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Currents in Naturalism
January-February 2006
~ Center for Naturalism Newsletter ~

What's new at Naturalism.Org...


~ Cambridge Saloon Salon - CFN-sponsored thinking and drinking continues February 27 with a discussion led by MIT behavioral scientist, W. Curtiss Priest, see here for details.

~ "Darwin's (even more) Dangerous Idea" - Darwin Day talk and discussion with CFN director Tom Clark for the Center for Inquiry Community of New Jersey, February 9, 7:30 pm, College at Florham Campus Library, Fairleigh Dickinson University, 285 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ.

"The Natural Disaster of Poverty" - talk and discussion with Tom Clark for the Ethical Society of Boston, February 12, 10:30 a.m., 33 Garden St., Cambridge, MA. Related op-ed here.

~ "Spirituality Without Faith" - talk and discussion with Tom Clark for the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Bedford, March 12, 9 am. Followed at 10 am with a talk by Michael Newdow.

~ "Religion As a Natural Phenomenon" - lecture by philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, April 4, 7 p.m. at Harvard University Science Center D, Cambridge, MA.

~ Philosophy Cafes - The CFN sponsors the Davis Square Philosophy Cafe, West Roxbury Philosophy Salon, and the Lowell Philosophy Group.


~ On the Integrity of Science - if Kansas insists on introducing supernaturalism into science, then science equally insists on showing supernaturalism the door.

~ Denying Big God and the Little God - an open letter to the atheist community suggesting they take naturalism all the way.

~ Progressives and Naturalists: Who Counts as a Humanist? - investigating the connection between worldviews and politics.

~ Podcasts - of interviews and presentations on naturalism.

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~ Center for Naturalism endorses the Secular Coalition for America. The Secular Coalition is an alliance of humanist, atheist, and other freethought groups with a Washington lobbyist to represent naturalistic worldviews. Its mission: "to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints within the larger culture and to protect and strengthen secular government as the best guarantee of freedom for all." ~ CFN advisory board member Daniel Dennett has written Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, due out February 2 and reviewed at Scientific American. He'll be speaking about the book April 4, see above under events.

~ Five CFN advisory board members, including Dennett, contributed to Edge.Org's recent forum on "dangerous" ideas, mostly on themes related to naturalism; commentary here.

~ Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner (The Illusion of Conscious Will), philosopher and cognitive scientist William Casebeer (Natural Ethical Facts), and computer scientist and independent scholar Gary Drescher (Good and Real, forthcoming from MIT Press) count themselves allies of naturalism.

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Mind, Unspecified

The difficulty with dualism has always been how to specify the interaction between two putatively separate realms of existence, mind and body. Henry Stapp's solution in "Quantum Interactive Dualism", Journal of Consciousness Studies V12 #11, 2005, pp. 43-58 is to connect them via quantum theory, while keeping the mind quite distinct from the brain. The problem, however, is that on Stapp's account the mind itself remains unspecified (like the intelligent designer, not coincidentally) except in terms of ordinary folk-psychological descriptions. Whatever it is, the mind isn't the brain, but beyond that we're not told much about it.

In particular, on Stapp's account we need not ask what determines the mind in its choices: "Thus the 'subjective' and 'objective' aspects of the data are rationally tied together by quantum rules that directly specify the causal effects of the subject's choices upon the subject's brain, without any need to specify the physical antecedents of these choices"; and: "in the quantum treatment the causal connection via the laws of physics is not from the cause of conscious choice to the effects of that choice, but rather directly from the conscious choice itself to its physical effects" (p. 57 JCS, p. 17 pdf ). Why, one wonders, do the causes of choice get such short shrift here? Whatever the reason, for Stapp the mind is causally privileged over the physical brain: the mind drives the brain, but is not itself driven by anything. This renders the mind supernatural; like god, it gets to cause without being caused in turn. Any naturalistic account of a phenomenon has to show its provenance in the natural world, and on Stapp's account, the mind – variously described as consciousness, the observer, the subject's choices, intention, mental effort, William James' "spiritual force", etc. – has no provenance, at least none that he discusses here. The reluctance to address the causes of mind might be related to Stapp's desire to defend a contra-causal conception of free will.

