Moving Naturalism Forward

By Sean Carroll | October 11, 2012 11:09 am

I’m very excited about a workshop I’ll be at later this month: Moving Naturalism Forward. By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.

Once you accept that we live in a self-contained universe governed by impersonal laws of nature, the hard work has just begun, as we are faced with a daunting list of challenges. The naturalist worldview comes into conflict with our “folk” understanding of human life in multiple ways, and we need to figure out what can be salvaged and what has to go. We’ve identified these particular issues for discussion:

  • Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
  • Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
  • Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
  • Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
  • Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
  • Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
  • Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
  • Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
  • Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

(Massimo Pigliucci has already started blogging about some of the questions we’ll be discussing.)

To hash all this out, we’re collecting a small, interdisciplinary group of people to share different perspectives and see whether we can’t agree on some central claims. We have an amazing collection of people — the only regret is that, because we wanted from the start to keep it very small, we had to leave out any number of other potential participants who would have been great to hear from.

We’re stashing ourselves in an out-of-the-way venue in western Massachusetts, and to facilitate conversations there will be no audience, only participants. But we are making an effort to record all the proceedings, and hope to put the videos online quickly. Hopefully this event will help spark a broader conversation (which is already ongoing, of course) about what it means to be a human being in a natural world.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Philosophy, Science, Top Posts
  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    wow! awesome company.

  • Tony

    Okay, there is a God, I have had the pleasure to meet, now that I have answered that question, I have one for you. Okay, now that I have had the opportunity to say that, I have a question, it may sound dumb, but it has to do with the passage of time. Has the passage of time been the same throughout the big bang and inflation and up to the present, or has it varied and does it vary in different areas of the universe, such as a river would going from its source to its ocean, with eddies, whirlpools, etc.?

  • Tony

    You forgot the Pope. He He.

  • Jonathan McDowell

    Sounds like a fabulous event and a great choice of participants! I look forward to your report…

  • Josh

    Geez, talk about a who’s who of outstanding rational thinkers. What makes these sorts of workshops interesting is the conversations, much more than, say, any one person’s speech. Please could we have video of at least a few of the conversations. I really would be surprised if this didn’t go right up there with the best TED talks in terms of general interest.

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

      Josh– It will be mostly conversations, not formal talks. All will be recorded and shared, or at least that’s the plan.

      Peter– I never really understood pantheism, or was convinced that it was a sensible stance, so I guess all I can say is “maybe.”

  • Peter Morgan

    In response to your “(I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist)”: perhaps it’s too much of a splitting of definitions, but cannot a Naturalist be a Pantheist? Does someone who declares themselves to be a Pantheist, with howsoever much delicacy about the details, preclude themselves from being accepted in the ranks of Naturalists?

  • http://www.iucaa.ernet.in/~jayanti/ jayanti

    I was cross-checking with my list of big questions to find how many of the questions from my list are being covered. I think few other issues which need attention are as follows:

    1. Why laws of nature/physics are always mathematical ? Why nature cares so much for mathematics ? Are laws of nature actually there or these are the constructs of our mind to make the navigation easier ?

    2. Living and non-living things all are made of the same stuff then why they are so different ? Is the difference between non-living and living things is qualitative or it is quantitative.

    3. Can we identify those abilities of human brain/mind which a computer will never be able to achieve ?

    4. How to know that science as we know and practice is the only way to know and understand the nature ?

  • David Lau

    can’t wait to see it on line, Sean. I know it’ll be a very interesting workshop. Gosh, I wish I can be there to see.

  • Doug Little

    Tony,

    Okay, there is a God, I have had the pleasure to meet, now that I have answered that question

    I met the Easter bunny the other day, he was hanging out with a Leprechaun named Paddy and a pink unicorn. Thor was there as well he told me to say hi.

  • http://sep.stanford.edu/sep/jon/ Jon Claerbout

    God? Her name is a four letter word. A four letter word beginning with F. She don’t like you, you’re in big trouble. In my 74 years she’s been good to me, but she’s given, then demolished, my most precious gift. Her name is Fate.

  • Tony

    Science will never be able to determine the existence of a Creator God, it simply doesn’t have the capability and never, never will. Try and put Wisdom under a microscope, or Love it cannot be done, because God is an entirely different being from anything that you can imagine. Try to imagine Love as a Being or Wisdom, that is, unconditional Love not the self serving kind found in nature, often better known as pride, or self preservation.

  • Daniel Whiteson

    Are these questions supposed to be scientific, or philosophical?

    If scientific, most of them seem unanswerable. Most obviously “why live?” which is not a scientific question (much like “should I have chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”). More subtlety, “why consciousness?” which cannot be probed by science, which assumes a conscious observer and cannot probe or observe the universe except through this observer (Dennet always makes this mistake in his books)

    If philosophical, it doesn’t seem quite honest to describe the Universe as naturalistic, since it clearly contains your consciousness, which has no scientific basis (see above) and very likely many others, all of which are very important to the questions you pose.

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    Sean, the list of participants is impressive, but I think you are missing a mathematician in there. Or someone knowledgeable in formal logic. This is relevant to the most of the topics you mentioned, IMO. To give you an idea of what I mean, here is my take on some of them:

    “Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?”

    Yes, a human brain is a complex system, probably exhibiting chaotic time-evolution (like weather, fire, etc.). So the Goedel’s first incompleteness theorem might come into play, saying that you need additional laws (additional to all laws of physics) to describe its behavior. Such a law may or may not exist. If it doesn’t exist, the behavior of the human brain is unpredictable beyond any power of laws of physics. That would be a reasonable point for the origin of free will. // Btw, one can use the same argument for the existence of God, there is no way to exclude that option. //

    “Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?”

    Experience tells us that Nature does not distinguish good and evil. Just look at the animal kingdom, where animal behavior is completely void of any concept of morality. So in a sense morality is a human construct. However, bar some geographic and historic fluctuations, roughly all humans share a same (or at least similar) set of moral laws. This kind of collective behavior suggests that there is either some external input of what is moral (religion, God, revelations…), or that moral behavior is emergent as evolutionary preffered behavior. Either way, it appears to be observationally objective, with some error bars. :-)

    “Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?”

    I think that religion is the only discipline which can give a satisfactory answer to this question. I am looking forward to hear what will a group of naturalists be able to come up with, regarding this topic.

    “Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?”

    I don’t quite understand this question, so no comment.

    “Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?”

