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Q & A on Naturalism

A single world - Science as basis - Sticking with science
No soul, no free will - Morality intact - Self-control, self-acceptance Interpersonal relations - Social policy - The significance of naturalism

There is a single, natural world or universe, in which we are completely included.

Q. What is naturalism, anyway? And keep it straightforward!

A. Ok, naturalism is simply the understanding that there exists a single, natural, physical world or universe in which we are completely included. There are not two different worlds, the supernatural and natural. Since we are completely included in the natural world, there’s nothing supernatural about us. For instance, we don’t have immaterial souls that survive after death. We are fully physical, material creatures, and everything we are and do can be understood without supposing that we have souls, spirits, or any other sort of immaterial supernatural stuff inside us. Your thoughts, experiences, feelings, decisions, and behavior are all things your brain and body does. How they do all this is of course a very complicated story that’s still being discovered by science, but naturalism says there’s nothing non-physical involved. That the material world has produced creatures that are conscious, can reason, feel emotions, and ask questions is a pretty amazing fact. The “merely” physical isn’t so mere after all. Naturalism re-enchants the physical world.

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Science is the basis for naturalism.

Q. Ok, but how do you know there’s a single natural world, and not two worlds, the natural and the supernatural?

A. Good question, glad you asked. It’s important to see that naturalism depends on taking science as your way of knowing about the world and what ultimately exists in it. Scientific explanations tend to unify our view of what exists, since once something gets understood scientifically, the connections between it and the rest of what science understands are made clear. This is what science does: to show the pattern of connections between different things. These connections are sometimes literal physical connections, such as how our bodies are put together, and sometimes they are causal connections, such as how the wind causes a sailboat to move. Either way, science inevitably unifies the constituents of the world into a single whole, in which everything is either closely or remotely connected to everything else. It doesn’t and can’t show that there is a separate supernatural realm, or some sort of supernatural stuff that is categorically different from what’s in the physical, natural world. So, science is the basis for naturalism. If you take science as your preferred way of knowing about the world, you’ll be led to naturalism.

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Sticking with science.

Q. But why should I take science as my preferred way of knowing about the world? Why shouldn’t I use science for some things, such as medicine, and faith for other things, such as life after death and the question of who or what I really am?

A. Hmmmm, you ask some toughies. OK, there’s no necessary reason you must take science as your preferred way of knowing about the world, but still there are some very good reasons. When we need to decide something of any importance, for instance how to best treat a disease, we want the most reliable information about what works. Now, it’s science that provides the most reliable information about disease, since by and large the information it gathers is confirmed by experiment and careful observation; it’s not a matter of intuition, tradition, revelation or authority, all of which can be unreliable. Science simply extends the common sense idea that in order to get what we want, whether its good health or a good meal, we have to know how things work. And, (this is important!) common sense and science say that the way things actually work, and what actually exists, are independent of how we might like or hope things to be. Wishes and hopes are one thing, the ways things are is another. So if you want to know how things actually work and what actually exists, as opposed to getting stuck in what might be wishful thinking or delusion, you should be scientific and empirical. You should seek good, objective evidence about what exists and how things work.

Now, naturalists stick with science in deciding all questions about what ultimately exists; they don’t switch to faith when it comes to the big questions such as the self, freedom, death, consciousness, and the like. They take science seriously in all aspects of our lives, including what we are made of, how we think and feel and behave, and what happens at death. Why? Because if science works well in deciding questions about medicine and other important practical matters, why suppose it suddenly stops working when considering these other equally important matters? Why not seek the most reliable knowledge available, knowledge that’s independent of wishful thinking, when deciding the big questions about human nature, consciousness, freedom, and the like? The reason some people switch to faith in these areas is that they may not like the answers science provides, and they find the answers of faith more reassuring. So, here’s the question: do you want the empirical truth that’s backed up by evidence, or do you want to be reassured? Nothing we can say can force you to stick with science when the going gets tough, but if you’re more interested in truth than reassurance, then you might be, or become, a naturalist: someone who takes science as their guide to the whole world, including us frail, needy human beings.

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We are fully physical creatures, without souls. Since we are fully caused to be who we are and act as we do, we don’t have contra-causal free will.

