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Moving Naturalism Forward

The Attendees at the "Moving Naturalism Forward" Conference

During the final week of October 2012, a group of fourteen thinkers met for three days in the Berkshires of southwestern Massachusetts to discuss the project, “Moving Naturalism Forward.” Naturalism is functionally equivalent to atheism, and the stated aim of the meeting was to “address the very difficult questions raised by replacing folk psychology and morality by a scientifically grounded understanding of reality. We would like to understand how to construct meaningful human lives in a world governed by the laws of nature.

On the agenda for discussion were: free will, morality, meaning, purpose, epistemology, emergence, consciousness, evolution and determinism. You know, everyday solve the world stuff. The event was supported in part by a generous donation from the Scorpio Rising Fund, as advised by Nicholas Pritzker, who attended the proceedings as an observer.

The fourteen thinkers represent a variety of different disciplines including physics (three representatives), biology (two representatives), anthropology, complex systems theory, philosophy (five representatives), neuroscience and economics. The attendees were: Sean Carroll (moderator), Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross and Steven Weinberg. Sam Harris was invited, but could not accommodate.

Day One

Sean Carroll, brainchild and organizer, began first day introductions with a very interesting question. He asked everyone to introduce themselves and “to try to say one thing you’d be willing to change your mind about over the course of the next three days.” This is where it got interesting rather quickly.

What would you be willing to change your mind about?

Answers from three people especially intrigued me: Richard Dawkins, Alex Rosenberg and Simon DeDeo.

DawkinsDawkins said candidly he would like to think it would be possible that he could be wrong about his atheism/naturalism. That’s right. He said as much. Here’s the actual quote (at the 9:30 minute mark in the session):

If you ask me, “What would make me change my mind?” I would like to be able to say that it would be possible to change my mind about naturalism itself. The problem is, I have a hard time imagining what anything but naturalism would look like…How could you even conceive of demonstrating supernaturalism?…What I’m saying is that I cannot imagine what evidence for supernaturalism could possibly look like.

Just before this admission, Dawkins explained that his study of zoology was not from just a passion to study natural history but that “my interest was rather more philosophical than natural history. I always was interested in the deep questions of existence – why are we here, what’s it all about, what is life, where does it come from, and so on…

Alex Rosenberg

Alex Rosenberg said essentially the same thing. Note this quote carefully (17:55 into the session):

The thing I could change my mind about is fairly radical. My own view is that naturalism is deeply incompatible with what Wilfrid Sellars called the Manifest Image – and I’m sure that philosophers around this table will help non-philosophers understand what is meant by the Manifest Image. And of course there are people around this table who say that it is compatible with large chunks of the Manifest Image and if they could change my mind, then I would be very happy.”

So Sean Carroll asks the obvious questions no one else dared ask: What is the Manifest Image? Alex continued:

So the Manifest Image is an intelligent, sophisticated, well-informed version of common sense, of a view about the furniture of reality that reflects what most people believe it is without being supernatural…” He goes on to explain that the implications of naturalism reached in his book, The Atheist Guide to Reality, commits him to reject “almost all” of the Manifest Image. In case you’ve forgotten what Alex had to say in his book, kindly allow me to refresh your memory. Here’s a quote from pages 2 and 3:

Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance. What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us. What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. …

Now perhaps I can understand better why he “would be very happy” if his mind could be changed so that he didn’t believe this. You see, atheism is one big wet blanket. It’s no fun. Never has been and never will be. But since he’s committed to naturalism, he has to take the whole thing and it’s a real drag.

Simon DeDeoNext up was Simon DeDeo, who studies complexity theory at the Santa Fe Institute. He answers Sean’s question this way:

What I might be wiling to change my mind on…and so the idea that you can have a scientific theory of mentality, of thought, of consciousness, that didn’t simply reduce to a story about computation, about the functional relationships between different parts of your brain – if that were possible – if it were possible not to believe that and yet not to believe in mysterious mind mist that penetrates and has special relationships to neurons and to some biochemical phenomenon – if it were possible to believe that without being supernatural – I would love that…

In other words, mind is so terribly complex and I don’t like my functionalist interpretation of it, but I have no choice because we can’t allow a non-material explanation now can we? Sound familiar? This is classic scientism at its best. The presupposition of materialism is absolute.

And so we have on the very first day of the “Moving Naturalism Forward” Conference an admission by at least three of the participants that they essentially wish naturalism weren’t true. Nice start to moving things forward.

Pardon me if I introduce two quotes from the Bible as they came to me. My first one is Ecclesiastes 3:10-11:

I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

And again, Acts 17:26-27:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…”