Currents in Naturalism

January - February 2009

~ Center for Naturalism Newsletter ~


Additions to Naturalism.Org

~ Worldview Elements - review of Living Without God by Ron Aronson.

~ Real Diseases - the moral and practical significance of physicalism.

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Heads Up

~ Center for Inquiry's World Congress on science, public policy, and the planetary community, April 9-12, Bethesda, MD.

~ American Humanist Association conference, June 5-7, Phoenix, AZ.

~ Freethought events, courtesy of the Secular Web and Jason Torpy.

~ National secular organizations ask Obama to refuse the honorary presidency of the Boy Scouts of America, given its exclusion of non-theists and naturalists.

~ Reasonable Doubts explores the virtues of a thorough-going naturalism that doubts contra-causal free will. 

~ Tamler Sommers suggests that Richard Dawkins equivocates on the reality of free will. More on D's view(s) about free will, responsibility and punishment is here.

~ Sharon Begley at Newsweek on the normal basis for supernatural beliefs.

~ There are no ghosts in your brain - P. Z. Myers on how neurons do it all.

 ~ Children and the scientific worldview - Joshua Knobe and Alison Gopnik discuss at Bloggingheads.

~ The (not too technical) case for the four dimensional spacetime block universe, by Vesselin Petkov of Concordia University, agreeing with physicist Brian Greene.

~  New blogs of note: La Revolucion Naturalista, Swimming the Sacred River (on naturalistic spirituality), Free Thinking (Center for Inquiry).

~ Books of note:

~ The Ego Tunnel - neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger's forthcoming book on the science of mind and the myth of the self.

~ Ron Aronson, interviewed on his new book Living Without God, coins "responsibilism."

~ Everything Has Two Handles - the Stoic's guide to the art of living, by Ron Pies.

~ Announcing the forthcoming anthology, Voices of Disbelief, Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, editors.

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Short Takes

The Flame of Divinity

Ben Shapiro, arch conservative author of Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future, is up in arms about an ad campaign by the American Humanist Association (AHA) in Washington D.C.  Signs on buses say “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” Shapiro thinks that without god we're doomed:

...without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will. That’s because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions -- the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power -- a spark of the supernatural.

He goes on to draw out the perilous consequences of being without supernatural souls: no freedom, no responsibility, moral and legal chaos, the end of equality and the advent of totalitarianism. Not a pretty picture. To avoid a social meltdown we have to stick with theism: a system of thought, atheism cannot be the basis for any functional state. If we wish to protect freedom and equality, we must understand the value of recognizing God. We must recognize the flame of divinity -- free will -- He implanted within each of us.

Many folks, theistic or not, might agree with Shapiro that without a freedom that transcends biology and environment we're sunk. But Shapiro doesn't see (or see fit to mention) that there are viable naturalistic alternatives to supernatural free will which ground responsibility, equality, political and personal freedom and the whole nine yards of Western civilization. Once people understand this, then we needn't propagate the fiction that we are moral levitators to avoid mass demoralization. This is why it would be helpful if the AHA and other naturalist organizations were to address worries about the soul and free will as they do worries about god. We don't need the "flame of divinity" within us to secure any human good, any more than we need divinity itself. 


Even Killers Don't Deserve to Die
(letter appearing in the Boston Globe)


To the Editors:

Thanks to the Globe for pointing out good reasons to oppose the death penalty (“Cruel and more unusual,” Editorial, Dec. 28). Left unmentioned, however, was any argument against a common justification for execution: murderers deserve to die because they freely choose to kill. Were we to take a fully scientific, cause and effect view of the genesis of a killer’s character, motives, state of mind, and situation, we would no longer suppose that he could have done otherwise given his genetic and environmental history and his current circumstances, internal and external.
         This view doesn’t diminish the moral gravity of the offense or the necessity to protect society, but it calls into question the free will justification for retributive punishment. As psychologists Joshua Greene (Harvard) and Jonathan Cohen (Princeton) conclude in their 2004 paper “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London:
Free will as we ordinarily understand it is an illusion generated by our cognitive architecture. Retributivist notions of criminal responsibility ultimately depend on this illusion…”
         Give up the illusion, and we’ve got another good reason to oppose the death penalty: killers don’t deserve to die. 

