Encountering Naturalism: Science, Self, and Society

Presentation at New England College, April 27, 2005.

In my work with the Center for Naturalism, I try to bridge the gap between the academy and outside world, which I think might be appropriate for this occasion. I probably won’t satisfy the academics here since my version of naturalism will seem too fuzzy and my defense of it too sketchy. And non-academics might find the technicalities I resort to a bit off-putting. But those are the hazards of being neither fish nor fowl, so I hope you’ll forgive me in advance.

I want to present two different views of the self, recommend one of them, and cover just a few of its implications for our social lives and social policy. I’ll close with a few remarks on how this view bears on what are sometimes called “ultimate concerns” of meaning and significance. The basic question is who, or what are we? And further, on what basis do we address that question? What are the implications if we take science seriously about ourselves, as I suggest we do?

I want to start with some apparently disconnected quotes, just to throw you completely off balance. Here they are:

  • The governor of the great state of New York, George Pataki, said (link is external)in 1998 when addressing New York State District Attorney's Association Luncheon, that “The root causes of crime are the criminals who engage in it.”
  • Christian physicalist theologian Nancey Murphy said recently in an interview (link is external)in Science and Theology News that “All the capacities once attributed to the mind or soul now appear to be largely functions of the brain.”
  • Ronald Reagan once famously suggested (link is external) that the homeless are homeless by choice.[1] (link is external)
  • The late biologist and neuroscientist Francis Crick wrote in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, that “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and freewill, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
  • Joe Carter, commenting on the Center for Naturalism at his weblog the Evangelical Outpost (link is external), said (link is external) that “The ‘deep implication’ of naturalism is that we are reducible to molecules which are at the whim of chemical and physical laws of nature. Molecules, however, can’t comprehend such value-laden terms as ‘positive’, ‘awe-inspiring’, or ‘meaning.’”

These quotes, some about the self, some about society, span the territory I want to cover. My mission is to connect our ideas of the self to ideas about human freedom and social policy. Our picture of the self and its freedom has implications for our basic ideas of credit, blame, and the foundations of moral responsibility. And this in turn has implications for our attitudes toward ourselves and others, for how we think about mental illness, behavioral disorders and addiction. The metaphysics of self and freedom also has implications for social policy, for instance in criminal law and in how we justify the distribution of wealth and opportunity. So there’s a chain of inference from our metaphysics of self to very concrete aspects of our lives, both personally and socially.

About naturalism

In talking about conceptions of the self we might encounter naturalism, a worldview based in science that’s quite different from mainstream religious and faith-based views, but one that I think offers comparable resources in grounding ethics, in affording us personal efficacy, and providing meaning.

So what is naturalism? There’s no canonical definition of naturalism, but at a very simple, straightforward level it’s just the denial of the supernatural, based on taking science as our most reliable way of knowing about the ultimate constituents of the universe. Now, why would a science-based way of justifying beliefs - what philosophers call an epistemology - deny the supernatural? Well, if we take science and not faith, revelation, intuition, or ideology as our guide to reality, then we’re likely to see the world as of a piece, not divided up into the natural vs. the supernatural. All the entities and properties that science says are in good evidential standing are united into a single framework of existence - what we call nature. By virtue of its explanations and theories, science tends to connect radically diverse sorts of phenomena into a single, natural causal web. It doesn’t divide them into two categorically different types, the natural vs. the supernatural. To hold a naturalistic world view, to be a naturalist in this sense (which by the way has a long and glorious philosophical history I won’t regale you with now) is simply to say that there’s no categorically spooky, immaterial stuff, e.g., ectoplasm or god, that gets to cause things to happen in the natural world but that is itself exempt from being fully included in that world. Naturalism, based in science as one’s epistemology, says there’s nothing causally privileged like this that we should put stock in.