Q. Who or what are we, according to naturalism?

A. Science shows that we are organisms that evolved from other creatures, that in turn evolved from yet other creatures, so that we are connected to all life on the planet, and to the planet itself. Since we are fully included in the natural world that science studies, there isn’t anything non-physical about us. Naturalism says we are completely physical, material creatures, a complex, highly organized collection of atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, muscles, bone, etc., produced by evolution. So we don’t possess immaterial souls, or spirits, or any “mental” stuff inside us that’s separate from our physical being. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have minds, meaning all the things the brain does when it thinks, feels, decides, plans, and dreams. It means that the mind, and consciousness, is what the brain does, and all of this (as strange as it might seem!) is fully physical – that is, there is no soul or spirit involved, even though it might feel that there is. Just how the brain does all this is just beginning to be understood, and we won’t know the full scientific story for many decades to come, most likely. Because the brain is so complicated, and because each of us has a unique biological make up and has grown up in unique circumstances, each of us becomes a unique, different human being, an individual. So being fully physical doesn’t mean we lose our individuality.

Because we are fully physical, natural creatures, this means that everything we are and everything we do is completely connected to the rest of nature, which includes our culture and society. We are products of our social and family environment and the genetics given to us at birth. The way we develop from newborns into adults is a process of cause and effect, and we can explain our character and motives as results of that process, one that has made our brains the way they are. Similarly, we can understand our feelings and behavior as being fully caused by the brain and body. This means that if we knew the whole causal story of ourselves, we could discover all the causes going back in time of what we’re doing at this very moment.

What’s special about this naturalistic view ourselves, that’s quite different from the supernatural or common sense view, is that we don’t have free will, defined as the power to do something without yourself being fully caused to do it. (Please note and remember this definition!) Now, many people think they do have this power, but to have it, you’d have to be disconnected from nature in some way, and naturalism says that there is no way in which we are disconnected from nature: we are completely included in the natural world. This means that everything we are and do is caused, which means we don’t have free will in the sense defined above, what we might call “contra-causal” free will. We aren’t “first causes” and we don’t cause ourselves - nothing in nature does this, so far as we know. We are not "causally privileged" over the rest of nature, that is, we don't get to cause without being fully caused ourselves. To think that would be to hold a supernatural view of ourselves, the opposite of naturalism. Another way of making this point is that from a naturalistic perspective, all our thoughts, feelings, experiences, and behavior happen without there being a non-physical “supervisor” in charge, making them happen. You are your experiences and behavior, not something extra that controls them. This doesn’t mean you are “out of control,” however. Your behavior is, most of the time, controlled by who and what you are: a particular person, embodied in a physical organism, that’s been taught to behave in socially acceptable ways. It also doesn’t mean that you lose your own causal powers to influence things and make things happen. All that stays intact under naturalism. What’s changed is that you see where you and your powers come from.

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We can be moral, ethical human beings without contra-causal free will.

Q. But doesn’t not having free will lead to all sorts of problems? What about morality and ethics? How can we hold people responsible without free will?

A. This takes a bit of explaining, so hang in there. Even though we don’t have contra-causal free will (which is to say we are fully caused creatures) it’s still true that we very much want certain things to happen, and very much don’t want other things to happen. We very much want to live, and don’t want to die. We love our friends, children and our families (maybe even some of our neighbors), and we want them and our communities kept safe and secure. What this means is that even though we don’t have free will, we are still very strongly motivated to want certain outcomes in life, namely we want ourselves and our loved ones to flourish. And this means that we still will want to make sure that people, including ourselves, act in ways to ensure this flourishing, which generally means behaving morally: not stealing, cheating, lying, or murdering. So we don’t lose our moral compass in accepting naturalism.

Now, since people are fully caused creatures, this means that they can be caused to behave morally and ethically. And one of the main ways we cause them to act ethically is by holding them responsible and accountable. You say to them, “If you act deliberately in such a way as to endanger my child, then we will take steps to lock you up. If you hurt my child, I will hold you responsible, so you better not.” People who are capable of being warned in this fashion, who are capable of having their behavior shaped by the prospect of being held responsible, are moral agents. (That includes just about every sane, mentally competent person over the age of 16 or so, although some kids grow up sooner than others.) So we don’t need to be uncaused or have contra-causal free will to be held responsible, or to be moral agents, or to have morality. In fact, these things would be impossible if people had the supernatural power to act independently of causes, since they could just ignore the prospect of being held responsible and do whatever they darn well pleased.

