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Memeing Naturalism

~ Center for Naturalism Newsletter ~

September, 2010



Greetings...The CFN newsletter is back after an extended sabbatical. Henceforth it will appear on an occasional basis, as enough naturalism-relevant material accumulates to warrant your attention. It will sometimes include letters and replies, plus guest editorials and articles - your contributions cordially invited. We encourage you to be in touch about any indications that worldview naturalism (as distinct from, but allied with atheism, humanism, skepticism and freethought) is taking hold. How is naturalism being expressed or discovered, whether in religion, politics, economics, social policy, sustainability, the arts, or any other human enterprise? We also welcome your input on how to present naturalism as a viable alternative to supernaturalistic religions and worldviews, especially in meeting needs for solidarity and meaning. We want to reinforce all efforts to grow a global community of worldview naturalists: those subscribing to a comprehensive, positive naturalism that addresses the full range of human concerns - cognitive, emotional, moral, practical, spiritual and aesthetic. As always, your comments and feedback are most welcome. Enjoy! - TWC

Newsletter archives



~ CFN News: icon/logo contest; meetups and the meaning of naturalism; discussion and networking; the CFN shifts gears; starting a philosophy cafe. 
~ Free Will Roundup: the focus on free will at CFN; making moral progress; Cris Evatt's The Myth of Free Will; a scientific skeptic speaks out; Knights Templeton on quest for causa sui

~ Blog Posts and Interviews: freedom from free will; a conversation at the Pale Blue Dot; is scientific inquiry restricted to nature?

~ Articles: Close encounters of the 4th kind; Respecting privacy.

~ Briefly Noted: William S. Robinson's Your Brain and You; skeptical review of two books on naturalistic spirituality.

~ Correspondence: fatalism vs. determinism; varieties of naturalism.

~ Dessert: Darwin Day party.


CFN News


Icon & logo contest


The Center for Naturalism, in collaboration with Nirmukta, sponsored a icon/logo design contest, and we’re very pleased with the results, one example on your left, others here, here, and here. Over 70 designers from around the world competed for a $350 prize, paid in advance so contestants knew a winner would be picked. By the end of the contest, 703 entries had been submitted, many of them very good; too bad we could only pick one. The logo above includes an icon – a simple bi-color spiral and sun motif – plus the tagline Nature Is Enough. The icon and/or logo is intended for organizations or individuals that want to promote naturalism, either primarily or secondarily, so be in touch if you’re interested in using it, or just download at will. The icon (for instance the one that appears at the very beginning of this newsletter) can appear along side or in combination with other text, so long as it includes the word “naturalism” or the names of groups promoting naturalism, for instance “Naturalism: Connection, Compassion, Control,” “Allies of Naturalism,” “Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association,” “Naturalists of Melbourne”, etc., etc. For some examples see the Facebook naturalism group, Naturalism.Org and the CFN home page. We hope that the icon and logos – a common graphic identity - will help to increase the visibility of naturalism and generate solidarity and purpose among naturalism-promoting groups and individuals. If you're a naturalist, please consider using them.


Meetups and the meaning of naturalism

When last counted there were 48 Meetup groups with over 7,500 members that list naturalism as a focus, most being atheist, freethinker, humanist or rationalist groups. Given that naturalism means different things to different folks, it isn’t surprising that naturalism is (or was) also claimed as a focus by such diverse groups as Arlington Tai Chi & Qi Gong Meetup, the Dublin Bindu Center Tantra Group, the Chester County Holistic Wellness Meetup Group, and The Raw Natural Path in Buckhorn, Ontario (“for those living or interested in a Raw Food lifestyle or simply those who love nature”). To disambiguate naturalism as a worldview, I recommend the simple phrase “naturalism as opposed to supernaturalism.” People will immediately get what you’re driving at and won’t confuse you with someone promoting tantra, whole foods, or holistic or undressed life styles.  Not that those aren’t perfectly fine pursuits when kept consistent with science - admittedly a tall order in some cases. 



