Call Off the Hobbits: Naturalism Poses No Threat to the Shire

Some think that by acknowledging our causal connections to nature, naturalism threatens human freedom, power, dignity and creativity.  But that’s only if we suppose we have the logically impossible freedom of being self-caused selves.  Natural autonomy gives us everything we might reasonably want as human agents.

Writing at Wittingshire, Amanda Witt likens the battle she sees between naturalism and human freedom to the epic struggle in The Lord of the Rings. As those familiar with Tolkien’s trilogy will know, the hobbits' mission is to destroy the evil master Ring – that which confers ultimate but corrupting power on its wearer. For Witt, what must be destroyed is the Ring of Naturalism. Why? Because

Materialism (also known as naturalism) denies the existence of free will; that is, it takes away freedom. It says your will doesn't exist, that everything you do--every song or poem you write, every good deed you perform, every cruelty you inflict--is not a choice or a creative act, but is simply the inevitable result of causes over which you have no control.

Materialism says you are nothing but a puppet.

Here in short compass are some common objections to naturalism, motivated by an underlying commitment to the notion of self as first cause. Most people would say a real choice, a really creative act that I can call my own, would be something that I have control over in the sense that it’s caused by me when I'm acting voluntarily in my right mind. So far, so good. But many people, including Witt, suppose true freedom consists in something further, namely that the me that chooses must not itself be completely caused, except by – me. So to really choose and be creative I have to be self-caused in some sense, a causa sui. But, on a naturalistic understanding of the world there are no first causes or self-created beings. Everything about the self is ultimately traceable to factors over which the self had no control. We don’t choose our parents, our place of birth, our genetic endowment, or anything else that started us off in life. The causal chain precedes our existence and then shapes us in our entirety, and for Witt this seems to leave us with no genuine agency.

But it’s not clear how denying materialism or naturalism would help Witt to be the self-caused self she supposes she must be to avoid puppethood. For self-creation is impossible, and this isn’t a matter of materialism, it’s a matter of logic. In order for something to create itself independently of external non-self factors, it would already have to exist. But if it exists, self-creation isn’t necessary or possible. This is the case no matter what sort of entity – material or immaterial – we have in mind. So naturalism isn’t the enemy here; it isn’t the evil freedom-denying Ring. Rather, the basic, insoluble problem of libertarian free will is that to be an agent in the required sense, something quite impossible has to happen.[1]

What to do? Well, we have to scale back our ambitions as selves, in that autonomy can’t involve the logical impossibility of literal self-creation. However, it can and does involve all sorts of complex recursive self-modifying capacities that are standard operating equipment for most of us. We sometimes reshape ourselves in service to a higher calling, or try to strengthen self-control in anticipation of a test of will or endurance. But the capacity for self-change, like the rest of our endowment, is not ultimately self-authored, but the outcome of processes set in motion long before we appeared on the scene. That it’s fully caused doesn’t detract from its value. After all, a flexible self gets to play lots of roles, change its tune, see things from different angles, and generally leads a more interesting and viable existence compared to those who can’t adapt to what life throws at them. Furthermore, people don’t need to be self-created to have motives and desires (that is, wills), or to be unique, one-of-a-kind individuals that generate brand new choices and creations. Such creations wouldn’t have arisen but for the person, and that’s why we call them her creations.[2]

Since ultimate self-authorship is impossible, should we then conclude we don’t really make choices, or create anything? Are we indeed puppets without wills of our own? Some might insist on this conclusion, refusing to recalibrate their notion of worthwhile agency to fit the facts. But such intransigence seems difficult to justify. Why, after all, continue to use a criterion for genuine choice and creativity that’s literally and logically impossible to fulfill? [3] And why suppose that fully caused selves will nothing and create nothing, when they manifestly do?

This question leads us to the motives of theists like Witt, who very much want there to be a causa sui freedom of the will. There are a number of concerns potentially at play here, among them the that without such freedom, god, not man, must take the blame for evil. Another is that, absent free will, our love for god wouldn’t be genuine, voluntary love, but merely determined love (although why genuine love shouldn’t be determined by the lovability of the object escapes me). And yet another is that we can’t take the sort of credit we’d perhaps like to take, or place the sort of blame (a concern not limited to theists, of course).

Whatever the case, the causa sui remains an impossibility, so we can either say, sticking with the contra-causal criterion for choice, that no one ever really chooses or wills anything, or we can say, naturalistically, that yes, real choices do get made, by real agents. Under naturalism, our choices and creations may not spring full blown from self-caused selves like Athena from the head of Zeus, but they are nevertheless original and ours, and we value them no less for also being part of the natural causal network. And, crucially, our causal powers wouldn’t be increased one iota were we causa sui. They would merely be inexplicable, magical.

So is belief in naturalism as dehumanizing and debilitating as Witt supposes? Only, perhaps, if we cling to an unfulfillable conception of ultimate agenthood that makes proximate agenthood, however powerful and flexible, seem second-class. But, as Owen Flanagan argues in chapter 4 of The Problem of the Soul (“Free Will”), the latter gives us everything we need for self-control, individuality, rationality, moral accountability, and political freedom. So naturalists can be good, responsible citizens, just like supernaturalists.

In which case, the quest to destroy the evil Ring of naturalism can be called off. To sustain a pluralist society such as ours, those of faith and those of science should refrain from mutual demonization, since after all, we largely share the same set of needs and desires. Naturalists are not agents of darkness bent on depriving people of freedom and dignity. In the Shire of planet Earth, our philosophical and religious differences should be accepted as normal variation that adds spice to life. And as we champion our worldviews, let’s proceed on the assumption of each other’s humanity and good will. ***

TWC, August 2005

***Amanda Witt responds:

I don't wish or intend to demonize naturalists or materialists, who are--like the rest of us--made in the image of God. Rather, I'd love to see every naturalist/materialist freed from an ideology that denigrates them by denying their true nature. And thanks for the consistently civil tone of your discourse.

[1] For more detailed expositions of this impossibility, see Galen Strawson’s essay Luck Swallows Everything, and his interview, The Buck Stops - Where?.

[2] A naturalistic understanding of choice and creativity is explored in Naturalism, Choice and Creativity: Transcending Free Will.

[3] Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky is intransigent in this regard, see Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction?