Misrepresenting Naturalism

An open letter to R. Albert Mohler, Jr.: Naturalists are not bent on subverting moral responsibility, we just don’t think it requires supernatural free will.

September 1, 2008

Worries about Naturalism

Dear Dr. Mohler,

As the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to your website “one of the largest seminaries in the world,” your views carry great weight in the Baptist community. You say in a recent blog post and radio show (in response to an article on free will in Scientific American) that moral responsibility is being subverted by naturalistic scientists and philosophers. As head of the Center for Naturalism, a non-profit organization devoted to exploring and promoting naturalism as a worldview, I’m writing to correct this and other misunderstandings. Although I can't speak for all of them, naturalists, who take scientific and philosophical inquiry as the most reliable means of knowing reality, are most certainly not bent on subverting moral responsibility. Rather we believe there are robust grounds for moral agency within a naturalistic understanding of ourselves, one that reveals our complete inclusion in the natural world. In what follows I hope to show that naturalists are not, as you seem to think, a threat to our shared culture, even though we don’t share your worldview.

I’ll first quote the end of your radio show to show just how serious a threat you think naturalism poses: 

The effort to subvert moral responsibility is not just something that’s just abstract and philosophical, it’s not limited to the college and the university and to the think tank; it is filtering its way down into the legal system; it is working its way down into the educational system; and it’s working its way through popular culture. One of the things we need to be watching is how an effort to subvert moral responsibility begins to gain traction in this society, because here is the inevitable result: if no one is responsible, then nothing is ultimately right and nothing is ultimately wrong. The loss of moral responsibility means moral anarchy, and that means not only do we lose the concept of what it would mean to be a parent, and try to teach a child, or to be a judge and try to reach a verdict, or frankly just to live next door to a neighbor and know whether you can trust that neighbor; it comes down to the fact that it reduces what it means to be human to being just one more animal, one more among the species in the animal kingdom. And one of the sad things we need to note is that there are those who are alive today who operate from worldviews that would have us reduce humanity to the level of just any other animal.  And that, dear friends, is something we have to see, detect, discern and confront.

Obviously the stakes as you see them couldn’t be higher, so it’s vital to correct misunderstandings about naturalism and its implications. If we don’t, naturalists will be wrongly demonized and distrusted and the culture wars unnecessarily inflamed. As you rightly note, worldview naturalism, driven by scientific advances, is becoming more visible in the wider culture. But this is nothing to fear since naturalism is perfectly supportive of mainstream values of moral responsibility, human flourishing and an open, democratic society.

Determinism and contra-causal free will

Your basic worry is about determinism, the idea, as the article on free will in Scientific American put it, that "everything that happens is determined by what happened before – our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action." You suggest that unless we have a free will that defeats determinism, something that evades or transcends natural laws of cause and effect, we can’t be morally responsible for our actions. Further, you connect determinism with naturalism, saying at your blog that: “In its most modern forms, determinism is a product of naturalism – the belief that everything must be explained in purely natural terms. Naturalism explains the human mind (including the experience of moral choice) as a matter of chemical reactions in the brain, and nothing more.”

Naturalists, who stick with science as our best representation of reality, are not necessarily committed to determinism (or to materialism, but that’s another story, see here). After all, it could turn out that, according to our best scientific and philosophical investigations, determinism is false. Maybe there are indeterministic, random, acausal factors operating in the world, even on the macro level of human minds and behavior. If this should turn out to be the case, naturalists will happily accept it. But at the moment it very much looks as if human minds and behavior are indeed explicable as physical, chemical, biological, psychological and social processes subject to law-like cause and effect relationships at various levels. There’s no scientific evidence that categorically random, indeterministic processes play much, if any, role in consciousness or action, but if they did that wouldn’t help make us responsible. After all, as David Hume and other philosophers have pointed out over the centuries, we can’t take credit or blame for things that happen randomly – we have to cause them.

But this raises the question: who are we, essentially? Well, there’s no scientific evidence that we possess an immaterial soul or mental “supervisor” that has a contra-causal, libertarian free will, that somehow intervenes in and trumps natural causality. Whatever we are, we aren’t uncaused causers or first causes. So although naturalists aren’t a priori committed to determinism, they generally suppose human behavior is subject to the cause and effect relations that hold among the constituents of our bodies and brains and their interaction with the world. People look to be the fully caused products of biological and cultural conditions; they aren’t ultimately self-created in any respect as far as science can tell.

How moral responsibility is compatible with determinism

So let’s say determinism is true of human beings, or (with greater certainty) that we don’t have contra-causal free will. Does this subvert moral responsibility and moral agency? Not at all. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of why not from my book Encountering Naturalism:

When interacting with others, we inevitably have expectations about what’s good behavior and, more momentously, about what’s right and wrong. To behave ethically and responsibly we have to have standards and enforce them. But there’s a question that often arises when people consider the implications of naturalism: on what grounds can we hold people responsible if their actions are fully determined? There are a few steps in the explanation.

