HomeAbout UsProgramsResourcesNewsContactSupport CFN

Presentations on Naturalism


Upcoming presentations: see our Events page

Toward a Positive Naturalism

Presentation by Tom Clark, director, Center for Naturalism, at the Center for Inquiry, 12/18/03

This talk challenges the secular humanist community to adopt a well-articulated, thorough-going naturalism, complete with its personal and social implications. To reveal a positive naturalism, we must state clearly and honestly its implications for our self-conception. We must question supernatural thinking not just about God, but about ourselves, for only then are we in a position to realize the ethical and practical power of naturalism as a world view.

1. Overview   2. Science and naturalism   3. No free will   
4. Old story, new evidence  5. Fears and environmental impact
6. Reassurances  7. Personal and social implications
8. Programmatic viability: should secular humanists adopt a position on naturalism and its consequences?
9. Recent quotes on the soul and free will
10. Brief bibliography of recommended reading

1. Introduction - overview of a positive naturalism

What unites the secular variety of humanists, if anything, is naturalism, the world view that there exists a single, natural world, that known by science. As I hope to show, naturalism has much that is positive, productive, and profound to recommend it as a world view, and secular humanists should make this view more widely known. Secular humanism is sometimes perceived as simply a critique of religion, a rather negative undertaking: it’s a well-informed, science-based, relentless debunking of fuzzy thinking, of the new age, of postmodernism, and of other false gods. This critique is important and essential, but we must move beyond it to promote a positive vision of naturalism and its consequences, a vision which has concrete benefits for the person and the culture and so can successfully compete with dualistic and religious world views. We must be explicit about naturalism as a positive philosophy, both for the person and society. We must appeal to the individual as well as the collective good, and show the beneficial personal consequences of naturalism, along with its other virtues. In looking over the most recent prospectus of the Center for Inquiry, I sense that this may already be underway to some extent, but since I’m not fully up to speed on all the CFI initiatives, please forgive me if you are already addressing some of the concerns I raise here.

Philosophical naturalism is driven by a commitment to science as one’s sole epistemology. Naturalism, pursued consistently, challenges not only the belief in supernatural gods, but the belief in a non-physical, supernatural soul that controls an individual’s behavior using contra-causal free will. Accepting an entirely naturalistic, causal view of ourselves has manifold implications for personal psychology, attitudes, behavior, social policy, and the quest for meaning. It is to invite a revolution in our traditional self-concept that may have effects far beyond the commonplace rejection, in humanist circles, of standard supernatural entities and attributes. I recommend that the secular humanist movement explicitly embrace a more thorough-going naturalism, and by demonstrating its positive consequences, build support for naturalism as a world view and science as an epistemology. Since secular humanists are committed to science and critical thinking, and are unafraid to challenge traditional orthodoxies, they should take the lead in promoting a positive naturalism.

So, what is a “positive naturalism”?

  • It’s a constructive naturalism that shows the beneficial consequences of the naturalistic, non-dual view of ourselves, a view that’s quite different from traditional dualistic views.
  • Also, it’s positive in the sense of not being merely critical of religion and superstition. We can give good reasons to follow naturalism in addition to reasons for not following the alternatives.
  • And by positive, I don’t mean to suggest a positivist denial of all metaphysical claims, since after all naturalism as we assert it does make a claim about what exists, and what doesn’t.

The third Humanist Manifesto, “Humanism and its aspirations” starts with a negative: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Note the phrase “without supernaturalism.” I’m suggesting we must educate people about naturalism so that we can say, “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, based in naturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives…” Similarly, the Brights is an umbrella organization of those with a naturalistic world view, but there's little on their website about what this view implies about ourselves, our behavior, or about social policy that distinguishes naturalists from religionists. We must supply the positive content of what being a naturalist means. If we did this, naturalism would be generally understood and identifiable as a philosophy and world view the way that people have a general, if perhaps vague conception of Christianity. And this conception of naturalism will emphatically not be the mere denial of god, what we call atheism, and it won’t be simply the critique of religion we call skepticism or free thought. It will involve all the major tenets of naturalism as applied to ourselves and the world we live in. For instance: that we are part of and fully connected to the natural world; that human beings are not of two natures, one material and one immaterial; that there are sufficient grounds for ethics, knowledge, and effective action within the physical world, without resort to supernatural foundations. Indeed, naturalism gives us unprecedented resources for achieving what we want in life, both personally and socially. Naturalism will be commonly understood to celebrate the fact that the universe has, in us, devised a remarkable variety of self-reflection, a life-form that has achieved consciousness, self-consciousness, and so has become capable of asking some extremely interesting questions. The pull of naturalism, once you see it and get used to it, is the marvel that all this is being done by the physical world, on its own, suitably organized. What’s most remarkable about all this is that it is not a miracle; but it is a marvel, as is the sheer fact of this immense and perhaps ultimately inscrutable universe we find ourselves in. It is to see that the living, the personal, the individual, the human, and the intentional all arise from and are fully part of the non-living, impersonal, non-human, and non-purposive context that is the natural world. Naturalism implies a secular version of transcendence, in which the self is fully connected with all of existence.

