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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Trying to Explain Things, Naturalism Offers a Jumbled Mishmash

In the field of philosophy, naturalism is the position that everything can be explained in terms of the natural, without imagining anything supernatural. Let us imagine a young man named Walter who comes to a naturalist, seeking some explanation for some things that have puzzled him. The conversation might go something like this:

Walter: I have three things I don't understand. The first is why my legs seem so fit for the purpose of running. The second is why my eyes are so very fit for the purpose of seeing. The third is why my hands are very fit for the purpose of picking things up. Could you help me explain these things?

Naturalist: I have a single coherent explanation for all of these things, We can explain your legs using the principle of natural selection, by assuming that they evolved because they gave your ancestors better survival values, because fast runners can better escape predators. We can explain your eyes by also using the principle of natural selection, by assuming that they evolved because they gave your ancestors better sight, because organisms can see better and find food faster and spot predators faster. We can explain your hands by also using this same principle of natural selection, by assuming that they evolved because they gave your ancestors the ability to pluck berries and fruit better.

Now in terms of coherence, the naturalist has done a good job here. He has offered a single principle that explains all three of Walter's questions. But let us suppose that this naturalist encounters a different young man with a much larger set of questions, a man named David. The conversation might go something like this.

David: I have some things I don't understand, and I wondered if you can help me explain them.

Naturalist: Certainly, I would be glad to help.

David: My first question is: why did the universe suddenly begin about 13 billion years ago, in the event known as the Big Bang?

Naturalist: Well, uh...there are some interesting theories about that. Perhaps the whole universe just popped into existence out of nothing as a kind of big“quantum fluctuation.”

David: Very well. My second question: why does the universe have all of these fundamental constants that seem to conspire in such an astonishing way to make the universe habitable? It seems that the chance of all these “anthropic coincidences” occurring by chance is incredibly small. For example, they say the cosmological constant seems fine-tuned to 60 decimal places.

Naturalist: Well, uh...it could be that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 universes, a vast multiverse of trillions of quadrillions of quintillions of universes, and if there were something like that, we might expect that one of them might just coincidentally have the physics and fundamental constants needed for intelligent life to exist.

David: I see. Now another thing I would like help in understanding is: how could life and the genetic code have originated billions of years ago? For you to have even the simplest starting point of life, you need some very advanced things like a genetic code and self-reproducing molecules. Don't tell me that natural selection caused that, because you needed to have this starting point before biological natural selection could even begin.

Naturalist: Well, we can simply imagine that there was an incredibly lucky combination of chemicals that produced these things --- kind of like throwing a box of scrabble letters up in the air many times, and one time having them spell out a coherent message.

David: I see. But there's another “origin” question I'm interested in: the origin of man's higher consciousness. It seems that man has lots of things that don't really do him much good from a “survival of the fittest” standpoint – things like spirituality, mathematical reasoning, self-consciousness, an “inner stream of experience,” aesthetic appreciation and creativity, morality, altruism, and so forth. How could man have got all these things? Don't tell me it was just natural selection, because most of these things don't help people survive until they reproduce.

Naturalist: Well, we can simply imagine that lots of these things are just incidental side-effects of neuron activity – kind of like the gravy produced incidentally when you cook a turkey.

David: I see. I am also puzzled by the evidence for psychic phenomena – things like ESP and remote viewing. There have been lots of experiments offering strong evidence for ESP.

Naturalist: No, that cannot exist, so we must explain that by assuming things like math errors and fraud.

David: I see. I would also like help explaining these reports known as near-death experiences. You've probably heard of them – when people almost die, and often claim that they floated out of their bodies and were transported to some kind of heavenly realm or an encounter with a “Being of Light.”

Naturalist: Those must just be hallucinations – a set of people who are coincidentally having similar hallucinations.

David: I see. But there's something else I would like help explaining. There are people called mediums who claim to be able to communicate with dead people. I have heard that some are fake, but it seems that some of them seemed to produce very paranormal results, and stood up very well to investigation. I'm talking about people like Daniel Dunglas Home, Leonora Piper, and Gladys Osborne Leonard.

Naturalist: No one survives death, so there must be some other explanation. Maybe they hypnotized people into believing they were achieving paranormal results.

David: I see. I would also like some help in explaining the very puzzling research on reincarnation done by Stevenson, that psychiatrist. He spent most of his life gathering countless reports of children who said they were reincarnated, and he found corroborating evidence in very many cases.

Naturalist: That cannot be real, so it must be something like fraud, hallucinations, or conspiracies.

David: I see. I have only two things left that I need explaining. The second-to-last thing I would like an explanation for is apparition sightings. Why have so many people said they saw ghosts or apparitions?

Naturalist: That cannot be real, so that must also be caused by hallucinations.

David: Hallucinations again? Aren't you over-using that as an explanation?

Naturalist: Okay, so I heard someone suggest that apparitions may be caused by mold spores, so let me suggest that as an explanation.

David: Very well. There's one last thing I need help explaining. Why have sometimes people reported miraculous cures or paranormal premonitions or unexplained voices of warning, or seemingly miraculous phenomena observed by multiple witnesses?

Naturalist: I would suggest explanations such as lies, coincidence, optical illusions, and mass hysteria.