Discussion and networking


If you're interested in discussing naturalism, pro, con, or in between, consider joining us at the Naturalism Philosophy Forum, open membership and no commitment to naturalism required. Those fully on board about worldview naturalism interested in promoting or applying it are welcome at the Applied Naturalism group (membership by application). If you enjoy social networking, then the Facebook naturalism group or page might appeal, and if you're interested in the spiritual/religious possibilities of naturalism check out the Religious Naturalism group. Some naturalism-friendly blogs are hosted by Ophelia Benson, Russell Blackford, J. Ash Bowie, Richard Carrier, Jerry Coyne, Tanner Edis, Exapologist, Stephen Law, Luke Muehlhauser, Massimo Pigliucci, Jason Rosenhouse, and John Shook. Also, check out the Inspiring Naturalism podcast with Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. To meet actual live fellow naturalists, then Meetup (discussed above) is a good bet, or get in touch with your local humanist, atheist or freethinker group.

The Center For Naturalism shifts gears


Although more can always be done to refine, organize and apply worldview naturalism, and although it will never go unchallenged, the basic elements are essentially in place, about which see here and here. After 7 years in (very non-profit) business, CFN will therefore concentrate more on outreach and networking to raise the visibility of naturalism, for instance via the icon/logo, videos, podcasts and/or radio, a revised edition of Encountering Naturalism and other publications, and by any other means or media - your suggestions welcome. If you're a naturalist with skills in any of these domains and would like to participate in memeing naturalism, don't hesitate to be in touch. We of course welcome and encourage donations - no other organization does what we do.


Want to start a philosophy cafe?


I've stepped down as moderator of the Philosophy Cafe at Harvard Book Stores (formerly the Davis Square Philosophy Cafe), transferring operations to a committee that will pick topics and moderators on a rotating basis. If you're interested in starting a cafe in your location, let me know since there's a good deal of material I can easily send your way: topic titles and descriptions, suggested readings, and moderator's notes. Note that worldview naturalism is not presupposed or advocated in most of the topics or readings.



Free Will Roundup


Why the focus on free will at the Center for Naturalism?


A word of explanation is in order about why free will is so often the focus at CFN. It's simply because debates about free will centrally involve human nature and human agency, matters of considerable practical and existential importance. The naturalist doesn't suppose human beings, complex and multi-talented though they are, transcend causal laws and explanations in their behavior. The naturalist view is therefore directly at odds with the widespread culturally-transmitted assumption in the West that we possess supernatural souls or disembodied mental agents with contra-causal free will. Human beings are widely believed to be causally privileged over their surroundings, little first causes, little gods: each of us has the power to have done otherwise in the exact situation in which we didn't do otherwise. Since this assumption expresses itself in our concepts of blame, credit, responsibility, self-worth and deservingness, to challenge it has all sorts of ramifications, personal, social and political. To my knowledge, CFN is the only organization that is drawing out and publicizing the progressive, humanistic implications of the science-based denial of contra-causal free will. Until other organizations get involved, we remain the only non-profit group advocating no free will (NFW) enlightenment, of freedom from free will. Which explains our emphasis on it here and elsewhere at Naturalism.Org.


Leveraging Harris: making moral progress by denying free will


In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris devotes 10 pages (pp. 102-112) to debunking contra-causal free will and drawing out the progressive implications for our beliefs, attitudes and social practices. This is a most welcome development since Harris commands a wide readership and considerable respect (although by no means universal agreement) among atheists, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers. Such readers are among those most likely to be receptive to the thesis – radical from the traditional dualistic religious perspective, but a scientific commonplace – that we aren’t causal exceptions to nature... Continued here.


