Agency and Freewill in Metaphysical Naturalism

In the last two parts of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” there was an aspect in each discussion that suggests we live in a deterministic universe.

A vs. B Theory of TimeIn my article about cosmology and time, I discussed the B-Thoery of time, which holds that all time is equally real, so that the past exists in the same moment as our present, and our present exists in the same moment as the future. This theory of time explains how our universe did not “begin” ex nihilo, but has always existed in four permanent dimensions, with time simply being the fourth dimension of space. This approach to time is useful for countering the apologetic cosmological argument, but it also leads to the conclusion that our universe is fully determined. After all, if the future already exists in the same moment as our present, then the future must already be determined.

brain-leftIn my article about human origins, I also discussed Mind-Body Physicalism, which holds that our minds are purely physical objects. As such, mental states are either identical to physical states or are supervenient upon physical states. Today we can map the human brain and even locate the very parts of the brain that control our thoughts and actions. In fact, we can even identify activity in the brain that takes place before we ourselves are aware of it. When we see a face, our brains show activity a fraction of a second before we recognize seeing a face at all. The physicality of our brains thus leads to the conclusion that they are causally determined, just like any other arrangement of matter in our universe.

If we do live in a deterministic universe, as the discussion above suggests, then it should be a slam dunk case that no Freewill exists. Right? Well, not exactly…

Although in popular culture the idea of Freewill has been inseparably associated with Indeterminism, professional philosophers do not see it that way. In fact, 55.7% of professional philosophers adhere to a view known as Compatibilism, which maintains that causal determinism is fully compatible with Freewill. In contrast, only 16.7% of philosophers agree with Incompatibilist Freewill, which maintains that Freewill must require an indetermined universe. 14.7% of philosophers identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 12.9% argue that there is no Freewill.

The numbers do not change drastically among philosophers who specialize in Philosophy of Cognitive Science, except that the view of Incompatibilist Freewill is even less commonly held! 52.5% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science hold to Compatibilist Freewill (about the same percentage as the professional philosophical community as a whole), and a substantially smaller proportion — 7.4% — agrees with Incompatibilist Freewill. 14.8% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 25.4% argue that there is no Freewill.

Since Compatibilism is, by a large margin, the dominant view of agency and Freewill among the professional philosophical community, anyone interested in metaphysics, theism, or naturalism should take it very seriously. Compatibilism will be the view of agency and Freewill that I will defend in this metaphysics series.

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Human Origins in Metaphysical Naturalism: Abiogenesis, Unguided Evolution, and Mind-Body Physicalism

In the last part of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I discussed cosmology and the origins of our universe from a naturalist and atheistic perspective. In this next part of the series I will be focusing more particularly on the origin of life in our universe (at least on the only planet currently known to host life, i.e. Earth), and the evolution of lifeforms from simple states to the intelligent minds of human beings today. This journey will require discussing: 1) the abiogenesis of life from non-living matter, 2) the evolution of biological diversity from common descent, 3) and the mind-body physicalism of human minds in a naturalist universe.

solar_system_formationThe planet Earth has been around for about 4.6 billion years, when a cloud of interstellar gas — filled with particles of ice, dust, rock, and other particles — collapsed to a point of concentrated mass, causing rising heat and the formation of our Sun. Most of the matter in this collapsing nebula fell into our Sun, but other material formed into a planetary disc in orbit around the Sun, causing particles to collide and eventually planets to take shape from cumulative bombardments with solid objects. The third planet from our Sun, Earth, happened to be in the Habitable Zone, which is the region in a solar system where a planet is neither too close nor too far from its star to form liquid water. Earth eventually formed liquid oceans on its surface and also an atmosphere with just the right greenhouse balance for the planet to be neither too hot nor too cold for complex life. The first surviving fossils of life date to about 3.5 billion years ago (about a billion years into our planet’s history) and scientists estimate that life on Earth could have began anywhere from 3.9-3.5 billion years ago.

This sequence of events has left us with a vexing question: what started life on Earth so long ago and how did it get to the point of us humans beings here today?

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Three Problems that the United States Must Address by the Mid-21st Century

One of the upshots of secular humanism is that it encourages us to look towards the future and the needs of our descendants when shaping our values, goals, and policies—instead of living selfishly and only in the demands of the present. As such, one of the major topics that secular humanists need to begin seriously discussing is how we are to take care of our homelands, both in a national sense and in a global sense, in the 21st century and beyond. As we move into a new era of progress and change, having abandoned so many decrepit past systems of practice and belief, we must continue to root out those systems still in place that are antiquated, no longer serving us most effectively or justly. Where these systems have decayed, we must replace them; where they have become destructive, we must reformat them entirely. It is only by this self-evaluative process that citizens of advancing nations—and especially of the United States—can truly hold themselves as good custodians of their country and protectors of their people.

The following list contains three of the most pressing issues from a secular humanist standpoint that currently weigh on the United States:

  1. Economic Inequality
  2. Domestic Issues of Social Justice
  3. Climate Change/Renewable Energy

This list is by no means extant, and in the course of its arguments will present some uncommon or uncomfortable evidences; however, the astute reader will notice the common themes of systemic injustice and political inefficacy that underlie each point. Ultimately, although solutions have been hinted at where possible, only through the increasing discussion, awareness, and action of (or on behalf of) those currently most affected by these budding challenges will the United States be duly prepared to set sail into the latter half of the century.

