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The Viability of Naturalism

This page links to resource materials related to the viability of naturalism as a worldview with beneficial personal and social implications. 
 

 

 

Recent Writing on the Self and Free Will

Below are brief mentions and quotes from a selection of recent books and articles that bear on free will, the self, and the implications of naturalism for social policy and personal well being. The first section covers writers skeptical about traditional contra-causal free will, the second section covers some who think that although we don’t have such free will, we should still encourage a belief in it, and the third covers those who defend traditional accounts of human agency against science and naturalism. This selection of writers isn’t in any sense exhaustive or representative, but simply reflects my own reading and what I consider to be the most relevant and ground-breaking writings on this set of issues. What follows (in Section 1) should at least convince those who doubt the viability of naturalism that Naturalism.org is not unique or crazy in suggesting that 1) we don’t have free will and that 2) we’d be better off if we made our peace with this fact and adjusted our beliefs and social practices accordingly.

 

I. The following writers are skeptical about or deny traditional libertarian, contra-causal free will, and some explore the personal and social implications of this denial.

Paul Breer - The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will Published by the Institute for Naturalistic Philosophy in 1989, this book was among the first for the wider public (perhaps the first) to explicitly challenge the traditional notion of free will and make the case that a fully naturalistic view of ourselves offers significant advantages.  (Full disclosure: I'm a good friend of Paul and helped to edit his book.)  Breer examines both the experiential and philosophical views of the self and its freedom, guiding the reader through exercises that expose the illusion of contra-causal agency, and suggesting how the insight that thoughts and actions arise on their own, without need of a supervisory self, might change attitudes and behavior.   This book is well written, very well informed philosophically and culturally, but still highly practical in addressing the personal psychology of living without free will.   It's still the best single book on the manifold implications of naturalism, well ahead of its time.  Here are the contents: 

Part I - In Search of the Homunculus:   An overview of the agency problem; What does it mean to say I?; How do I know that I exist? : an experiment; Linguistic and social origins of free agency.

Part II - A Question of Survival:   The self-governing organism; Moral responsibility and social control.

Part III - Psychological Implications of Giving Up Free Will:   Blaming others, blaming ourselves; Beyond pride and virtue; Releasing the wheel; Going gentle into that good night; The will to power; Emotions: torrents of the soul; Love and sexuality; Just who do we thing we are?

Part IV- Dispelling the Free Will Illusion:   A strategy for giving up the ghost; A dignity we never had.

Daniel Dennett has written Freedom Evolves (2003) , a wide-ranging exploration of what it actually means to be free in a deterministic universe.  Although Dennett is conservative in drawing any revisionary conclusions about our social practices based on his view of freedom, he is stoutly naturalistic, which means that what he means by free will isn't what's traditionally supposed.  Whether retributive justifications for punishment, for instance, are supported by his definition of free will is quite an open question, one which I hope he will explicitly address in future writings.  See his interview in Reason magazine.

Ted Honderich maintains an excellent web page, the Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website, where you can find many recent articles by major philosophical players in the current debate on free will.  His own position is decidedly naturalistic and deterministic, and he questions the traditional retributive rationales for punishment, as for instance in his book Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, and more recently in his essay "Punishment, the principle of humanity, and the death penalty."  At his site I particularly recommend Richard Double's recent article, "The Moral Hardness of Libertarians" which takes philosophical libertarians to task for their ascriptions of blame in the absence of good evidence that we have libertarian free will.

Bruce Waller has written some excellent books on free will and moral responsibility, one of which, The Natural Selection of Autonomy, is reviewed at this site.  Another is Freedom Without Responsibility.  He argues for a naturalistic rejection of traditional free will, and although I disagree with his conclusion that moral responsibility of any sort ceases to exist under naturalism, I'm sympathetic to his conclusions regarding how we might change psychologically and socially once we accept a naturalistic view of ourselves.

Owen Flanagan, Duke University philosopher and brain scientist, in his new book The Problem of the Soul, mounts a direct attack on traditional conceptions of self, soul, consciousness, and free will (see my review of this book). For my money, this is currently the most comprehensive, well-argued and well-documented case for naturalism as it applies to ourselves, meaning, and morality. Flanagan says that we should discard the supernatural conception of the self, along with contra-causal, libertarian free will, and get comfortable with the idea that we are entirely physical, natural creatures, who don’t need to be exceptions to causality in order to be held responsible, sustain morality, or find meaning in life. "There is…no such thing as Cartesian free will. But maybe, just maybe, we can abandon that fiction and still get all the goodies we think only it can provide" (145). Flanagan comes out and says what many scientists and philosophers most likely believe, but are afraid to express, given that free will and the soul are such foundational assumptions in our culture. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. See also "Neuroscience, Agency, and the Meaning of Life" in Flanagan’s book Self-Expressions, Oxford University Press, 1996: "We typically have no accurate and ongoing personal access to proximate causal antecedents of conscious acts of thought and choice, and this can produce a ‘user illusion’ that unmoved volitions precede and guide acts" (p. 56, and see Daniel Wegner’s book discussed immediately below on this point). "I think we know for sure that neuroscience is not going to find any place for metaphysical freedom of the will, since that would involve neuroscientific vindication of the hypothesis that there is a faculty that initiates thought and action without itself having causal antecedents" (p. 58).

Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist, says in his recent book The Illusion of Conscious Will, that the feeling that we will our actions is a pretty reliable guide that an action is indeed ours, but that we shouldn’t suppose that we cause ourselves to behave. It may seem that we initiate action in some sense independently of past and surrounding conditions, but this is because we are largely ignorant of the actual causes of our behavior, which we aren’t in a very good position to observe accurately. True, our conscious intentions often precede our voluntary actions, but where do intentions come from? This is a highly readable and very comprehensive look at how the experience of willing is generated, how it can be modified by manipulating the conditions in which we behave, and what the implications are for our beliefs about human agency. In the last chapter, Wegner draws the conclusion that we don’t have free will, but that the sense of doing is an essential marker of moral responsibility because it reliably corresponds to actions that are voluntary and that flow from our character, concerns and motives. I’ve reviewed his book at Science and Consciousness Review.

Derk Pereboom, a philosophy professor at the University of Vermont, argues in Living Without Free Will, that we don’t possess traditional libertarian freedom, and that this fact has significant implications for our attitudes, beliefs, interpersonal relations, and practices related to criminal justice. As he puts it, "Determinism is a threat to retributive desires, and more generally to the reactive attitudes connected to the practice of holding people morally responsible, because determinism is incompatible with origination, and…determinism will serve as a reason to relinquish these attitudes" (134). Although I think we can still usefully talk about moral responsibility within a naturalistic, deterministic framework, Pereboom’s approach recognizes that beliefs connected to the assumption of contra-causal agency must change in important ways, and that practices which assume such agency, e.g., retributive punishment, will have to be dropped, replaced by more humane, less punitive means of dealing with offenders. This book, along with Ted Honderich’s work (see http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/) and some of my articles (e.g., at http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm, http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm, and http://www.naturalism.org/addictio.htm) is among the few recent attempts to actually use the naturalistic conclusion about free will in a critique of criminal justice and social policy, and for this reason it’s an important breakthrough in applied naturalism. Pereboom’s homepage is at http://www.uvm.edu/~phildept/pereboom.html. Pereboom has a chapter, as do Honderich and Galen Strawson (see below) in Robert Kane’s excellent anthology, The Oxford Handbook on Free Will.

Stephen Morse, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively on free will, determinism, and the law, and concludes that we don't have libertarian freedom.  Crucially, he shows that even in a deterministic universe the law still serves the essential function of guiding behavior.  Although he advocates certain reforms in criminal justice, he stops well short of Pereboom's (and my own) radical rethinking of the aims of the law.  Nevertheless, Morse's work, (along with a few others', such as Michael Moore) represents an extremely important development in legal theory, since it is in criminal justice, after all, where notions of responsibility are most often thought to depend on contra-causal agency.  For a nice summary of his position, plus a good bibliography of his work, see Rationality and Responsibility, and for a longer, more technical paper, see Guiding Goodness

Janet Radcliffe Richards - Human Nature After Darwin.  In this excellent and enlightening introduction to critical thinking, philosophy, and Darwinism, Richards takes a thoroughly naturalistic view of the self, free will, morality, and meaning.  I've quoted her at the top of the Criminal Justice page, to the effect that "...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" (210).  Richards argues forcefully that traditional free will is incoherent, and says: "The need to sort out [issues of punishment and responsibility] is increasingly relevant in practice, as we advance in understanding the influence of both heredity and environment in making us what we are, and claims about criminal genes or the influence of television are brought into court as providers of excuses in particular cases. Confusions have real effects on how people are treated, and if how people are treated matters, it matters to do everything possible to get the arguments right.   The philosophical disentangling of such issues is morally essential" (152).

Susan Blackmore, in her book The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999), contends that the self is a construction of memes, which she calls the "self-plex":

"Each self-plex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge…Free will, like the self who "has" it, is an illusion. Terrifying as this thought seems, I suggest it is true" (p.236).

"The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness, and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth to the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this idea is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will" (p. 237).

"Dennett (Elbow Room, 1984) has described many versions of the idea of free will and argues that some of them are worth wanting. Unlike Dennett, I neither think the ‘user illusion’ is benign, nor do I want any version of free will that ascribes it to a self who does not exist" (p. 237).

"If my understanding of human nature is that there is no conscious self inside then I must live that way – otherwise this is a vain and lifeless theory of human nature. But how can ‘I’ live as though I do not exist, and who would be choosing not to do so?" (p. 242).

Blackmore goes on to describe various meditative and concentration techniques for extinguishing the false sense of self, which, as it turns out, isn’t necessary for creativity, decision-making, personal responsibility, or any other socially desirable trait (p. 245). In fact, she suggests, ridding ourselves of the user-illusion could have quite beneficial effects by reducing self-concern and increasing compassion and empathy (p. 246).

Please visit Dr. Blackmore's website, http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/, for descriptions of her forthcoming work, including a book on consciousness.

