Tom Clark – Encountering Naturalism

June 22, 2007

Tom Clark is founder and director of the Center For Naturalism, a non profit advocacy organization in the Boston area devoted to educating the public about naturalism, policy development, and community building. He is the editor of the popular online website, Naturalism.Org, which is among the web’s most comprehensive resources on scientific naturalism, its implications and its applications. He is also the author of Encountering Naturalism.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Tom Clark explores the differences between methodological naturalism and scientific / philosophical / metaphysical naturalism. He also talks about some of the implications of naturalism for society’s beliefs about religion, the paranormal, and concepts like free-will. He also explores how naturalism can help foster a sense of secular spirituality among those who adopt its worldview.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 22nd, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe, he pointed inquiry’s, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. We run a number of centers for inquiry all over North America and around the world. Please go to our Web site and get involved in your neck of the woods. Our Web site’s center for inquiry dot net. Before we get to this week’s guest, Tom Clark, for a discussion of his book, Encountering Naturalism, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to be joined on point of inquiry this week by Tom Clarke, founder and director of the Center for Naturalism, which is an organization in the Boston area devoted to educating the public about naturalism, developing policy based on naturalism and other things. Clarke is the editor of the popular online Web site Naturalism Dot org, the Web’s most comprehensive resource on scientific naturalism, its implications and applications both. He’s also the author of Encountering Naturalism, which we’ll be talking about today. Welcome to a point of inquiry, Tom Clarke. 

Well, T.J., it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it. 

You were at the Center for Inquiry a few years ago. That’s when I first met you. And we had enjoyable, at least to me, conversations about naturalism, especially its implications. I look forward to getting into that on today’s show. But let’s start off, I guess, by just defining the term, especially for our new listeners, naturalism. You’re not talking about the early 20th century movement of the mill Zola and the other writers who, you know, were describing their characters in terms of their relationships to their surroundings. You mean something as opposed to supernaturalism? 

Yeah. I think that’s a fair way to put it. Although, you know, there is a connection between the kind of scientific naturalism that the Center for Naturalism is pushing and also CFI is also involved in and literary naturalism because they were very much into looking at the sort of cause and effect relationship of the individual, how how the individual was determined. But, yeah, you’re right. We’re not talking about literary naturalism here. We’re talking about the naturalism that denies that there’s a supernatural realm separate from what they science shows us to exist. 

And I’m not sure if we should get into drawing distinctions between scientific naturalism and philosophical naturalism just yet, because what you just said struck me as kind of arrogant would be the term others would use, that naturalism denies the supernatural. How can you be so certain that the supernatural doesn’t exist? 

Right. Well, I hope we’re not arrogant. I hope. What we’re doing is essentially to make a rational commitment to an evidence based way of knowing about things that’s exemplified by science. If you make that commitment about how we justify our beliefs about what exists, then what what that does, what science doesn’t particular, it unifies the objects of it’s understanding what we say exists into a single single world. And the world that science shows to exist is what we call nature. And so if you make that commitment and that’s you know, that’s an upfront assumption that a naturalist makes, that you make this commitment to evidence based, rational empiricism, then you’ll be led to say that there exists a single world that we call nature. Therefore, you deny the supernatural. So, of course, if you take other ways of knowing as as reliable, which I don’t nationalist doubts such as faith, then yeah, you might be right to say that there’s a separate supernatural realm. 

Would you go so far as to say that naturalism is the foundation of all the sciences, even if the supernatural is what they say underlies belief in the paranormal and even belief in God and religion? 

I wouldn’t say that nationalism is the basis of the sciences. That’s sort of the opposite. In other words, science doesn’t make any ontological commitment in what it says exists. It’s a method. Right. So if you stick with that method and say, well, what I know to exist is verified by appeal to evidence, then that will lead you to naturalism. But that commitment to the method is ideologically neutral. 

So what you’re talking about is right now, in terms of the sciences, is what they named methodological naturalism. You could be a methodological naturalist, but still believe in God and the supernatural at the same time. 

