an entity or domain corresponding to our “oceanic feeling” of belonging to a gigantic scene where absolutely everything is located or takes place.

Notice that I do not deny the existence of the universe, which I define as the object domain (the field of sense) investigated by the ensemble of our best natural sciences. The universe might very well be some kind of big physical object or a cosmos. However, it does not encompass absolutely everything there is (is not metaphysically maximal), as what it is for something to exist in the universe (to be physical, say) does not apply to lots of things that actually exist, such as numbers, unicorns in my dreams, witches in Faust, or the Federal Republic of Germany. To suppose otherwise is to engage in metaphysics1 in an objectionable sense, that is, to look not just for a formally unified (formally univocal) existence property, but to inflate it with properties specifically individuating objects in the physical universe. To borrow a nice phrase from Huw Price who defends what he calls a “functional pluralism” somewhat similar to some of the things I believe: the univocity of the logical device of quantification, the existential quantifier should not mislead into assuming that there is a “single arena, as it were, and a single existential quantifier, bullishly surveying the whole.” (Naturalism Without Mirrors, p. 13)
The ontology of fields of sense (OFS) is committed to a combination of ontological pluralism, ontological realism and metametaphysical nihilism. It is a view of reality according to which all sorts of things are real (in their respective fields of sense) without there being a single reality to which all real things belong.

As far as I can tell, all of this is far enough from Rorty and Goodman even though they sometimes say things which sound similar to what I am supporting. However, I totally reject the antirealist or constructivist ambitions clearly present in Rorty and in the metaphor of world-making in Goodman. Goodman defends a kind of anthropocentric irrealism. In Ways of Worldmaking he presents a picture of his view: “We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described. Our universe, so to speak, consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.” OFS on the contrary neither states that we are confined to ways of describing nor offers a description of “our universe”. There is no sense in which I believe that our concepts are profoundly shaped by parochial features of our life form or our various cultures in such a way that we can never grasp things in themselves, but only “our universe”. I therefore disagree with a postmodern interpretation of Nietzschean perspectivism based on claims such as that “the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives, and only in these.“ (Gay Science 374) Rorty and Goodman, as I read them, would subscribe to the view that “we cannot look around our own corner.” (Gay Science 374) I wholeheartedly disagree.

3:AM: It’s very important to get hold of what you are arguing because it follows from what you’re saying that witches and unicorns exist, for example, doesn’t it – and presumably God too? Spatio-temporal objects exist as well as non-spatio-temporal objects because there isn’t just one location for everything existing, that’s your claim isn’t it?

MG: This really is my claim and it takes a lot of hard work to convince people that this is not a form of Meinongianism or even something worse. First of all, OFS is a form of deflationary ontological pluralism. This does not mean that only the existence of unicorns is deflated whereas hands or fingernails exist in a more full-blown sense. There just is no “full-blown sense” of existence, such as “physical existence” or “real existence”. Many ontologists in recent times held or hold that some version of ontological permissiveness is acceptable or even unavoidable (I am thinking of work of Kit Fine, Étienne Souriau, Jonathan Schaffer, Amie Thomasson, Graham Harman and Bruno Latour). Commitment to the existence of unicorns is just not as substantive or even outright crazy as it looks if we take it for granted that there really only are those things that the imaginary discipline of physics tells us exists. I am saying “imaginary discipline,” because there is no such thing as the single discipline of physics. “Physics” or “science” still often count among philosophers (particularly among metaphysicians) as empirically grounded forms of metaphysics that get to the bottom of things (the ultimate grounding level). This is neither clearly a consequence of any actual finding of physics to date nor could it be given that we are dealing with metaphysical interpretations of terms such as “particle” or “to consist of” when we claim, for instance, that tables consist of particles and then wonder whether tables even so much as exist. Of course, tables exist and, as far as I know, so do electrons. Reference to electrons might be crucial for an explanation of why we do not fall through tables. Electrons are an element in any account of the solidity of medium-sized dry goods. But none of this is any evidence for the view that existence is somehow primarily, exclusively or even paradigmatically a physical or more broadly natural feature. Unicorns really exist, for instance, in the coloring book Unicorns are Jerks some of my graduate students gave me as a Christmas present a couple of years ago. They even have a determinate shape: think, for instance, of the unicorn in the movie The Last Unicorn. God clearly exists in the Bible and there are many Gods in the Bhaghavad Gita. This does not mean, imply or entail that there is a “dude” out there in the universe, most of the time hidden from our view (why does he hide?) and endowed with magical noetic fingers he can use in order to build universes out of nothing, turn himself into a speaking burning bush or what have you. I call this view the religion of the additional dude. This religion (which I do not take to be identical with any of the traditional religions that were created before modernity) is indeed just outrageously crazy. No point arguing against it. The additional dude does not exist. God is nowhere to be found in the universe hidden behind the Milky Way or in a black hole.