To reveal a positive naturalism, we must state clearly and honestly its implications for our self-conception. We must challenge supernatural thinking not just about God, but about ourselves, for only then are we in a position to realize the ethical and practical power of naturalism as a world view. This means to see ourselves as completely physical, embodied, caused creatures, linked to the world in each and every respect, without souls and without contra-causal free will. Promoting this fully naturalized conception of ourselves and its positive psychological and social consequences is, as I’ve said, what I think the next step for secular humanists should be. This would be to complete the transformation in our self-concept begun by the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. The death of God up there is now followed by death of the “little god” in here: the soul and its supernatural freedom. But this death liberates us from a myth that has long alienated us from the physical, actual world with all its marvels and opportunities.

Accepting a revised understanding of human agency, of who we are, supplies the basis for an ethics of compassion and the basis for effective action. Naturalism gives us the motive and the means to bring about a more flourishing, humane, and non-punitive culture. But this revolution in our self-concept and all that follows from it will require a long-term process of education, attitude change, and behavior change: I think of it, frankly, as a naturalism for the 25th century, since it’s unlikely that this view will become the majority view anytime soon. But we have to start at some point, and I think the time is now.

So, what might be some of the positive characteristics of a consistent, thorough-going naturalism?

  • We have one epistemology, not two: we live in the light of the empirical truth about ourselves; we don’t need another way of knowing that applies to personal concerns or ultimate concerns. This simplifies things.
  • Naturalism affords superior prediction and control of our environment and ourselves, since in dropping the soul and free will we get rid of the fictional supernatural agency that blocks true explanations of phenomena. This gives us power.
  • Naturalism can change attitudes in a less punitive, more compassionate direction.
  • Naturalism shows a route to improvements in interpersonal and family relationships.
  • It supports humane and effective approaches to psychotherapy and behavior change in domains such as addiction, mental illness, obesity, and other behavioral disorders. It helps to de-stigmatize disordered individuals instead of demonizing them.
  • Naturalism also motivates social policy based on an ethics of compassion, and it leads to skillful interventions based on causal understanding. We’ll be led to radically rethink policies related to criminal justice and social inequality, for example, since both are based on the myth of contra-causal freedom and ultimate credit and blame.
  • And naturalism supports a fulfilling approach to ultimate concerns by showing our complete connection to the natural world.

So overall, naturalism addresses a wide range of both personal and social needs and it has the virtue of being the empirical truth about ourselves, so it therefore recommends itself as a viable alternative to religious and dualistic views.

2. Science and naturalism

Science is the epistemological basis for the ontological claims of naturalism, in that scientific explanations lead to unification of phenomena within a single, natural world. Metaphysical naturalism is driven by scientific methodology; it’s driven by a commitment to an evidential, intersubjective mode of justifying knowledge claims about what ultimately exists. Whatever we explain and whatever we judge to exist using this method, exists in connection with everything else that exists, and so science leads to a non-dual view of the world, a unified ontology that includes ourselves in every respect (see Science ).

Ordinarily, scientists don't make any claims about naturalism vs. supernaturalism, so science as its practiced doesn't presume naturalism at all, contrary to what proponents of intelligent design often claim. Therefore, science does not need ideological “balancing” in school by supernaturalist hypotheses, e.g., by intelligent design or creationism. And I think it’s important to get the word out on this since this counters what is often the central argument for those pushing intelligent design. The reason that science can’t get us to god is not that it presumes naturalism, it’s because science, done right and taken as one’s only epistemology, leads us to naturalism.

But, there is no knock down argument that I’ve been able to discover as to why one should accept science as one’s only mode of justifying knowledge claims. Because of this, we have to show the pragmatic benefits of staying true to science. These benefits include, of course, the immense power of prediction and control that results from the causal understanding of nature, but also, they include, as I’ve suggested, some personal and interpersonal psychological benefits having to do with a revised conception of ourselves, social benefits from policy changes supported by this revised conception; and also a viable approach to meaning and ultimate concerns, and all this within one epistemology. By virtue of having to show its pragmatic benefits, we are led to champion an explicit, positive naturalism. And this in turn will help attract converts to science as their exclusive epistemology.

