Currents in Naturalism

July - August 2009

~ Center for Naturalism Newsletter ~


Additions to Naturalism.Org

~ Salience and Reputation - we need to take immediate action on behalf of global sustainability.

~ Fully Caused - coming to terms with pragmatic determinism.

~ Choosing Irrationality - review of Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, by Gene M. Heyman.


Heads Up

~ Scientific Naturalism and the Illusion of Free Will - Point of Inquiry podcast with CFN director Tom Clark and D. J. Grothe of the Center for Inquiry.

~ Got graphics? Announcing the CFN logo design contest.

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

~  Pew Forum data show that atheists self-identify as liberal more than any other group besides Unitarians and Buddhists, mentioned here. Why? See next item...

~ Physicist Sean Carroll explains the connection between holding a science-based worldview and positions on abortion and gay marriage.

~  Is free will free? A forum on free will at the World Science Festival is discussed at Tierney Lab.

~ Just joshing: Joshua Greene and Joshua Knobe engage in friendly debate about morality, retribution and reactive attitudes at Bloggingheads

~ Robert Wright and Tyler Cowen at Bloggingheads on God, theology and reality.

~ Bill Muehlenberg worries that the march of science could mean The end of freedom and dignity.  And relatedly...

~ Christian right lobbies to overturn second law of thermodynamics, The Onion reports.

~ Books of note:

~ Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, by Gene M. Heyman, reviewed here.

~ Understanding Naturalism, by Jack Ritchie, a good introduction to modern academic philosophical naturalism, its varieties, concerns and controversies.

~ The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, by J. P. Moreland, related interview here.

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Memeing Naturalism


Putting Epistemology First


The debate over so-called accomodationism (notably between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne, with significant contributions by Russell Blackford, Jason Rosenhouse and P. Z. Meyers) has raised the fundamental issue between naturalism and supernaturalism: how we know what's real. The National Center for Science Education and the National Association of Science seem to grant religion a special domain of epistemic competence in being able to decide the question of whether the supernatural exists, a domain in which science, they say, has no competence. But this seems wrong, as argued here. Science can investigate supernatural hypotheses if they have testable content, and religion has no special reliable mode of knowing which shows that something beyond nature exists, although theologians such as John F. Haught argue it does.

Of course, there are important questions we can ask about reality outside the direct purview of scientific theorizing. Supernaturalist Ken Miller suggests some: "Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes it accessible to our powers of logic and observation?" And he points to "the deeper questions of why we are here and whether existence has a purpose."
To the extent these questions involve matters of fact, or that they imply a factual state of affairs within which we ask them, we'll want to use our most reliable mode of knowing to ascertain those facts, which is science. What is the nature of existence, that it might or might not have a purpose? What is it about the methods of science that explains why it works so well?


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Freedom From Free Will


Back in February 2008, the New York Times and many other news outlets made mention of research conducted by Jonathan Schooler and Kathleen Vohs, which suggested that people cheat more when induced to believe they don’t have free will (discussed at Memeing Naturalism here). This finding, they argued, raises concerns about disseminating the idea that we might be fully caused in our behavior: we might get demoralized by determinism. Perhaps we should maintain at least the fiction of free will even if we don’t actually have it. But perhaps not. That we need not be demoralized by determinism is argued here, and that determinism is in fact indispensable to us here.

These concerns resurfaced in a debate between psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Bargh at the recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology convention in Tampa. Their presentations are on YouTube here and here respectively, and the debate continues on their Psychology Today blogs here and here. Baumeister, worried about demoralization, wants to spike the idea that human behavior is fully determined, so he floats the unlikely proposal that causation at the macro level isn’t deterministic (same causes, same effects) but more a matter of probabilities (same causes, a range of possible effects). The latter is likely true for micro-level quantum phenomena but there’s no evidence that it’s true at the level of human behavior. I try to steer him straight about determinism here, and try to persuade him that determinism isn’t demoralizing here, with help from philosopher Tamler Sommers. Further, Baumeister’s view of free will itself is somewhat confused, a mixture of naturalistic compatibilism and contra-causal libertarianism, so I try to clarify things for him here. Fortunately he’s a forgiving soul and seems completely unfazed by my meddling...


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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.


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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Heads Up

Memeing Naturalism

Ongoing Activities

Online Resources




News Archives





Center for Naturalism


Background on Naturalism


Viability of Naturalism




Applied Naturalism


Spirituality Naturalized