Ontological permissiveness is often charged with overpopulation. Yet, it is misguided to quote Occam here in order to cut off Plato’s beard. Occam only said that we should not multiply what there is beyond necessity, not that we should define things out of existence because we prefer deserts to jungles or slums (as Quine’s unfortunate metaphors suggest). I do not see what is objectionable about admitting that there are citizens, numbers, Republics, dictators, movies, witches etc. It might be part of our epistemology of some of those entities that we realize that their existence somehow depends on our recognition, games of make-believe, deeply routed illusions or what have you. It is a plausible thesis of social ontology that there would have been no republics had no one ever been around to believe that there are republics. But this does not mean that there are no republics!

Of course, then, there are non-spatio-temporal objects. We might be wrong about which objects actually belong to this category and in many cases there is room for debate (are occurent thoughts spatio-temporal objects, such as certain neuronal patterns? What about ghosts in gothic novels, are they supposed to be spatio-temporal?). But I have never seen even a minimally convincing case to the effect that to exist is to be a spatio-temporal object. I believe the burden of proof is not on the ontological pluralist per se, but on the metaphysical monist, where metaphysical monism is the view that there is exactly one location for everything existing such that this rules out that there are numbers, unicorns, witches, and republics in one principled stroke. To conclude this answer with a nice paper title from Graham Harman (another ontological pluralist): “I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed.”

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3:AM: Why do you say this idea of a world view is so important – beyond any argument between science and philosophy and art and religion etc? Are contemporary positions on politics, religion etc. hooked on this idea of getting the world view right and is this a key to much contemporary conflict?

MG: Yes, I do indeed believe that we live in the age of the world-picture, to borrow another title, this time from Heidegger. However, I entirely disagree with the details of Heidegger’s account and more specifically with the tone of his infamous paper which he originally presented to a Nazi audience in 1938 and later covered up in the post-war publication of a revised version of the original paper. Be that as it may, the age of the world-picture for me is at least as old as the axial age, as Karl Jaspers has named the period from roughly 800 to 200 BC in which the major metaphysical concepts have been shaped in many parts of the globe. What clearly happened at that time was that the originally mythological idea of a totality of what there is was turned into a fruitful scientific concept. It was useful for humanity to figure out that what there is significantly transcends their home town, local culture and gradually: their continent, planet, our entire galaxy etc. We continually expanded our conception of what there is into the possibly infinite depths of the universe while at the same time exploring the equally infinite depths of other fields of sense (mathematics, literature, art, etc.).

The idea that there is an all-encompassing whole, a sphere of being (as Parmenides’ metaphor has it) in my view is a relic from the past. However, it shapes our understanding of the lines of conflict in the contemporary global order. Many would subscribe to the view that there is a scientific world-view in conflict with other world-views (in particular, in conflict with a religious world-view). In addition, many would also subscribe to the view that each of us has locally entrenched value systems ultimately harking back to world-views – think of expressions like “modern Western civilization,” “Asian values” etc. This does not automatically amount to problematic forms of relativism, as one might suspect. Nevertheless, I think all of this is profoundly ideological in a bad sense and mixed up with the metaphysical idea that there is a reality out there into which we humans are thrown at some point in the evolution of species on our planet. We seem to awake to a scene which is already out there. In my book Why the World does not Exist I call this the idea of “the world without spectators”. This gives rise to the idea that the world without spectators is the real world, the one we can only reach by erasing ourselves from reality as we know it, which trivially is the world as grasped by the spectators.

