Are You A Freethinker? Naturalism, Life and Meaning in a Causal Universe

Written by March 14, 2010 9:36 am 17 comments

This is the first in a series of simple introductory articles and videos on naturalistic philosophy.

Many of those of us who call ourselves freethinkers are aware that there is some fundamental difference between the way we view reality and the way the superstitious folks do. We believe in a naturalistic reality and the others subscribe to the supernatural. But what exactly is this difference? What does it mean to believe in a naturalistic reality? What is ‘natural’, and how is it different from ‘supernatural’?

Note: I will avoid discussion of the nature of evidence in this article since it will distract us from our objective here.

The key to understanding the natural universe is understanding the notion of causality. This idea can be stated simply as the relationship between two dependent events, where one is the caused and the other is the cause. Science works only because the natural world exhibits causality. In physics, causality is more accurately viewed as interaction between two events, objects or situations, with each of the two being both cause and effect at the same time.

“Everything that happens……. presupposes something upon which it follows by rule”

- Immanuel Kant, Second Analogy

Case-I

Sethu from India believes that the Hindu god Ganesha is the keeper of his fortunes. Sethu spends 5 hours every week, praying to and performing duties for Ganesha. He strongly believes that his actions have been keeping him safe and comfortable.

In his regular life, Sethu is an engineer. His job requires him to possess and frequently rely on an exceptional amount of data on cause and effect. Even when he decides to go perform his puja, he doesn’t just close his eyes and wish that he was at the temple. He gets in his car and goes through the motions, knowing that the mechanics of the automobile will be the effect. He has a naturalistic understanding of these things. Cause and effect are intuitive in this way.

Yet when Sethu gets to the temple, he stops thinking in naturalistic terms. A very different type of behavior sets in. He appeals to what can only be conceived of as magic. This is his supernaturalistic side.

What happens here is that Sethu goes from a world where causality operates, to one in which causality does not apply, and he makes this switch based on no evidence at all! At the point where he begins to seek a supernatural explanation, Sethu stops subscribing to the real and observable principles of cause and effect and starts believing in magic.

“Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

Ralph W. Emerson

Case-II

Jen in the US knocks on wood to avoid tempting fate every time she boasts about herself to someone. She doesn’t really think about it past the ritualistic rap of knuckle on cedar. Her life is full of these meaningless idiosyncrasies.

But Jen is a successful businesswoman. She makes extremely rational decisions analyzing numbers all day long, to seek and identify patterns. She has an exceptional grasp of her natural surroundings, using the principles of cause and effect extremely well to navigate through life. Yet the superstitions are all right there. The early morning coffee and horoscopes, the frequent tarot card readings and psychic healing visits- all side by side with the everyday real-world things she does.

Jen finds it really easy to switch back and forth between the magical fantasy world ,where cause and effect do not apply, and the real naturalistic world where they do.

“[WHAT IS SUPERSTITION?] – To disregard the true relation between cause and effect.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, 1898

Case-III

Yalda in Morocco believes that allah is the reason she exists. In fact, allah is the reason everything exists, since he created everything. But the laws of cause and effect do not apply to allah. In fact, he created those as well.

Meanwhile, she exercises her mind everyday at her job as a computer programmer. She understands how the code she writes has an effect, which has another effect and so on. Yalda acts as we all do when it comes to practical matters, under the premise that cause and effect apply in our universe. But when it comes to allah, she suspends belief in reason. She does not stop to question the logical incoherence of claiming to know anything at all about an all-knowing being who cannot be known because he is beyond cause and effect.

“All reasonings concerning matter of fact [the empirical reality] seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect.”

David Hume

In each one of these cases there are two types of behaviors- those based on naturalistic ideas and those based on supernaturalistic ones. If we extend this

The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect: 8th century, Japan.

