Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Center For Naturalism

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost informs us of a new web site devoted to the metaphysical belief system called naturalism and offers a rollicking critique of it.

Naturalism is a comprehensive view of life and the world that says that nature is all there is. There's nothing beyond the natural realm, and all phenomena have explanations rooted in the laws of physics. Naturalism is atheistic and materialistic, that is to say it holds that everything can be reduced to matter and its equivalent forms (e.g. energy).

Such a philosophy allows no room for free-will, a soul, or life after death and denies as well the existence of any transcendent God.

The new web site, called the Center For Naturalism (CFN), seeks to clarify and promote the claims of naturalism and to tease out their implications for modern man.

In tracing these implications the CFN folks try hard to avoid contradicting themselves, but in my opinion they're unsuccessful. Their treatment of free-will and determinism is an example. They strongly and repeatedly reject the notion that man has the ability to choose in a way that makes him morally responsible for his choices.

An individual has free will if at any given existential moment there exists for this person at least two possible outcomes or futures. The naturalist denies that this kind of freedom exists and adopts instead a hard determinism that asserts that at any given moment there is really only one possible future, the future that has been preset by our genetics and the totality of extraneous influences which have acted upon us throughout our existence.

On the page which discusses the tenets of naturalism CFN says this:

[I]ndividuals don't bear originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause. Given the circumstances both inside and outside the body, they couldn't have done other than what they did.

If this is true, if no one can act otherwise than how they do act, then we are no more responsible for our behavior, which is determined by factors over which we have no control, than is a sufferer of Tourette's syndrome responsible for his uncontrollable outbursts. This seems an inescapable consequence of the naturalists' determinism, but then they say:

Nevertheless, we still hold individuals responsible, in the sense of applying rewards and sanctions, so that their behavior stays more or less within the range of what we deem acceptable. This is how people learn to act ethically.

This is double talk. They're using the language of responsibility and reward and punishment (they eschew the word punishment in favor of sanctions, but it amounts to the same thing) to give the impression that they don't really absolve people of their behavior simply because they didn't ultimately choose their actions. Yet these terms only make sense, in the determinist context, as conditioners of behavior.

CFN is not actually endorsing reward or punishment, in fact they cannot, because such words connote merit. Rather they are endorsing the use of pleasant and unpleasant reinforcers to train us like seals to do whatever our societal masters deem to be acceptable. If someone cannot respond in ways pleasing to the conditioners he or she bears no genuine responsibility for that failure, and it is disingenuous for CFN to imply that they believe they do:

Naturalism doesn't undermine the need or possibility of responsibility and morality, but it places them within the world as understood by science.

This claim is almost certainly false. The naturalistic determinism CFN promotes does indeed make morality impossible. Moral behavior is based on the notion that a person ought or should do some things rather than others. If, however, a person can only do whatever it is that she does, if there really is no genuine option available to her, as the naturalistic determinist insists, then there can be no genuine moral choices. Morality does not exist, can not exist, in a purely deterministic world any more than personal responsibility exists.

However, naturalism does call into question the basis for retributive attitudes, namely the idea that individuals could have done otherwise in the situation in which their behavior arose.

This assertion makes it clear that in CFN's opinion no one deserves punishment (or reward) as a consequence of his actions because he could not have done other than what he did. If this is so, however, then there can be no personal responsibility and no morality. There are just things that people do, some of which we like and some of which we don't, but our liking them or disliking them does not make them right or wrong, good or evil.

The irony of CFN's above claim is that if someone did mete out retributive punishment to another he would not be wrong in so doing since he couldn't have done otherwise. If society thinks retributive punishment is just fine, the determinist can't say that society is wrong because society has been shaped by forces outside it's control to think retribution is proper, and CFN has been shaped by forces beyond its control to think that it is improper. If determinism is true then whether punishment actually is wrong in any objective sense is unknowable and meaningless.

Naturalists seek to rid the world of belief in a transcendent moral authority and still hold on to benefits which are possible only if that authority exists. The fact is, as Nietzsche and others have clearly seen for over a century now, that if God is dead there really is no freedom, no moral responsibility, and no morality.

The CFN web site raises other important philosophical questions, some of which we'll take up in future posts. Meanwhile, interested readers might want to visit Evangelical Outpost to read what Carter has to say about it.