Moving Naturalism Forward


Over four centuries of scientific progress have convinced most professional philosophers and scientists of the validity of naturalism: the view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.

In the public sphere, debates continue between naturalism and spiritual or religious or dualistic worldviews, and those debates are worth having. But it is also important for those committed to naturalism to address the very difficult questions raised by replacing folk psychology and morality by a scientifically-grounded understanding of reality. We would like to understand how to construct meaningful human lives in a world governed by the laws of nature. Some specific questions include:

  • Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
  • Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
  • Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
  • Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
  • Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
  • Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
  • Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
  • Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
  • Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

Participants include Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Massimo Pigliucci, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg.

Additional videos may be viewed at the link below.

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  1. 11 men, no women. I can’t believe there weren’t women qualified to participate. 
    Come on Rationalists, let’s involve the other 50%.

  2. I count two women, unless you know something about Rebecca Goldstein and Janna Levin I don’t? There are also 13 men. 

  3. Fair cop.
    I was going by the list of names under the YouTube video. Obviously incomplete.
    Didn’t have time to view, so marked for later viewing.

    However, 2 out of 13 is still quite lopsided. Maybe these events could be made a little more ‘women friendly’.

  4. The elephant not in the room is Sam Harris. Free will and self delusion on the agenda and Sam not there!

  5. Sorry, I tried, but I physically felt my brain moving away from my ears through

  6. Was I the only one to click on this link hoping to see some flesh 😉
    Perhaps it was wise to stick to philosophy.

    I’ll get my coat, underpants ….

  7. If you saw a photo of the department where I work, you’d say, “what, no men.” Out of 28, four are men (2 bosses, 1 freelance, and one gay guy.) You need to have a good sense of style/fashion; most men work in a different department in the company. Out of the four guys, only one has a good fashion sense. Can you guess which one?

    Most women would not be interested in  “technical” sterile conversations like these. “Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?”  There is nothing poetic or “moving” by this approach. It is perfect material for THE BIG BANG tv show.

    This aside, I will need to view the video, I will watch it later and see if I need to change my above opinion. it seems as if the questions asked in the article are too esoteric and will remain in the realm of “elitists.” To move naturalism forward  it is my view) that it needs to be made accessible to the average person (by dumbing it down) or easy to relate.

  8. The tables are shaped like the letter “n” as in naturalism or perhaps an N of 15? :-j Looks to be a good discussion, but was saddened they broke for coffee before the last table got to introduce themselves.


  9. This gaia (spelling?) evolution stuff. I dont get what the arguments are about. Read somewhere that Richard was opposed to the idea of organisms cooperating to make an ecosystem productive. It looks like to me that Richard thinks cooperation would mean sneaking God in the back door. His very set in his ways. What about epigenesis about cells acting on local rules independent of grand design , it just so happens that the completed organism is cohesive and cooperative. His a bit of a fuddy duddy:)

  10. Yes, Selim, I knew that Sam Harris had been invited. Having now watched over three hours of this massive neuronal summit, it seems even more regrettable that Harris wasn’t there. He might have sliced through some of the philosophical knots in his usual way. Jerry Coyne tries to do this in some short bursts but he doesn’t have Sam’s cool command of the spoken word. That said, just finished reading “Why Evolution is True” which shows Coyne’s real strengths.

  11.  I would suggest that the Utube videos are renamed to be less confusing. Days 1 and 2 look the same and it is difficult to know if you’re in order.  Perhaps the “Moving Naturalism Forward” is such a long phrase that it is hiding the rest of the description. Day 3 is labeled OK.

  12. Hi Pauly.  I see you haven’t read ‘The Selfish Gene’ or ‘The Extended Phenotype’ yet, or you would understand why RD has deep and well-evidenced opinions on what you mention here.

    RD has said that you have to have a thorough and wide-ranging understanding of ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’ before you can appreciate all the power, implications – and limitations – that it brings to the table.

    Organisms do not cooperate to make an ecosystem more productive – that is a big misunderstanding of how EbyNS functions.  You’ll have to read a bunch more good books to really understand why.

