Nudging Naturalism Just a Bit Forward

By Sean Carroll | October 30, 2012 7:17 am

Greetings from our fifteenth floor hotel room in Boston, where yesterday’s Hurricane Sandy maelstrom has relaxed to a dreary gray calm. The storm was a fierce illustration of the power of Nature — completely different from the power of Naturalism, which is what I spent the last few days discussing with some of the smartest people I know, at the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop (as mentioned).

For me personally, the workshop was a terrific experience, digging into important and fascinating ideas with a collection of extremely smart people. Some minor disappointments right at the beginning, as Patricia Churchland, Lisa Randall, and Hilary Bok all had to cancel at the last minute due to (happily temporary) medical issues. But we plowed bravely forward, and we had about the right number of people to both represent a variety of specialties and yet keep the gathering intimate enough so that everyone was talking to everyone else. This was not a meeting devoting to cheerleading or rallying the troops; it was a careful, serious, academic discussion about the issues we struggle with among people who share the same basic worldview.

Photo by Massimo Pigliucci. L to R: Jennifer Ouellette, Jerry Coyne, David Poeppel, Alex Rosenberg. At the left you can see bits of Dan Dennett, and Owen Flanagan's gesturing hands.

There have already been some write-ups of the proceedings by Massimo Pigliucci (one, two, three) and Jerry Coyne (one, two, three), so I thought I’d offer mine. But in writing it up I saw the brief impressionistic remarks I originally intended to offer grow into something more sprawling and hard to digest. So I’m splitting it up into a few posts: this one, plus I think three more.

In this part, I’m going to neglect the substance of what was actually discussed, and offer some thoughts about the organization and logistics of this kind of meeting. It was very much an experiment, bringing together a wide-ranging group of people with a clear common interest but very little by the way of formal agenda. This might be the least interesting part for folks who weren’t there, but we’re working hard to provide videos of the discussions, so soon it will be almost as if you were! And my self-critical thoughts might be useful to anyone else who wants to organize similar events in the future.

If I were to grade myself as an organizer, I’d give myself a B. (Maybe a B+ if we were at one of those places with rampant grade inflation.) I thought it was a great group of people, which is the most important thing, so there is that. We all agreed that the very loose discussion-based agenda was the right way to go, rather than having formal talks. In retrospect that was the right choice — everyone around the table was far more engaged than most people are while listening to someone stand up and give a PowerPoint presentation. (A couple of people stood up, and a couple of people used PowerPoint, but nobody did both!) But I also think it would have been beneficial to invest more formal power in the moderators for each session. We proceeded in the style of a family having a boisterous dinner together, with everyone speaking up whenever they had something to say. It worked quite well, but it might have worked even better if the course of the dialogue had funneled through a central person. Janna Levin, who also recognized this tendency, served as the moderator for the very last session, and I thought it was the best-run of them all.

The last session of Day Two involved a discussion of representation and “aboutness” (what it means for one thing to be about something else, and how in the world such a thing can come into existence naturally). It was the only time, I think, when a subgroup of the table ran off into a technical area and left others behind; in particular, the philosophers were hashing out issues of extreme importance to them. As a result, several of the philosophers said that it was their favorite part of the workshop, while most of the scientists were lost. Maybe it’s okay to allow that more focused kind of discussion as a rare event, but I would have liked to wrangle it in such a way that everyone was equally present.

The most common refrain was that we didn’t have enough time to talk about crucial subject X. With which I sympathize, although there was no corresponding opinion that we talked about our (wildly ambitious!) agenda items for too long, or that the meeting was too short (although we lost half a day to Sandy). So this might just be inevitable, in that there were too many interesting and important things to talk about. Given what we did actually cover in two and a half days — the nature of reality, reductionism and emergence, the foundations of morality and meaning, free will and consciousness, and the relationship between science and philosophy — I don’t think “we should have added more topics” is a realistic judgment.

Substantively, however, I do think it would have been nice to have more discussion about particular technical topics in science (and for the most part the philosophers agreed). At one point I tried to introduce some explicit questions about the role of evolution and the development of complexity, but it didn’t really catch on as a topic. Don Ross mentioned that he was hoping for more discussion of interpretations of quantum mechanics (which is crucial for questions of determinism, ontology, and emergence), and I can’t argue with that. Simon DeDeo pointed out that the question of causality plays a foundational role in many of the ideas that we did discuss, but we never actually tackled it explicitly.

More generally — and probably because of our very short overall amount of time — I thought we had fascinating discussions at a very abstract level, but could have spent more time bringing things down to brass tacks. We clarified some deep issues about (for example) free will and morality, but didn’t really try to go the next step and say “Okay, so what is moral?” There was a fascinating moment when Terry Deacon explained how his willingness to do certain kinds of experiments on certain kinds of animals has evolved over time, but we didn’t follow up on nuggets like that. This might be an unrealistic standard, as there were not enough hours in the day to dig deeply into all the topics we discussed, but it was an absence I felt after all was said and done.

I should reiterate that these minor gripes about my own performance as organizer don’t detract from the overall impression of the meeting, which was a fantastic and singular intellectual experience. As I mentioned on Twitter, if you judge the success of a conference by the extent to which the coffee break and lunchtime discussions follow directly on what was said at the formal sessions, I’ve never been to a more successful meeting. Incredibly smart people, focused on very deep and important questions, thinking their brains out about how to answer these questions. If you’re an academic, these are the moments you live for.

Okay, the next few posts will be about what we actually discussed!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Science, Top Posts
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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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