Moving Naturalism Forward: Videos and Recap

At long last we’re ready to release all the videos from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop from October. We recorded every session, so we’re talking about ten videos of about an hour-and-a-half each. Not something anyone will watch in one sitting, but we’ve tried to indicate what the general topic of discussion was in each case. (If I find the time/energy, I will try to distill down some “greatest hits” moments into shorter videos — suggestions welcome from those who watch them.) And here they are:

Moving Naturalism Forward: Videos

Thanks to Keith Forman for doing such a great job with the recording and editing.

The format of the meeting was a relatively small group of people sitting around a table and discussing things. Each session had someone say something to kick things off, but in general the discussion was central, not formal presentations. Participants included Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and me. A good cross-section of philosophers, physicists, biologists, and assorted other specialties. From start to finish the conversation was lively, informative, and at a very high level.

Here’s one session, picked out to give you a taste of the meeting. It’s the one where we started talking about morality and meaning. Rebecca Goldstein kicked things off, and Steven Weinberg gave a short talk.

I’ve been promising a substantive report from the meeting myself, to join those by Jerry (one, two, three) and Massimo (one, two, three). Other obligations have made it very hard to find time for that, so let me instead just offer an overview of the issues we discussed. Take this as more a reflection of my personal views than a perfectly fair summary of the meeting itself; we have the videos for that.

