Moving Naturalism Forward

Moving Naturalism Forward

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How many naturalists does it take to change a light bulb? Fifteen, but they disagree about what a light bulb is and how it is used. Such was a remarkable gathering of philosophers, physics, biologists, and others who met in October for a three-day seminar on “Moving Naturalism Forward.” The videos from the event are recently available and provide an excellent introduction to some of the great issues in the philosophy of contemporary science. Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Sean Carroll, Terrence Deacon, and others are much more interesting when not battling supernaturalists, but rather discussing a number of crucial ontological and epistemological issues at the interface of science.

Here are some of the questions they addressed: 

• 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?

Below, you will find video of the proceedings and a fascinating dialogue.


Day One, Morning, First Session: Introductions

The participants each offer an extended introduction to their work, their interests, and one personal belief they might be willing to change their mind about. Throughout the course of the introductions, the participants begin to outline the parameters of naturalism, the forthcoming discussion, and most technical vocabulary.


Day One, Morning, Second Session: Introductions, “What Is Real?”

The participants finish their introductions and delve into a discussion on “what is real” in the naturalism worldview. While naturalists all agree that what exists is the physical world (fermions, bosons, atoms, etc.), it is unclear how concepts like teleology or mathematics manifest themselves in this perspective. Alex Rosenberg leads this revealing ontological discussion.


Day One, Afternoon, First Session: Emergence and Reduction

Terrence Deacon moderates a conversation to determine what fits into naturalism and what does not. Specifically, the panelists wrestle with the question of how naturalism should answer the emergence vs. reduction debate. While naturalists surely want to say the world is physical and applied sciences are reducible to foundational physics, opponents would argue that there are inexplicable emergent phenomena in the world. In order to deal with these opponents, Deacon suggests we should frame this debate in the historically shifting boundaries of complex systems rather than an antagonism between bottom-up and top-down causality.  


Day One, Afternoon, Second Session: Emergence and Reduction (continued) 

This session acts as a continuation of the extremely complicated and contentious emergence vs. reductionism debate. The panelist address issues such as the contingency of the second law of thermodynamics, game theory, mathematical singularities, and much more. Together with the previous segment, this portion captures a number of compelling arguments addressing emergent phenomena, or lack thereof.


Day Two, Morning, First Session: Morality 

Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Weinberg lead a discussion on the status of morality. Goldstein insists upon the progressive nature of moral development and suggests our moral system is grounded in some sort of objectivity. If this is actually the case, then how can naturalists account for the origin of morality and its objectivity. Can morality be reduced to something as basic as the second law of thermodynamics? Can moral judgments be found through scientific exploration?  What role does reason play in our moral judgments? The panelists weigh in on this fascinating debate.


Day Two, Morning, Second Session: Meaning 

Steven Weinberg continues the discussion on morality, but suggests that the only tenable position is to abandon the complete and objective account of our moral system. As Weinberg says, “we have to live the unexamined life.”  The panelists discuss whether this is indeed the only way in which to categorize moral knowledge and whether there are rational processes, grounded deeply in the human evolutionary past, that determine rightness or wrongness.


Day Two, Afternoon, First Session: Free Will/Consciousness 

Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne offer competing conceptions of free will and it’s compatibility (or incompatibility) with determinism or “laws” of physics. While both deny a dualist account of the mind-brain and agree that a traditional definition of free will is incompatible with a deterministic world, Dennett argues for an unexpected conception of free will that is compatible.


Day Two, Afternoon, Second Session: Free Will/Consciousness (continued) 

David Poeppel introduces a discussion on consciousness, especially in regard to our perceptual abilities, semantic meaning, and subconscious phenomena. Later, the conversation returns to the topic of free will in light of a more robust conversation on the structure of the brain and our ability to find meaning in the world.


Day Three, Morning, First Session: Philosophy and Science

This segment explores the role of both scientists and philosophers and what each side can gain from the other. The panelists debate the proper categorization of mathematics within this distinction, how philosophy can frame the questions that guide cognitive science, the epistemological status of intuition, how to conceptualize causation, normativity, and more.


Day Three, Morning, Second Session: Final Thoughts

The panelists conclude the workshop with reflections on the issues discussed. Participants discuss how their views have shifted over the course of the proceedings and suggest where naturalism needs to go in the future.