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The problem is not that we are all hooked on getting things right (I am a standard modern philosopher and, hence, all for truth and reality!). The problem lies in the additional assumption that getting things right requires more than the piecemeal, local activity of making sense of what there is in light of the specific conditions of the various fields of sense in which we encounter things. I have had many discussions with actual politicians who agreed that at least on the ideological level of justifying political actions there is constant reference to assumptions relying on the availability and coherence of the very idea of a world-view. Just think of all those categories we constantly apply in order to make sense of what we experience as cultural difference: East and West, America and Europe, or, closer to home: Anglo-American analytic philosophy and Continental Philosophy. There is a widespread, but misguided holistic assumption according to which we are introduced into the space of reasons from a parochial point of view (as Westerners, Chinese, Christians, Germans, Californians or whatever) such that we cannot help but adhere to some kind of overall world-view transmitted from generation to generation by institutions. I think that the reality of world-views is nothing but the ideological use made of the idea that there are many world-views which compete with each other. The struggle of world-views (the “clash of civilizations”) as a matter of fact exists, but here it is important to understand that its existence is ideological.

Beyond the technical details of the ontology I am still spelling out by defending it against objections coming from various directions in philosophy, I believe that the no-world-view (the view that the world does not exist) can also serve as a therapeutic tool in the context of ideology critique.

3:AM: You say your position is realist. What then is a fact in this realist position? There can’t be a ‘hard fact’ in your ontology can there, and that we think there are some facts that are ‘hard facts’ is part of metaphysics and it’s not that you oppose one metaphysics and put another one in its place, but you just refuse metaphysics of any stripe? Is that right? And does that result in your being a fictionalist?

MG: I have no problem admitting that there are hard facts and I honestly try to steer clear of fictionalism in ontology. Let us say that a hard fact is a maximally modally robust fact where a fact is maximally modally robust if it had obtained (if the objects involved in it would have existed) had there never been epistemic agents at all, that is creatures endowed with the relevant capacities for truth-apt thought. There are many facts of this kind: that the sun is bigger than the earth is such a fact, and also that 2+2=4. Again, there is room for debate in specific cases, but no room for a general denial of the existence of maximally modally robust facts. The metaphysician (as in metaphysics1) would have to make a case to the effect that there really only are maximally modally robust facts or that there is a metaphysically1 relevant sense in which there is a totality of facts with a ground floor consisting of the maximally modally robust facts. There have been manifold attempts in the history of metaphysics to make such a case, but in my view they all fail in that that they reduce entities beyond necessity. In contradistinction to the current (mis-)interpretation of Occam’s razor we can sum this up by reminding ourselves that if Plato really had a beard (I do not know), then his beard certainly existed at some point. Accordingly, one can rephrase Plato’s beard and make it look more serious by attaching a pseudo-Latin slogan to it: entia nec sunt reducenda nec eliminanda praeter necessitatem (neither reduce nor eliminate entities without really good reasons!). The default position is one on which things we all take to exist really exist. The metaphysician1 is forced to make a revisionary case.