First, even if we don’t have supernatural free will independent of determining causes, it remains true that we very much want certain things to happen and very much don’t want other things to happen. We very much want to live, and don’t want to die. We love our friends and families (maybe even some of our neighbors) and we want them and our communities kept safe and secure….We are inescapably gripped by our values, precisely because they constitute us (along with other dispositions and characteristics) as organic, natural creatures. This means that even without contra-causal freedom we are strongly motivated to want certain outcomes in life, namely for ourselves and our loved ones to flourish. In turn, this means we still want people, including ourselves, to act in ways to ensure this flourishing, which generally means behaving morally: not stealing, cheating, lying, or murdering. So we don’t lose our values or moral norms in accepting naturalism.

Now, since people are (likely) fully caused creatures, this means they can be caused to behave morally. And one of the main ways we cause them to behave morally is by holding them responsible and accountable. For instance, you might say to them, “If you act deliberately to endanger my child, then we will take steps to lock you up. If you try to hurt my child, I will hold you responsible, so you better not.” People that we warn in this fashion, those capable of having their behavior shaped by the prospect of being held accountable, are moral agents. That includes just about every sane, mentally competent person over the age of 16 or so, although some kids grow up sooner than others. This means we don’t need to be self-caused or have contra-causal free will to be held responsible or to be moral agents. In fact, all this would be impossible if people actually had the supernatural power to act independently of causes, since they could just ignore the prospect of being held responsible and do whatever they darn well pleased.

So there are good reasons in a deterministic universe to suppose that people are moral agents, defined as those with the capacity to understand moral concepts and rules and whose actions are at least to some extent determined by that understanding. There are also good reasons why it’s essential to hold each other responsible even if our behavior is completely determined. Regrettably, these reasons didn’t get discussed in the Scientific American article you mention, nor do they get much attention elsewhere (I complain more about this here). So it’s no wonder you and many others have come to the conclusion that determinism – or more accurately, not having contra-causal free will – subverts moral responsibility. But this isn’t the case.

I’m hardly new or alone in thinking so. In his book The Blank Slate (chapter 10, “Fear of Determinism”), Steven Pinker makes clear why determinism doesn’t undermine responsibility, drawing on many of the same considerations. And Daniel Dennett shows how moral responsibility survives under naturalism in great detail in his two books on free will, Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. In your radio program, you mention both Pinker and Dennett (along with Marc Hauser) as prime suspects in “the effort to subvert moral responsibility,” but nothing could be further from the truth. They are simply naturalists who, like myself and philosophers such as Derk Pereboom (Living Without Free Will), Bruce Waller (The Natural Selection of Autonomy) and Joshua Greene, are showing how moral responsibility can be naturalized, not eliminated.

It’s important to see that naturalists generally agree with you about moral responsibility: we can and must hold each other responsible. The difference between us is the rationale for our responsibility practices. For you, it’s a matter of being made in God’s image, such that we are contra-causally free to obey or disobey God’s commandments, and thus deeply deserve praise or punishment. For us, it’s a matter of practical human necessity: we can’t have the kind of culture we want unless we agree about moral norms and agree to hold each other to them. The fact that behavior, as naturalists see it, is completely physically based in chemical, cellular, neural, and other processes in our brains and bodies doesn’t subvert the need for holding each other responsible, or our capacity to be responsible. Naturalists and supernaturalists therefore agree about the central importance of moral responsibility while disagreeing about its basis. This disagreement needn’t be resolved for us to cooperate in holding ourselves responsible. So you can trust naturalists to be good citizens and good neighbors; like you, we want a stable, moral society with standards of right and wrong to which people are held.

Human choice and power are real

In your blog you say “…if all of our choices are illusory – and everything is merely the ‘inevitable consequence’ of something beyond our control, moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.” But even if determinism happens to be true our choices aren’t illusory. As I point out in an article critiquing the Vohs and Schooler research mentioned in Scientific American, the fact that each and every bit of who we are ultimately comes from factors beyond our control doesn’t mean we don’t make choices or control our actions. Our choices and actions are generally determined by our character and our motives – that is, us. So we control them. Further, not having souls and contra-causal free will doesn’t mean we lack causal powers to make things happen in the world. You can’t logically attribute causal power to the factors that made us and yet claim we have no such power. We are just as real as the factors that determined us. So, even if determinism is true, we are active, effective agents in the world who make deliberate, often rational choices. We have power and control by being big-brained, multi-talented, smart, flexible creatures (not like "just any other animal"!). We don’t have to be self-caused little gods to have this power, or, as discussed above, to be morally responsible.

