Encountering Naturalism

An interesting book by Thomas W. Clark came my way recently. Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and its Uses is a well-written, short (101 pages) book that serves as a very readable, non-academic introduction to naturalism. It’s very light on scientific and other technical considerations, focusing instead on other questions readers new to naturalism might have.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly interesting, perhaps because it’s the sort of thing I haven’t paid much attention to, is the way it concentrates on issues concerning our lack of godlike free will and the implications of this lack for our notions of responsibility in justice and even psychotherapy. Since such matters of applied ethics are far outside what I feel competent commenting about, I naturally can’t judge Clark’s views on responsibility. They seem plausible to me (especially since I think most traditional views of “free will” are barely a cut above superstition), and they don’t raise any immediate red flags. And even if I know very little about issues of justice or therapy, I think there are some interesting and important questions here for scientific naturalists. Therefore I recommend Clark’s book.

Clark also runs the Center For Naturalism, a very useful resource in its own right.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    I never really understood why naturalism supposedly implies determinism.

    Personally I have no problem with having free will without having God or any other supernatural being along for the ride.

    Just because we don’t have a firm handle on how free will works doesn’t mean that we don’t have it – just that we don’t understand it yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    Even if present actions explicitly determine our future, that does not diminish our own individual contributions. Were we lesser, or just another, the future would be different. Being who we are plays a part in creating the future.

    I find nothing about causality to be diminishing of my role in influencing my actions and the subsequent consequences.

    In my opinion, causality vindicates my opinion that my actions do matter. My actions are predicated upon who I am.

    The thought that some imagined entity who can calculate cause and effect before it happens is able to know my actions before I do is too laughable for me to even concern myself with.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    I haven’t read the book, but I know that experiments show that we tend to act first and then assign reasons for our actions later. So our behaviors tend to be instinctual, we are genetically pre-disposed to act certain ways. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because reasoning is too time consuming and acting too slowly can be deadly and because reasoning abilities evolved later. So that connects this to naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Explicit Atheist: It doesn’t follow from acting first and assigning reasons later that most of our behaviors are genetically pre-dispositioned. Our behavior is also modified by habits that are socially transmitted and, however it’s ultimately cashed out, we do make choices and decisions about how we establish our habits and methods. I don’t think the voluntarist position about belief is correct–we don’t choose what to believe, we just find ourselves having beliefs as a result of our experiences, memories, and inferences. But we are capable of deciding to change our habits, learn new things and new methods, and expose ourselves to other kinds of information.

    cyberkitten: Naturalism doesn’t imply determinism, I agree. But neither does indeterminism imply free will (nor does determinism imply lack of free will, at least in compatibilist formulations). As bpabbott says, we *want* our actions to be causally determined by our beliefs, desires, and intentions.


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