Sure. But the only way you could believe in God and the supernatural at the same time, it seems to me any rate, is to have another way of knowing about things apart from science that you partially commit yourself to. If you’re a thoroughgoing methodological naturalist and place your bet there, then when it comes time to decide what exists, then you’ll you’ll say, well, what exists? Well, I have good evidence for. And so therefore, since there’s no good empirical evidence for the supernatural, there’s none that I know of. You’ll be led to be a metaphysical naturalist. So guess what I’m saying is that the commitment to methodological naturalism, if it’s taken all the way, has an implicit ontological metaphysical commitment to naturalism which denies the supernatural. 

Without getting off track, I want to hear you on the point regarding evidence. Evidence of the supernatural. There are a lot of people who have seeming evidence of their senses, of their experience that the supernatural exists. They pray to God and feel his presence or they really do, you know, to them see a ghost. It’s not something they’re pretending to do. They really have that experience. And that’s the kind of evidence that any of us could have. It’s basically experience. 

All right. Yep, that’s a very good point. In other words, that the whole notion of evidence is contested. So the commitment to the sort of evidence that I’m talking about is a commitment to what we call interest objective, publicly available evidence that’s available to any particular person who cares to look. So that a single person’s feelings that are private, for instance, the feeling that I’m in touch with God couldn’t count as evidence on that construal of what we mean by evidence. So, again, that’s the kind of commitment. And the reason that commitment is rational to interest objective evidence is I think because the kinds of beliefs that we arrive at about the world are more reliable than those that drive that out of intuition or revelation that depend on a personal intuition about things. 

Tom, isn’t an interest objective evidence to have a thousand people in a stadium praying to God and feeling the Holy Spirit? 

I don’t think so, because eat all of that is happening in their individual heads. There’s nothing publicly observable outside each individual consciousness that can be pointed to as evidence for God. You’ve got up the sum of all these different personal experiences, and that’s not what science is talking about. Faith talk about publicly observable objects in the world, and there’s nothing publicly observable in that stadium that would point to the existence of God. 

And so to get back to what we were talking about, which is methodological naturalism, do you see that as different than the kind of naturalism you’re talking about, philosophical or scientific naturalism? 

Well, as I suggested, I think, although you certainly can and should draw the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. I think what I’m doing and I think other naturalists do is to make that commitment to methodological naturalism. And then because of that commitment, when it comes time to placing your ontological bets about what’s real. That epistemic commitment leads you to say, well, what’s real? It’s really what there’s good scientific evidence for and just objective evidence for. And that ontology is what we call nature. 

You’ve thrown a lot of words out there, ontology and metaphysical, and I mentioned scientific and philosophical naturalism. It seems like there are all kinds of natural isms. But really, we’re just talking about two kinds. The method that the sciences is based on and then the conclusions kind of the world view which are calling metaphysical naturalism. Right. Yeah. I think that’s a fair, fair statement. Earlier you said that naturalism is kind of you could you could define it as the opposite of supernaturalism. Sure. There’s more to it, at least in the implications. But here’s the question. Do you see yourself kind of locked in this culture war of naturalism against supernaturalism, science versus religion and the paranormal? Are you on the frontlines of this battle? 

Well, to explain the culture wars, it’s more useful to think of it in terms as a contest between two different ways of knowing and therefore to different conclusions about what’s real. The two different ways of knowing are, to put it sort of crudely, science versus faith. And the two different versions of what’s real is the naturalistic view that there’s a single natural world. And the dualistic view, in addition to the natural world is something supernatural. And I think looking at things this way can actually explain quite a bit about the culture wars in terms of, say, views on abortion, stem cell research, the right to die, gay rights and that kind of thing. 

So in every one of those hot button culture war issues, you’re saying naturalism offers a view maybe steeped in or based on the sciences that is opposed to the faith based or supernatural or religious point of view? 

Yeah. Again, roughly speaking, there are, of course, gradations and variations and in between thought of view. But I think that captures a lot of it. 

Yeah, well, it sounds like you’re somewhat anti religious. You know, it’s kind of all the rage today with the bestselling books. People are critical of religion, belief in the supernatural. But even so, you seem to promote on your Web site, in your book this kind of secular spirituality through your naturalism. It’s a sense of all at our place in the natural universe. 

