Looking Ahead

The future of naturalism.

With reassurances like these in hand (there are others, see here and Appendix 1 of Encountering Naturalism), naturalists are in a good position to make the case for the viability of naturalism. We don’t, as it turns out, need more than what nature affords to be moral, compassionate and effective agents, living meaningful lives within a cosmos that seems not to have had us in mind. Nature, our home, in which we participate as fully natural creatures, is enough.

Some suppose we are constitutionally unable to handle the fact that nature is all there is, that we’ll never be able to assimilate the scientific picture of human beings and the cosmos (for examples see here and here). This of course is an empirical question now being played out in our culture as science marches on. To think we can’t, and act as if we can’t, is to foreclose the possibility that we might truly come of age as a sapient species. It’s to retreat into self-imposed ignorance based on the pessimistic assumption that we can’t get along without belief in the supernatural. But we know that given education and economic security, people don’t need God’s hand to hold, nor do they need the promise of a life hereafter to find life in this world meaningful and satisfying. Nor must they believe that they possess some essential, supernatural spark of soul or contra-causal freedom. Indeed, the Center for Naturalism argues we’re far better off without such beliefs, given their role in justifying punitive attitudes and policies, and given how they blind us to the actual causes of human behavior. There’s good reason to think, therefore, that naturalism is a viable, life-affirming and practically effective worldview that can stand us in good stead. It also has the signal virtue of being consistent with our most reliable means of knowing about the world. We need not hide or protect ourselves from science.

Still, the fact remains there is huge cultural momentum carried by conventional wisdom concerning the supernatural, dualistic nature of the self and reality. The memes of God, soul, contra-causal free will, paranormal powers, cosmic intention and the like are deeply embedded and constantly renewing themselves, not to be displaced anytime soon. Human nature being what it is, they may always rule the majority of minds no matter what science says. But the project of turning the culture around in these basic cognitive respects, of offering a reality-based worldview to its attention, has its rewards and attractions even if the outcome is uncertain.

Naturalism.Org is hardly alone, or original, in this project. The major humanist and free-thought organizations mentioned above (for others see here) have long worked diligently on behalf of a new enlightenment, and we should not forget that most academic institutions, with obvious exceptions, operate within a basically naturalistic framework: their primary concern is this world, not the supernatural. Besides books by New Atheists, there are encouraging signs that a fully naturalistic understanding of ourselves and the cosmos is becoming at least thinkable in mainstream culture. There’s been a notable increase in books, magazine articles, and news stories taking naturalistic views of such things as the self, free will, behavior, the nature of mind, morality and consciousness (for a few, see here and here). Philosophers, scientists, psychologists and economists are becoming more explicit about the fact that human beings can be understood without resorting to the concept of an essential soul or mental agent independent of the brain and body. This, along with the gradual erosion of faith as a respectable basis for belief, suggests at least the possibility that naturalism will become a minority worldview in the decades to come.

Of course there are, and likely will always be, those who vigorously defend faith, theism, dualism and essentialism, seeing in science-based naturalism the denial of all that makes humans valuable and life worth caring about. Naturalists believe they are deeply mistaken in this, but will welcome such resistance (up to a point!), since after all that’s what keeps us honest. As much as we are secure in our worldview, we carry over from science and philosophy, or should anyway, an openness to questioning and debate, a decent modicum of self-doubt which prevents complacency from setting in, at least not too deeply. We see in the faith-based and theological opposition those who we would have been, were it not for circumstances of birth, family, education and community. Understanding this, we can more easily accord them the tolerance and sympathy that we would like accorded us, should it turn out we were in the wrong. As we work to make naturalism better known, one of the best advertisements for our worldview is how we conduct ourselves on its behalf.

TWC - 3/2008