In October 2012, 14 eminent scientists, philosophers and other thinkers met for 3 days in a workshop entitled Moving Naturalism Forwards. Why did they meet and what were the outcomes?
The reason for the workshop
The participants were all atheists and naturalists (i.e. they believed the natural world we can see and measure with science is all that there is, and any suggestion of the supernatural is “woo” and “spooky stuff”). They included well known names like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne and Stephen Weinberg, and they came together to “move naturalism forwards” by making progress on a number of tricky issues.
They all believed that “most professional philosophers and scientists” were now convinced naturalists, and so difficult questions like the nature of consciousness, whether we have free will, morality and meaning in life need to be addressed. A highly expert multi-disciplinary group such as this would hopefully be able to nut out some directions.
Several of the participants have blogged summaries of the discussion and outcomes, and the whole proceedings can be viewed on video. The following appears to have been the main outcomes (this is obviously a very brief summary):
We can understand the world on different “levels” – for example there is the physical level of fundamental particles, there is biology which looks at a higher level of living things, and there is psychology which looks at how people behave, and so on. A fundamental question is whether the “higher levels” can ultimately be explained by the lower level of physics. It seems logical that if naturalism is true, then everything can be reduced to physics, but few of the participants were willing to take this view. Most thought it was better to continue to explain higher levels without the (presently futile) attempt to reduce them.
Free will and determinism
If the natural world is all there is, and the natural world can be described by laws which do not change, then logically, our actions are determined by the laws of physics operating in our brains – there is no “us” outside the physics to interfere. Thus naturalism implies no free will. Some participants accepted this conclusion, but most argued for compatibilism – the view that determinism and free will are compatible, but, critics say, only by redefining freewill so it isn’t really free. But to try to avoid some of the difficulties of the term “free will”, the group generally felt it should be replaced by “voluntary” and “involuntary” actions. Some felt that discussing free will was “a philosophical black hole” that isn’t worth discussing any more.
No-one seemed to believe that objective ethics were possible under naturalism, nevertheless the discussion seemed to be based on shared views about the rightness of some moral statements, which one participant pointed out was somewhat inconsistent. The group rejected the view, promoted by Sam Harris for example, that ethics can be derived from science, but agreed that morality arose naturally from our needs as social animals, and it was sensible to keep on discussing ethics using “moral reasoning”. It seemed that they had a stronger sense of ethics than any of them could justify from their naturalism.
What do we tell the public?
This was one of the most interesting questions. It is very difficult to actually live as if we have no free will and no objective morality, and so most of us can’t help acting as if we do have free will and some things really are right and wrong. It would probably be even more difficult for a society to function without belief in free will and ethics – for example, studies show that believing we have no free will causes people to be less honest. Some participants felt that these “truths” need to be presented to the general public in a more acceptable form, but others felt this was dishonest and the public could come to terms with it.
Without God, what is the meaning of life for a naturalist? The group felt meaning for each of us came from “the sense that we matter in society and to our fellow human beings”, and from the sense of wellbeing one can obtain from following principles like those of positive psychology.
Philosophy and science
It seemed to me that this was the area where the group made the most advance. Many scientists in the past have scorned the idea that philosophy has much to offer, since it isn’t based on empirical knowledge, but it was obvious from the accounts of the workshop that the three philosophers (Daniel Dennett, Alex Rosenberg and Massimo Pigliucci) had the biggest contribution to make on these issues – not surprising since they are philosophical issues. It was pleasing to see the group recognise that science and philosophy can each help the other.
What does it all mean?
I find it quite exciting that a multi-disciplionary group of eminent scholars met in this way to work through some important philosophical issues. And I feel that the rapprochement between science and philosophy suggested by the workshop can only be a good thing.
But I can’t help feeling that they didn’t move naturalism forwards that much at all. They mostly rejected the hard reductionist determinism that seems the logical corollary of naturalism, but seemed therefore to opt for their own version of “woo”, not really consistent with the evidence as they see it. I wouldn’t feel satisfied with their conclusions on freewill, meaning or ethics, because they seem to be inconsistent with thoroughgoing naturalism, not really liveable or believable, and sometimes not really answers at all. This is borne out by the dilemma about how much to make public about these matters. If this is the best that such eminent thinkers can come up with, naturalism is on shaky ground.
I am not the only one to conclude this. US journalist Andrew Ferguson wrote this somewhat more scathing review of the workshop.
But ultimately, this workshop raises some serious concerns. These were influential people, and their views on humanity and ethics are contrary to what most people believe, and the values on which our present society and its laws are based. If they were in power, or influenced those in power, would we all be better off? Would we all be safe?
- Workshop summaries by Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne first, second and third, and Massimo Pugliucci first, second and third.
- The videos of the workshop
- Andrew Ferguson’s review of the workshop.
- Some discussion on this website of related issues: consciousness and freewill, ethics and the moral argument for God.