Moving naturalism forwards?

Workshop participants

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.

Progress?

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):

Reductionism

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.

Ethics

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.

Meaning

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?

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23 Comments

  1. ‘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.’

    So that means there is no meaning for the last of a kind (or more accurately species)?

  2. I guess so, though that situation wouldn’t not occur often. I think more telling is that anyone who does not have an approving and supportive peer group has no meaning. Since this may include many teenagers who are bullied and ostracised in their schools, or social reformers who are not appreciated by their society, I think it is a poor or inadequate conclusion. But I guess it is right to the extent that we all need a supportive group – so christians in an oppressive society get their support not from society as a whole, but from their little cell group.

  3. Thanks for your comments Phil. Your post on the physical vs the non-material is very good. I especially liked the example of a book and the story it tells – the book is physical and the story is not, but it is the story that is important.

  4. 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”

    I can agree with that part, for some meanings of “all that there is”, but that seems a trivial point with important implications. However, naturalism seems to be a package deal, and I don’t embrace the rest of the package.

    I see reductionism as absurd. It may be that when I do mathematics, it is all a matter of the motion of atoms in my brain. However, that does not in any way explain mathematics in terms of the motion of atoms.

    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.

    Many people say things such as that. Yet the logic is never actually given. Arguments against free will typically involve a lot of handwaving and unsupported assertions.

    What do we tell the public?

    This is the issue that gets to me. “Free will” is usually taken to be the ability to make decisions, with “could I have chosen otherwise” as a question illustrating the point. According to the free will deniers, we do not make decisions. We merely have the illusion of making decisions.

    What I want to know, is why do these free will deniers find it so important to give themselves the illusion that they are making decisions on what to tell the public.

  5. “It may be that when I do mathematics, it is all a matter of the motion of atoms in my brain. However, that does not in any way explain mathematics in terms of the motion of atoms.” …. I like that!

  6. G’day Neil, thanks for your comments.

    “Many people say things such as that. Yet the logic is never actually given. “
    I think the logic is clear, and it is summarised in the quote you referenced. Assuming naturalism, what do you think exists to break the physical chain of cause and effect to allow a genuine choice rather than a forced choice?

    “According to the free will deniers, we do not make decisions. We merely have the illusion of making decisions.”
    I don’t think that is their view. In their view we do make decisions, it’s just that those decisions are made by processes we cannot control on inputs our brain receives. The illusion isn’t (in their view, I think) that we make decisions, but that those decisions have any element of freedom about them. Because their brains have been programmed in certain ways and receive certain inputs, their decisions come out a certain way.

    I agree with you that they seem to be inconsistent. As John Polkinghorne comments:

    there is an implausibility in those who seek to reduce parts of such [i.e. human] experience to the status of epiphenomenal, an implausibility repeatedly exemplified by our inability outside our studies to live other than as people endowed with free agency and reason.

  7. Assuming naturalism, what do you think exists to break the physical chain of cause and effect to allow a genuine choice rather than a forced choice?

    There is no physical chain of cause and effect. The idea of a chain is a gross simplification. Everything affects everything. There are no isolated causes and no isolated effects.

  8. But there is still a chain isn’t there? It just has many, many different connections. And I cannot see where “we” can break into that chain and change anything if naturalism is true. Can you?

  9. But there is still a chain isn’t there?

    Chain implies sequence. There is no sequence. There is a continuum of ongoing influences. Quantum physics demonstrates what appear to be uncaused events.

  10. “Chain implies sequence. There is no sequence. “
    But there are sequences, surely – each event follows its multiple causes. Do you not think that is so? Yes, “chain” may be an over-simplistic word, but this isn’t really relevant to our discussion of freewill, is it?

    “Quantum physics demonstrates what appear to be uncaused events.”
    Two questions follow from this. 1. Do you believe quantum physics has effects on our choices? 2. If an event is uncaused, how could it be our choice, for choice implies cause doesn’t it?

  11. I think ‘uncaused’ in terms of physics means inexplicable/unpredictable by physics, whereas there may well be an ‘us’ that ’causes’ our choices to be made, influencing the material world, commensurate with laws of physics. i.e. free will exists behind and influences through the quantum interface….

  12. Hi Phil, that’s a strange use of “uncaused” – I thought “inexplicable/unpredictable by physics” = random. But even if that was so, what is the “us” if naturalism is true? “We” can only be an emergent property of our brain processes and states, and how can that initiate anything?

  13. But there are sequences, surely …

    Time-ordering requires a notion of simultaneity. And Einstein abolished that.

    I have a series of posts at my blog about “purpose”. While I did not explicitly discuss free will there, I think those posts at least make it plausible that purposeful action is possible and that purpose is entirely natural.