    It isn’t. Again, the Goedel’s incompleteness theorem is the main reference — there is a difference between truth and provability. Science can discover things that are reproducible by experiment, and describable by a finite set of axioms. Everything else (and according to Goedel, the “else” must always exist) is beyond science. Adding new axioms to science (i.e. formulating new laws of nature) cannot fundamentally help, since the number of axioms we have will always be finite, and therefore incomplete. In other words, a “theory of everything” cannot exist. What can (and does) exist is the “theory of everything so far”, but that is (and always will be) incomplete. There will always be knowledge not encompassed by science.

    “Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?”

    This is related to determinism (below). As you also noted, the combination of chaos theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggests that complex systems cannot be understood by studying the basic constituents. Consequently, the complex systems behave according to their own laws of nature, or in the absence of those, they have a form of “free will”.

    “Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?”

    Again, chaotic systems, coupled to Goedel’s unprovable-but-true statements, open the door for the concept of consciousness to be a qualitatively new phenomenon, not describable by laws of physics, regardless of the fact that every elementary particle in the human brain obeys those laws. Similar to the free will question, the God question, the consciousness question, etc.

    “Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?”

    I don’t quite understand this question either.

    “Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?”

    Determinism is dead, it is experimentally falsifiable and falsified. Both in the small-scale realm (quantum mechanics) and in the everyday-scale realm (chaos theory). It is just a matter of time, and a matter of people sticking to old habits, before this is universally accepted. Just like some people still have trouble accepting the lack of local realism, despite the experimental violation of Bell’s inequalities. Similarly, the lifetime of the concept of determinism is governed only by inertia of people’s prejudices from early youth&education.

    Also, the lack of determinism in Nature does matter, a lot. It opens the door to all the stuff from above — free will, consciousness, existence of God, non-scientific knowledge, etc.

    But the bottom line is that you are lacking a participant who can teach the others about the conceptual consequences of Goedel’s incompleteness theorems (both of them), and the limits they place on the scientific method of obtaining knowledge.

  • tim Rowledge

    “Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?”

    I posit that natural selection lead evolution can and perhaps must happen when you have the following (and I happily accept there may be more conditions or avenues)
    - a system where entities are produced by some form of copying of information
    - the copying may be imperfect
    - imperfect copies do not necessarily cause complete failure
    - entities compete for some resource involved in their continued existence

    I *think* that covers genetic programming systems running on your PC and human reproduction and maybe even evolution of galaxies by crashing and merging. But I’ve been wrong before.

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    @ jayanti (8):

    “1. Why laws of nature/physics are always mathematical ? Why nature cares so much for mathematics ? Are laws of nature actually there or these are the constructs of our mind to make the navigation easier ?”

    Mathematics is the construct of our minds, to make navigation easier, as you say. This is rather obvious, given that one needs to invent a whole new language of mathematics at every step when passing from Newtonian mechanics to general relativity to quantum mechanics to quantum field theory to (ultimately) quantum gravity. We always invent new math, in order to describe a new theory and experimental data. This is by design, there is nothing mysterious about the successfulness of math applied to laws of nature.

    “3. Can we identify those abilities of human brain/mind which a computer will never be able to achieve ?”

    Sure, some of them have been already identified: Goedel’s theorems are an example — an algorithmic process can never formulate such statements (but can prove them, if someone else formulates them). For an extensive discussion of this, read the book “Emperor’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose. The bottomline is that human brain is not an algorithmic machine, so the AI can never have the equivalent level of insight into knowledge. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the human brain cannot be simulated by a machine — the hardware that makes up the human brain is not the only possible hardware that can implement its functioning processes. The brain simulator would work as well (and also as bad) as a human brain. But it’s behavior would not be algorithmic.

    4. How to know that science as we know and practice is the only way to know and understand the nature?

    Actually, we know that science is not the only way to know and understand the nature. Read up on Goedel’s first and second incompleteness theorems for more info on this. Science can only describe effects that are experimentally reproducible, and those are not the only ones in nature.

  • Tony

    What is Truth, what is Wisdom, what is Unconditional Love, know these and you will know God. Possess these and you will possess God and I think many of you do.

  • Gizelle Janine

    Well I’m a pagan so odds are my thoughts on this talk wont matter. I have something to properly convince you in some way or another that time just causes problems.

    Time Lord worthy stuff, backed up by science for sure…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXcl38zbqmw

    I support naturalists like I tolerate republicans: Cant live with ‘em, cant live without ‘em. :D

    Sean: Have you been to The End of Time? *giggles*

    Space rules. Time drools. <3

  • Zerub

    Thank you! Greatly enjoyed all the videos on the Time conference by FQXi. Can’t wait to see these too.

  • http://www.iucaa.ernet.in/~jayanti/ jayanti

    @ vmarko: thanks I read your post and it was very clear and straightful ! Your answers to my questions are also very insightfull ! Thanks for that.

  • Mitchell Porter

    The “problem of consciousness” is severe and multifaceted enough to demonstrate that the true ontology of the world must be something very different from the way that physicists envision it. The part of physics that will survive is the quantitative part, not the confused hybrid concepts currently used to explain its qualitative implications. But a congress of vixra crackpots would be more likely to have a good new idea about this problem (along with 99 bad ideas), than this august gathering, for whom the qualitative picture of the world, “naturalism”, is the apriori conception to which everything else must fit.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Really interesting list of topics, and I mean that sincerely.

    Trouble is, none of them currently have definite answers, and some of them can’t, even in principle.

    This is why philosophy drives me batty. It’s the ultimate tease.

  • David Lau

    Yes, science cannot determine on the existence of God. It is not designed to be that way. However, science can point to the fact that we do not need a God to be where we are. What makes reading the Bible to show the existence of God? Religion cannot prove the existence of God as much as science cannot prove His non-existence.

  • Mr. Anthony

    I’m a naturalist through and through.

    I don’t understand the ‘daunting list of challenges’. Call me a scientistic technocrat, but I think that once we’ve got the united-federation of planets up and running and people are free to contribute to art, science, and technology without having to worry about day-to-day survival or finances all those so-called ‘challenges’ are just mental masturbation.

    The meaning of it all is clear to me: have fun celebrating life and exploring for the pure curiosity and wonder of it all. Why does there have to be more? When it comes to the big ethical decisions we just have to accept that we get to decide, so let’s pick something nice.

  • http://mostlyphysics.wordpress.com Toma Susi

    You’re going to discuss naturalistic approaches to morality without Sam Harris?

  • Eileen

    Mr. Anthony has it nailed — have fun celebrating life and exploring for the pure curiosity and wonder of it all.

    Maybe Buddha had it figured out 2500 years ago. Stuff comes at us. Reactions happen. Intelligent minds study reactions. Compare to personal intentions for contentment and kindness. Factor in skillful behaviors (perhaps morality, or whatever). Adjust behaviors to meet intentions for contentment through mindfulness of what is happening just now. Maybe find a deeper power in universal connections.