The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect: 8th century, Japan.

reasoning to numerous beliefs in popular culture, it becomes apparent that everywhere a supernatural concept is evoked there is a required suspension of the laws of causality. In fact, belief in any supernatural requires a voluntary surrendering of the reasonable and fundamental assumption of science that all things must have a natural cause. To the superstitious mind, magic appears to be a reasonable solution- a sufficiently explanatory state of affairs. This sort of thinking is manifested in everything from belief in homeopathic medicines and psychic healing, to belief in god.

Not only is causality key to understanding natural reality, but understanding the causal nature of reality is also important towards attaining a better idea of who we are as sentient beings. The three above case-studies all defer to an external supernatural force. However, there is another type of supernatural belief, one that is just as prevalent and harmful, but involves looking inward, into oneself. This is the belief in the idea of an internal supernatural self; a soul.

The belief in a soul is manifested in many forms in human society, most prominently in the widespread belief in “free” agency. This is the illusion of an uncaused entity within us; the seat of our consciousness and sentience. This type of uncaused “free” agency is commonly known as free-will, or more technically, contra-causal free-will.

Is it possible, or even advantageous to forgo the supernatural belief in contra-causal free-will? Will our society be able to function morally without the notion of uncaused agency? Can personal responsibility survive as a fundamentally beneficial social construct, even in the absence of free-will? The answers to these questions and others will be covered in future parts of this series on naturalistic philosophy. The next one will be on the nature of knowledge, it’s forms and its attainment (epistemology).

Enjoy this brief video that I made as a very basic introduction to the tenets of Naturalism.

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17 Comments

  • Ajita, you have given classic examples of people of different religious beliefs from different parts of the world whose brains live in two different Ages at the same time. (Again, my theory of Old Dharma versus New Dharma). Such superstitions abound in all societies and cultures. People learn these things from their elders and pass them on to their children. Thinking and reasoning are not part of this process.

    In America, when one sneezes, people around one says, “God bless you!” No one knows why they say that. This tradition started in 1350 A. D. during the Bubonic plague (Black Death) in Europe, in which 50 millions people died. One third of European population perished. So whenever one sneezed, he/she was marked as practically dead. The priests would immediately pray for this person saying, “God bless you!” 300 years later, this superstition was brought to America by the early European immigrants. Now their progeny is still passing it on to their children. In fact, the social reinforcement is such that if I don’t tell, “God bless” to my patient who sneezes in my office, my patients consider it as rude!Now Hindus and Muslims have started saying the same!

    Superstition is an open acknowledgment of ignorance of cause and effect of a phenomenon. Hence the stupidity. Science is exactly opposite of this: explaining the cause and effect of a phenomenon. Caveat: Science is only a long and arduous process of search for truth. What science considers as true today might be proven as untrue by future scientists. For example, some day some wise guy might prove Einstein as only partially right. The good thing is that they keep on searching for answers to the puzzles of nature. Superstition and science have one thing in common: people. Ultimately, human motivations, secret of not so secret, will color all quests for truth. In my own field, I rarely trust any of the so-called scientists any more.

    • Dr. Kamath, your theory of Old Dharma vs. New Dharma is certainly a universal phenomena, with most people living in two worlds at once. Even rational thinkers such as ourselves often hold on to some supernatural beliefs and it takes a lot of effort to identify and excise them from our minds.

      I am writing this series for other freethinkers, and am not under the delusion that any irrational readers will be convinced that their beliefs are wrong. The best I can hope is that this will continue the conversation between those like ourselves on subjects that the great minds of human history have pondered about.

      There are, in fact, many nuanced positions on the nature of cause and effect that I do not touch on in this article. But if someone brings up these points here, I hope that we will have a “spirited” discussion.

    • The one thing that I would like to clarify is that when I refer to reasoning in relation to cause and effect, Im not talking about a methodical process of conscious evaluation of fact and fantasy. Im talking about the process of cognition-based action. Even those who simply do without thinking require an intuitive understanding of cause and effect. In fact, all organisms have this intuitive understanding, since they evolved in a universe where this law applies. This is what I meant when I said “Each is a hypothetical case where an individual suspends belief in causal reality at different points of reasoning.”

