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Naturalism and Scientism

Naturalism

Kirk Dunston on Uncritical Faith in Science

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Many people today regard 21st-century science as a shining, monolithic spire of truth rising above the landscape of human ignorance and superstition. As a result, I often talk with people who fully apply all their critical thinking skills, and their full Internet-scouring abilities, to see if they can discover a weak link in evidence for the truth of Christian beliefs, but who have a complete, unquestioning faith in science. … As a scientist, I am increasingly appalled and even shocked at what passes for science. It has become a mix of good science, bad science, creative story-telling, science fiction, scientism (atheism dressed up as science), citation-bias, huge media announcements followed by quiet retractions, massaging the data, exaggeration for funding purposes, and outright fraud all rolled up together. In some disciplines, the problem has become so rampant that the “good science” part is drowning in a mess of everything else. ¶ To distinguish between good science and the other rubbish in 21st-century “science,” one must first understand what constitutes good science. Good science, properly practiced, requires very little faith and can be trusted insofar as we can trust anything that human beings try to do well.

Rupert Sheldrake Enumerates the Dogmas of Scientism

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In a very provocative and dense TEDx talk, Rupert Sheldrake posits ten core tenets of current, “materialistic” science, and suggests they should be questioned. The subversive ideas in the talk were so upsetting that power brokers and repeat offenders PZ Meyers and Jerry Coyne organized an effort to pressure TED to censor the talk. The ensuing discussion on how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience is worth following. Two follow-up interviews are equally interesting, with Alex Tsakiris on Skeptico and at The Best Schools. Sheldrake’s most recent work is Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery. Sheldrake propounds a thesis he has dubbed “morphic resonance”, which has a distinct paranormal tint. Dissenters to current scientific orthodoxy often claim that science has devolved into an orthodoxy, a core set of fundamental belief which, to question, is heresy. This episode would seem to reflect that. Science and skepticism should be regarded, rather, as processes, as methods of inquiry, not as sets of beliefs, as they so often are by those who claim them as a label. Whatever the merits of Sheldrake’s particular ideas, that materialistic scientism is the reigning orthodoxy is clear. (Censored video after the jump.)

Rowan Williams on Self-Defeating Determinism

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A determinist theory of human utterance has to be expressed in words; and such a theory amounts to saying that one group of noises (this particular theory) is and one group of noises isn’t reflective of what processes outside the self are ‘like’. The noises by which we purport to construct a comprehensive picture of causal necessity are saved from the bonfire which consumes the claims of all other utterances to show a state of affairs truthfully — whereas, in strict consistency, these noises would be as susceptible as any others to an analysis that correlated them with causal factors beyond themselves. It is the central and vitiating Cretan paradox of determinism — that I should have to be obliged to say that everything is determined, while necessarily implying thereby that nothing I say can be relied on to reflect extra-mental truth. If it is true that all my utterances are determined in a way that denies any connection between what I say and what is the case, at least one must also be truthful — that all my utterances are determined. And any supportive arguments for the truth of that utterance must likewise be exempted from the overall disconnection, if the claim is not to be wholly arbitrary. to five reasons for believing determinism is true is to undermine determinism. To articulate the evidence is to relativize it, because to assume that the noises I make in defending determinism have the property of causing you to believe it, or even disposing you to believe it, is manifestly unfounded, and dangerously near to being a flat contradiction of the warning not to assume that a state of belief can be caused by anything except a set of immediate physical causes.

