The Case for Naturalism

“Atheism” is a fine word, and I’m happy to describe myself as an atheist. God is an idea that has consequences, and those consequences don’t accord with the world we experience any better than countless other ideas we’ve given up on. But given a choice I would always describe myself first as a “naturalist” — someone who believes that there is only one realm of reality, the material world, which obeys natural laws, and that we human beings are part of it. “Atheism” is ultimately about rejecting a certain idea, while “naturalism” is about a positive acceptance of a comprehensive worldview. Naturalists have a lot more work to do than simply rejecting God; they bear the responsibility of understanding how to live a meaningful life in a universe without built-in purpose.

Which is why I devoted my opening statement at “The Great Debate” a few weeks ago to presenting the positive case for naturalism, rather than just arguing against the idea of God. And I tried to do so in terms that would be comprehensible to people who disagreed with me — at least that was the goal, you can judge for yourself whether I actually succeeded.

So here I’ve excerpted that opening ten-minute statement from the two-hour debate I had with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson. I figure there must be people out there who might possibly be willing to watch a ten-minute video (or watch for one minute before changing the channel) but who wouldn’t even press “play” on the full version. This is the best I can do in ten minutes to sum up the progress in human understanding that has led us to reject the supernatural and accept that the natural world is all there is. And I did manage to work in Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.

I am curious as to how the pitch goes over (given the constraints of time and the medium), so constructive criticism is appreciated.

  1. While I do not agree with you, I find your delivery of your opinion one that I can actually find pleasant to listen to.
    My experiences with science and nature have obviously been different.
    I really admire your thinking.
    I must take an opposing view on “vulcanism”, however. As a very untypical woman, I have been told I am extremely logical and analytical. And, like the typical woman, I have triggers that make me cry, but it might make you laugh.
    I find myself most frustrated and pushed into tears by people behaving illogically. I finally had a boyfriend look at me and say, “That’s just it. People don’t make sense mostly. You have to stop expecting them to, and then you will be less frustrated less often.”
    Just thought you might get a giggle out of me.

  2. The author offers us a very succinct description of materialism. But I see our ideas, thoughts, and various states of consciousness as frequently standing between us and the “material world” as it is, or might be.

  3. Bravo!

    oh, constructive criticism : well, off the top of my head – unrelated to this post because I am still mulling this over again – during the cross-examination in the full debate, Hutchinson asked if you thought god was too complex an explanation – I think he was angling for saying that god is the most sublime simplicity imaginable… sooo, maybe next time be careful if you say god is complex (or not) and hinge it on an assertion like it doesn’t exist (or whatever).

  4. I love your talk Sean , in fact I think you are far better than other atheists making a simialr case. But I feel the word “naturalism” is not so concrete as one might imagine. For example lets suppose there are other universes with other laws of nature. Could one not argue they are not natural?

  5. I think you did an excellent job within the time constraints. Your point was very cogent. Some people might demand elaboration or evidence for some of your statements, but that would take much longer than ten minutes!

    Oddly enough, I was just listening to something about Alan Turing. I do not know his religious views, but his standpoint on the human mind was certainly naturalistic.

  6. As someone who identifies as an ‘atheist’, I spend a lot of time searching for doing just this “they bear the responsibility of understanding how to live a meaningful life in a universe without built-in purpose”. And there’s a lot of ‘atheists’ who do the same. My atheism is not about rejecting God because it’s stupid to reject a myth. Instead it’s about living a responsible life with meaning. I don’t know if I’ve mislabeled myself but I do know a lot of atheists that are like me.

    and I spelled atheist wrong 4 times. maybe I should mislabel myself something easier to spell. 🙂 anyway, other than this tiny thing, I have no other criticism.

  7. I think your discussion implies that naturalism is the empirical conclusion induced when one considers the story of reality that was disenchanted over the centuries from Elisabeth of Bohemia to Galileo and Newton to Darwin to neurobiology and beyond. The philosophical argument associated with this kind of progressive conclusion of atheism is a bit hampered by the historiography in the narrative and the casualness of the conclusion. Whereas Darwin was rigorous, Galileo was rigorous, and Francis Crick was rigorous in their debunking of religious motivations for various natural phenomena, what isn’t rigorous yet is the connection between these take-downs.

    And yet, the conclusion of atheistic naturalism seems pretty obvious to those who carefully think about the subject from the perspective of scientific discovery. Locking down this argument is important because people get nervous about dispensing with religious dogmatism as moral forces, as you point out. It is important that there is not even a little bit of string tying them back to the nest so that they learn to fly on their own rather than struggling back to a religious belief out of sheer terror. The Dalai Lama famously said that “if science can disprove reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism would abandon reincarnation… but it’s going to be mighty hard to disprove reincarnation.” We should be able to convince the thoughtful supernaturalists that such disproof exists, and we should do so rigorously without apology.

  8. I think you’ve achieved your objective, and you’ve done so with more integrity than many who find naturalism sufficient to address all aspects of life. I say more integrity because (i) you’ve acknowledged fundamental assumptions (ii) you’ve made a clear and good argument (if not an ultimately persuasive one for this respondent) for your position without resorting to ridiculing those who hold a different set of assumptions. A much more grown up and, er, scientifically disciplined approach than adopted by many. It is fair to say that theological understanding has altered as scientific understanding has progressed. That’s perhaps as it should be. Still, the nature of faith is to CHOOSE to hold a higher authority than human rationalism and naturalism. The fact that excluding external influences and conducting controlled experiments has been an enormously successful tool to understand the natural order does not demonstrate that it’s all there is. The scepticism that you rightly comment can be so healthy also asks “Why is the cosmos one that we can understand?” “Why does maths work?” “Why has rationality been so successful in understanding the natural order?”
    http://t-rinder.typepad.com/blog/2010/08/what-are-little-boys-made-of-the-lightness-of-being-2008-frank-wilczek.html

  9. I like the sentiment, we need a new word. But Naturalist is just too close to Naturist. I would prefer ‘rationalist’ – it’s just something that’s hard to be against who wants to be irrational? (it’s the same tactic as pro-lifers used).

