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Worldview Naturalism: A Status Report

In 2008, it’s been 10 years (!) since Naturalism.Org got underway, so some stock taking is in order. Our objective has been to articulate naturalism as a comprehensive worldview, explore its implications, apply them in various domains, and get the word out. Along the way, many friends and allies of naturalism have joined the cause, making possible the non-profit Center for Naturalism. A concise working definition of worldview naturalism, its foundations, rationale and practical consequences has been formulated, presenting it as a straightforward and we think attractive competitor in the marketplace of belief. Naturalism.Org now offers a good deal of material about the philosophical and scientific basis for naturalism, its concrete applications in social policy and personal life, and its existential implications. These materials are referenced and organized according to the basic human concerns that worldviews address in Systematizing naturalism: answering life's vital questions. Naturalism has emerged as an alternative to theism that goes well beyond atheism and skepticism, and it serves as the background worldview for a progressive ethical humanism.

What follows is first an overview of naturalism and its implications, then a look at its connection to atheism and humanism, and then discussion of some differences between naturalism and anti-naturalism in assumptions and conclusions. Highlighting these differences can help make the choice between worldviews easier for the undecided. Of course your worldview may not be what matters most; after all, people live quite happily without giving much thought to the big questions. But if you’re curious about what it is to be human here in the cosmos, caught up in a situation you certainly didn’t ask for, your worldview can open, or close off, some avenues of exploration.
 

Sections:

The Landscape of Worldview Naturalism
~ A rational, not faith-based, commitment to science
~ Science vs. scientism
~ Naturalism as ontologically pluralistic
~ Beyond atheism: seeing our natural nature
~ The personal and social impact of naturalism
~ The viability of naturalism

Connections to Atheism and Humanism
~ The new atheism
~ The new humanism
~ The humanistic implications of naturalism
~ Eschewing arrogance

Contrasts between Naturalism and Anti-naturalism
~ Epistemic commitments
~ Explanatory transparency
~ Constructions vs. essences
~ The basis for morality

Looking Ahead

 

The Landscape of Worldview Naturalism

A rational, not faith-based, commitment to science

The basic epistemic commitment undergirding naturalism is that we should stick with science, in partnership with philosophy, as the arbiter of what fundamentally exists. Since it isn’t a worldview, science itself doesn’t make any metaphysical claims, and it certainly doesn’t presume naturalism, as advocates of teaching intelligent design sometimes argue. Rather, science is a method of inquiry that gives us generally reliable beliefs about the world. If you want reliable beliefs, then you should make the commitment to science and have little or no truck with faith, intuition, revelation and authority as grounds for belief. The commitment to science, therefore, is not a matter of faith, as is sometimes claimed by anti-naturalists (trying to tar naturalism with their own brush, see here), but of acting rationally to fulfill the commendable desire for secure knowledge. Finally, if you make this commitment, then you’ll be led to metaphysical naturalism, the idea that only the natural world exists. This is because science tends to unify what it describes into a single interconnected whole, what we call nature. For a detailed discussion of the cognitive basis for naturalism, see Reality and Its Rivals.

Science vs. scientism 

Some think that making a commitment to science in deciding questions about what fundamentally exists entails scientism. Not so. Scientism is the idea that scientific empiricism is the basis for everything we know, that the only valid knowledge claims are scientific.[1] But there are domains of human knowledge and know-how – ethical, aesthetic and political, among others – that are not science-based. Such domains aren’t primarily in the business of explaining or describing, science’s specialty, but rather doing, deciding and enjoying. This is not to say science can’t describe (or attempt to describe) regularities of human behavior in these domains, or that it can’t help settle empirical questions raised within them; it can, at least to some extent, if it suits our purposes. But deciding questions about ethical and aesthetic principles, and deciding between competing political agendas, are not empirical projects since they essentially involve normative considerations about values, not matters of fact. Science can help to tell us how things work or might turn out, e.g., what the economic ramifications are of adopting a flat tax, but it can’t tell us what’s fundamentally right, good or desirable, e.g., whether a flat tax is fair. And indeed, science and scientists generally have no such ambitions, although E.O. Wilson sometimes seem to verge on scientism in his claims about the scope of science.[2] It’s worth noting here that just because science can’t decide basic questions about values doesn’t mean that faith is better qualified to do so.

