Currents in Naturalism

 May-June 2008

~ Center for Naturalism Newsletter ~


Additions to Naturalism.Org

~ Sending the Self On Vacation - how we might naturalize enlightenment.

~ Projecting God - the logical and psychological pitfalls of theological justification.

~ Repressing Revenge - why we should not stop stigmatizing our retributive instincts.

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Heads Up

~ International Humanist and Ethical Union's World Humanist Congress, June 5-8, 2008, Washington DC, in conjunction with the American Humanist Association's annual national conference.

~ I Skeptic: Modern Skepticism in the Internet Age, theme of The Amazing Meeting 6, June 19-22, 2008, Las Vegas, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation.   

~ Emergence: Nature's Mode of Creativity - the Human Dimension at Star Island, NH, July 26-August 2. Speakers will include Terence Deacon, U. California Berkeley; Philip Clayton, Claremont University; and Ursula Goodenough.

~ Atheist Alliance International Convention, September 25-28, Long Beach, CA.

~ Eau Courant - occasional sips of news related to naturalism and its implications, updated erratically.

~ Selected bibliography of books on or related to naturalism.

~ Taner Edis on non-metaphysical naturalism - a 5 part blog series exploring the question of whether naturalists can, and should, avoid armchair metaphysics.

~ Note to Science: Philosophy is Your Friend - philosopher Robert Delfino advises science not to presume naturalism, quite right...

~ Accountable But Not Responsible - a doctor of behavioral medicine uses compassionate accountability to address addiction.

~ Thinkbuddha.Org - a well-written and nicely illustrated weblog, developing naturalistic Buddhism in the context of contemporary philosophy.

~ The Secular Web's Great Debate between naturalism and theism is now complete and awaits your feedback.

~ Apex Naturalism - an online magazine for the naturalistic community.

~ Books of note: 

Fully Caused: The Benefits of a Naturalistic Understanding of Behavior by Ken Batts, see below.

God's Debris - by free will skeptic Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, some amusing commentary here.

Are We Free?: Psychology and Free Will - edited by John Baer, James Kaufman and Roy Baumeister; chapters available here, here and here; related commentary here.

Naturalism, by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliafero, first of a series from the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, publication release notes are here.

Becoming Human: The Development of Language, Self, and Self-Consciousness, by John Canfield.

Lack of Character, by John Doris, discussed below.

The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey.

The Myth of Free Will, by Cris Evatt (reviewed here)

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Short Takes


Fully Caused:
The Benefits of a Naturalistic Understanding of Behavior

by Ken Batts


In his online book Fully Caused, psychotherapist and naturalist Ken Batts brings together diverse examples of what might be called applied naturalism: how a naturalistic view of ourselves can help us in our day-to-day lives, in improving behavioral health, and in formulating social policy. This collection of short excerpts and quotes from many contributors, past and present, shows that an unflinching causal understanding of behavior is the route to a compassionate and effective engagement with each other and with life in all its dimensions. The opposite understanding - that we can, if we choose, rise above the causal web - sets us up to take ultimate credit and blame, with all the psychological fallout this entails. It also prevents us from appreciating the actual determinants of ourselves and our actions, which necessarily reduces our effectiveness as we seek to create environments that bring out the best in us. Each contributor accepts the causal view, and each offers their own distillation of naturalistic wisdom, whether it's a brief philosophical observation or a practical recommendation coming from their expertise. Represented here are philosophers, scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioral therapists, and even a business consultant.

        Batts himself contributes useful notes on many of the selections which clarify the issues and draw out the major themes. He also provides an introduction that discusses the difficulties of supernatural concepts, in particular the assumption of contra-causal free will. Challenging this assumption seems an affront to much that we hold near and dear, so it remains an unpopular undertaking - no one will thank you for upsetting their worldview. But one virtue of Fully Caused is to demonstrate the intellectual and empirical integrity of this challenge as expressed by so many good thinkers from different eras and backgrounds. Seeing how this challenge can result in concrete improvements to our lives should seal the deal.  

     That we are fully caused is not wild, crazy or esoteric; it's  commonsensical and backed up by science. We just have to get used to the idea that we aren't nature's little causal exceptions, running around loose. If we can wrap our minds around this, as the contributors to Fully Caused show is eminently possible, we can start reaping the benefits of naturalism, which can be found on each page of this book. (Since I'm a contributor, observe the usual precautions in taking my recommendation.  - Tom Clark)



Tamler Sommers on Living Without Free Will


Philosopher Tamler Sommers, now at the University of Minnesota but headed for the University of Houston, is a young, very sharp advocate of free will skepticism. Psychology Today hosts a blog on what's become known as experimental philosophy, and Sommers weighs in with a nice piece on research by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, which purports to show that eroding belief in free will leads to cheating. Sommers points out just how difficult it is for leading atheists (e.g., Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett) to take the logical next step and come out against contra-causal free will, which is at least as preposterous as belief in god. What accounts for their reluctance is, perhaps, the fear that without belief in free will society is toast - we'd all start cheating and running amok.

       But Sommers argues that Vohs and Schooler's study is likely flawed, that after the initial shock wears off (if indeed there's shock) of being disillusioned about free will, we'd return to business as usual. We can be morally upright citizens without supposing we aren't fully caused to be that way. (Yes, and see here for further discussion.) As any good researcher must, Sommers calls for more research to test his hypothesis, for instance a longitudinal study (surveying the same people yearly over the course of a decade, for instance) of attitudes and behaviors among free will deniers compared to free will believers. This would provide data on whether disbelief in free will really has a corrupting effect on one's ethics and actions.

