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

Cross posted from our website here.

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


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


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


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).

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