Stapp's discussion is ambivalent about physicalism. On the one hand, he clearly intends to provide a scientifically defensible, naturalistic account of consciousness and its role in choice, but on the other he also says conscious choice transcends physical law. He wears his normal science hat when he says: "Thus the whole range of science, from atomic physics to mind-brain dynamics, is brought together in a single rationally coherent theory of a world that is constituted not of classically conceived matter, bound by principle of the causal closure of the physical, but rather of mind and matter connected in the way specified by orthodox contemporary physical theory." (p. 53 JCS, p. 12 pdf). But orthodox physical theory, although it transcends the classical conception of matter, obviously does not transcend the notion of physical law, the description of which is its raison d'etre. So it can't also be the case, as Stapp (donning his mysterian hat) says elsewhere that "This free choice made by experimenters…is `free' in the sense that these choices are not determined by anything in contemporary physical theory: they are fixed neither by any law nor by any random variables that enter into the theory" (p. 47 JCS, p. 6 pdf). A rationally coherent understanding of mind and matter based in physical theory would have to show how the mind, as well as the brain, is a nomic (that is, law-governed), not mysterious, process. But on Stapp's account there is literally no accounting for choices.

Stapp thinks that explanations involving mental effort or intention are better than merely brain-based explanations, since "the quantum account conforms to specific laws of physics that tie mental events to their causal consequences in the brain in a way that appears to conform to relevant empirical data" (p. 55 JCS, p. 15 pdf). But unless explanations involving mental effort and intention can state clearly where these originate – what their causal antecedents are – then we really haven't explained anything when it comes to human choice and behavior. Stapp admits that "incentives lead to effort", but this suggests that mental effort is caused; it belies his earlier assertion that choices aren't governed by any law-like regularities, so he can't go too far down this path. Instead, the intervening variable of categorically mental effort is left unaccounted for, as it must be if we're trying to rescue contra-causal free will.

TWC - originally posted to JCS Online, Dec 7, 2005

~ related pages: Free Will - Consciousness

~ related JCS articles on free will: Hodgson's Black Box, Fear of Mechanism

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~ A more compassionate libertarianism Cathy Young, syndicated columnist and contributor at Reason, recently took an enlightened view of poverty - for a libertarian. She comes across as reasonably compassionate, compared for instance to Randian Objectivists, the radical me-firsters some of whom advocated withholding aid for hurricane victims. Young disavows such cold-blooded reliance on "personal responsibility," acknowledging that people can't simply bootstrap themselves out of poverty: "Most of us, if born into bad circumstances, would have likely ended up trapped in the same self-defeating patterns." Of course she still takes a small government position, saying that "spending more money won't cure poverty," when progressives would argue that more money, intelligently allocated, can make quite a difference. Nevertheless, overall Young models a more altruistic libertarianism that takes a causal understanding of the culture of poverty seriously. This is progress, even if Young isn't yet a progressive, as evidenced by her views on retribution.

~ Death of the soul At Edge.Org's forum on the world's most dangerous ideas, science writer John Horgan's candidate for that honor is that we have no souls. As he points out, neuroscience is rapidly closing the explanatory gaps that leave something for the immaterial soul to do. That the brain might do everthing he calls the "depressing hypothesis." After all, doesn't the soul give us "a fundamental autonomy, privacy and dignity"? And wouldn't a full understanding of the "neural code" allow unprecedented manipulation via brain control, and unlimited self-modification, threatening the very notion of an innate human nature? Perhaps, but Horgan's concerns can best be allayed by coming to terms with what science has to say about ourselves, and realizing that the "fundamental autonomy, privacy and dignity" conferred by the soul is not only non-existent, but unnecessary. After all, there are vital naturalistic sorts of autonomy and dignity which, if we're lucky, we enjoy in spades. And these stem from freedoms, rights (e.g., to privacy), and responsibilities that are social and political, not metaphysical. There may indeed be no human soul-essence, but that's another sort of freedom to explore. Besides, seeing that consciousness, choice and all our higher capacities arise out of the "mere" matter of the brain helps re-enchant the physical world. So all's well without the soul and its companion myth, contra-causal free will. We just need to remain vigilant about our civil liberties, but we were doing that anyway.