Galen Strawson, "Luck Swallows Everything," Times Literary Supplement, June, 1998: "In order for one to be truly or ultimately responsible for how one is in such a way that one can be truly responsible for what one does, something impossible has to be true: there has to be, and cannot be, a starting point in the series of acts of bringing it about that one has a certain nature; a starting point that constitutes an act of ultimate self-origination. There is a more concise way of putting the point: in order to be ultimately responsible, one would have to be causa sui - the ultimate cause or origin of oneself, or at least of some crucial part of one’s mental nature. But nothing can be ultimately causa sui in any respect at all. Even if the property of being causa sui is allowed to belong unintelligibly to God, it cannot plausibly be supposed to be possessed by ordinary finite human beings…The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, as Nietzsche remarked in 1886: ‘it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for "freedom of the will" in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness…’ In fact, nearly all of those who believe in strong free will do so without any conscious thought that it requires ultimate self-origination. But self-origination is the only thing that could actually ground the kind of strong free will that is regularly believed in." Strawson’s article can be found at http://www.naturalism.org/strawson.htm.

John Bargh and Melissa Ferguson, "Beyond Behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes," Psychological Bulletin, 2000, v 126 #6, 925-945: "It is not necessary to invoke the idea of free will or a nondetermined version of consciousness as a casual explanatory mechanism in accounting for higher mental processes in humans" (p. 939). "…[T]he feeling of volition does not require the existence of an act of will and so cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of volitional acts" (p. 940).

Irving Kirsch, "Volition as believed-in imagining," in Believed-In Imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality, Rivera and Sarbin, eds., 1998 American Psychological Association, 157-168: "The concept of volition as anything more than an introspective judgment invokes the magic of free will…It requires abandonment of the law of conservation of energy and of an explanatory science of behavior. Once one concludes that a behavior was genuinely chosen, one necessarily gives up the right to inquire into its determinants" p. 165.

Francesco Varela. Here are excerpts from "What a Relief! I Don’t Exist: Buddhism and the Brain," an interview with cognitive scientist Francisco Varela (co-author, now deceased, of The Embodied Mind) in Inquiring Mind, V16, #1, Fall 1999, special issue on What We Know About Ourselves: Dharma and Science:

Q: "One of the most interesting, and somewhat shocking, conclusions currently emerging from cognitive research is scientists’ apparent inability to find a ‘self’ or director in the brain who runs our personal drama." Varela : "…With few exceptions, cognitive scientists have come to understand the egolessness of self. What is surprising, however, is how little their scientific conclusion is taken personally, or really applied to the individual’s life." p. 7

Varela: "What science can do…is to give the notion of selflessness a stamp of authority or validity. In some cases, at least, this may motivate people to look at themselves with fresh eyes." p. 8

Q: "If we see clearly how the process is taking place without any self, and therefore see very little free will within the process, we could certainly be led to a kind of despair or futility."

Varela: "Well, one possible reaction is to say, Oh, my God, I don’t exist. But from a dharmic perspective you might say, What a relief! I don’t have to hold onto the illusion of self. One of the things you realize in meditation practice is that once you let go of the belief in self, there are no terrible consequences. You do not cease to function or even thrive." p. 8

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: In a chapter entitled "Blaming the Victim," Wright argues that the increasing success of scientific explanation must shrink the domain of libertarian freedom to the point where we might as well admit that "we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern but that science can." Wright quotes Darwin’s journals which show that Darwin himself didn’t believe that free will exists, although he kept this opinion carefully to himself.

VS Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms of the Brain, 1998 Quill/William Morrow NY, pp. 246-257 on self, esp. as representation; "our sense of having a private, non-material soul ‘watching the world’ is really an illusion" p. 256

Thomas B. Czerner, M.D., What Makes You Tick? 2001, John Wiley and Sons, NY; chapter on "The Ghost in the Machine": "It is more than mildly disturbing to think of free will as an illusion." In this chapter Czerner explains why there isn’t an internal homunculus in the brain that witnesses or controls or that could have free will. He doesn’t, however, deal with the issues related to this discovery that might disturb us, such as responsibility and control.

Tom Wolfe, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," Forbes magazine, 1996: "Neuroscientists involved in three-dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self-consciousness ( Cogito ergo sum ) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system--and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth--what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What ‘ghost,’ what ‘mind,’ what ‘self,’ what ‘soul,’ what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you?" This essay was also reprinted in Wolfe’s book Hooking Up.

Steven Pinker joins the ranks of those who explicitly question the existence of free will, see below.

 

II. These writers suppose that free will is a necessary fiction

Saul Smilansky, in "Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusion" in Robert Kane’s excellent book, The Oxford Handbook on Free Will, argues that even though libertarian, contra-causal free will doesn’t exist, believing that it does is essential to maintain strong moral commitments, respect for human agents, and meaning in life. This is by far the most explicit argument mounted for a two-tiered system of knowledge and belief: there are those in the know (mostly philosophers and scientists) who realize the naturalistic truth about ourselves, and then there’s the rest of us - the vast majority who must be misled as to our real nature, lest we become demoralized. Because naturalism denies that we have free will, according to Smilansky it is too morally dangerous an idea to justify its dissemination. This suggests that Smilansky might oppose publication of such works as Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul (see above in Section 1) and would advocate censorship of any discussion of naturalism. See my discussion of Smilansky in "Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction?", in which I strongly contest his claim that we need the illusion of free will to lead meaningful, moral lives, and that therefore we need not sequester knowledge about who and what we really are.

