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Living in Light of Naturalism

 First Person Accounts

Introduction How I Got Here An Act of Tolerance The Opening of Eyes
Four Notes From Down Under: #1 Where Are All the Naturalists?, #2 Compassion in Action,
#3 Accepting What Is, #4 The Causal Web
From Christianity to Naturalism Try This At Home A Changed Woman Many Routes to Naturalism Naturalizing Freedom and Autonomy Epiphanies Along the Way Connection and Equanimity Finding Self-Compassion

What would it be like to discover yourself a fully natural creature, completely embedded in the world science reveals? It would mean discarding any remnant of supernaturalism about who you are. Just as a thorough-going naturalist discounts the existence of god or the supernatural “up there,” so too she discounts the existence of anything supernatural “in here” inside the person, for instance a soul or immaterial mental agent. Science finds no evidence for anything beyond the physical brain and body, naturally evolved and culturally tuned by social circumstances. Persons in their thinking, feeling, and behaving are moment-to-moment expressions of what nature cooks up, using biology and culture, in particular portions of space-time. Like other natural phenomena, your personality and behavior arise seamlessly out of sets of circumstances, fully caused in their unfolding. We can trace the causal story of the origins of each of us going back as far as we like: to the origins of life, to the big bang, and to whatever its causes might have been. Seen from the broadest perspective, our story is ultimately the story of nature. Nothing about us escapes the cosmic and local causal web, seen historically or in the present. Nothing about us rises above the law-like cause and effect relationships science shows to exist at the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and behavioral levels.

But it's vital to see that this naturalistic picture doesn't deny the reality of persons and their capacities, for instance of imagination, rationality, impulse control, and choice. Nor does it undermine our status as causes in our own right: we have effects on the world that only we can cause, so we don’t disappear as active agents. Nevertheless, it does deny that in exercising such powers, and in having such effects, human beings are like little gods with a supernatural capacity to transcend the cause and effect regularities that hold everywhere else in nature. There’s no evidence to suggest that the physical workings of the brain – the source of consciousness and choice – confer on us some special capacity for ultimate self-origination, even though they allow us to act for conscious purposes. As much as it might seem commonsensical, desirable or morally necessary, there’s no reason to suppose we have libertarian or contra-causal free will, that is, the capacity to have thought or acted otherwise at any moment in our lives, given the circumstances that held at that moment. Nature, remarkably, can assume the form of conscious persons – us – and as her transient expressions we necessarily play by her rules, like it or not.

What would it mean on a personal level to come to grips with this realization? How do we cope with this revolution in our self-concept, which denies the existence of what from a conventional standpoint seems the essential core of our being? Is it really possible to come to terms with the scientific understanding that we don’t transcend nature, but are instead integral to her in all respects? Can we realize that we’re not little gods without falling, as some do, into the opposite error of supposing that we cease to exist as individuals and effective agents?

We can, and what follows are first-person accounts of this realization. As naturalism has gradually made headway, some individuals have discovered that it’s possible, even psychologically and practically beneficial, to accept ourselves as fully natural, caused creatures. Without a soul or mental controller “in charge,” they carry on without running amok or succumbing to fatalism. Indeed, they have found varieties of freedom, autonomy, and personal efficacy very much worth wanting. Jody Keeler nicely poses the question of naturalized autonomy: In the absence of an interior self, if 'who we are' is what we say and do, the question becomes: 'Is what I’m about to say or do in this moment, and this one, and this one… who I want to be?'

Some of these accounts will show, unsurprisingly, that the transition to a naturalistic self-understanding is not without stress. After all, what’s at stake is one’s core self-concept, so it would be remarkable if it were transformed without any psychic struggle, what we might call the dark night of no soul. But life goes on without the fiction of the inner controller. As Norm Bearrentine puts it, the realization occurs that my brain would somehow continue to function effectively without there being anyone in charge, as indeed, it always had.”

Of course, it’s difficult to admit that you’ve been wrong for a good part of your life about any closely held fundamental belief, so resistance to change is entirely predictable (Mike Layfield confesses for all of us: I hate being wrong). But core beliefs about the self can and do change, and this has considerable cognitive and emotional ramifications. Letting go of the freely willing soul and its supernatural powers means recasting basic notions of personhood, action, credit, blame, and responsibility. This in turn has consequences for how we think about and treat ourselves, our family, peers, and strangers; it has consequences as well for social policy and the big questions of our relationship to reality. Many of these personal, interpersonal and existential implications of naturalism get mentioned below.

As we'll see, the impetus for a naturalistic realization can involve several factors: dissatisfaction with supernaturalistic religions, the quest for a coherent life philosophy, encounters with science and skepticism, and struggles with the familiar pressing difficulties of life. Atheism is of course a major component of worldview naturalism, but the pivotal insight explored below is about naturalizing the self, seeing that there's no essential, immaterial me "in here" that could have done otherwise. This radical shift in self-concept can precipitate psychological changes: reductions in guilt, shame, defensiveness and self-righteousness; increases in acceptance, equanimity, empathy and compassion; and deeper feelings of equality, connection, and belonging.

It has considerable cognitive ramifications as well. Understanding that we're completely included in the causal web encourages the search for the actual causes of our successes and failures, instead of chalking them up to contra-causal free will. This gives us power and control. As Alice Carr puts it: “When you understand the causal web, you know something in the web must have caused the situation and so it must make logical and reasonable sense why we are where we are.”Allegiance to a basically empirical, scientific way of knowing also induces a cognitive humility that conditions how the naturalist holds her worldview not as dogma but as correctable and improvable. This in turn has practical ethical implications: naturalists are led to tolerance, not absolutism, and so are well suited for life in a pluralistic, open society.

