John Shook – Naturalism and the Scientific Outlook

April 25, 2008

John Shook is Vice President for Research and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational in Amherst, N.Y. He received his PhD in philosophy at the University at Buffalo and was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University for six years. Among his current responsibilities are the Center for Inquiry’s Naturalism Research Project and the expansion of the Center’s Jo Ann Boydston Library of American Philosophical Naturalism.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Shook describes the relationship of naturalism to the worldview based upon the sciences. He explores whether the sciences necessarily lead to naturalism, and to what extent the sciences can yield truth about human morality and the good life. He details a recent debate he had with the famous Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, and responds to some of Craig’s challenges against naturalism and arguments in support of supernaturalism. And he examined what possible meaning (ultimate and otherwise) human life can have if there is no supernatural, “cosmic” significance.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 25th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. Before we get to John Shook, here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine. 

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I’m pleased to have John Shook back on the show. He is vice president for research and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He received ASPEY HD and Philosophy at the University of Buffalo and was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University for six years before he came aboard. CFI Among his current responsibilities are the Center for Inquiries, Naturalism Research Project and the expansion of CFIUS. Joanne Boydston, Library of American Philosophical Naturalism. Welcome back to a point of inquiry John Shook. 

Hello D.J.. How are you? I’m doing really well. I’m excited you’re on the show to talk today. What about naturalism and the scientific outlook you were on before we talked about naturalism in general? I’m interested in exploring with you today the oh, the relationship naturalism has with the whole world view we’re talking about at the Center for Inquiry, the scientific outlook. But even before we get to that, I want you to tell me about the naturalism research project. That’s one of the programs here at CFI. And you direct it. 

Yes, that’s right. Paul Kurtz and I conceived of this when I joined the Center for Inquiry. And what we want to do is to make sure that the Center for Inquiry has available the latest most up to date defenses of the scientific and naturalistic world view. This is a moving target. Science is ever changing. That’s one of the nice things about science. New theories are coming along about what reality really is like. And so naturalism has to keep pace. The naturalism of 50 or 100 years ago is sadly out of date. And critics of naturalism like to try to take advantage of this. It’s a industry actually among naturalism critics. 

So the Naturalism Research Project is the way that the Center for Inquiry is remaining on the cutting edge, defending naturalism in the intellectual world. 

Oh, yes. Scientists, of course, are very busily doing this as well, trying to explain how science works. And, of course, the Center for Inquiry allies itself with many of these scientists, many of whom appear on your wonderful podcast show. And so we take advantage of these intellects to tell us where naturalism is now and where it’s headed into the future. What can we say about the cosmos that we live in and the public needs to hear this information. What are some of the things the Naturalism Research Project does? Well, right now what we’re doing is we’re organizing scientists and philosophers of science who are going to be able to tell us what is science saying right now about nature. So we’ve had conferences and seminars and workshops. We’ve got more coming up. And we really want to be able to say exactly what science is telling us and then translate it in ways that the public can understand. 

If you’d like more information about the naturalism research project, you can get that through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. So, John, let’s start out the discussion of naturalism and the scientific outlook with just a basic definition. Tell me what naturalism is. 

Sure, I’d be happy to. Naturalism is a world view of philosophy, if you like, that understands reality through experience, reason and science. And I break it down into these three more simpler elements. But it’s necessary to understand they work together. 

But you can’t have naturalism without science. That’s one of the commune. 

Cannot have naturalism without science. But we have to understand that science itself is based upon our experience of the world and reasoning about the world. We draw inferences. We test hypotheses. We form tentative conclusions about what reality is like. Sometimes opponents of naturalism love to appeal to experience independently of science or to reason. Let’s say some rational arguments for the existence of God. Again, completely unhinged from science. 

People do talk about their personal experience of the divine quite right, spurious God in their lives. They cry during prayer or they feel the holiness spirit or something like that. 

The diversity of human experience is incredible. And of course, religious experience is part of this. What naturalism simply demands is that experience is not enough. Experience is not enough. Experience has to be tested by rational standards of coherence and commonsense. And also it has to be consistent with science. 