~ Dawkins rejects retribution At the same forum, Richard Dawkins comes out nicely against retribution, saying that "Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour." Just as we wouldn't rationally "punish" an old jalopy for not running right, so too it doesn't make good sense to inflict pain and suffering on offenders just for their suffering's sake, without the prospect of achieving any consequential benefit. This is the essence of retribution: punishment need not entail any benefits, and it's rather difficult to defend retribution if we dispense with the freely willing, self-made self that simply deserves to suffer. So Dawkins has done us a huge favor by drawing out one of the primary ethical and practical implications of a naturalism that denies contra-causal free will. On the other hand, it's not the case, as he puts it, that "a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system makes nonsense of the very idea of responsibility." Even if we are fully determined creatures, as science tends to show, we must still continue to hold each other responsible - as compassionately and as non-punitively as possible - since that's partially how we learn to behave responsibly. We are not ultimately originatively responsible, of course, but we are nevertheless properly subject to moral evaluation, rewards and sanctions. Seeing that we can naturalize moral responsibility, that we need not abandon it, is one of several important reassurances we can offer to those fearful that a scientific understanding of ourselves undermines the basis for ethics and the social order. If we don't present naturalism accurately, we'll end up like David Honigmann of the Financial Times, who thinks that in abolishing free will, Dawkins and other naturalists show that "Holding people responsible for their behaviour is... completely irrational."

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The Natural Disaster of Poverty

The myth of the self-made self reinforces the illegitimate moral distinction between the poor and the victims of natural disasters.

The Atlantic storm season officially ended November 30, but the concerns about poverty highlighted by hurricane Katrina are still very much with us. Why did it take a natural disaster to draw attention to the poor of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast? How many of those made homeless will join the ranks of the permanently dispossessed?

But there’s another, more fundamental question about poverty the storms have raised: what’s the moral difference between needy victims of a hurricane and those needy to begin with? If the Red Cross funnels millions of dollars to feed, clothe and house those displaced by floods, why not do as much for the homeless already among us? Instead, under cover of deficit reduction, the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress are bent on cutting funding for food stamps, school loans, child support, Medicaid and other programs that address the causes and consequences of poverty.

Judging by these responses, it seems many believe that storm victims merit immediate, compensatory aid, but victims of the ongoing disaster of poverty do not. Why so?

Those who defend the moral distinction between hurricanes and poverty might say that poverty isn’t primarily a disaster at all. Instead, it’s in good measure the result of human choices that are, finally, the choosers’ responsibility. Unlike the destruction caused by wind and water, poverty simply reflects the fact that some people don’t have what it takes to succeed in life, or that they don’t make the effort. As much as poverty might have some structural causes, it’s ultimately attributable to character flaws and moral failings, and so is a kind of just deserts.

It’s easy to discern the brute causality of a natural disaster – how it instantly destroys the privately-owned resources that separate us from the poor. It’s far more difficult to appreciate the complex, but equally determinative causality of family, school and community circumstances, learned behavior and social policies, all of which keep poverty in place.

Further, conventional wisdom supposes that beyond such factors it’s free human choices that explain economic inequality. Although influenced, our choices rise above influences in some crucial respect, so individuals bear ultimate responsibility for their success or failure. Those who don’t succeed are not deserving of help in the way that victims of natural disasters are, since finally they choose their lot in life. After all, don’t many people bootstrap themselves out of poverty? If so, the willful refusal to take “personal responsibility” explains why others remain poor.