Naturalists of course don't want to claim too much for their worldview since that would betray the tough-minded realism of being constrained by evidence. A worldview is an important but limited aspect of being a person, a cognitive framework that helps to organize one's life. As we well know from everyday experience, this sort of higher level cognition can be swamped by immediate emotional or behavioral exigencies. Worldview naturalism therefore won't make you a saint, erase your ego, cut away all your self-serving reactive dispositions, solve all your moral dilemmas, or in any sense shield you from the "full catastrophe" of being an ordinary human person. But naturalism can do much to reconcile ourselves with life, just as religions do but without resorting to illusion. When fully internalized, it can give us a reality-based psychological balance, help ground a humanistic ethics, give us insight into the ways of the world, all while affording an inspiring cosmic perspective on the human condition. So although we don't want to oversell naturalism, we shouldn't be bashful about advertising its virtues. We can agree with Ajita Kamal that “… the lack of structured education in the implications of a naturalistic worldview is an enormous oversight within the system, especially considering the influence of science in our lives.” The accounts below suggest that educating ourselves in naturalism is indeed a viable route to human flourishing. We need not hide from anything science has to say about ourselves, as some think we must (for instance see here and here).

Some of these accounts come from previously published materials, some from spontaneous online conversations in Internet forums, and some were written in response to a request for descriptions of naturalistic “conversions.” To preserve the spontaneity and personal nature of the writing, I’ve not done much editing. My sincere thanks to all contributors for their honesty, wisdom, good humor and willingness to share their discovery of naturalism.

 So let’s begin.



How I Got Here

Time and memory being the mysterious creatures they are, for the most part it feels like I have always had my current naturalistic point of view, but when I think about it, I realize it’s been a long, circuitous, and sometimes painful evolution, beginning, oddly enough, with meditation.

My first brief exposure to meditation was through the hippie drug culture, without any profound results. Several years later my AA sponsor told me to do it because it was good for me, not expecting to get anything out of it. I was a sporadic meditator, but I did get something out of it.

I was driving one day with the radio on, as always, when I realized that DJ’s and song writers were controlling my thoughts: every time the music changed, my thoughts would ricochet off the lyrics. I decided to turn the music off for a while to see where my thoughts would go without it, and found that they still bounced all over the place, depending on what came into sensory range, and that at any rate, they were beyond my control.

This realization was a little disconcerting, but otherwise life went on as normal until I read Jean Klein’s book, Who Am I, for the second time. His thinking convinced me that the idea that I was in control of my life and thoughts was an illusion, which was profoundly disconcerting.

It seemed that my prior conception of myself was based on absurdities, that all my relationships were built on this false conception, and that if I wanted to find a more reality-based version of myself, I would have to withdraw from the relationships that reinforced the old falsehoods. I had been a stalwart of AA for nine years, but I stopped going to meetings and moved out of the apartment I was sharing with my sweetheart into a tiny studio.

New, acceptable ideas of myself were not forthcoming, however, despite my isolation from old influences. I read, I pondered, but there was no way to get a grip on how to think about myself without free will, without "self" control. If I’m not the person in charge, what am I? I was trapped in a quandary with no hint of an exit.

I remember sitting in my little room, staring up at a corner of the ceiling, thinking that I had finally gone over the edge. The men in white coats would come and find me sitting there, and as they carried me out the neighbors would say, "He seemed like such a nice, stable fellow."

Fortunately, my work did not require much intellectual engagement, so I worked constantly, just to get out of my head. I gradually came to accept not having an answer, realizing that my brain would somehow continue to function effectively without there being anyone in charge, as indeed, it always had.

I have been nibbling away at the problem of how to think of myself ever since--that was 1993--by monitoring the thoughts that appear and taking note of those based on the old habits of thinking of myself as the controller. I’ve also continued to read, think, and write about the issues, reinforcing a reality-based point of view. Gradually, free will-based thoughts have diminished, just by paying attention and mentally stamping them "ERROR!" When the now rare feeling of anger arises, for example, it is soon followed by a thought like, "So, we’re going to get angry with the wind blowing, are we?" Feeling proud or superior brings on something like, "While you were making yourself from scratch, why didn’t you add more hair and whiter teeth?"

These little devices have freed me from sources of much anguish, and brought me a measure of happiness I had never imagined. I have to stop and think what a miserable creature I used to be--being "in charge" is a terrible burden. The whole process evolved as the result of natural forces, like a stream led downhill by gravity and geology, and I feel fortunate that I can feel fortunate about experiencing it.

Norm Bearrentine, website:





An Act of Tolerance

My deterministic outlook initially presented itself as an act of tolerance. When someone would do me wrong I would try to imagine those genetic predispositions and life experiences that led to their behavior. In this way, I was able to forgive them. This tendency of mine led me to resent and reject the religious precept that we all have the absolute ability to choose between right and wrong.

Also very early on I rejected the idea of personal guilt. Guilt seemed to me to be useless because it appears after the horse is already out of the barn. I thought it far better to predict beforehand those actions that might make you feel guilty and not do them!

But if I did do wrong accidentally I found it better to devise a solution that would lead to not making the same mistake again rather than feeling guilty about it.