You said it’s consistent with science. Would you say that naturalism is the foundation or it undergirds science? All of science or or just this outlook that we’re deriving from the sciences? My real question is the scientist in the lab with a white coat and the beakers and the test tubes. Is that whole process that scientists work naturalism? 

It’s naturalistic naturalism as a philosophy that says that the results of experience, reason and science together tell us everything that we need to know about reality. No further beliefs about the supernatural or the paranormal are justified or needed for a complete world view of reality. But to say that science sort of assumes. Founded on naturalism actually puts the cart before the horse. Of course, science really essentially a scientific method. The method of objectively studying nature, watching its processes, testing theories about why nature works the way it does. 

It’s not so much assuming nature as it’s simply saying this is the best practical way we have of understanding what’s going on around us. Naturalism says scientific method is enough. There’s no other method of knowing what’s going on out there in reality, better than science. So you science undergirds naturalism just the other way around. That’s the way other out sometimes opponents of naturalism think are these naturaliste. They’re assuming naturalism in order to make their scientific project work. But that’s not the case at all. 

Well, that’s the charge that you metaphysical naturalists, they say you assume there is no God. And then you only look at the kind of science that supports that claim. You’re saying you actually go about it the other way around? 

Oh, yes, that’s quite right. It’s really the task of the anti naturalist, the supernaturals, to justify their own special way of knowing God or knowing the paranormal. When they fail according to the standards of reason and common sense and science, that’s their problem. That actually helps the victory of naturalism. But it’s not, as it were, some sort of fundamental assumption to the naturalists that it’s only nature. It’s only nature is our conclusion, not our premise. 

I got you. Now, just touch on one thing you just said. You used the phrase the victory of naturalism, that metaphor of war there. Do you really see naturalism as pitted in this battle against supernatural? Unfortunately, yes. 

Around the world, naturalism is under attack by people who either want to deny outright science’s conclusions because they have a competing mythology or they want to keep science safely in its narrow little place so that there can be some sort of compromise between keeping their supernatural views alive and still letting science say something about reality, just not too much. 

So let science talk about the material world and their religious or supernatural world. You talk about the immaterial one. 

Sure, some people like that compromise, but the scientific and naturalistic world view in the end has to tear down that wall. 

So if the science is undergird the naturalistic outlook, do you think that the science is necessarily lead to naturalism? In other words, if you take the sciences seriously, does it necessarily lead you to being a naturalist? 

Well, necessarily is a strong word taking science very seriously. In other words, letting scientific conclusions along with the experience and reason dictate your understanding of reality. Well, that’s all we ask in a very broad, tolerant, liberal, if you like, naturalism. Now, among naturalists, you can get into various disagreements about what exactly science’s conclusions are. 

But that’s, of course, if you like, intermural family dispute, because whatever the dispute is, there’s still consensus that the answers are naturalistic. 

Exactly. And that scientific method will prevail in the long run. 

What do you have to say about those even within the sciences? Maybe come postmodernist critics of science, but philosophers of science who argue that science, the science that you’re saying undergirds this naturalism, that science is just one mythic narrative, among many others, that it has its own priesthood, that it has its own doctrines almost. Right. 

Well, science as a social institution, like all other social institutions, is composed of people with beliefs, and they defend those beliefs and they try to pass those beliefs on to the next generation. The main difference between science and other kinds of cultural institutions is that science is geared towards understanding nature. It lets nature test and decide which theories are adequate and which aren’t. Now there are some very sophisticated philosophers of science who think that this is a pretty story, that nature ultimately decides among our theories. But it really can’t, they say. And these end up in kinds of relativism. Science is special, but not that special, right? I would disagree. I think that any sufficiently adequate understanding of how science works has to include a story of how, in the end, the data produced in scientific experiments does in the long run, when objectively judged by the community of scientists, really does decide for or against theories. It’s easy to take a quick snapshot at any cutting edge science and see communities of scientists divided among their pet theories. This snapshot approach is completely inadequate. Science works in the long run through the cumulative efforts of many hundreds of thousands of scientists. And if you look in the long run, you see. Progressive, cumulative and steady growth in our understanding of how nature works, not how a community of scientists work. 

