The Center for Naturalism (CFN) is an educational and advocacy organization devoted to increasing public awareness of naturalism and its implications for social and personal well-being. The CFN seeks to foster the understanding that human beings and their behavior are fully caused, entirely natural phenomena, and that human flourishing is best achieved in the light of such understanding.
I often think that some naturalists, which essentially comprises of nontheists, feel intuitively shy of admitting that they deny free will, possibly on moral grounds. Tom Clark tirelessly advocates a naturalistic and deterministic outlook and worldview. I came across him first on Facebook, through his Naturalism page (a fantastic open group full of great discussions), and then through his interesting interview on the Reasonable Doubts podcast when they were running some free will vs determinism episodes.
I contacted Tom to see if he could give a written interview, to which he very kindly replied and accepted. Here is the fruits of his labours. Appreciated Tom! Expect talk about free will, moral responsibility and naturalistic philosophy! I really enjoyed his answers and look forward to analysing them in more depth in the future.
- Briefly, and in a nutshell, what is it that the Center for Naturalism does and why?
Here’s what we say on the home page:
“The Center for Naturalism (CFN) promotes science-based naturalism as a comprehensive worldview – a rational and fulfilling alternative to faith-based religions and other varieties of supernaturalism. The understanding that we are fully natural beings is the foundation for an effective approach to personal and social concerns, and highlights our intimate connection to the awe-inspiring universe described by science.” So we like to think that by promoting an evidence-based understanding of the world, we are also providing the basis for productive and humanistic approaches to the full range of human concerns, existential, ethical and practical.
- What is the biggest challenge that the Center for Naturalism faces?
Probably getting other secular and atheist organizations, and then the wider culture, to question the traditional dualist notion of free will, and to do so on the basis of an explicit commitment to empiricism as the reliable route to knowledge. Seeing ourselves as fully natural creatures, not above or beyond causal laws, is the next step beyond atheism toward a fully developed naturalism, and that requires dropping the idea that people could have done otherwise in actual situations. Atheism is taken for granted in the secular community, but not a for-all-practical-purposes cause and effect determinism. Changing beliefs and attitudes about determinism is a huge challenge given the widespread perception that it poses a threat to freedom and autonomy, which it does not.
- What is the greatest success you and the Center have had in the last three years?
There are recent signs that the secular community is starting to wake up to the importance of the free will question, and the CFN may have played a role in that. Also, naturalism, as distinct from atheism and humanism, has been gaining greater visibility as a worldview orientation, for instance in the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting hosted by Sean Carroll.
- As a determinist myself, the area with which I struggle the most is fatalism. The more one thinks about determinism, the more one understands that their thinking about thinking about things is itself determined. There is potential a sense of futility underlying actions. How do you get over the notion of fatalism?
It’s pretty easy to see that fatalism – the idea that our actions don’t have an effect on outcomes (e.g., no matter how carefully I try to cross the street I’m bound to get hit by a car) – is usually false. We ordinarily observe a reliable association between what we do and what happens next, a cause and effect relation. But many, perhaps most folks in the West have the strong intuition that if we are fully determined in our choices, then in some sense we don’t really make them. And therefore as you suggest they might intuit a certain sort of futility in spending time and energy deciding what to do next. But of course this sense of futility is a function of the assumption that we only make a difference to outcomes if we’re uncaused in our choices, which doesn’t follow.
One way to defuse this worry is to think carefully about what it would mean if we actually were exceptions to determinism in our choice-making, or as I put it, had “soul control”. An uninfluenced, uncaused controller of behavior (something like an immaterial soul or mental agent) would have precisely no reason to choose one way or another. So if there were such a thing in charge, it would render you terminally undecided, which is obviously maladaptive. Choices and decisions have to be made on the basis of competing alternatives assessed in light of anticipated outcomes, so although there’s often dispassionate rationality operating in reaching a decision, there’s no uninfluenced arbiter that might have decided otherwise in an actual decision, and a good thing too. Behavior determined by such an arbiter wouldn’t reflect your character, motives or rational assessments, so you couldn’t take responsibility for it. Richard Oerton really nails this point in his great new book, The Nonsense of Free Will.
