Tom Clark On Naturalism

0909DSCN4165_a_ (2)The interview of Tom Clark by Ginger Campbell linked to below is unquestionably one of the best commentaries on the essence and implications of naturalism out there. It confronts head-on the issues of free will, morality, and what it is to be human.

[ MP3 ]   [ TRANSCRIPT ]

Ginger Campbell is the host of both Books and Ideas and Brain Science Podcast, 2 great podcasts that are cherry pie for inquisitive minds.


It says that we are all natural creatures, that nature is what there is, and that nature is enough: That we don’t need anything supernatural to describe ourselves, nor do we need anything supernatural in order to lead meaningful, moral, and effective lives.

How do you know what’s true? How do you know what’s real?
It’s a tough question. It can get very involved. But I think there’s a fairly straightforward answer as to why it’s rational to stick with science and other kinds of intersubjective evidence—in other words, evidence that’s available to all subjects, all persons, in a public domain. Why? Well, that kind of evidence gives us very reliable beliefs about the world—beliefs that are justified by making us good predictors of events.

So, that’s why it seems to me, if you’re interested in the truth about things, it’s rational to stick with science. People who don’t, I think, are selling themselves short by not having a reliable platform on which to hold beliefs about the world.

And if it should come to light that there’s something categorically non physical out there, so be it. What scientists and philosophers want to get at is the truth about things. So, if we agree on the methods, then there really shouldn’t be any dispute between these folks who are worried about materialism and mainstream scientists. We should all be on board about what the methods of science and investigating the world are—the most reliable methods.

Science is not wedded to materialism, or any particular ontology. As you started off saying, it’s a method. And naturalism accepts what that method reveals about the world. If it revealed something non physical or immaterial in some sense, we would be there, because it would be the case according to our best modes of knowing.

But the kind of freedom that we do have—I don’t like to call it free will because it tends to confuse people—is freedom of action. Normally we’re free to do what we want to do, and no one is telling us how to live our lives. So, we have freedom of voluntary choice, even though it’s very likely that we’re fully caused in what we choose.

It’s a good thing that we don’t have contra-causal free will. Otherwise the prospect of being held responsible wouldn’t work. So, we don’t need contracausal free will. We don’t need to be exemptions from determinism to be held responsible

I want to talk about the implications of the naturalistic worldview. But before we do that I do want to ask you one real straight question. And that is, does naturalism imply atheism?

We don’t like ambiguity, and we also want to know that the world is to our liking—or we’d like to think it is. We don’t want to suppose that at death we simply disappear. There are all kinds of motivations that we naturally have to want to deny the naturalistic picture of ourselves to some extent.
So, that’s why naturalists, I think, tend to be those people who put the cognitive value of truth, as best as we can discern it, at the top of their value hierarchy. So, scientists, naturalists, they really want to know what is the case, and if it conflicts with some of what they would hope to be true, well that’s just too bad for the hopes.

But [meditation] itself isn’t a direct grasping of reality. And that’s where I think we have to really caution Buddhists and other meditative traditions that epistemologically you can’t justifiably suppose that your mental state is grasping reality directly. It might reflect the truth, but it isn’t a grasping of the truth.

First of all I think one implication is that we have to know how we know. We have to be careful in deciding what’s true. And what naturalism suggests is that when it comes to deciding what’s real, or what’s true, we have to stick with science and the other intersubjective ways of knowing. Because those are the most reliable ways.

[Naturalism] helps us not demonize our opponents. In whatever realm we’re talking about—whether it be politics, geopolitics, racial strife, ethnic strife, ideological combat—we see our opponents as fully caused and understand that we would have been them, but for circumstances. And this means that we cannot demonize them. We can’t feel the same kind of contempt and anger that we otherwise could.

There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Exactly! There’s nothing to be afraid of. I think people do fear, say, determinism or mechanism, because they think life inevitably will lose meaning. But that really isn’t the case. We still have all our desires and our motivations, even though we discover ourselves as fully natural creatures.

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