3. No free will

As I imagine we might all agree, progress in science consists of success in the project of naturalizing phenomena, in bringing them into the orbit of our understanding using the scientific method. We’ve naturalized life, the origins of species, the structure of the universe, and soon perhaps, consciousness and ourselves in all respects. This project of naturalization has led us humanists to the denial of supernatural gods, and we can and should extend this to the explicit denial of the supernatural, non-physical soul that, very much like God, is an exception to natural causality. This internal “little god” is the last hold-out of supernaturalism in most people’s world view, even among many secular humanists. We have, on this traditional view, supernatural powers, in that we, as freely willing agents, get to cause things without being fully caused in turn. We are, like God, causally privileged over the rest of nature. This sort of free will is variously called contra-causal free will, Cartesian free will, interventionist free will, or libertarian free will. This sort of free will is, as Michael Shermer might put it, a very weird thing that people believe in. Secular humanists, committed to science and critical thinking as they are, are in the best possible position to undertake this questioning. My high school English teacher used to write this on the blackboard: DBATSTO - "don’t be afraid to state the obvious." But not surprisingly there’s resistance to stating the obvious about this, given that free will is so central to our self-concept, especially here in the West with our ideological bias in favor of radical individualism.

So how does naturalism change our views about human agency?

Well, if we are not causal exceptions to nature, if we are not causally privileged, if there is no supervisory mental agent with libertarian free will, then clearly we are not the ultimate originators of our behavior, but simply the most proximate cause, and other causes surround us in time and space. We are our behavior, not something uncaused that supervises it. If we reproduced the exact circumstances that obtained at a given time and place, the same behavior would arise: so, in any given situation, we couldn’t have done otherwise, on this view. This means we can’t take ultimate credit or blame for what we do. Causal responsibility for behavior is distributed. But of course it’s important to note that to explain in this fashion isn’t to excuse; by showing the antecedents of behavior we don’t undermine our values or change the necessity of holding people responsible and accountable. Nor is it to deny any of the real freedoms we have, whether personal, political, or otherwise. It is, however, to deny the traditional, categorical, metaphysically dualistic type of freedom, the type of freedom often referred to by saying that we have free will. Of course we can still say that we do things “of our own free will,” in the sense that we do them voluntarily, without being coerced, and because we more or less want to do them. But this sort of freedom is completely compatible with being fully caused to want what we want, and to be who we are.

Now, one might resist this attack on free will at several levels. First, by supposing that it is empirically false. But there is overwhelming evidence for it; it is empirically the case we don’t have this kind of freedom. Second, we might resist by supposing that the implications are minimal, so we can safely ignore this whole issue; this we might call the “deflationary response.” But the implications are significant, given the various justifications for personal attitudes and social practices that are predicated on contra-causal free will, and also given how the assumption of free will prevents inquiry into the actual causes of phenomena. So the deflationary response is a mistake. Third, one might think that the assumption of free will is too dangerous to question, since even though it’s empirically mistaken, perhaps the fiction of free will is the necessary basis for morality and civilization as we know it. But, contra-causal free will isn't a necessary fiction: we need not live in thrall to an illusion about ourselves, despite what Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky says in his book, Free Will and Illusion. The illusion is harmful in its own right, and dispensing with it is, I will argue, the route to a more humane, less punitive culture.

4. Old story, new evidence

Of course, as many of you are undoubtedly thinking, denying free will is really nothing new; and you’re right. After all, precedents for this view go back to the time of the Buddha, who questioned the substantial self in what is known as the annatta or no-self doctrine. David Hume, my favorite philosopher, also famously questioned the existence of a supervisory self separate from the body or experience, and Baron D’Holbach, in his wonderful 1772 monograph “Good sense without god”, took considerable pleasure in exploding the absurdities of contra-causal freedom. More recently in 1924, the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow was able to spare Leopold and Loeb the death penalty, basically on grounds of determinism. And of course in the latter half of the last century, B.F. Skinner, named a humanist of the year, regaled us with his behaviorist critique of free will, which regrettably suffered from some serious tactical defects, such as the unfortunate book title, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. So obviously this questioning of free will is a perennial concern, something that has waxed and waned, drawn attention for awhile, and then more or less been forgotten or suppressed.

But we’re now, once again, in a time of increasing attention to this issue. Although the denial of libertarian freedom is nothing new, what is new is the increasing and overwhelming evidence that the brain can do everything the immaterial soul was supposed to do. Thanks to neuroscience, there are vastly fewer gaps these days in which the soul can hide. And more generally there’s been a resurgence of interest and literature on this project of the naturalization of ourselves, for instance in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science as well as neuroscience. According to these sciences, we are more or less deterministic, organic, evolved systems, fully embedded within natural causality; so the bottom line is that the empirical debate about free will is essentially over. And I think that libertarians within the philosophical community are very much in the minority and increasingly on the defensive. Certainly most of the recent books on free will for general audiences deny outright that Cartesian freedom exists. For instance, Owen Flanagan at Duke has written a terrific book about all this, The Problem of the Soul. He lays out beautifully the evidence and argument against free will and why we don’t need it to be fully moral, unique, effective, ethical, and flourishing individuals. If you take nothing else away from this talk, take away my humble admonition to read The Problem of the Soul, if you haven’t already. Daniel Dennett, as you know, has written Freedom Evolves, in which he too dismisses libertarian free will, but he carefully documents the sorts of natural freedoms we do have. Derk Pereboom, at the University of Vermont, has written Living Without Free Will, which is very good although a bit technical, and the last chapters go into the implications for our reactive attitudes and for criminal justice. In his latest book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker discusses at length the myth of the ghost in the machine, and has a chapter on “The Fear of Determinism,” in which he shows that not having free will isn’t the disaster so many suppose it is. And of course Dan Wegner at Harvard has his new book The Illusion of Conscious Will, which again more or less explodes the popular fiction that we exist as autonomous mental controllers of our brains and behavior. Now, all these books have come out in the last 3 years, and there's a page at my web site on recent writings on the self and free will. The point I want to get across is that I’m not alone or crazy for pushing this no free will idea, and that momentum is building around the project of naturalizing ourselves, a momentum we should capitalize on.