Naturalism as ontologically pluralistic

The epistemic allegiance to science – not scientism – takes us to the basic metaphysical position of naturalism, that what exists is the natural world. There isn’t in addition a categorically separate supernatural realm since there’s no good evidence to warrant belief in such a thing. Now, what exists in nature is for science to determine, and it may turn out that there exist very strange things indeed, we don’t know in advance. Naturalism should therefore not be equated with nave materialism. For instance, if our best, experimentally validated and conceptually transparent explanation of consciousness turns out to include the existence of something like mental particles (“psychons”), or something ultimately representational (something neither mental nor physical as standardly conceived), so be it. If we eventually discover good evidence that a super-intelligent being created the galaxy just for its own amusement, so be it. Because it’s wedded to science, as disciplined by philosophy (or pestered, as scientists often see it), naturalism doesn’t have a priori ontological commitments about what can or cannot exist. It only insists that there be good evidential, experimental and theoretical grounds, as judged by rigorous and continuing peer review, to believe in it. Thus far there is no evidence that reality is partitioned into nature and something else or something more, whether we call it God, the supernatural, or the paranormal. The naturalist thus discounts the existence of such things, and given her desire for reliable beliefs this disbelief is by her lights rational, not faith-based or dogmatic.

Beyond atheism: seeing our natural nature

In discounting the existence of a supernatural god, naturalism is therefore the basis for atheism, but it has other implications that hit closer to home. Because human beings are completely included in the natural order, which includes biology and culture, there’s nothing supernatural about us. In particular, science shows no evidence for an immaterial soul or other internal essential self that could transcend the cause and effect relationships that science finds elsewhere in nature. We are natural constructions, not supernatural essences. As persons with bodies and brain-instantiated minds, we are completely causally connected to the world via genetics and environment, both in our development and in our current experience and behavior. Although we are complex and self-modifying creatures in many respects, we don’t have a contra-causal capacity for ultimate self-creation; we are not little gods who bear ultimate responsibility for themselves. This fundamental point about our fully natural nature currently receives little attention, and indeed is actively suppressed in Western culture.[3] But it’s nevertheless what science reveals to be the case, and has widespread ramifications for many other beliefs and attitudes. The careful elucidation of what it means, personally, socially and existentially, to be fully natural creatures is therefore central to the mission of the Center for Naturalism.

The personal and social impact of naturalism

Understanding the naturalistic truth about human nature is the next big step for those who are already naturalists in their beliefs about God and the paranormal. Seeing our full causal connection to the world, knowing people are not self-created, we are more likely to adopt an interpersonal and intrapersonal ethics of compassion and acceptance, very much like the Buddha taught. This has direct consequences for how we treat each other, and it can influence our thinking in a progressive direction in many policy domains. Knowing the specific determinants of human character and behavior, we also gain greater control over ourselves, become more effective in carrying out our projects, and more adept in our relationships. The watchwords of the Center for Naturalism are therefore connection, compassion and control.

The viability of naturalism

Under naturalism, our moral compass stays intact, we still love, strive, hold each other (effectively and compassionately) responsible, and seek to fulfill ourselves and create a sustainable world for our descendents and other life forms. Naturalism can also supply the basis for a satisfying approach to ultimate concerns, a naturalistic spirituality (apparent oxymoron notwithstanding). It isn’t the case, therefore, that we must keep the naturalistic understanding of ourselves under wraps, as some philosophers and scientists argue (see here). Indeed, the many benefits of worldview naturalism are there for the having, if we can manage to let go the assumption that human beings must possess some supernatural characteristic for life to be worth living. That letting go, and the concomitant access to the ethical and practical advantages of naturalism, is a long-term project of cultural change. This is the project of the Center for Naturalism and Naturalism.Org, in collaboration with its friends, allies and other organizations that take a more or less naturalistic view of the world. After 10 years we are still in the very early stages, but there are signs of progress.  

