The Case for Naturalism

By Sean Carroll | May 7, 2012 9:03 am

“Atheism” is a fine word, and I’m happy to describe myself as an atheist. God is an idea that has consequences, and those consequences don’t accord with the world we experience any better than countless other ideas we’ve given up on. But given a choice I would always describe myself first as a “naturalist” — someone who believes that there is only one realm of reality, the material world, which obeys natural laws, and that we human beings are part of it. “Atheism” is ultimately about rejecting a certain idea, while “naturalism” is about a positive acceptance of a comprehensive worldview. Naturalists have a lot more work to do than simply rejecting God; they bear the responsibility of understanding how to live a meaningful life in a universe without built-in purpose.

Which is why I devoted my opening statement at “The Great Debate” a few weeks ago to presenting the positive case for naturalism, rather than just arguing against the idea of God. And I tried to do so in terms that would be comprehensible to people who disagreed with me — at least that was the goal, you can judge for yourself whether I actually succeeded.

So here I’ve excerpted that opening ten-minute statement from the two-hour debate I had with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson. I figure there must be people out there who might possibly be willing to watch a ten-minute video (or watch for one minute before changing the channel) but who wouldn’t even press “play” on the full version. This is the best I can do in ten minutes to sum up the progress in human understanding that has led us to reject the supernatural and accept that the natural world is all there is. And I did manage to work in Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.

I am curious as to how the pitch goes over (given the constraints of time and the medium), so constructive criticism is appreciated.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion, Top Posts
  • Remedy Hawke

    While I do not agree with you, I find your delivery of your opinion one that I can actually find pleasant to listen to.
    My experiences with science and nature have obviously been different.
    I really admire your thinking.
    I must take an opposing view on “vulcanism”, however. As a very untypical woman, I have been told I am extremely logical and analytical. And, like the typical woman, I have triggers that make me cry, but it might make you laugh.
    I find myself most frustrated and pushed into tears by people behaving illogically. I finally had a boyfriend look at me and say, “That’s just it. People don’t make sense mostly. You have to stop expecting them to, and then you will be less frustrated less often.”
    Just thought you might get a giggle out of me.

  • http://addiction-dirkh.blogspot.com/ Dirk Hanson

    The author offers us a very succinct description of materialism. But I see our ideas, thoughts, and various states of consciousness as frequently standing between us and the “material world” as it is, or might be.

  • Uninvisible

    Bravo!

    oh, constructive criticism : well, off the top of my head – unrelated to this post because I am still mulling this over again – during the cross-examination in the full debate, Hutchinson asked if you thought god was too complex an explanation – I think he was angling for saying that god is the most sublime simplicity imaginable… sooo, maybe next time be careful if you say god is complex (or not) and hinge it on an assertion like it doesn’t exist (or whatever).

  • Phil h

    I love your talk Sean , in fact I think you are far better than other atheists making a simialr case. But I feel the word “naturalism” is not so concrete as one might imagine. For example lets suppose there are other universes with other laws of nature. Could one not argue they are not natural?

  • H.

    I think you did an excellent job within the time constraints. Your point was very cogent. Some people might demand elaboration or evidence for some of your statements, but that would take much longer than ten minutes!

    Oddly enough, I was just listening to something about Alan Turing. I do not know his religious views, but his standpoint on the human mind was certainly naturalistic.

  • CT

    As someone who identifies as an ‘atheist’, I spend a lot of time searching for doing just this “they bear the responsibility of understanding how to live a meaningful life in a universe without built-in purpose”. And there’s a lot of ‘atheists’ who do the same. My atheism is not about rejecting God because it’s stupid to reject a myth. Instead it’s about living a responsible life with meaning. I don’t know if I’ve mislabeled myself but I do know a lot of atheists that are like me.

    and I spelled atheist wrong 4 times. maybe I should mislabel myself something easier to spell. :) anyway, other than this tiny thing, I have no other criticism.

  • Josh

    I think your discussion implies that naturalism is the empirical conclusion induced when one considers the story of reality that was disenchanted over the centuries from Elisabeth of Bohemia to Galileo and Newton to Darwin to neurobiology and beyond. The philosophical argument associated with this kind of progressive conclusion of atheism is a bit hampered by the historiography in the narrative and the casualness of the conclusion. Whereas Darwin was rigorous, Galileo was rigorous, and Francis Crick was rigorous in their debunking of religious motivations for various natural phenomena, what isn’t rigorous yet is the connection between these take-downs.

    And yet, the conclusion of atheistic naturalism seems pretty obvious to those who carefully think about the subject from the perspective of scientific discovery. Locking down this argument is important because people get nervous about dispensing with religious dogmatism as moral forces, as you point out. It is important that there is not even a little bit of string tying them back to the nest so that they learn to fly on their own rather than struggling back to a religious belief out of sheer terror. The Dalai Lama famously said that “if science can disprove reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism would abandon reincarnation… but it’s going to be mighty hard to disprove reincarnation.” We should be able to convince the thoughtful supernaturalists that such disproof exists, and we should do so rigorously without apology.

  • James

    Ah, naturalist. Good, I could do with a more succinct way of describing myself than ignostic apatheist.

  • http://t-rinder.typepad.com The Slicer

    I think you’ve achieved your objective, and you’ve done so with more integrity than many who find naturalism sufficient to address all aspects of life. I say more integrity because (i) you’ve acknowledged fundamental assumptions (ii) you’ve made a clear and good argument (if not an ultimately persuasive one for this respondent) for your position without resorting to ridiculing those who hold a different set of assumptions. A much more grown up and, er, scientifically disciplined approach than adopted by many. It is fair to say that theological understanding has altered as scientific understanding has progressed. That’s perhaps as it should be. Still, the nature of faith is to CHOOSE to hold a higher authority than human rationalism and naturalism. The fact that excluding external influences and conducting controlled experiments has been an enormously successful tool to understand the natural order does not demonstrate that it’s all there is. The scepticism that you rightly comment can be so healthy also asks “Why is the cosmos one that we can understand?” “Why does maths work?” “Why has rationality been so successful in understanding the natural order?”
    http://t-rinder.typepad.com/blog/2010/08/what-are-little-boys-made-of-the-lightness-of-being-2008-frank-wilczek.html

  • Joe

    I like the sentiment, we need a new word. But Naturalist is just too close to Naturist. I would prefer ‘rationalist’ – it’s just something that’s hard to be against who wants to be irrational? (it’s the same tactic as pro-lifers used).