To explain is not to condone

One of your radio show callers said, and you agreed, that accepting determinism is tantamount to approving evil: “It’s ok that they did evil, because they couldn’t do any different anyway.” But this is a non-sequitur. To believe that there’s a deterministic causal explanation for wrongful behavior is not in any sense to condone or approve it – we still have our standards of right and wrong. Those who believe that to explain is to condone are motivated to suppress natural (biological, psychological and social) explanations for evil, barring us from understanding it and responding to it effectively. So the idea that determinism is a universal excuse disempowers us, making evil more likely. This is yet another reason why it’s critical to see that a scientific, naturalistic view of human depravity does not undermine moral standards or moral responsibility. To accept that people don’t have free will isn’t to condone evil, only to understand it thoroughly instead of chalking it up to a mysterious, ultimately self-originated choice.

Criminal justice stays intact

Along the same lines, in your radio show you said that determinism poses a threat to the court system, and one caller suggested that if naturalism is true we might as well throw open the prison doors. Not so. The need for public safety, deterrence, rehabilitation and restitution all require an effective, humane criminal justice system, one that doesn’t further damage inmates. Law scholar Stephen Morse is a deterministic naturalist widely known for debunking the threat of determinism to responsibility, in particular criminal responsibility. His arguments against what he calls “the fundamental psycholegal error” of supposing that determinism is a blanket excuse should help put your worries to rest. See also my recommendations for how our criminal justice system might be reformed under naturalism.

Naturalism isn’t eliminative reductionism

You mention several times that deterministic naturalism reduces everything to chemical reactions, such that if a child disobeys “he didn’t really disobey me, it’s just a matter of determinism, it’s just a matter of the way the chemicals are in his brain.” But again, this doesn’t follow. That we are completely physical creatures, made of chemicals and other material constituents, doesn’t eliminate the reality of higher-level processes that embody psychological states such as the intention to disobey and the desire for obedience. The child really thinks and really acts on purpose to thwart your real wishes, which is really annoying. Although naturalists are happy to admit we don’t yet have a complete theory of the physically embodied mind, there’s lots of evidence that the brain, with its billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections, is capable of supporting sensation, thought, emotion and all the rest of human psychology. But these capacities can’t be understood at the chemical level; we have to look at the patterns of higher-level organization and functions that electro-chemical neural activity makes possible. The reality of consciousness, intention and belief is found at this level, so we needn’t add anything immaterial to make it the case that we really think, really feel, and really believe things. That all of this gets accomplished by “mere” matter, organized properly, is quite the amazing (but not miraculous) feat of unintentional natural design.

The practical consistency of naturalism

You say in your radio program that “One test of a worldview is whether it can be consistently applied, and this one [naturalism] cannot.” I hope I’ve at least suggested why thorough-going naturalists justifiably believe we are moral agents who must be held responsible in order to have the kind of culture we want. We needn’t, and we don’t, fall back into the belief we have supernatural free will, nor need we pretend to have it. Naturalists think that moral responsibility doesn’t depend on having such freedom; we have other robust grounds for it based in human needs and desires. Likewise, naturalists needn’t compromise their worldview to believe in the reality of consciousness, thought, belief, emotion and the full gamut of human psychological and motivational states. Nor need we resort to something supernatural or immaterial to underwrite criminal justice, respect for parents, understanding of spouses, trust of neighbors, or any other personal or social good. So naturalism passes the “consistency in application” test – and thanks for suggesting this as a criterion of a worldview’s adequacy.

Toward peaceful coexistence of worldviews

I obviously don’t expect you or your congregation to accept worldview naturalism; its cognitive commitment to science and philosophy is too austere, too impersonal for those accustomed to the comforts of theistic faith. I only hope that you’ll cease to characterize naturalists as dangerous subverters of moral responsibility since we are nothing of the kind. We believe human beings are moral agents capable of acts that can be right or wrong, and that there are moral standards we must hold each other responsible to. We believe that people – fully physical beings without souls – are really conscious and rational, and, given the right upbringing, can act ethically and responsibly.

As naturalism filters down from the academy into mainstream culture, supernaturalists and theists like yourself have nothing to fear since it's consonant with many of your central values. It’s consonant with, and indeed supports, a democratic, flourishing, free society in which each person has the right and (we hope) opportunity to express their talents in community with others. Like you, naturalists have no interest in and nothing to gain from subverting moral responsibility, or in promoting any other destabilizing agenda. Rather, our agenda is to show that human and planetary flourishing in all its dimensions is entirely consistent with a naturalistic understanding of ourselves and our world. If this be so, we need not hide from science, which shows our complete connection to nature. We can instead celebrate our natural heritage, the amazing capacity of “mere” matter to give rise to all the marvels of life, human intelligence and culture. Naturalists, secure in their worldview, are happy to accept that others will hold different views; this is part of the wonderful spice of life. In return, we ask only not to be mischaracterized and misunderstood. That way we can live amicably together in the open society we so fortunately hold in common.


Tom Clark, Director

Center for Naturalism