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# Naturalism and promises

I am trying to understand how Naturalism -- physicalism, matterism, or WYSIWIGism, whatever you wish to call it -- how it deals with certain aspects of human life. Whether indeed it is possible to give a naturalistic description of some common features of the human condition.

One such feature is the promise. Take a simple promise such as, "I'll pick you up at ten tomorrow." What is the value of this, under Naturalism? A promise has no value until it is executed. Only at 10:01 tomorrow can anyone judge the value of the promise: did I pick you up? Or are you still waiting?

Human life is full of promises; for instance, a promise is embedded in every legal contract. When a promise is executed, or performed, there is a real, measurable, action (e.g., I pull my car up to the curb where you are waiting). At this point of becoming an action, the promise enters the world of matter and forces. But until then, where is it? What purely material description can be made of it?

Perhaps a possible approach is to bring the mathematics of probability into play. The finance industries use this approach; they calculate the "present value" of a promised payment by discounting it proportionally to the probability of default (it's called an interest rate, but it's really a default prediction). But I see nothing about probabilities in naturalistic philosophy.

DAE see a problem here? Or a way to deal with it? Or a relevant source I should read?

Thanks,

Dave Cortesi

Views: 91

### Replies to This Discussion

Interesting questions, Dave!

I'd say a complete answer would involve many levels of explanations, but Axelrod's work on the evolution of cooperation probably covers some of it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation

What purely material description can be made of it?

Under Physicalism (see also my video and article about it), it is a mistake to ask for a "purely material" description, if by 'purely material' you mean 'matter only', or even 'matter/energy only'.

There are several other fundamental physical categories which can and should be included in the description, for example space-time, physical forces, etc. But, crucially, perhaps the most important and also least recognized is the physical category called information, and the closely related category called process.

First of all, a promise is information. When someone says "I'll pick you up at ten tomorrow," this is information which is transmitted from the person making the promise to the person being promised. This promise information exists in the promisee's brain, along with all sorts of background information based on previous past experiences. We perhaps don't have a complete model of how that information is encoded in the brain, but suffice it to say, it is there.

Second, the promise information, and all the background information, become enmeshed in the promisee's cognitive processes. Crucially, the promise is making a prediction about the future. Whether that promise is trustworthy or not will be judged by the promisee, based on past experiences with the promisor and with the world of people in general.

If the promise is deemed trustworthy, then the promisee now has a new bit of information about the future: Tomorrow at 10, it is highly likely that the promisor will arrive in a car to pick me up.

The value of predictive information is best described under the perspective of pragmatism (see also my article specifically on pragmatism and prediction. If I can reasonably depend on the person coming to pick me up at 10, I can forgo looking for other transportation, and I can reliably plan my day around the predicted 10 o'clock pick up. Without that information, I would have to expend extra energy trying to plan my day in the absence of a convenient mode of transport.

But I see nothing about probabilities in naturalistic philosophy.

Again, pragmatism, and its concept of 'usefulness', when seen as 'the ability to make good predictions', inherently endorses whatever good methods there are for evaluating probabilities, such as our natural intuition, logical/rational reasoning based on experience (empiricism), and formal mathematical models of probability such as statistics.

(By the way: Quantum theory is part of the naturalistic philosophy of science/physicalism, and it is all about probability.)

Also, very relevant to such nebulous social constructs as 'promises' is that we must be able to evaluate future likelihoods given new information of uncertain quality (not simply True or False, as in symbolic logic, but 'unlikely, likely, very likely, would bet the farm on it, etc.'), and for this purpose there is a powerful tool called Bayes' Theorem. I have a decent introduction to Bayes' Theorem (in the context of the Bible), which also includes extra links at the bottom of the article.

So, a promise does, in fact, have a value even before it is fulfilled, in that it allows for a more accurate prediction of the future, which in turn allows for the promisee to behave more freely because he/she no longer has to worry about whatever favour was promised, and can apply that energy savings to other behaviours.

hi david -

to me, you are being too literal.  it's all interesting stuff, but belongs to other discussions, etc.

Earth is earth - she is amazing - just 'be' with nature. . .

The science & the beauty of nature of the earth is what it

is all about.  Man as a natural animal.

