Thursday, November 23, 2006

Scientism, Naturalism, and Ismism.

So the proprietor of Secondhand Smoke has discovered the Center for Inquiry and accused it of the sin of scientism. This refers to the practice of science exceeding its proper bounds of rational empirical inquiry and straying into the areas of metaphysics and ethics.

My reaction to this was, why not embrace the term? There needs to be some name for all this activity that is not itself science but is based on science -- the active promotion of reason, secularism, crusading against nonsense, trying to figure out how science changes ethics and morality, scientists writing popular books on the meaning of it all, bioethics questions like what constitutes a person...scientism didn't sound too bad as a term. The Center for Inquiry was new to me but it seems linked to (and similar in style to) the output of other earnestly secular groups. Which is to say, they are keeping a flame of reason burning but organized religion doesn't really have too much to worry about in terms of charismatic competition.

The next day I discovered a bracing new term -- naturalism. This movement, which is based in Boston, seems to be an attempt to construct a materialist philosophy with a postive slant (as opposed to atheism, which is defined by what it is against). They have some very interesting positions on what a strongly materialist view implies. For instance, compassion -- if every human behavior has material causes then you can't judge anybody very harshly:
The causal view: From a naturalistic perspective, there are no causally privileged agents, nothing that causes without being caused in turn. Human beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental....

Responsibility and morality: From a naturalistic perspective, behavior arises out of the interaction between individuals and their environment, not from a freely willing self that produces behavior independently of causal connections (see above). Therefore individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause....

The source of value: Because naturalism doubts the existence of ultimate purposes either inherent in nature or imposed by a creator, values derive from human desires and preferences, not supernatural absolutes. To the extent that there is a shared human nature, values are common across cultures and thus objective, but to the extent cultures differ, so might values. Although values do not have a supernatural foundation, we cannot escape having them, since they constitute us as motivated creatures.
And this page on death looks pretty interesting as well.

All well and good. I was particularly excited to learn from a review on their site that Gary Drescher, a very smart guy who I know from back in the day at MIT, has published a new book, Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics, which looks like a thorough investigation of metaphysical naturalism from a physicalist and computationalist perspective. I'll have to read this, BUT -- my intuition is that none of these secular belief systems are going to do much to displace religion.

Why? Religion and naturalism are competing for roughly the same ecological niche in the human meme system -- that is, a foundational explanation for existence. But they emphasize very different areas. Religion provides answers in areas (morality, the soul, the afterlife, ultimate purpose) that are evolved to match the needs of the human psyche. Naturalism tries to address these but requires a good deal of intellectual effort and as such is only going to appeal to a small minority of people. Religion is natural, science is not.

My own tactic may be labelled anti-ismism: give up on the quest/desire for a single foundation system of understanding. Accept religion as an alternative way of knowing and find ways to interpret it that don't conflict with science. Seems right to me, but then I miss out on all the bitter fights between theists and atheists, and now even more bitter ones between hardcore and softcore atheists. Isn't anyone going to stand up for fanatical anti-fanaticism?

2 comments:

Tom Clark said...

Hi Mike,

Glad you found the bracing term "naturalism", hope you'll spread the word.

You wrote:

"Religion provides answers in areas (morality, the soul, the afterlife, ultimate purpose) that are evolved to match the needs of the human psyche. Naturalism tries to address these but requires a good deal of intellectual effort and as such is only going to appeal to a small minority of people. Religion is natural, science is not."

Actually, naturalism comes pretty naturally once one has divested oneself of faith-based preconceptions. No huge intellectual effort is required, just a commonsense appreciation of cause and effect and a commitment to empirical evidence as the basis for what to believe about the world. Of course naturalism can't offer ultimate purpose or eternal life, but there's considerable comfort to be found in human community and plenty of purpose here on earth. If faith-based religion didn't have such a huge memetic head start (1,700 years), naturalism would be quite competitive. And the decline of the church in Europe suggests that it stands a good chance, *if* it's presented not merely as the denial of god, but as a positive, comprehensive worldview with applications in many domains of life.

Re isms: Do you really accept faith as a valid alternative way of knowing? And how would you best describe your worldview, if you have one? Does it include anything supernatural? If not, then you're a naturalist by default. And you can still stand up for fanatical anti-fanaticism.

mtraven said...

[accidently deleted and re-created]
Thanks for the note!

>
> Actually, naturalism comes pretty naturally once one has divested oneself of
> faith-based preconceptions. No huge intellectual effort is required, just a
> commonsense appreciation of cause and effect and a commitment to empirical
> evidence as the basis for what to believe about the world.

It is difficult to reconcile materialism with a bunch of commonplace human experiences (consciousness, the appearance of free will, etc). This doesn't mean that naturalism is wrong, but it means that believing in it takes work. I don't believe the masses of people will bother, though I could of course be wrong.

Religion on the other hand takes less work to believe, and offers greater benefits (meaning! eternal life!). Naturalism appeals to people who put a strong value on evidence, truth, logic, and consistency, but I fear that's a minority taste. So I'm pessimistic about naturalism's ability to take over the world from religion, but that doesn't say anything about its truth or value for individuals.

> Re isms: Do you really accept faith as a valid alternative way of knowing?

Sort of. I'm not particularly religious, but I believe religion captures something important. In my view, religion is not primarily about belief or faith or even knowing. It's best thought of as a cultural practice, with things like community and ritual playing parts that are just as important, or more important, than belief. Most of the recent critiques of religion totally miss the point because they insist on viewing religion as nothing more than a bad scientific theory, when it's actually something quite different.

More here and here.
> And how would you best describe your worldview, if you have one? Does it
> include anything supernatural? If not, then you're a naturalist by default.

I have dubbed my worldview "transcendental materialism", although I haven't been able to say what that means yet! Probably nothing in it that would offend a naturalist.

My pet project is to come up with a naturalistic theory of the supernatural. Don't ask me exactly what that means either, but see the here (towards the end) for a first cut. What I would like to do is assume that supernatural concepts mean something, then try to come up with a theory of what that could possibly be that would not be in conflict with what we know of the material world.

Basically I think it is a category error to talk about supernatural things either existing or not-existing.