Monday, September 04, 2006

Who counts as a naturalist?

The death of god, it seems, is always deferred. He’s been kept alive - robust, in fact - despite what might be called explanatory displacement: the tendency of science to displace supernatural explanations with natural explanations. What god used to get credit for (lightning bolts, creating humans) can now be chalked up to unintentional, non-purposive, and more or less mechanical processes. The more we can explain in this fashion, the less there is for god to do and the less reason to believe he exists, one would suppose. After all, what rationally motivates belief in things, to a large extent, is the role they play in good explanations, those that permit prediction and control. Things that cease to play a role (e.g., phlogiston, the ether, élan vital, protoplasm, cold fusion) usually get dropped from our ontology - our catalog of what exists.

Unless, that is, they have independent means of ontological support. For god, this support comes from historically entrenched religious traditions that vigorously meme supernaturalism. These traditions, of course, take advantage of evolved human psychology: our disposition to read intention into the world, our distaste for death, and our tribal tendency to form in-groups built around shared ideology. All of these supply fertile ground for belief in a supervisory creator who has special concern for our tribe (not the other guy’s), and in an immaterial soul that survives to join him in the hereafter. So explanatory displacement notwithstanding, supernaturalism lives on.

Still, as science advances, believers feel the heat of god’s explanatory irrelevance. Writing in the New York Times about Pope Benedict’s seminar on evolution, Ian Fisher reports that

…Father Fessio and others say the pope, based on his statements and writings, remains deeply concerned specifically about the contention among some supporters of modern evolution that the theory refutes any role of God in creation.

‘Given this ideology, the temptation or danger is real to say that you don’t have any need of God, that the spirit doesn’t exist,’ said Msgr. Fiorenzo Facchini, an Italian priest and paleoanthropologist. ‘And the church should keep guard against this and denounce it.’
So how do we keep god in the picture? Well, by claiming he’s needed to get the ball rolling. After that, material, mechanical processes, such as natural selection, take over. We won’t find god’s intention written directly in the fossil record or in our DNA, but he still gets the credit. Not bad for a day’s work.

This move, of course, begs the question of where god came from. For those seriously interested in explanations, this question spikes god, since positing a further mystery (a creator) to explain a more proximate mystery (the origins of life and the universe) simply multiplies mysteries. But for those wanting a fig leaf of explanatory relevance for god, his role as Very Remote Controller is just the ticket. It gives him at least a bit part to play, and thus (if we don’t ask too many questions) a quasi-rational reason to believe in him, apart from wanting to be reassured about death and our privileged place in the universe.

The same sort of dynamic, curiously enough, is being played out in a discussion among a group of religious naturalists (RNs) associated with the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (I'm a member and a participant in the discussion). The issue, essentially, is about the scope of religious naturalism itself. All parties to the debate count themselves as naturalists insofar as they all claim that nature is all there is – there’s no additional supernatural realm. But the question that divides them is: What is nature? What is its ontology? This question has bite, since if we can’t agree about the nature of nature, then the designation “religious naturalist” may not be particularly informative.

Some RNs think that nature is, in some sense, benevolent or purposive. It has a direction - a teleology - that we participate in, for example in having evolved to become intelligent creatures. Among the most florid expressions of natural teleology is the belief in “evolutionary enlightenment” and “conscious evolution” as championed by New Age gurus Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilbur. But there are less specific, milder versions as well, in which nature includes a force for good, such that things are working out for the best. We live, perhaps, in a Panglossian universe.

What’s happened here, of course, is that god’s role as intentional creator, supervisor, and protector has been transmuted into an aspect of nature. Nature has us and our interests in mind, so to speak. But just as there is no good scientific explanatory justification for god, there’s no good scientific justification, at least not yet, for imputing to nature either benevolence or purpose. Such notions play no role in currently accepted scientific theories; they have no explanatory relevance. Instead, the same human psychology that drives belief in god is driving belief in a cosmos that has a purpose we can latch onto. People very much want there to be something more beyond chance and necessity, and even those who’ve abjured traditional theistic consolations will sometimes read into nature what they’re so strongly motivated to find.

All sorts of comforting beliefs about nature are consistent with science, since science can’t prove that nature has no purpose, just as it can’t prove the non-existence of god. Just as Francis Collins in his new book The Language of God can confidently assert that his belief in a Remote Controller is consistent with his belief in natural selection, so too can self-described religious naturalists assert that their belief in cosmic benevolence is consistent with science. There may not yet be hard evidence for benevolence, but it can’t be categorically ruled out.

The defense against what’s very likely wishful thinking is to stick to the ontology science positively supports. Without the constraint of having positive evidence for an existence claim, then there’s almost no limit to what we can claim about nature, in which case the concept of the natural becomes too loose to distinguish it from the supernatural. To count yourself meaningfully as a naturalist, as opposed to supernaturalist, therefore requires you to cite good evidence for your conception of nature. Empiricism and naturalism go hand in hand.