(which to be 'intellectual' about it for a minute, includes

all the facts and theories that science offers about anything

natural: animal behavior, medicine, psych physiology, physics.

Well here:

Science and technology news  PHYSORG.com -  science news from England.

Most popular topics

articles:

Plant branching hormone discovered

Predatory fish have large guts to help them through famine

Chicks dig certain types of music  (chicken chicks :)

Ancestry of polar bears traced to Ireland

So, if you have gotten through all that - what is man? nature or

nurture - of course, both.  Some children are shy - why? it's genetics and nurturance; one has to work with a shy child and help her/him deal with the shyness, not blame it on the child or yourself.

I guess i'm more of a pragmatist-realist type person - but anyway, enjoy your walk on the beach or in the woods, search for little creatures, swirls in the sand, a crab scuttling in the waves, the sun glistening through the leaves, a delicate little insect on your hand, a rustling in a tree.

That's all I'm trying to say.

There's room in the world for both kinds of knowledge and discussion - one may lead to another and back again. . .

Thanks for letting me rave on - alexa :]

Atheist Naturalists out there - Please let me know if I am off the mark or need to understand further, as I've joined.

Attachments:

hi david -

to me, you are being too literal.  it's all interesting stuff, but belongs to other discussions, etc.

Earth is earth - she is amazing - just 'be' with nature. . .

The science & the beauty of nature of the earth is what it

is all about.  Man as a natural animal.

(which to be 'intellectual' about it for a minute, includes

all the facts and theories that science offers about anything

natural: animal behavior, medicine, psych physiology, physics.

Well here:

Science and technology news  PHYSORG.com -  science news from England.

Most popular topics

articles:

Plant branching hormone discovered

Predatory fish have large guts to help them through famine

Chicks dig certain types of music  (chicken chicks :)

Ancestry of polar bears traced to Ireland

So, if you have gotten through all that - what is man? nature or

nurture - of course, both.  Some children are shy - why? it's genetics and nurturance;

one has to work with a shy child and help them deal with the shyness,

not wish it away and get philosophical about it.

I guess i'm more of a pragmatist-realist type person -

anyway, enjoy your walk on the beach or in the woods, find little

creatures, swirls in the sand, the sun glistening through the leaves.

That's all I'm trying to say.

Atheist Naturalists out there - Please let me know if I am off the mark or need to understand further.

Thanks much - alexa (NYC)

That's all fine, but you and I are trying to use "naturalism" for two different purposes. For purposes of ordering one's life, and of finding a secure sense of belonging in the world, your approach is just right. Call it 'personal philosophy'.

There is a different use of philosophy, or a different approach to thinking about ideas. You call it 'too literal' -- I think you probably mean 'too abstract' -- but it is important for many. And the attacks on naturalism (or on any philosophical position) come from this angle and need to be defended.

The basic question I was looking at was, how much of our life experience can be accounted-for by naturalistic reasoning? Clearly, those who advocate other philosophies will say, there is so much important that materialism cannot explain: love, truth, beauty, etc. So I was thinking about this and it seemed to me there was indeed a fundamental area of human existence that couldn't be given a naturalistic account, namely, anything related to future behavior. Promises of any kind, which include all types of commitments including financial ones (like, your employer's promise to cut your next paycheck) as well as personal ones (like marriage vows). Since it hasn't happened yet, there is no way to describe a promise in material terms, or so I thought.

Wonderist points out that the missing factor was information. Once we include that, it is possible to give materialist accounts of probabilities, and that takes care of promises.

Dear David -

Ok, now I get what you were talking about:

"The basic question I was looking at was, how much of our life experience can be accounted-for by naturalistic reasoning? Clearly, those who advocate other philosophies will say, there is so much important that materialism cannot explain: love, truth, beauty, etc. So I was thinking about this and it seemed to me there was indeed a fundamental area of human existence that couldn't be given a naturalistic account, namely, anything related to future behavior. Promises of any kind, which include all types of commitments including financial ones (like, your employer's promise to cut your next paycheck) as well as personal ones (like marriage vows). Since it hasn't happened yet, there is no way to describe a promise in material terms. . ."

I am too tired to add to this, but now it makes sense - thanks,  alexa

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