Moving Naturalism Foward – day one Introductions concluded

We continue looking at what was said at this conference. I must say that if you want to truly understanding the mind of a materialist, this series is absolutely a “must watch”. You will hear things at this conference that would have never been admitted in a public debate. Guards are relaxed. At ease among peers, you will hear how a naturalist thinks. We pick up with Day One, first morning session.

Terrence DeaconTerry Deacon introduced himself and mentions he was influenced by the thought of Charles Pierce. He has studied differences between human brains and the brains of pigs, bats and monkeys. He said he could change his mind about the “concept of information.” “How is it that a molecule becomes ‘about’ something?” (Good question, Terry).

I don’t think brains are like computers…I’m not saying it’s not a functionalist physicalist kind of story – I just don’t think our understanding of computation is big enough to accomplish what we want to say about this.”

I give all the meaning to my computer. My computer is like a car engine that I’ve assigned various values to what it’s doing…and if I’m a computer too then who is assigning it?…you get the same problem running back and back…”

I don’t think that understanding minds, consciousness or how brains work require us to do quantum theory.”

Rebecca Newberger GoldsteinNext to introduce themselves was Rebecca Goldstein. She says she comes from a very orthodox Jewish family where an ambitious woman was unheard of. She remarked that her parents allowed her to visit the library but they had no idea on how subversive a place it was. It was there she first encountered Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian.” She says that book really “works on Jews” and that it “completely changed my mind.”

She wanted to work on Quantum Mechanics at Columbia. She left Columbia for Princeton and took classes under Karl Hempel. She read Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat.” The essay spoke to her. She received a Ph.D. in Philosophy and then became a novelist. She has written “philosophical novels.”

What could she change her mind about? “I would like to be convinced that progress could be made in philosophy, I’m not convinced it can be.”

Dan DennettDaniel Dennett sits next to Rebecca and begins by admitting that he didn’t have a science education from youth. He didn’t even study science as an undergraduate. At some point he worked with Quine, “who became my hero and mentor.” [Quine was a confirmed empiricist, pm]. At Oxford he took it upon himself to become self-educated about the brain. His supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, who didn’t have a scientific bone in his body, directed him to good tutors and advisors. He says he has had world-class tutors in evolutionary biology and neuroscience, neither of which he studied formally.

I don’t spend much time with philosophers these days…when I think of all the wonderful people in the field of philosophy who aren’t here, I’m so glad.” (laughter) Like Owen, I am just appalled to see how in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there is this sort of retrograde gang, including some young ones, that are going back to old-fashioned arm-chair philosophy of mind with relish and eagerness and it’s just sickening – because their work isn’t worth anything and they lure in other people to do it. It’s cute, it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” (Hmmm…wonder what young philosophers you have in mind here, Dan? I can think of one senior statesman of philosophy you are thinking of and that Alex Rosenberg actually voiced, Thomas Nagel. editor)

I believe that Wilfred Sellers nailed it. He described THE job of the philosopher – the one that is a respectable and valuable service – that is, helping people with their intuitions about how the Manifest Image goes together with the Scientific Image. We know it doesn’t go easily. And ever since Eddington and his two tables there’s lots of scientists who’ve tried. Scientists aren’t particularly good at it. And philosophers aren’t particularly good at it either if they don’t know the science. What I think you have to do is appreciate just how – where the Manifest Image came from – how come there IS a Manifest Image? What – first…there is the Manifest Image of the tick. The Manifest Image of people is very different from the Manifest Image of anteaters or birds, for instance…”

The issue that is most pivotal is free will. The issue about truth has come up, and it’s interesting that there are some philosophers and scientists who have arrived at the position that believing in free will is so important that we should foster this as a holy myth, even though it ain’t true. If I found myself in that camp I’d be in deep trouble…but in fact I find myself in the camp saying that actually, once you understand what free will is and what it has to be in order to make lives have meaning, there’s no conflict at all – it’s not a holy myth, it’s the literal non-metaphorical truth that compatibilism is true.”