  • What is naturalism? Coyne thought that it was a problem that we didn’t have a consensus cut-and-dried definition, but I don’t really share his concern. (He also bemoaned that we wouldn’t agree on anything, whereas I was struck by how much we did agree on — before quickly moving on to dwell on the points of, shall we say, incomplete agreement.) Naturalists think that there is a single reality, the natural world, without any supernatural component. We can argue about whether worldviews with a supernatural component are internally coherent, but that argument doesn’t really prevent us from recognizing who is a naturalist and who is not. The world is made of “things” (very broadly construed), obeying the laws of nature.
  • Emergence and reductionism. This is an absolutely crucial issue; we talked about it quite a bit, and the topics kept popping up throughout the workshop. There is only one world, we naturalists say, but there are many ways of talking about it. We can talk about the world using the language of fundamental physics, “fermions and bosons” in Rosenberg’s terminology, but we can also talk about tables and chairs, and Einstein’s equation, and human desires and thoughts. There are boring (to me) questions about which levels are “real,” but also very interesting questions about how the levels fit together. One one side, Weinberg emphasizes the comprehensive role of the fundamental-physics description, claiming that it “explains” phenomena at higher levels. On the other side, Ross and Pigliucci want to emphasize that we can very rarely derive higher-level descriptions from lower-level ones. Simon DeDeo offered an explicit simple example of where such derivation is possible, but made the point that asking whether two theories have the same underlying structure can be an undecidable problem. Most people in the room seemed to be willing to use a language of emergence and accept that higher-level descriptions had a kind of autonomy (you don’t need to know lower-level details to understand higher-level truths), but they also seemed to accept that higher-level happenings were in some sense entailed by lower-level happenings. Personally I prefer to think of parallel vocabularies rather than lower and higher levels, but it’s clear that some vocabularies are more comprehensive than others. These abstract-sounding issues have important consequences; for example, there was a very interesting exchange between Dawkins, Dennett, and Coyne about the validity of ever speaking of “design” when we refer to the products of natural selection. I think it’s fine to use words like “design” or “purpose” as long as they are explicitly confined to a specific higher-level vocabulary, without danger of implying that there is some fundamental design or purpose in the universe. [As (non-naturalist) Scott Derrickson puts it: “The universe is not indifferent. How do I know this? I know because I am part of the universe, and I am far from indifferent.”]
  • Morality. Obviously a crucially important subject for naturalists (and everybody else), worth of much more attention than we were able to give to it. Interestingly, I thought there was a good degree of consensus about the topic lurking among the participants. Nobody present seemed willing to sign on to a program that subsumed morality completely within the domain of science, as has been advocated in different forms by E.O. Wilson, Sam Harris, and others. (We did invite defenders of that point of view, who unfortunately couldn’t make it.) Rather, we seemed ready to accept that moral feelings come from a variety of sources, and that even though they cannot be scientifically justified they can be rationally discussed. There was some range of opinion on the worthwhileness of moral philosophy; Weinberg questioned the entire idea of trying to build a logically-based moral framework, while Goldstein argued that empirical advances in moral behavior very often could be traced back to the efforts of philosophers laying the appropriate groundwork. I suspect that Weinberg was thinking of moral philosophy as too close to utilitarianism, but you can watch the above video and decide for yourself.
  • Meaning. This sneaky word has two, um, meanings, relevant to this workshop. There is the question of how a committed naturalist can find meaning in life, when the universe doesn’t offer any in and of itself. Goldstein emphasized the importance of this question as a practical matter for naturalists, and suggested that “mattering” to others lay at the heart of a naturalist account of meaning. Flanagan discussed his approach of “eudaemonics,” the study of human flourishing and virtues. There was some discussion of how secular institutions could rise to this challenge; Flanagan dubbed these hypothetical institutions “Mosques of Meaning.” Overall, we all agreed that this was an important problem, but I didn’t have the feeling we had any very effective programmatic suggestions on the table. The other notion of “meaning” involves the question of “aboutness” — how one part of the universe can be about something else. This was the one point at which my naive physicist’s background failed me, and I couldn’t quite see why this was such a problem.
  • Free Will. Here, again, I thought there was much more consensus than I expected coming in. We all know there is an ongoing debate among naturalists as to whether or not it’s useful to use words like “free will” in a world ultimately governed by the impersonal laws of physics. Dennett gave a stirring defense of the usual compatibilist position (free will is perfectly compatible with physics), while Coyne gave an equally stirring defense of incompatibility. The issue, as everyone recognized, is not how the world works, but how best to think about it. I’m a compatibilist myself, on the grounds that I can’t imagine talking sensibly about human beings without thinking of them as agents who make (somewhat) rational choices. But the incompatibilists make a good case that you can’t use phrases like “free will” without many people thinking you’re referring to some sort of mental dualism and spooky life forces. So we contemplated other possible phrases, like Dennett’s “morally responsible volition.” Poeppel injected some real neuroscience into the discussion, and there was lively talk about the ramifications (or lack thereof) of the Libet experiments. Once again, these abstract-sounding considerations have very important real-world consequences; Nick Pritzker, who helped support the meeting, was very interested in the ramifications of neuroscience for our theories of punishment and rehabilitation in the penal system.
  • Philosophy and science. Partly sparked by a number of recent articles and blog posts about “scientism,” we had an interesting discussion of the proper relation between science and philosophy. Yet again, I thought there was more agreement than I would have expected. Pigliucci gave a nice talk to kick things off, in which he brought up various recent crimes of scientists against philosophy, and also of philosophers against science. Within this crowd, most disagreements seem pretty cosmetic to me. Are there “other ways of knowing?” Well, sure; math is a way of knowing that is separate from the empirical domain of science. Literature and meditation can give you insight into your emotional state using tools that seem quite different from conventional scientific inquiry. But everyone agreed that if you want reliable knowledge of the workings of the actual natural world, science is the way to go. Philosophy offers a kind of meta-analytic approach that in some ways is continuous with science where applicable. Nobody in the room seemed eager to reduce everything worthwhile to science, nor to deny the unique power of science to discover things about the world.

So I’ve managed to write a description that is simultaneously quite long-winded, and falling enormously short of covering all of the interesting points that were made during the meeting. It was an exhilarating and provocative couple of days, and just a tiny part of a much larger ongoing conversation. If I wasn’t completely comprehensive in my recap, I’m sure that much of what was said will be informing other things I think and write about in the future. I anticipate a lot more moving forward.