      I think it is misleading to simply view reasoning as either we have it or we don’t. We all operate on different levels of reason in respect to different notions of our reality. As you note, the dogmatic belief systems and mindless rituals passed down from generation to generation are great barriers to the process of reasoning objectively. These are points of contention where supernaturalists suspend belief in cause and effect.

  • I agree. I was merely supporting your observations with my own. There are no points of disagreement at all. I do hope that more free-thinkers would join this conversation.

    • OK. I also think that we agree here and only our approach differs slightly. I also ope that more freethinkers will think about these things, but as you know, most (modern) Indians are rather clueless and uninterested in philosophy. In the later parts of this series I plan on doing more of the same, breaking down complex philosophical subjects and making them relevant to people’s everyday lives.

  • Yes. Abstract concepts may need to be reduced to some concrete ideas. For example, “Each is a hypothetical case where an individual suspends belief in causal reality at different points of reasoning” might need to be explained in an easily understandable way. Also, it would help to know the difference between “methodical process of conscious evaluation of fact and fantasy” and “the process of cognition-based action” with examples. I think you can bring your ideas down to average man’s level and thus make them extremely interesting. There is a goldmine of practically applicable philosophy here.

  • Ajitha,

    Very interesting post. You can call it causality, naturalism or determinism.. This a fundamental philosophical tenet which arose mostly from renaissance Europe, in parallel to the scientific revolution initiated by Newton.

    But unfortunately, this philosophy has severe limitations in our understanding of modern science : especially the theory of relativity and quantum physics.

    1) Relativity has torn apart the special distinction which we assign to “time” as a dimension that is independent of anything else. Without a proper and absolute directionality of “time”, there is no meaning for “cause” and “effect”. So the term causality has become inadequate to discuss serious issues. Instead, we should resort to terminology from statistics, especially “entropy”. The directionality of time is specified by the 2nd law of thermodynamics : as the direction in which entropy of a closed system rises. As to “why” exactly the entropy of a system rises, it is still a mystery. This understanding of relativity is crucial for philosophical questions, especially to those that deal with creation.

    For example, if somebody asks what happened “before” the big bang, they are just showing this lack of understanding. Both space and time arose together at the big bang, there is no “before” before big bang. Further, both space and time were mixed together in semi-space and semi-time quantum states at the singularity where big bang happened. The only questions that make sense at this singularity are those that deal with statistical “entropy”. And it is a serious question which is still not yet answered by physics.

    2) Quantum physics, especially the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, has imposed strict limitations on the “knowability” of the various physical parameters. Unless you “know” something, you cannot resort to probabilistic reasoning on “mutual entropy” (or in simpler terms, cause and effect). Thus, there is an inherent freedom in physics which cannot be predicted completely. This is a severe blow to determinism. A parallel blow is dealt to this philosophy in mathematics by Kurt Godel who smashed away the project of Hilbert to reduce all mathematics to set theory (or logic). Godel has proved that no self-consistent system of mathematics can derive all the theorems that can be represented by it. If a system is consistent, it has to be incomplete. If a system is complete, then it would be automatically inconsistent.

    Both these issues have made “causality” and “determinism” unfashionable. If you want to have a deterministic universe that explains quantum physics, you have to resort to the multi-verse interpretation, which is as useless as supposing a God. There is no way this freedom in the universe be reduced to a system of physical laws from which the behaviour of an entity in the universe (whether that be an electron, or a human being) be predicted absolutely.

    • Thanks for your comment, vakibs.

      The “limitations” you mention are misconceptions.

      It is erroneous to think that causality fails because of special relativity. The truth is exactly the opposite. Einstein’s special relativity upholds causality by requiring the condition that nothing can travel faster than light.

      Quantum indeterminism says nothing about how an event is caused. It cannot say that a particular event is uncaused. Being unable to know something is not a reason to supposed that it is magic. The correct response is to conclude, given how the rest of science and reality work, that there probably are causal events that are beyond our epistemological limits. Or at the worst, ignoring scientific tradition, we can say that we don’t know. Throughout history those who claimed that lack of a possible scientific explanation marks an uncaused (magic) event have almost always been wrong. Godel is similarly a non sequitur here. You need to stop confusing determinism with causality.