Right. John, you recently debated some of these issues with the eminent Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. Yeah. Maybe North America’s leading Christian philosopher, they say. And the debate was what kind of on God’s existence, but also really got into naturalism? 

It did, because Craig took the offensive. He decided that my naturalism was insupportable. The problem is Craig, in my view, never really dealt with my fundamental argument for naturalism, which is, number one. Nature exists. That’s just common sense. Number two, no argument has been produced yet that reasonably defends supernaturalism. So then the conclusion is that only nature exists. This is the conclusion of the full blown philosophy of naturalism. In shifting the burden of proof on to Craig, sometimes he was willing to undertake that burden and gave us some arguments. And he does so eloquently in his many publications. But sometimes he doesn’t want to take that burden. 

He wants to shift it on to naturalism, that naturalism has to somehow prove that supernaturalism doesn’t exist in order to succeed as a theory. 

Yes, exactly. And I find that tactic highly counterproductive, if not outright irrational for the following very brief reason. It’s almost as if Craig wants to say belief in the supernatural is reasonable because supernatural beliefs can’t be proven false. It’s this sort of dare this challenge. Well, the problem with that is, is that just because you can’t prove something false doesn’t make it true. 

This is schoolyard logic. You can imagine children daring each other to prove each other fall. Prove that I don’t have a pink unicorn. Yeah, exactly. There’s no way to prove these things. And in effect, what they do is they render their conception of the supernatural perfectly meaningless and unsupportable by any evidence. I call this theology over the edge. Theology has completely stopped trying to explain nature or human experience. It’s simply leaving us with this dare prove me false. The problem is they’re good. This theologians over the edge are very intelligent people. They can design supernatural isms that cannot be proven false by any human evidence. The problem is, is when no evidence can prove it false. No evidence can help prove it. True either. That’s a basic, logical point that escapes these theologians. So they’re left with no justification ultimately, and no way of satisfying their burden of proof. 

One of Craig’s and others big beefs with naturalism is that they say it can’t account for the real meaning of life. Morality, for instance. So you were talking about how science looks to explain nature. And there are all kinds of scientists who say even to explain human nature. And when you get into that business, then you’re disagreeing with a whole tradition and science that says science can’t talk about the way things should be. It could only describe the way things are. So science can describe our human nature, but can’t tell us how we should act as human beings. You have exactly the opposite take, which pits you against a tradition in science and also, of course, against the supernatural. 

Sure, you’ve put your finger on exactly why we need more than just science. We need naturalism as a philosophical worldview. Strictly speaking, science itself as a list of cutting edge theories, a body of knowledge that are that are, you know, best tested by experiments. You can’t directly infer moral conclusions about how human beings ought to live. You can’t just read them off. There’s no direct, logical inference. There are no evidence, morality that you can weigh in a lab. You can’t detect values with a microscope and so forth. There have been some objectionable philosophies that have attempted this. For example, social Darwinism once proliferated. Rich people ought to survive because obviously they’re more fit. The sort of bogus junk science really is a logical dead end. 

Clothed in the garb of science, though it was compelling to people who wanted scientific justification. You know, the prestige of science kind of allowed them to be as cutthroat and as cunning and as greedy as were as they were humorously. 

This junk science. This propaganda of social Darwinism actually was playing a card played by theologians from time immemorial. If it’s natural, it’s right. 

This presumption being by the theologians, gods setup nature. So God must have deemed it right. That principle just has to be completely thrown out as illogical and unsupportable. So scientists shouldn’t do it either. What I would suggest is instead we remind ourselves that as naturalists, we rely on experience, reason and science. It’s the. Entity of the three of them, that really allows naturalism to tell us real information about how human beings ought to live. 