When I was a teenager I called all of this relativism. It was the realization that every situation is unique (relative) because of our differing genetics and experiences. Free Will as the Absolute ability to choose contradicted my relativist, tolerant and guilt-free philosophy of life.  So for me, determinism promotes tolerance, reduces guilt and is a more accurate representation of the Universe.

Actually now that I think of it, the reduction of guilt could be a powerful selling point for determinism. Guilt can cause a person to internalize a negative picture of themselves. This negative self image can in turn lead to further wrongdoing. A vicious circle develops. Determinism can free a person from this cycle by allowing them to give themselves a break and internalize a positive image of self.  The focus is on solutions to wrong-doing rather than self-condemnation.

Will Davidson, editor of Apex Naturalism





The Opening of Eyes

I was pleased to see [philosopher Tamler] Sommers readily admit that "there would be a good amount of variation" in response to the abandonment of contra-causal free-will belief. I think as humanists, we tend to unquestionably accept the enlightenment notion that "all men are created equal" as a sort of article of faith. Tamler did not do that, which shows him to be more of a naturalist than a humanist. I think he made excellent points in the piece. My own experience of losing my free-will belief was a bit bumpy and painful, but it really did not last long. A big part of my discomfort was simply the trauma and regret for being so wrong about something as fundamental as my will. (I hate being wrong.)

I suspect that a significant minority of the human population is
phenotypically incapable of holding any belief that is contrary to their intuitions. I don't know of any scientific studies of the prevalence of "intuition slavery" in the general population, ruling out cultural influences, but I would be fascinated to see some dependable numbers.

Four years after fully accepting causality and dismissing my free will intuition, the emotional and behavioral changes of have been transformative. My blaming behaviors have all but vanished. Compassion comes more easily and frequently. All my relationships have improved. My thanks to everyone in this forum who opened my eyes on the matter. The "opening of eyes" is one of the greatest gifts we can give or receive.

Mike Layfield

Postscript on the psychodynamics of pride, shame, compassion and self-

In my own experience, exposure to this group and other influences has caused me to devalue contra-causal free-will belief, and to devalue blame and credit, while at the same time increasing my valuation of causality, forgiveness and acceptance. These re-evaluations have linked to my self-esteem in such a way that when my pride or shame is aroused, it lowers my self-esteem which in turn causes me to re-equilibrate by reassessing my feelings. When my compassion is aroused, it positively feeds back to self-esteem, which then arouses my pride which then negatively feeds back and is quieted, and so on.



Four notes from Down Under by Alice Carr:



#1  Where Are All the Naturalists?

I just see life so totally differently since encountering naturalism 3 months ago…  because I’ve been given something to replace all my old structures of thinking, I have total freedom to explore what is, as opposed to trying to apply a system of belief to everything around me.  It’s breathtaking, astounding, incredible and emancipating all rolled into one.  But will anyone around me listen? NO.  That is depressing.  My kids are too young to understand what I’m saying, my husband is too busy, my friends are all so caught up with their own systems of belief that it seems like an extra burden to listen to my ‘awakening’… where are all the naturalists? 




Key to the following:  CCFW = contra-causal free will.  NFWism= the idea that there's no CCFW.



#2  Compassion In Action

Hi everyone,

Yes, since July 2007 when I found out about CCFW and so on, it’s been quite amazing the changes. It was steep and shocking at first, but even now things are still clicking and changing in my attitudes due to the implications of NFWism. I find that I can put myself in other people's shoes so easily – to the point where I don’t need any explanation; because I understand NFWism I can say, what ever has caused this person to end up at this position – they couldn’t have done it any other way. This allows me to have compassion for their position and take steps to ‘cause’ them to do otherwise – rather than dwell on this morally, judgmentally or look to punish them in any way. It’s quite amazing. 

When everyone around me has looked away disgusted, I can remain and be a voice of reason and support – causing the ‘accused’ to tentatively feel understood, accepted, validated and able to feel the remorse and move on, whilst the rest of the group look around with confusion – not quite understanding how I’ve been able to create this situation. I am able to take a strong leadership role. Everyone is in a position of ‘guilt’ at some point or another and they begin to see that they can turn to you at this time, and you can be trusted to accept and validate them and also assist them to find a better path. 

I can only hope that over time, people will start to question why and accept the wisdom of NFWism. At times I am exasperated with my husband and simply say in frustrated tones – ‘I just wish you understood NFWism and then we could get so much further along here!’  I’ve already told everyone I know about NFWism, to not much effect – they all just look at me like I’m a fanatic mad woman and then carry on with their day… so I’ve taken to more covert measures in the hope that in time they will begin to see the wisdom in the implications of NFWism through my continued persistence with stating them, along with the reasoning and reasoned arguments for the way I think, due to NFWism. 






#3  Accepting What Is

Hi L--,

It’s interesting as I’ve been looking for a cause for my situation for years and years… although now I’m happier in my life, I do this much less so (used to be obsessive compulsive about it – but that’s another story). As S-says, it is really difficult to know exactly why we do the things we do or feel the things we do. I suppose some of it is tied up with childhood patterning and genetics as well as the rest. One of the things that understanding NFWism has caused me to be able to do is to accept what is; as what is, is how it’s meant to be, as things couldn’t have been any other way.  This fact of being able to accept what is, has also been a key cause of my ability to overcome some of my problems, and I’ve been able to gain a sense of inner peace and contentment due to this ability to accept what is and not wish things were somehow different. This to me (presently) is an important and significant implication of NFWism. I think it’s possible that others would agree.