C.S. Lewis on Naturalism and Inference on Trial

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The Naturalist might say, ‘Well, perhaps we cannot exactly see — not yet — how natural selection would turn sub-rational mental behaviour into inferences that reach truth. But we are certain that this in fact has happened. For natural selection is bound to preserve and increase useful behaviour. And we also find that our habits of inference are in fact useful. And if they are useful they must reach truth’. But notice what we are doing. Inference itself is on trial: that is, the Naturalist has given an account of what we thought to be our inferences which suggests that they are not real insights at all. We, and he, want to be reassured. And the reassurance turns out to be one more inference (if useful, then true) — as if this inference were not, once we accept his evolutionary picture, under the same suspicion as all the rest. If the value of our reasoning is in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning. If, as I said above, a proof that there are no proofs is nonsensical, so is a proof that there are proofs. Reason is our starting point. There can be no question either of attacking or defending it. If by treating it as a mere phenomenon you put yourself outside it, there is then no way, except by begging the question, of getting inside again.

Mark Oppenheimer on Freethought Factions

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The groups that make up the broader freethought community — atheists, who don’t believe in a god; agnostics, who are unsure; secular humanists, who seek to replace god-centered religion with a man-made ethical system; church-state separationists, who just want religion kept out of public life; and scientific skeptics, who work to overthrow superstition and pseudoscience — have two things in common. First, they oppose the hegemony of religious, including New Age, thinking in American culture. And second, they all have roots in very male subcultures.

Jeffery Jay Lowder on Three Facts and Naturalism

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In my life, I’ve identified as a non-denominational Christian, theist, agnostic, atheist, and atheist plus metaphysical naturalist, in that order. … My research has led me to the conclusion that metaphysical naturalism, which entails atheism, is more probable than theism. This conclusion follows from three facts. 

John Searle on How We Fit In a Universe of Particles

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There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy… How do we fit in? … We now have a reasonably well-established conception of the basic structure of the universe. We have plausible theories about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, and we understand quite a number of things about the structure of the universe in atomic physics and chemistry. We have even come to understand the nature of the chemical bond. We know a fair amount about our own development on this little Earth during the past five billion years of evolution. We understand that the universe consists entirely of particles (or whatever entities the ultimately true physics arrives at), and these exist in fields of force and are typically organized into systems. On our Earth, carbon-based systems made of molecules that also contain a lot of hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen have provided the substrate of human, animal and plant evolution. … The most important set of basic facts, for our present purposes, are given in the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology. … It is not at all easy to reconcile the basic facts with … a conception of ourselves as conscious, intentionalistic, rational, social, institutional, political, speech-act performing, ethical and free will possessing agents. Now, the question is, How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non rational, brute physical particles?

Mind and Cosmos

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The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility. ~ Publisher’s Description

Alving Plantinga on Naturalism as Quasi-Religion

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Naturalism is what we could call a worldview, a sort of total way of looking at ourselves and our world. It isn’t clearly a religion: the term “religion” is vague, and naturalism falls into the vague area of its application. Still, naturalism plays many of the same roles as a religion. In particular, it gives answers to the great human questions: Is there such a person as God? How should we live? Can we look forward to life after death? What is our place in the universe? How are we related to other creatures? Naturalism gives answers here: there is no God, and it makes no sense to hope for life after death. As to our place in the grand scheme of things, we human beings are just another animal with a peculiar way of making a living. Naturalism isn’t clearly a religion; but since it plays some of the same roles as a religion, we could properly call it a quasi-religion.

A Brief History of the Soul

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The concept of the soul is accepted in many religious traditions and widely used in fictional worlds, and yet the idea that we are anything more than physio-chemical organisms seems out of step with contemporary secular thinking. Scratch the surface of western philosophy, however, and you find a history filled with arguments in favor of the idea that we are embodied souls. This book provides a clear and concise history of the soul, from Plato to cutting-edge contemporary work in philosophy of mind. Taking in the arguments of influential thinkers, such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Hume, Goetz and Taliaferro tackle keys issues, such as the problem of mind-body interaction, the causal closure of the physical world, and the philosophical implications of the brain sciences for the soul’s existence. A Brief History of the Soul brings together historical and contemporary scholarship to examine one of the essential questions of our existence.