Note that the videos make for excellent holiday, since Dan Dennett is the spitting image of Santa Claus.

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24 Responses to Moving Naturalism Forward: Videos and Recap

  1. Thanks Sean for posting these. This will come in handy in my many debates with authoritarian creationists 🙂

  2. Sean Carroll says:

    Actually they probably won’t! One of the great things about the workshop is that we spent no time arguing against religion, creationism, etc; we took that for granted and moved on.

  3. Edit: my original comment was a technical issue now resolved. I look forward to watching these!

  4. Tony says:

    If possible could you make audio only versions of these discussions available for download? The video doesn’t add much information and if I could download audio I wouldn’t have to sit in front of my computer to listen.

  5. James Gallagher says:

    Tony, you can try a browser add-on like YouTube Downloader

    and select MP3 64k or 128k (Note the audio may take some time to be extracted before the downloadable mp3 file appears so be patient, it took ~ 5mins when I tested it on the youtube video above)

  6. N. says:

    Hi Tony,

    I have a solution for you.

    Switch off the monitor and turn the speakers on, real loud.

    That should do it!


  7. Johannes says:

    It’s wonderful to hear some of the world’s most eminent naturalists speaking about their fields of expertise. It’s especially useful that the discussions weren’t framed by religion, like half of a debate. Even as a person of faith, I believe naturalistic reasoning is 100% relevant to us as embodied beings and therefore that naturalists aren’t overestimating its relevance.
    When any supernaturalism is coherent and comprises what reality human beings can process, it might even be described as “new naturalism”. I haven’t watched all the episodes, but I hope Rosen and complexity came up.

  8. James Gallagher says:

    After experimenting with a few browser download tools, none of them seem to grab the complete audio, or they just download the entire video file.

    So maybe a better suggestion is to download a small video size (eg MP4 360p) and manually rip the audio from it. There are many freeware tools to do this, in linux you can use mencoder eg

    $ mencoder Moving\ Naturalism\ Forward\:\ Day\ 2\,\ Morning\,\ 1st\ Session.mp4 -of rawaudio -oac mp3lame -lameopts abr:br=64 -ovc copy -o MNF_Day_2_Morning_1st_Session.mp3

    That creates an mp3 with average bitrate = 64kbps, the file size is 47MB (the 360p mp4 file is 298MB)

  9. Ian Liberman says:

    I am slowly going through the videos and enjoying each persons contributions and elucidations how their values on atheism and naturalism evolved. I would like to thank everyone involved in putting these videos together so we can watch and learn. Being Jewish, I enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein`s escape from the Orthodox environment and her journey to philosopher. By posting this conference you are providing a real learning experience.

  10. Tom Stone says:

    On the morality issue, I strongly recommend

    Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
    by Patricia S. Churchland

    Starts out with various specie of voles and works up to humans. We probably wouldn’t have any morals without the neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin.

  11. George says:

    Hi Sean,

    An off-topic question: I’ve recently purchased your book “Spacetime and Geometry”, and have started working through it. I’m wondering if there is any way of getting my hands on the solutions to the exercises – just to make sure that I’m on the right track.


  12. Pingback: At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos | Open Parachute

  13. David Lau says:

    Thanks Sean for posting this. It will be helpful to me when I have to carry out debates against the fanatics such as the creationists.

  14. Sean Carroll says:

    George– There isn’t a solutions manual. I usually recommend that people work through the Lightman et al. problem book in gravitation.

  15. Chris says:

    Completely off topic, but “Decay – The LHC Zombie Movie” has been released.

  16. Tony Rtz says:

    I was watching Letterman last night and than it hit me, Sean has a striking resemblance to Billy Crystal, almost brotherly, just thought I would comment on that. There’s another Tony, so I changed my Tony to Tony Rtz.

