16 October 2012

Workshop on naturalism

I am a naturalist, in the philosophical sense; I believe that there is only one realm of existence subject to the laws of nature, which can be discovered and studied through observation, reason and the methods of science. Conversely, I do not believe in supernatural things like gods, ghosts and mystical forces that ignore the laws of nature. It goes without saying that naturalism is opposed to ideologies like religion, pseudoscience, mysticism and superstition in general.

A group of scientists and philosophers are meeting at the end of this month for a three-day workshop to discuss naturalism. It’s going to be held at a rather pretty location, The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Some big names will be participating: Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland, Steven Weinberg, and my two favourite bloggers, Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) and Massimo Pigliucci (Rationally Speaking). Here’s an overview of the topics they will be discussing from the ‘Moving Naturalism Forward’ website linked above:

  • 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?

One noticeable absentee is the neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris. Given his controversial views on free will (we have none) and morality (it can be determined by science), Harris seems an obvious choice for this workshop. Perhaps his schedule doesn’t allow him time to participate (he’s writing another book at the moment), although cynics may suspect that Harris was snubbed by the organisers.

The workshop is closed to the public, but it will be recorded and the video made available online at a later date. I’m certainly keen to watch it; some of the participants famously disagree on certain issues (Coyne and Pigliucci occasionally snipe at each other from their respective blogs), so you can bet that a few of the debates will be… feisty.


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