    Have fun, and find joy in all of it. It goes away soon enough.

  • Erik

    I wonder what that group of people thinks about this effort: http://www.churchofreality.org/

  • martenvandijk

    I am very curious to know the results.

  • Ben

    I notice the meeting is gathering almost only US-based people, apart from Ross and Dawkins, who are still native english-speakers. A genuine question: is that just by chance, or does it rather reveal something about the interest of, e.g., french and german physicists, biologists, anthropologists, philosophers, etc. about these questions?

  • Brett

    It’s interesting because all of those topics are both yes and no. Freewill for instance. It depends on the level of superposition you’re considering. You’re hungry and you need food or you’ll die. You’re going to eat. What you choose to eat after years of hormonal conditioning is your choice. The less intelligent(could be read “experienced”) a person is (either by age or ignorance), the more likely they are to eat whatever is closest and easiest. A smarter person will wait and weigh their choices, looking for a healthy option or something that will at least taste really good if it’s not healthy; something that will satisfy the alert signals either way. So within all equations, the end result is the same. The only choice is how you get to that end result and what/if there is a remainder at the end of that PDE.

    The same thing goes for morality. We don’t allow killing and rape in our societies(most of them) because we don’t want the possibility of something like that happening to us to exist. Our morals exist because we possess the ability to conceptualize what it would feel like to be stabbed or shot, even if we’ve never been stabbed or shot before. The thought process would go something like “I’ve had a paper cut before and that hurt like hell, so I can only imagine how badge a 5 inch deep paper cut would be with something made out of metal”. The way we experience nature as a civilization is based on the way we experience it personally. It just so happens that we are all pretty similar within a certain set of limits.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “Sure, some of them have been already identified: Goedel’s theorems are an example — an algorithmic process can never formulate such statements (but can prove them, if someone else formulates them). For an extensive discussion of this, read the book “Emperor’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose. The bottomline is that human brain is not an algorithmic machine, so the AI can never have the equivalent level of insight into knowledge.”

    I can make the same statements about Penrose as Penrose can make about a hypothetical machine. Does that prove that I am as far beyond Penrose as Penrose is beyond the machine? If not, why not?

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “We don’t allow killing and rape in our societies(most of them) because we don’t want the possibility of something like that happening to us to exist. Our morals exist because we possess the ability to conceptualize what it would feel like to be stabbed or shot, even if we’ve never been stabbed or shot before. The thought process would go something like “I’ve had a paper cut before and that hurt like hell, so I can only imagine how badge a 5 inch deep paper cut would be with something made out of metal”. “

    Cue debate on (male and female) circumcision.

  • Mr. Anthony

    Erik, re: Church of Reality

    I’ve been to the site and posted on the forums. I wrote it off as a failed attempt to create a cult for the personal satisfaction of the founder.

    Try humanism. It might not be sexy, but we can change that.

  • martenvandijk

    ”Moving Supernaturalism Backward” will give you a broader public.

  • Tony Mach

    I really don’t understand what is wrong with Materialism, and why you instead choose to opt for the Naturalism name. Maybe you discussed it earlier, or some place else, but to me “Naturalism” seems to take up the Materialism vs. Idealism discussion, which we already had some 150 years ago. To not acknowledge that (and not to recap what was wrong, not acknowledge what was right, and not to see what we learned from that discussion!) is either a massive error of oversight. Or else it reeks of intentional dissociation with the Materialistic movement, possibly because its association with Karl Marx and Communism. And frankly either one of which would not be good sign as to the prospects of the “Naturalistic enterprise”, so I hope I’m wrong.

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

    Sean, this is great. It will help get worldview naturalism out there as a successor to atheism among secularists, something that can really compete with supernaturalisms for those in the market for a positive worldview (not everyone is). Except for emergence and evolution, I think most of the questions on the agenda are touched on in “Systematizing Naturalism: Answering Life’s Vital Questions” at http://www.naturalism.org/systematizing_naturalism.htm and the various articles linked there.

    What isn’t on the agenda are the possible political and policy ramifications of a naturalistic orientation. It’s no coincidence that those who take science seriously end up more progressive than not, given the naturalistic challenge to libertarian free will, http://www.naturalism.org/progressivepolitics.htm and to traditional, non-empirical justifications for discrimination, http://www.naturalism.org/enlightenment1.htm#empiricism

  • Brett

    Even consciousness is tied in with the principle of superposition. It could be explained like a computer and the various levels of programming that go with it. 1(s) and o(s) of simple binary information exchange are positive and negative phases. A (rather large) group of binary information exchanges occurs with each particle interaction, analogous to C+ programming code (I think; it’s been a while since 10th grade computer science). A group of particles interacting results in a chemical interaction(I know I’m sacrificing details; it’s a blog). A hormonal interaction/exchange is the result of groups of chemical interactions… The code becomes more complex until it reaches the level of human consciousness. Consciousness seems mystical because we’re not that good with it yet; we have trouble believing that there’s really much more to it because our thoughts seem so much less complex than the mechanisms that give rise to them, but it’s hard to control code that complex without fully understanding it and considering the very short period of time that these information exchanges take place in order to produce our consciousness. Consider that if you’re dehydrated, you make some pretty stupid mistakes. If you’re missing a vitamin as simple and manganese, you make stupid neurological mistakes. Chaos theory and the principles of superposition really do permeate all of nature. Consciousness and the process of making a decision are the result of decoherence in an integrated quantum system.

    This video explains it all: http://eeuauaughhhuauaahh.ytmnd.com/

  • http://urbanastro.org Justin

    Are free will and consciousness not connected? The inanimate particle will obey the laws of physics in a box of gas, the most likely scenario is that the a cloud of gas will be equally distributed throughout the box as the particles bounce about every which way. But a particle is unlikely to be headed in a given direction and suddenly “change its mind” and alter course.

    However, what if you put 10 people in a room? Let’s say 5 know each other and 5 are strangers to everyone else. And just for fun, let’s say they are in microgravity so they really could be evenly distributed (as opposed to being stuck to the ground due to gravity). The 5 who know each other might try to hang close to each other. Maybe one had a bad day and wants to be alone. Will the strangers find unity because they are all in the same situation and form a secondary clump? Will one who is more outgoing go to the familiar group and introduce him/herself? What guides their “choices”? Where does one’s extroverted/introverted personality come from and what guides it?

  • Brett

    just my 2 cents, since my day is apparently boring.