  13. I have one question on this issue, which will probably sound a bit naive, since I’m quite untrained in both physics and philosophy. Can quantum events affect our decisions, and if so, that means our decisions are not deterministic? Before rolling your eyes, I am NOT talking in this instance about quantum effects taking place inside the brain. Imagine a scientist, let’s call him Dave, in a laboratory performing a measurement on a quantum system which has 50% probability of collapsing to state A and 50% of collapsing to state B. The scientist can’t decide what to have for dinner, so he thinks “if state A, I’ll go for some pizza. If state B, I’ll go to a Mexican restaurant”. Futhermore, in the pizza place he meets a pretty girl, they fall in love and get married. In the mexican restaurant, an armed robbery takes place and he is killed right there. Now, can we predict Dave’s thoughts and actions and course of life PRIOR to the lab measurement, assuming we have all the available information and unlimited computation power? Seems to me Dave’s decisions are dependent on a non-classical quantum event, which is in turn stochastic and not deterministic.

    Of course the same thought experiment could be done with any device that can make “decisions”, such as a simple computer. Then again, the computer is made and programmed by a human, so again we have indirect human influence on this. Do we have any example in nature where a quantum event obeying uncertainty, gets “amplified” and affects the everyday world?

    Sorry,as I said, if this is quite naive, just a question I had I guess…

  14. I count 3. Janna Levin was also there. Not that it matters. I think people should be selected on what they bring to the table, not based on their sex.

    Thanks for uploading!  So much better than another Bieber or Gangnam video. 🙂

  15. I have the same credentials as you but I think you’ll enjoy the third video in this series. They talk about Laplace’s Demon and uncertainty. Unfortunately, Weinberg had stepped out of the room for that discussion though by the third video I suspect you’d know his postion on your question.

    EDIT: Correction, 4th video.


  16. “Now, can we predict Dave’s thoughts and actions and course of life PRIOR to the lab measurement, assuming we have all the available information and unlimited computation power? “

    You can’t because this would be a matter of taste, choice or personal opinion which – depending on the person, is highly changeable.

  17. Watched the first 4 videos so far. Some thoughts on emergence: Reductionism is the only path to understanding complex systems. Higher levels of description must depend on the more fundamental levels, but ultimately everything emerges from chaos.

  18. The fifth video on morality was also a bit disappointing, pity Sam Harris wasn’t there. So what if you can’t deduce an ought from an is? Science works by induction!

  19. Video 6 is getting more interesting. Guatemalan and South African women are so terrified of their own societies that they will consistently opt for smaller payouts in games of chance. Not surprising, but it’s nice to see this being noticed.

  20. Here we go, video 7 is about “free will”. Daniel Dennett compares it with colours and money, but that doesn’t help. I know what it feels like to experience colours and I can imagine that money has value, but what does “free will” feel or look like? I can only conclude that as Sam Harris says the illusion of “free will” is itself an illusion and that we do not in fact feel as free as some of us think we do. We do not need “free will” to make choices or to experience the freedom to act.

  21. Jerry Coyne jumps in and seems to be saving the day for incompatibilism in the “free will” debate, but so far he only seems to have pointed out the incompatibility between “free will” and determinism. I hope he or someone else demonstrates the incompatibility between “free will” and indeterminism as well.

  22. Teleological concepts like intention, purpose and meaning are all subjective, but this doesn’t make them any less real.

  23. Video 9 seems to be philosophers engaged in mutual back-slapping whilst denigrating scientists. Philosophy is not difficult, just incredibly boring.

  24. As I was watching the first part, and hearing all of the “what brought me to study philosophy” mini stories, I became disappointed that Philosophers (again!) were over represented in the group.   

  25. Currently at video 4. I would love to be the underclassman at this type of event. I think maybe an artist or even a theist might also spice things up a bit. Interesting topic!

  26. Big thanks to Nicholas Pritzker for an interesting view.  I’m glad to see this stuff hosted and free to the public.  Keep it up.

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