Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wisdom of Alice

It would be nice if a worldview were not only true, but livable. As yet, there aren’t many thorough-going naturalists to provide data, but a hardy few have reported back on the livability of naturalism and it mostly seems to pass the test, see Living in light of naturalism. Below are some updates from Alice in Australia at the Naturalism Philosophy Forum (open membership), who describes some of the practical and psychological advantages of taking a consistently cause and effect view of ourselves, and the understandable suspicions many folks have about it. She also describes applying naturalism to child-rearing, as does Stephen, another member of the Forum. If a worldview can pass that test, then clearly it’s a winner! Enjoy…

Alice writes:

I’m really happy with my understanding of the world based on what I understand Naturalism to be telling me. In the past I’ve found that I was coming up with theories, then when I came across a theory that made sense I was applying it, but it never went smoothly, something always came up that didn’t fit in with my theory. So I jumped from theory to theory until finding Naturalism in July 2007. 18 months is probably the longest that I’ve had a theory that I’ve applied to my life where in 18 months I’ve not yet had a contradiction to the reality that I’ve experienced. I feel enlightened. I tell my friends this and they’re not sure what to think. When things go wrong in my marriage and I ‘attempt’ to speak with my mother about it – she tells me ‘well you’ve made your choices’, so then I tell her, I don’t have free will, she seems to think I’m trying to cop out of something and is very disapproving of me. In fact most people are disapproving of my belief in NFWism [no free will-ism: not having contra-causal free will]. I’m just really sorry they don’t ‘get it’. NFWism allows me complete acceptance of what is. It allows me to have compassion for all people. It allows me to make informed decisions and respond to everyone with the understanding that they ‘couldn’t have done otherwise’. This is an emancipating position. Yet still people look at me and think I’m some how being a smart-arsed shirker of responsibility, who hasn’t quite understood how life works yet – a dreamer who really doesn’t get it! Ironic that they have it so back to front – and yet my world view allows me to have total compassion for them and their attitude – whilst they look at me in judgment. It really throws the Christian door knockers - LOL!

On child-rearing:

…So the better I understand Naturalism, the better I can enact those principles in my life and use the rationality of naturalism in my thoughts and actions, the more likely that is going to permeate all my relationships and influence those around me. My eldest is currently 7 years old, and I find overt examples of my Naturalistic world perspective come out in my discussions with him regarding interactions between himself and his younger brother. Kids are very good at detecting false realities, so I have to be careful what I say if I want to maintain any authority or respect. I find that if I stick to Naturalistic parameters, my argument is quite based in reality and therefore acceptable.

I can’t see any problem with introducing all aspects of Naturalism including NFW [no contra-causal free will] to my children. Children integrate what they learn very easily and can also easily see when things don’t add up or make sense. If they feel safe they will talk about what is not adding up for them and allow you the opportunity to clarify concepts. One example of this for me was when my son’s friend told him that he would burn in hell because he didn’t believe in God. As my son approached me with his concerns, I was able to give my perspective, which was satisfactory and caused much relief.

If you hold Naturalistic beliefs and are able to concurrently have good self-esteem then there is no reason why your child wouldn’t follow you to do the same. If anything Naturalism has improved my self-esteem, as I’m more grounded in reality, feel more confident about my understanding of the world and have more compassion for everyone around me, which has lead to my feeling more valuable in society and therefore created higher self-esteem.

With my first child I had a go at punishment as a parenting technique. It caused us both lots of distress [and] it clearly didn’t work – it wasn’t effective in outcomes. Now I go for a more effective method – I change the circumstances so that I achieve the outcome I desire. The child may or may not understand what I’m doing, or why, but if I get the outcome I want and the child is not distressed it’s win-win. I have no concerns that this will create problems later on, as I explain everything I’m doing and allow the child to learn how to see other perspectives at their own rate – developing compassion (the ability to see another’s perspective) in the child is the key to socially functioning adults.

And Stephen writes:

…the other day I was talking to my daughter about what school she will be going to. She was worried in case she got "a rough one." I explained that she was an amazing biological machine able to adapt to the situation and do well if necessary, that this was the result of billions of years of natural selection going right back to the first self replicating molecule, that she couldn't take ultimate credit for the fact but still she has this amazing ability.Oh and I told her we'd get her Karate lessons too :-)

She is 10, didn't bat an eye lid but it gave her justified confidence (along with the offer of karate lessons), she stopped worrying and cheered up.