Cris Evatt's 3rd Edition of The Myth of Free Will


As the title suggests, Evatt's newly expanded book is an unabashedly partisan take on the free will debate that collects essays and quotes from those who strongly doubt that we are uncaused causers. The format is folksy, most of entries are short and non-technical, but the contributors are largely respected academics, psychologists, philosophers and scientists. As a result, Evatt demonstrates that her skepticism about (contra-causal) free will has plenty of informed support (but note that this book is definitely not for philosophers since it doesn't purport to present detailed, rigorous argumentation). Since most of those quoted haven't gone terribly public in denying free will - not a thesis to win you friends and admirers - Evatt has rendered a great service in making these thoughts available to a general, non-philosophical audience. Her running commentary along the way keeps things lively and down to earth. Even better, from the CFN perspective, she draws out the psychological and interpersonal benefits of seeing that we are fully embedded in a cause and effect world. The last chapter is an entertaining account of her own NFW (no free will) enlightenment, which seems to have made her more open, accepting and compassionate. Skeptics might say that the causality could run the other way, that liberals like Evatt gravitate towards a philosophy consistent with their predilections. But that's OK since in Evatt's case the philosophy - naturalism - has plenty of independent support coming from a scientific understanding of what sorts of creatures we really are. If you want to introduce someone to the practical and ethical advantages of questioning a central myth of Western culture, give them this book.


Scientific skeptic speaks out


Writing for a special series of "inaugural articles" for the National Academy of Sciences, biologist Anthony R. Cashmore is refreshingly candid in denying we have libertarian or contra-causal free will. He argues at length that his fellow biologists have been too reticent in this regard: they should repudiate free will just as vehemently and publicly as they repudiate vitalism. Even better, he draws out the positive social consequences of questioning contra-causal agency... Continued here.



Knights Templeton on quest for causa sui


The existence of free will is perhaps only second to the existence of God as a concern among those who believe science threatens human meaning and values. Just as scientific explanations of the origins of human beings obviate the necessity of invoking a creator, so too scientific explanations of human behavior obviate the necessity of invoking some special human capacity for choice that transcends cause and effect. This is worrisome for those invested in the idea that  to be dignified, moral, and effective agents, we must transcend natural laws in some respect...  Continued here.


Blog Posts and Interviews


Freedom from free will - guest blog at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture


Naturalism as a positive worldview - at Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, with Luke Muehlhauser, worldview naturalist and host of Common Sense Atheism.


Is scientific inquiry restricted to nature? - co-authored with Ursula Goodenough at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture




Close encounters of the 4th kind: metaphysical naturalism as an empirically plausible conjecture. If you stick with science in deciding what's factually the case, naturalism is the best bet about what exists. But naturalists should remain cognitively humble given the possibility of someday being proven wrong by their own standards of evidence.



Respecting privacy: why consciousness isn't even epiphenomenal. Consciousness, in particular phenomenal, qualitative experiences like pain, is not the sort of thing that can be seen, measured, weighed or otherwise observed from an external perspective. Consciousness is arguably a categorically private phenomenon, non-identical to its publicly observable correlates. I develop the idea that consciousness and its correlates inhabit two mutually non-interacting explanatory spaces, 1st person and 3rd person, respectively. Since well-formulated 3rd person explanations of behavior are restricted to public observables such as brains, bodies and environments, private experiences such as pain are barred from playing a role in such explanations. This constitutes a clean solution to the problem of mental causation: consciousness and its physical correlates don't causally interact since they are in different explanatory spaces. This means that consciousness isn't epiphenomenal with respect to observable behavior: a phenomenon can only be fairly described as epiphenomenal (causally inert or inefficacious) with respect to another if they inhabit the same explanatory space.



Briefly Noted


William S. Robinson's Your Brain and You


Philosopher William S. Robinson has just published Your Brain and You: What Neuroscience Means for Us. I haven't yet read it, but his description sounds intriguing:

The things that make you you – your thoughts and feelings, your hopes, your sense of self – depend on the workings of your brain. But you don’t control these workings: in everyday life, you don’t know what your brain is doing, and you don’t find out what you’re going to think until your brain has made you think it.