  10. well said indeed. Although, if I may nitpick a bit here, I’m not sure I completely agree with the last part of the talk, in which you suggest naturalism must satisfyingly replace the role religion plays in the categories of meaning and hope. This would of course be nice, but I’m not sure there is nor should there be a replacement in naturalism (or atheism) for everything that religion provides, the best example being the consolation for the passing of a beloved.
    I for myself would say that I’m a naturalist for exactly the very good reasons you explained: naturalism fits the world better than religion, and that in itself also entails that the meaning of our existence is in some sense smaller than religion would have you believe, and some of the “hope” religions provide is make-belief and hasn’t a replacement in naturalism, and both is ok

  11. Well constructed and presented.

    My constructive critique:

    1) Refine it down to three and a half minutes (which, sadly, studies show is an optimal length to maximize viewership of online video).

    2) Make the first 30 seconds count (studies show that this very brief first impression period is critical to the probability viewers will watch the video through to the end).

    Best practices for the first 30 seconds include humor, provocative, even counter-intuitive statements, and/or a promise of intellectual/emotional reward for persistence.

    3) Link to a new, optimized version on YouTube—so we can spread it around the world. 3rd party arguments always carry more weight and are less initially threatening than one’s own. We need more of these kind of clear, concise, respectful presentations. Not only to spread understanding of naturalism, but to counter pernicious stereotypes about “militant” and “fundamentalist” atheism.

  12. I thought it was concise and engaging. The conclusion opens the free will can of worms, though.

  13. Sean,

    The talk was very good — clear, concise and convincing — nevertheless, I think many would agree that the Scarlett Johansson clip from the prior post was superior.

  14. Sean
    You certainly make sense and I agree with what you were saying during the debate. There are always people who would disagree with you as you can’t please the entire world. Natural laws are all there is in this material world. All these religious stuffs are for comforting purposes. By the way, it is really comforting to know that the world is coming to an end on Dec 21, 2012 as another such prediction is on its way. Only fools will ever believe in it or even taking it seriously enough that it bothers them from getting a good night sleep. Statistically speaking, there are more people in the United States believing in angels than in evolution. Sad but true that there is not much we can do to change that. But as scientists and naturalists like us, we are continually making the world better leading to better medicines, technologies, transportation systems, etc while the religious conflicts continually create wars, hatred and separation among mankind, compensating all the goods we are doing as scientists. I can’t wait to read your new book coming out at the end of the year or early next year.

  15. Hi Sean, I enjoyed your pitch. I appreciate that you kept a respectable tone. I would prefer a written version of your speech so I could more carefully analyze it. I agreed with many things that you said. Your two weakest points were your claims that cosmology and neuroscience unequivocally indicate philosophical naturalism. For example, beginning with cosmology, I argue that theism is a reasonable conjecture. Best, James

  16. Nicely succinct, and a very efficient use of your allotted ten minutes. How many times did you have to practice it? 😉

    There are two things I might have emphasized myself. The first is, the remarkable differences in theology among different cultures, with the few similarities boiling down to surprisingly easy-to-explain natural traits. People still routinely miss this, as they consider “religion” to mean their own, and compare only that against naturalism; they never bother to even compare it against other religions, which must also be considered candidates for explaining everything.

    Second, I think some quick points about how much we could explain and predict with naturalistic processes would go a long ways. We rely on it not just because it functions very well, but because nothing else has provided any usefulness or guidance, save for personal indulgence. Newton’s laws of motion formed the backbone of engineering for centuries, whereas the idea of any god’s favor produces nothing that can be distinguished from random events. There is a difference between an answer and an explanation.

    Now, I have to go back and see the whole debate…

  17. Theism is hypothesis unsupported by other hypothesis, without evidence or applicable scientific law, falling embarassingly short of theory.

    Nature is real.

  18. “Naturalist” is definitely a better tag than “atheist”. People will think I study bugs rather than think I am a bug.

  19. Sean, I really enjoyed your message. I made me think a lot about my own beliefs and perspectives. I do have one question for you. You said that science takes a theory and instead of trying to prove it they try to disprove it. Have you done that? Have you asked for a connection with what or who ever it is that you can not perceive?
    Just a question, not trying to prove anything.

  20. Larry– Sure. Like most people, I grew up in a religious household. I prayed to God, and from another angle I was fascinated by psychic powers. But trying to understand the world in as open-minded a way as I could has convinced me that none of that is real.

  21. Very good, but I’m just curious – how did you happen to agree to appear with Dinesh D’Souza? Has he ever been rational about anything? And if not – as has been my observation – what makes you think that you could interact with him rationally?

  22. Excellent speech. What you said all flowed very well from point to point. I don’t think neuroscience is boring, but it’s understandable that you didn’t try to squeeze in even more.

    I think the more you spend on the conclusion, that we make life meaningful for ourselves and each other, developing it and giving more concrete examples, the more positively people will respond. It defeats the purpose of wishful thinking when you realize you’re not risking anything by letting go of it, but in fact gaining a lot. Since the universe doesn’t care about us, we ought to emphasize how important it is to cooperate at understanding the universe as it really is, so we’ll be better at helping each other, developing medicine and other technology, predicting when some catastrophe will strike, finding means to reduce suffering however it comes, and so on. People might believe knowing the truth isn’t as important as other things in life, but they can’t deny how much those other things depend on it, without denying everything that really is meaningful at the same time.

    p.s., I really enjoyed From Eternity to Here.