 
Connections to Atheism and Humanism

The new atheism

One sign of progress is the increasing visibility of atheism and humanism. Although, as noted above, atheism is a fairly narrow and rather negative expression of worldview naturalism, it nevertheless is an expression. Attention drawn to atheism can bring naturalism into view as the parent philosophy, which can then recommend itself as the next positive and comprehensive step for atheists. As Richard Dawkins put it in an interview on the New Atheism with Gary Wolf in Wired, “…the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism.” Whether well-known atheists such as Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens will broaden their focus to advance an explicit, comprehensive naturalism is an open question. Such a development would of course be great news for naturalists, since the power of celebrity can move mountains, quickly. 

The new humanism

Also riding the coattails of the New Atheism are several brands of humanism, most of which take a broadly progressive stance on politics and social policy (although there are a few conservative libertarians in the ranks, see here). The humanist cause is championed by organizations such as the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry Transnational, and most recently and visibly, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard directed by Greg Epstein. Their emphasis, unlike the New Atheists and very much in line with the Center for Naturalism’s mission, is on developing a positive secular alternative to faith-based religions. But like atheism, non-theistic varieties of humanism (therefore secular humanism) take science-based naturalism as their metaphysical starting point, so in promoting humanism these organizations necessarily promote naturalism. Indeed, the Center for Inquiry recently initiated the Naturalism Research Project, with one conference already under its belt, and explicit mentions of naturalism appear more often in its magazine Free Inquiry, as for instance in a recent article by CFI director Paul Kurtz.

The humanistic implications of naturalism

The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard will award its 2008 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism to Greg Graffin, a rock musician (he heads up the band Bad Religion) and anthropology professor. In a recent book of email exchanges with theist Preston Jones, Graffin not only doubts God, but supernatural free will, and he draws out the consequences for attitudes and policies:

This is how I can feel compassionate toward criminals (even if I don’t excuse them) and why I vehemently oppose punishment (I favor rehabilitation and re-education), and I strongly oppose the death penalty…If we cannot consciously make sense of the stimuli it is no wonder we have the illusion of free will. (p. 94)

Here Graffin presents one of the humanistic implications of seeing ourselves as fully natural, caused creatures. Naturalism, by undercutting supernatural justifications for inequality and punitive social policies, lends support to progressive humanism (about which see here). But again, it remains to be seen whether or not the humanist community will enlarge its perspective in the direction recommended by the Center for Naturalism, that is, take on the implications of what it means for us to be completely natural creatures. Getting explicit about the global implications of naturalism for our self-conception can be a bit daunting, given the widespread assumption that human agents are, and must be, exceptions to empirically discovered laws of cause and effect in order to live meaningful and moral lives. It’s encouraging that Graffin, now in the academic and popular mainstream, has the guts to tell it like it is. 

Eschewing arrogance

The New Atheism has been roundly criticized by some supernaturalists and naturalists for its contempt of faith-based religion, see here for a recent example. Whether or not these charges have merit, it’s worth mentioning that naturalism, at least as advanced by the Center for Naturalism, tends to militate against such attitudes. Although we make a strong, unapologetic and rational case for sticking with science as the basis for belief, by our lights contempt for those who don’t is fundamentally unwarranted. Anti-naturalists and naturalists, equally, end up with their worldviews as a function of the vagaries of genetics and life experience. Some individuals are more inclined than others to want certainty, others are more open to new experience, and we are all heavily influenced by the beliefs and mores of our culture and peers. Understanding the contingency of our worldview – that we could have grown up to be the theist, not the naturalist – makes it more difficult to feel contempt for our ideological adversaries. Rather, we simply feel lucky and grateful not to be saddled with their beliefs (they feel the same way, of course). So, as much as we take naturalism as superior to supernaturalism, and as hard as we work to advance it (“meme” it), we shouldn’t act morally superior to theists. Moreover, the naturalist understands that human variability being what it is, disagreements about worldviews will likely persist indefinitely, in which case the only long-term solution is peaceful co-existence in an open society. Demonization and belittling of those of different beliefs is therefore unadvisable, both as a strategy for conversion and as a modus vivendi in a pluralistic culture.