I believe that there are local cases which speak in favor of some forms of theoretical reduction and of straightforward elimination (some behavioral aspects of puberty can be theoretically reduced, better explained by, hormonal changes than by “folk psychoanalysis”; there have never been any witches in Germany outside of the Carnival season and even the Carnival witches did not have the magical powers Martin Luther famously attributed to them in his famous speech on Exodus 22:18: “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live”). The overall problem with metaphysics1 is that it typically ends in overgeneralizations such as: everything is water, deep down there are only elementary particles out of which everything is made; everything that exists can be discovered by idealized science; there are only mental contents; etc. Local reduction or elimination can be justified, but one must not overextend locally justified procedures. That color experience exists as an effect of electromagnetic waves stimulating photoreceptors should never motivate the conclusion that there are no tables and trees, but only elementary particles arranged table- or treewise.

3:AM: At the moment there’s a big thing about David Chalmers’ ‘Hard problem’ of consciousness – Tom Stoppard’s play is doing the rounds about that and Chalmers and Dennett and Churchland are fighting about it in the Arctic circle and so on. Your position dissolves the problem doesn’t it? Isn’t that a cheat as big as the cheats of Kant?

MG: I indeed happen to believe that my position dissolves the hard problem, as Chalmers has labeled the early modern problem most clearly articulated by Leibniz in §17 of his Monadology. However, ontological pluralism by itself does not yield this conclusion, even though it contributes to it by making a case against the assumption that we have to start from a conception of the universe as if it were a world without spectators. This then raises the problem how spectators fit into a blind universe and tempts us to ascribe a metaphysical value to the lovely romantic view that nature opens its eyes in us and looks at itself via one of its products etc. I tend to grant someone like Dennett that the biological necessary conditions for us to be awake and aware (to have phenomenal consciousness) are nothing but neurochemistry. Yet, the biological preconditions of consciousness are not sufficient for a description of consciousness given that we are not brains in a vat (or brains in a skull for that matter). In the philosophy of mind, I argue that there is no adequate description of phenomenal consciousness that is not at the same time a description of intentional consciousness and the latter brings with it that thoughts, meanings (and many other things such as colors and republics) “just ain’t in the head,” to quote Putnam’s famous externalist credo.

According to OFS, though, the reason why we should be aware of the external contribution to internal happenings is not that they are literally coming from somewhere else (from outside of our ectoderm). I am currently spelling out a much broader form of externalism according to which everything about which we have truth-apt thoughts we can share with others just is not in the head where the reason for this is ontological and not metaphysical (it is not just because there are natural kinds out there that language is anchored in a non-subjective realm). By the way, Kant’s beautifully written book Dreams of a Spirit Seer is a real treasure for contemporary philosophy of mind. His own version of making fun of homuncularism deserves to be quoted at length here: “The soul of a man has its seat in the brain, and its abode there is indescribably small; there it exercizes its sensitive faculty, as the spider in the centre of its web. The nerves of the brain push or shake it, and cause thereby that not this immediate impression, but the one which is made upon quite remote parts of the body, is represented as an object which is present outside of the brain. From this seat it moves the ropes and levers of the whole machinery, causing arbitrary movements at will. Such propositions can be proved only very superficially or not at all”. In my view, there is no hard problem, but not because there are only easy problems, but because the entire setup of the questions driving the mind-brain-problem in its mainstream shape is indeed profoundly flawed. OFS is an important part of the cure, because it dissolves the idea that we have to fit everything that there is (all phenomena) into a single framework such as the framework of entities for which we legitimately assume that they are subject to push-and-pull-causation (if such there be).

3:AM: If as you say dropping certain fields, such as history and art etc, and sticking to physicalism and materialism, wins cold wars then what’s the counter argument? Are you arguing that supernaturalism and theology should be part of the realist landscape?

MG: A major problem when it comes to taking a stance on the issues related to the family of terms “physicalism,” “materialism,” “naturalism” and their possible opposites, is that those terms are not clearly defined or rather that there is a vast plurality of views that count as “physicalistic” or “naturalistic”. What most of these terms when expressed by contemporary philosophers of the last hundred years or so have in common is a commitment to three ideas:
(1) the strictly metaphysical idea of the unity of reality (the world).
(2) the view that there should be a privileged form of knowledge carving the world at its joints.
(3) the identification of reality in its entirety/the world with nature.
Roughly, then, physicalism adds
(4) the privileged form of knowledge is (futuristic) physics.
and materialism commits to some version of
(5) whatever is natural is material/energetic.
On this construal, naturalism is the combination of (1), (2), and (3); physicalism of (1), (2), (3), and (4) and materialism of (1), (2), (3), and (5).