       Sommers also points us to his paper "The Objective Attitude," which argues persuasively that we don't need belief in ultimate, buck-stopping responsibility to value each other, or find life meaningful. In other words, we won't end up psychological basket cases should we not only give up belief in god, but belief in the freely willing soul. We might even be morally the better for it. Sommers, proud father of a young daughter and a Red Sox fan, is himself living proof positive of this. But to be responsible empiricists, we should continue to collect more data.



Humanist Contemplatives


Most of us in the West generally don't spend much time looking inward, deliberately taking stock of our values, trying with the help of contemplative practices to cultivate virtues such as mindfulness and compassion. We believe primarily in action, so to spend time  investigating ourselves can seem like self-indulgence, which it is when pursued exclusively. But some mindfulness might be in order so that we become more principled and effective in action itself.  

      Such is the premise of the Humanist Contemplatives, a loose-knit association of naturalistic humanists based in Houston headed up by Daniel Strain. As described here, they seek to further progressive, humanistic values by means of attentional and contemplative practices, such as meditation, and by philosophical exploration of fundamental assumptions. In this they are somewhat the secular equivalent of Zen Buddhists, who for centuries have sought to clear the way for right action by first clearing the mind and discarding delusions. Secular humanism has its philosophical basis in scientific naturalism - that there is a single natural world in which we are fully included - and this truth about ourselves can perhaps be felt and intuited (although not empirically confirmed) via meditation (about which see here and here).

        Humanist contemplatives are engaged in clarifying their values in the light of our best knowledge about the world, while bringing their everyday personal behavior into accord with those values, trying to set a good example. In this they are on an essentially spiritual quest, even though no gods or spirits inhabit their worldview (they even use the s-word and the r-word).

       They distinguish themselves from the sort of evangelical atheists that get most of the attention, more or less opting out of the culture wars. Rather, as they put it, they "seek to build reputations of integrity and respect, even among those with different or opposed beliefs." The Humanist Contemplatives are thus modeling an irenic, non-combative stance in how they hold their worldview, something the world could use more of these days. That stance is made possible by being reasonably secure and non-defensive in their beliefs, which in turn comes from having things well sorted out in advance. If you spend even a little time contemplating your beliefs, checking their justifications, and coming fully to terms with who you fundamentally are, then you won't mind challenges to your worldview quite as much.

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Memeing Naturalism


Do We Lack Character?


Psychotherapist Larry More writes:

I want to bring to your attention I book that I think you will find useful and interesting. It is entitled Lack of Character by John Doris, 2002. The author is a philosopher of ethics, and main theme of the book is that character (in what we speak of as "moral character") does not exist in the way that we tend to believe, and therefore character ethics is a rather different enterprise than we usually assume, which he goes on to discuss.

        Doris thoroughly reviews and discusses the social psychology research which has repeatedly evidenced that there is little empirical justification for our assuming any internal, temporal, or cross-situational consistency to behavior (as is implied, if not required, by our usual notions of moral character).
        As a psychologist, I remember well the furor that was created in 1968 when persistent findings of low trait-behavior correlations and negligible cross-situational consistency resulted in suggestions that there was no central personality structure. The urgency around this issue lasted over 10 years, and was never really resolved; the field just passed it by. It seems to me that this response was in some sense the same one that is now arising around naturalism, determinism, retribution, will-power, responsibility, and so on. Doris does no more than touch in passing on the philosophical issue of determinism vs. free will (a page on compatibilism) and talks about supernaturalism not at all. Nevertheless, I am thinking that his emphasis on situational influences on (determinants of) behavior mark this book as naturalistic in orientation


- continued here



The Collective Rationality of Responsibility

Political scientist Everett Young writes:

A thought occurred to me regarding the ongoing discussions of morality and ethics and the lack of free will. There's actually a very neat point that is hidden in your take on "holding people responsible" which I don't think is explicitly made, but could be made explicit. I'm borrowing here from some of the basics of political economy and game theory.
        It is certainly the case that by holding people responsible, their behavior is caused to be more pro-social. But there are two points I'd like to add here.
        The first is that I not only want to hold others responsible for their actions, but it's actually advantageous to me to be held responsible for my own actions! Why is this? It's not because I want to harm others wantonly--evolution has mostly made it so that most animals don't want to do that to conspecifics, even without the benefits of conscious, deliberative thought. No, actually, the reason I want to be held responsible for my actions is that if I'm not, then in a competitive world, others may be forced to defensively assume that, not being held responsible, I will outcompete them. They are then forced to "defect" in game-theoretical terms, or behave anti-socially toward me. I, in turn, knowing that they know that I'm not held responsible for my actions, know that they will anticipate this and will try to outcompete me, so when I'm not held responsible, I'm not just "free" to behave anti-socially, I'm forced to...

- 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.

~ Lowell Philosophy Cafe meets in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, Steve Berthiaume, moderator.

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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.

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

Short Takes

Memeing Naturalism

Ongoing Activities

Online Resources




News Archives





Center for Naturalism


Background on Naturalism


Viability of Naturalism




Applied Naturalism