      I have rejected both your claims about my article. You have not mentioned the cases that I wrote about in the article, so I assume that you agree supernaturalists in those 3 cases are being irrational by failing to perceive causality.

      The entire series is meant as a primer, an introduction to naturalistic philosophy. I do not discuss anything more than a basic outline in these articles, because, as mentioned in the article, these ideas have profound meaning when applied to the way we perceive ourselves and life in general. However, if you want to discuss and criticize the ideas presented here on a deeper level, I would be delighted, although my responses may be days, weeks or even months apart.

      The next article in the series, the first part on epistemology, will be complete sometime next week. I do not talk about the personal implications of naturalism till the 7th or 8th part in the series.

      Cheers.

      • Thanks for your reply, Ajita. Well. Many people understand causality to mean determinism (especially determinism along time). I am finding fault with this notion.

        Otherwise, if by causality, you mean something else “how any natural phenomenon needs to be connected (and logically coherent with) the rest of the universe“, I agree with you.

        This our universe is a logical consistent system. It is my profound belief, and nothing can violate these laws (not even quantum indeterminism).

        However, do we have the means to represent this set of universal laws into a finite set of rules ?

        I am not sure if the answer is yes. I highly doubt if it is true. And my reference to Godel is apt, because of this.

        There remains an “irreducible” freedom , that continuously introduces variation and colour into the happenings of the universe. What is the nature of this freedom ? Does it belong to a single coherent agent ? Can we know this freedom using some other means ? (a short cut, without resorting to enlisting all the infinite rules in a grammar) I think these are questions that are highly philosophical in nature. Such speculation rightfully belongs to the domain of religion, and the best we can do is to be tolerant about beliefs of this nature.

        • Many people understand causality to mean determinism (especially determinism along time). I am finding fault with this notion.

          As I said, that is a wrong understanding of causality. You have not criticized causality, you are criticizing hard-determinism. It is irrelevant here.

          However, do we have the means to represent this set of universal laws into a finite set of rules ?

          Again, not a question with which I am concerned.

          I think these are questions that are highly philosophical in nature. Such speculation rightfully belongs to the domain of religion, and the best we can do is to be tolerant about beliefs of this nature.

          The questions of philosophy are questions of philosophy. Such speculation rightfully belongs to the domain of philosophy, not to the domain of fantasy. You are cherry picking the concept of Religion, like all religious apologists do.

          • The questions of philosophy are questions of philosophy. Such speculation rightfully belongs to the domain of philosophy, not to the domain of fantasy.

            Only when a belief (for example, creationism) is in clear violation of experimental evidence with reality (evolution) can it be nullified. Otherwise, it is just an extraneous belief that is (at least currently) beyond the domain of science. Whether we should call such beliefs as fantasy or as philosophy or as religion is immaterial.

            When there is no way of either logically or scientifically validating one claim against the other, the best we can do is to be mutually tolerant of such beliefs.

          • “Only when a belief (for example, creationism) is in clear violation of experimental evidence with reality (evolution) can it be nullified. Otherwise, it is just an extraneous belief that is (at least currently) beyond the domain of science. Whether we should call such beliefs as fantasy or as philosophy or as religion is immaterial.”

            Such false equivalences have been refuted multiple times in many different forums. What you are doing here is basically trying to muddle the conversation in order to present complete nonsense as deserving equal respect with rational statements. The distinction is not between science and everything else. It is between reason and nonsense. This is what philosophy is concerned about. The fantasy is just that- fantasy. Stuff that there is absolutely no reason to propose- ideas that clearly violate the laws proposed by science. Religion is full on this crap. I’m sure you’d like to ignore all of the absolute bullshit that is in religion pretend that religion is the same thing as philosophy, but you are just deluding yourself. You exhibit just the right amount of cognitive dissonance for none of what we’re talking about here to make a difference in your already-made-up mind. So, please move along and stop wasting my time.