Contrasts between Naturalism and Anti-Naturalism

Worldviews define themselves partially by way of contrast with their competitors. In defining naturalism, it helps to consider the differences in assumptions and conclusions between it and non-naturalistic worldviews. Below are a few of the most salient. If you’re undecided about where to place your bet about the ultimate nature of things, considering these differences can help you decide. Naturalism isn’t for everyone, at least not immediately, since it requires revising some conventional wisdom and giving up some comforting beliefs. But it has its advantages, not the least of which is consistency with our most reliable way of grasping reality.

Epistemic commitments

One fundamental difference, mentioned in the first section above, is the naturalist’s commitment to scientific empiricism as the basis for reliable beliefs about what’s ultimately there in reality. This contrasts with contemporary theistic theology (there are non-theistic versions), which admits other sorts of knowledge claims into the mix, for instance those based on faith (although faith gets relatively little emphasis these days in academic theology), on first person experience and intuition, and on what theologian John Haught calls a “richer” empiricism (see here). This is to say that naturalism and theistic theology differ with respect to their epistemic criteria for belief. The naturalist, of our stripe at any rate, thinks that any departure from science likely results in beliefs that aren’t sufficiently insulated from prior assumptions about what must exist, for instance God, the soul, paranormal powers, a driving cosmic intention, or contra-causal free will.

Since wishful thinking is such a powerful determinant of belief, we can’t be too vigilant in setting up procedures that systematically eliminate its influence if we want the truth about reality. Science is, among other things, the culturally-evolved distillation of procedures that do exactly this. Theists, and more broadly supernaturalists and anti-naturalists of various sorts, might reply that such methodological strictures are themselves a bias. They might say (some do say, see here) that a truly reasonable and rational approach to understanding the world should admit there are other and better ways besides science of deciding what’s ultimately real. The very interesting open question, which forms one nexus of debate between naturalists and anti-naturalists, is whether there are criteria both sides can accept that could help decide the question of what grounds for belief are rationally acceptable.** There may be no agreement on such criteria forthcoming, in which case this question (among other disputes between naturalism and anti-naturalism) ultimately gets decided on a pre-rational, political basis, which is to say it will likely always be contested. This is why naturalists and anti-naturalists must learn to live together in an open society that accepts the variability of worldviews and their epistemic commitments.

** Since this writing, I've concluded that there are indeed worldview neutral criteria of epistemic adequacy that anyone should respect if they claim to be representing reality objectively, which is of course what all worldviews, including religions, claim to do. Most basically, these criteria require that we should 1) insulate our beliefs from various sorts of bias, e.g., perceptual distortions, uncorroborated subjective intuitions, arbitrary authority, revelatory religious traditions, and other influences not responsive to the way the world actually is; and 2) validate our beliefs using publicly available data and observation. Non-empirically based worldviews claim objectivity but generally fail to meet these requirements, so we shouldn't trust them as guides to reality. Papers that develop this line of thought are here, here, here and most comprehensively and recently here.
 

Explanatory transparency

Another major contrast between naturalism and anti-naturalism is the relative emphasis placed on explanatory transparency. The obvious example here is intelligent design. Supernaturalists at the Discovery Institute, for instance, think the God hypothesis about the origin of species is a perfectly adequate explanation, even though the characteristics of the intelligent designer aren’t specified, nor are the processes by which he (she, it) created new species. They want public schools to teach intelligent design in science class on an equal footing with natural selection, even though ID manifestly fails to explain the target phenomenon according to widely accepted criteria of explanatory adequacy. This failure is apparently of no concern to the Discovery Institute, and more importantly they don’t even see it as a failure. The requirement of explanatory transparency, in which a theory shows clearly how phenomena are interrelated by various causal processes and organized on hierarchical levels, is very far down on their list of cognitive virtues, perhaps missing altogether.