I think she's used to having one strange dude for a father :-)

[Relatedly, see this interview with Dale McGowan on raising kids without supernatural beliefs.]


Blogger Tom Clark said...

I'm forwarding a note to Alice from Hans in Denmark:

Hello Alice -

I've just read with great pleasure your letter in Memeing Naturalism.

I'll very briefly introduce myself: Retired meteorologist (84 now), Danish. I wrote some 12 years ago (that's to say, I finished writing, the actual writing started long before that) a small essay that I called "The Fatal Illusion"; I had for many years been convinced of 'NFW' as you call it, and had pondered a good deal of the consequenses to many aspects of human life - that essay was the result of those speculations.

It was never really published, some publisher saw my point(s), but none had the guts to publish it. Now it seems that the ideas are slowly growing up a bit everywhere. I think that there are three musts that should be realized if humanity shall have a future beyond the next century or so: The climate must come under control asap, the population explosion must also come under control - and all religious ideas must be replaced with NTW-ideas.

But please let me know if you would be interested in a copy of the essay (I think you would, judging from your writings!), then I'll send it to you. I'm no great pc-expert, so it would just be as an attached file to a mail, but I think that could do...

Kind regards,

Hans Henning Krarup

Mar 22, 2009, 8:24:00 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

I'm new to naturalism, and would like to address this quote:

"When things go wrong in my marriage and I ‘attempt’ to speak with my mother about it – she tells me ‘well you’ve made your choices’, so then I tell her, I don’t have free will, she seems to think I’m trying to cop out of something and is very disapproving of me."

Is this really naturalism in action? From my point of view, this statement IS a cop-out, even though I do not believe we have counter-causal free will.

The lack of free will only makes sense outside the self. I find naturalism enlightening because I can look at others as fully caused, but when it comes to responsibility for your actions, you have to judge from the perspective of the self. From that vantage point, we are free agents and DO have the power of choice unless we are coerced.

Alice's mother is right to point out that choices led to the current circumstances. In some ways, I wonder if Alice's mother has a batter grasp on the implications of causal-chain naturalism than her daughter does.

Josh Nankivel

Mar 23, 2009, 8:43:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Hello Josh,

"Alice's mother is right to point out that choices led to the current circumstances. "

Alice's mother is right that choices led to the current circumstances, as Alice herself is fully aware of but what is Alice's mother implying?

I think she is implying that Alice had the power to have made different choices,in such a way that makes her deserving of the consequences of the choices she made.

Alice is correctly denying this when she points out to her mother that she does not have free will.


Mar 26, 2009, 6:25:00 AM  
Blogger Josh said...


I think you are correct that Alice's mother is expressing her sentiments in a punitive's difficult to know exactly without the full context or having been there.

My point is that Alice is going to extremes here... there IS such a thing as free agency, even though it is not ultimately counter-causal.

Alice's implementation of naturalism is a poor one in this case, I think. We still have the ability to analyze past behavior and choices, and change our future circumstances and behavior to increase the chances of a particular outcome.

She's throwing her hands up and appealing to ultimate determinism, foregoing any personal responsibility. Seems like a form of fatalism to me.

Josh Nankivel

Mar 26, 2009, 7:55:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...


Knowing Alice from what she's written here and elsewhere, I don't think that in denying free will she's "throwing up her hands and appealing to ultimate determinism, foregoing any personal responsibility." She, like most folks, takes responsibility for her actions, for instance in raising her kids and in how she treats others. By saying she doesn't have free will she is pointing out, truthfully, that her behavior is fully caused, not that it doesn't have consequences for which she can be held responsible. But, if people can see and accept the fact that her behavior *is* fully caused, that might influence the way they hold her responsible (i.e., more compassionately) and get them to look at the circumstances (including their own behavior) that form the causal web out of which her actions arise.

There is no implication of fatalism in this, nor of abdicating responsibility. I think she would agree with you when you say "We still have the ability to analyze past behavior and choices, and change our future circumstances and behavior to increase the chances of a particular outcome."