Of course it has been said before, but when we stop ‘believing’ in free will, we don’t suddenly totally change in our abilities to make choices – which strikes me therefore that it is an absurd argument from FWists – that some how ceasing to believe will mean less power or control!

In fact, as I now understand much more clearly and true way that the universe works I am much better equiped to make choices and take decisions now that I was when I was under the illusion of free will.  Realizing the deception of free will allows us to see through and make much more informed choices and decisions about life and assist others to do the same.

-- Alice




#4  The Causal Web      

I totally agree with you regarding naturalism vs. atheism.  I feel very much the same.  I love naturalism and all its intricacies. It’s very simple really, but has such broad reaching implications that penetrate all of our thinking and understanding of the world.  I’ve felt so much more confident in the last 5 months since encountering naturalism – I can see clearly where other people are confused or lost in imagination with their thinking.  I can see how their ‘supernatural’ thinking is impacting on their life situation through the causal web of actions based on ‘fantasy’ thinking.  It’s fine to have fantasy thinking, as long as you are aware that it is fantasy, but so many people are struggling to find answers, meaning and understanding and use the strangest explanations for why things occur.  There’s no wonder so many people are confused when they are acting on ideas that are simply non-existent and then wonder why things aren’t working out.  You see people with glazed eyes – they’ve given up trying to understand and put most things down to mystical events happening elsewhere.  Since accepting naturalism, I can usually see where the cause must come from, even if I don’t know what it is. When you understand the causal web, you know something in the web must have caused the situation and so it must make logical and reasonable sense why we are where we are.  There is no other force or unknown quantity causing things to happen – such as evil, or god, or fate, or bad luck.

-- Alice




Growing Up in India: From Christianity to Naturalism

At fifteen, I was at the top of the world. This was India in the 90's and I was one of the "popular kids" in high-school with not a care in the world. I had the most amazing girlfriend- she was beautiful, smart, an athlete and singer and in love with me! My life was good. Or so it seemed.

I grew up in a Protestant Christian family in the midst of a multicultural assortment of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian sects. Being a minority, the Christian community in India is very close knit. For me, this meant that I saw the same people in school, when visiting family friends, and of-course, on Sundays in Church. Not that I complained - it was tons of fun! Every year our Church would send the youth group on Christian "retreats," usually to some spectacular mountain-side campus, a secluded remnant of British colonialism, run by the Church. It wasn't all prayer and Bible study. Most of the time, it was about having clean "Christian" fun. Even sneaking away with someone to kiss or smoke cigarettes behind the bushes was immensely exciting. Some of my best memories are from those days.

But something was starting to happen to me. All those years of reading was catching up with me and I was starting to reject the literal interpretations of the Bible. I stayed in Church and I can recall defending the validity of biological evolution with my friends who were spouting the same flawed arguments against it that they had heard from our indoctrinators.

My father had always encouraged my inquisitive nature as a kid. Growing up, there was never a lack of provocative reading material at home and father was the one to go to when you were in need of answers. So when I started having doubts, I went to him. After talking with my father I started to publicly profess a non-literal explanation of the Biblical stories. But I was fooling myself.

I could barely stay seated through the sermons in Church. I would watch the heads of the people in front of me and try to interpret the inconsistencies I was hearing as metaphors from God. I forced myself to stay. For my mom. For my girlfriend. To no avail.

The community I valued so much was slipping away from me. My girlfriend dumped me for not believing  in God. She actually quoted a passage from the Bible that, I believe, is meant for such situations as breaking up with heathens. At the time it hurt like hell. But I had to be honest with my family, my friends and....with myself. I was an atheist.

Then came college.

Through my undergraduate studies I would often seek reductionist solutions to subjects such as consciousness and morality. Even in my chosen field of biology, it was impossible to find people who knew the answers to such questions. However, the Internet Age had begun. It took me 5 more years and a Master's degree to start making sense of a world without God. I still did not have a philosophy to live my life based on, but I had plausible answers to some of the questions I had asked myself years ago. My solution to this dilemma of not having a working life-philosophy was to adopt a personalized form of Social Darwinism. Yes, I know, it does it does not follow, but my formal training taught me nothing about the implications of the naturalistic world-view. More importantly, religion taught me that biblical morality came from the God who created everything - therefore it seemed logical that natural morality must follow from evolutionary causes. I was aware of the science and yet lost as to its philosophical implications.

It took me a few more years to discard the simplistic moral ideas that I had adopted. I learned to dissociate human social ethics from evolutionary moral theory. I feel that the lack of structured education in the implications of a naturalistic world-view is an enormous oversight within the system, especially considering the influence of science in our lives. In my personal quest to understand these implications, I thought about the question of free-will. It had always seemed to me that free-will had to be an illusion, but the rejection of metaphysical dualism was what led me to completely deny contra-causal free will. All the evidence pointed to a deterministic universe. The universe that I knew, at least.

In my early twenties I took an interest in two areas of thought - consciousness and evolution. My self-education further strengthened my conviction in the rejection of free-will. I remember reading Francis Crick's statement about biology being an attempt to explain life as physics and chemistry. That summed it up nicely.

Opening my eyes to a new way of seeing things, one of the differences I immediately observed between Hinduism and Christianity was in this regard. Many of my Hindu friends were determinist while Christians have to account for the contradiction in believing that an omniscient God granted us free-will. But most people regardless of religion still functioned as though they believed in free-will. The realization that our social systems are based on the illusion of free-will came as quite a shock to me. Thinking back, it's so obvious that I wonder why I was surprised at all. At this point in my life I started to think about social responsibility and morality. Initially I felt apathetic, but soon I realized that I had a tiny bit of compassion deep within me that would not let my realization of the absence of free-will pass without doing something about it.