  • Davide

    well said indeed. Although, if I may nitpick a bit here, I’m not sure I completely agree with the last part of the talk, in which you suggest naturalism must satisfyingly replace the role religion plays in the categories of meaning and hope. This would of course be nice, but I’m not sure there is nor should there be a replacement in naturalism (or atheism) for everything that religion provides, the best example being the consolation for the passing of a beloved.
    I for myself would say that I’m a naturalist for exactly the very good reasons you explained: naturalism fits the world better than religion, and that in itself also entails that the meaning of our existence is in some sense smaller than religion would have you believe, and some of the “hope” religions provide is make-belief and hasn’t a replacement in naturalism, and both is ok

  • David Galiel

    Well constructed and presented.

    My constructive critique:

    1) Refine it down to three and a half minutes (which, sadly, studies show is an optimal length to maximize viewership of online video).

    2) Make the first 30 seconds count (studies show that this very brief first impression period is critical to the probability viewers will watch the video through to the end).

    Best practices for the first 30 seconds include humor, provocative, even counter-intuitive statements, and/or a promise of intellectual/emotional reward for persistence.

    3) Link to a new, optimized version on YouTube—so we can spread it around the world. 3rd party arguments always carry more weight and are less initially threatening than one’s own. We need more of these kind of clear, concise, respectful presentations. Not only to spread understanding of naturalism, but to counter pernicious stereotypes about “militant” and “fundamentalist” atheism.

  • NoJoy

    I thought it was concise and engaging. The conclusion opens the free will can of worms, though.

  • Rick

    Sean,

    The talk was very good — clear, concise and convincing — nevertheless, I think many would agree that the Scarlett Johansson clip from the prior post was superior.

  • David Lau

    Sean
    You certainly make sense and I agree with what you were saying during the debate. There are always people who would disagree with you as you can’t please the entire world. Natural laws are all there is in this material world. All these religious stuffs are for comforting purposes. By the way, it is really comforting to know that the world is coming to an end on Dec 21, 2012 as another such prediction is on its way. Only fools will ever believe in it or even taking it seriously enough that it bothers them from getting a good night sleep. Statistically speaking, there are more people in the United States believing in angels than in evolution. Sad but true that there is not much we can do to change that. But as scientists and naturalists like us, we are continually making the world better leading to better medicines, technologies, transportation systems, etc while the religious conflicts continually create wars, hatred and separation among mankind, compensating all the goods we are doing as scientists. I can’t wait to read your new book coming out at the end of the year or early next year.

  • http://empiricalperspectives.blogspot.com James Goetz

    Hi Sean, I enjoyed your pitch. I appreciate that you kept a respectable tone. I would prefer a written version of your speech so I could more carefully analyze it. I agreed with many things that you said. Your two weakest points were your claims that cosmology and neuroscience unequivocally indicate philosophical naturalism. For example, beginning with cosmology, I argue that theism is a reasonable conjecture. Best, James

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Al Denelsbeck

    Nicely succinct, and a very efficient use of your allotted ten minutes. How many times did you have to practice it? ;-)

    There are two things I might have emphasized myself. The first is, the remarkable differences in theology among different cultures, with the few similarities boiling down to surprisingly easy-to-explain natural traits. People still routinely miss this, as they consider “religion” to mean their own, and compare only that against naturalism; they never bother to even compare it against other religions, which must also be considered candidates for explaining everything.

    Second, I think some quick points about how much we could explain and predict with naturalistic processes would go a long ways. We rely on it not just because it functions very well, but because nothing else has provided any usefulness or guidance, save for personal indulgence. Newton’s laws of motion formed the backbone of engineering for centuries, whereas the idea of any god’s favor produces nothing that can be distinguished from random events. There is a difference between an answer and an explanation.

    Now, I have to go back and see the whole debate…

  • Sinjin Smythe

    Theism is hypothesis unsupported by other hypothesis, without evidence or applicable scientific law, falling embarassingly short of theory.

    Nature is real.

  • http://overcomingbias.com Robin Hanson

    Great job, at least to my ears.

  • Neil

    “Naturalist” is definitely a better tag than “atheist”. People will think I study bugs rather than think I am a bug.

  • Larry

    Sean, I really enjoyed your message. I made me think a lot about my own beliefs and perspectives. I do have one question for you. You said that science takes a theory and instead of trying to prove it they try to disprove it. Have you done that? Have you asked for a connection with what or who ever it is that you can not perceive?
    Just a question, not trying to prove anything.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean Carroll

      Larry– Sure. Like most people, I grew up in a religious household. I prayed to God, and from another angle I was fascinated by psychic powers. But trying to understand the world in as open-minded a way as I could has convinced me that none of that is real.

  • bob

    Very good, but I’m just curious – how did you happen to agree to appear with Dinesh D’Souza? Has he ever been rational about anything? And if not – as has been my observation – what makes you think that you could interact with him rationally?

  • http://szkolenia.us Amal Oritz

    Ta strona bardzo mi sie podoba.

  • razed and diffused

    Excellent speech. What you said all flowed very well from point to point. I don’t think neuroscience is boring, but it’s understandable that you didn’t try to squeeze in even more.

    I think the more you spend on the conclusion, that we make life meaningful for ourselves and each other, developing it and giving more concrete examples, the more positively people will respond. It defeats the purpose of wishful thinking when you realize you’re not risking anything by letting go of it, but in fact gaining a lot. Since the universe doesn’t care about us, we ought to emphasize how important it is to cooperate at understanding the universe as it really is, so we’ll be better at helping each other, developing medicine and other technology, predicting when some catastrophe will strike, finding means to reduce suffering however it comes, and so on. People might believe knowing the truth isn’t as important as other things in life, but they can’t deny how much those other things depend on it, without denying everything that really is meaningful at the same time.

    p.s., I really enjoyed From Eternity to Here.

  • Ian Liberman

    “Atheism” is a fine word, and I’m happy to describe myself as an atheist.” It is also reassuring to hear you not feel the negativity that Neil DeGrasse Tyson has towards the word atheism.

  • http://empiricalperspectives.blogspot.com James Goetz

    Sean, I want to add to what I briefly wrote in comment 16: I never expected you to give many details about your views of neuroscience, but given your specialty, I felt let down with your approach along the lines that naturalism versus theism in cosmology is irrelevant because naturalism unequivocally won and the details are boring, so we need to discuss something else. You argued Ad Populum. That might work for some people, but not me.

  • Kevin

    Great video. Constructive comment:

    The story of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia is a novel way to motivate a discussion of the problems with dualism, and it is a solid point that the atoms in your brain do obey the laws of physics. However, I’m not sure that it’s the best way to get most people to understand why we should reject dualism. (Once one has rejected dualism, this is a good reason to reject contra-causal free will.)

    I know you didn’t want to get into too much neuroscience, but I think a brief mention could make the argument much stronger and doesn’t need much introduction. Just about everyone has seen that brain damage can change a person’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and skills. What better evidence is there that the mind is in the brain, and not outside of it? You could fit this into future talks easily.

  • Mitchell Porter

    I would make a video arguing the Case for Solipsism, but I’d just be talking to myself.