Another example, at a more abstract level, is metaphysical dualism. Anti-naturalists are often dualists, not a surprise since their world is split from the beginning between the natural and supernatural, or between nature and God, where God is conceived as something transcending, subtending or immanent in nature, but not nature itself. The problem for anti-naturalists is to explain how two categorically separate realms of existence interact and influence one another, which they must to some extent. This problem presents itself whether the dualism is one of God vs. nature, soul vs. body, or immaterial thought vs. neural processes. If a clear explanation of how the two sides interact is forthcoming, this threatens to unite them into a single category of existence, not good news for dualists. On the other hand, insisting on their categorical metaphysical separateness guarantees that no transparent explanation of their interaction will be forthcoming. Anti-naturalists, therefore, not only seem less interested in explanatory transparency, they are barred from achieving it given their investment in metaphysical dualism. Of course, some anti-naturalists will deny having any such investment, and say that their dualism is a conclusion of their unbiased investigations. This brings us back to the issue of their epistemic and methodological commitments, see above. In any case, dualists necessarily have a tougher time uniting the world as it appears to them within a satisfying, transparent explanatory scheme. So if explanatory transparency is high on your wish list, as opposed to your wishful thinking list, chances are you’ll end up a naturalist. Of course naturalists candidly admit that their explanatory scheme has major lacunae, such as how it all began and how life got started. But that’s fine since lacunae make life interesting for natural-born problem solvers such as homo sapiens.

Constructions vs. essences

Perhaps as a result of their differing epistemic commitments and differing desires for explanatory transparency, naturalists and supernaturalists often end up with very different ideas about the basic nature of human beings, the mind and ultimate reality. The fundamental contrast gets expressed in ideas about persons. Anti-naturalists often suppose that human beings possess something indivisible and essential, something like a soul or non-physical mental essence which constitutes their core identity. Naturalists are more likely to think that people and their minds are in all respects constructions, made up of physical constituents none of which are in themselves personal or mental. Similarly, on the anti-naturalist understanding, the ultimate nature of reality includes some non-compositional, intention-bearing core or stratum, often thought of as God, while on the naturalist understanding it doesn’t. For naturalists there are just the various phenomena science shows to exist, which as far as we can tell don’t include anything like such a core or stratum. As mentioned in the introductory section, the ultimate characteristics of natural phenomena are for scientific investigation and theory to determine, so for the naturalist it isn’t necessary to claim that the root nature of existence (if there is such a thing) must be material or physical. Further, if the best naturalistic explanations end up in some sort of essentialism, so be it. But for the nonce the naturalist sees no evidence for mental or personal essences, either on the local or cosmic level.

For some anti-naturalists, usually of the faith-based religious variety, the very reality and worth of people and minds is tied to their being or having a permanent, indestructible essence. If persons turn out to be perishable organic constructions without souls, then they lose existential significance – they are merely constructions, superficial ephemera without intrinsic value, in a word, dead. Similarly, if human experience and subjectivity turn out to be products of what the brain does, that would effectively explode them as real, respect-worthy existents. People and their minds must have an essential, spiritual core in order to possess dignity and value, otherwise we are mere robots. Existence as a whole, if it turned out not to have an intentional core, would likewise necessarily be dead, valueless, meaningless – an impersonal existential horror.

Oppositely, naturalists find that the constructed nature of things, including people and their minds, is no bar to their reality or worth. Life, value and meaning arise in and are made available by certain types of natural (and perhaps eventually artificial) constructions, among which are notably ourselves. We are really alive, really conscious, even if none of our smallest parts is alive or conscious. That they are constructions, or as it’s often put, emergent phenomena, doesn’t diminish the rather spectacular natural achievements of life and consciousness, indeed, that’s what makes them achievements. Nor does it undercut the self- and other-ascribed worth of being a sentient creature with intentions and purposes that make life meaningful. We are built by nature out of simple elements, but built such that we can’t help but accord value and dignity to one another, and be gripped by the life-project. For naturalists, understanding its constructed, emergent nature doesn’t devalue our valuing, it doesn’t rob people of their worth, or life of the meaning we give it. It does for anti-naturalists, however, which is perhaps one reason they resist reductionist and emergentist explanations of ourselves in which essences play no role.