You may have noticed that the topic of free will surfacing more and more in the popular culture as well, in films like the Matrix, which pits heroic freely willing humans against the nasty deterministic machines. At the end of the last film in the series, the Matrix asks: "Why do you persist in fighting me, Mr. Anderson?" Neo: “Because I choose to!” This of course begs question of why he chooses, and thus sets him up as a first cause. In the New York Times there appeared a rather anguished piece on free will by science writer John Horgan, in which he says, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, that he finds himself compelled to believe that he has free will. And my own local newspaper, the Boston Globe, carried a feature in the science section on free will that mentioned Benjamin Libet’s well known experiments, which everybody seems to be able to cite in support of their side of the argument. No wonder Libet’s experiment is so popular.

And over the last decade there has been some increase in awareness about this issue in the secular humanist community itself. I’ve written a few articles on free will for the Humanist magazine, starting in 1990 with a debate with Corliss Lamont, and I’ve had a more recent piece in Free Inquiry which defends an understanding of freedom and moral responsibility that’s compatible with our being fully natural, caused creatures. The philosopher Richard Double also has a piece in Philo, “The Moral Hardness of Libertarianism” in which he argues against libertarian free will and its implications. And perhaps because interest in this issue has grown, some humanists are starting to organize around what could be the next revolution in our self-understanding. There are a couple of Yahoo discussion groups on determinism and applied naturalism, there’s the Society for Natural Science, there’s my website, Naturalism.Org, and the newly incorporated Center for Naturalism. So there’s a fair amount happening on this.

5. Fears and environmental impact

But, despite the very strong arguments and evidence against libertarian free will, there is very strong resistance to the suggestion that we are not free in this sense, even within the secular humanist community, even among people who pride themselves on their commitment to science, critical thinking and opposition to all things supernatural. And at first glance, of course, it’s a very counterintuitive, controversial thesis, since so much seems to depend on having free will, and since we in the West pride ourselves on our rugged individualism, which seems threatened by the notion that we are not self-caused. So there is a danger of falling into a moral panic about free will, or free will panic, as you might call it.

As I’ve suggested, I don’t think there are any very good arguments for free will, but there are plenty of fears about the bad consequences that might ensue if it turns out we don’t have it. These are arguments ad baculum, arguments that don’t bear on the truth of the matter, but simply deplore the dire ramifications of not having free will. There are, indeed, a litany of fears commonly expressed in the face of not being contra-causally free:

  • There are fears about fatalism, irresponsibility, people running amok, becoming passive, of being victims of circumstance, of lack of initiative or individuality, and about the impossibility of having real knowledge if we are indeed fully caused to have our beliefs.
  • Some people think it’s simply too dangerous to openly question the assumption of free will, and want to maintain the public fiction of free will as the necessary basis for morality and human dignity. Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky recommends this in his book Free Will and Illusion.
  • Dennett, in his book Freedom Evolves, warns us to take very seriously the possible “environmental impact,” as he puts it, of the naturalistic thesis the we are fully caused. We don’t want to create misunderstandings about the implications of not having free will, and so this warning is well taken. We don’t want to literally de-moralize people, to throw them into a moral panic about not having free will.

Of course, in the face of the growing evidence against free will some are digging in their heels and holding on to it for dear life. For instance, Australian supreme court justice David Hodgson has written a forthcoming target paper for the Journal of Consciousness Studies defending free will, on the basis of a rather tenuous set of quasi-empirical hypotheses, a paper to which I and others have replied in the same issue. And I’ve corresponded with some secular humanists, not to mention religionists, who are truly outraged at the suggestion that they are not self-caused. Given all this, I think gay marriage might be a piece of cake compared to pushing naturalism.