The Good Book

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Few, if any, thinkers and writers today would have the imagination, the breadth of knowledge, the literary skill, and-yes-the audacity to conceive of a powerful, secular alternative to the Bible. But that is exactly what A.C. Grayling has done by creating a non-religious Bible, drawn from the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions, using the same techniques of editing, redaction, and adaptation that produced the holy books of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religions. The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non-religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections — Genesis, Histories, Wisdom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good — The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and so many others, The Good Book will fulfill its audacious purpose in every way. ~ Product Description

The Nature of Nature

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The intellectual and cultural battles now raging over theism and atheism, conservatism and secular progressivism, dualism and monism, realism and antirealism, and transcendent reality versus material reality extend even into the scientific disciplines. This stunning new volume captures this titanic clash of worldviews among those who have thought most deeply about the nature of science and of the universe itself. Unmatched in its breadth and scope, The Nature of Nature brings together some of the most influential scientists, scholars, and public intellectuals — including three Nobel laureates — across a wide spectrum of disciplines and schools of thought. Here they grapple with a perennial question that has been made all the more pressing by recent advances in the natural sciences:Is the fundamental explanatory principle of the universe, life, and self-conscious awareness to be found in inanimate matter or immaterial mind? The answers found in this book have profound implications for what it means to do science, what it means to be human, and what the future holds for all of us. ~ Book Description

The Waning of Materialism

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Twenty-three philosophers examine the doctrine of materialism and find it wanting. Their case against materialism comprises arguments from conscious experience, from the unity and identity of the person, from intentionality, mental causation, and knowledge. The contributors include leaders in the fields of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, who respond ably to the most recent versions and defenses of materialism. The modal arguments of Kripke and Chalmers, Jackson’s knowledge argument, Kim’s exclusion problem, and Burge’s anti-individualism all play a part in the building of a powerful cumulative case against the materialist research program. Several papers address the implications of contemporary brain and cognitive research (the psychophysics of color perception, blindsight, and the effects of commissurotomies), adding a posteriori arguments to the classical a priori critique of reductionism. All of the current versions of materialism — reductive and non-reductive, functionalist, eliminativist, and new wave materialism — come under sustained and trenchant attack. In addition, a wide variety of alternatives to the materialist conception of the person receive new and illuminating attention, including anti-materialist versions of naturalism, property dualism, Aristotelian and Thomistic hylomorphism, and non-Cartesian accounts of substance dualism. ~ Synopsis

Why Us?

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In ‘Why Us?’, James Le Fanu explores the major implications of the most recent findings of genetics and neuroscience, challenging the common assumption that they must ultimately explain all there is to know about life and man’s place in the world. On the contrary, he argues, they point to an unbridgeable explanatory gap between the genes strung out along the Double Helix and the near infinite beauty and diversity of the living world to which they give rise, and between the monotonous electro-chemistry of the brain and richness and creativity of the human mind. “There is,” he writes, “a powerful impression that science has been looking in the wrong place, seeking to resolve questions that somehow lie outside its domain. It is as if we – and indeed all living things – are in some way different, profounder and more complex than the physical world to which we belong.” A N Wilson in his review described it as ‘an extraordinary work of science … quite wonderfully refreshing’; for Christopher Booker in The Spectator it was “enthralling”: “one of the glories of Le Fanu’s erudite and beautifully written book is that a sense of wonder is evident on every page, even as he lucidly analyses the limitations of the narrow intellectual prism in which science has languished too long.” ~ Publisher’s Description