There is a book written by an anonymous prisoner while s/he was in a jail cell somewhere out West, in the late 19th or early 20th century, called "An Open Letter to Society from Prisoner 1776 (New York, Fleming H. Revell, 1911). The author makes the case that the events that befell him/her could have, under different circumstances, occurred to anyone. To me, the implications of the laws of the universe were clear. We are the product of our genes and the environment and are in control of neither. The rest is details. How do we reconcile the need for a "just" society, where we value the emotional needs evolved over millions of years, with the realization that free-will does not exist? How do we determine "right" and "wrong"? The moral questions are extremely hard to answer, and reading Prisoner 1776 was an exposure to the sociological side of the debate. I came to believe that our humanity, evolved by natural selection, does not need to reinforce the intuitive emotions that traditional culture depends on for social functionality. I began to see that many of our intuitive feelings about concepts such as abortion and euthanasia can actually increase suffering in the world. Peter Singer, the philosopher, was to become one of my new heroes.

Through the years I have built my understanding of the natural universe to the point where I can start feeling some of the same emotions that religion provided me with when I was a child. These days, I love the feeling of amazement I get when I see what science can tell us about our past and our future. The realization that cultural constructs such as race, religion and nationality evolved in the tiny interval between the eons of common human evolution and the present day, is in itself extremely liberating. It is a pleasant thought to know that we are not as divided it seems. It's this common story we share that brings us together to "rejoice" at the idea of existence. This feeling is not new. I had always wondered at the natural universe and have never ceased to be humbled by it. But now, I am starting to actually feel something that I thought I had lost forever. I am starting to feel like I belong. 

Ajita Kamal





Try This At Home

Another deep seated fear [about giving up free will] is that we will fail to do anything at all, and lose all motivation. I have frequently had students who thought this way, “Why would I ever get up in the morning?” they ask. I suggest they try the exercise and see what happens. What happens is that they lie there and get bored. Then they need to go to the loo, and once in the bathroom it seems nicer to have a shower and clean their teeth than go back to bed. Then they get hungry. And so the day goes on and things get done. In fact, if you keep practicing this way it becomes increasingly obvious that the physical body you once thought you inhabited does not need a driver or a ghostly supervisor. Distributed through its multiple parallel systems are the instincts, memories, control systems and skills of a lifetime that will ensure its coordinated actions and appropriate responses. It really is okay to trust in the universe and in one's own spontaneous actions. Then the feeling of free will simply loses its power.

Susan Blackmore, from her introduction to Cris Evatt's The Myth of Free Will, revised and expanded edition, p. 14.





A Changed Woman

One hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have written this book. Instead, I’d be raising ten kids, milking cows, ironing sheets, sewing on buttons, and baking apricot pies. One hundred years from now, I probably wouldn’t have written it either. By then, most people will know that free will is a myth and illusion. The word will be out. Meanwhile, I feel blessed to know the truth ahead of the curve. Here are a few ways my edgy grasp of free will has transformed me:

I’m more aware of you. Knowing that people don’t have free will has made me more tuned into their joys, sorrows, ambitions, upbringing and past experiences. I care more about what makes people tick.

I blame others far less. I’ve stopped knocking others for having different values from my own. Instead of criticizing people, I look for positive ways to assist them on their (healthy) paths.

People annoy me far less. When someone irritates me, I remind myself that he or she (like me) has no more free agency than a hurricane. This thought comforts me.

I puff-up with pride less often. I still enjoy taking credit for my accomplishments, but have noticed that my feelings of pride often shift to gratitude. I feel blessed to have a brain that enables me to accomplish things and grateful for the hundreds of people and products that assist me along the way: my husband, parents,  friends, teachers, culture and computer…

I adore the law of cause-and-effect. I’ve become a huge fan of causal chains. I often think about steps/links that lead me from one person to another, one event to another, and one place to another. I’ve grown to appreciate that, moment-by-moment, things can only turn out one way—and what’s done is done.

I regret less, feel less guilty. I worry less about my screw-ups and am less apologetic and self-accusatory. I understand that my brain’s choices have a long (mostly mysterious) history and, next time, it may choose a more effective plan of action. Or not!

Cris Evatt, from The Myth of Free Will, revised and expanded edition, pp. 135-7.





Many Routes to Naturalism

Hi R--,

I'm quite sure I'm there too. I feel it in my bones - so to speak. It feels right, and has consistently done so now for some time. I'm "home".

But where am I in relation to the "person in the street", that is, how do I report my position on a grid that could be understood by mostly anyone? I've not followed a particularly simple and straight path to "here". I've looked in over fences and side roads as I passed by. I've traveled, and taken in the landscape, collected and discarded things here and there - I've not gone by a route that's simple, nor perhaps even possible to describe to anyone asking directions. I'm not sure it's a simple thing to describe the route to take to "here" for anyone as everyone starts out differently, and they certainly shall have different encounters along the way. A rigorous study of philosophy perhaps could be one route description, but that's neither simple, nor is it possible for most. It may be that I should just describe to others where I am at, what I see from here, how good it feels, and then should they so wish they may be more able to find this outstanding place. How to do that succinctly, as non-technically as possible?