6. Reassurances and replies

In response to these concerns, I argue, as do Dennett, Pinker, Flanagan, Pereboom, Richard Double, Ted Honderich, and others, that it’s simply not the case that not having free will robs us of anything we need or should want (see quotes at end and recent writing by other philosophers). Some things change, but many things stay the same. Although I don’t have time here to prove all this to your satisfaction, our values stay the same, morality is still essential and necessary to shape behavior, we remain unique, dignified individuals, we don’t lose our causal powers to bring about outcomes we want, and fatalism is not the case: our actions do make a difference. And being uncaused in any respect wouldn’t give us more power, in fact less, since it would simply introduce a random or indeterminate element into the picture. And after all, on what basis would the uncaused part of ourselves make a decision or choice? So, all told, we have “freedom and dignity” in all the ways that are important. And we don’t need to be contra-causally free to conduct the “free inquiry” of science or philosophy, and indeed any causal disconnection from the world would lessen, not increase, our rationality and ability to track the world. Reasons are representations of how our motivated plans interact and dovetail with anticipated causal contingencies. So there’s nothing contra-causal about reasons or having true knowledge about the world.

But I have to admit that supplying these sorts of reassurances is probably the toughest part of making the case for a fully naturalistic view of ourselves. It takes a lot of patient, careful explaining, since some of these issues are counterintuitive, and really don’t lend themselves to sound bites. It means doing philosophy, it means critical thinking, and it means questioning traditional assumptions, and it helps greatly, of course, if the person you’re trying to reassure has a certain minimum of education. But whoever you’re talking to, it’s critical to undertake this effort at reassurance, since allaying the fears generated by naturalism, and clearing up any misunderstandings is essential in helping to secure support for it as a world view. I think the single best prescription is to read Flanagan’s book The Problem of the Soul, and I’d also recommend a page at my web site called “Encountering naturalism: common errors and exaggerations”.

7. Personal and social implications

But I want not only to reassure people we have nothing to fear from accepting a fully naturalistic view of ourselves, but show that this view has considerable practical and moral advantages. So what might change for the better if we promote an inclusive, explicit naturalism? Well, naturalism, by acknowledging the causal antecedents of persons and their behavior, calls into question the radical individualism that so pervades our culture, and the attitudes that go with it. It can help move us away from the moralistic, prideful, and often punitive responses that are based on the idea of the supernatural, freely willing self, the self that deserves ultimate credit and blame. Under naturalism, causal responsibility for behavior is distributed, not a matter of free will. We are not first causes, nor are we self-caused. All of what we are and do, arises out of a myriad of circumstances. So our reactive attitudes towards others and ourselves – resentment, anger, blame, contempt, shame, and pride – all the emotional responses of the sort that are premised on the idea of self-origination are now deprived of that metaphysical justification. We will still feel all these emotions, of course, but the naturalistic insight of being fully caused will help to temper these responses, and redirect our attention to all the contributing causes that lie outside us. It won’t mean that we ignore the person – far from it, since individuals obviously remain the most proximate causes of behavior that are amenable to control. But it will mean that the person is just one cause among many that can be addressed, and in addressing the person, we can’t any longer justify our reactive responses on grounds of contra-causal freedom.

So seeing the actual origins of behavior is a route to compassion, empathy, and sometimes even forgiveness, since we’ll see that there but for circumstances go I. I could easily have been the homeless person I see in front of me, had I been given his set of genetic and environmental determinants. But for the luck of the draw, I would be experiencing that suffering and that indignity. I can no longer assume or believe that this person could have simply chosen or willed himself not to be in his situation. And the same goes for me, of course. To suppose otherwise would be to make a crucial mistake about causality based in a pre-scientific, supernaturalist understanding of ourselves. It would be to take the libertarian view with all it’s unsympathetic, and often punitive consequences. As Richard Double points out in his paper in Philo, hard-heartedness is very much linked to the assumption of libertarian freedom, as is celebrity worship as well. Of course naturalism isn’t a magic bullet that leads to instant compassion, empathy or forgiveness, since our reactive responses are pretty much hard-wired. But once we appreciate the true causal situation, we can second guess these responses, and we can’t any longer justify them on the grounds that someone could have done other than what they did in the exact situation in which the behavior arose. This insight can have a strong influence on our day-to-day feelings and behavior as we interact with others and in our own self-evaluations. Naturalism, therefore, is a very practical philosophy of how to get along with others and ourselves, and it will be perceived as positive because it shows a clear route to widely accepted moral virtues of empathy and compassion.

Besides influencing our attitudes, an inclusive naturalism is the most effective route to bring about the outcomes we want, since after all it widens the scope of inquiry beyond persons, into the conditions that shape them and their behavior. By dispensing with the freely willing self, we remove a long-standing impediment to getting a clear picture of causality in whatever domain we might be interested in. Belief in free will is a sure-fire prescription to bring out the worst in managing ourselves. Not only does it inspire and justify punitive and prideful attitudes, it prevents the full understanding of the various factors and conditions that actually explain why people become who they are, and what they do.

