Naturalism – coming your way soon?

Workshop participants

In October 2012, 14 eminent scientists, philosophers and other thinkers met for 3 days in a workshop entitled Moving Naturalism Forwards. What should we learn from this meeting?

A meeting of high profile atheists

The participants were all atheists and naturalists – i.e. they believed the natural world we can see and measure with science is all that there is, and any suggestion of the supernatural is “woo” and “spooky stuff”. They included well known names like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne and Stephen Weinberg, and they came together to “move naturalism forwards” by making progress on a number of tricky issues.

They all believed that “most professional philosophers and scientists” were now convinced naturalists, and so difficult questions like the nature of consciousness, whether we have free will, morality and meaning in life, need to be addressed. A highly expert multi-disciplinary group such as this would hopefully be able to nut out some directions.

Difficult questions

Several of the participants have blogged summaries of the discussion and outcomes, and the whole proceedings can be viewed on video. The main topics of discussion were:

  • Reductionism: can the “higher” sciences (psychology, anthropology, human behaviour, etc) be reduced to physics and chemistry? Most naturalists would say yes in theory, but no in practice.
  • Free will and determinism: do human beings really have no freewill, as naturalism seems to suggest? Most participants preferred to redefine or rename freewill so it seems as if we do.
  • Ethics: can there be any objective basis for ethics in naturalism? If not, how can naturalists justify the ethical decisions they make?
  • What do we tell the public?: if there is no real freewill and no true ethics, is it right to hide this from the general public.
  • Meaning: Without God, what is the meaning of life for a naturalist?
  • Philosophy and science: most modern naturalists tend to rely on science for their knowledge, and disparage philosophy, but is this appropriate for these philosophical questions?

Is this important for christians?

It is an exciting opportunity to see what a multi-disciplinary group of eminent scholars concluded on these important philosophical issues. And I think it is important for christians to be aware of the directions they are heading.

Their conclusions may affect us all

The conclusions of academics today tends to influence the directions of our culture tomorrow. Many of their conclusions build off science, but are based on philosophical views that most christians would disagree with. We should be aware.

It may effect how we all live

  • If it becomes commonly accepted that we don’t have free will, studies show that people will tend to behave less honestly.
  • If it is commonly accepted that there are no objectively true ethics, society, and individuals within it, will likely feel freer to adopt their own sense of right and wrong, or to feel less of a moral obligation to others.
  • If society believes a reductionist view of humanity, there is likely to be less respect for human life and the value of life.
  • Free will, moral responsibility, the value of human life, the rule of law and crime & punishment are all pillars of our democratic societies, and there are risks if we compromise them. If the naturalists’ ideas influence our culture, will we be better off?

Doubtless the naturalists at the workshop would argue against these outcomes, but they seem logical to me, and we can already see some of these things happening, in our big cities especially.

Naturalism is bankrupt?

My impression from the workshop reports was that these eminent naturalists didn’t have many answers. The hard logic of naturalism (argued by just one or two at the workshop) seems to me to lead to reductionism, a reduced value of human life, no free will, no objectively true ethics and no meaning in life. Most of them were unwilling to accept all these conclusions, and yet they had precious little to support the alternative view they felt compelled to adopt.

Rather than hold their philosophical conclusions on the basis of evidence and logic, they seem to have developed their own “woo” to justify their views.

We should be encouraged

These difficulties of naturalism, so clear to me in their deliberations, are the basis of some strong arguments for the existence of God (e.g. the moral argument and Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism). Naturalism doesn’t seem able to provide clear answers, yet theism can.

Christians who have discussions with non-believers should be aware of all this. The apparent inability of naturalism to answer these questions should be enough to make an honest naturalist think again (see, for example, the views of philosopher Thomas Nagel). We can have confidence that our belief can stand against the tide of naturalism.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this summary, unkleE. In your bullet points on the effect of their conclusions if taken to their logical ends, I recalled the disastrous era of the Judges in Israel and the telling last line at Judges 21:25 – “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”
    That’s where naturalism would sem to take us, from what you wrote here. Everyone will do what they see fit to do, without concern for anyone they don’t want to be concerned about.

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