"As neurally instantiated cybernetic processes, we do control our own behavior in service to our needs and desires. It's just that we don't have ultimate contra-causal control to choose ourselves or our desires ex nihilo. Rather, we've been 'designed' by biology and culture to be loci of proximate control that have considerable recursive influence over themselves."

This quote particularly, and the rest of the post above commenting on  Joseph Heller's stated "place" in his 75th year, I think describes the place well. I do have to read it carefully yet, unpacking some words and phrases as I go, however I feel in time that I'll assimilate these few sentences just as they are. And then as required may be better able to describe this "place".






Naturalizing Freedom and Autonomy

It’s hard to remember or mark my first encounter with a naturalistic worldview. It started in the late 1980’s, a combination of interest in Zen Buddhist philosophy, dissatisfaction with the kind of unthinking obedience that religion requires, and beginning to think seriously about the human condition.  Since then it has continued to evolve, the by-product of a rigorous study in personal autonomy that includes and is fully compatible with naturalism but goes beyond it to develop a competent human subjectivity. The result has been a deepening naturalistic world-view supported by a daily discipline of reading, writing, thinking and acting aimed at transforming what it means to be a self – and killing the subjective experience of being an existent ego-like-a-thing.   

The subjective benefits of a naturalistic view of the world have turned out to be profound. If we don’t exist as an individual essence (and we don’t), then the subjective feel that “who I am” is an interior self separate from other interior selves is an error too.  Granted, our bodies are separate – but the almost constant subjective sense that there is “someone” in me, looking out through my eyes and talking and listening to “someone” inside of you, just isn’t true. So now my consciousness isn’t a thing or “who I am” like a fixed entity; it’s something my brain can DO.  Now “who I am” is a process, a flow, and a moment-by-moment expression.  This can sound abstract but in practice it’s anything but… if I don’t exist as a continuous-through-time interior essence then who I am becomes a moment by moment expression, where the expression-in-the-moment IS the self and each moment is an opportunity for self-creation. Now I experience my self as behavior, as my words and actions.

More tangibly, a thoughtfully practiced naturalistic worldview has provided me with a sense of freedom, in many senses of the word.  I’ve become more flexible and pragmatic, less defensive and positional. My reasons and beliefs, being naturally caused (a coalescence of biology, culture and language) and not divinely inspired, are open to discussion, criticism and change. I’ve gained respect for mature thinking as a tempering influence on emotions and gained a good degree of freedom from submission to the unexamined authoritative claims of feelings as the sole or primary motivation for my behavior.   

Now I enjoy a sense of creative freedom in the opportunity to make my self in every single moment. In the absence of an interior self, if “who we are” is what we say and do, the question becomes: “Is what I’m about to say or do in this moment, and this one, and this one… who I want to be?”  And the constant spiritual challenge becomes one of transcendence… can I get over myself and embody my mature thinking by acting in accord with it or will I submit to reflexive egoism and immaturity?    

There’s freedom too in the absence of belief and reliance on the illusion of free-will… if we had free will we’d all be skinny and rich.  Now I have more realistic expectations of myself and others, with greater appreciation for anyone’s efforts and less attachment to the actual result.  We’re all fully caused and we all do the best we can.  This understanding has led to freedom from guilt – from feeling or being ultimately responsible for everything or anything – from judging others (or myself) harshly and to a significant tempering of the punitive impulse.  Punishment as retribution no longer makes any rational or spiritual sense.  By dropping belief in free-will, I’m not looking for any credit, allowing for humility, or due any ultimate blame – which tempers the punitive impulse toward others (judgments of moral superiority, petty criticisms, etc.) and my self (self-doubt, second guessing, self-recrimination, etc.).  Paradoxically perhaps, all of this has me operating in the world with a greater sense of personal responsibility, competence and autonomy.

And I’ve gained the equanimity that comes with being free from the fear of death.  By recognizing the error of thinking of my self as an interior essence, I can see that the fear of death is mostly concern about the end of an illusion. If “I” don’t exist as a soul now, while I’m alive, then “I” or it can’t very well “die” either. My body will die, my brain will stop working and I’ll no longer be there as a thinking, feeling, acting in the moment subject. But there is no “I” to die and nothing to fear. There’s almost certainly nothing to look forward to after the brain dies either, if anyone was hoping for that.

Naturalism speaks of connection…  I love that we are the products of 4 billion years of biological evolution, that the incredible beauty and variation and workability of the biological world are the result of the simple, elegant algorithm of natural selection. I love being kin to all living things because now that kinship is rooted in reality, not in some new age spiritual wishful-ness. This affinity and connection has led me to more humane practices, such as adopting a vegetarian diet and spending significant time thinking about and attempting to temper species antagonism by practicing the gentle virtues, compassion, generosity, gratitude, respect and humility.  

These subjective changes haven’t come about by insight or theoretical understanding alone, or by simply deciding to adopt a naturalistically conceptual world-view. As it turns out, that’s not the way the brain works.  The subjective change takes years of disciplined practice, of thinking and reading and writing and speaking and listening and feeling and acting “from” this world-view. If we can do this long enough, we change the neuronal pathways in our brains, which changes our subjectivity and slowly but surely we get a naturalistic world-view, philosophy and subjectivity “in our brains and bones.”

Adopting this world-view is akin to growing up, leaving childish thinking behind and taking my finitude seriously. I’ve gained a mature sense of wonder, awe and reverence for the world and universe as it is. This is the one life I have – and it’s up to me to live it well – and that makes my time and my relationships precious.  And naturalism provides existential connections too. We can come to see ourselves as participants on the timeline of human existence and find purpose in contributing to humanity’s civilizing efforts.  Seekers spend their lives trying to be “one with the universe” – with naturalism, we already are… there’s nothing we need to do to be connected with all that is.  How could it be – and who would want it to be – any other way?

