Currents in Naturalism
~ 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
ARTICLES AND PRESENTATIONS
~ On the Integrity
of Science - if Kansas insists on introducing supernaturalism
into science, then science equally insists on showing supernaturalism the
~ Denying Big God and the
Little God - an open letter to the atheist community
suggesting they take naturalism all the way.
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
~ 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
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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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
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
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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
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
Social Justice Page
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Causality Club Meetings. The Boston area Causality
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
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
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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.
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
Determinism - Les Garwood's original Yahoo group on determinism
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
Religious Naturalism - two online groups explore the spiritual
implications of naturalism, see Religious
Naturalism and its
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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