Monday, September 24, 2007

Book: Encountering Naturalism

Most of us have a worldview – a set of beliefs about what exists, how reality is organized, and how we fit into it. Whether explicit or not, a worldview helps to shape our goals and actions; it’s an overarching cognitive framework that helps us to make sense of things, practically, ethically and existentially.

With this as his introduction, Thomas Clark begins his exploration of naturalism, the worldview to which most atheists subscribe. In just under 100 pages, this book provides a brief overview of the topic.

What is naturalism? On page 1:

In a nutshell, the naturalism I’ll present holds that there is a single, natural, physical world in which we are completely included. There isn’t a separate supernatural or immaterial realm and there’s nothing supernatural or immaterial about us.

In other words, naturalism is the belief that the universe is entirely natural, a completely whole unit. It doesn’t consider the existence of supernatural phenomena, such as God, the soul, or life after death.

What informs this worldview? Clark argues that science is the driver of naturalism, as it unifies our view of what exists by showing the natural connections between different things:

Naturalism takes science, and more broadly a rational, evidence-based empiricism, as the most reliable means for discovering what exists. If we stick with science, the world is united in our understanding, not divided into the natural versus the supernatural. Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely joined to the natural world, which encompasses culture and biology.

In other words, naturalism holds that human beings are fully part of this natural universe; everything about us, including our minds, is connected to everything else in a natural state of cause and effect. We are, in the words of Clark, completely at home in this world.

But any worldview has its perceived problems, and Clark provides reassurance to those who worry that naturalism leads to fatalism, meaningless, or immorality. He also discusses possible advantages that naturalism can provide for individuals, relationships and society.

The briefness of the book is its major downfall. I would consider myself a budding naturalist, but I still have problems with some of the finer implications of such a worldview. For example, although Clark, like Daniel Dennett, believes that naturalism entails a totally deterministic universe, he argues that humans still have free will (although not free will in the traditional sense). This is an issue that I still have to grapple with, and although the topic is covered concisely, the length of the book doesn’t allow for in-depth discussion.

In a nutshell: as an introduction to naturalism the book does the job well, but for the finer details one would have to read more widely. I think Clark realises this - he provides a detailed list of sources at the end of the book that one can consult for further reading.

8 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Pretty much agree with Naturalism - except about the Determinism thing....... It never really made that much sense to me.

I think that the whole Free Will Vs Determinism is a huge dead-end of an argument and an equally huge waste of time.

Naturalism is the *only* way to fly though...

David said...

Though Dennett believes free will is compatible with determinism, I don't think he believes naturalism entails determinism. The universe could be entirely natural without being deterministic. Quantum mechanics seems to involve irreducible indeterminism.

I think Dennett talks so much about determinism when he's discussing free will because it is commonly felt to pose the highest hurdle to a naturalistic account of free will. E.g., if the state of the universe is completely determined by its previous state, how could there be free will.

Michelle said...

Hi--

Just subscribed to your blog. Taking some time to read your posts. I'll give some info on myself when I have time. I'm an ex-christian too, but I was never a good one. I always got into trouble for it!

Laughing Boy said...

Clark argues that science is the driver of naturalism...

I think it's been the other way around for a while now. But there are indications that naturalism is loosing it's grip on the sciences given how unsatisfying it has proven to be in regards to origins and other larger, metaphysical concerns. Naturalism has served science well in many areas, but it makes a poor foundation for a philosophy.

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy said: Naturalism has served science well in many areas, but it makes a poor foundation for a philosophy.

Actually I think it makes an excellent foundation for a philosophy!

laughing boysaid: But there are indications that naturalism is loosing it's grip on the sciences given how unsatisfying it has proven to be in regards to origins and other larger, metaphysical concerns.

What has science to do with metaphysics? As to origins - Life, the Universe and Everything - we are presently in a position of not knowing for sure what happened. I expect we will soon enough.

CyberKitten said...

"Traditionally, metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible. It seeks a description so basic, so essentially simple, so all-inclusive that it applies to everything, whether divine or human or anything else. It attempts to tell what anything must be like in order to be at all".

My excuse is that it's very early in the morning here & I'm not exactly feeling well.... [grin].

Anyway.... As far as I know we have a pretty good handle on understanding the sub-atomic world which is arguably the "fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible". We have a good, solid & *Naturalistic* explanation for things. So I don't understand why you [laughing boy] said that science has proven 'unsatisfying' in the area of Metaphysics. Is it that *you* find it unsatisfying? Personally I think Quantum Mechanics is simply fascinating.... though I can understand why people don't like it - after all Einstein spent the later part of his life trying to undermine it. He failed.

Laughing Boy said...

What has science to do with metaphysics?

You are right. I misused the word. I don't know what I was thinking.

Regarding origins, I'm not as hopeful that science will get answers anytime soon unless Dawkins's cosmological "flights of fancy" can be considered answers (or even science).

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy said: Regarding origins, I'm not as hopeful that science will get answers anytime soon

Depends what you mean by 'soon'. In the grand scheme of things we haven't really been looking for very long. I'm confident that if answers are to be found on such questions then we will find them - eventually. I'm also betting that they will be natural answers rather than supernatural ones.