We don’t know what the future holds (although it holds something according to widely accepted physical theory, see here), but we do know that outcomes we desire are strongly associated with acting in certain ways. It’s therefore rational to act in those ways even though the future is fixed. Gary Drescher delves deeply into this somewhat paradoxical point in his tour de force Good and Real and in a video here. All told, it’s actually irrational to want to be free from cause and effect, to somehow intervene from outside natural laws (an impossibility in any case) to determine outcomes – it would get you nowhere. But articulating in ordinary language the futility of having contra-causal freedom and the rational desirability of determinism for effective and responsible agency is an ongoing project. Dennett puts the latter point nicely in his Erasmus Prize essay:
“When the ‘control’ by the environment runs through your well-working perceptual systems and your undeluded brain, it is nothing to dread; in fact, nothing is more desirable than being caused by the things and events around us to generate true beliefs about them that we can then use in modulating our behavior to our advantage!”
- The other sticky notion is moral responsibility. I have been reading Derk Pereboom’s fascinating book recently, Living Without Free Will which sets out some interesting views on crime, punishment and moral responsibility. Without free will, how would you account for moral responsibility?
Being morally responsible as philosophers usually conceive it is to meet conditions such that one deserves praise and blame, where to deserve means that you should be praised and blamed independently of any consequentialist considerations (see the beginning of my review of Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility on this). So the question for naturalists like me is whether there are any conditions fully determined agents like ourselves meet that could justify moral responsibility thus defined, and (agreeing with Waller and I think Pereboom) I don’t see that there are. This is very much a minority view in the philosophical community. Many compatibilists (the majority of philosophers, those who hold that free will is compatible with determinism) suppose that because we ordinarily meet certain conditions when acting (e.g., being uncoerced, reasons-response, sane, etc.), we are morally responsible (MR). Since we are MR we deserve praise and punishment – should get our just deserts – whether or not it produces any good consequences. I’ve not yet seen a good argument for why MR and desert are entailed by meeting those conditions, so I think naturalist-determinists should stop supposing and saying that people are MR if this is what we have in mind by MR.
But of course we are moral animals – we have specifically moral dispositions and subscribe to moral norms – and we can and must be held responsible in order to maintain those norms. We rationally want to be held responsible. So there is a good consequentialist basis for holding each other responsible, via praise and blame, completely independent of non-consequentialist desert. However, our responsibility practices may well change when we give up the idea of desert, for instance we might very well be led to question retributive punishment. So if we gave up MR and desert that wouldn’t mean the end of either morality or responsibility, but it might help humanize our responsibility practices and make them more effective.
Another way to go on this question is to continue to say we are morally responsible and deserve praise and blame, but drop the non-consequentialist connotations and implications of MR. This is what Daniel Dennett, recently a self-declared consequentialist, recommends in his review of Waller. It will be hard to get people to stop talking about being MR, so this might be the way to go. On the other hand, it will be hard to extirpate the non-consequentialist connotations of MR, so Waller’s approach of denying it altogether might be more effective. I’m on the fence about which way to go at the moment. But either way, what really matters is that we change our responsibility practices in light of determinism to become more humane and effective (Dennett, like Waller, has come out against retribution).
- What are your top three books of all time?
Couldn’t decide, sorry!
- What criticisms do you have of compatibilism, the idea that free will and determinism are themselves compatible?
As noted above, I don’t see how compatibilists can square the notion of desert, and the non-consequentialist responsibility practices that flow from it, with determinism. This is the main substantive issue between compatibilists and incompatibilists. “Free will” doesn’t refer to a natural kind, something we see out there in the world as science describes it, rather it’s a culturally and historically bound term that ordinarily designates the conditions people must meet to be morally responsible. Saying that someone acts of their own free will (meets those conditions when acting) is often used to establish the fact that they are morally responsible and therefore deeply, non-consequentially deserve rewards and punishments. So the way I see it, compatibilists are engaged in protecting some morally problematic responsibility practices, partially by maintaining the traditional vocabulary of free will. This vocabulary helps to justify acting on retributive emotions that to my mind we should second guess and repress, not indulge. This isn’t to say that the distinctions compatibilists make in picking out responsible agents (e.g., being sane, reasons-responsive, uncoerced) aren’t important and right; they are crucial for knowing who is appropriate to hold responsible. But we needn’t suppose that someone who meets compatibilist criteria for acting freely and being responsible is therefore morally responsible and deserving in the way tradition has it.