It’s the assumption of contra-causal free will – the idea that people are ultimately self-made, that they are somehow exceptions to natural causality – that makes poverty morally different from hurricanes. And it’s this difference that drives policy, especially for conservatives. In good conscience we might spend billions to help those that hurricanes made homeless, but not those who are homeless “by choice,” as Ronald Reagan once put it. The tens of thousands that inhabit the alleys and underpasses of our cities don’t inspire the same compassion as storm victims. Why not? Because many believe they made their bed, and so should lie in it.

But just as cutting-edge meteorology gives us better understanding of the weather, so too recent developments in genetics, cognitive neuroscience and behavioral psychology show that human beings, although fantastically complex creatures, are just as caused, and just as natural, as hurricanes. If we take science as our guide to human nature, there isn’t a non-physical part of us – a soul – that manages to transcend causality in choosing our course through life, whether we end up a millionaire or on welfare.

It might subjectively feel as if our choices result from something immaterial and free beyond the brain and body, giving us the illusion that the self is causally privileged over nature. But the lesson science teaches us when considering the homeless, or the rich, is there but for circumstances – genetic and environmental – go I.

Were we to heed the science of human behavior, we would understand poverty as a slowly unfolding, fully caused natural disaster, and we might rethink our priorities accordingly. We wouldn’t suppose that the abiding poor are less deserving than hurricane victims, so we’d have no excuse not to deliver immediate and ongoing assistance – enough to keep them safely above the poverty line. Nor would we have any morally acceptable justification not to address the structural causes of poverty as the national emergency they so manifestly are. The science-based challenge to the myths of free will and the self-made self can help inspire a truly altruistic, compassionate response to economic injustice.

Note: See George Lakoff and John Halpin's American Prospect article Framing Katrina for broader progressive take on the politics of poverty.

Social Justice Page

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Causality Club Meetings. The Boston area Causality Club meets to discuss naturalism, its implications and applications. The format includes welcome and introductions, opening thoughts, updates on the CFN, a networking and issues update, and a presentation and discussion about one facet of applied naturalism. A good deal of spontaneous chat, too. Refreshments are served and new members welcome, just write in advance.

Philosophy Cafes and Salons. As part of its outreach on naturalism, the CFN sponsors public forums to encourage critical investigation of philosophical, scientific, and cultural issues. The CFN sponsors the Davis Square Philosophy Café (the Boston area’s first philosophy café) the Lowell Philosophy Cafe (formerly the Nashua Philosophy Cafe, now meeting in Chelmsford, MA), and the West Roxbury Philosophy Salon, at L'Essence Art Gallery, 1723 Centre St. , West Roxbury, MA, and most recently, the Cambridge Saloon Salon, meeting at Redline in Harvard Square, Cambridge.

Courses. ~ Encountering Naturalism. A six week introductory course on the basics of naturalism, using materials at Naturalism.Org and other readings.

~ Seminars on Naturalism. For those familiar with naturalism, seminars address current issues in applied naturalism with a focus on developing publications. Inquire here about courses and seminars.

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For those interested in learning more about naturalism, or in participating in outreach, research, and writing in collaboration with the CFN, here are some online opportunities.

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

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

CFN Therapy Group - to integrate naturalism into psychotherapy.

CFN Fellowship - to develop face-to-face naturalist communities and fellowships.

Determinism - Les Garwood's original Yahoo group on determinism and naturalism.

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

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

Religious Naturalism - two online groups explore the spiritual implications of naturalism, see Religious Naturalism and its associated Yahoo group, and IRAS Religious Naturalism discussion group.

Psychological Self-Help - see two excellent chapters on determinism applied to issues of self-acceptance and self-control.

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