The basis for morality

One of the most important contrasts between naturalism and anti-naturalism concerns the basis for morality. Because naturalism discovers no god or governing intention in reality, it’s at a rhetorical disadvantage to theism when it comes to justifying our moral intuitions. The complaint against naturalism by anti-naturalists is that it can’t supply a foundational, binding reason why we must obey moral commandments, and why any particular set of commandments should hold force. Science can perhaps explain our moral proclivities as a function of evolution and culture, but it doesn’t show why we should be moral, according to these particular rules. The theist can appeal to God as the source of moral authority and moral law: moral injunctions are binding because they issue from divine judgment, which of course is infallibly right and good.

The standard naturalist reply derives from Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma,[4] which aims to show that appealing to God’s authority can’t establish the rightness and obligatoriness of moral laws. Whether or not this argument persuades theists (it usually doesn’t), the fact remains that for the naturalist there is no foundation for morality outside of human nature and culture. There is no ultimate, external source of moral authority which makes a particular set of moral rules binding upon us. Yet we can’t help but feel when making moral judgments that the rules are binding and universal (about which see here and here). Unable to appeal to God’s command, naturalists have a tougher time providing clear cut, easily grasped reassurances that we are in fact justified in our ethical intuitions. We don’t have a simple one-liner about why we should be good analogous to the supernaturalist’s easy but problematic answer: “God commands us to be good.”

That we can be good without belief in God is an empirical fact; even most theists acknowledge that atheists can be moral exemplars. So clearly people can be bound by moral laws whether or not they are thought to have external back up. The scientific investigation of moral intuitions and altruistic behavior suggests that they played, and continue to play, a key role in the formation of stable groups and communities within which individuals can survive and reproduce. Being good – altruistic, kind, generous, fair, protective – was therefore adaptive and naturally selected, which means most of us are innately inclined to act ethically (see for instance Steven Pinker’s recent New York Times Magazine article on the natural basis for morality). The “moral instinct” is part of who we are, it’s a defining characteristic of being human. We don’t, therefore, need commanding to be good; it happens quite naturally as a function of our evolved nature. We are, overall, happier, more productive, more secure and more interpersonally fulfilled when we act according to the golden rule and other ethical maxims. So the naturalist’s one-liner in response to the question “Why be moral?” might be simply: acting morally is essential for human happiness and flourishing within a community.

This won’t satisfy those, theists included, who think that to be binding morality can’t merely be a means to an end (happiness and flourishing), but must have it’s own independent obligatory force independent of the consequences of good behavior. Being motivated to be moral, as we obviously are, isn’t enough: we have to obey moral rules because it’s right to do so, not because we get something out of the deal. But the naturalist wonders what could possibly establish rightness or goodness that isn’t a function of what we humans want or need. The demand for a non-motivational basis for obligatory rightness and goodness seems – is – inhuman. We are fundamentally motivated creatures (as are all sentient beings), so to require that goodness have a foundation external to our motives asks the impossible; it alienates us from morality. If this is true, then not only is God not needed for us to be good, his commandments distract us from appreciating the actual source of moral obligation: our natural need for others.

Naturalism therefore understands morality, like persons and minds, as a construction, in this case a bio-social construction built of non-moral elements. It is not for this reason any less real, valuable or binding, since moral rules and felt obligations are the robust outcomes of the construction itself. We can’t help but feel the pull of morality, and we can now see that the pull needs no justification external to human needs, and indeed couldn’t have one. We are, as Robert Wright and others have argued, moral animals who can’t escape the force of moral obligation precisely because it’s essential for our flourishing. Naturalists can therefore be confident in our natural capacity for goodness, and we have a reply to the anti-naturalist who thinks the only alternative to theism is nihilism: we’ve been naturally selected to take moral laws as binding upon us. Morality is a natural phenomenon. So not to worry, we won’t run amok without God.
 

Looking Ahead

With reassurances like these in hand (there are others, see here and Appendix 1 of Encountering Naturalism), naturalists are in a good position to make the case for the viability of naturalism. We don’t, as it turns out, need more than what nature affords to be moral, compassionate and effective agents, living meaningful lives within a cosmos that seems not to have had us in mind. Nature, our home, in which we participate as fully natural creatures, is enough.

