Moving Naturalism Forward
On my “to-watch” list for quite a while, I very recently used a 12+ h flight to spend a couple of hours with Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan,
The official description for this conference reads:
Over four centuries of scientific progress have convinced most professional philosophers and scientists of the validity of naturalism: the view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behaviour can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.
In the public sphere, debates continue between naturalism and spiritual or religious or dualistic world-views, and those debates are worth having. But it is also important for those committed to naturalism to address the very difficult questions raised by replacing folk psychology and morality by a scientifically-grounded understanding of reality. We would like to understand how to construct meaningful human lives in a world governed by the laws of nature. Some specific questions include:
- Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
- Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
- Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
- Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
- Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
- Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
- Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
- Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
- Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?
This workshop brought together a small number of researchers and writers to tackle the project of moving naturalism forward by making progress on these issues. We met for three days of focused discussion and debate at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Full videos of the proceedings are freely available online.
And although quite some time was wasted discussing semantics, I cannot overstate how much I recommend everyone who considers himself a naturalist to watch these lectures and follow the discussion that ensue. Depending on what camp you are in, you may have to reconsider some thoughts and beliefs about emergence, determinism, free will and so on.
As I had already encountered and read many of the works and writings of the majority of the people present, not much changed for me, but it did help accommodating myself with the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics a bit better, and I do find that my views on most of the discussed topics did not just “pass the test” but are further solidified and grounded in sound arguments.
Below the recordings from the conference:
“What is real?”
Emergence & Reduction
Emergence & Reduction (continued)
Free Will / Consciousness
Free Will / Consciousness (continued)
Philosophy & Science