Redated from 11-15-2009.
Naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our… self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding. This is a vast agenda and it’s presumptuous to address it even in a format 30 times longer than this one. My excuse is that I stand on the shoulders of giants: the many heroic naturalists who have tried vainly, I think, to find a more hopeful version of naturalism than this one.
Since I think naturalism presents an exciting and beautiful and, dare I say, enchanting view of the world, I must be one of these heroic but vain apologists for naturalism that Rosenberg seeks to rebut.
So what’s wrong with naturalism?
We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent.
The problem, says Rosenberg, is that the scientific answers to these questions are disappointing.
We evolved to see purpose, meaning, and agency in everything. But science has pulled back the curtain and discovered that there is no purpose, meaning, or agency propelling the universe.
This is the disenchantment of which Rosenberg writes. If the world is nothing but subatomic particles, this leaves no room for a “self.” No reason to trust our conscious awareness. No room for purpose. No room for morality. No room for free will. The universe just is, and that’s it.
But is this true? Does naturalism strip us of everything we want? Must one be a disenchanted naturalist?1
(Note: the rest of this piece is best read while listening to a piece of music that builds slowly into something unbelievable epic. Something like “Take a Bow” by Muse. Or, for those who read more slowly, “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls” by Godspeed You Black Emperor.)
Rosenberg says “there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun…” But of course there is. It is the brain. I am my brain.
My brain is what stores my thoughts, personality, emotions, beliefs and desires. Destroy my brain and you destroy me. Sustain my brain and you sustain me. Change my brain and you change me.2
Rosenberg says that “we already know enough about [the brain] to take nothing introspection tells us about the mind on trust.” Rosenberg cites a few examples: We are conscious of our own free will, but Libet showed we have no such free will. Blindsight shows that we can see without conscious awareness of it. And we don’t just “see” what is in front of us, but make guesses about what is there based on what has worked in our evolutionary past – driving through the rear-view mirror instead of the windshield, as it were. (This creates many disorienting optical illusions.)
So yes, introspection is unreliable. But is this any great loss? Consciousness still exists, we just aren’t warranted in believing what we “feel” to be true. We have to get our hands dirty and test things out.
I think it’s quite amazing that, first, the universe blindly evolved a species that is self-aware and curious, and second, that this species stumbled around for truth for millions of years before it hit upon a method that actually worked – the scientific method. We did that. And now we’re discovering the deepest truths of the universe at an astonishing rate – not because we were designed in such away that truth was immediately available to us through our own consciousness, but because we worked really hard for thousands of years and figured that shit out. Bravo, humanity!
For billions of years there was no purpose to anything at all. But then, on at least one planet, brains evolved. And brains, at least the most advanced ones, are little purpose-generating machines. Brains create purposes, and purposes in turn create things like science experiments and art and this website.
“But there is no higher, absolute purpose,” some will protest. And that is true. But would you really want that anyway? Imagine you were born into a universe with objective, absolute, inescapable purpose. What if you didn’t find that purpose very appealing? For example, what if the higher purpose of the universe was to worship and entertain a jealous and petty God? Being born into such a universe would be like being born in North Korea.
I, for one, think it is quite amazing that purpose was not imposed upon the universe. Purpose is something the universe created all by itself. See here.
Morality is about reasons for action. Reasons for action to feed the poor. Reasons for action to condemn rape. Reasons for action to love your neighbor.
Once again, Rosenberg is right that morality is not written into the fabric of the universe as intrinsic value. Nor is it imposed from the outside by a God. But that does not mean there is no moral value in our world. Reasons for action evolved, just as purpose did.
Specifically, desires evolved. Desires are reasons for action, and they are real. They make predictions, and they can be measured. Desires are the source of value – including moral value – in the natural world.3 Objective moral facts can be derived from desires and their relationships with other desires. See here.
Natural Free Will
Rosenberg is right that we do not make uncaused choices. Our choices are determined. But we do have the ability to do what we want.
And actually, determinism improves the state of moral responsibility. Determinism shows that I (my brain) is truly responsible for my actions, not some spiritual homunculus in another realm. Moreover, determinism shows that we can influence other people to be moral! How could we make things better if the source of our choices was beyond the natural world? But since naturalism is true, we can use moral tools like praise and condemnation to hold people responsible, change their immoral desires, and create a better world for all of us.
This Natural World
This is the natural world. It is a world made of fermions and bosons, but also laughter and beauty and consciousness and purposes and morality. It is a world in which magic is impossible but teleportation is not. It is a world that moves without intelligence, yet blindly evolved creatures able to compose the symphonies of Beethoven and the plays of Shakespeare.
Think of it. The world once had nothing but dead matter, and yet it managed – completely by accident and without the intervention of an intelligent actor – to wake up one day and become self-aware. I think that is more amazing than any story about a magical being injecting life into dead matter. Ours is a story about dead matter that awakened itself.
It took 4 billion years for life to evolve from a single cell to a human. In another 5 billion years, our Sun will expand into a red giant and swallow the Earth. But do you see what that means?4
The creatures who stand at the sea and watch the Sun die will be as different from us as we are from single-celled bacteria.
The thought sends a shiver down my spine.
I, for one, am a thoroughly enchanted naturalist.
- This is a short post. If you want more detail, I generally agree with Richard Carrier, who responded to Rosenberg’s post more thoroughly. Carrier’s responses are indexed here. [↩]
- More specifically, I am the pattern of matter in my brain. It doesn’t matter that the atoms in my brain are exchanging quarks. It doesn’t even matter whether my brain is made of proteins or silicon. What matters is the pattern of matter. That’s what constitutes my thoughts, personality, emotions, beliefs and desires. That’s what constitutes me. Of course, I am changing all the time. As a matter of semantics, my identity passes through a causal-historical chain. My brain is different than it was the previous moment, but my identity passed through one to the other because my brain of a moment ago caused my brain of now. [↩]
- Rosenberg says that desires don’t really exist because brains do not store information in propositional form. But the kind of desire I am talking about need not be stored in propositional form. On my definition of “desire” – and most people’s definition of desire – we can say that many animals have desire, but of course we do not suppose that animal brains store those desires in propositional form. [↩]
- The final thought of this post comes from Martin Rees, who wrote that “It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence: it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.” [↩]