John Horgan, The Undiscovered Mind, 1999 Free Press, p. 247: "If free will is an illusion, however, it is an absolutely necessary one, more so than God." Horgan joins several commentators, including Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works, see below), and Saul Smilansky (see above) who suppose that that we need the fiction of free will.  (Most recently, see his New York Times piece on free will and my commentary and correspondence.)  But how do we maintain such an illusion in the face of what is becoming ever more common knowledge about our causal antecedents in both genetics and the environment? Will those who champion illusionism, such as Horgan and Smilansky, actually seek to restrict understanding about naturalism and its viability as a world view? Have they really investigated the potential of naturalism to ground our legal and moral practices, and its implications for finding meaning in life? If not, then they are on rather shaky ground in opposing education about naturalism.

Matt Ridley, Genome, the last chapter which is on free will: "Full responsibility for one’s actions is a necessary fiction without which the law would flounder, but it is a fiction all the same" (p.309). Actually, the law might not flounder, but retributive justifications for punishment might lose force. See the Criminal Justice page for extended discussion of this point, at http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm, and see especially Derk Pereboom’s Living Without Free Will for an argument that we don’t need belief in free will to defend viable moral and criminal justice practices.

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works: "Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable. Euclidean geometry requires idealizations like infinite straight lines and perfect circles, and its deductions are sound and useful even though the world does not really have infinite straight lines or perfect circles. The world is close enough to the idealization that the theorems can usefully be applied. Similarly, ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused, and its conclusions can be sound and useful even though the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events. As long as there is no outright coercion or gross malfunction of reasoning, the world is close enough to the idealization of free will that moral theory can meaningfully be applied to it" (p. 55). I take Pinker considerably to task for this in "Materialism and Morality: the Problem with Pinker" at http://www.naturalism.org/freewill3.htm.

Update:  Pinker's latest book, The Blank Slate, revises his views on free will, in that he no longer thinks it's a necessary fiction.  The chapter on "The Fear of Determinism" takes an explicitly deterministic stance, and usefully demonstrates the absurdity of contra-causal free will and why we shouldn't worry about being fully caused creatures.  However, Pinker remains conservative in not drawing any conclusions about how not having free will might affect our attitudes towards punishment, credit, and blame,; that is, he doesn't explore the implications of determinism for ethical theory.  This, despite the fact that in How the Mind Works he claimed that "ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused" (see above) We await further progress by Pinker.

 

III. The backlash against scientific skepticism about the self and free will

Tibor Machan, in his book, Initiative: Human Agency and Society, claims both that free will exists and that it is the necessary basis for morality and successful social practices. He supposes that causal determinism is a threat to our capacities for reason, morality, effective action, justice, and originality, and that human beings are (fortunately!) singular exceptions to determinism by virtue of being self-caused causers. Although he contends that his approach is naturalistic, his notion of what counts as evidence includes appeals to the subjective feeling of free will, which as Daniel Wegner makes abundantly clear in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will (see above in Section 1), is highly unreliable evidence of anything except what we feel to be the case. Machan condemns most contemporary science and social theory for failing to appreciate what he takes to be the obvious and necessary fact of contra-causal human freedom ("initiative"), but those scientists and philosophers he cites as being on his side of the argument are few and far between compared to the majority of mainstream thinkers who more or less accept naturalism (although most have yet to state its implications explicitly, with the exception of those cited in Section I above).

Henry P. Stapp, "Attention, intention, and will in quantum physics," in The Volitional Brain, Libet, Freeman, and Sutherland, eds. Imprint Academic, 1999: "It has become now widely appreciated that assimilation by the general public of this ‘scientific’ view, according to which each human being is basically a mechanical robot, is likely to have a significant and corrosive impact on the moral fabric of society… [involving] the growing tendency of people to exonerate themselves by arguing that it is not 'I’ who is at fault, but some mechanical process within…" quoted in my "Fear of Mechanism" same volume, pp. 281-282. See this book also for a piece by Benjamin Libet defending a neuroscientific account of free will, which also gets critiqued by me in "Fear of Mechanism".

Conference on Neuroscience and the Human Spirit, 1998: As Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin, organizer of the conference puts it in his opening remarks, the question at the core of the gathering is "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?" Put otherwise: "Does this growing understanding of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior leave any room for free will?" And again: "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?" Goodwin expresses the intuition behind the threat: "To the extent that our choices are not truly free, it would seem that we have less moral responsibility for them."