    I think there are plenty of animals (including humans) who are conscious but lack free will. That’s not to say that every animal lacks free will, but that it is a special trait that not all systems possess. You aren’t born with free will. You are born “with consciousness”. Babies eat, poop, and sleep. They aren’t able to choose when or where they do any of those fundamental things which keep them alive, yet later on in life we are able to control them. Free will stems from analysis. As a human’s ability to analyze increases over time, then their ability to choose becomes greater. The decision to be introverted or extroverted also stems from the ability to analyze a system. And as most people joke, when your ability to analyze decreases with age and your body starts to break down, you start loosing the ability to choose when you eat, poop, and sleep. The ability to choose whether or not to omit yourself or include yourself in a social situation is also lost or gained depending on the integrity of the hormonal computer system that we call our bodies and brains.

  • collins

    Lots of Relativism in those issues of discussion for how to move Naturalism forward (“are there objective standards for right and wrong?”).

    Here’s a sobering reminder of pitfalls in the service of the “greater good”- the medical profession in Nazi Germany was widely involved in a host of what we would consider horrific abuses- however-
    “The German physicians believed they were behaving morally and following the dictates of the Hippocratic Oath by transforming the doctor-patient relationship into a new relationship in which the state became the doctor and the German people became the ‘patient,’ or the volk,” said Sheldon Rubenfeld, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the Center for Medicine After the Holocaust, in Houston, in an e-mail. Thus, by this reasoning, German physicians rationalized eugenic sterilization, euthanasia, and, ultimately, elimination of Jewish, black, homosexual, Roma, and other “genetically inferior” individuals as treatment of their “patient,” the volk, said Rubenfeld. Another rationale for their actions resonated among the public. “The economic advantages of eliminating expensive utilizers of health care resources were also widely touted and readily accepted by a receptive citizenry during a worldwide depression,” he said.
    http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1346175

  • Tony

    Why does mankind continue to hate, steal, kill, lust, be jealous, be filled with pride=self love, meaning to judge another according to his or her standards. Even in the age of the star ship Enterprise and Captain Kirk, war was a constant, not to mention bald heads, okay so I did. What is it in human nature that fails, or is this okay, just mankind’s natural bent and if not, what is it within us that tells us that somehow it is wrong or improper behavior. In nature it’s the survival of the fittest, is this what we should accept as normal, and if not what tells us otherwise.

  • Tony

    Also what is concience, not just self awareness, but the voice inside us that tells us what is right or wrong, where did it come from?

  • Eric Habegger

    When all else fails to move naturalism forward then add more cowbell.

  • AI

    Here let me help you:

    > Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
    there is no free will, it is however sensible to say people make choices even if those choices are not free in any sense just as it is sensible to say that a computer program produced a particular output

    > Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
    utility, improving the fitness of a population

    > Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
    life has no meaning or purpose

    > Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
    no

    > Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
    more or less yes, depending on how we define true knowledge it might also be deduced from existing knowledge

    > Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
    reductionism provides the only practical path

    > Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
    illusion produced by the brain

    Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
    yes, can be whether that would be useful is another matter

    Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?
    certainly at least somewhat determined, my bet would be completely determined

  • timbebinder

    Also, where’s the beef?

  • http://rohitakulkarni.wordpress.com/ Rohit Kulkarni

    The best thing is to be able to watch the conversations online. It is just not possible to miss this. Eagerly looking forward to it. Poor graduate students cannot afford to attend these on a short notice !! :(

  • Mitchell Porter

    Commenter “AI” describes consciousness as “illusion produced by the brain”.

    You do know that an illusion is itself normally understood to be a type of conscious experience, right? A dream or a hallucination is still an instance of consciousness, it’s just deluded consciousness.

    So “explaining” consciousness as an illusion can mean one of two things. Either your thesis is that consciousness is *always* deluded in some important way, or it is that consciousness *does not exist*.

    If the meaning is that all consciousness is a delusion – well, you still haven’t explained consciousness per se, you’ve just made an unusual generalization about it. And perhaps you could be more specific about *what* the ubiquitous alleged illusion is – the aspect of conscious experience that is always present and always wrong.

    If the meaning is that consciousness does not exist – it’s sort of charming to see someone struggle to express an idea that preposterous. “Consciousness is an illusion! It’s just an appearance, or it would be if there were appearances, which there aren’t. It’s just an appearance of an appearance… I mean, it’s a non-appearance… I struggle to express my concept, which in its sophistication exceeds what can be said in ordinary language…”

    Or perhaps by consciousness you mean something more specific than “experience in all its forms”. Or perhaps you just don’t know what you’re talking about. There seem to be a lot of people out there who have some conceptual facility with physics or computer science, who have constructed a private model of the world in which it’s all physics or all computation, but who are mostly oblivious of the constructedness of their model.

    I can’t resist stating my point with a silly modification of John 8:58 – “Before atoms and bits were, I am.” I’m not asserting an ontological primacy of consciousness over matter, as in metaphysical idealism; this is a phenomenological statement. Before a person learns to interpret the world as physics and computation, they nonetheless exist, life is happening to them, and they have some other “understanding” of it.

    The simplest naturalism about consciousness is that which is oblivious to its own subjectivity, which simply interprets all external phenomena, including other people, as atoms and bits, but which remains in itself a being that thinks and wills, and doesn’t wonder how to understand itself in such terms. It’s a sort of unconscious ontological imperialism; the scientific ego doesn’t directly control the universe, but it “controls” the universe conceptually, in the sense that the universe has been reduced to concepts which the scientific ego originates and understands, and there is a type of power-gratification involved in this. (By the way, I’m not against the pursuit of personal empowerment; but a sense of power can blind you to the truth.)

    But there may be a dawning of self-awareness, in which the scientific ego notices its own specific consciousness as the mysterious “place” where all this conceptualizing occurs and from which it originates. There are several paths from this point.

    There may simply be a rejection of the old ideas, in favor of mysticism, relativism, or subjectivism; the attachment to the naturalistic construct is abandoned, not in favor of a detailed new construct, but rather to enjoy the feeling of freedom associated with not having definite beliefs and regarding oneself consciously as a co-creator of reality.

    There may be a doubling-down on naturalism. The commenter above, “AI”, might be one of these people. Here we can distinguish between “compatibilist” and “eliminativist” approaches to the problem of *one’s own* consciousness. The compatibilists acknowledge that subjectivity is a “thing”, that consciousness has a “feel”, but they will say that’s just how being a computation “feels from the inside”. The eliminativists will say consciousness has no causal power (epiphenomenalism), or simply does not exist.

    The open espousal of eliminativism is never very popular. Most naturalists are compatibilists, in the broad sense above – not just about “will” (personal agency, the idea that persons do have causal power), but about most of the basic subjective phenomena. Yes, they will say, I do have color experiences, but that’s just how it “feels” to have your neurons classify stimuli.