            “When there is no way of either logically or scientifically validating one claim against the other, the best we can do is to be mutually tolerant of such beliefs.”

            You’re not the one to determine for all of us that “there is no way of either logically or scientifically validating one claim against the other”. Please stop throwing around such generalities and stick to facts. I’m well aware of the concept of tolerance. Why don’t you go preach it to the millions of religious people who are willing to murder for their religion.

          • Be-Bop-A-Lula

            You have a tremendous faith in the way you are grasping the universe. And that is normal because the way you feel/see/think is the only one you know. But if I tell you that the way you feel/see/think is subjected to certain conditions, and that it is happening on a dual mode, and that awareness don’t exclusively work on that mode , would you believe me?

            I am assuming that probably not, because it wouldn’t useful for you to think that way.

            From my perspective, there is indeed a strong philosophical current behind your statements.
            Of course, from your perspective, you don’t make any statement outside what the objective world is telling us…

            But that is a classic materialist reflex. it is proper to scientism to not let interfere philosophy with science since they don’t have much in common…

          • Ajita Kamal

            “You have a tremendous faith in the way you are grasping the universe.”

            That’s a harsh accusation you make of me. Let’s look at what I DO believe in.

            I believe in that the best way we have of understanding the universe is to study the evidence. Belief in the supremacy of observation, experiment and evidence is the opposite of faith. Science is the opposite of faith.

            “And that is normal because the way you feel/see/think is the only one you know.”

            Please refrain from baseless personal attacks. Such rhetoric is more appropriate at undergraduate level disputes.

            “But if I tell you that the way you feel/see/think is subjected to certain conditions, and that it is happening on a dual mode, and that awareness don’t exclusively work on that mode , would you believe me?”

            No. Again, evidence please.

            “But that is a classic materialist reflex. it is proper to scientism to not let interfere philosophy with science since they don’t have much in common…”

            Let me make it clear that you are wrong in accusing me of scientism. There are moral premises involved in all applied scientific endeavors, and your accusation misses the nuance in my position.

            If you really think you saw some “reflex” in my comments, its just you bringing your own confirmation bias into the equation. Your fundamental accusation is false. I am well aware of the role of philosophy, as should be obvious if you read the article.

  • hi kamath

    you say science is opposite to faith and it is based on evidence and observation.ok well kindly provide me the evidence of evolution of time exactly and what was our universe before big bang explosion occured.even big bang theory doest not say exact reason for why the universe came in to existence ..

  • Ajita,

    The article you have written is worth heartily appreciation, considering the relatively dearth of such article in Indian skeptic scene.

    Also, it is unfortunate to see that people are mistaking Causality for Determinism. Both necessarily overlap, but are not the same thing. For example, the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is totally in deterministic but necessarily causal.

    But some points where I like to take a stand differing from your own are the following :

    1. Sciences while primarily does operate on Causality, it does not necessarily operates on it. Rather a more apt statement would be that Science operate on Relations, Causality being a special case of relations where An event has a unique pre-image in a point in space and time.

    2. Rather than a temporary suspension of Causality, these theists warp it to conform to their own beliefs. It warps into the unpalatable and totally unscientific interpretation, that even minds like Descartes bought into. The dogma of Dualism, where Mind and Matter are subject to separate realm.

    While people like me and, I presume, you are convinced Monist. I do believe that there is some sort of free will possible due to Physical Emergence, but don’t think that it will in any way persist in any way after the squishy hardware of my head fails me, barring of course any sort of Matrix-esque Brain Uploading.

    Regardless, I stand by you in providing a definitive terminology to Naturalistic philosophy of life in a society where, nowadays, the only qualification to being a rationalist is disbelief in deity while harbouring very potently idiotic beliefs. It is in this vein that aspire to work for a free thought organization such as Nirmukta once I become economically independent.

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