                              - Thomas W. Clark, Director, Center for Naturalism

Follow-up: See here for some online commentary from readers, which not surprisingly runs the gamut from ridicule to incredulity, but also includes welcome minority support from some friendly naturalists.

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Memeing Naturalism

Science Wars: Dualism vs. Materialism


The prestige of science is such that everyone wants it on their side. Science is a trusted arbiter of facts for most of us, at least when it comes to empirical questions on which evidence can be brought to bear. So it’s little wonder that even those with patently faith-based convictions about the nature of things should try to conscript it to their advantage. The obvious examples are creationists and advocates of intelligent design who argue that were it properly conducted, science would provide support for their supernatural hypotheses (see here). The argument thus becomes about the nature of science itself: does it have canonical methods and assumptions? What are these, and are certain scientists guilty of letting their worldview warp good scientific practice? If science as it’s commonly conducted doesn’t support your metaphysics, then the temptation might be to claim that mainstream scientists are guilty of malfeasance.


The intelligent design controversy is perhaps the biggest front on the science wars, followed by disputes over the paranormal, but a new front is opening up around the issue of materialism or physicalism. Is science biased in favor of the materialist-physicalist assumption, the idea that nature fundamentally contains only material things? A small but vocal group of self-styled anti-materialist and dualist neuroscientists held a mind-body symposium at the UN last year, arguing that science has indeed been hijacked by dogmatic materialists, who wrongly discount evidence for categorically non-physical phenomena. New Scientist ran a good article about it, quoting some well-respected mainstream scientists and philosophers who, unsurprisingly, see the anti-materialists as the dogmatists, intent on warping science to serve their agenda.

- continued here


No Problem With Determinism


Psychology Today hosts a wide variety of blogs written by psychologists, therapists, philosophers and other assorted professionals concerned with mind, body and behavior. New on the block is One Among Many by Brown University social psychologist Joachim I. Krueger, who posted recently on "Troubles with determinism." As the title suggests, he worries that a consistently determinist view of ourselves might undercut our sense of agency and self-efficacy. As he puts it,

The problem of determinism is a deep one, and I think that neither scientific nor folk psychology have come to grips with it. In scientific psychology, there is constant friction between deterministic theories, such as behaviorism (or any other theory describing "mechanisms") and theories stressing human agency. What academic psychology seems to be telling us is that human behavior follows scientifically detectable laws and that at the same time we have the power to choose and change apart from these laws.

It's crucial to see that determinism doesn't conflict with genuine human agency, including the power to change ourselves. Human beings, though caused in each and every respect, are just as real as the causes that shaped them, and they still have real causal powers to pursue their goals, including those set by psychotherapy. We can't logically attribute causal power to the factors that create human agents and yet deny it for the agents themselves (see Avoiding demoralization by determinism).


- continued here

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Ongoing Activities

~ Naturalism Meetups - monthly get-togethers for those wanting to explore and meme naturalism.

~ Philosophy Cafe @ Harvard Book Store - monthly philosophical discussions on any number of topics; moderated, with refreshments. No worldview commitment required.

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For those interested in learning more about naturalism, or in participating in outreach, research, and writing in collaboration with the CFN, here are a few resources, online and otherwise.


New:  Causality Consulting - practical philosophical consultation that's science-based, short-term, and results-driven.

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses - "the little orange book of naturalism" is in its second printing, available at Amazon. About the book, see

Naturalism: The Next Step for Humanists? - online video presentation about naturalism for the Freethought Association of Western Michigan; works as a spoken introduction to the philosophy and its implications.

Applied Naturalism Group - a forum to explore the personal and social applications of naturalism; membership by application.


Naturalism Philosophy Forum  - to facilitate the investigation of scientific naturalism, its assumptions, structure, and logical implications; open membership.

Naturalism as a World View - Richard Carrier's page devoted to explaining and defending naturalism.


Religious Naturalism - an online group explores the spiritual implications of naturalism, see Religious Naturalism and its associated Yahoo group.


Psychological Self-Help - an excellent resource, see in particular two chapters on determinism applied to issues of self-acceptance and self-control.  


Cause and Effect World - a smart and skeptical take on this crazy thing called life with host Samantha Clemens; her radio shows, including one on naturalism, are linked here.


Garden of Forking Paths - a free will/moral agency blog with knowledgeable contributors on the leading edge of current academic debates.


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