Of course, there are many other positions that go by these names and they are often logically independent from the ones roughly characterized here. For instance, “naturalism” typically also refers to one of the following two continuity theses:
(Biological continuity thesis) Human animals are entirely continuous with the rest of the animal kingdom. We have no feature that puts us outside of the realm described by biology.
(Epistemological continuity thesis) All knowledge is continuous with scientific knowledge (where the latter is understood as some way of construing theories on the basis of empirical input).
Again, there are more views out there than I could possibly cover here. For instance, Marx and Engels should certainly count as materialists, but their historical-dialectical materialism does not accept (5), which is why their view in the former country of East Germany was distinguished from “petty-bourgeois materialism (kleinbürgerlicher Materialismus),” which was widespread in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The latter basically defended (1), (2), (3), (4), (5) as well as both continuity theses and therefore represents the most ambitious (and least coherent) form of materialism I can imagine.
In any event, for a position to count as “realist” it is not required that it is committed to any of these. In my work, in particular, I have been advocating the idea that one should strive to be a “realist in all departments” (as Davidson once put it) without believing that the realism-inducing features of our beliefs put us in contact with “the world” such that we need to understand this expression as a commitment to the unity of reality.

The claim that there are numbers, thoughts, republics and God (in the Bible or in people’s faith) and that this does not entail that they cannot be integrated into a single conception of reality as a whole because there is no such thing as reality as a whole is not supernaturalist. In order to see this, it might be crucial to remind ourselves of the history of the naturalism/supernaturalism-distinction which is really theological. There is an interesting (albeit controversial) book by Henri de Lubac Surnaturel. Études Historiques (1946) in which he reconstructs the history of the term natural and how it became opposed to supernatural within the history of theology. Even though there have been forms of materialism in Ancient Greek thought (and elsewhere, for instance, in India), which certainly denied the existence of Gods on the ground that they were made up by humans (Xenophanes, later echoed by Feuerbach etc.), these views do not seem to rely on the metaphysical idea of the unity of reality.

Some thinkers (I am thinking of Max Weber, Hans Blumenberg and Heidegger here) have argued that the modern naturalistic version of the unity of reality (the “disenchantment of the world”) actually has theological roots. They all see it as a result of first reserving magical powers to God (whereby the natural is disenchanted) and then by subtracting God from the world-picture. Naturalism would then only look like a plausible version of the unity of reality because we have pushed a lot of what actually exists into the mind of God and thereby made it look magical (famous candidate notions here are: freedom, pure reason, values, knowledge of things in themselves and so on). And what do we mean by “nature” anyway? If “the natural” is the unified category of what exists regardless of how we take it to be (the “mind-independent” to use an even more muddled notion), then a naturalist would be a crazy denier of the existence of what only exists because we take it to be a certain way (like republics, romantic love, maybe: qualia).

In one word: I reject the entire opposition of “naturalism” and “supernaturalism,” because this distinction is a piece of theology. It is often overlooked here that Max Weber did not say that modernity is “the disenchantment of the world” and that this somehow relates to secularization or naturalism. On the contrary, Weber argues that the disenchantment of the world begins with the monotheistic rejection of magic. In a certain sense, many a diagnostic of modern nihilism (including Nietzsche) has made the point that the allegedly disenchanted conception of nature (naturalism in the vague sense in which some people declare to have respect for “science”) is a theological construction.

I would, therefore, like to think that OFS is neither naturalistic nor supernaturalistic, as I not only reject the unity of reality claim, but a fortiori the claim that reality is unified by there only being natural entities/facts (whatever “natural” might mean here).

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 10th, 2015.