Yeah, that’s also true. I would say that the supernaturalism is not being anti religious. That’s one thing where we’re trying to avoid because we can’t present a positive world view that can compete with religion. 

And you really think naturalism is competitive with the supernatural world views? It can give them a run for their money? 

I hope so. You know, it’s a long shot certainly where? Especially in the United States. But I don’t think it’s that long shot in cultures where already we’ve seen a move away from supernatural beliefs. For instance, in Europe, where you have strongly established humanistic world view, I think naturalism does stand a fair chance in Europe, to be sure. 

But I wouldn’t necessarily binded the notion that they have moved away from the supernatural in northern Europe, where it’s emphatically post Christian, there are there’s widespread belief in fairies and gnomes and kind of the pre-Christian supernatural world views. 

Yeah, well, you could be right. That’s an empirical question. Then I stand corrected if that’s the case. I don’t know how widespread those beliefs are. But I also know that in the northern European countries, in Scandinavia, they’re pretty well established humanist groups that, for instance, have humanist life stage celebrations and that kind of thing. 

Very true. So get back to this question about spirituality, that kind of a naturalistic spirituality. 

Spirituality is a dirty word for many of those listening to this podcast, no doubt. 

But what I try to do in the book, in a chapter on spirituality is to claim the word for naturalists and say that when we think about the religious or spiritual domain, what we’re really doing is thinking about our ultimate concern, our existential concerns in our lives, our relationship to the largest context of being. And the words religious and spiritual actually do better than any other words I know of to capture in a single word. Those concerns, you can always work your way around those words and come up with phrases that identify the same things. But what I try to do is naturalize spirituality and religion by saying that, as you suggested, naturalism. Gives us this incredible perspective, incredible cosmic perspective of us being fully part of this huge, incredible cosmos. As Carl Sagan described it in his series. So certainly the spiritual experience of all. And connection and wonder what I call existential astonishment is all there for the having for the naturalist. So you don’t have to have anything supernatural in your role view to have access to these feelings and this sense of connection. And in fact, I think actually that’s wisdom that the better job than dualistic religions in making the marvels of nature apparent to us. 

So your naturalistic spirituality makes you go up to the hotdog vendor and say, yeah, make me one with everything. 

Right. I think that I go with what you what I realize is that there’s a way. Well, what we’ve discovered, what science shows so eloquently is that the connection there is, although you can have a mystical experience of the connection. I don’t deny that. But the connection is concrete. It’s real. It’s verifiable. Every single aspect of a human being comes out of and eventually will return to the constituents, the ultimate constituents that find shows to be their atoms, molecules, cosmic dust, dark matter. Who knows? 

As Carl Sagan talked about, we are made of star stuff we have right now. 

We can wax poetic about that. And I know a lot of skeptics and humanists will turn up their nose at that. That’s fine because not everyone has these tapes. And I’m not denying that that the variety of human engagement with life will somehow sometimes exclude the kinds of spiritual religious feelings that we’re talking about. That’s fine. I’m not going to try to persuade anyone to get all all mushy about the cosmos. But if you’re inclined in this direction, there’s nothing in naturalism to prevent you from expressing and encountering these things. That’s the great thing about it. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Tom Clark’s really thought provoking book, Encountering Naturalism through our Web point of inquiry dot org. Tom, before we get into some, I think fika questions about the implications of the kind of naturalism you’re talking about, I want to stick to this question about spirituality and talk about its strategic value. There are well-organized Christian activists in North America who argue that secular humanism is not just a naturalistic kind of non-religious movement, but that it is a religion more than that, that it’s the religion, the state supported religion of our public school system. And because of the separation of church and state, that therefore for secular humanism, given its naturalistic foundations and its spiritualistic implications, it is unconstitutional. And here you are on the show saying, yeah, sure, I feel spiritual about this. And there are really mystical components, aren’t you? Kind of. Isn’t that the Achilles heel? If we concede that secular humanism, Annes and naturalism and even Athie ism is a religion, then were kind of giving up the strategic advantage when the court says, look, a religion has to have a supernatural component and you guys certainly don’t. Therefore, you’re not a religion. 

Yeah, well, actually, I think we can. We can move in the following direction, which is to admit the naturalism to the world view that’s on an equal footing with a religion because it makes a partizan commitment which goes beyond straight secularism and making the metaphysical commitment to deny supernaturalism. We’re actually taking a metaphysical stance, which is also what religious worldviews do. So I, I accept I bite the bullet of the fact that naturalism is and Athie ism, if if it’s propounded as a metaphysical thesis, is in fact on a par with religious understandings and therefore on equal footing, but not the same as a religion. 

Right. Not the same as on unequal footing in that when it comes to separation of church and state, we couldn’t have naturalism as a state belief anymore than we could have. Christianity as a state sponsored belief, the kind of beliefs that are taught in schools aren’t about naturalism. They’re taught history. There’s science, there’s geography. These are all things that don’t presume or talk about naturalism or supernaturalism. They’re ontologically neutral. They talk about this world, not the world to come or what ultimately exist. So there’s no complaint against secular humanism that it’s the state religion is simply false because secular humanism is not taught. Naturalism is not taught in schools. 

What’s taught other sciences and the humanities and those who say that the whole liberal arts and science curricula, that they’re just part of the religion of secular humanism, which is incredible broadening of the definition of the word religion. You’re just discounting that claim out of hand. 

Well. Not out of hand. 

I’m saying that there’s no basis for it because none of the liberal arts or sciences presume naturalism or secular humanism. That’s simply not talked about. So there’s no evidence, there’s no basis for the claim that they’re making. As I said earlier, science doesn’t presume any ontological naturalistic commitment when it goes into talking about the world. It’s simply a method. That’s true of the liberal arts. It’s true of all the finances that are taught in grade school and high school. So to say that secular humanism or naturalism is being taught in schools or it’s the state religion is simply and utterly false. 

Tom, I want to spend the time that we have remaining talking about some potentially big real world implications of the kind of naturalism you espouse. You see it not only as gutting the big sacred cow beliefs like God and the afterlife, but even of beliefs and freewill and contra causal freewill. 

Right. And it’s important to qualify, as you just did, the praise freewill with contra causal because there kinds of freewill that are of everyone does have. And I think I’m very careful of the book to make sure that people understand that what I’m denying and what naturalism denies and what science denies is the idea that we have contra causal freewill, the kind of freewill that would allow us to somehow rise above natural causality when making choices or becoming who we are. 

So walk me through the kinds of freewill that I can have according to your naturalism and the kinds that I can’t. 

Well, the kind of freewill or freedom, as I’d like to say, because freewill is often construed as in the contra causal sense. But we’ll talk about free will. And I’ll just say that the kinds of freewill that we have that we do have are compatible with being caused to determined creatures. It’s the kind of freedom or freewill that that I have when I say I got married out of my own free will or find this document out of my own free will. When you go in front of a notary public, all that means is that no one was coercing me or forcing me to sign the document or to get married. Now, since we live in a politically open society, many of us enjoy that kind of freedom in that we can act voluntarily according to our wishes. And that’s all that’s meant by compatible freewill. It’s the kind of freewill that’s compatible with being determined creatures. Well, we don’t have according to find and naturalism is a kind of freewill that would allow us to somehow escape being caused either and how we develop as human beings or in the kinds of decisions that we make on a day to day basis. In other words, there is no evidence that science has ever shown that we have said immaterial soul that could somehow influence the brain in its operations. So that’s in one sense how naturalism denies this kind of conflict, causal freewill. It’s to say, no, it’s the brain that is responsible for decision making, that is responsible for consciousness in the brain. As far as science can tell and again, this requires your commitment to sticking with science. As far as science can tell, the brain is a deterministic, albeit very complex choice making machine. 

And those choices are determined by the environment and other factors. Freedom is the modus operandi of destiny, right? 

Well, my choices are determined by who I am under naturalism. I don’t stop existing as an identifiable human agent. I’m I’m still Tom Clark with my brain and my character and my motive. All of that still happens under a naturalistic view. We can explain where I come from. And if we could look inside my brain and with our super cerebral scope, we could in principle, although obviously not a practice, predict what I was about to do next. 

Although that’s that’s a that’s a very far fetched claim, given that we haven’t made all the connections between what neurons are doing and what they I’m thinking or speaking. 