But thanks for raising this objection since it points up the misunderstandings that can arise when naturalists deny contra-causal free will. We have to be careful not to give people the wrong impression, which means reassuring them that we are not invoking causality as a universal excuse.

Mar 31, 2009, 3:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Alice :) said...

It has been interesting reading this conversation.

I have two points to make - one on Josh's comments regarding my using NFWism as a cop out from responsibility; and two about Tom's observations about misunderstandings from people when introducing the idea of NFWism.

I'll start with my response to Tom, as I think this answer informs the other. I totally agree with Tom regarding the comment that when introducing NFWism to others it is important that we clearly explain what we mean by NFWism and it's implications.

Introducing the idea of NFWism to my mother when I needed emotional support was probably not useful, as my introducing the idea was then mixed in with our inter-personal inter-dependant conflict and was therefore misunderstood.

Although really it's tough to know when would be a good time to introduce the idea. Due to the implications of NFWism, the causal web means that finding a perfect moment to introduce such an idea isn't really realistic. So my aim has become to bring up these ideas at moments when they come to my mind, so that over a period of time, another person might build a picture of what NFWism is about and what it means to me, thus giving them impetus to follow up their own interest in NFWism. I do believe that this is my best chance of influencing others with consideration of my circumstances.

Although I haven't as yet had much success at causing others to gain their own drive for Naturalism. Perhaps this is due to my limited understanding of Naturalism and also my limited ability to talk about it's implications. Perhaps if I took more time to study Naturalism myself and become more schooled on the broader implications, I would be a greater force in influencing others to its' being and usefulness as a philosophical perspective.

Jan 22, 2011, 8:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Alice :) said...

In response to Josh's comments about using NFWism as a cop out of responsibility - I have thought about how this might have appeared to be the case and come up with the following ideas.

When I told my mother that we don't have free will, I was aiming to elicit a compassionate response. Although it ended up perhaps giving the impression that I was using NFWism as a 'cop out' from responsibility for my own actions. My mothers response of 'well you've made your choices' in that situation seemed to imply my personal responsibility for not only my own thoughts, feelings and actions, but the actions of my husband and all the circumstances there around that caused us to fall in love, stay together and have 3 children over a then, 14 year period.

My mother perhaps disapproved at the time of my 'choice' of husband and so would prefer to deny any personal responsibility to support me emotionally for upset caused to me in my marriage. A very complex web.

Although I can't remember the exact circumstances at the time, I would perhaps have got a more compassionate response from my mum, had I said something like "When my husband didn't pay the electricity bill on time, I felt upset, because I need to trust that my needs will be met. Can you support me to think through how we will get our needs met if the electricity is disconnected?"

Also I wonder if the interaction between my mother and myself was based on our historical relationship patterning.

In a relationship between a parent and child, the lines of responsibility can be blurred. Really we all have responsibility for our own feelings, thoughts, actions and needs. But often when we are children, we can get the impression that our parents have responsibility for our feelings and actions. "You made me angry" or "You made me push you". This illusion can be upheld by both parents and children.

If any relationship is continued in this manner, then all sorts of confusion can occur. People can believe themselves responsible for other peoples', feelings or actions, or think others have directly caused them. In fact when we break down the causal events leading to someone's feelings or actions we can see that the primary cause for a person's feelings or actions is their own thinking or brain activity, including instinctual reactions.

When we understand what drives our thinking - our need to meet our own needs - and we can identify our needs - then we can change our thinking, which in turn changes our feelings and actions.

Needs including basic human needs such as; air, food, water, shelter, rest, community, closeness, trust, understanding, empathy, emotional safety, fun, laughter, creativity, self-worth, and so on. As different to desires, demands or requests that are more specific and not necessarily basic needs based, such as "I need a BMW and a diamond necklace".

I believe now that the role of parents is not to believe that they are responsible for a child's feelings and actions - but as the parent identifies and meets their child's needs, they also educate the child on how to identify their own thoughts, feelings and needs, and on how to get their needs met, either on their own or through social networks.

In this way the child learns a 'needs literacy', rather than mistakenly believing that their feelings and actions are directly caused by others - meaning they fail to mature into adult behaviour. In order to met our needs in a socially responsible way, we need to learn to identify the needs driving our feelings, and then go about meeting our needs in a way that is in harmony with others being able to meet their needs also.

