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RS87 - Sean Carroll on Naturalism

Release date: May 19, 2013

Sean CarrollAstrophysicist and author Sean Carroll joins this episode of Rationally Speaking, to talk about "naturalism" -- the philosophical viewpoint that there are no supernatural phenomena, and the universe runs on scientific laws. Sean, Julia, and Massimo discuss what distinguishes naturalism from similar philosophies like physicalism and materialism, and what a naturalistic worldview implies about free will, consciousness, and other philosophical dilemmas. And they return to that long-standing debate: should scientists have more respect for philosophy?

Sean's pick: "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human" 

 Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

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Reader Comments (9)

An alternative to ontologizing the quantum wave function is to ontologize Feynman paths (from Feynman's sum of paths formulation of quantum mechanics). This is what Huw Price does in "Backward causation, hidden variables and the meaning of completeness". In fact, collections of paths are ontologized ("bundles", e.g. the set of paths connected to a single location on a screen in a double-split experiment).

May 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Thrift

Sean misstated compatibilists. They do not necessarily believe in determinism.

May 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Episode 87 does Not play.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Z.

On the question of whether numbers "exist" as "stuff." I would say that numbers are not "things." Numbers are descriptors. If I say that I have three apples, the "three" is not "stuff." The apples are the stuff. "Three" only provides information about the apples.

And a pet peeve of mine: A comment was made: "If we had infinite computing power..." I assert that the phrase "infinite computing power" has no meaning. "Infinite" actually means "without limits." And when speaking of the physical world, everything has limits. Infinite anything is as meaningless as division by zero.

Finally, on the question of consciousness, until we actually know more about consciousness, I think it is fruitless to speculate on where it comes from. This is a case where philosophers are as useless as priests. The brain is so complex, and so utterly unlike the computers that some folks love to compare them with, that a great deal more science is needed before we will be able to say anything worthwhile about the roots of consciousness.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Great podcast. One question came up for me though that never quite got answered. Sean spoke of the single quantum wave function that describes the universe, and then said that that wave function was not made up of anything; it was a kind of theoretical primitive, like the electron.

Here's my question with that proposition: if there are other possible worlds than this one, they must be so because they have different quantum wave functions. Or to put it from another perspective, if the contingent complexity of the phenomenal universe depends on the quantum wave function, that wave function must implicitly contain internal complexity sufficient to produce the phenomenal complexity.

Both of these claims militate against the claim that the quantum wave function is a theoretical simple, made up of nothing.

If the quantum wave function is complex in ways necessary to allow of different possibilities both in physical and logical time and space, then it must be made up of *something* or *somethings* that could have been different, or that are realized in different ways in the temporal and physical realization of the wave function. Right? If so, what are those somethings?

Perhaps I'm completely misunderstanding some basic point behind Sean's description.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Smith

Julia just briefly mentioned the problem of trying to interdefine 'naturalism' and 'supernatural', but I think if you dig deeper you'll find deeper causes for concern. The point of a definition is to either pursue a specific conversational agenda — here stipulative definitions can be appropriate — or to model the behavior of an existing linguistic community. In the latter respect, there doesn't seem to be any consistent simple definition of 'supernatural' or 'naturalism' among philosophers or among English-speakers generally. The supernatural is a general category of especially extraordinary magical, folkloric, or religious posits. But that doesn't help a lot unless we know what kind of extraordinariness is required, what it takes to be specifically magical or religious, etc.

The historical story about what we today count as 'religion' and 'magic' is very messy, amounting to an uneven and contingent sequence of family-resemblance extensions of varied ideas in Christian and late Greco-Roman thought. If we wanted a single heuristic for identifying a modern-day 'religion', we'd be hard-pressed to find a single thing held in common by UFO cults, Buddhist temples, and Chriistian revivals that isn't also shared by any political parties, philosophical schools, paranormal research programs, scientific fields, etc.

I think the best approximation is 'an organized set of beliefs and practices widely subscribed to by a distinct group counts as a religion iff it is dramatically contra-empirical'. Contra-empirical means that something isn't just empirically unsupported (like perhaps string theory or Platonic numbers); it's actively (albeit perhaps only indirectly, via negative evidence) opposed by our body of scientific evidence. The magical, miraculous, mythic, and superstitious are also best defined by criteria of contra-empiricism, so these different rites and doctrines form a vague group of epistemically extravagant tenets. I suppose 'supernatural' is as good a name as any for what's held in common by all these groups. Naturalism, as the rejection of the supernatural, will then just mean the rejection of everything that scientific investigation has dramatically refuted.

A separate question is what, prescriptively, we ought treat 'supernatural' as meaning, e.g. for framing debates with theists. Here I think the answer is: Simply avoid the term. If my analysis above is right, then espousing 'naturalism' or accusing theists of 'supernaturalism' will usually beg the question (because most theists don't think there are good scientific grounds for rejecting theism), and even in cases where the theist grants that God is supernatural in the above sense, he will usually reject that definition, and the interesting and substantive debates about the actual state of the evidence for or against the claimed entity will be totally obscured by the choice of terminology.