 1. Economic Inequality

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In Favor of Losing Your Faith: A Letter to the Lukewarm

This message is not intended for the very assuredly religious. If your religion—be it Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam, or some other iteration—is central to your daily life and/or to your self-identity, then perhaps check back another time. I can no more convince you away from your beliefs than you can coax me towards them. Let us part here, then.

Neither is this message especially meant for those already settled into stable secular worldviews. Much of what is presented here will likely seem superfluous to you, and perhaps redundant in light of your own thoughts. If you do choose to continue reading, just know that it is not to you that I address these words.

Rather, this is a message for the nominally religious, for those who claim religious affiliation by proxy of something or someone else, and, especially for those who claim it out of some uncertainty or fear. To all the half-observant, prayer-dozing, “my parent(s) follow X religion and therefore I too follow X religion” theists, and, again, especially to the confused, afraid, or newly-questioning, this is for you.

Dearest lukewarm believers,

The time has come to reconsider your faith.

As harsh as it is, there is no way to sugarcoat this statement without it losing its urgency. It is urgent. Those of you who claim a religious affiliation out of tradition, conformity, or fear have the potential to be immensely powerful agents of change, if only you will choose to be. Our world and its future depend, in part, on the thoughts and actions of those nominal theists brave enough to critically consider their worldviews.

Hear me out. Here’s how:

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Cosmology and Time in Metaphysical Naturalism

For the next part of my series about the ‘metaphysics’ in metaphysical naturalism I will be analyzing how modern scientific theories about cosmology fit in to the naturalist worldview. Since I am not a professional scientist, I will be quoting authorities for all critical information. The purpose of this article is more philosophical than scientific, in that it does not seek to advance a particular scientific theory, but rather to demonstrate how modern cosmological theories align with the definition of metaphysical naturalism discussed earlier in this series. Feedback is welcome from professionals, if any of the scientific discussion below has factual errors or is unclear. I have worked to quote scientific authorities in their own words as much as possible, in order that their theories be represented as close as possible to their own views.

The study of cosmology has a long history (see here), but since around the end of the 20th century scientists have reached a generally cohesive view of what our universe looks like. The observable universe that we live in is a sphere with a radius of about 46 billion lightyears. Beyond that the unobservable universe is much larger, and is still inflating rapidly. Within this observable part of the universe alone there are at least 100 billion galaxies (and possibly 500 billion galaxies in the whole universe), and, if modern observational estimates among astronomers are correct about there being 17 billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy, then the rest of the universe no doubt contains many, many more.

For a musical description of the vast scale of our galaxy and universe, I recommend the Galaxy Song in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

In the 1920’s American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble discovered that our universe is not static. Instead, space is expanding rapidly. Current estimates calculate the rate of expansion at 74.3 (plus or minus 2.1) kilometers per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years). Since, looking towards the future, the universe is expanding out of control, looking towards the past, we would expect the universe to have emerged from a much smaller point. 

The modern theory of the Big Bang answers this question. Scientists have traced the expansion of our universe to a very small initial state about 13.82 billion years ago. Before the expansion, our universe, including its Big Bang Expansionmatter and radiation, was compressed into a very hot and very dense point of mass just a few millimeters across. This state is theorized to have existed for a fraction of the first second of time, before a massive blast caused the universe’s matter and energy, and even space and time, to expand rapidly. In the trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded at an unfathomable rate from merely the size of a pebble to being of astronomical scale.

This sequence of events has left us with a vexing question: what caused the Big Bang?

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Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism

Before we can say what the metaphysical naturalist worldview looks like, we must first articulate the definitional limitations of what the ‘natural’ means. Philosopher Paul Draper defines naturalism as:

“The hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system [in the sense that] nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.”

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Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism

All of us (or at least most of us) have beliefs about what exists: the universe, time, living beings, we humans and our place within the cosmos, etc. These individual entities or concepts that we believe in, however, normally do not exist in a vacuum without interrelation. Instead, we construct systems of belief, where things fit together into a “big picture” explanation of reality. This big picture makes up our metaphysical beliefs.

As Austin Cline of About Agnosticism/Atheism explains: 

“In Western philosophy, metaphysics has become the study of the fundamental nature of all reality — what is it, why is it, and how are we can understand it. Some treat metaphysics as the study of ‘higher’ reality or the ‘invisible’ nature behind everything, but that isn’t true. It is, instead, the study of all of reality, visible and invisible; and what constitutes reality, natural and supernatural.”

Many atheists often eschew metaphysics as one of those arcane subjects of philosophy, which asks pointless and untestable questions about reality. However, as Cline explains:

“Because metaphysics is technically the study of all reality, and thus whether there is any supernatural element to it at all, in truth metaphysics is probably the most fundamental subject which irreligious atheists should focus on. Our ability to understand what reality is, what it is composed of, what ‘existence’ means, etc., is fundamental to most of the disagreements between irreligious atheists and religious theists.”

One way to think about metaphysics is that, even if science (or some epistemology of the sort) informs our beliefs about what exists, metaphysics is concerned with finding a place for what exists within a broader philosophical and theoretical framework. Metaphysics is concerned with fitting the pieces together.

Metaphysics Chart

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