  • http://gbruno2.blogspot.co.nz/ gbruno

    “My soul waiteth on the Lord more than the morning watch watcheth for the morning”
    Geneva bible, the 1st mass printing, with anti RC commentary
    – I’m pleased that QED can describe an atom (but not a molecule?) to x decimal places, and Muller’s ratchet can claim to explain romance, but we are still slaves here, waiting on the dawn.

  • John Merryman

    Sean,
    Wipe the sleep out of your eyes.
    The real reason for religion is civil conformity. You can’t get that with “naturalism” because the function is to provide that “universal purpose.” Unless the “tribe” is moving in a generally unified direction, it tends towards schism and conflict.
    Remember reality is bottom up and the laws of physics, not wishful thinking, apply to society on large scales and the vast majority of people are motivated by rather basic impulses. We are attracted to the beneficial and repelled by the detrimental. Religions are generally tailored to provide conveniently generic doses of fear and hope to large numbers of people. How many people does your vision appeal to and what stick does it use to motivate the slackers?

  • tim Rowledge

    I like the sentiment, we need a new word. But Naturalist is just too close to Naturist. I would prefer ‘rationalist’

    You might want to be careful with that; ‘rationalist’ has been taken and not necessarily by something you’d like to be associated with. ‘empiricist’ might be more what you want. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalist for a quick summary.

  • julianpenrod

    Sean Carroll’s stand on “naturalism” is little different, in its nature, and, therefore, it illegitimacy, than atheism. It espouses an all econompassing point of view based entirely on absolutely denying what you do not see. Note Sean Carroll’s description of themself as “someone who believes that there is only one realm of reality”. They don’t say they have proof of this, they violate the principles of “science” by denying something simply because they have no proof of it. And it has to be asked, if Sean Carroll professes to live by rules of reason, what is the reason they use to deny that anything else exists?

  • Rick

    Sean,

    You really needed to explain the language problem, as to why the term “atheist” should be abandoned. Being “against” something, it only continues to reify it. I know you had limited time here.

    The other point I wish you had stressed” Under the “naturalistic” umbrella, phenomena like human beliefs in the supernatural, and attributing purpose to random events are explainable areas of study-under naturalism.

  • Christian Takacs

    Does the north pole, longitude and latitude really exist in material reality? No. They are abstract human constructs that embody imaginary fixed locations that allow us navigate our world. It could be very easily argued that God and religion do much the same thing for human moral navigation. Just as you would not want your imaginary fixed navigational points shifting about frequently since it would make navigation problematic, so those who have imagined aspects of the divine do not like you putzing with their moral compass.

    Science has not been a very good exemplar of morality or ethics, because Science is dedicated to finding out how things function and not so much ‘what should you do?’. I find it starkly common in scientific thinking that the ability to do something, anything for that matter, is license to do a thing, and claim such behavior inevitiable in the name of ‘progress’. For a few fine examples consider consider the fine Killer Bee, delightful Eugenics, Biological weapons, Pre natal sexual selection, and most human genetic engineering. Any act seems to be forgiven in the name of curiosity, and self restraint and self control are seen as unsufferable limitations that should be cast off, along with free will… it gets in the way of ‘progress’. I notice that the first thing scientists do after they discover something is try to control it absolutely with little hesitation. What pray tell will scientists do when they claim to have found exactly how the human brain works? Most likely they will set about finding ways to control it as their tenants do not give them reason to pause and consider what they do, only that they can do it.

    As for Atheism, well….The fact that the universe is intelligible is the first assumption that must be made for any science or logic to be possible, and direct evidence that random chaos does not seem to be the governing principle of the universe. With an intelligble universe as a given (please don’t be silly and say you can make a logical argument inside of an unintelligble universe) It would be wise to consider that we have only been looking about for a very short time, and in that short time humanity has created countless imaginary universes in our stories, myths,fictions, and religions. With engineering and science we have created our own indoor worlds that keep us more safe and comfortable than most of the surface of our planet can. Given how much we have created in such a short time… How can you be so blithely certain that no one came long before us doing much the same thing..and given enough time …on a far grander scale?

  • Kristoffer

    Christian: That’s where the evidence comes into play. How can we be sure that no one created all the things we see? There’s no evidence for it. Everywhere we’ve looked, all we see are natural processes and physical reality. Now, you might argue that this provides no certainty, but without evidence, everything is equally certain – the argument for a higher intelligence creator of any kind with no evidence is as credible as the argument for a divine unicorn that imagined the universe while reclining in a seven-dimensional lounge chair.

  • John Merryman

    Kristoffer,

    Why would a spiritual absolute/source be a “higher intelligence?”
    What if the motivating factor is primal awareness, engaging physical complexity? Biology functions by compartmentalizing awareness and then reconnecting it in increasingly complex formulations. What if there is an underlaying continuum of awareness? If biological life and conscious awareness are distinct phenomena, that is a potentially unnecessary dualism. If biology is inherently aware, it would explain the implacable tenacity of elemental life.

  • Yair

    Dear Prof. Carrol,

    As a pro-Naturalism individual – I was proud to listen to you as “my” advocate.
    Many thanks for taking the time and effort to fight our intellectual battles.

    I listened to most of the debate and thought that it was sad to hear articulate and intelligent pro-God spokespersons, try to fight the losing battle of defending God’s – obviously diminishing (to put it mildly) – “role” in the Natural world.

    In this context, it was pathetic to hear them use Scientific discoveries as “confirmations” of theological claims.
    Your own – time did not begin in the big-bang – work, is a good example of the shaky nature of this methodology of theirs.

    Were they to limit themselves to psychological claims regarding the God idea as a potential consolation for some people, they might have created a rationally defendable position.

  • Jackie

    I loved listening to your opening speech. You are eloquent and your points are well made and logical. I agree with you about nearly everything as far as religion is concerned. That’s right- nearly. I consider myself a spiritual person, and in the system of beliefs I have developed over the course of my life and through my experiences I have found that science and spirituality CAN in fact be integrated harmoniously. It’s large organized religions that tend to be mutually exclusive with science, to their obvious detriment.

  • Gizelle Janine

    Dare I say, oh my god…

    NOW we can talk friendly-like. :D

  • dallas mccoy

    Just wanted to comment on Josh, and what he referred to when he said one can’t disprove reincarnation. I would agree in this sense. If it hasn’t been proven in the first place, what’s the need or possibility of disproving?

  • paul manton

    Is this not all just repackaged meat? “Naturalism” is just repackaged atheism the way “intelligent design” is just repackaged creationism.

  • Josh

    dallas mccooy writes:

    “If it hasn’t been proven in the first place, what’s the need or possibility of disproving?”