  17. Igor Khavkine says:

    Having taken a look at the Emergence/Reductionism discussion, I think the workshop was missing a mathematitian (perhaps a logician) and a computer scientist (perhaps a complexity theorist) from having a completely fruitful discussion.

  18. paul kramarachyk says:

    My 2¢: Listened to most of it. Disappointing. But for a few comments by Steven Weinberg I heard nothing worth remembering and little that was interesting (to me). I keep relearning that I don’t have the patience or intellect for philosophy. It’s literally over my head (as in hypoxic orbit).

    Sean, Rebecca, Jenna, and Steven were most intelligible. Science is about what is and how it works. If you want to know what is and how it works, study science. Philosophy is more about what you “think” is and how you “feel” about it (iow, a point of view). People think all kinds of things. Much of it not far from voodoo (religion) and having little to do with what is and how it works. I wish Richard Feynmen was there. He probably would’ve only lasted a few hours. But I think he would enjoy Stockbridge.

  19. JimV says:

    Re: “… math is a way of knowing that is separate from the empirical domain of science.” I don’t think it is completely separate.

    I think math began with empirical observations, and still today some of it is inspired by empirical observations. The integers and their rules of addition probably came from counting objects, such as sheep or apples. Euclid’s axioms were probably empirical observations. And in fact the Nakamura-Yamagawa Conjecture, a purely empirical observation, was the key breakthrough which led to Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (as described in Simon Singh’s “Fermat’s Enigma”). That example also illustrates the need for peer review in math, since Wiles’ first proposed proof was flawed.

    As a personal anecdote, inspired by Singh’s book, a few years ago I spent most of a year trying to construct a proof of Fermat’s Prime Theorem (all prime integers which are of the form 4N+1 are the sum of two squares). I spent a lot of that time generating hundreds of examples in spreadsheets and looking for empirical patterns, and would not have a proof without this empirical work. I also formed many hypotheses of how to approach the problem and tested them.

    Granted, the ratio of logical reasoning to empirical observation is higher in math than the “sciences”, but I think the difference is one of degree not of kind. I think math falls within the general method of: some empirical investigation; hypothesis generation and testing; logical reasoning; and peer review.

  20. Per says:

    Hi Sean,

    Did you talk on the philosophical assumptions that the naturalist world view is based on? I mean, on some level its ideology right. At best you can say something along the lines of; there is nothing we found so far that supports a supernatural, or intelligent, entity in the universe. But then, since we haven’t looked everywhere, one can’t really be sure. And even if we had, how would we know? While it might very well be a correct assumption, nevertheless its still an assumption, even an axiom. It would have been nice to hear these questions go around the table.

    Thanks, Per

  21. Eric Winsberg says:

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for posting this. I don’t know if this will help, but here is a quick attempt to explain why “aboutness” (meaning, from now on) is, prima facie, a puzzle for naturalism:

    First off, meaning is a “normative” notion. If you use a word to refer to some object, we have the idea that there is some matter of fact about whether or not you used the word correctly or incorrectly–about whether your use was right or wrong. So intuitively, meaning has some of the same puzzling features as morality (also a normative notion.) What natural fact could make it the case that this word _correctly_ refers to this object in this state of affairs? The only close contender a naturalist appears to have available is my natural dispositions to use the word in this or that situation. But I sometimes make “mistakes.” What gives rise to the “correct answer” to the question of whether the word applies against which my dispositions could be said to be “incorrect”?

    The real difficulty emerges when we realize that there are an infinite number of possible object/state of affairs combinations for which each of our words does or does not correctly apply. Thus, the idea that our words “mean something” seems to commit us to the idea that there is some _correct answer_ to every question of the form “is that word applicable here” for an infinite number of questions. So it seems like at least a prima facie puzzle to explain how finite beings such as ourselves could possess words and concepts that have a correct application in a potentially infinite set of circumstances.

  22. ren says:

    The parts of the video on moral philosophy felt like the first few classes of philosophy 101. Too rudimentary, too many freshman tropes. How about having Weinberg read an intro to moral philosophy textbook prior to discussing it next time?

