Thursday, March 3, 2011

My naturalistic worldview

The ideas I present in this blog will presuppose a background worldview that is similar, in many ways, to ordinary naturalism, or physicalism. I'm writing this post to clarify and justify that worldview a bit before taking it for granted in the posts that follow. I won't try to give any conclusive proofs of the conclusions I offer here, but I will try to show them to be plausible, and the worldview they're part of to be worth exploring.

First, I want to say what my kind of naturalism, if I may call it that, means in the most immediate and humanly significant terms: I think that consciousness and all other personal qualities are processes that emerge within, and are totally contingent upon, a larger impersonal reality (most proximately, the body that hosts them). There may be some confusion about what "personal qualities" means here, and I have not managed to come up with a precise definition (and I've tried). What I mean by it, however inexactly, is the collection of qualities by which we recognize one another as persons. This is a densely connected and difficult to delineate cluster of qualities which includes planning, intending, thinking in general, valuing, reasoning, having purposes, and the ability to comprehend and manipulate symbols. No one of these qualities indicates that the system having it is a person, but it would be hard to deny that title to a system possessing all of them.

Atheism and mortality are corollaries of this view: it rules out a personal God in any traditional sense, since such a God would have to be prior or parallel to any impersonal reality rather than contingent upon it, if any "impersonal reality" is compatible with belief in such a God at all. This brand of naturalism also rules out any kind of "soul" or conscious aspect of personhood that could exist independently of the body, since everything personal is contingent upon the body's operations.

Another point of my naturalistic worldview that I want to emphasize is that consciousness and mental activity in general are fully embedded in the vast impersonal reality upon which they are contingent, and are in no way exempt from the network of orderly interactions obtaining within it. This principle speaks against the powerful intuition that a psychologically normal humanbeast is associated with an abstract or immaterial "I" or self that somehow stands above or apart from the organism, directing events in a mysterious fashion that goes by the name of "free will", which can be used (intuitively but incoherently) to justify things like moral judgment and retributive punishment. This philosophical shadow of the soul is not a notion that will find much respect here.

The two italicized principles together hint at my skepticism of the idea that abstract objects such as numbers, laws, and concepts can have any existence independent from the minds that are thinking about them.

Naturalism is traditionally justified along these approximate lines: when divine revelation, mystical insight, naive intuition, and the dictates of authority are evaluated critically, they come up quite short as reliable explainers and predictors of reality as it is objectively observed and described. What seems to work best for that purpose is science, which I can describe well enough here as a combination of systematic observation, inspired guesses, and rigorous testing by logic, further observation, and heuristics such as simplicity and explanatory power. The world revealed to us by this most reliable method of knowledge formation is a world that seems thoroughly natural- that is, it proceeds spontaneously according to an inherent order, rather than being directed or sustained by any supernatural agency. This includes the behavior of humanbeasts, which leads to conclusions, including those described above, that many people throughout history have found chilling and even (mistakenly) nihilistic, and which has been a major barrier to the acceptance of naturalism wherever it has been proposed.

I will add to the above argument a point that I'll lift largely from my previous post. We humanbeasts learn about the world by understanding new experiences in terms of what is more familiar to us, and what is most familiar to us from the very beginning is ourselves, and one another. Our most fundamental experiences, beyond the basic sensory modalities, are personal, social, and symbolic. The concepts in terms of which we understand these experiences are those with which we will first try to interpret the world at large, wondering who put the stars in the sky, why water chooses to run downhill, what it feels like to be a tree, and how to translate animal sounds into our languages. We anthropomorphize promiscuously, construing for ourselves a role in an enchanted world, and we as a species have only slowly and painstakingly come to know that the real world really doesn't revolve around us. Science has been a long and painful process of disenchanting the natural world, withdrawing that anthropomorphizing impulse as far as we can to gain a clearer understanding of the reality we are part of. I am convinced that what is typically understood as "supernatural" has largely been an artifact of that impulse, and is something to grow out of rather than cling to.

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