Other variants of the threat come up throughout the conference, for instance, the threat to personhood: "…the more neuroscientists discover that our brains function in a manner analogous to some sort of biochemical robot, the more imperative it is that we as human beings not lose contact with that essence that prevents us from seeing ourselves as mere automatons" (Dr. Frederick J. Frese). Science may also threaten the basis for imposing accountability: "…will our greater ability to predict crime reduce our ability to condemn it?" (James Q. Wilson). The political and cultural battle lines of the threat are most vividly drawn by Charles Krauthammer: "…there’s an ideological agenda…, a sophisticated, elite culture that finds such notions as free will and human autonomy not just tiresome but [similar] to old religious superstitions. Instead, it would like to bring us all to the sophistication of a brave new mechanistic world in which moral judgments are personal and thus suspect; in which individual and personal responsibility is lost in a fog of a therapeutic culture whose ultimate sin is to be judgmental and whose most cherished ideal is healing."   Krauthammer is of course quite wrong on all these counts, since personal responsibility is quite sustainable within naturalism.  See for instance my Fear of Mechanism and Materialism and Morality.

Rychlak, R.J. and Rychlak, J.F., "Free will is a verifiable assumption: a reply to Garrett and Viney," New Ideas in Psychology, V8 #1, 1990, 43-51: "To move from the present position on this question [that is, to accept a fully causal account of human behavior] would be to abandon the assumption that humans are endowed with free will. Were the Law to abandon its belief in free will, the criminal justice system as we know it would collapse" p. 46. "Free will as an assumption concerning human behavior is as scientifically verifiable as any of the other assumptions that psychologists make concerning human behavior. It is time for psychologists to take this concept seriously" (p. 50).  But, one wonders, why don't psychologists, for the most part, take it seriously?  See Wegner's book, The Illusion of Conscious Will (discussed in Section 1), to see why not.

Kenan Malik, in Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, defends human specialness against science, saying that we can transcend both nature and nurture, as he puts it in an article at http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000000552D.htm.   While it's true human beings have the almost limitless creative capacity to consider their situation from all sorts of angles, this capacity stems entirely from nature and nurture, and the way we actually use this capacity is entirely a function of past and surrounding circumstances.   Malik takes issue with my characterization of his thesis, and I reply - originally published in the Yahoo Evol-Psych group.  There's certainly much more to be said about the status of human exceptionalism.

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Encountering Naturalism

Common Errors and Exaggerations

When people first encounter the naturalistic view of things (e.g., Tenets of Naturalism), especially as it applies to ourselves and our place in the world, it can be a bit of a shock. It can engender a good deal of defensiveness, and no wonder: the applecart of traditional assumptions about the self, about free will, about standard justifications for some basic social practices, and about a host of other issues is substantially upset. People don’t particularly like to be informed, as Tom Wolfe put it, that "Sorry, but your soul just died", so they understandably reach for the nearest rebuttal at hand, usually involving some sort of social or personal value that, they feel, simply trumps the claims of inclusive naturalism. For example, "If we don’t have free will, then we’re just robots, so we must have free will…" You might call this "the argument from dire consequences," and of course it proves nothing about naturalism or free will.

On the other hand, those who embrace naturalism, discovering in it a satisfying, coherent, and useful world view, sometimes draw conclusions that overreach or distort the naturalistic facts of the matter. Many things change under naturalism compared to standard dualistic views of human nature, but certainly not everything. Human persons, for instance, don’t stop being real entities that figure importantly in the unfolding of events. Nor, because human actions are fully caused, is everything automatically forgiven. Even though some imagine it to be, naturalism is not, to use Daniel Dennett’s phrase, a "universal acid" that dissolves the justifications for our moral practices.1

Here I want to disarm some common errors and exaggerations that arise when encountering naturalism. It’s important to do this since, if people (whichever side of the debate they’re on) fall into error, the truth about naturalism and its personal and social implications will be obscured, and its value as a world view compromised. Unless we are careful to state clearly the conclusions that follow from naturalism and those that don't, a good deal of unnecessary fear (what might be called "free will panic") and backlash will be generated. And some will get on various philosophical high horses and ride rough shod, in the wrong direction, over perfectly reasonable, tried-and-true distinctions and social practices. Naturally, I think inclusive naturalism is true, given the epistemological and methodological assumptions of scientific empiricism,2 but we have to get it right, and do so with all due tact.

Concerns addressed below:   

Fatalism - No personal power - Passivity - No responsibility - No morality - No individuality - No novelty
No rationality - No meaning - Reductionism - Scientism 

 

Fatalism

Many imagine that if we don’t have some sort of causal "leverage" over nature, for instance by virtue of being able to cause things to happen without ourselves being completely caused, then we fall into fatalism. Naturalism denies that we have this sort of causal leverage, since it holds that everything about us, including our higher capacities for memory, anticipation, thought, deliberation, and planning, ultimately comes from somewhere else, either via our genes or our environment. The expression of those capacities, all our actions, and indeed our very selves in every respect, are fully caused phenomena. But, assuming naturalism is correct to describe us as completely caused creatures, do we then fall prey to fatalism?

Fatalism is the idea that no matter what one does, one’s fate will be the same. Human actions don’t affect future outcomes, which are fixed. But it should be clear that fatalism can’t be true. Even though our actions are caused, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on the future. It simply isn’t true that no matter what one does, one’s future will be the same. One’s future depends a great deal on what one does, even though actions are themselves fully caused. Naturalism does not in the least entail fatalism, although it does entail thinking quite differently about our relationship to the world. This point and others on fatalism and its falsity are discussed in three short essays, Three Strikes Against Fatalism.