Anonymous Spin-O-za said...

TOM... excellent piece and as usual, filled with your utter "reasonableness" to the brim.

WHAT are we to make of the brute fact of our existence... our conscious experience... and our existential reflections... our place in the Cosmos?

I fully agree that religious explanations are delusional musings... based on the realization of our temporal natures and the prior dearth of explanatory reasons for the world around us. Science has indeed sent "god" to meekly inhabit the dark recesses of our knowledge gaps.

BUT again, we are here... we ponder... we ask, through scientific inquiry, "why". PURPOSE is surely too myopic and anthropomorphic a word, but since i assume we are all determinists here, then we must admit our evolution was fully "embodied" in the very Singularity of this specific universe. THUS, we and all biological life, whereever it may be in the Cosmos, was not a product of chance, but a fully determined aspect of Nature itself.

What shall we call such a grand and mysterious phenomena?

Deus sive Natura, eh?

Sep 13, 2006, 3:40:00 PM  
Blogger Otis said...

The issue for our times is not whether science is replacing supernatural explanations with natural explanations. Rather, the proper question is: Does science tell us that the world is natural? Surprisingly, science is increasingly giving us new evidence that the world is not natural. In fact, science gives us much evidence that the world is quite unnatural. There are dozens of examples that can be found in various scientific disciplines, but here I give a single example of the most fundamental kind: the state of the universe.

In a recent issue of Nature (April 27, 2006) is an article by Sean M. Carroll entitled ‘Is our Universe Natural?’ Mr. Carroll is a physicist at the Enrico Fermi Institute in Chicago. The article begins with the statement, “When considering both the state in which we find our current Universe, and the laws of physics it obeys, we discover features that seem remarkably unnatural to us.” Mr. Carroll goes on to describe two sets of empirical data that put our universe in the unnatural category. First, “the early Universe was in a state of incredibly low entropy” and has “delicately tuned features.” It turns out that without the low entropy and finely tuned features, the galaxies, stars and planets would not form and we would not be here. Second, the five characteristic scales of the universe are enormously different from what should occur in a natural universe. These scales are derived from the laws of physics. Therefore, the laws of physics give us an unnatural universe.

Physicists are not content with an unnatural universe and have put forward a variety of ideas to get back to a ‘natural universe’, hence the title of Mr. Carroll’s paper. Most of these ideas use some form of an infinity of universes, sometimes called ‘multiverses’. The problem is, as Mr. Carroll acknowledges, all these ideas are highly speculative. Not only that, they cannot be verified because the multiverses cannot be observed. Even worse, there is no way to disprove the ideas, so they exist, for now, on the fringe of science. Thus we are stuck with an unnatural universe. But how can this be? After hundreds of years of advances in the natural sciences, enormous sophistication in our instruments for taking the measure of the microscopic and the macroscopic, we discover that our universe is not natural.

If science tells us that the universe is unnatural and naturalism is claimed to be based on science, what does that tell us about the rationality of the philosophy of naturalism?

Sep 14, 2006, 9:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Jim Farmelant said...

Otis writes:

The issue for our times is not whether science is replacing supernatural explanations with natural explanations. Rather, the proper question is: Does science tell us that the world is natural? Surprisingly, science is increasingly giving us new evidence that the world is not natural.

Otis cites Sean M. Carroll's paper, "Is our Universe Natural?" whic appeared in Nature, but which a somewhat earlier version can be found online.

Looking at Carroll's criteria for "natural" versus "unnatural", he clearly does not identify the term "unnatural" as he uses it, with the concept of "supernatural," whereas I get the impression that Otis wishes to equate "unnatural" with "supernatural." As Carroll makes clear when we deem a physical state, or even the universe, itself, as being "unnatural" we are in effect saying that there is something unlikely or improbable about it that requires some sort of special explanation. That does not mean that when confronted with such situations scientists leap to supernatural explanations or invoke a "God of the gaps" to explain things. Instead, most scientists will set about the hard painstaking work of seeking an explanation for what otherwise seems to us to be an "unnatural" situation. There is no guarantee that they will succeed in finding an adequate explanation, but unless we start out from the assumption that such an explanation is possible, we will never find it if one exists.

Otis also refers to the hypothesis of multiverses which has been widely invoked as a possible explanation of the "finely-tuned" character of the universe. He dismisses this hypothesis on the grounds that it is unfalsifiable, and hence not scientific. Now nobody, that I am aware of, claims that we can directly oberve other universes. Carroll, himself, while not embracing this idea, is not entirely dismissive of it either since, as he points out, there are a number of theories out there which invoke the multiverse idea and which do seem to have testable and falsifiable implications. Lee Smolin, for instance, is a leading proponent of the theory of cosmological natural selection, which makes use of the multiverse idea, and which he insists does have empirically falsifiable implications. He presents some of these ideas in a recent paper, "Scientific alternatives to the anthropic principle," which can be found online here.

Sep 24, 2006, 8:34:00 AM  

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