    This naturalistic compatibilism is a dualism that (usually) does not know itself to be a dualism. It’s property dualism: along with the physical properties, brains have the property of “what it’s like to be that brain”. Also, along with being dualistic, this naturalism is also hopelessly vague about the subjective feels, it doesn’t describe them or think about them with any precision.

    A third path, which I espouse, is new metaphysics, consistent with phenomenology *and* with physics. But it’s not easy, it doesn’t seem to be consistent with either a standard view of physical ontology, or with a standard view of the brain as a classical computer, in which all the events important for consciousness would have to be internal state-changes of trillions of physically isolated subsystems. The subjective unity of consciousness has to correspond to an objective ontological unity at some level. And this is why the crackpots, and the distinguished scientists who go rogue and indulge their weird personal ideas, are more likely to be the source of a genuine explanation of consciousness; because “naturalism” is being pursued with an apriori ontology which can only lead to compatibilist dualism or eliminativism.

  • David Lau

    Free will: We are not exactly free given the fact that we are bounded by the laws of nature. Although we have the seemingly power to make choices, good or bad, but they are not exactly free either. The choices we make have to fit our legal system and most of the time we have to conform to the society in whatever we choose to do. I do not believe any living things have complete free will. Mother Nature is in control of everything and we all have to conform to it. That does not require a God either. Just the natural laws of science having the complete free will.
    Morality: Right vs wrong are prescriptive. What were right long ago are now wrong, and what were wrong are now right. These laws are constantly being revised and they are not consistent as natural laws of science which is descriptive. To distinguish between right and wrong is based on instinct. There are some fundamental moral standards that humans came to realize without needing a God to set the rules. It was purely basic instinct at the very beginning and now they got so convoluted with all of the prescriptions written.
    Meaning: Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
    In a day to day living in this society, we can answer this question quite easily. We would say the purpose is to contribute to the society and make the world a better place to live for the next generation. If you are a decent parent, you will certainly agree with me on this. But if we look at it from the multiverse point of view, our universe spun out among billions of other universes, and all the right conditions suitable for life is inevitable. It bounds to happen. Life in the universe is not as uncommon as we think. Given that the life span of human is very short compare to the age of the universe, we are very insignificant within this universe, let alone among many other billions and billions of universes out there. I do not find true meaning in human existence except to survive the best we can given the short life span that we have. We continue to find ways and do whatever it takes to fulfill our urges. That’s life as I see it from the natural point of view.
    Epistemology: Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
    Science has come a long way. Two thousand years ago we would revolve around with mostly supernatural explanations. Nowadays with the development of cutting edge science, we would dance much less with them, and focus more on rational explanations before jumping into conclusions about the supernatural. Another two thousand years from now, we would do only less with the supernatural and more with the scientific routes. As time progresses, science will be able to discover more about the unknown. I do agree that science will never be able to answer everything and there will always be some unknown, but it is the best tool we have for discovering true knowledge. Science is much more reliable compare to fortune telling, Tarot cards, palm reading, claims from clairvoyants, exorcisms performances, ghost hunting reports, etc.
    Evolution: Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
    It is no doubt in my mind that evolution had taken place given all the substantial evidence that we gathered over the last hundreds of years. While the theory is on solid ground, it doesn’t explain everything that we know of. But it is far better than resorting it to some Higher Intellect Design which there is absolutely no basis of whatsoever. Evolution might just be an inner mechanism within a much bigger and more general system which science will eventually come to understand it. In two thousand years when we have this conversation again, we will certainly have a much better understanding of how the evolution process really works, and we would definitely be even more distant from the “God Hypothesis”.
    Determinism: To what extent is the future determined given the quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?
    I believe things happen for apparently no reasons and are in random. This is not the same for causation, of course. If we practice enough on certain things that we do, we get better at it and the chance of it happening gets higher. An example of this fact is speeding. If we do this constantly, then eventually we will get caught, not because of some bad karma falling on us. There are no rational explanations for freak accidents, uncontrollable terminal illnesses, natural born defects, etc, except we would say its bad luck. We cannot determine with 100% certainty in everything that we do. That’s why we take risks, and hoping things will turn out ok at the end. I do not believe in fate. We do have the power to make choices including risk taking and try to make things work out for us. We have the power to change gears in our lives, and not knowing if we would succeed in the end given all the factors and variables facing us in this ever increasing complex world. Will science someday be able to offer 100% certainty on everything? I claim not. Uncertainty is one of the traits of Mother Nature. We will never be able to defeat that. However, with the continual development of science, we will be able to uncover some parts of the uncertainty. As to why we are here to live and why there is something rather than nothing, I don’t think science can ever answer those questions satisfactorily. It just happens and that’s the way it is. If we ever resort the answer to a “God”, then why is He around and where did He come from? If we can’t answer that question, then what good is it to have that as the answer to everything?

  • Olin

    Sean, you’re forgetting about Spinoza! (But, of course, no one else thought he was a theist…)

  • martenvandijk

    Determinismcontingency.

  • Alan

    Does the “naturalistic” view excise meaning from life? Isn’t such meaning an illusion if you take naturalism to it’s logical conclusion? Yet we “feel” meaning. Illusion too?
    I’d argue for something beyond the physical – a soul, spirit or whatever to account for this. It’s a pity there aren’t a couple of academic panellists at this workshop who could present this viewpoint.

  • AI

    @Mitchell Porter:

    Consciousness is an illusion produced by the brain in the same sense that color is an illusion produced by the brain, there is no such thing as an objective color red it is just an internal representation of a certain portion of EM spectrum, what I see as red you could see as what I call blue and we would never know. But it’s not true that color doesn’t exist, it is an abstract internal representation of a certain property of the underlying reality (and it is extracted from it by real biophysical process).

    In the similar sense consciousness is just an internal abstract representation produced by the brain of the underlying decision process of the brain (a complex biophysical process that is real). This representation is needed for self reference – future decisions need to be informed by prior ones so there is a need to represent and memorize them somehow. An “internal voice” turned out to be a good way to do so perhaps because it can take advantage of the same facilities used for remembering other voices.

    So to drive this point home, if you wrote a computer program that constantly evaluated it’s inputs and produced decisions based on them and among it’s inputs were abstract representations of it’s past decisions this program would be conscious in the same sense that humans are conscious. Of course this simple consciousness wouldn’t have the form of an “internal voice” but it would still be there and have some form, talking about what form that would be is pointless in the same way as trying to describe how one experiences red color. They are internal representations which only make sense internally and there is no language that would allow us to express them in an objective way that would make sense externally.