  23. Doc C says:

    Hi Sean, organizing and making this gathering available to everyone teaches and leads by example. Bravo! For those whose minds are open to exploring the abyss we find ourselves inhabiting, these videos offer some terrific opportunities toward opening up pathways forward. I assume that your prior comment to Christian ready (“Actually they probably won’t! One of the great things about the workshop is that we spent no time arguing against religion, creationism, etc; we took that for granted and moved on.”) is speaking to religion as a way of thinking that closes off exploration of the abyss. I wonder how you see religious faith that includes a firm commitment to a naturalistic exploration of the world, but holds open the possibility that there is more to the abyss than naturalism alone can fully accommodate?

    It seems that naturalism as a scientific endeavor for describing how things work has no real problem justifying itself, but, I wonder what paradigm naturalism holds for its more prescriptive endeavor? I heard a lot of people stating explicitly or implicitly that naturalism was the best way for us to make the world a better place for humans, in particular compared to a religious way of doing that. How do pure naturalists know that is true? Religious belief has evolved into our species. It enables individuals to live long, happy, productive and reproductive lives, and has enabled human culture to grow, or at least not prevented human culture from growing to this point in time where we are less violent and where our minds can embrace a naturalistic program. How do we know that human culture can sustain such complex and diverse growth and development of individual and collective human achievement without holding an underlying respect for the possibility of an intrinsic goodness that imbues the abyss with meaning? Perhaps naturalists feel so comfortable assuming that human culture can because they hold that respect implicitly in their minds while pursuing a focus on the world we can describe?

    At least some, if not all of the naturalists in that room felt that we could find meaning in a purely natural world.

    As Daniel Dennet’s hypothesis of a homoncular organization of the human mind relies on small interacting modules to create a larger phenomenon we call consciousness, why couldn’t humans be modules that create a larger phenomenon? Could that phenomenon be the goodness or meaning that those of sincere (not blind) faith call God?

    As best I can tell a purely natural view of the world holds evolution as a foundational paradigm, and as such, cannot escape from accepting that “anything goes”, as long as it survives. That paradigm has no way to proscribe genocide if genocide is capable of creating a more adaptive human species. I heard in the video Richard Dawkins state that naturalists must find what is good for humans, not just what is adaptive, but doesn’t that very act of searching for a good require assumptions and values? Once we make those, or take those on, are we not creating our own world? Naturalists might say that the world we are creating springs from nature, not from a divine creator, but could not such an act reflect a creative force that underlies all of the natural world we see?

    Do we proscribe killing each other because it is purely adaptive to, or because it is “good” for humans to? And if its good to, then goodness imbues, and it seems to me that there is nothing that prevents such goodness from being a foundational principle of nature that we are embodying. I am not saying that is a fact, only that it is a possibility that cannot be simply dismissed as useless or destructive. I am saying that it should be part of the prescriptive type of conversation naturalists wish to have with the world at large.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    – Volition, or will, certainly, it seems to be what psychologists use. [ ]

    – Philosophy and theology is story telling, so of course it can be continuous with everything it wants to associate to. The question is if it is useful rather than distracting.

    @Doc C: Accommodationism (belief in belief) is boring, and you just made it more so.

    – Carroll holds to dysteleological physicalism, i.e. there is only physics. [ ]

    – Religiosity correlates with dysfunctional societies, see Paul et al’s theories & Rosling’s statistics. It has no intrinsic value in a functional society, and with it you risk genocide and other atrocities it supports.

    – That some are religious does not mean that gods are facts any more than that some reads fairy tales means unicorns exists.

    – Evolution is not “survival of the fittest” but differential reproduction. It is no more unforgiving than the rest of nature, if you are good enough you make it.

    – Species has commit genocides, but evolution also imbues morality. Our moral reactions, which are shared by nones and religious, frown on such.