 

No personal agency or power

Closely related to the fear of fatalism is the fear that unless human agents are causally disconnected from prior circumstances, then we can’t claim that people really do anything – we can’t consider them to be agents. If people are determined, through and through, then they are the mere "working out" of causality and contribute nothing to the world. They might be places where things happen, but people themselves don’t really contribute anything. As philosopher Saul Smilansky puts it: "…her decisions, that which is most truly her own, appear to be accidental phenomena of which she is the mere vehicle."3  Thus, naturalism shows we don’t really have causal powers. But is this true?

Even in a naturalistic world where all is subject to cause and effect, we can still distinguish various entities with identifiable boundaries marking them off from their surroundings. Since persons are separate individuals, each with his or her own set of traits and characteristics, human beings are one class of such entities. As a particular individual, a person produces effects on the world that can be produced in no other way. Indeed, no two people produce just the same effects, even in similar situations.

This means that in telling causal stories about the world, persons are necessarily crucial elements in the story. We can’t understand our world without referring to the causal powers, rational capacities, and actions of persons. Nor are we in a position to explain or understand human behavior without referring to the reasons people have for acting – their purposes and motives. People can’t be understood at the sub-personal level of chemicals and neurons and organs, at least not for most of our social and interpersonal purposes. The upshot is that, even though persons are determined in virtually all respects, we can’t conclude that once they exist, they contribute nothing to the world or have no causal powers. They contribute a great deal and have considerable powers that only come into being because persons are configured as they are. Furthermore, being undetermined in some sense would add nothing to our causal efficacy. For an explanation of this last point, see "The Flaw of Fatalism" at Three Strikes Against Fatalism.

 

Passivity and victimhood

A further false conclusion many tend to draw from our being fully included in natural causality is that we become passive participants in nature, not active agents. We become "victims of circumstance" or "victims of causality," mere spectators driven by factors outside us, forced to act as we do.  But we can only be victims of circumstance in this global sense by supposing that we might conceivably have been masters of circumstance or causality in some global sense, i.e., by having what philosophers call "libertarian" or contra-causal free will.  Since this isn’t a possibility, and it if were, it would add nothing to our causal powers (see "The Flaw of Fatalism"), we shouldn’t conclude that we are instead 100% hapless victims.  The proper conclusion is simply to acknowledge that, yes, our genetic and environmental circumstances indeed made us what we are, but that often we play active roles vis a vis our fate, that is, acting purposefully to fulfill plans and desires (applying to college), and that sometimes we end up as more or less passive victims of events well beyond our control (getting hit by a drunk driver).  Ordinarily, our motives are the proximate, if not ultimate, cause of our behavior (proximate because motives too have their causes). To insist that even when we actively pursue our motives we are really passive victims of causality is to ignore a real distinction between being active and passive, one that marks an important dimension of action, even though this dimension lies within an overarching causality.  Naturalism doesn’t erase this distinction, but simply shows we don’t need to be supernatural agents in order to be, a good deal of the time, active participants in the world.

 

No basis for responsibility, all is excused

One the most acute and widespread fears engendered by encountering naturalism is that since all is caused, all is excused. If someone really and truly couldn’t have done other than what he did in the exact situation in which behavior arose, then what happens to praise and blame? If people don’t originate their behavior in some ultimate sense, then how can they be held responsible for their wrongdoings, and why should we reward them for their virtues?

Two basic points make up the reply to this worry. First, it’s clear that even in an entirely deterministic world, we still retain our strong desires for certain basic outcomes, namely the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. Therefore, we retain strong inclinations to protect ourselves, and to shape and guide behavior in directions we deem proper. So the motives we have for maintaining public safety and a flourishing society are still in place, even though we are fully caused creatures.

Second, being motivated in this way means that we have all sorts of good reasons to hold persons accountable for wrongful, damaging behavior and to reward them for behavior we want encouraged. Such accountability and encouragement are essential to keep behavior within social norms and to create human agents who behave responsibly, considerately, and ethically. So even without the notion of retribution and just deserts, both of which are based on the idea of contra-causal free will, we have sufficient justification for keeping dangerous individuals out of society, for imposing sanctions as deterrents, and for other responses to criminality which will promote social safety, stability, and flourishing. And likewise we still have good reasons for praising and otherwise rewarding individuals for good behavior, although we won’t any longer suppose that they are good because of some uncaused, self-chosen virtue. Without such reinforcers, people simply don’t behave as well as they otherwise would.4

The upshot is that under naturalism, many of our social practices that work to shape behavior and protect society are left untouched, even though the justifications for them no longer include the idea that people are uncaused agents deserving of ultimate credit or blame. We must still hold people responsible, even though they are fully caused creatures, since holding them responsible is an important means to make them responsible, considerate, and ethical agents. But, since persons no longer can be considered the first cause of their behavior, we can’t any longer suppose that they deserve to suffer for having simply chosen, independent of circumstances, to act the way they did. This should help to undercut retributive attitudes that have resulted in our all too punitive criminal justice system, one which imposes needless and counterproductive suffering well beyond what’s needed for deterrence, rehabilitation, or restitution. It will also prompt us to discover and change the factors which actually cause criminality and dysfunctional behavior. For discussions of these points see the essays at Criminal Justice.