And by the way, even if not having free will did cause problems, that wouldn’t change the fact that we don’t have free will. In other words, just because you may not like the consequences of something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. According to naturalism, truth is independent of our desires. Fortunately, however, not having free will doesn’t have any bad consequences, in fact it has some rather good consequences and implications, as we’ll see below.

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Naturalism gives us self-control and leads to self-acceptance.

Q. What are the personal implications and consequences of naturalism? What’s in it for me?

A. There are several rather important personal implications of naturalism that make it a useful world view. First, by seeing that you are indeed caused to be who you are and a fully physical creature, you discover yourself fully connected to nature and to the physical and social world around you. You discover yourself to be completely at home in the universe, on the planet, and in your community. This is the basis for a naturalistic spirituality, an approach to your ultimate personal concerns that celebrates the grandeur of the cosmos and the beauty and wonder of nature.

Second, naturalism shows that since you didn’t create yourself, you can’t take ultimate credit for who you are in the way traditional supernatural views of the self make possible (only supernatural souls get to take ultimate credit). You, a natural creature, have to give “credit” for your successes and good deeds to all those conditions - people, places, things, and genetics - that made you a good person. There are no longer grounds for feeling morally superior, prideful, self-important, arrogant, or for holding any other ego-laden attitude or belief about yourself. Just be grateful for your good fortune.

Third, and for the same reasons, you can’t take ultimate blame for being nasty, selfish, lazy, fearful, shy, or for any other personal defect. Those characteristics too are fully caused and owe their existence to a host of environmental and perhaps genetic conditions (So go ahead and blame your parents a little. OK, stop. They had their antecedents too, right?) Seeing that you don’t have contra-causal free will reduces unnecessary and counter-productive guilt and shame aimed at the self, permitting more productive efforts to change. Remember, seeing that being nasty or selfish are fully caused doesn’t mean you shouldn't want to stop being nasty or selfish. We don’t lose our moral compass in accepting naturalism.

Fourth, here’s what in it for you, although as you see, the “you” has changed quite a bit. By understanding that you are caused and just how you are caused to be and to act, you gain control and power over yourself. Instead of supposing you can just will yourself to be other than you are (stronger, smarter, more altruistic), you understand that self-change is a matter of particular conditions. Create the conditions first, and then the change will follow. Even the desire to change has its causes in conditions, so if you want to want to change, we can arrange for that as well. Of course it’s not always easy to discover what the right conditions are and how to create them, but it’s a better bet than counting on willpower. By giving up the freely willing soul, you discover your real source of power : understanding your causality, through and through.

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Naturalism can help improve interpersonal relationships.

Q. What are the implications of naturalism for my attitudes toward others and my relationships with them?

A. Many of the implications of naturalism that apply to yourself (see above) apply to others, and for the same reasons. Knowing that they are fully caused to be as they are, and couldn’t have done otherwise in the circumstances they were in, you’re going to be much less likely to assign them ultimate credit and blame. This means you’re less likely to hold onto feelings of resentment, anger, and contempt should they behave badly. Not that you won’t still feel such things, of course, since we have the capacity for anger and resentment for good evolutionary reasons: to get those who treat us poorly to shape up! But, instead of hanging on to these feelings, it will be easier to let them go in the light of the causal story of those who mistreat us. They are not the ultimate source of behavior, so to concentrate blame solely on them is counterproductive since it ignores all the factors which contributed to the offense. And had you been in their genetic and environmental shoes, you would have done exactly the same thing. These science-based insights should help temper feelings of anger or moral superiority, even though it doesn’t alter the judgment that they should have acted better. It will be easier to forgive, even though they may have wronged you.

All this means that your interpersonal relations might improve, since you won’t be holding onto grudges for as long, or wasting so much time resenting someone, or plotting to get even. Petty arguments, should they even get that far, will remain just that, petty, without getting out of control. You’ll be able to grin and bear someone’s foibles, and give them polite feedback instead of shunning or swearing at them. You won’t of course become a saint, but your attitudes and behavior towards others might change in a more compassionate, understanding direction once you fully take in the fact that they, like yourself, are fully a product of the natural unfolding of circumstances, not first causes that are simply choosing to be nasty, lazy, or self-centered.