David: So let me try to summarize your answers. The explanations you are suggesting for these things I needed help explaining include (1) the universe popped into existence out of nothing; (2) there's also a vast collection of a billion trillion gazillion unobserved universes; (3) life and a genetic code suddenly originated from chemicals, by lucky combinations, like long messages forming from tossed scrabble blocks; (4) our higher mental features arose just as a kind of incidental by-product, like gravy from a cooking turkey; (5) there were math errors, different types of hallucinations, and lots of coincidences that misled people; (6) people got hypnotized by psychics; (7) there were lies, optical illusions, and mass hysteria; (8) there was fraud by investigators, or conspiracies; (9) and finally … mold spores.

Naturalist: Yes, that pretty much covers it.

Now, what nouns best describe the weird, motley assortment of explanations suggested by the naturalist to explain David's items?

One noun is: mishmash.

Another good noun is: hodgepodge.

We might also describe it by calling it an incoherent jumble.

A jumbled mishmash

The set of explanations offered by the naturalist in response to David's questions is incoherent and jumbled in the sense that it doesn't stick together. Instead of having some common theme or unified thread, the naturalist's explanations are a weird disjointed grab-bag of wildly dissimilar stabs at explaining things. There is no unity or common thread in this smorgasbord of attempts at explanation. While Walter's questions were given a unified, coherent explanation, there is no such unity or coherence in the explanations offered to David's questions. Also, two of the most important parts are non-explanations, because a multiverse cannot explain fine-tuning in this universe (as opposed to some universe), and we have never observed any visible object popping into existence out of nothing (leaving a universe popping into existence out of nothing as a non-explanation).

The naturalist's explanations for David's items are rather like the explanations given below:

Wife: I'm getting suspicious. This is the sixth night in a row you've come home late.
Husband: I can explain. The first night I had to work late. The second night I got stuck in the office elevator. The third and fourth nights I was actually home on time, but you hallucinated that I got home late. The fifth night I was late because I got flat tires on all four tires of my car. On the sixth night I was home late because I was abducted by aliens.

Of course, we would not expect the wife to believe this jumbled mishmash of an explanation, which does not involve anything a millionth as extravagant as an explanation of multiple universes or the universe randomly popping into existence out of nothing.

But let us imagine a different way of explaining the items in David's list. We may suppose that there is some benevolent Creator of the universe. We may also imagine that this Creator is interested in giving humans an afterlife, which may well be a direct implication of such a creator's benevolence. Given such assumptions, all or almost all of the items on David's list can be explained in a unified, coherent way.

The table below illustrates this point. The first column lists the items that David asked for an explanation for. The second column offers explanations for these items based on the assumption of a divine creator and an afterlife. The third column offers explanations for these items under an assumption of naturalism.

Item To Be Explained Divine Creator + Afterlife”
Naturalism Framework
Origin of universe Caused by a divine creator. Perhaps caused by something like a “random quantum fluctuation” in which the universe suddenly appeared from nothing.
Cosmic fine-tuning
(anthropic “coincidences”)
Caused by a divine creator interested in having life appear. Our universe is just a rare “lucky universe” in some vast collection of trillions of quadrillions of universes.
Origin of life and the genetic code An almost-miraculous event that occurred either directly through divine assistance, or because of teleological laws/factors favoring such an event (only some of which have been discovered ). Occurred through a lucky combination of chemicals, prior to the beginning of biological natural selection – kind of like throwing a box of scrabble blocks in the air and having them luckily land to spell out a long useful message.
Origin of human higher capabilities
(language, spirituality, morality, self-consciousness, philosophical introspection, etc. )
Involved the appearance of special human mental abilities inexplicable through mere natural selection, either because of divine assistance, a human soul, or through teleological laws/factors favoring the appearance of such capabilities. Appeared mainly as an “incidental by-product” of random evolution, a kind of side-effect, just as gravy is a side-effect of cooking a turkey.
ESP, clairvoyance, remote viewing These are indications of some higher nature of the human mind that cannot be neurologically explained, such as a human soul. All evidence for these phenomenon must be rejected, because the mind is merely a by-product of neuron activity. We must imagine a lot of fraud and countless clumsy errors by professional experimenters.
Near-death experiences (NDE) Probably a sign that humans do survive death, presumably because a divine creator is interested in such survival. Near-death experiments must be hallucinations, and the similarities of the NDE accounts must be just a big coincidence.
Medium activity (e.g. Leonora Piper, Gladys Osborne Leonard, Daniel Dunglas Home) These remarkable careers create no problem, because maybe they actually were communicating with the dead. Remarkable successes of some mediums must be explained as fraud, coincidence, or some combination of the two – or perhaps they hypnotized people into believing their work.
Evidence for reincarnation (Stevenson, etc.) It could be some people do reincarnate, or perhaps people get information from deceased people telepathically. All evidence for this phenomenon must be rejected. Maybe fraud or conspiracies can explain this.
Apparition sightings Probably occur because there is a human soul surviving death. All such evidence must be rejected, and must be explained as things like hallucinations.
Paranormal premonitions; seemingly miraculous healing; other “miraculous” events. Could occur either through divine assistance or through the assistance of some spiritual beings (such as angels or deceased souls surviving death). All accounts of such phenomena must be rejected. Some of the more remarkable accounts might be explained by hallucinations or simultaneous mass hysteria.

The column of explanations offered in the second column is far more unified and coherent than the column of explanations offered in the third column. The second column offers explanations that hang together very well, with everything being explained under the same basic assumptions. But all of the king's horses and all of the king's men cannot spin the third column into a unified and coherent explanation of the diverse items in the first column. What we have in the third column is a disjointed jumble, an incoherent hodgepodge, and a mishmash.