Some suppose we are constitutionally unable to handle the fact that nature is all there is, that we’ll never be able to assimilate the scientific picture of human beings and the cosmos (for examples see here and here). This of course is an empirical question now being played out in our culture as science marches on. To think we can’t, and act as if we can’t, is to foreclose the possibility that we might truly come of age as a sapient species. It’s to retreat into self-imposed ignorance based on the pessimistic assumption that we can’t get along without belief in the supernatural. But we know that given education and economic security, people don’t need God’s hand to hold, nor do they need the promise of a life hereafter to find life in this world meaningful and satisfying. Nor must they believe that they possess some essential, supernatural spark of soul or contra-causal freedom. Indeed, the Center for Naturalism argues we’re far better off without such beliefs, given their role in justifying punitive attitudes and policies, and given how they blind us to the actual causes of human behavior. There’s good reason to think, therefore, that naturalism is a viable, life-affirming and practically effective worldview that can stand us in good stead. It also has the signal virtue of being consistent with our most reliable means of knowing about the world. We need not hide or protect ourselves from science.

Still, the fact remains there is huge cultural momentum carried by conventional wisdom concerning the supernatural, dualistic nature of the self and reality. The memes of God, soul, contra-causal free will, paranormal powers, cosmic intention and the like are deeply embedded and constantly renewing themselves, not to be displaced anytime soon. Human nature being what it is, they may always rule the majority of minds no matter what science says. But the project of turning the culture around in these basic cognitive respects, of offering a reality-based worldview to its attention, has its rewards and attractions even if the outcome is uncertain.

The Center for Naturalism is hardly alone, or original, in this project. The major humanist and free-thought organizations mentioned above (for others see here) have long worked diligently on behalf of a new enlightenment, and we should not forget that most academic institutions, with obvious exceptions, operate within a basically naturalistic framework: their primary concern is this world, not the supernatural. Besides books by New Atheists, there are encouraging signs that a fully naturalistic understanding of ourselves and the cosmos is becoming at least thinkable in mainstream culture. There’s been a notable increase in books, magazine articles, and news stories taking naturalistic views of such things as the self, free will, behavior, the nature of mind, morality and consciousness (for a few, see here and here). Philosophers, scientists, psychologists and economists are becoming more explicit about the fact that human beings can be understood without resorting to the concept of an essential soul or mental agent independent of the brain and body. This, along with the gradual erosion of faith as a respectable basis for belief, suggests at least the possibility that naturalism will become a minority worldview in the decades to come.

Of course there are, and likely will always be, those who vigorously defend faith, theism, dualism and essentialism, seeing in science-based naturalism the denial of all that makes humans valuable and life worth caring about. Naturalists believe they are deeply mistaken in this, but will welcome such resistance (up to a point!), since after all that’s what keeps us honest. As much as we are secure in our worldview, we carry over from science and philosophy, or should anyway, an openness to questioning and debate, a decent modicum of self-doubt which prevents complacency from setting in, at least not too deeply. We see in the faith-based and theological opposition those who we would have been, were it not for circumstances of birth, family, education and community. Understanding this, we can more easily accord them the tolerance and sympathy that we would like accorded us, should it turn out we were in the wrong. As we work to make naturalism better known, one of the best advertisements for our worldview is how we conduct ourselves on its behalf.

TWC - 3/2008


Notes

[1] Alternatively, philosopher Owen Flanagan defines scientism as “the brash and overreaching doctrine that everything worth saying or expressing can be said or expressed in a scientific idiom,” another clear non-starter.  See pp. 22-4 in his book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World.

[2] See his book Consilience. Typical concerns about scientism were recently raised in Tikkun magazine, see here.

[3] 1960’s East-West guru Alan Watts called it “the taboo against knowing who you are” in a book with that as its subtitle.

[4] In an excellent New York Times Magazine article on the natural basis for morality, Steven Pinker expresses the dilemma thusly: “Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?”

 

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