Disorders. More specifically, when dealing with behavioral disorders such as addiction, mental illness, personality disorders, and obesity, naturalism helps move us away from the stigma based in free will towards a more compassionate understanding; it shifts the focus from willpower to causes, whether genetic, environmental, or both. To take addiction as an example, both the voluntary and involuntary behavior involved in becoming addicted are fully caused, not a matter of willpower. Anytime we cite the will as an explanation, we’re evading the empirical question about the actual factors that explain addictive behavior. Of course, this is not to deny the role of the individual, or to minimize the impact of one’s own behavior. Being fully caused doesn’t lessen the necessity, when addressing addiction, of interventions that hold addicts accountable, for instance by making rewards contingent on reducing substance use. So naturalism doesn’t let people off the hook, but instead leads us to hold them compassionately, not punitively, accountable.

Social issues. In the larger social arena, the personal and interpersonal attitudes shaped by naturalism form the basis for what is more enlightened social policy; naturalism gives us the compassionate, empathetic motive and it gives us the means, based on causal explanations, to pursue non-punitive, preventive action in areas such as criminal justice and social inequality. Over the last few decades, we’ve been in the age of “personal responsibility” as in the 1996 welfare reform act called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.” Conservative appeals to personal responsibility, with the implicit assumption of a free will that can transcend circumstances, help to justify laissez faire approaches to social problems, since if people have the power to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, then of course it’s simply their fault if they don’t. The poor are to blame for poverty, criminals are the root cause of crime as Governor Pataki said a while back, and as Ronald Reagan so famously put it, the homeless choose to be homeless. This assumption is perfect for justifying drastically reduced government interventions of any sort, and of course we’ve seen quite a retrenchment in the federal and state safety net over the last 30 years. The Great Society of the 1960’s and 70’s is nearly dismantled and we’ve seen a retreat from the sort of altruism that John F. Kennedy suggested should be our national ethos. And of course the free will assumption underlies the increasingly punitive criminal justice system in this country, a system premised on the retributive idea of giving offenders their just deserts. But of course we can, and should, question the free will assumption when formulating these social policies.

Criminal justice. In criminal justice, this means that the retributive basis for punishment loses its footing, since the freely willing agent who ultimately deserves to suffer for his malfeasance doesn’t exist under naturalism. What precisely justifies retribution once we dispense with the myth of the self-caused self that could have done otherwise? I believe it will be considerably more difficult to justify capital punishment and punitive prison conditions once it becomes widely accepted that persons, like everything else in nature, are a function of antecedent and surrounding conditions. Again, let me hasten to point out that this is not a recommendation to let dangerous criminals go free. All the same considerations of public safety are still in place under naturalism, and all our strongly held values about the wrongness of murder, assault, embezzlement, corporate fraud, and insider trading still apply. So naturalism doesn’t amount to a blanket abuse excuse in which we have no justifiable recourse to sanctions and restraints. But it most definitely suggests that the aims of criminal justice should shift from the punitive imposition of just deserts to the prevention of the conditions which produce crime and violence in the first place, to the rehabilitation and training of offenders, to community restoration and victim restitution, and to other approaches which actually work to reduce crime and recidivism, and which do not further damage the bodies and minds of those entering the criminal justice system. Of course there is much going on already in criminal justice reform along these lines, but naturalism adds a powerful rationale for replacing reactive and retributive punishment with compassionate accountability.

Social inequality. In terms of social justice, naturalism shows we don’t ultimately deserve our advantages and talents - these are entirely a matter of luck - so desert-based justifications for social inequality go by the boards. Bill Gates doesn’t deserve his billions, nor does the homeless person deserve his fate. As philosopher John Rawls put in A Theory of Justice some 30 years ago:

“It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases."

Now of course we need incentives to encourage hard work, risk-taking, inventiveness, and a modicum of self-sufficiency. But, if we dispense with the agent who supposedly deserves his success or failure, then there’s simply no way to justify the huge disparities in wealth, opportunity, and enjoyment on the one hand, and the poverty, suffering, and indignity on the other. All this suggests that the unfettered free market, or rather the market as manipulated by those in a position to do so, is not the morally best allocator of resources, since it simply perpetuates and exacerbates vast social inequalities. Naturalism, in its critique of the radical individualism based in contra-causal freedom, leads to the conclusion that what people should get in life should not be based on what they deserve in the traditional metaphysical sense, but on what they need. This in turn might lead us to rethink some common assumptions about how wealth ought to be distributed, and how we might make life fairer and more bearable for those who weren’t so lucky in their choice of social circumstances, character, and innate abilities. After all, there but for circumstances go you or I. Now, I realize this sort of thinking isn’t exactly in fashion. But of course secular humanists thrive on controversy, and love to champion unpopular views as long as they’re based on a valid, scientific understanding of ourselves.