It’s important to emphasize that taking the naturalistic perspective on others does not mean that you become non-judgmental or passive in the face of abuse. Standards of right and wrong still apply to ourselves and others and it’s important to enforce them unequivocally. But naturalism – the appreciation of causality – does mean that we don’t get to revel in punishment or revenge (and we won’t want to as much), we only do what’s necessary to protect ourselves and prevent future misbehavior.

Finally, and this is very important, naturalism permits us to be wiser in setting up conditions in which we behave well toward each other in the first place. After all, since actions always result from causes, we can learn to control those causes to our benefit, and the benefit of others we interact with. If you have a relationship that’s troubled, look at the situation carefully instead of simply blaming your partner, child, co-worker, or friend. If someone’s behaving badly, there’s a reason, a cause, and that’s what has to be addressed. Again, this doesn’t mean that anger and discipline are never appropriate, but that they should be used judiciously and compassionately, if at all possible.

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Naturalism provides the basis for progressive social policies.

Q. What are the social implications of naturalism?

A. The same set of attitudes that naturalism inspires about yourself and your immediate community extends outward to strangers and society at large. This has an immediate, powerful effect on beliefs about social policy. For instance, seeing that criminals are fully caused to be as they are, it will much more difficult to support draconian punishments such as the death penalty and harsh prison conditions, both of which are justified by supposing that criminals are self-made and therefore deserving of suffering. Similarly, we can no longer suppose that the poor are poor because of a moral failure of will, or that the rich become rich by virtue of a self-created drive to succeed. Social status and success are fully caused outcomes of concrete sets of conditions, not a reflection of contra-causal free will which some choose to exercise and others don’t. Likewise, we can see behavioral disorders such as addiction, obesity, and mental illness as completely determined by the complex interaction of a person’s genetics and environment. This helps to undercut the moral stigma often associated with such conditions. After all, you would have suffered the same fate had you been dealt that genetic and environmental hand.

The upshot is that the naturalistic appreciation of causality works to engender a compassionate and effective understanding of such things as crime, social inequality, and behavioral disorders. This understanding supports progressive policies that seek primarily to prevent, not punish, dysfunctional behavior, and that work to lessen the gross social inequalities that now characterize our society, not increase them. Looking at causes instead of blaming individuals lays the groundwork for effective interventions, and as we become less interested in blame and recrimination, we’ll be more likely to support such interventions.

Another important consequence of naturalism for social policy is that we are more likely to use science, not ideology, as the basis for action. Since we take science seriously, we will pay more attention to well researched facts about the impact of policies. What exactly are the causes of crime, of poverty, of global warming, of international conflict, and how do current policies take these causes into account, if at all?

Finally, in the educational arena, we will want to support the public understanding of science and critical thinking, since both of these are essential for appreciating causality in our lives. The empirical and skeptical habits of mind – seeking evidence for beliefs and subjecting them to critical scrutiny – are very much to be encouraged. To the extent to which we can get people to question non-evidence based beliefs, we can help reduce ideological conflict and replace it with a shared commitment to science and empiricism. People will always disagree about means and ends, but such disagreements can be minimized if parties agree to evaluate the real world consequences of policy options in the light of science.

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Naturalism entails a profound shift in our self-understanding, which in turn has deep implications for both the person and society.

Q. Summing up, what’s the significance of naturalism?

A. The bottom-line significance of naturalism lies in its profound redefinition of who we are, and the consequences of that redefinition for ourselves personally and for society at large. We are no longer souls that happen to have bodies; we are, instead, fully physical creatures whose brains do everything that the soul was supposed to do. In declaring our complete causal connection to the natural world, naturalism shows us to be at home in the cosmos. We are what the universe is doing here and now, and we can trace our lineage back through the eons to the Big Bang. Seeing our natural nature and origins, and understanding that persons and society are unfolding causal processes, traditional beliefs about credit and blame and success and failure are called into question, and we become more compassionate. We become more effective as well, since instead of supposing individuals are the ultimate source of behavior, we take into account the actual causes of their character and actions, whether good or bad, in our interpersonal relations and in social policy.

Naturalism has the potential, therefore, to revolutionize our relationship to ourselves, to others, to society and to the planet. A deep appreciation of natural causality shows our full connection to the world and others, it leads to an ethics of compassion, and it gives us far greater control over our circumstances. Such is the significance of naturalism, should we come to realize our inherent unity with the natural order.

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