    I agree, dallas. The question is, in my mind, how does one routinize this point so that the thoughtful individual sees it to be as reasonable as the routine dismissal of a flat earth? That kind of debunking of the supernatural would allow the debate to move beyond “equal footing” fora and into the realm of mainstream versus fringe… which is to what belief in the supernatural should be relegated.

  • H.

    Dallas, I think the flaw in what the Dali Lama said was that reincarnation is not a valid hypothesis. For a statement to be a legitamate scientific idea, or indeed to have any fact-based discourse at all, the idea must be falsifiable.

    No one can disprove reincarnation or god, but they certainly can’t disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the All-Knowing, All-Seeing Unicorn-in-the-Sky either. In a sense, those things are equally valid conclusions, which is to say none of them are.

  • razed and diffused

    “Is this not all just repackaged meat? “Naturalism” is just repackaged atheism the way “intelligent design” is just repackaged creationism.”

    Nope. Atheists don’t believe in gods, but that does not entail atheists must not believe in other supernatural things. Naturalism is more all-encompassing in that sense, though this is a fairly technical point since most atheists are naturalists. Still, gods are only a subset of the things which don’t exist if naturalism is true. If it is, there are also no demons, ghosts, souls, Earth-spirits, a Star Wars-like Force, magical or psychic powers, or any other supernatural entity or property. One might argue all of those things require a kind of “god,” but many will disagree with the terminology and claim they’re not really like a minor deity simply because they think they have a soul, magical powers, or whatever.

    By contrast, there’s no substantial difference between creationism and intelligent design: all the different flavors of each involve a creator deity of some sort. Also, naturalists aren’t trying to hide their obvious atheism behind a veil of obscurantist rhetoric, whereas creationists/”cdesign proponentists” are, in order to avoid issues of church/state separation in the education system.

  • julianpenrod

    Note H.’s insistence on referring to the name of God beginning with a lowercase “g”. The community of God haters do this frequently if not regularly, all but compulsively. It’s like they can’t help themselves. Of course, they will weasel around it, saying that “god” is a term for any arbitrary deity, but, then, you refer to “a god” or “the god”. God, used alone, represents the name of a specific individual. And, yet, quisling God haters will bleat that they don’t recognize God as an individual and, therefore, are not required to capitalize His name. And, yet, H. capitalizes “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and “All-Knowing, All-Seeing Unicorn-in-the-Sky”! A demonstration of the hypocrisy, if not outright deceit, that is so common, if not universal, among the God haters. In fact, the God haters are literally that, haters of God. They know God exists. They despise the fact that He won’t give them every craven thing they demand and He rewards decency. They deliberately write His name uncapitalized not out of intellectual principle, buy only out of spite.

  • secretseasons

    Your uplifting concluding remarks — that we create meaning in a universe that has none built in — worked for me. For a while.

    I was almost convinced that, as an atheist, when I am good it is, in a sense, *more* moral than someone who does good “only” because they’re told to. But this meaning and this interpretation really seems to hinge on me *freely choosing* to do good. So it seems to depend on me having free will. And Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia might say about that: “Who does the choosing?”

    What meaning is there in creating lives worth living if we couldn’t have done otherwise, because we don’t have free will? These are my honest questions struggling with this, not rhetorical flourishes.

  • http://www.naturalism.org Tom Clark

    Sean:

    “…naturalism is about a positive acceptance of a comprehensive worldview.”

    Indeed, and many thanks for making a good succinct non-confrontational case for it, which as you properly points out starts with a rational commitment to empiricism as the basis for reliable knowledge. Bravo!

    As you suggest, worldview naturalism can successfully compete with supernatural worldviews as the basis for a meaningful, engaged life. It answers all the questions dualistic religions traditionally address, but without wishful thinking and in the context of the amazing great story of science. What’s not to like?

    My take on naturalism as a comprehensive worldview is at http://www.naturalism.org/systematizing_naturalism.htm

    Again, thanks for this!

  • http://cascadeaccess.com/~gabe/ Gabe Eisenstein

    Sean, I’m a big fan, a former philosophy teacher and current physics student.
    I’m thrilled to hear you acknowledge something that folks like Krauss, Hawking and Dawkins can’t seem to acknowledge: religion (and, I would add, philosophy, and literature) has purposes that are not causal-explanatory. These purposes are psychological and sociological. A naturalistic worldview should have no trouble accommodating these non-explanatory activities and their associated modes of discourse, as long as that discourse doesn’t stray (fundamentalist-like) into the area of causal explanation.

    But your remarks about naturalists undertaking the goal of living meaningfully in a world without built-in purpose strike me as off-base, in somewhat the same way as the folks who think of religion as failed causal explanation. Because here too there seems to be a blind spot about the humanities…as if philosophers and poets and others hadn’t already been working on this for a very long time…as if scientists were somehow in a better position to analyze meaning (that is, meanings in the psychological, sociological and aesthetic realms) than those whose job it is (I’m harkening back to your remarks) to analyze those kinds of meaning.

    Here’s the evidence that what a brilliant physicist says, off the top of his head, about human satisfaction and meaning, may turn out to be crude when compared to the analyses of humanities professionals: your insistence that the only available meanings are those that the individual creates on her own. Clearly you are only thinking of a contrast with meanings that are “built in” because of the physical design of a deity-created world. You are not thinking of the ways in which meaning depends, instead, on outside influences from the social world (the example of falling in love, from your talk, is really a counter-example: my feelings aren’t merely a projection onto the beloved, but are drawn out of me by her). Nor are you thinking of meanings whose production involves responses to the natural world (not causal-explanatory responses, but aesthetic and ethical responses).
    I’ve already taken up too much of your time, so I’ll end with a reading recommendation: “All Things Shining” by Dreyfus & Kelly. They explain in great detail why there is a perfectly naturalistic way to understand meaning as response to things and people, maybe even “the universe”, and not as nihilistic projection in which all meanings are equally valid (which is not something you’ve implied, but which follows quickly from the “projection” model).

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean Carroll

      Gabe– I’m not sure why you think that I’m saying scientists, or in particular physicists, should be the ones to help figure out how to live meaningful lives in a dysteleological universe. It doesn’t sound like something I would ever say. I think *naturalists* should tackle the problem (as indeed they have been, for many years), but that includes people from the arts and humanities just as much as from the sciences.

  • http://vixra.org/author/stephen_crowley Stephen Crowley

    Curious Sean, what do you think about the UFO phenomena?

  • Gene

    I don’t see how you can deduce deep metaphysical conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality on the basis of empiricism.

  • H.

    Good catch, Julian, I did fail to capitalize the name of the Christian diety. No need for hostility though.

    Naturalism is enough for me. As LaPlace (allegedly) said in reference to God ensuring the stability of planetary orbits, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” There are so many religions in the world, why should anyone assume theirs is the right one? A person’s religion is simply a matter of geography. Or, in other words, where you were born and who your parents are.

