Alex’s Heresies – embracing a physical reality

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Archive for July, 2010

Comment: Naturalism, Evangelical Christianity, & Free-Will

Naturalism views us as physical beings in a knowable physical world. As human perception supported by reasoning is seen as the best way to understand the world, Naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences – natural sciences and much of the social sciences – as primary sources of reliable data. Unlike reductive materialists, Naturalists are willing to discuss our ‘I’ aspects of our world – consciousness, free-will, and sense of self – without necessarily reducing them to physical brain processes. Many even see emergent properties and superveniences as ways of explaining our special ‘I’ properties independently of the underlying physical processes. However Naturalists still reject magical and mysterious explanations, no matter how couched in pseudo-scientific terms.
Evangelical Christianity sees a different reality to the physical realm of naturalism. We are in a perceivable physical world controlled by another more mysterious, all-pervasive reality – eternal, undetectable physically, conscious, all-powerful and, not surprisingly, intimately interested in humans as groups and individuals. Not surprisingly, evangelicals call this consciousness ‘God’. Again not surprisingly humans are special in being both physical and non-physical beings unlike all other living things. We have a ‘soul’.  Evangelical Christians seek to understand and comply with God’s demands through selected use of ancient Middle Eastern texts – their Christian biblical canon – as their foundation for living and moral judgements as well as the basis for their evangelising, their spreading the word.
Free-will, our making of unforced choices, is accepted as fundamental to our moral sense, societal control, and use of punishment. For most of us the belief in human free-will is unquestioned. Our law even reflects this attitude. However we live in a physical world best described in causal terms with events explainable by examining the effect of prior events. So is our free-will the one and only uncaused exception throughout the 4 billion year history of Earth? Philosophers have worried about this apparent contradiction for ever since they have been philosophising.
Not surprisingly philosophers respond with (1) full-blown free-will acceptance, (2) free-will scepticism, and (3) compatibilism with the latter being a scaling down of free-will enough to meet our societal needs.  As there seems to be a fundamental incompatibility between an unfettered free-will and our understanding of a physical world and a naturalist is committed to all experiences coming from the physical world, he or she seems likely to advocate free-will scepticism (‘it’s an illusion’) or to a scale-downed free-will of compatibilism (‘just enough for some moral responsibility’). Uncaused free-will seems an unlikely choice with an assumed human physicality.
The Evangelical Christian has a more packaged solution to this dilemma. God gives us uncaused free-will with the total ‘soul’ package. This is a necessary in a world-view that advocates salvation from freely choosing God (through their doctrines of course). So it is not surprising that the evangelical would hold the view that transgressors can be and should be rightfully be punished. It is so simple. Fortunately most people in Australia, the 92% who do not attend a Christian church regularly, probably see morality as primarily a human affair although they may seek inspiration from beliefs about God and Jesus.
One could expect different attitudes to social justice and crime and punishment between Evangelical Christians and Naturalists. The evangelical would have a more defined sense of right and wrong and the necessary consequences of people choosing to do wrong (or evil to use their term). Punishments can be justifiably swift and harsh. Naturalists have little choice to question simple ‘he did wrong’ style of punishment. How much was he truly free to make a choice must loom large in the naturalist world-view? There are many reasons for punishment and incarceration and these must be worried about to avoid knee-jerk reactions of choosing wrong and punishment.
Upon reflection unfettered free-will in our causal world is problematic and Naturalists have no recourse to a simple religious response to the contradiction. But perhaps that is the cost for our species becoming mature enough to deal with ourselves in the world.
Alex McCullie
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Comment: Naturalism – the Basics

All world-views (“how we see things”), as human constructions of reality, start with unprovable foundational beliefs or assumptions. They are assumed within one world-view and impossible to disprove from another. An accepted world-view provides hopefully an emotionally and intellectually comfortable set of perspectives about our existence in the world, by addressing the fundamental questions and answers of life. More importantly we need to recognise that, despite the intellectual claims and counter-claims, world-views are shaped, at least initially, by people’s familial and cultural backgrounds. Only later some may question these fundamental assumptions when they seem overwhelmingly inadequate to explain our experiences. So the ‘problem of evil’ continues to challenge a world-view with an all-powerful, loving God and indiscriminate and gratuitious suffering.