Personal power. Supporting the redistribution of wealth and opportunity is of course a rather altruistic undertaking. So you’re probably asking “What can naturalism do for me?” Well, by showing that what you are and what you do is a function of a concrete set of conditions, and that getting what you want isn’t a matter of will power, but the intelligent structuring of those conditions, naturalism is a reliable means to self-realization. B. F. Skinner understood this, of course, in his deliberate design of the conditions under which he could get the most work done. Now we can supplement his techniques of self-management (which are still completely valid) with more recent knowledge that bears on behavior and motivation. In dealing with personal problems, we won’t suppose that we should just “snap out of it,” but rather put ourselves in the right sort of environment, or find the right therapy, whether cognitive, behavioral, or pharmacological. We won’t give ourselves such a hard time about our setbacks, or be so smug in our successes. In dealing with families, neighbors, co-workers, and others, we can operate from a more objective, compassionate, and less reactive standpoint. And we can pursue our projects more intelligently, by seeing our actions as completely embedded in a causal context. Knowledge of causality gives us personal power unmatched by appeals to the will. So, all this, plus a good weight loss program, should get people flocking to naturalism.

Ultimate concerns: What about the big picture – the issues of life, death, and meaning that we all face? By denying the supernatural, naturalism of course rules out certain easy consolations – it provides no cosmic reassurance, so this limits the surface appeal of naturalism. But by showing our complete connection to the natural universe, it provides the basis for a kind of transcendence – not the survival of the self, but rather a cognitive and an emotional embedding of the self in something much larger. As Darwin put it, there is grandeur in this view of things, and we are in a better position now than he was, to really appreciate just how grand a prospect the universe presents, and just how extraordinary it is that we are here at all – sentient beings with the capacity to question and to understand and to take the cosmic perspective as shown by science. By getting rid of the soul, naturalism joins us entirely with the physical world, and so that world gains value for us - it is no longer the merely physical, but the marvelously physical: in us it thinks and it feels. As for death, in denying the soul we do not therefore confront nothingness, for there is literally no such thing. We can in good conscience and with the facts on our side reassure people that at death we are not plunged into eternal darkness – rather consciousness is in fact a process that, interestingly enough, always finds itself present in a world. Such insights, couched in a ceremonial liturgy yet to be devised, can provide the cognitive context for a direct experience of connection, whether in private or shared. In other words, naturalism might eventually fill the human need for the emotional appreciation and expression of life’s ultimate significance – and it can do that in a way that could rival or surpass that afforded by traditional religions. Imagine, for instance, that all the religious music you’re used to hearing suddenly was naturalized, so that the emotions they evoke had, as their context, not the glory of God, but the glory of this amazing universe we find ourselves in. That little thought experiment shows that naturalism can legitimately appeal to the heart as well as the mind, if you’re looking for that kind of experience.

8. Programmatic viability: should secular humanists adopt a position on naturalism and its consequences?

So I’ve outlined what I think are the virtues of an explicit, positive naturalism, a philosophy that places us securely in the natural world, that gives us power, control, psychological benefits, moral virtues, and the basis for ethical action and enlightened social policy. But even if you buy all this, which I’m sure many of you don’t, the question remains about viability of promoting explicit naturalism publicly, given that it questions some fundamental assumptions at the heart of our culture. After all, it challenges not only religion, but the implicit supernatural image of ourselves wrapped up in the idea of having free will. So why should the secular humanist movement take on this agenda?

Admittedly, it’s a very tough sell, especially publicly. For the majority not committed to science as the route to truth, naturalism stands as a clear threat to some dearly cherished notions of human nature and the proper social order. Their response to the view proposed here is likely to be increasingly heated denials that science does or should have the final say about who we are, and a more fervid embrace of dualistic faiths that proclaim human causal exceptionalism. The ideologically driven rejection of naturalism in the face of the increasing scientific understanding of ourselves may well emerge as a major conflict of the culture wars.

But even if it’s tough to sell, inclusive naturalism also the only honest position if we are to stay true to science. Some of the best minds in the business have come out in favor of what I’m proposing, and are helping to show its positive consequences. And it’s also the position that has the best chance, in the long run, of bringing about a better world, by changing our self-conception, our attitudes, and our behavior. The careful consideration of causality and our place in nature is nothing new, of course, but in explicitly challenging the myth of free will, an inclusive naturalism represents a true revolution in our self-understanding. This challenge is more or less the fulcrum on which positive naturalism gets its moral and practical leverage.

So what I would recommend, if sufficient consensus exists about the validity of the naturalism I’ve outlined, is to explore the question of how best to proceed in promoting it: For instance, to convene a working group on this issue and have conference on free will and naturalism would be important first steps, to be followed by books, position papers and articles in the humanist press. I think we can best make progress from the angle of denying the supernatural soul, of showing how contra-causal free will is a “weird thing” that makes us “little gods,” in other words by extending the critical examination of the supernatural into this next arena – our selves. We emphasize, of course, the application of science, evidence, critical thinking, and the fearless questioning of traditional assumptions that has so long characterized the secular humanist movement.