Now this is a pretty bland, liberal, and uncontroversial sort of naturalism, the kind most philosophers and scientists, at least those outside of seminaries and divinity schools, take as a given these days, and the kind that many religious fundamentalists think is the road to perdition. But there are, of course, many thorny philosophical issues that crop up once one starts to be a little more precise and demanding of naturalism.[2] (link is external) How, for instance, do we get normativity out of the natural? That is, how can strictly material creatures get a cognitive grasp on objective truths, or an ethical grasp on moral reality, if there is such a thing? Such questions aren’t at issue here, since I’m not trying to construct a positive account of rationality or ethics, but rather see what my bland sort of naturalism suggests for our notion of self.

Two understandings of the self

Well, what about the self? What shapes our conception of ourselves, of who and what we fundamentally are? Among the contributing influences are, at least, our philosophical and religious traditions, the immediately given experienced phenomenology of selfhood, and last but not least, science.

The traditional view of the self, usually religious but often secular as well, is that we have souls – that there is within us an immaterial or categorically mental (non-physical) essence that is most essentially me. This inner, non-physical me somehow controls the physical brain, and so the brain itself is a physical adjunct for the real me that’s essentially mental or spiritual. On this view, the brain becomes, as Steven Pinker has put it, a “pocket PC for the soul”. So persons are of two categorically different natures, the physical and the non-physical. Renee Descartes famously articulated such a conception, and so these days we say this picture of the person involves Cartesian dualism. But of course faith-based religious traditions long predating Descartes hold that we have souls that survive after death, perhaps to join the almighty in heaven. (Buddhism is an interesting and rather naturalistic exception, in that it denies that we have a substantial self or soul.) So this dualistic conception of ourselves as bodies containing mental or spiritual essences has deep philosophical and religious roots.

But there are more mundane, immediately present influences as well. A significant factor reinforcing dualism is the strong, experienced phenomenal sense of the self as being something distinct from our bodies, something that has a body, but isn’t necessarily the body itself. The felt sense of the mental as distinct from physical seems to be a direct experiential intuition most of us share. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom puts it, we are, most of us, “natural-born dualists.”[3] (link is external) The world outside our heads, including our bodies, is categorically concrete and physical as presented by our senses. But our thoughts, our interior monolog, perhaps our emotions, our mental images, and our basic sense of being here inside the body, seem categorically mental, not divisible or extended, but involving perhaps a sort of mental stuff or essence. Of course there’s lots of variation in the reported sense of self and what people think counts as categorically mental, but that most folks make such categorizations is a fair statement. And our everyday vocabulary and concepts very much reflect this divide, and probably work to reinforce the phenomenology. So we end up with the commonsense folk-metaphysical picture of the person as consisting of both a body and a soul, where the soul is something categorically immaterial, a ghost in the machine. This picture is at bottom essentialist and dualist.

But when science weighs in on the self, it suggests this everyday picture may not be quite right. Science tends not to support mind-body dualism, since its explanations tend to unify entities and properties for which we have good evidence into a single natural world, in which there don’t seem to be any categorically mental or spiritual essences. According to science, in particular neuroscience, what we feel as the categorically mental or immaterial turns out to be what the physical world does when it’s suitably organized into a human brain. Our mental selves are processes, not essences.

We have extremely strong scientific evidence that all mental functions depend on the brain working in specific ways. To be awake, see, feel, hear, smell, experience oneself as oneself, feel that all of your body is in fact your body, recognize faces and objects, think, plan, imagine - all these require that the brain be intact and functioning more or less normally. Change the brain in certain ways, and these capacities and feelings will be abridged, compromised, or perhaps enhanced. Consciousness itself – the way it feels to be you right now, with all your sensations, thoughts, feelings, of being a me in a full-fledged tangible world – is a particular trick the brain accomplishes that we’re just beginning to figure out.

