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:
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.