Jody Keeler






Epiphanies Along the Way


Couldn't agree with you more. I would even take it a step further and say the more that I examine naturalism, the more I find that it offers more than any supernatural system has or could ever offer.

Without exception, every supernatural system that I have studied or have participated in at one point or another in my life, East or West matters not a whit, seems to claim as its own the domain of things such as beauty, ethics, justice, art, meaning. Without originating from somewhere in the supernatural, the arguments go, these things lose their intrinsic value in some way. They even refer to them sometimes as the "higher" values which reinforces the "superiority" of the supernatural.

I can only speak for myself, but a lifetime of making room intellectually for the supernatural has definitely created some unconscious biases in my thinking. I simply assume that equating the supernatural with giving intrinsic meaning to human values and ideals is something that needs an answer, or that the argument carries some kind of philosophical weight. It doesn't. Naturalism, on the other hand, gives one a real methodology and framework to get a handle on those things that the supernaturalists claim belong to them exclusively.

There is no "ethereal" radio station broadcasting justice, beauty, etc. into the world of matter. These things come out of matter just like apples come out of apple trees, great taste and all. The source and the intrinsic value for these "higher" things is exactly the same as light, heat, radiation and photosynthesis: the activity and organization of matter and energy in a specific area of spacetime.

To assign something to the realm of matter and energy is another way of stating that it is real. To assign any aspect of it or all of it to a realm other than the natural is, by definition, making it less real than if it was totally subsumed in the natural realm.

On the flip side, I see this bias show when presenting naturalism to other people. The usual response once they understand it is: "So that's all there is, just matter and energy?" and my usual response had been to feel a bit uncomfortable, sort of like you just let someone know about their surprise birthday party. People, when hearing about naturalism, seem to have a reflex action to jump right into some nihilistic funk. Ripping away that bias, the situation from a naturalistic viewpoint couldn't more positive, reassuring and hopeful. If naturalism is the correct methodology and philosophy, than every aspect of you is firmly a part of the natural world, from your desire for sex to the awe you feel contemplating the Milky Way at night; always has been, is and always will be. You didn't come "from" anywhere nor are you "going" anywhere and that conclusion is drawn through the same methodology that our laws of gravity, medicine and geology are drawn from. It's all right here in front of you and it's not going anywhere, ever. That, to me, is real immortality; immortality that I can touch, feel, taste and, most importantly, understand.

It is a long, slow process integrating the naturalistic viewpoint and replacing incorrect assumptions and biases. But I have found that the epiphanies along the way are well worth the effort. While it is not as mature a system as we might like, you correctly point out that it is miles ahead of anything else. I like to think in terms of light years. :-)

Rich Lawrence





Connection and Equanimity

My first introduction to naturalism, 13 years ago, coincided with the introduction to the discipline of autonomy. Both approaches to living life met with a mixture of joy, wonder, and denial. The denial was trying to eliminate the idea of possessing an invisible self. This invisible self felt like it existed, a real and viable thing inside of me, directing my every move, thought and action. This “inner being” justified all reactions and set itself apart from everyone and everything else. This disconnect with humanity produced anxiety, disturbance and a sense of aloneness. I experienced joy as I began to understand how the concept of naturalism provided for connection to everyone and everything. The very idea of being completely connected to the natural world, fully caused with no free will, leaves no room for an invisible self. It is a continual learning process of writing, listening, reading and engaging in the conversation towards autonomy to assimilate naturalism into my thought process and life perspective. The naturalist perspective and taking responsibility for who I am - living autonomously - is truly what I do think, believe and attempt to live.

There is a great deal of existential freedom that becomes part of my real, practical life when I realize how connected with the entire natural world I am. I had long ago given up on the idea of a god being in control of my life and running the universe. I discovered in being connected with everything, I am not superior, demanding or expecting more from anyone else, including my self. I now experience freedom from societal imposed standards and expectations of living a “Perfect” life. Science provides the answers regarding our role in the natural evolution of life, but what about the human spirit? 

I had foundered in Catholicism, struck with humanity’s inhumane treatment of one another and wondering what is the purpose of living and being. Who are we anyway? How could we be made in the image of a supernatural, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god then live with so much disrespect, disregard, antagonism, and rivalry? My thinking was skewed in trying to adjust living a “good” life with describing what a “good” life meant in terms other than materialism and individualism. In naturalism I discovered that without free will, already being fully caused yet still accountable for our actions, addresses this conflict in my thinking regarding human behavior. I learned to adjust my expectations of my self and other people because there is no little self, no modicum of free will to direct us.  We are at the mercy of our biology, history, culture, education and vocabulary. 

I have discovered through thinking, acting, speaking, listening, reading and writing that the essence of naturalism answers my quest for understanding and connection with humanity. The Center for Naturalism selects three words to describe the essence of naturalism, “connection, compassion, and control.”  Egoism and individualism become lost in this world view and in the discipline of autonomy. I finally feel a sense of freedom and ultimate authority over who I am and how I engage the world. I am limited in my creation of who I am only by how I am already made, fully caused. I am very fortunate to have a brain that is open to the conversation of understanding who we are, recognizing our connections and our ability to create our own authority on how we will live in this world. I experience a profound sense of humility and gratitude to be alive; operating with a brain that is curious, intelligent and open to the exploration of what it means to be a human being.