But in principle, you don’t even really need to go that far, do you? Because, you know, I could predict how my best friend’s going to act. It’s just because I know one very well, even though he makes the decisions to act the way that he’s acting. 

Right. But many people listening will say, Deejay Tom, you’re crazy. Look. People have free will in their in their choices. And if they didn’t, then we couldn’t we couldn’t hold people responsible. They think we’d just fall apart and people would run amok. And those are common responses to the thesis that we’re propounding here. 

Right. You actually say that if people adopt this kind of naturalism in this and therefore they’re skeptical of contra causal freewill, that it will overturn really everything in our society, prisons, our legal system, the way we reward people, really everything not overturn it, would substantially revise some of our moral responsibility practices. Okay. Substantially revised some of our moral responsibility practices instead of overturned. But I think for a lot of people, it would be earthshaking. 

Yes, I think it would be. And that’s what’s so, in a way, revolutionary about a full-blown thoroughgoing naturalism that I try to present in this book. By the way, I’m not alone in these hills. There are many other firefighters out there who don’t believe in contre Colleville free will, most of them, in fact, and some of them, including on Flanagan and Dirk Paire boom and a few other Nora Hurley, Daniel Jannard are dead. 

They don’t go as far as I do, perhaps in teasing out. But I think that the progressive implications of this, although some do, then it is a little it’s fairly conservative, although he he too admits and we’ll we’ll he’ll be talking about this in a lecture coming up in Copenhagen. He admits that this is a revisionist take on what it means to be human, although he says it’s not revolutionary. So it’ll be interesting to see what Dennis has to say about that. 

Indeed, you’ll have to come back and kind of share or we’ll have him back on the show and maybe both. You have a conversation that would be fun. Tom, doesn’t the kind of skepticism about conter causal freewill that you’re talking about doesn’t necessarily lead to a kind of o nihilistic fatalism that if we don’t have freewill, that there’s no point in doing anything, not even getting out of bed in the morning. Whatever happens is happening to us. We can’t actually take the bull by the horns or, you know, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We can’t make the world a better place because it’s all already determined. 

Right. It’s interesting. You use the bootstrap metaphor, which, of course, is physically impossible right away. 

Having countercultural freewill is exactly like trying to pull pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It’s just as impossible. And no, it doesn’t follow that not having this kind of freewill or freedom makes social change for the better. 

Impossible. It doesn’t mean that human actions can’t affect things. I still remain used to remain. Everyone still remains the effective human agents they were. We just understand where we come from, what the causes were that produced us. And again, it’s actually a lot more control over things to understand the full causal story of how human behavior arises. And it also makes us more compassionate, because when we see people who aren’t self created, we can’t blame them for being the perhaps less than perfect people that they actually are. 

Right. I found it really thought provoking the things you have to say about pride and shame and blame and envy in this context of not having contra causal freewill. 

I’m glad you said that, because those are some of the real well, I think are humanistic, progressive implications of this philosophy that are available to us. If we go all the way, we can’t be afraid to look at the truth. And besides which, we should look at the truth. The truth. I think that you and I agree is the paramount thing. The implications of the truth. Well, they are what they are, and we simply have to deal with them. Now, it may be the case, although I doubt it. It may be the case that we can’t live with the truth about who we are. Maybe nationalism is too bitter pill, too tough to swallow for some people. But what I try to show in this book is it is quite the opposite that we have access to some real humanistic virtues. If we take in the view that we’re fully natural creatures without this kind of supernatural freewill. And that’s what I think is so wonderful about this Lotfy. 

Last question, Thomas. A listener wants to find out more about the kind of naturalism you’re talking about. What did they do today to find out? 

Well, the easiest thing is to go to w w w naturalism, dawg, and all all sorts of resources there about the kind of naturalism that’s at the Center for Naturalism is pushing. Are there also Center for Naturalism? Thought that’s the home web page for the Center for Naturalism. 

Thank you very much for joining my point of inquiry. I think a fruitful discussion that we all should be having. Tom Clark, thanks, D.J.. 

Thank you. A real pleasure to talk to you. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Tom Clark and this discussion about naturalism go to our online discussion forums at CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our website point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Cook’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Frailing. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.