 

No moral standards

Some fear that naturalism, by showing that our values derive entirely from physical and social factors (that is, from our biological nature as it gets expressed in our cultural environment), undercuts any tenable justifications for our moral practices. If there is no basis outside of our contingent biological and social situation for what we believe is the right and good, then how do we make the case for our moral standards? Although this question gets us into very deep waters very quickly, some reassurance can be found in the fact that basic human values are widely shared simply by virtue of being rooted in our common biological nature. Each of us has deeply held preferences for how we want ourselves and our loved ones to be treated, preferences that define the core of everyday morality nearly everywhere one looks. We are no more in a position to seriously question the moral values that underlie human flourishing (e.g., that murder is wrong unless in self-defense, that the young, elderly and weak deserve protection by the strong, that pain should not be needlessly inflicted) than we are to voluntarily cease breathing. Such values are directly linked to human survival, and as such don’t really need further justification.

The tougher question is how to justify moral norms specific to cultures, since these obviously differ from place to place. From a naturalistic perspective, such norms (e.g., allowing female circumcision, banning the death penalty) can be understood as the contingent outcome of cultural developments, not better or worse approximations to some external moral standard that exists independently of human preferences. Nevertheless, specific social practices and policies can be evaluated on the basis of the extent to which they are consonant with basic human needs and motives, e.g., the desires for food, shelter, and companionship, to avoid unnecessary suffering, to find pleasure and meaningful activities in life. Naturalism may show the ultimate contingency of our values, in that human nature might have evolved differently, and human societies and political arrangements might have turned out otherwise. But, given who and what we are as natural creatures, we perforce have basic values which serve as the criteria for assessing moral dilemmas, even if these assessments are often fiercely contested. Naturalism doesn’t lead to nihilism as some suppose,1 rather it shows the basis of our values in human nature. For an excellent discussion of how morality can be naturalized, see Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul, the chapter entitled "Ethics as Human Ecology" (I’ve reviewed this fine book).  See also Materialism and Morality for why naturalism is no threat to our essential values.

 

No individuality

Some take determinism as an affront to human uniqueness or individuality. If we are not ultimately our own creations, then we are less than true individuals. Such a claim is, however, a patent non-sequitur. Differences that define your uniqueness as a person arise as a function of your contingent place in time and space – they need not arise by virtue of some self-originative capacity. It’s only the more or less Western myth of radical individualism – that persons somehow bootstrap themselves into their individuality – that makes us imagine that uniqueness depends on self-origination. The unimaginably vast concatenation of causes that intersect to produce each of us, and each creature on the planet, suffices to render each person a special version of homo sapiens, the one with just this set of attributes and proclivities. Of course, what makes us special as homo sapiens is the extent to which the production of our personalities and projects is mediated by complex cognitive processes carried in our heads. So in this respect, we are proximately self-authoring. But we don’t need to be ultimately self-authoring to become unique individuals.

 

No novelty

A closely related misunderstanding is the idea that if all is determined, then nothing new really happens under the sun. And the response is much the same: novelty, far from being banned by determinism, is instead pretty much inevitable. Since our cognitive capacities are obviously limited, we are not in a position to predict the future in any detail, determined though it might be. So our fate is often to be surprised by the way events unfold. As philosophers like to put it, the future is "epistemically open" to us, even though it might be causally closed. Furthermore, it is objectively the case that the evolving state of the cosmos produces new configurations of matter and energy, including all human affairs and the very thoughts that arise as you read these words. The fact that all this flows from prior conditions by routes determined by physical, biological, and other natural laws yet to be discovered subtracts nothing from its originality and newness.

 

No rationality

Some suppose that the only way we can be rational creatures, capable of knowing truths about the world and acting effectively using these truths, is by being causally disconnected from nature in some important respect.  They think there's a conflict between being fully caused and being rational (for examples of this worry see here and here).  But this isn't the case.   If we were causally disconnected from the world in some respect, freely choosing our perceptions, consideration of evidence, thoughts, and practical conclusions, without being determined in choosing them, how would this help us be more rational, or help us better understand reality?  Animals, presumably without free will and as a result of natural selection, got to be better and better at predicting the outcomes of their behavior and other events, and so arrived at more accurate views of the world than those that didn't make the evolutionary cut.  As rather sophisticated cognitive systems, we're very good at modeling the world, and any causal disconnection from the world would worsen, not improve, our ability to model it.   Stepping outside of determinism, an impossibility, can't give us a more correct view of things.  Any part of us outside the causal network, anything radically free to choose its response or evaluation, would be uninfluenced by the world, unresponsive to it, and so this part couldn't know anything about the world.  There is no conflict between our brains being causally determined and their being capable of assessing theories and evidence.  Indeed, if processes of assessment involved indeterministic elements, that would make them less reliable and rational, not more.  So there's no conflict between being determined to have a view of the world and having a truer, more accurate view of it.  Some deterministic systems (e.g., scientists) simply do a better job of modeling the world than others (e.g., astrologers, palm readers).