    Given that we can explain the observable universe pretty well, why invoke the supernatural at all? Such hypotheses are simply no longer necessary in the 21st century.

  • RwW

    No afterlife? Sure! But it might have been easier to swallow if you had left the undertaker outfit at home.

    ( Although you do look good in Armani.)

  • Jerry Schwarz

    The ideas Sean expresses in the video are similar to my own, although I usually describe myself as a “materialist” rather than a “naturalist”. The essential point is that my atheism is a consequence of my materialism, not the other was around.

    I have two suggestions.

    First. Stay away from trying to explain why people become religious or why religions flourish. This is a complicated story. I think there are lots of possible reasons and I doubt that the motivations are the same for everyone. In any event, while almost any explanation will play well to an atheist crowd I think that confronting a believer with a claim about why they believe is likely to meet resistance and draw attention away from you excellent arguments for naturalism.

    Second, I think some mention needs to be made of morality. The common knock on naturalism is that it is amoral. My response to that is morality is a human trait that comes from human’s nature. Plato’s Euthyphro is still a strong argument, although hard to summarize in just a few seconds.

  • Ira

    Ironically, the best defense of religion comes from the most unsuspecting source, Karl Marx. Everybody is familiar with his famous ‘religion is the opium of the people’ quote. However, as usual, the context of the quote is never given. Here it is:

    ”Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

    “The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

  • Brandon

    You did a great job explaining clearly what seems obvious to me yet difficult to express to family and friends on the other side of the fence. I just wish this clip would show on the Today show and the evening news. I wish that the majority of Americans would stop ignoring the obvious or even just take a moment to consider that what they were brought up to believe is not right and that scientists are smarter than their parents. The overwhelming consensus among learned people should be enough evidence but it’s just not. The sadest part is that most people just don’t even care to think about it. Please continue your work and try to change the closed-minds of the masses. Thank you!

  • julianpenrod

    H. says, “we can explain the observable universe pretty well”.
    Why does Benford’s Law work?
    In the decimal expansion of pi, do one million zeroes occur consecutively?
    Why does gravitation exist?
    In forces such as gravitation, how do objects exchange particles, such as gravitons, then attract and not repel?
    If “we can explain the observable universe pretty well”, why does “science” keeps changing its mind on previously held “theories”, why are experiments still being done, why are satellites still being launched, why are there no fusion reactors?
    As for invoking the supernatural, I pointed out numerous times across the net that it is not an arbitrary thing, that, in fact, if one adopts a particular way of acting, they will directly witness and experience the actions of God in their life.

  • http://www.unshieldedcolliders.net/ Jonathan Livengood

    Sean,

    Enjoyable introduction. I think it could be reworked in a way that offers fewer opportunities for misunderstanding and would make your case much harder to resist. I have three complaint-ish remarks.

    1. The term “naturalism” is too slippery to be helpful. Suppose for the moment that there is a divinity that interacts with the world in the way that many religionists think it does. Is the divinity part of the natural world? Seems to me the answer is yes. And insofar as the divinity leaves traces or signs of activities in (the rest of) the world, the divinity is discoverable by scientific investigation. This is true for all kinds of “weird” things: ESP, ghosts, extra-terrestrials, etc. The point should be to say that on our best evidence, the natural (real) world contains these things (people, tables, atoms, quarks, etc.), rather than those things (gods, demons, ghosts, etc.).

    2. A better label for your position — one that fits well with previous things you’ve said about the relationship between science and ethics — is “experimentalism.” Experimentalism has no pre-commitments about what reality is like; it does not make an a priori division of things into “natural” things and “non-natural” things. Rather, experimentalism has only two commitments, both of which have to do with the nature of evidence. First, whatever evidence we have for our beliefs about what exists must be experimental evidence. Taken broadly, experimental evidence is public, third-person-checkable observation, including observations of interventions (as in the case of controlled trials). Second, if no experiment could be devised to decide between two competing hypotheses, then those hypotheses are not really different — they are merely notational variations. In addition to these two suppositions, the experimentalist carries with him or her a hope that whatever reality is like, it may be discovered through experimentation.

    3a. You ought to more carefully separate dualism and non-naturalism. The reason for rejecting Cartesian, interactionist substance-dualism was not that thinking substances were non-natural. Nor was it that Descartes couldn’t think up a way for interactions to work. It was (as you say) that interactionism was incompatible with things like conservation of energy. But now, suppose we made very careful measurements and discovered that when people decide to do this or that thing, some energy is added to the physical system of their brains. Maybe the pineal gland gets a measurable little kick, as Descartes thought. Had that been what we found, I think we accept Cartesian dualism as at least roughly correct today, even if we had no good account of precisely *how* the interaction took place. The point is that (at least one version of) interactionism makes some experimental predictions that are not upheld in actual experiments.

    3b. Dualism potentially muddies the waters further in that dualism has several varieties — not all of which are interactionist, substance dualism, and not all of which have been given up by respectable people. Even among the early moderns, you find non-interactionist dualisms. And today, you find varieties of dualism, like predicate dualism and property dualism, that are not so easily knocked down as is substance dualism. (Moreover, some prominent proponents of predicate or property dualisms today are atheists, and they think of their dualist commitments as perfectly naturalistic. And you can also find sophisticated theists who are not dualists.)

    Summing up: You would be better off calling yourself an experimentalist and then pointing out that experiments lead you to believe that active, personal divinities don’t exist and that inactive, impersonal divinities do not provide opportunities for experimental test. You can happily stay away from dualism, which is a bit of a red herring in theism-atheism debate. Instead, defend the experimentalist pre-suppositions, since if you get people to agree to be experimentalists, then the experiments will carry them to the truth, whatever the truth may be. And then lay out how you think experiments bear on the question of the existence of divinities.

  • Jesse M.

    I wish there were a word for the idea that all the universe is governed by mathematical laws (perhaps statistical laws if the universe is nondeterministic, although I lean towards the deterministic many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics). “Naturalism” is vague because it might allow for ideas like vitalism (and there seems to be not that much difference between belief in vitalism and belief in supernatural spirits influencing physical events, whether individual “souls” or the spirit of God), while “materialism” seems to promote a particular type of metaphysics which need not be believed by all those who believe in the universality of mathematical law. An example of someone with a different metaphysics would be the philosopher David Chalmers, who believes materialism can’t adequately account for subjective consciousness and “qualia” but nevertheless thinks that all physical events, including those in the brain, obey mathematically-describable physical laws, and also suggest that there may be mathematically-describable “psychophysical laws” governing the relation between physical brain states (or states of other-information-bearing systems) and subjective qualia. So he’s not a materialist but he’s still a naturalist and a “mathematicist” (or whatever word we might choose for belief in a universe where everything is governed by mathematical laws).