- Determinism and quantum mechanics are always closely linked. Although QM does not support free will, what are your underlying thoughts about quantum indeterminacy? For example, do you think interpretations of QM are deterministic?
Not being an expert on the matter, I’m content to be agnostic on what QM and its interpretations really imply vis-a-vis determinism, if that question even makes sense. But I think it’s fair to say that the micro world evolves exactly according to probabilities described by QM, such that it’s a completely law-like domain, even if not deterministic in what’s really going on (again, if “really” even applies to the quantum realm). At the macro level of human behavior, I think we can and should be determinists for all practical purposes, and in any case as you suggest, randomness doesn’t give us a sort of freedom and origination for which we can be held responsible.
- Do you think there is any such thing as random?
If you mean by random a situation where there’s absolutely no law-like connection, not even probabilistic, between a state of affairs and a successive state of affairs in the same spacetime location, I’m inclined to think not. But that’s a totally armchair answer from a non-expert!
- What is the single biggest challenge to the theory of naturalism?
I see naturalism as the metaphysical thesis, based on a commitment to empiricism (e.g., science and commonsense requirements for public evidence) as the most reliable route to knowledge, that reality isn’t split into categorically separate realms, the supernatural and natural. Instead, all the evidence suggests that reality is of a piece, what we call nature. The biggest challenge from anti-naturalists is the claim that there are non-empirical ways of knowing that rival empiricism in reliability, and that these ways of knowing reveal a separate, supernatural realm. I don’t see this as too much of a threat given that I don’t see that there are any obvious rivals to empiricism. However, I think naturalists have to admit that it’s at least conceivable that science might reveal that reality is split into the natural and supernatural, so we shouldn’t be dogmatic in our naturalism, but instead hold it as a well-supported, evidence-based hypothesis or conjecture about reality.
- What is the best argument to support naturalism?
I like what might be called the argument from epistemic responsibility, sketched here. All worldviews, whether naturalistic or theistic, claim to represent reality accurately. Given the reality-appearance distinction, we’re obligated in making claims about reality to do our best to make sure our experiences, beliefs and intuitions (all of them appearances or representations) actually reflect the reality they purport to represent. This is our cognitive, epistemic responsibility to ourselves and others. And the only reliable means of vetting appearances is to test them against public, intersubjective evidence, what we call being empirical. When we’re empirical in investigating reality, in testing our perceptions, beliefs and intuitions, we discover no evidence that it’s divided into the natural vs. supernatural; there’s just the natural world. So the way I see it, the argument in favor of naturalism is ultimately the argument that we should be cognitively and epistemically responsible by being empiricists.
I think this is pretty powerful since most people are empiricists in their everyday lives (at least a good deal of the time) when deciding what’s true: they look to evidence. If they stayed true to empiricism when answering the big factual questions taken up by a worldview (e.g., What sort of creature am I? Is there life after death? Does God exist? What is consciousness? How free am I? What’s the basis for morality?) they would become naturalists. But of course many folks’ pre-existing worldview commitments bias them against being consistent empiricists: when the intersubjective evidence contradicts their deeply held beliefs, they sometimes reject the very idea that beliefs need empirical support.
- And finally, another big question! I don’t believe in the continuous “I”. This means that what makes me, me, are the memories which carry over, stored in my brain, and my genetic code carried in my cells. The “I” that “I” sense is, in effect, a snapshot of “my” entirety from one moment to the next. Since my personality can be completely distorted with messing around with the brain, and due to many other assorted arguments, I find this homunculus version of a central self problematic. How do “you” account for, well, “you”?
Right, there’s no essential, unchangeable self-homunculus within us. Instead, we exist only as relatively stable concatenations of physically embodied characteristics and propensities that make us identifiable unique individuals; see here on the person as construction. We of course ordinarily have the experience of being a more or less continuous interior self that “owns” these characteristics, but that experience too is an ongoing construction of the brain, and it can disappear, for instance in meditative states (see Thomas Metzinger’s wonderful book The Ego Tunnel on the experience of self). So in accounting for me as a stable, ongoing, identifiable entity, I need appeal only to the relative stability of my brain and body. This gives me sufficient continuity such that I’m readily re-identifiable as me, both to myself and others. So although there’s no non-composite “soul pearl” inside us (Dan Dennett’s phrase), there’s plenty of physical, psychological, and behavioral continuity from moment to moment, and year to year, to make being someone unproblematic.