 

No meaning

The Big Question of meaning looms large if we take naturalism seriously. Without a supernatural intelligence to define a purpose for the universe, there isn’t any intrinsic point to existence we can take comfort in. We are, ultimately, just here, doing what we do; we exist not because anyone or anything thought it was necessary, but only because we happen to have arisen by virtue of natural causes. So regrettably (some think), we must put aside dreams of a final purpose and content ourselves with local meanings derived from our contingent human nature. But, must we necessarily regret the lack of ultimate meaning?

That we do regret it on occasion is undeniable. We are hard-wired to seek agency and purpose in events, and when we discover that the universe is ultimately inscrutable, existentially speaking, that can be a bit unsettling. But we are not entitled to remain upset for long, since it turns out that such meaning simply isn’t a possibility. Were we to discover that our world was created with someone’s purpose in mind, we would simply ask the next question: why does that entity exist? Where did it come from? What’s the purpose of its having its purposes? It’s our very ability to ask these questions that prevents ultimate meaning from being realizable. So, we can’t shake our fist at the universe for its inscrutability, nor can we legitimately characterize it as intrinsically meaningless, since that is simply to project upon it our desire for meaning, and find it wanting. Existence, in itself, necessarily transcends the meaningful/meaningless distinction – it simply is.

So while it’s true that naturalism discovers no ultimate purpose in things, that becomes a problem only because of our psychology, not the world. And besides, there's a good deal of existential joy to be found, believe it or not, in relishing the fact that we are not relegated to playing out a role in someone else’s cosmic drama, that we are part of a process that unfolds on its own, quite unexpectedly and for no obvious reason. It's possible to feel that this is a better existential situation than being confined to a purpose. Which is good, since that’s how, naturalistically, things really are. Finally, local meanings generated by our projects and amusements survive quite handily under naturalism (as they do under most religious and philosophical world views) and these are usually sufficient to satisfy us most of the time. For more on meaning and naturalism, see the Spirituality page.

 
Reductionism  

People sometimes confuse naturalism with what philosopher Daniel Dennett has called greedy reductionism, the idea that higher-level phenomena (minds, persons, beliefs, currency, government) can be understood or explained at the physical level.  This can't be done, since higher-level phenomena exhibit properties that can only be understood as outcomes of the complex organization and interaction of more basic constituents and processes at various levels of an integrated hierarchy, not in terms of the constituents and processes considered in themselves.  Such explanations involve a benign reductionism that is the hallmark of a good deal of science.  It's also sometimes supposed that reductionism, if successful, eliminates higher-order phenomena as existing in their own right.  But this doesn't follow either, since explaining higher-level phenomena in terms of the organization and interaction of lower-level processes doesn't make them disappear.  Of course, few take the possibility of greedy and eliminative reductionism very seriously, except as a straw man with which to beat up on the idea of deterministic causal explanation generally, for instance here and here.  An example of misconceived reductionism is the idea that because we are composed of sub-personal, biological and computational processes that are ultimately physical and causal, the person-level causality of character-based reasons and motives is somehow invalidated or made irrelevant when devising causal explanations.  But of course this is false.  Individuals and their causal powers don't disappear on a naturalistic understanding of ourselves.  Nevertheless, it's important to realize that this doesn't entail that higher level phenomena such as human behavior aren't fully caused.   Our behavior qua behavior canít be usefully explained at the basic physical level, but it is, scientists suppose, still amenable to causal explanation at some level or levels.  


Scientism 

Naturalism should not be confused with scientism, "the belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry" (ref).   To hold a naturalistic world view is simply to use science to decide about the ultimate constituents of the cosmos and how they combine to produce stars, planets, life and human beings; it isn't to suppose that science is the measure of all things.  Naturalists don't apply science and causal analysis to every aspect of existence, or every domain of understanding or appreciation, nor do we think that this is either wise or feasible.  Love, art, music appreciation, aesthetics, history, drama, literature, dance, cuisine, wine tasting, and dozens of other aspects of life and learning involve understandings and techniques that have little or nothing to do with science, even though everything that goes on in such endeavors is composed of the ultimate constituents of the cosmos, according to science.   Scientism is a bit like the greedy reductionism that people properly reject (see above), but that scientists are rarely actually guilty of - e.g., see my mild complaint against George Ellis.  Richard Rorty is the person to emulate in this regard, not E. O. Wilson

 

Notes

1. See Alex Rosenberg and Tamler Sommer's paper, "Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life" for a discussion of how naturalism undercuts certain sorts of traditional justifications for values: http://www.duke.edu/%7Ealexrose/dditamler.pdf.  Whether we'd want to call this "nihilism," and whether it renders life meaningless are both debatable.

2. The question of what assumptions undergird naturalism is addressed in the Anti-foundationalism pages.

3. Saul Smilanksy, "Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusion". For a discussion of this paper, see "Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction?"

4. Might not the power of such reinforcers diminish once we understand we aren’t "ultimately" responsible for our faults or virtues? They might to some extent, but in my experience, approval and disappointment retain their power to shape behavior, since after all we remain social creatures, dependent on others for our well-being.

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