Naturalism, as a world-view, also is founded on fundamental assumptions or beliefs about reality. Firstly, the physical world exists independently of our perceptions. I walk into a room and see a chair. I then expect that chair to exist in the room even after I leave and, if the chair is unmoved, it will be there on my return. This is the philosophical concept of ‘realism’ and is held automatically by most people. Philosophers often talk about naive and critical realism where the latter unlike the former recognises that our perceptions of external objects are always processed or mediated.

Secondly, we are physical beings in a physical world and all our experiences derive from that interrelationship. Naturalists do not seek explanations or comfort from believing in ‘realities’ beyond our interactions within the physical world. Broadly the physical world is seen as interconnected material objects and forces that are commonly referred to as ‘nature’. Nature is not considered inherently conscious.

The only way we understand the physical world is through personal perceptions interpreted by human reason. Even though we would like to think the physical world is knowable, most would recognise the inherent flaws in our preceptive-reasoning capabilities that make any such claim as nonsense. There will always be a ‘disconnect’ between us and the world around us. In many ways our views of reality are really human constructs.
Thirdly, naturalists consider the empirically-based natural and social sciences as our most successful ways of utilising human perception and reasoning to understand ourselves in the physical world. Sciences provide many safe-guards to counter human biases, wishful thinking, and perceptual errors so to produce reliable ‘social knowledge’ about the physical world. Peer testing, open debates, and seeking falsifications are all part of the scientific processes. Ideally nothing is open to challenge. And despite frequent changes in the extremes of scientific enquiry – the very small, very large, and very distant – the vast majority of scientific knowledge is stable and highly reliable.

Fourthly, naturalists are sceptical of a priori knowledge claims, knowledge claims independent of human experience. These claims are acceptable for artificial systems like games and mathematics. So not surprisingly reasoning from the rules of chess can be made without personal playing experience. One might say that scientists also make knowledge claims without having empirical support. And that’s true. Einstein promoted hypotheses long before they could be verified by experiment. However we need to consider two points here. Scientists expect to have both experimental evidence and meaningful explanations sometime in the future as the need for experimental verification can be placed on-hold if plausable explanations are provided initially. Even then full acceptance is usually withheld until verified empirically. This attitude contrasts with many religions that embrace the concept of on-going ‘mysterious’ without any rational explanations sought now or in the future. Just accept the mystery, something that is an anthema to scientific enquiry.

Fifthly and finally, naturalists do not give any particular weight to traditional beliefs and writings. Isaac Newton’s or Charles Darwin’s writings are fascinating in the history of science but of little use for today’s scientific research. They are respected as interesting historical documents but little else. This contrasts dramatically with most religious attitudes towards ancient texts as scripture, which many followers still see as unique and god-given sources of truth.

For naturalists, Christian, Jewish or Islamic scriptures are simply constructions of fragmented ancient human writings, made during ancient times and places so different to our own. Their world understandings were so alien with extra-physical beings as causing human maladies and good fortunes. Quite famously they operated within a three-tier cosmos with heaven above and hell below and the flat Earth between, being their battleground between good and evil. Those writings may have expressed some common truths about the human condition but they are so packaged within an alien world-view combined with later layers of religious interpretation to provide little attraction for people today. Most will turn to newer insightful sources.

So am I dismissing a study of Jewish and Christian texts as a waste of time? Certainly not. I regularly read and study Christian and Jewish scriptures combined with historical and cultural studies of ancient Israel and Palestine. Both libraries of books have had and continue to have immense impact on our society. But I see them as influential ancient human texts, interpreted and re-interpreted over the years effectively hiding any original understandings and intents.

Naturalism is the world-view held, in practical terms, by most people in Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe. They may profess some sort of deist ‘there must be something’ beyond our physical world, but it makes no difference to their lives. With less than eight percent as regular church attendees the vast majority see churches as social institutions and antiquated ones at that. There is every sign of the churchs’ continued decline.

Like all world-views, naturalism is built on some foundational beliefs about our place in our world. For naturalists we are physical beings in a physical world ans our empirically-based sciences are our best way of knowing that relationship. It is all about human perception and human reason. Furthermore we need to recognise that there will always be a perceptional separation between us and the world around us. We process and interpret all our perceptions subconsciously before conscious awareness. It’s a matter of finding the best fit between experiences and explanation, and naturalism provides a solid basis for both.

Alex McCullie

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