  • Marten van Dijk

    I am afraid that naturalistic fallacy is quite common in physics. It means that in the process of advancing from certain starting points (parameters, theories), sone might encounter problems which make it necessary to reconsider the starting points/theoretical basis. Any experienced projectleader knows that. Not doing so one might fall into the trap of naturalistic fallacy which means that one loses one’s way. Being part of a community of physicists sharing the same view and not easily accepting dissenting views, makes it diffcult to change course in time. Example: dark matter as “sure thing” solution for calculations which do not give the results one expects, would require first of all a principal reconsideration of starting points like the Big Bang, gravitational laws and the like. Apparently such a discussion is not done, at least not in the community. The problem with physics is a lack of inconsistency management.

  • Linda Jean

    i endorse the move from against god..but 2 questions:1) whats the rational engaging d’souza (in my opinion he is deranged) and 2) natural laws??what are they? I mean it

  • Ray Gedaly

    Sean, you may just have convinced God to become an atheist.

  • James

    @61, Marten van Dijk:

    I’m afraid the fact that you think physicists don’t reconsider all theories from scratch all the time shows clearly just how little you understand science. As for your example, as long as there has been the dark matter problem, there have been attempts to explain it by altering gravity instead of invoking new unseen matter. It is known as MOND (and TeVeS). This approach has been popular in the past; the advances of the past two decades have diminished its support in favour of dark matter.

  • http://www.naturalism.org Tom Clark

    secretseasons @ 47:

    “What meaning is there in creating lives worth living if we couldn’t have done otherwise, because we don’t have free will?”

    In a deterministic universe, we’re caused to value things, want things, have projects, be curious, love, hate – Zorba’s “the full catastrophe.” Being motivated in all the ways we are is what creates the possibility of meaning, from simply enjoying a good meal to making high art to saving the whales. None of this changes when you realize you couldn’t have done otherwise in an actual situation, since after all you don’t know what you’ll do in future situations, or how they will turn out. Since we don’t know what the future holds, even though as Sean would likely agree it’s fixed in 4 dimensional spacetime, there will always be suspense in the pursuit of our needs and appetites, and along with that comes meaning.

    Dropping contra-causal free will is the next big step for secularists in moving toward a consistent naturalism, as Sam Harris has recently pointed out in his book and recent talk at CalTech.

    http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

  • Marten van Dijk

    @ 64 James

    MOND was and is not a mainstream project. Indeed there are physicists outside the mainstream who do not shun controversiality. And also there are mainstream physicists who dare, very carefully, express their doubts about f.i. Big Bang. But my point is that the mainstream keeps going on despite of projects failing to prove the existence of dark matter, gravitational waves etc. or find a solution for various inconsistencies between various theories. You can’t deny there is a bandwagon effect. You have the same problem because you react as if I am swearing in church. Take my advice and start looking for dark matter in the constellation of Taurus, You might find it there.

  • sam

    Thanks Dr Sean for your tireless activism.

    I was wondering if someone could point me to a transcript of this tremendous presentation for Naturalism.

    Greatly appreciate your assistance. Many Thanks!
    S!

  • Julie

    Wonderful presentation. I have personally been unable to ever explain to anyone why Naturalism as a belief system could be considered spiritual in nature. The beginning of the talk was great, but the best part was the end, where you explain the role of hope in this belief system. For theists, that really is the biggest problem, and they do not understand that creating meaning from within is valid and beautiful. I would love a little more expansion on that, and how it’s even more meaningful than hope and meaning that comes from an external source.

  • http://cascadeaccess.com/~gabe/ Gabe Eisenstein

    Thanks for the reply (#51 to my #49). Sorry if I conflated your position with that of, say, Krauss, who isn’t afraid to say that physicists know more about some philosophical questions than philosophers do. But at 9 minutes into the talk you do say that “science” “has something to say about those [meaning, purpose, etc.] issues”, and that it is delivering “news” to people with a lingering interest in religion. (The “news” of course, is that “the universe doesn’t care about you”.) This is what I find suggestive of a lack of familiarity with relevant work in the arts and social sciences.

    The assertion that “the universe doesn’t care” isn’t as blatantly polemical as Dawkins’ famous “pitiless indifference”, but it’s close. Dawkins used a phrase that normally would apply to humans (inanimate things not being capable of pity or indifference), and applies it to the universe. His procedure is in the same logical category as those asserting that the universe loves you–as if the universe might be the sort of thing that loves or hates you, but turns out to be rather more of the latter. Similarly, your assertion, while simply negative, carries a hint of this pseudo-anthropomorphism. The proof? Listen to the cheers of the young atheists in your audience. They associate “pitiless indifference” with a kind of existential heroism: “we can take it”, they say.

    And what I’m saying is that this “heroism” is uninformed and crude. There are many ways in which our feelings about the world or life in general can be rationally articulated so as to portray the world (or parts of it) as welcoming or appalling or boring (etc.), as worthy of our reverence or contempt or whatever…without reverting to a simplistic religious picture or its shadowy antithesis. Furthermore, there is an ethical argument to be made about what feelings toward the world we *should* express to others. We should be optimistic, for example, so as to encourage our children and neighbors (and ourselves); and we should, by the same reasoning, portray the world as welcoming rather than hostile, if we can find a rational way to do so.

    You didn’t address my point about meaning as transcending the individual (because it inheres in culture and society). It’s relevant because the idea that the individual is the source of all meaning is very much in line with the attitudes of young fans of Dawkins, Harris, et.al., viewing themselves as heroes who can suck it up in the face of the withering cosmic indifference. This is, in my view, a pernicious sociological development, for which some scientists bear an ethical responsibility. Don’t go there Sean!

  • John Sabatino

    I see some major problems from the get-go – most of them I think can be attributed to the fact that you are a scientist trying to talk about what is really a metaphysical or philosphical view of the world. What experiment have scientists ever done for instance, that shows that reality is strictly singular/material?

  • John Sabatino

    Sean, you say that two key components of science are empiricism and skepticism. So I think two very important questions for you would be:

    1. what empirical observations support Naturalism as a worldview.

    2. what sort of skepticism have you subjected Naturalism to?

  • John Sabatino

    Gabe – you write “It’s relevant because the idea that the individual is the source of all meaning is very much in line with the attitudes of young fans of Dawkins, Harris, et.al., viewing themselves as heroes who can suck it up in the face of the withering cosmic indifference.”

    Indeed, this is just another extreme form of anthropocentrism. Instead of meaning being inherent in reality itself, the locus of meaning becomes simply the mind of man.