In my personal relationships there is less of a need to prove myself, speak self-righteously or live in fear and intimidation of others. We are all on equal footing. We have evolved from the same beginning. Yes, some of us have more advantages than others, intellectually, socially or financially but as human beings we all feel, think and respond to life from the same basis.  We all have a demand to get beyond our basic antagonism, rivalry and resentment. Our quest is for happiness and equanimity. I remain grateful that I was born into this era with this brain that is capable of engaging in the creative flow of intelligence beyond the practical day to day life that we become completed immersed in, as if that is who we are.

It is this very idea of realizing we are caused through no action on our part that provides a tremendous amount of relief and freedom. Guilt, shame and blame have been greatly reduced in my life for my self and towards others. Human beings live through their emotions, mimicking what has been taught with little curiosity for understanding who we are and how we relate to everything else. It is amazing how the idea of not having free will immediately releases the tension and reduces the anxiety for me. People can not ultimately be held responsible for their way of being in the world.  Human beings do have brains capable of processing language and certain aptitudes. People can make choices that direct their lives either positively or negatively. Living with this philosophy has enabled me to generate compassion, humility, generosity, and gratitude towards others.  The notion of gratifying my own ego is slowly eroding. There is no room for egoism in any form when I recognize who we are.

My lifestyle reflects compassion for animals. I practice vegetarian eating, making alternative purchase choices, and try to live a more sustainable, eco-friendly life.  I make it point to practice energy conservation, recycle, and realize that whatever efforts I attempt have global implications.  It is not imagining my self as grand but as a small aspect of humanity, taking responsibility for my role in life, how I will make my contribution.

I now experience a freedom to create my self in a way that expresses that connection and love with all of humanity. I understand the practical demands of making a living but no longer make it the driving force in my life. The biggest challenge is not to fall back in habitual patterns of behavior, mimicking those around me. The wonder of life, how we co-exist, how to manage our selves in day-to-day circumstances has taken on new meaning for me. I know my self now not as an American individual, named, identified and fulfilling specific roles in life. I recognize my self as another instance of humanity, connected to everything, creating my self anew in word and action the moment I awake. This is freedom, joy, and equanimity. 

Peg Keeler






Finding Self-Compassion

About thirty years ago I was injured in a car accident while hitchhiking. I ended up with a spinal injury, which has caused me chronic back pain, especially in the morning when I wake up. 

My parents, like most people in our culture, were enthusiastic believers in free will and blame. As a result of this early training, for years I believed the following about the accident: I should have known better (how many times had I been told that when I’d made a mistake?). After all, the driver’s appearance wasn’t confidence-inspiring, the car was old, etc. I should have said “No, thanks” and waited for a more reliable-looking ride. As John Belushi put it, "But noooooooo!" I got in the car, though I could have done otherwise, so I believed, from which it seemed to follow that I must deserve the negative consequences of my actions. 

That was my story and I stuck to it for about 15 years. My daily routine was to wake up, feel the pain in my back, which triggered my self-blaming version of the story. As you can imagine, this didn’t get the day off to a great start. It was difficult to address my predicament constructively. Any attention I paid to my back reminded me of the incident and the blame and shame associated with it. So, rather than being able to treat myself well, to stretch and strengthen my back, I reacted by ignoring the pain as much as I could, consuming painkillers (luckily not the addictive kind), and devising other avoidant behaviors. This resulted in a vicious cycle: weak back, more pain, more blame, more avoidance, weaker back, etc. 

Then I was lucky enough to stumble upon naturalistic psychotherapy. My therapist saw my situation in a radically different way. In his view, I had to get in that car. One reason I did was the very flaw in my self-concept which made treating my injury difficult. As a believer in free will, all the mistakes I’d ever made – and I’d made some relatively serious ones – reinforced a poor, contemptuous view of myself.  Belief in free will takes us away from healthy, constructive regret and send us into paralyzing, debilitating guilt and shame. If I’d thought more highly of myself, I might have been able to turn down the offer of a ride, waited for a better one, one more in line with a healthy person’s desire to stay that way. But self-contempt leads to self-destructive behavior. Conversely, rejecting free will removes the justification for self-contempt, promotes its opposite, self-compassion, improves self-concept and leads to self-improving behavior. I still wish I hadn’t gotten in that car, but am no longer burdened with the painful and stultifying illusion that I could have stayed out of it. Nor do I believe I deserve the pain and injury which resulted. That’s another misconception my therapist helped me correct. There is no desert, just luck. I was unlucky enough to injure my spine but, more recently, lucky enough to be able to deal rather successfully with it and to actually learn a good deal from the experience.

I can’t say self-contempt has entirely disappeared  but it has been significantly weakened, and partially replaced by a still-growing feeling of self-compassion. Now I wake up, feel the pain in my back, and am able to muster some compassion for my suffering. My understanding of this event no longer triggers excessive psychic pain, and therefore no longer requires intricate and self-deluding avoidance. My understanding of the accident leads me to want to relieve my suffering, and provides me with the ability to do so. I stretch, go to the gym and work on my back, etc. 

I believe the healthiest response to the knowledge that we are fully caused is compassion for all, including ourselves. As a therapist, I’ve been teaching this with good results to clients for years, it’s an insight which can help people heal. This idea isn’t my own; I first heard a version of it from my therapist. I later came across it and many other profound implications of naturalism by Tom Clark. I explore this idea more on my website

  Ken Batts


TWC, compiled September, 2008

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