Philosophers and scientists often like to conduct what they call thought experiments. I’d like to conduct a real thought experiment, that is, about thinking. First, count 1-10 to yourself mentally (that is, not out loud) and pay attention what your experience is like. Ok, now count again to yourself, but this time with your mouth wide open. Did anything change? Perhaps you found that the mental experience of the thoughts you hear in your head (“one, two, three….”) changed in response to your mouth being open, a physical fact. What happens, at least for me, is that the consonants that depend on one’s mouth and tongue closing are attenuated or lost in the experience of mental counting when the mouth is kept open. This shows the very close connection between something categorically physical (the position of your mouth) and what seems categorically mental (the experience of counting to oneself). So, we might wonder, are they really that categorically distinct?

Thomas Metzinger, a neuroscientist and philosopher of remarkable talents, has done considerable work in showing how the brain, as a representational system, creates the abiding sense of being a self ensconced in a body, looking out at the world.[4] (link is external) To get around effectively in the world, we have to model the world and ourselves in it, model our interactions with the world, and model the fact that our interactions are mediated by our senses. In doing all this, our brains create what Metzinger calls a “reality model,” which includes representations of the world, our bodies, and the self, all of which are seamlessly integrated in conscious experience. Because we’re not in a position to see what the brain does as a modeling process (after all, we consist of that process), it becomes untranscendably real for us. We become, inevitably, as he puts it, naïve realists with respect to our reality model, including the feeling of being a self. The self-model, which is thought to depend partially on continuous feedback from the body’s homeostatic regulatory systems, gives us the sense of being continuously present, here, inside the body, looking out at the world and interacting with it. Since the world and the self seem immediately given to us, they don’t seem like a construction at all, even though that’s what they are: a virtual reality constructed by the brain. Because we can’t help but mistake the model for reality, we become adaptively egoistic, Metzinger says, which is a good thing if you want to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. So, by means of embodying an adaptive representational architecture, the brain does a very good job of fooling us into thinking that we indeed exist as something essentially independent of the body, something that has a body, has thoughts, has feelings, but is itself not those things, but rather their possessor.

The upshot is that we can explain why it might feel like we have souls – a non-physical essence inhabiting the body – in terms that are ultimately grounded in the physical world. After all, the brain is a physical system. So, we don’t need something categorically non-physical in our ontology, in our basic understanding of who we are. Rather we see our phenomenal sense of self as emerging from a complex system. This isn’t magical emergence of something categorically non-physical, but rather a biological, neural, functional, and representational process that we’re just beginning to understand. The bottom line is that we don’t have to appeal to an essential soul or non-physical entity to explain what it feels like to be a self, or to be conscious, to think, or crucially, to choose and to act. The brain does everything that the soul was supposed to do, as Nancey Murphy said. It isn’t the case, as Joe Carter put it at Evangelical Outpost, that we have to be more than molecules to be smart, sensitive, and even moral beings. As Daniel Dennett puts it, smart creatures like us can be, and in fact are, composed of parts none of which is very smart. So the essentialist intuition of the soul is belied by what science is telling us about ourselves.

The challenge to essentialism is perhaps just beginning to dawn in popular consciousness. For instance, Steven Pinker at Harvard wrote a short piece for Newsweek last year for a special issue on mind/body health, in which he challenged the existence of the soul.[5] (link is external) And similarly, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, editor of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that “The great conflict between science and religion in the last century was over evolutionary biology. In this century, it will be over psychology, and the stakes are nothing less than our souls.”[6] (link is external) The neuroscientific revolution now underway is bringing considerable pressure to bear on the widespread assumption of mind/body dualism, and this revolution is at the heart of scientific naturalism as applied to ourselves. Not that questioning the soul is new of course, it’s been going on for centuries, starting with the Buddha. But it’s finding a great deal of new support in neuroscience.

Human agency and freedom

What are the implications if we don’t have souls, but are instead fully physical beings? What would it mean if we took the naturalistic view of ourselves seriously? Challenging the widespread belief in the soul isn’t merely an academic undertaking, but has real world consequences.

One important consequence of a view of human nature is what it suggests for our notions of human agency and freedom. All this is now playing out in what’s called the culture wars, in which we see the conflict between science and religion, evidence vs. faith, and essentialism about the soul vs. emergentism about the brain.