Our Inescapable Pluralism

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The great variety of contradictory religious views is for many reason enough to conclude that there is no truth to be had in such matters, that no one religion is at all likely to be closest to the truth. In his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, John Loftus makes these inter-religious and intra-religious disagreements the gravamen of his case against Christianity, arguing that in effect they cancel each other out in virtue of the mutually exclusive nature of their claims.1 He does not see, apparently, that by such reasoning, the ageless debate between naturalists and theists is also cancelled, each position nullified. Indeed, every point of view falls prey to such a criterion. When we look within naturalism, we also find denominations and sects, a cacophony of diverse and contradictory positions on fundamental questions. It turns out, the problem of pluralism is an equal opportunity employer. Worldviews are like personalities. Each one is unique. Though there are types of personalities, just as there are broad worldview categories, none is identical. Whatever our worldview, that view must countenance the fact that many others think it mistaken. This is the problem of pluralism. The implication of this reality, however, need not be the defeat of any particular set of beliefs. Rather, the proper response is virtue. It begs modesty, a profound intellectual humility about our take on reality. And second, it should serve as a call to personal responsibility for our beliefs, and therefore to the epistemic virtues, for there is no consensus on ultimate questions that we can simply adopt by proxy.

Physicalism

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Physicalism, the thesis that everything is physical, is one of the most controversial problems in philosophy. Its adherents argue that there is no more important doctrine in philosophy, whilst its opponents claim that its role is greatly exaggerated. In this superb introduction to the problem Daniel Stoljar focuses on three fundamental questions: the interpretation, truth and philosophical significance of physicalism. In answering these questions he covers the following key topics: A brief history of physicalism and its definitions; What a physical property is and how physicalism meets challenges from empirical sciences; ‘Hempel’s dilemma’ and the relationship between physicalism and physics; Physicalism and key debates in metaphysics and philosophy of mind, such as supervenience, identity and conceivability; Physicalism and causality. Additional features include chapter summaries, annotated further reading and a glossary of technical terms, making Physicalism ideal for those coming to the problem for the first time. ~ Product Description

Laurence Bonjour on Materialism as a Bandwagon

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Why have materialist views been so dominant? Part of the answer is that it is far from clear that dualist views, at least those that go much beyond the bare denial of materialism, are in any better shape. But it must be insisted that the inadequacies of dualism do not in themselves constitute a strong case for materialism: arguments by elimination are always dubious in philosophy, and never more so than here, where the central phenomenon in question (that is, consciousness) is arguably something of which we still have little if any real understanding. Instead, materialism seems to be one of those unfortunate intellectual bandwagons to which philosophy, along with many other disciplines, is so susceptible — on a par with logical behaviorism, phenomenalism, the insistence that all philosophical issues pertain to language, and so many other views that were once widely held and now seem merely foolish. Such a comparison is misleading in one important respect, however: it understates the fervency with which materialist views are often held. In this respect, materialism often more closely resembles a religious conviction — and indeed, as I will suggest further in a couple of places below, defenses of materialism and especially replies to objections often have a distinctively scholastic or theological flavor.

50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists

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Fifty Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a collection of original essays drawn from an international group of prominent voices in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics who offer carefully considered statements of why they are atheists. Features a truly international cast of contributors, ranging from public intellectuals such as Peter Singer, Susan Blackmore, and A.C. Grayling, novelists, such as Joe Haldeman, and heavyweight philosophers of religion, including Graham Oppy and Michael Tooley. Contributions range from rigorous philosophical arguments to highly personal, even whimsical, accounts of how each of these notable thinkers have come to reject religion in their lives. Likely to have broad appeal given the current public fascination with religious issues and the reception of such books as The God Delusion and The End of Faith. ~ Product Description

Atheism: A Brief Insight

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Is a life without religion one without values or purpose? Julian Baggini emphatically says no. He sets out to dispel the myths surrounding atheism and to show how it can be both a meaningful and moral choice. He directly confronts the failure of officially atheist states in the twentieth century, and presents an intellectual case for atheism that rests as much on reasoned and positive arguments for its truth as on negative arguments against religion. Julian Baggini is editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and the author of several books on philosophy. He has also written for a variety of newspapers and journals, including the Guardian, the Independent, and New Humanist. ~ Synopsis