  14. Neil, I have looked at your series on “purpose” (which you define as a “measurement controlled program”), and I can’t see much connection with freewill and choice. A robot or a totally determined human being could still have purpose I think (whether using your definition or other definitions).

    I am asking about describing a mechanism whereby freewill or genuine choice can be exercised under naturalistic assumptions. Let me illustrate.

    Suppose I decide to sit down and listen to a CD. I could choose Bob Dylan, or Sigur Ros or Aussie band All India Radio. I think about it, I enjoy all three CDs, there are reasons why I might choose any one of them, and I decide to choose All India Radio. Three different types of people might give three different explanations of the process of deciding.

    1. An ordinary person may give what we might call a “folk explanation”, like this. I thought about it in my mind and made a choice. I could have chosen any of them, but I chose AIR. This choice activated my brain, which sent messages to my eyes and hands and feet, and I walked across the room, picked out the AIR CD and put it on the CD player.

    2. A determinist might then say. No, you only thought you could have made any choice, but this wasn’t the case. Your mind is just an illusion, and your freewill is just an illusion. Your brain is nothing more than the sum of its particles and processes, which are controlled by physical laws, and there is no “you” outside your physical brain to control them. Instead, those processes, and your choice, are controlled by previous brain states and external inputs. So those previous states and inputs led your brain processes to choose AIR, it just felt like you had a real choice, but in reality you were determined to make that choice.

    3. But a dualist might say, I believe the ordinary person is closer to the truth than you say. Yes, physical processes are determined by physical laws, but human beings are more than physical. There is indeed a real mind that is not determined by physical processes, and it does indeed make choices that are not pre-determined. Those choices are imposed on the physical brain, which then acts on them.

    Now those are very brief explanations, but I’m sure they are understandable. But I find that in several recent conversations, I have not yet found a naturalist who believed in freewill who could give some sort of similar explanation of how a physical-only brain/mind could somehow escape the determinism of physical processes and make a genuine choice.

    (Yes, I know some physical processes appear to be random – though you didn’t answer my question of whether you think they affect choice in the brain – but they are either determined statistically or totally random, neither of which leave any room I can see for genuine choice, unless you can offer an explanation.)

    So, can you offer any such explanation for naturalistic freewill please?

  15. A robot or a totally determined human being could still have purpose I think (whether using your definition or other definitions).

    Not likely. We make robots to serve our purposes. We don’t want them to have purposes of their own.

    I am asking about describing a mechanism whereby freewill or genuine choice can be exercised under naturalistic assumptions.

    I’m wondering what you mean by “mechanism”. People seem to disagree about that. From my perspective, if there were a mechanism, then there could not be choice. Mechanism seems to be the antithesis of choice.

    Your account of determinist thinking seems to imply that the determinist is a closet dualist.

    I (the determinist) am an immaterial spirit. All of those choices are being made by the physical processes, not by me. So choice is an illusion

    But why not, instead:

    I am not an immaterial spirit. I am the physical process, such as those in the brain. So if choices are being made by those physical processes, then I am making those choices. So choice is not an illusion. It is the immaterial spirit that is an illusion.

    Your brain is nothing more than the sum of its particles and processes, which are controlled by physical laws, and there is no “you” outside your physical brain to control them. Instead, those processes, and your choice, are controlled by previous brain states and external inputs.

    We have scientific laws for particles. But where are the laws for processes?

    If we go back to that robot idea, presumably computer based, then most of the processes are computational processes. The laws for those computational processes come from the controlling computer program. If there were determinitive physical laws for processes, then would would not be able to program computers, because the programming would already be set by those determinitive physical laws.

    If I look at the Carnot cycle, about the only thing I see that could be called a law for processes, is the conservation of energy. The analysis of the Carnot cycle is mostly based on the physics of the container, where the heat transfer occurs. The isn’t much reference to a physics of processes. The closest we have to a science of processes, would seem to be statistical thermodynamics. And that can only predict statistical trends, not detailed behavior.

  16. Neil, I appreciate your input, but I don’t feel I’m getting an answer to my question. You are not the first naturalist who hasn’t offered what seems to me to be an explanation of free will. I’m beginning to think that there isn’t one.

    I offered my brief alternative explanations as an illustration only, hoping they would spur you on to offer your explanation. Instead you have critiqued them, which is helpful, but not answered the question.

    “Mechanism seems to be the antithesis of choice.”

    A mechanism is simply a process, an explanation of how an event occurs. If there were no processes, no mechanisms, we could not do anything, including making a choice. Or, if we could make a choice, there would be no way of putting it into effect. So the word isn’t important, all I am looking for is an explanation, more simply how it happens, not just a statement that it happens.