By way of introducing this, I want to mention a recent study on moral responsibility and determinism.[7] (link is external) Undergraduates were asked to consider two universes, universe A, in which everything that happens is completely caused by what happened before it, and universe B, in which everything that happens except human decision-making is caused by what happened before it. They were asked to say which universe, A or B, is most like the one we actually live in. Now, what’s your answer to this question?

Well, in the study, 95% of undergraduates chose the second universe, the universe in which we are in some sense causal exceptions to nature in our decision-making capacity. This suggests, but of course doesn’t prove, that at least many people think that human beings have a special capacity not conferred on anything else in nature, the capacity to choose and decide without being fully caused to choose. This capacity is what philosophers call libertarian freedom or free will, a freedom that’s incompatible with everything being caused, or as this is often called, determinism. It’s very likely, I think, that the idea of this sort of freedom, of our being causal exceptions to nature, is tied to the idea of having souls. After all, the soul is thought to be non-physical, and therefore not fully at the effect of the physical world. But, because it’s most essentially me, it’s the soul that has final control over my choosing and thus my behavior. In short, it’s the soul that has free will in this contra-causal, libertarian sense of having the power to cause, but not being fully caused in turn. Although as far as I know there have not been any large surveys on beliefs about free will, it’s my guess that a good number of people think they have such free will. And indeed that’s what the study I cited suggests, but of course it would be nice to have more research on this.

Whatever the actual percentage of those in this country that think we are causal exceptions to nature, the naturalistic understanding of ourselves suggests that they are mistaken. There’s no scientific evidence to support, and much evidence against, the idea that human beings, complex though they be, aren’t fully caused, and thus that human behavior isn’t fully determined. Rather, the basic conclusion about human nature that biology, genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and neuroeconomics converge on is that our character and behavior are the very complex, but essentially deterministic outcome of our genetic endowment interacting with various environments - the womb, the family, peers, the local community, and the wider culture as reflected in the media. From a scientific, naturalistic standpoint, the libertarian freedom of the soul is therefore supernatural. Now, the standard debunking of the supernatural carried out by secular humanists and atheists, is to deny the existence of supernatural entities outside us (gods, devils, demons, ghosts, etc). The naturalism that I’m recommending, that takes science seriously about ourselves, extends that critique inward, to what’s thought to reside inside us. It denies the soul and its supernatural, contra-causal free will.

Now, to deny the soul and its free will isn’t to say we can understand human behavior in terms of genetic determinants alone, or neural processes, or natural selection, so it isn’t to be greedily reductionistic, as Dennett has put it. We have to distinguish between this implausible sort of strong reductionism and a plausible scientific intuition about causality. Human agents, although they’re fully determined, don’t disappear on a naturalistic, causal view of ourselves. We still have to use the ordinary person-level concepts of self, belief and intention to understand ourselves and our actions. And we remain causally effective agents ourselves under naturalism, even though we don’t ultimately create our own powers. We don’t have to be uncaused in some respect, or immaterial in some respect, to be moral agents that make a difference in the world, or to be held responsible. Nor does naturalism imply that we’re in any position to predict what people do with any accuracy. We’ll probably never be in a position to predict behavior precisely; but this is a practical matter of having limited information and computing power, not a matter of principle. In principle, all the evidence suggests that we are not causal exceptions to nature, and that we don’t have libertarian free will.

This means that in any given situation, your behavior is very likely the deterministic result of the conditions that precede and obtain at the moment you act. If you make a choice at time T, and we rewound the tape of history to that point, resetting all conditions exactly the same, inside and outside you, you’d end up choosing the same way. On a naturalistic understanding of our ourselves, there isn’t an immaterial you independent of such conditions that could have intervened in the unfolding of your choice-making behavior mediated by the brain. So there’s no reason to suppose that things would have turned out differently. This conclusion goes against the grain of what I suspect many people think, namely that in the exact same situation I could have done otherwise. That’s what many suppose real choosing consists of – some sort of causal disconnection of the chooser from antecedent conditions. But as Dennett once put it in talking about responsibility, human beings aren’t capable of what he called “moral levitation (link is external)” – we don’t float free of causality when we act, whether in making moral choices or in deciding what’s for breakfast.