So the idea I’m proposing is to work first within the secular humanist community to build consensus around this, using the existing infrastructure. What’s missing and what must be developed is a detailed, concrete exploration of the positive applications of naturalism in family, work, society, and the planet. This has just barely begun. And we also need to work on how to present naturalism in a favorable light, to present it positively, not as a simply the denial of the supernatural. As I’ve tried to show, there are many profoundly positive implications for us both as individuals and for society, but to make this case will take more than sound bites. Ultimately, we have to come out on this issue to the wider public, since it’s too important to ignore, too much is at stake. An inclusive naturalism is both the truth about who we are, and it’s the best way forward on some major issues of our time. There’s excitement in thinking that this could be the beginning of a real turning point.

I’ve suggested, pessimistically, that this sort of naturalism might be a naturalism for the 25th century, but the question that I’ll end with is, might it not arrive sooner? Can we face the facts about who we are and see that an explicit, positive naturalism is the path to the world we want? I think the viability and relevance of the secular humanist movement depends a good deal on how we answer this question.


- Recent quotes on the soul and free will -

1. “It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that …striking differences [between individuals] must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somewhere in the bodily headquarters. We now know that as tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all.” Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003), p. 2.

2. “My primary target…is the widespread belief in our permanency as persons, the belief that there is an abiding “I” that accompanies experience but is irreducible to the continuity of our natural lives as embodied beings…[W]hy am I questioning these beliefs? Perhaps they are false, but they aren’t causing trouble. The answer is that they are causing trouble. Most philosophers and scientists in the twenty-first century see their job as making the world safe for a fully naturalistic view of things. The beliefs in nonnatural properties of persons, indeed of any non-natural thing, including – yes– God, stand in the way of understanding our natures truthfully and locating what makes life meaningful in a non-illusory way.” Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul (2002), pp. 167-8.

3. "Do …scientific advances challenge the first principles that the majority of our citizens believe provide the very foundation upon which our civilization rests – free will and the capacity to make moral choices?....Does this growing understanding of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior leave any room for free will?....How can the ever-mounting discoveries of biological, genetic, and environmental factors shaping human behavior be integrated into our culture without contributing to further erosion of individual responsibility?" Dr. Frederick Goodwin, opening remarks, conference on Neuroscience and the Human Spirit, 1998.

4. “I claim the varieties of free will I am defending are worth wanting precisely because they play all the valuable roles free will has traditionally been invoked to play. But I cannot deny that the tradition also assigns properties to free will that my varieties lack. So much the worse for tradition, say I.” Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 225

5. “My goal is defensive: to refute the accusation that a materialistic view of the mind is inherently amoral and that religious conceptions are to be favored because they are more humane.” Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002), p. 187

6. “Determinism is a threat to retributive desires, and more generally to reactive attitudes … because determinism is incompatible with origination… [G]iven human nature, determinism will serve as a reason to relinquish these attitudes.” Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (2001), p. l34.

7. “Our practices of holding people morally and rationally accountable will need to pay close attention to the many forces that constrain our choice and our reason. By so doing, we will show due respect for our increasing knowledge of human nature and perhaps discover more humane ways or responding to and treating our fellows.” Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, 158.

8. “The view that assumes nonnatural causation of the sort a Cartesian free will requires not only assumes something we have good reason to believe is false …but is actually a morally harmful picture. It engenders a certain passivity in the face of social problems that lead certain individuals to be malformed.” Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, p. 152.

9. “The death penalty is so popular that abolition will be impossible without a significant shift in public opinion. Such shifts have occurred several times in the past 250 years, however, and may occur again. In the past they have been caused by changing attitudes about the extent to which crime is a consequence of the criminal’s free will, changes that seemed to flow from better understanding of human behavior. We can expect similar developments in the future…[T]he balance of Americans’ beliefs about free will is not likely to remain static forever. When it changes, so too will opinion on capital punishment.” Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2003), p. 310-11.

10. "...if we understand that there are good evolutionary reasons for our wanting people to suffer when they have done direct or indirect harm to us, then we can account for our strong feelings about the appropriateness of retribution without presuming they are a guide to moral truth.... We may be able to recognize our retributivist feelings as a deep and important aspect of our character - and take them seriously to that extent - without endorsing them as a guide to truth, and start rethinking our attitudes toward punishment on that basis" Janet Radcliffe Richards, Human Nature After Darwin, (2001) p. 210.

11. “It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases." John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1974) p.104


Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, esp. chapter 4, “Free Will”

Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, esp. chapter 10, “Fear of Determinism”

Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will

Ted Honderich, How Free Are You?

Bruce Waller, The Natural Selection of Autonomy

Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Janet Radcliffe Richards, Human Nature After Darwin

Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History

Paul Breer, The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will

Back to top

Home      About Us      Programs      Resources      News      Contact      Support

Website Design by Backrow Design © 2006