Functionalism and homuncular functionalism. I am still a homuncular functionalist. My view now is that the brain is largely an anarchist assemblage of selfish neurons which can form correlations and cabals and interact – that you have to take their agendas seriously and then you’ve got a model of computation which is profoundly unlike the model that handles the latter.”

Near the end of the session Sean Carroll said, “The festishization of truth is something we need to – (pause) – overcome? (everyone laughs) I’m still a truth fetishist myself.”

Day One, Morning, Second Session

Two more introductions to go: Jerry Coyne and Steven Weinberg. Note carefully what Jerry Coyne says about evolution and religious faith.

Jerry Coyne begins. “I’m an evolutionary biologist who came to this late. I suspect like Richard, my becoming an atheist and a naturalist was a reaction to the fact that the opposition to what I was trying to teach, which was obdurate, was based on religious faith that you could not dispel by teaching people the facts about evolution…I realized that the way to teach evolution was to get rid of religion and then how do you do that? Well you can reform society but you can also argue against religion. Many atheists have done that very well. I’m writing a book now…about the incompatibility between science and religion so there are a lot of areas in there I want to get people’s takes on at this meeting. That involves questions of free will, questions of mathematics, questions about how we know things, other ways of knowing things besides science. I’m here I guess specifically to address the question of free will. I guess I’m one of the few incompatibilists in this group – I guess Alex is another one. To me the question is largely semantic…My alternative theory is that we’re collations of molecules that obey the laws of physics and sometimes it appears that we do that rationally, but a lot of times we don’t.  And my replacement for free will would be the statement that our decisions are made by internal forces that we don’t understand and that we should deep six the idea of free will in terms of this statement.”

On what he would change his mind about – (pay attention to his answer and see if scientism rears its ugly head again. And, does Jerry Coyne have doubts about science being the sole road to knowledge?)

This is a question I’ve been wrestling with in my book and it’s a powerful weapon in the armamentarium of theologians… that there are other ways of knowing besides science. In other words, art, literature, music are ways of knowing. I’m interested in exploring that question. Of course that’s all used to justify religious ways of knowing but I don’t believe religion is a way of knowing, but I’m interested whether there are other ways of knowing besides science. I’m completely open about this, I haven’t decided. I would like to think that science answers all questions and in that sense I would be a scientist…an advocate of scientism. None of that is to justify religion but theologians use art, music and literature too as ways of knowing and from that then Jesus and revelation as a way of knowing so I would like to be able to discuss that question.” (But Jerry, if you are “completely open” about this, why have you decided that religion is not an option? Just curious. Could it be that you have a prior commitment to materialism/naturalism that rules it out? But of course – you’ve said so.)

Steven WeinbergSteven Weinberg, last but not least. He began by commenting that he the dullest person in the room because he is a theoretical physicist and always wanted to be a theoretical physicist. He said that he  has strong feelings on the subject of morality, consciousness and free will but would not comment on those at the moment but would wait for their proper time in the course of the meetings.

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…”

D’Souza – Ehrman Debate on the Problem of Evil coming to NYC March 5th, 2012








File this under “I’ve Got to Go to This”. March 5th, 7PM at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (D’Souza debated Hitchens here a few years ago). The topic is “God, Suffering and Evil” and will be moderated by Eric Metaxas. D’Souza and Ehrman have debated this topic before at least twice: First, at the University of North Carolina in October, 2009 and again in November, 2010 at Gordon College in Massachusetts. We are hoping that they are at their best this March for us in NYC.