When our brains give us thoughts like these, puzzlement and anxiety are likely to result. In Your Brain and You: What Neuroscience Means for Us, I clarify and solve several puzzles about how to think of ourselves in light of what we have learned from neuroscience. I talk about anxieties concerning selfhood and moral responsibility, and I explain a set of attitudes toward ourselves that fit with both common sense and the scientific view of what we are.


 Skeptical review of two books on naturalistic spirituality

upernaturalist theist John Cottingham writes an interesting review of Mark Johnston’s Saving God and Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Book of Atheist Spirituality (I've reviewed the latter very positively here). Cottingham argues that, despite the hopes and claims of the two naturalist authors, there has to be more than the natural world for genuine spirituality and morality to exist. Morality, he says, requires a supernatural authoritative basis beyond human convention, and because the universe as science describes it is “decaying, gradually cooling, inevitably running down,” naturalists are simply not entitled to such words as “sacred,” “holy,” “grace” and “gift.”

He asks rhetorically “But the sense, powerfully articulated in both writers, of the sacred, of the mystery and wonder of existence, of the power and resonance of the moral ideals that call us to transcend ourselves, of the supreme value of love and self-sacrifice — how much of this is really independent of the liturgical and scriptural and sacramental culture which nurtured them? And how much of it can be retained once that culture has been dismantled?”

Religious naturalists would say quite a bit, although some of the language would likely change in the absence of God (must we necessarily hold onto to “holy” to count as spiritual?). But I think it would take some pretty fancy footwork to convince Cottingham that religious naturalism is even a remote possibility. A good rebuttal of his skeptical assessment would go a long way toward clarifying what it is religious naturalists believe, if indeed there’s any consensus. Discussion among RNs goes on here.




Fatalism vs. determinism


William writes:

        You will have to excuse me, I’m fairly new to philosophy and these arguments. I read your paper on fatalism, determinism, and free will; I understand the concepts that you laid out in your paper as well. What I have trouble fully grasping is your explanation of determinism and its full implications. I am having a hard time drawing the line between determinism and fatalism; you stated that the fatalist believes that it doesn’t matter what one does, if one is supposed to die at age of 30 getting hit by a car, this will happen no matter what the person's action. On the other hand, how is this not determined? Is the person not determined to believe this way, therefore making him careless as to where he would get hit by the car? What I'm asking is, does determinism give you the choice to decide your own future? Say, a wealthy CEO living today, could he have ended up as an actor? Thanks in advance.

Hi William,
           You’re right that it’s likely determined (fully caused) whether or not someone ends up with a belief in fatalism. If he does, that might make him a more careless pedestrian or driver, since he believes that what he does doesn’t make a difference in how events play out. But this belief is mistaken. Human choices and behavior have just as much (if not more) an effect on how things turn out as anything else. They are fully caused, but they too have their effects, so what we do matters. Since we don’t know what the future holds we must choose and act in ways that might bring about the future we want. This is what “deciding your own future” means: going through a choice process, say a process of deliberation, which plays a role in how events unfold. That this process is fully caused doesn’t rob it of causal power, which means that if you don’t deliberate, things might not turn out as well.
       Could the CEO have ended up an actor? Not if we live in a macro-deterministic universe in which, given the past as it was, plus natural laws, there is only one possible way things could have evolved (whether determinism is true on the macro-scale is an open and hotly-debated question). But adding macro non-determinism to the picture wouldn’t have given the CEO more control, much less any kind of freedom worth wanting in deciding his future (see here). It would only have inserted a random element into the explanation of how he became a CEO, an explanation that hinges a good deal on his deliberations and choices.