Jan 22, 2011, 8:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Josh said...

Thanks Alice and everyone!

I've come to understand that we are in agreement philosophically. I misconstrued what Alice was saying earlier, however the impression I had will likely arise from the majority of people too.

So leaving metaphysics behind, what are the pragmatic ways to spread the idea of naturalism?

The human ape responds primarily in an emotional fashion...we are better at rationalizing than being rational.

When used in self-defense it comes across as abdicating responsibility, even if you don't mean it that way. Imagine a religious person claiming something in their lives wasn't their responsibility because "their god made them do it". Not very compelling if they are trying to convert you.

When trying to get others to change their world view, philosophical arguments from reason and logic are not *usually* effective.

*Most* people don't become christians because they were persuaded by some strong argumentation, rigorously studied with skepticism until they saw no other option. No, they have a "personal experience" or are convinced the religion is helpful to their lives or are inspired some other way. If they are persuaded by the likes of Bill Craig and other apologists, it's because they don't understand the arguments well enough. These arguments only work from the starting premise of a belief in a god, and many don't even work then.

On naturalism, I am not evangelical but when discussing issues with friends and family, especially social and cultural issues, I put it into play in the conversation.

I try to show people that naturalism makes me feel better, helps me forgive others, and helps me make sense of events.

If I tried to start with argumentation about metaphysical truth, I wouldn't even get off the ground. At least people will listen to what I have to say without feeling the need to try and refute it in some way.

A few including my brothers have starting asking more questions about it since then.

I don't know if this is the *best* manner of communicating naturalism to people or not. However, I'm reasonably sure that using naturalism in self-defense will only raise emotional objections, and trying to argue metaphysics don't work to get you off the ground.

Jan 23, 2011, 7:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Alice :) said...

Hi Josh,

I agree with your sentiment.

The question of how to introduce the benefits of naturalism to others is definitely a worthwhile question, especially when considering the benefits to yourself, when family and friends share your philosophical perspective on life. I'm drawing blanks in my own life at 'sharing philosophical perspective' under the name of Naturalism, other than with my 9 year old son, who agrees in principle with my philosophical perspective, from his comprehension to far.

Perhaps for myself I need to be less proscriptive about needing others to use the name Naturalism to describe their philosophical perspective. Then I could perhaps come to small agreements with them on shared life perspectives, that do indeed reflect my Naturalistic position. This would mean that I would want to be more mindful of what small agreements I could share with others that would reflect Naturalism in practise.

I've noticed that many of my Naturalistic observation, are often amusingly accepted by others as a statement of fact. Which is reassuring to me, of the reality of Naturalism being a universal truth. I think it's quite OK to make statements of fact, in order to reinforce the reality in which we live. This, I find, has a grounding effect, and acts as a reminder to others about life's truths.

Eg, "I can't believe that I got hurt when I fell over on the concrete!" - to which I might reply - "gravity sucks and the ground is hard!" OK, I was meaning more perceptive statements of fact, that might highlight to others the 'magical' thinking in their beliefs. But I'm having trouble coming up with a practical example.

I hear what you are saying about emotions, as you have found that people can think rationally, but find it hard to be rational - presumably when confronted with their own feelings. You seem to be saying that you would like to introduce Naturalism to them through an experience, rather than through a rationalised thought process.

I suppose we are all driven by our needs. So people aren't going to necessarily pursue Naturalism unless it meets their needs in some way.

I know that when I consider my own motivations for pursuing Naturalism there was a direct link in meeting my own basic needs for meaning; empowering honesty that enabled me to learn from my limitations; reassurance and understanding about why we are here in the world; and also provided me with firm ground to plan my goals and dreams and create my values. Naturalism has supported me in other ways also, and all have lead to me having better self esteem, due to my firm grounding in reality in understanding the nature of all things.

Perhaps if you can talk about what needs Naturalism has met for you, and how points of Naturalistic perspective can apply to meet their current needs, when you are sharing with others in a more emotional setting, they too will feel inspired to connect with the reality of Naturalism.

I would be interested to hear if you connected with anything I said, and also if you've gained any inspiration yourself about how to better express Naturalism to others since your last posting.

Alice :)

Jan 25, 2011, 12:46:00 AM  

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