For more information and to register, visit:

D’Souza/Ehrman Debate in NYC 2012

Their last debate:

D’Souza/Ehrman Debate Gordon College 2012

Dawkins’s refusal to debate Craig embarrasses even some of his fellow atheists

Even Richard Dawkins’s fellow atheists get it. Dawkins’s condescending tone dismissing Craig as an unheard-of philosopher is hardly credible, given the notable fellow-atheists Craig has debated in recent years (Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, Lewis Wolpert, Peter Atkins, Shelly Kagan, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, just to name a few). Either he has not been paying attention to the comments on his own atheist-website or he is being dishonest.

Just searching the term “William Lane Craig” on Dawkins’s website brings up tons of comments, even some from Dawkins himself. Just today I did this and the site returned 2,670 results. For example, on September 28, 2011, Dawkins made this comment:

“I have to be careful to avoid prejudice resulting from my almost visceral loathing of “Dr” Craig’s odiously unctuous, smug and self-satisfied tone of voice. But this piece of libellous logic-chopping almost deserves to be set alongside his notorious defence of biblical genocide and infanticide. Craig really is a truly disgusting person in the literal sense: he disgusts. After this, I’d have a hard time bringing myself to shake hands with him, let alone share a platform with him.”

Hmm. Interesting words there, Dr. Dawkins. I find it odd that you – writing from your moral highground (cough, cough) – refuse to debate Craig, while Christian apologists are not similarly loathe to debate Peter Singer, a Princeton bio-ethicist who has been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” (See Both Dinesh D’Souza and John Lennox have debated Singer – without Dawkins’s self-righteous remarks.

When the heat is on you, the strategy can be either to go forcefully to meet the attack or ignore, hoping the noise will go away. So Dawkins and some others have chosen to ignore. This tact usually works when your opponent is universally recognized to be a quack, but Dr. Craig is no quack. Dawkins knows it, but chooses to ignore anyway. Time will tell if this is to his advantage. I think not.

So, it will be a loss to the intellectual world to have Dawkins miss his opportunity next Tuesday, October 25th, if he does not show up for the debate – which, we think is what will happen. And, not without regret from some of his fellow atheists, as Daniel Came laments in The Guardian on October 22nd:

“As a sceptic, I tend to agree with Dawkins’s conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism, but the tactics deployed by him and the other New Atheists, it seems to me, are fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life. For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people’s beliefs about religion. The presumption is that their largely non-academic readership doesn’t care about, or is incapable of, thinking things through; that passion prevails over reason. On the contrary, people’s attitudes towards religious belief can and should be shaped by reason, not bile and invective. By ignoring this, the New Atheists seek to replace one form of irrationality with another.” (

We hope that in the coming days someone from the atheist camp will pick up the banner, and with a respectful and thoughtful tone, engage Christians in a way that promotes light, and not heat (such as the Russell-Copelston BBC debate back in 1948. See

Now, that would be a miracle!

2011 Science & Faith Conference in April

The 2011 Science & Faith Conference will be held at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA on April 8th and 9th (Friday night and Saturday). The theme this year is “God and Materialism” and will feature presenters from both the Seminary and the Discovery Institute.

From the description:

“Conference sessions will examine the conflicting worldviews of theism and materialism; the widespread impact of materialism on science, ethics, society, Biblical studies and theology; the latest scientific evidence against materialism and for intelligent design in biology and cosmology; and the positive implications of modern science for theism.”

There are about 100 seats left. Last year’s event was sold out early and many could not attend due to a late registration. For more information and to register, see:

Science & Faith Conference Info


From Westminster:
Rev. Dr. Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament interpretation
Rev. Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, professor of apologetics and systematic theology
Rev. Dr. Peter Lillback, President of the seminary, and professor of historical theology
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Jue, associate professor of church history
Rev. Dr. Brandon Crowe, lecturer in New Testament

From the Discovery Institute:
Dr. John West, social scientist, author of Darwin Day in America
Dr. Guillermo Gonzales, co-author of The Priviledged Plant
Dr. Jonathan Wells, molecular and cell biologist, co-author of The Design of Life
Dr. Paul Nelson, philosopher of biology
Dr. Jay Richards, editor of God and Evolution

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