    Of course it doesn’t solve all the problems, the main puzzle that remains is how does the brain transform the underlying biophysical processes into the rich internal world, how does it translate one wavelength into “blue” and another into “red,” could we make us experience another completely new color just by rewiring neurons? And so on.

  • Christian Takacs

    @Sean Carroll
    “Once you accept that we live in a self-contained universe governed by impersonal laws of nature, the hard work has just begun, as we are faced with a daunting list of challenges. The naturalist worldview comes into conflict with our “folk” understanding of human life in multiple ways, and we need to figure out what can be salvaged and what has to go”
    ‘Once I accept…’??!? No, I don’t think so. (damn, it’s that pesky free will thing again!!)
    “………we need to figure out what can be salvaged and what has to go”
    Who is this ‘We’ who will be determining what ‘can be salvaged and what has to go’ mein Herr Professor Doktor ? (damn, now my free will keeps repeating Achtung! Achtung!)
    You do realize you are not acting like a scientist or a physicist anymore don’t you Sean? You have philosophically crossed a line into something else entirely…into a kind of advocacy the world has unfortunately seen many times before…and you are following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Marx, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, all of whom had such fine intentions how to help the rest of lowly humanity with our little ‘folk’ understanding problems. Once again I say, No, no thank you.
    The market of ideas is not for you and your elite like minded to determine, dictate, prune, or control, it’s for ‘folks’ to look upon and decide for themselves as they excercise the very free will you are attempting to dissect in your impersonal ‘naturalist’ workshop (reductio ad absurdum 101).

    I do hope you will take a step back and reconsider the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of YOUR choices and ideas. The fact that you have them to consider answers the question of their existence and relevence whether or not you understand their operation.

    P.S. “Moving Naturalism Forward” sounds like communist/socialist/marxist agitprop. “Forward” appears in enough collectivist literature as to be considered a ‘buzzword’ and is a bad choice of wording for either a physicist, a president, or other down-low fellow travellers.

  • https://twitter.com/TonySidaway Tony Sidaway

    Christian Takacs thank you so much for your fine example of Argumentum ad Hitlerum.

    Are you serious, or have I been Poed?

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/102948797489911917810/posts William Summer

    Christian Takacs, it is people like Dr. Carroll and the “elite like minded” to drag humanity kicking and screaming out of the cave and have us see reality. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave

  • David Lau

    Sean, ignore the above comments. “Moving Naturalism Forward” is going to be a great workshop. It is far better than any organized religion which are cults.

  • Christian Takacs

    @ Tony Sidaway,
    Mentioning Hitler in an argument does not make it Argumentum ad Hitlerum, especially when the comparison is warranted. My father’s family was on the receiving end of Hitler’s fine reform efforts to educate what he considered ‘wrongful thinking’ and sadly many did not survive his…instruction, those that lived were given a refresher course by the Russian communists, so I am not amused when someone who has decided they know so much better than me decides he is going to school me in ‘correct thinking’. If one doesn’t want to be compared to a Nazi socialist, perhaps one shouldn’t use the language of a Nazi socialist, Vorwarts! Vorwarts! be damned. You might want to read up on other socialist/marxist campaign slogans as well and see if you recognize a trend. Google ‘forwards in politics’ if you are too lazy to research.

    Snide comment aside, did you read anything in my argument besides the name ‘Hitler’? Sean Carroll’s list of topics for his workshop is directed at the specific purpose of promoting an agenda, he even says “we need to figure out what can be salvaged and what has to go” To what end? When a cosmic nihilist fingers the topics of free will, meaning, and morality, it doesn’t take a Phd graduate to figure out where they are going with it or what conclusion they have already drawn.
    It’s pretty clear Mr. Carroll enjoys knocking on other people’s belief systems while he smugly hides behind his own ‘naturalist worldview’ epistemology that depends upon a very supernatural duality of mathematical platonism to function as the framework from which he hangs his empiricism. In short, Carroll hides the supernatural aspects or axioms of his own belief system (the essentially platonistic belief that math is the pure source or ‘essense’ of reality) while aggressively attacking others for their differing unhidden supernatural axioms of belief.

  • David H.

    I have a feeling that this conference would have profited from people who have less of an axe to grind. No doubt they are a smart group, and they will find stuff to disagree about, but I have a feeling this might turn into a retreat of the preachers and choir – with inevitable results. If I put my worry more concretely, it would be this: You’ve picked a group of naturalists who agree too much about what counts as “moving forward”! If you were looking for genuine alternatives, you might have considered inviting atheists like Alain de Botton.

  • Christian Takacs

    @William,
    Oh yes, please, lets look at the allegory of the cave. Platonistic philosophy is the belief that a supernatural/spiritual or otherworldly reality that is somehow ideal/divine is the source and inspiration of all that happens in this reality. My dear Glaucon, Why on earth would you use this allegory as your argument when it makes my point and demolishes yours? If you believe to drag humanity kicking and screaming out of a cave to force them into seeing your point of view is enlightening imagery, please try very hard to imagine what they might do to you in return for this act? Forcing what you think is true on other people is not a persuasive argument, or even a valid argument, it is called Argumentum ad baculum, and it ALWAYS ends badly.

  • Christian Takacs

    @David Lau,
    Nothing wrong with showing your support, but you might consider reading up on the definition of organized religion and cults. They can intersect, but they aren’t the same thing. Also be aware that Sean belongs to an organized belief system too, and he most likely would not appreciate it being called a cult.

  • pah

    Christian Takacs , how is your argument different from saying “anyone who disagrees with me is a Nazi” ?

    Also, I don’t see how anything is being forced on you. A bunch of people are getting together to discuss a bunch of stuff. That’s it. There are no repercussions for you, so I don’t understand why you are so upset.

  • James Gallagher

    @AI #52

    Nice try :-)

    It’s a good attempt at “explaining” consciousness since we certainly don’t appear to be conscious as embryos or very young babies. It seems like a significant amount of mental representation of the world must be constructed in our neural machinery before we begin to experience consciousness.

    However, a computer program is a determinisitic algorithm, and Bell theorems show that the universe isn’t (unless it is superdeterministic or nonlocal).

    Also, in addition to this very strong counter evidence, you have to admit that it is a very depressing view of Nature. So combined with the good evidence that Nature is nondeterministic and the hope that existence isn’t meaningless, I believe consciousness requires more than deterministic self-reference.

  • Rupaul

    Theist here, but with strong naturalist sympathies, for what it’s worth. Thanks for planning to put these out on the web.