Especially the experience, sometimes naturalists think that by discarding supernaturalism, they have to completely discard the religious cultural heritage is of humanity, too. And we don’t have to do that. What we can do is we can distinguish between what doesn’t work anymore and religion and what still may work. For example, moral wisdom about how human beings ought to live. Now, of course, it’s couched too often in mythological and theological language, and so much of it is outmoded and it is horribly outmoded. So naturalism would recommend not that we start from scratch, some blank slate, some a priori principles of pure reason to deduce how we ought to live. Instead, what we ought to do is we ought to critically examine and test this cumulative body of moral wisdom that comes from the world’s cultures. After all, there’s sort of a evolutionary wisdom here. Most of these cultures have lasted for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Human beings have. To a certain extent, successfully flourish. Why discard this body of wisdom? So a naturalist would say we could build a new non-religious secular culture. Not in some a priori fashion or, you know, by consulting intuitions or anything like that, but simply by taking from the best of the other world cultures. 

So test these moral claims like you would test on the other kind of claim. Look at the evidence in light of human experience. You’re in effect saying moral knowledge is in no way different than other kinds of knowledge. It’s testable. You can treat it in the spirit of science. 

Absolutely. And indeed, at their best, the social sciences attempt to do this. So the social sciences can give us a great deal of practical knowledge about what sorts of moral communities flourish and what don’t. 

Let’s zero in on the meaning question. So you’ve just argued, yes, you can derive a kind of morality from the naturalistic worldview. We may use naturalism synonymously with the scientific outlook, not science, but the outlook based on the sciences. But, you know, a lot of the the biggest the loudest critics of naturalism say that it is ultimately meaningless. And isn’t it ultimately meaningless, truthfully, when it’s all said and done? There is no ultimate meaning. Ultimate word. Maybe. Maybe there’s proximate meaning. But, John, when you’re dead, you’re dead. You have your three score years and ten on the planet. This isn’t the kind of thing that wakes a lot of people up in the morning excited and exuberant about living. 

Yes. Well, I think naturalism is going to try to take what might be called the middle path between, on the one hand, looking for cosmic ultimate meaning, perhaps guaranteed by a supernatural God and subjective inner satisfaction. I feel like I’ve had a great life and a meaningful life. The middle path would be actually consistent with with the cultural wisdom of real human societies. Namely, we find enough meaning in our lives together. Mm hmm. It’s not, on the one hand, the cosmic ego of God guaranteeing all will turn out right in the end. And it’s not your little subjective private ego that guarantees that your life has meaning. Instead, you’re meaning to. Life comes in the context of the life that you’re living at in society. 

But you’re saying there is real meaning. It’s not. It’s real. It’s not necessarily nihilistic that, you know, since God doesn’t exist, why not just blow your brains out? 

That’s silly. Usually these arguments against naturalism presented with this sort of either or either there’s cosmic meaning or is not a.. I mean, this is a ridiculous dichotomy. Most people live most of their lives satisfied with the social meanings. They pursue goods in communities. They find value in participating in enjoyable activities with friends and family. And they find satisfaction in passing on their priorities and values to the next generation. That’s where the meaning of life comes in. They don’t need cosmic significance in order to have significance. Well, some people do, but I think this is an immature stage in our human existence. And I think as we mature, will overcome this need for a cosmic father or cosmic mother to guarantee all will turn out right in the end and we can start putting the responsibility for leading meaningful lives where it belongs, namely on our shoulders. We’re not doing it alone. We have the wealth of humanity to help us. 

So, yes, this naturalism is a meaningful, uplifting world view. Do you honestly think that it can give Craig’s perspective, his view of the world? A run for its money? 

It has for hundreds of years and it will continue to do so. The naturalistic outlook isn’t going anywhere. And I predict that it has a bright future precisely because I think in the way. Of human rights and democracy advancing around the world. More and more peoples are preparing to take responsibility for their own lives instead of handing it over to autocrats and monarchs and gods. 

Thanks so much for joining me again on Point of Inquiry. 

You’re very welcome, D.J.. Glad to be here. 

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Point of inquiry is 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 Quailing. 

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.