The New Atheism

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Recent books by authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens lay out some of the core ideas of what has been dubbed the "New Atheism" and have generated significant buzz. Stenger (philosophy, Univ. of Colorado; God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist) continues the debate with a review and defense of some of the key principles of the New Atheism as well as a general response to some of its critics. This book is largely focused on the scientific and expands upon Stenger’s thesis that the question of God’s existence is not beyond science. It also debunks numerous myths about religion and atheism and explores the possibility of a nontheistic "way of nature" based on the teachings of ancient sages such as Lao Tzu. Although the text is not as engaging or well written as some of the other New Atheist books, and the level and quantity of science may make it difficult for some general readers, this book is recommended for those already interested and engaged in the current discussion about God and religion, from either side of the fence. ~ Brian T. Sullivan for Library Journal

Phillip Johnson on the Secular Creation Story

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There is an unacknowledged creation story that is at the root of all secular learning which is the precise opposite of John 1:1 in every way. You will probably never hear this creation story told forthrightly at Harvard or Berkeley, because to state its elements explicitly would be to reveal that it is merely on creation story and that it is possible to conceive of another. A foundational story is much more powerful when it is pervasively assumed, so that its elements are never evaluated and it appears to be an unavoidable implication of reason itself. The materialist story is the foundation of all education in all the department at all the secular universities, but they do not spell it out. It is: In the beginning were the particles and impersonal laws of physics. And the particles somehow became complex living stuff; And the stuff imagine God; But then discovered evolution.

Gregory Dawes on the Presumption of Naturalism

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So yes, my arguments might give us reason to prefer natural explanations when these are available, and to seek natural explanations when they are not. It follows that a proposed theistic explanation should be, at best, an explanation of last resort. One might argue that this view — that we should abandon the search for natural explanations only in extremis — represents a kind of “presumption of naturalism.” And so it does. ¶ My own view is that the naturalistic research tradition of the sciences has been stunningly successful and must rank as one of the greatest of human achievements. But I think it is poorly served by attempts to define science in such a way as to exclude the supernatural. The debate over intelligent design is instructive in this regard. One might win a legal victory by insisting that this proposed theistic explanation is not what we customarily call “science.” And this is true, for contingent historical reasons. But it would be much more effective to show that this particular proposed theistic explanation, with its deliberately vague appeal to an unspecified “designer,” is practically vacuous. it lacks the first and most important virtue of any proposed explanation, namely that of testability. It follows that this particular proposed theistic explanation should be rejected. ¶ Could the theist produce a better one? I doubt it, but then it would be most regrettable if we were to forbid him to try. Nothing could be more antithetical to the spirit of free enquiry than this kind of censorship. If proposed theistic explanations are to be defeated, as they have been so often in the past, it will be by way of the free contest of ideas.

JP Moreland on Passive Liabilities and Active Power

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The Ontology of naturalism knows nothing of active powers. The particulars that populate that ontology are, one and all, exhaustively characterized by passive liabilities with regard to their causal powers. A passive liability is such that, given the proper efficient cause, it is and, indeed, must be actualized. As such, the actualization of a passive liability is a passive happening, not an action. This fact about passive liabilities is what makes their owners bereft of the sort of first-moving, active spontaneity that is a necessary condition for the exercise of free will. ¶ All natural objects with causal powers posses them as passive liabilities. Again, these liabilities are triggered or actualized if something happens to the object and, once triggered, they can produce an effect. For example, dynamite has the power (passive liability) to explode if something is first done to it. And so on for all causes. They are, one and all, passive potentialities. There actualizations are mere happenings to the relevant object. ¶ But active power is different. In virtue of possessing active power, and agent may act, initiate change or motion, perform something, bring about an effect with nothing causing it to do so. Active power is not something admitted in the ontology of the hard sciences, period.

Julian Baggini on the Four “New Atheist” Horsemen

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A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of “spells” and “delusions”, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist. “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” says Dawkins, once again implying that reason and evidence are strangers to religion. This is arrogant, and attributes to reason a power it does not have.