Naturalism is the view that only the natural world exists. Some naturalists think that naturalism commits them to nihilism – the denial of all objective value in the world. But other naturalists – too many to count – think there is lots of value in the natural world, including moral value.
Whatever one believes about the consequences of naturalism, there are two kinds of emotional response to naturalism. One is to throw up our hands in despair that our illusions about the afterlife, free will, intrinsic value, and intrinsic purpose have been shown to be false. This is what Alex Rosenberg called “disenchanted naturalism.” The opposite response is to laugh with glee and wonder at the surprising truths of the natural world. I called this “enchanted naturalism.”
The difference between the two is summed up in an xkcd comic.
The first guy is a disenchanted naturalist. The guy who climbs the tree is an enchanted naturalist.
Of course, there’s no clear line between “disenchanted” and “enchanted” naturalists. These positions are better seen as two ends of an emotional spectrum.
Somebody like Albert Camus is pretty far to the left on the spectrum. Alex Rosenberg is a bit to the right of that. I might be somewhere in the purple on the right.
Rosenberg and I agree almost entirely on the facts, but we seem to have a different emotional reaction. We agree that there is no soul, no afterlife, no contra-causal free will, no intrinsic value, no “conscience” that can detect moral facts, no universal “purpose” to the universe, and no reason to comprehensively trust our intuitions.
Rosenberg’s reaction is: “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”
My reaction is different:
This is the natural world… 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?
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.
Rosenberg is a disenchanted naturalist. I am an enchanted naturalist.
My synapses fire with awe when I think of the fact that we evolved to believe we have free will even though we do not. They fire with wonder when I consider how we evolved such active imaginations to delude ourselves about souls and the afterlife. I marvel that intrinsic value does not exist and yet objective moral value (of a sort) really does. My heart skips a beat when I think of the epic struggle to minimize and control for our faulty intuitions and invent whole new ways of knowing about the world – ways that work. And I shiver with excitement when I think about the sheer awesomeness of the universe:
What is your reaction to the natural world? Are you a disenchanted naturalist, or an enchanted one?
Previous post: Alonzo Fyfe’s Guest Posts on Applied Ethics (index)