Are there more useful alternative definitions? I don't think philosophy offers any. Outside of a small group of relatively erudite Internet-savvy atheists, and maybe one or two philosophers, definitions like Richard Carrier's won't be understood or accepted. And I don't see much benefit to putting in the effort of promoting his definition (which in many ways strongly advantages the theist, by turning an obviously false religious doctrine into a manifestation of a much subtler and much more difficult-to-refute position in philosophy of mind), or to bringing much attention to my definition (which reveals the confusion and question-begging behind most rejections of theism as 'supernatural').

Since physicalism is of more philosophical interest, and sees a lot less play outside of philosophy, stipulating the most useful definition here is less problematic. I take it that physicalism is simply the view that all actually obtaining circumstances are reducible to physics-ish circumstances. 'Reducible' might be cashed out in terms of logical supervenience (the reduced thing couldn't coherently vary if the thing it's reduced to were held constant), or something a bit weaker (e.g., 'metaphysical' supervenience) or a bit stronger (e.g., identity). 'Physics-ish' could be defined positively, by beginning with the paradigmatic posits of physics (fields, particles, wave functions, spacetimes; perhaps some causal links, universals, laws...) and then trying to sketch out how much future physics could change while still recognizably qualifying as 'physics' at all. But that's really difficult to do.

It might be easier to define 'physics-ish' negatively, in terms of all the things which don't get to qualify as posits of any completed physics — broadly, the things that are closer to human affairs than to microphysics. Probably the most important of these are the six Ms: moral, modal, mental, macroscopic, magical, and mathematical circumstances. These things aren't recognizably like the posits of present fundamental physics, so they must all in principle either be eliminable (i.e., shown to be illusory) or reducible to the physics-ish, or else physicalism is false.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobby Bensinger

I think you're looking at Chalmers' survey results in too coarse-grained a way to get at what philosophers really think. Sean (jokingly) suggests that 'Other' means 'Neither physicalism nor its negation is true', while Massimo conflates the 'Other' vote with 'Undecided'. But in fact 'Other' is a stand-in for
a wide variety of answers, such as 'There is no fact of the matter' or an apathetic 'Skip'.

When we break down the results more finely, we see that only 2.7% of philosophers are agnostic/undecided about naturalism, so even if agnosticism about e.g. the hard problem of consciousness explains that small group, it can't explain most of the 'Other' votes. Instead, most of the Others said 'The question is too unclear to answer' (9.7%) or 'I'm insufficiently familiar with the issue' (6.8%). Those are the highest 'The question is too unclear' ratings for any of the 30 questions surveyed, next to the empiricism/rationalism question (9.8%), which suggests to me that the main take-away is not 'half of philosophers doubt naturalism', but rather 'philosophers tend to think that naturalism is one of the most unclear ideas on offer'.

You asked about how many philosophers who don't specialize in philosophy of religion were atheists in the survey. 47 of the 931 philosophers surveyed work in philosophy of religion, and of those 47, 34 accept or lean toward accepting theism (72%). When we subtract those from the totals, we get 102 theists or lean-theists who don't work in philosophy of religion, vs. 665 atheists or lean-atheists who don't work in philosophy of religion. So, renormalizing after excluding the 'Other' respondents, about 73% of philosophers overall are atheists, while about 79% of philosophers not working in philosophy of religion are atheists. Again excluding the 'Other' votes, if you look at specific areas within philosophy, the percentage of theists (including lean-theists) in each subfield is:

41.7% (5 people) - Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
33.3% (3 people) - Asian Philosophy
31.6% (6 people) - Continental Philosophy
29.7% (11 people) - Philosophy of Action
28.8% (23 people) - 17th/18th Century Philosophy
27.3% (9 people) - 19th Century Philosophy
25.0% (4 people) - Philosophy of Social Science
22.2% (4 people) - Metaphilosophy
21.7% (5 people) - Philosophy of Law
21.2% (7 people) - Aesthetics
21.2% (7 people) - Philosophy of Mathematics
21.1% (4 people) - Philosophy of Probability
20.9% (44 people) - Metaphysics
19.3% (16 people) - Logic and Philosophy of Logic
18.8% (6 people) - 20th Century Philosophy
16.2% (6 people) - Applied Ethics
14.1% (12 people) - Social and Political Philosophy
12.8% (16 people) - Normative Ethics
11.3% (16 people) - Epistemology
10.7% (3 people) - Decision Theory
9.3% (14 people) - Philosophy of Language
8.7% (15 people) - Philosophy of Mind
8.0% (7 people) - Meta-Ethics
5.5% (3 people) - Philosophy of Cognitive Science
4.0% (2 people) - Philosophy of Physical Science
3.9% (3 people) - General Philosophy of Science
0.0% (0, vs. 13 atheists) - Philosophy of Gender, Race, and Sexuality
0.0% (0, vs. 34 atheists) - Philosophy of Biology

Note that this multiply counts all the philosophers who work in multiple fields. And since I've set aside Others, the complementary percentage is the atheists and lean atheists. Fields with fewer than 5 total respondents (e.g., Ancient Philosophy, Africana, Philosophy of Computing/Information) are ignored.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobby Bensinger

nom nom nom ... thank you, that was delicious!

May 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjack bowie
How do we prove the absence of supernatural phenomena using only natural laws?
January 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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