    ” So if choices are being made by those physical processes, then I am making those choices. “

    Yes, we agree there, the question is are these choices free and genuine choices rather than ones that are determined by those states and inputs? So (1) could the choices have been different even though the previous brain states and external inputs were the same? and (2) are you able to explain how such choices could have been different ?

    “We have scientific laws for particles. But where are the laws for processes?”

    I am surprised you ask this. The brain operates by a combination of chemical and electrical processes which are quite well understood, and can be described by laws.

    So are you able, please, to answer this direct question – have you an explanation for how genuine choice occurs if naturalism is true?

    Thanks.

  17. You are not the first naturalist who hasn’t offered what seems to me to be an explanation of free will. I’m beginning to think that there isn’t one.

    I have indicated that I am a naturalist in the sense you used, that nature is all that there is. But I am not a mechanist. I do not claim that mechanism is all that there is. I usually deny that I am a naturalist, because people seem to think that naturalism implies mechanism. I do not see any such implication, but it is better for me to deny naturalism than to wrongly give people the idea that I am a mechanist.

    As for explanations of free will, there could not be the kind of mechanistic explanation that you seem to be seeking.

    A mechanism is simply a process, an explanation of how an event occurs.

    Is it a process, or is it an explanation? It could not be both. An explanation is made of words, but a process usually isn’t.

    If there were no processes, no mechanisms, we could not do anything, including making a choice. Or, if we could make a choice, there would be no way of putting it into effect.

    I agree with the second sentence. For the first, it depends on what we mean by “choice”.

    Let me expand on that second sentence, the one where I agree.

    Explanations do not explain. We explain x in terms of y. And then, maybe, we explain y in terms of z. But we don’t provide complete chains. As the saying goes, it is turtles all the way down. Science does not, and could not, give us a complete specification of reality.

    Our scientific laws are mechanistic because that’s the way that science works. There is no implication from “our scientitic laws are mechanistic” to “reality is mechanistic.” The mechanistic nature of scientific laws is related to that second sentence of yours. Scientific laws need to be mechanistic, in order for them to be useful to us, in order for them to laws that we can use to direct our actions. I recently posted something about that on my blog: Kepler’s laws are false.

    To a first approximation, science works by picking out something that can be explained mechanistically, and explaining just that. The rest is pushed off for future science to investigate.

    Yes, we agree there, the question is are these choices free and genuine choices rather than ones that are determined by those states and inputs?

    Yes, the choices are free and genuine. But, of course, the meaning of “free” and the meaning of “genuine” come from the way that people use these words. If I choose to flap my arms and fly like a bird, that isn’t going to work. And most people understand that our notion of free will does not require that it work. If I choose between Baked Salmon or Lasagna at the restaurant, that’s a genuine choice.

    You ask whether the choice depends on states and inputs. But what are states? And what are inputs? We use the words “state” and “input” to refer to human constructs. Those terms have no meaning beyond that. In designating things to be states or inputs, we are already making choices.

    I am surprised you ask this. The brain operates by a combination of chemical and electrical processes which are quite well understood, and can be described by laws.

    This is surely false.

  18. Hi Neil, thanks again for your comments. I appreciate your interest, but I’m afraid I’m still not getting an answer to my question.

    “As for explanations of free will, there could not be the kind of mechanistic explanation that you seem to be seeking.”
    I am not seeking a mechanistic explanation – that is your word and your addition (I only used the word mechanism as a process or explanation) – simply an explanation. And it seems that either you cannot give me one, or you are choosing not to.

    “Is it a process, or is it an explanation? It could not be both. An explanation is made of words, but a process usually isn’t.”
    But a process can be described by words and a process can be an explanation, and an explanation can be a process. Rather than discuss words, I just want an an explanation of what you say you believe about free will.

    “Explanations do not explain. We explain x in terms of y. …. Science does not, and could not, give us a complete specification of reality.”
    I am not asking for a “complete specification”, just an explanation of the your view of freewill. I am happy to not go further down among the turtles.

    “This is surely false”
    I think what I said is surely true, but since you give no justification for your statement, I cannot tell if there is real disagreement between us, or just a difference of definition.

    “You ask whether the choice depends on states and inputs. But what are states? And what are inputs?”
    When I was young, we used to sum up these sort of responses by saying Define ‘define’, meaning one can always avoid a question by arguing about definitions.

    So I think it is time to finish this discussion. I genuinely appreciate that you want to be rigorous, and have wanted to push me to be more rigorous too. But while I am happy to be pushed that way, I also want to understand your conclusions, and I am not getting that.

    I intend to do a blog post on freewill and naturalism, where I can go into a bit more detail (and hopefully be a little more rigorous!), to develop my ideas further. Thanks for your input.

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