  • John Merryman

    As someone who has spent my life outside, primarily working with horses, I must admit to a low grade theism. That life is inherently aware, though not often intellectually complex and that our intellectual complexity is essentially a projection of this awareness into increasingly complex formulations. A bottom up spirituality, with the absolute as basis from which life arises, not an ideal from which it fell.
    To suppose biology and awareness arose separately would seem to be a form of dualism that really isn’t logically supportable. What is the driving motivator of life otherwise? Why isn’t it as pitilessly indifferent to its own propagation as a rock? We know it is our sense of awareness which motivates us and there is nothing more meaningful to life than recognizing and connecting with that sense of awareness in others, so how far down the biological chain does it go? Often people do fail to recognize it in other people, often societies deny it in other cultures, it has often been denied and ignored in other, obviously sentient, creatures. One might say fungi have no sense of awareness when they cooperate to propagate, but rather than arguing for it, why not argue our abilities of cooperation do not arise from any sense of mutuality, but are simply code programed into our genes, as with fungi? I think life on this planet is trying to organize itself into a singular entity and human civilization will be its nascent central nervous system. Obviously we are now just top predators in a collapsing ecosystem, but when this current bout of extreme hubris blows up and those left pull their faces up out of the mud, there will likely be a stronger sense of connectedness to the planet and obligation not to destroy it. This ruling physics paradigm of reality as digitized discretion will have to be replaced by a less reductionistic, holographic understanding that everything is connected, even if our pre-frontal cortex is designed to categorize differences.

    Interesting bit of news: http://www.nature.com/news/a-boost-for-quantum-reality-1.10602
    “Theorists claim they can prove that wavefunctions are real states.”

    Life is a game where the goal is to discover the rules.

  • brucem

    There is a problem with the words atheist and atheism. The -ist implies someone who actively does or believes in something. And the -ism implies a formal doctrine, a proper noun, something that’s existentially positive. The -ist in “atheist” allows religious people to more plausibly argue that “atheism is just another religion.” And it’s NOT. Bill Maher put it best when he said “abstinence is not a sexual position.” Choosing not to believe in religion doesn’t mean I’ve partaken in my own religion. Just like choosing not to join your game of baseball doesn’t mean I’ve started my own game.

    The better words are “nonbeliever” and “nonbelief.” They avoid the positive -ist and -ism that make atheist and atheism sound like affirmative actions/beliefs/groups/etc. These two words are based on theism being normative, and that’s improper and unfortunate. Whenever you say “atheist” and “atheism” you play right into the hands of the theists, who will use those words to imply that you maintain a positive belief system. Of course they are wrong – the lack of a belief is not a belief in and of itself. But the -ist/-ism words certainly imply that they are due to the nature of the english language. It’s a matter of syntax and it should be avoided. I’m an “atheist” but I try very hard to always use the words nonbeliever/nonbelief instead. I’m not perfect and I sometimes slip up and say atheist/atheism by mistake. But we should all try very hard to not use these words, as they play right into the hands of the religious people.

    Same goes for calling the Higgs Boson the “god particle.” I’d like to slap the idiot who came up with that nickname. When it’s found, religious people will be thrilled to proclaim that “scientists prove the existence of god!” We scientific, rational-based humans need to do a better job with the words we use. Truth, reason, logic… they shouldn’t need propaganda. But we should at least not be reckless about the choices of words we use, lest our own words get taken advantage of by the immoral, anti-science faith-based community.

  • http://www.normbear.com Norm Bearrentine

    I was with you right up to the point where you said, “We create purpose and meaning in the world. If you love somebody, it is not because that love is put into you by something outside.” Actually, love *is* put into you by something outside: evolution. Humans who experience positive emotion—“love”—toward sexual partners, offspring, relatives, and fellow group-members, have had greater reproductive success than those who did not.

    As other commenters have noted, the notion that we can create *anything* independent of the causal forces acting on molecules and structures in our brains raises the idea of free will, which has been neatly dispatched by Sam Harris in his book by that name.

    The “good news” that you might have mentioned is that the Universe *has* provided us with purpose and meaning by way of evolution. Purpose and meaning are ideas that evolve in response to their effect on reproductive success. We can study their evolution through history and across cultures, and our brains can reach decisions about which variations might be most conducive to our individual and societal well-being, given our own personal evolution. This is not the kind of “absolute” foundation for meaningful lives that religions attempt to offer, but it can be quite gratifying.

    I, like you, grew up in a religious household, prayed to God, etc., and for people like us there is often a sense of loss when God is removed that is difficult to eliminate. Hopefully there will come a time when children are raised without that difficulty to overcome, when they will grow up familiar with the legacies of biological and social evolution, and with a satisfying sense of awe and wonder for how we came to be.

  • John Sabatino

    Norm wrote: ‘Humans who experience positive emotion—“love”—toward sexual partners, offspring, relatives, and fellow group-members, have had greater reproductive success than those who did not.’

    That’s a neat idea. How do you propose to test it empirically? And how are we defining “love”? The majority of humans on planet earth probably see romantic love as bound up with monogamous commitment – but such commitment does not necessarily confer better reproductive success.

    And does the evolutionary history of a certain human behavior like love, really tell us that we do not create purpose or meaning in the world through our engagement in the behavior? Doubtful. Love between homosexuals seems fairly well divorced from the evolutionary drive towards better reproductive success. Or take another example – I’m an artist. Art may have evolved as a means of enhancing reproductive fitness, but does this mean we can’t create and convey new meaning through our art? Further, there are artists who have chosen abstinence and a life of solitude in order to further explore their creative pursuits. So we can easily reappropriate an evolutionary adadptation for other ends.

  • http://www.normbear.com Norm Bearrentine

    Yes, John, if our life provides us with appropriate stimuli, we can “easily reappropriate an evolutionary adaptation for other ends.” Pie-eating contests might be an example. Innumerable ways have evolved among humans to elaborate on our biological inheritance.

    Perhaps I should have said “pair-bonding” instead of “love,” although I think the two, loosely defined, are often associated among human beings. There are other ways to promote reproductive success as well, Genghis Khan being a good example. Biologists interested in behavioral evolution have done research that explores which circumstances lead to which reproductive adaptations . A good introductory lecture by Robert Sapolsky of Stanford is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0Oa4Lp5fLE

    The key word in Sean’s statement and in your comment that I find problematic is “create.” Feelings and behaviors are constantly emerging from brain processes, but to say that we create them as if they were free from causality is a mistake which won’t hold up to scrutiny. We can’t successfully divorce ourselves from the causal machinery of the universe. I’m an artist, too, but I realize that every piece I make is a result of interactions among everything I’ve ever been exposed to.

    “Love” is not the issue, free will is the issue, and we don’t have it. Here’s the latest on that subject from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sapient-nature/201205/free-will-is-illusion-so-what

  • Kevin

    #74, brucem: Leon Lederman’s editor was the one who came up with the “God Particle” nickname. Lederman wanted to call it the “goddamn particle” because it’s been so hard to find. I agree, that editor should probably be slapped.