          - Tom

The varieties of naturalism


Bruce writes:

            Thanks so much for your book Encountering Naturalism, your presentation "Naturalism: The Next Step for Humanists?", and your Center For Naturalism and Naturalism.Org websites. You've helped clear up and resolve a lot of nagging questions I've had over the years, and given me a group or "ism" I feel comfortable being part of. Much appreciated.
         As to "isms", I'm still unclear about the difference between "Philosophical Naturalism," "Metaphysical Naturalism," and "Scientific Naturalism." The 3 terms seem to come and go as they please during discussions about Naturalism (in your talks and in various interviews at the Center for Inquiry), leaving me a bit unsure of their definitions. Would just the term Naturalism do, or are the adjectives necessary?


          Thanks, and you’re right that we could all do better in being precise about varieties of naturalism, a specialty of John Shook over at the Center for Inquiry. Here’s my take: Metaphysical naturalism is simply the claim that the natural world is all that exists; there’s nothing non-natural or supernatural, however one defines it (a matter of debate of course, see here for instance). You could also call this ontological naturalism, since it's a claim about what sorts of things exist - an ontology. Philosophical naturalism is the meta-philosophical stance that philosophy and science are non-compartmentalized collaborators in investigating reality, such that philosophy alone, done from the armchair without looking at the world empirically, doesn’t get us very far. Many philosophers these days are naturalists in this sense, although again there’s lots of debate about the meaning and viability of philosophical naturalism. See here for a very good podcast on this, and I recommend Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism, reviewed here and here, and De Caro and Macarthur's Naturalism in Question.
           I’d say that scientific naturalism refers to metaphysical naturalism, where the adjective “scientific” simply draws attention to the empirical, observational basis for the claim that nature is all there is. As a scientific naturalist, I take science as the most reliable means of justifying beliefs about what’s real, and given this commitment I see no evidence that anything beyond nature exists. Metaphysical naturalism thus becomes an empirical hypothesis about reality that could conceivably be shown wrong (see here and here), so naturalists aren't being dogmatic about that claim. You’ve probably also heard of methodological naturalism, which is a fancy, and to my way of thinking, misleading name for the scientific method. It's misleading because it suggests science presumes naturalism in its method or its domain of investigation, which it doesn’t, see here for instance. Finally, there’s worldview naturalism as advocated by the Center for Naturalism, which builds upon and draws out the implications of scientific, metaphysical naturalism in order to address the full range of human concerns, cognitive, practical, psychological, ethical, and existential. See
here and here for summaries of worldview naturalism. Hope this helps!
      - Tom 





2010 Darwin Day Party at Tommy Doyle's, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA


        Darwin cake, 600 dpi frosting!                             The proud winner of the Hopeful Monster Contest.


















     More pictures here, courtesy of Sarah Chandonnet, Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy






Newsletter archives




For those interested in learning more about naturalism, or in participating in outreach, research, and writing in collaboration with the CFN, here are a few resources, online and otherwise.


Causality Consulting - practical philosophical consultation that's science-based, short-term, and results-driven.

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses - "the little orange book of naturalism" is in its second printing, available at Amazon. About the book, see

Naturalism: The Next Step for Humanists? - online video presentation about naturalism for the Freethought Association of Western Michigan; works as a spoken introduction to the philosophy and its implications.

Applied Naturalism Group - a forum to explore the personal and social applications of naturalism; membership by application.


Naturalism Philosophy Forum  - to facilitate the investigation of scientific naturalism, its assumptions, structure, and logical implications; open membership.

Naturalism as a World View - Richard Carrier's page devoted to explaining and defending naturalism.


Religious Naturalism - an online group explores the spiritual implications of naturalism, see Religious Naturalism and its associated Yahoo group.


Psychological Self-Help - an excellent resource, see in particular two chapters on determinism applied to issues of self-acceptance and self-control.  


Flickers of Freedom - a free will/moral agency blog with knowledgeable contributors on the leading edge of current academic debates, replaces the estimable Garden of Forking Paths.





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