    I would like to second the thought that a wider variety of non-theist thinkers should be included. I’d have suggested more humanists (besides philosophers).

  • http://www.alteraeon.com Dennis Towne

    Big list, but a fairly uninteresting one from my standpoint, in that most of the answers to these questions are obvious. The fact that they’re being debated at all tells me that this is going to be more about philosophy and people who don’t want to give up their personal beliefs than actually looking to the evidence the universe has given us.

    TL/DR summary: five no, one yes, one maybe, and two unknown

    Free Will: No

    Morality: Evolution/No

    Meaning: Evolution/No

    Purpose: No

    Epistemology: No, because ‘true knowledge’ is ill defined

    Emergence: It depends, this question is poorly worded

    Consciousness: Good question. We won’t know without more research

    Evolution: Yes, and poorly worded question

    Determinism: Good question. It probably matters

    The long answers:

    Free will – Us humans like to act as though we have free will, but in reality we don’t. It’s an illusion. But just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean we should act as though we don’t have any.

    Morality – The origin of right and wrong is that we happened to evolve in/with an environment where adherence to certain social norms called ‘morals’ improved reproduction rate for those individuals who did so. There are no objective morals. At all.

    Meaning – I live because my atoms and molecules happen to be arranged in a way that makes me want to live. There is no overarching meaning to be found in human existence.

    Purpose – No. Teleological concepts play no useful role in our description of natural phenomena. Nature was not designed.

    Epistemology – Science isn’t unique as a method for discovering knowledge. Other mechanisms, such as logic, can produce information without any need for our physical universe, for example in the cases of abstract mathematical systems. For discovering knowledge about our universe, there are many methods. However, science is far and away the most effective one that we’ve found. Ever.

    Emergence – Reductionism ultimately provides the best description of complex systems, but other levels of description may be more tractable, usable, and useful. Other levels do not have autonomous existence, as they are derivable from the lowest level description by using the appropriate approximations.

    Consciousness – How consciousness arises from the collective behavior of inanimate matter is currently an open question. We do not know exactly how, but we do know that nothing more than the particles and forces present in our universe are required.

    Evolution – This question is too ill-defined to be meaningful as stated. Natural selection is already used in a number of non-biological areas. Subsuming it into a more general theory of complex systems seems to me nothing more than word play, as natural selection as a general process is a simple and well understood operation. It’s like asking if addition could be subsumed into a more general theory of complex systems.

    Determinism – This question is probably worth asking, as we do not know, and if we could get a solid answer, it would explain a lot about how the universe works. For short term human existence, no, it doesn’t matter.

  • David Lau

    Sean knows very well that I am not calling his belief system a cult. I am simply referring to organized religion. So not to worry. This is to comment #60.

  • collins

    “Hopefully this event will help spark a broader conversation (which is already ongoing, of course) about what it means to be a human being in a natural world.”

    Most truly religious people (ie, not using religion to justify violence) accept the saying “God answers all prayers; sometimes the answer is No.” Even if you look at the extreme example of today’s radical Islam/fascism, it’s clear that this is a political choice, not a religious one- made by male youths in repressive societies without education, jobs or social contact with young women. The Chinese govt worries about maintaining job growth for this demographic, otherwise they riot- and it’s got nothing to do with religion.
    You think humans will behave differently in a “natural” world, compared to the present than one with the occasional “supernatural” event? On what basis?

  • Faris Copper

    @Pah 61
    He’s pretending to be upset because he’s an idiot troll. That’s why

  • Warren

    Would like to see more women represented. 5 to 12 doesn’t seem appropriate for the noble goals of this meeting. Also perhaps someone a little less white may also help. Some suggestions for women: Ophelia Benson, Jennifer Ouellette, Natalie Angiers, Carolyn Porco, Leslie Cannold, Naomi Oreskes, Amanda Pustilnik. Nonwhite: Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, VS Ramachandran, Jim Al-Khalili, Alom Shaha, Shirley Ann Jackson, Betty Harris, Nagendra Kumar Singh. I raise this as one extremely convinced of the necessity for this conference and excited by the prospect of downloading the footage when it becomes available.

  • Giovanni Vincenti

    I think you made the group of atheists very very small with your definitions of naturalists and atheists, Aren’t naturalists natural atheists too?

  • Mitchell Porter

    AI #52 says

    “Consciousness is an illusion produced by the brain in the same sense that color is an illusion produced by the brain, there is no such thing as an objective color red it is just an internal representation of a certain portion of EM spectrum, what I see as red you could see as what I call blue and we would never know. But it’s not true that color doesn’t exist, it is an abstract internal representation of a certain property of the underlying reality (and it is extracted from it by real biophysical process).”

    The colors we see may be internal to consciousness, but they are anything but “abstract”. Perhaps you touch on this in your conclusion:

    “the main puzzle that remains is how does the brain transform the underlying biophysical processes into the rich internal world, how does it translate one wavelength into “blue” and another into “red,” could we make us experience another completely new color just by rewiring neurons?”

    In other words, you are satisfied that at some level, the account you gave – it’s all about computational states of the brain, which track external properties (wavelengths) or internal properties (decision process) – is fundamentally correct; but it doesn’t actually explain any of the manifest features of experienced color or of consciousness in general. (I’m assuming that the “rich internal world” is a reference to experience itself, being contrasted with the “abstract internal representations” which play a causal role in your theory).

    I suggest that it is the “rich internal world” itself (and the self which perceives it) which directly plays some of the causal roles you are ascribing to the “abstract representations”. This is a problem if you think like an ordinary physicist (and to some extent, if you think like an ordinary neuroscientist), because there are no “experienced colors”, “selves”, etc., in physics; they aren’t there, therefore they can’t play a causal role in a theory based on ordinary physics.

    However, physics these days is quite rich in unusual mathematical structures, and we don’t really know the nature of the things which make up those structures, apart from their cause and effect. So what I’m suggesting is that the conscious mind is something which, if we were describing it using current physics, would be one of those unusual mathematical structures; but fundamentally it is what it seems – color, the flow of time, “meaning” and all those other aspects of consciousness which get reduced to math or to function, are the fundamental reality of consciousness, and it’s the math, and the usual physical description, which is the abstraction.

    This approach is meant to get away from the dualism, whereby we have the “physical brain” and then the qualia, etc, as something extra. The structure of self-plus-qualia that makes up consciousness as we know it, *is* the true nature of the conscious part of the brain.

    But this approach seems to be incompatible with the usual computational approach, which says that consciousness is a state machine whose implementation details don’t matter. That leads to dualism, because in that philosophy, you have the true, exact, detailed microphysical state of the brain, and then you have the coarse-grained “computational state”, and consciousness corresponds to the latter. Because of the coarse-graining, on this occasion you can’t avoid property dualism by identifying the physical entity with the psychological entity.