  • http://cascadeaccess.com/~gabe/ Gabe Eisenstein

    Norm: Sean and John are both using “create” correctly.
    Your inference that this implies events “free from causality” is wrong.

    When I create a new work of art, there is no gap in the causal chain of events. It just means that I didn’t copy the art from someone else, I did all the work myself, etc.
    Similarly, an act is free when it isn’t coerced, when the person was awake at the time, etc. It requires no spooky a-causal or extra-causal agency.

    This “no free will” idea is a prime example of philosophically uneducated scientists trying–and failing badly–to reinvent the wheel. Professional philosophers overwhelmingly are “compatibilists”, meaning that they are both naturalists and believers in free will. But even a scientist as brilliant as Penrose can’t seem to get this.

    In the absence of God and metaphysics, we are still free, we can still be creative, and we can still find ourselves intellectually AND emotionally involved with the social and natural contexts in which we exist.

  • http://www.normbear.com Norm Bearrentine

    Sam Harris would probably not be considered a professional philosopher, but he has a reasonable argument against compatibilism in his book, “Free Will,” and at 27:15 in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g

    What it comes down to is that compatibilist philosophers define free will in terms that have nothing to do with what anyone else thinks of as free will.

    Daniel Dennett is one of the best-known of professional philosopher compatibilists, and his work is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities. Here’s my review of what he considers his defining work on the subject, “Elbow Room.” http://www.amazon.com/review/RICW8SZ79UVUT/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#RICW8SZ79UVUT

    Compatibilists will someday be categorized alongside flat-earthers.

  • John Merryman

    If we were free from causal input, then we would also be devoid of causal output. Thus really lacking any meaning or purpose. We are what gives meaning to our causality. Like a sentence would be meaningless without context, as the context would be incomplete without the sentence.
    The message in the medium and vice versa.

  • Pingback: May 10, 2012 - Science and Religion Today()

  • http://losingmyreligion.ca Chad

    Sean – great stuff! I watched the whole debate and thought you did the best job, followed by D’Souza even though I don’t agree with his stance.

    However, I think you need to be careful on what topics of debate you agree on. To me, you guys lost the debate when the title was announced: “Has science refuted religion?”. No… it hasn’t. And I don’t think it can. It seems to argue that science has refuted religion is a near equivalent to arguing “there is no god” which is impossible. If people want to believe in an invisible being that has no measurable impact on the world, you can point out that it’s nonsense, but you can’t refute that it’s possible (much like FSM or Russell’s Teapot).

    My question is: Why shift the burden of proof onto science to demonstrate that “there is no god”? It seems much more reasonable to address the issue by requiring the religious to provide evidence for the claim that “There is a God”. I agree with your stance, but I think you walk a fine line when you try to argue “there is nothing more”, which shifts the burden of proof onto you. Throughout the debate, D’Souza pointed out this flaw quite easily.

  • http://predelusional.blogspot.com Stephen

    Constructive criticism after all those excellent comments? [expletive deleted for brevity]

    But one word is bothersome. Hope. Hope is faith that things will work out. It’s often believed in spite of evidence. It seems necessary. There needs to be a new word or something. Spin isn’t going to be enough. Hope someone has thought about it.

  • http://ThePythagorasPortal Sandra Garcia

    Coherently, the structure of elements in nature deliver a dual parrallelism that demonstrates a beginning and an end. The force of nature still constitutes same direction in plausible opinion. To extricate the beginning from the end, a defining line is given to introduction and the measure is definitive in its model on expansion. The expandable process beginning with an end, is the common notion on design, in collaborative effort to demonstrate duality as a reason of truth. The systematic delivery in terms of ‘realism,’ is relativity nature. The expandable process foments the adaptation of new design at a commensible process. This term relates to relativity theory in the way of principle structure in design. As the term coagulates the super relativity, the delivery is succintly different and delivers an expansion in two worlds. The higher coordinates mask the intelligence of a new equillibrium. A higher design in the expandable process of equilibrium directs the line of synthesis in the constant equilibrium. An expanded principle lies in the manifolds equilibrium, as a constant relativity design. The manifolds is representative with dual arcs in a hypothesis frequency in which, the eleventh manifold is the state of coordinances in the super field relativity. This demonstrates a lack of correspondence in terms of logical assessment design.

  • Craig McGillivary

    I think that the fact that the universe doesn’t care about us is actually the good news. The bad news is that our society hasn’t learned how to deal with this fact in an honest way.

  • Alan

    Craig – If naturalism includes spiritual experiences, near-death experiences and physical/shared phenomena actually seen during such experiences then this form is acceptable (all these are active areas of research by scientists BTW). Otherwise not. But it is, you are correct, a question of honesty – and a little enlightenment!

  • David Galiel

    Brucem,

    “There is a problem with the words atheist and atheism. The -ist implies someone who actively does or believes in something. And the -ism implies a formal doctrine, a proper noun, something that’s existentially positive. The -ist in “atheist” allows religious people to more plausibly argue that “atheism is just another religion.””

    The problem, I find, is with missing the implied hyphen.

    Read correctly, the terms are a-theism and a-theist. “A-” as in “not” or “non-.

    Just as “non-white” is not a color, a-theism is not a faith statement about gods.

    As for the “just another religion”, that is a category error. Atheism is to theism as irreligion is to religion. I always point out that there are millions who follow atheistic religions, and millions of theists who belong to no religion, which takes care of that particular argument.

    We don’t stop using the term “evolution” just because creationists misinterpret it. We don’t stop calling the Higgs the Higgs just because sensationalists call it the “God Particle”.

    We shouldn’t cede control of language to those who seek to misuse it.

  • Jerrold Alpern

    Sean,

    Marvelous! How can I get a transcript?

    Thanks.

  • Tom Shanks

    But for a rationalist/naturalist/atheist your conclusions maybe arent so rational or natural or atheist! The problem is that the 21st Century doesnt appreciate that the religious and atheist positions are essentially equally ludicrous. You end your piece by saying” We can create lives very much worth living”. But in this view what defines “worth”? And if my definition disagrees with yours, does that matter? If the “universe doesn’t care” then where is the rationality in looking for something called “worth”?

  • timbebinder

    Well, here are my two cents: had you been speaking another language, I would have thought you were acting as the religious participant in this debate. This is because in no language does it take ten minutes to say “Leave this room, go out into the world, and explore for yourself.” That is all an honest man can say, and if you feel the need to add anything else then you are just another fucking preacher. No worries, though, because tomorrow is a new day. Good luck, dude.

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I’ve started posting my case for naturalism over at The Secular Outpost. I’d be most interested in your feedback on it:

    http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/06/index-evidential-arguments-for.html

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    Erosion control is a bad issue in many tropical environments. Tallgrass can assist.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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