In the last few years there have been an increasing number of articles and books[8] (link is external) which challenge contra-causal free will (I mentioned two articles above by Pinker and Bloom), among them Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul,[9] (link is external) Derk Pereboom’s Living Without Free Will, a reissue of Ted Honderich’s classic How Free Are You?, and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which has a chapter titled “The Fear of Determinism” in which he debunks the idea of the “ghost in the machine.” Psychologist Daniel Wegner at Harvard has published The Illusion of Conscious Will, and psychologist Paul Bloom at Yale has written Descartes Baby, which questions the existence of the soul. What I want to convey in citing this literature is that in encountering the naturalistic view of the self this evening you’re not encountering anything that isn’t already in the academic mainstream. It’s just that until recently the denial of the soul and its contra-causal freedom hasn’t been widely reported or discussed outside the academy, which isn’t surprising given what I think are the ramifications.

Here’s one major ramification. On the traditional dualistic, essentialist view of who we are – bodies with freely willing souls inside – the person is conceived as the buck-stopping originator of action. On this view, since we are not fully caused by antecedent conditions to do what we do, or to choose what we choose, this means that as it chooses, the soul contributes something beyond the working out of natural causality. It originates things, namely choices and behavior, in a very strong sense not accorded to other denizens of the universe. This endows the person with a very strong metaphysical, originative responsibility for her choices and actions. She deserves strong, ultimate credit and blame for behavior on this dualist, essentialist view of who she is. And it’s this sort of credit and blame, many suppose, that’s necessary for moral responsibility.

But on the naturalistic, emergentist view of who we are, which says we’re fully physical creatures, shaped in all respects by natural causality, this picture of the buck-stopping, freely willing agent is wrong. We don’t have a special metaphysical freedom from causal influences, and therefore we don’t originate our behavior in this very strong sense. And so we don’t bear ultimate responsibility for our choices and actions. This doesn’t mean that we don’t make real choices; after all, as we go through life we often need to deliberate carefully, sometimes agonize, over our decisions. The brain works hard in calculating our voluntary decisions, and all that neural machinery and computation is indispensable to being rational, smart, effective human agents. And, crucially, it’s these sort of agents that it makes sense to hold responsible, by means of rewards and sanctions, in order to get them to behave properly. But there’s nothing that’s independent of the causal workings of the physical person which can intervene in this process and take ultimate, buck-stopping credit or blame. If we knew enough, we could always trace the causal story back before the moment of choice, and see how the choice itself arose as a matter of the state of the person in a particular environment, and how the person in turn was fully a function of antecedent conditions, genetic and environmental. So, naturalistically understood, we are the proximate source of our choices and actions, not moral levitators that are god-like first causes. This is the upshot of Francis Crick’s “amazing hypothesis,” that everything we are and do and hope and regret is physically instantiated in the brain, not freely willed by the soul.

From self to society

Now, with these two views of the self and human agency in hand, we’re ready, finally, to move from self to society. These views, one based in traditional mind/body dualism, the other based in science, have a direct influence, I think, on attitudes and policies.

In our culture, with its strong emphasis on individualism, there are a host of attitudes and policies premised on the idea that, despite all the factors which come to bear on individuals, they could have done otherwise than they actually did. As I noted at the start, Ronald Reagan famously suggested that the homeless choose to be homeless, emphasizing the primacy of free will, and playing down the causes of homelessness, and indeed of the factors that might sometimes induce people to voluntarily choose to live on the streets, which I imagine sometimes happens. So we can blame the poor for their predicament, and not worry about the so-called causes, since causes aren’t really determinative anyway. Free will has the final say.

Likewise, the stigma that addicts often face derives from the idea that their voluntary choice to use drugs was ultimately up to that kernel of free agency: as freely willing agents, they could have chosen not to try that first hit of heroin, desp