    From all this I conclude that (1) nonclassical physics plays a role in conscious cognition (2) a generic simulation of a conscious mind isn’t necessarily conscious.

  • James Gallagher

    For fun, since others are doing it, I’ll have a go at some quickshot answers (saves having to read all those tedious philosophy books)

    Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?

    Yes, if you assume physics is non-deterministic. Free-will/choice is then the evolution of a system capable of loading the dice wrt macroscopic probabilistic outcomes, without violating global unitary schrödinger evolution. If you assume only determinism, then no.

    Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?

    Usefulness to functioning of society. Its origin is in evolution/education, since you have to teach babies not to hurt each other. Many animal species teach some basic morality to their young too.

    Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?

    Yes, but you need to believe free-will, then you can be inspired by the creation of great art and contemplate the awesomeness of the possibilities for the future and your part in influencing it, even if it’s only to make another human being happy.

    Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?

    No, the future is undecided except for global evolution of a probabilistic wave-function and human/animal/alien free-will.

    Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?

    Almost, but maths is too.Oh, and pure genius inspiration too!

    Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?

    Each level has properties not describable in other levels, but I wouldn’t say that was autonomous existence. Reductionism may not be practical for many systems, and the simplest explanation will be a demonstration that it is emergent from a massively complex underlying system.

    Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?

    Probably a combination of neural modelling of inputs from external world and some yet unknown thing to science (ie something not explained by a theory of everything)

    Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?

    Sure, aren’t genetic algorithms a big research area?

    Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

    In chaos theory the future is exactly determined but is unpredictable. In QM the future is not exactly determined but is predictable (at a macroscopic level). Luckily the world is quantum mechanical and it matters hugely, since it means the future is not yet decided, which gives everyone a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

  • Tony

    How about having Ebben Alexander participate?

  • http://juanrga.com Juan Ramón González Álvarez

    My 2ct,

    Free will. The fundamental laws of physics are not deterministic. People’s free will is perfectly compatible with a stochastic universe.

    Morality. The origin of right and wrong is biological survival encoded in our genes during evolution . I think that there is not objective standards.

    Meaning. Why human existence requires a meaning?

    Purpose. I do not know a single case where teleological concepts were useful.

    Epistemology. It is a fact that scientific methods (do not confound with science) are optimal methods for discovering systematic (“true” is not the correct term) knowledge, but is difficult to say if we are already in the maximum of optimization or if we will discover better methods in the future.

    Emergence. It is well-known that reductionism does not work for complex systems. But it is wrong to believe that the different levels of description have autonomous existence. The correct term is integrationism, as correctly noticed by Nobel laureate Jean Marie Lehn.

    Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter? Nobody knows still.

    Evolution. The ideas of natural selection have already been usefully extended to areas outside of biology for example to selection of robust molecular entities in concrete chemical environments. Moreover, evolution is a subkind of the general theory of order through fluctuations.

    Determinism. As explained above universe is stochastic. Determinism arise only as approximation. E.g. Schrödinger or Newtonian laws are only valid when we ignore such things as Poincaré resonances in physical systems as the Brussels school has shown recently.

  • collins

    42

  • Joebevo

    Something tells me these questions have already been debated by plenty a smart naturalist and no progress has been made, nor ever will be made. Ironically, I find it very Occam’s Razor-ish to believe in Christ. It saves me the endless walking about in circles. And I can even explain why science works and why we find that the universe is suffused with beauty. Now, if that isn’t an appealing meta-narrative, I don’t know what is.

    At the end of your workshop, stop by The Veritas Forum on the web. It’s a place where you can hear Christian intellectuals on their thinking about the very same questions. In the meantime, I’ll read about your thoughts on science, which I think are on firmer ground, with great interest.

  • Tony

    If we are no more than intelligent animals, than why not experiment on those whose intelligence is weak, not much more than say an ape or monkey, or infants, maybe infants themselves? Was Josef Mengele guilty of a crime or should his experiments be accepted for the betterment of mankind, and we should be thankful for his forward thinking.

  • Tony

    What happened before the big bang? God.

  • Brett

    Tony,

    See the second paragraph in comment #30. We don’t allow others to do such things because we value our own protection from being experimented on against our will. But, we DO experiment on those with a weak intelligence (to a certain limit) with various drugs for ADHD, ADD, Schizophrenia, Depression, Down Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, Dementia, etc. We don’t know the full effects of those drugs; that’s why you see all these commercials on tv for law suits against companies that make drugs to control neurological behavior. Those people have to choose to take those drugs; it is their choice to be experimented upon.

    The attempt to goad people into a religious argument is covered in another post. There’s no mention of the big bang in the post above.

  • timbebinder

    You people are awesome.

  • dmck

    Yikes — no ecologists? OK, it’s certainly a superb group but I think your domain is missing one axis.

  • Walt Lietz

    Interesting questions! Perhaps belief in God and morality are evolutionary advantaged human traits and therefore Naturalism – moral behavior – theism – and liking choc. ice cream can co-exist in the human mind.

  • charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Another question about consciousness might be ….why did the phenomena of consciousness happen to me? A possibly eternally evolving situation continued until My exclusive combination of atoms happened……Yours too…….but why am I here and you there? Without what I think of as God, something might exist here, but why would it be me?

  • charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    On the time question it seems that inflation would appear to speed it up.

  • martenvandijk

    @83

    To me it seems that it is the other way around.

  • mks

    sounds like a fun party/sorcerer convention

  • timbebinder

    This is what happened before the Big Bang: http://youtu.be/9bZkp7q19f0

  • ozzy

    6. Peter Morgan Says:
    October 11th, 2012 at 11:51 am
    In response to your “(I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist)”: perhaps it’s too much of a splitting of definitions, but cannot a Naturalist be a Pantheist? Does someone who declares themselves to be a Pantheist, with howsoever much delicacy about the details, preclude themselves from being accepted in the ranks of Naturalists?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalistic_pantheism

  • Pingback: Nudging Naturalism Just a Bit Forward | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  • http://digitalnikosmos.blogspot.com/ Lutvo Kurić

    Modern science explains the world based on empiricism. When it is used to explain to us the Empire imaginary reality, ie, the essence of reality given. Rene Descartes said that reality never look the way we see it. Therefore, based on the error in the knowledge of science is shaping our image of all phenomena in nature. It is, without a doubt, our ideas about the world in which we live malformed. These facts can be experimentally proven. Hence the need to outdated methods of empirical findings replaced with new modern methods.

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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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