Owen Flanagan and Alex Rosenberg


Owen Flanagan (left) and Alex Rosenberg (right) on the significance of naturalism.

Naturalists believe that the world is scientifically intelligible (at least in principle). Thus, naturalists doubt the reality of anything that cannot fit into a scientific worldview. How discomforting are naturalists’ doubts? Can naturalists coherently regard life as meaningful? Rosenberg is happily pessimistic about the answers to such questions. In this conversation, Rosenberg defends his pessimism, and Flanagan resists it. They discuss whether Darwin banished purpose (17:27), why naturalists get up in the morning (34:30), and morality and politics from a naturalist perspective (49:45), among other topics.

Related works

by Flanagan:
The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (2011)
The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2009)

by Rosenberg:
The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (2011)
with Tamler Sommers: “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life” (2003)

10 comments to Owen Flanagan and Alex Rosenberg

  • Jawad

    Lets grant for an argument sake that theory of naturalism is the best way (at the present)to make sense of and understand the nature/function of the universe. I myself do hold naturalist outlook, as i go about experiencing the world. However, the following question arises, – a (meta)metaphysical question- what is the nature of naturalism? For instance, Bob who is a neuroscientist has just uncovered the part of the brain that is responsible of incorporating the principles of rationality in the human-experience -in other words, making our experience coherent. being that one is a naturalist, i would assume that this would satisfy -indeed- the naturalist criterion of ‘truth’ about the physical nature of human experience (i.e., the coherence of our experience- looking at a table and seeing the table as such ). In spite of, what naturalism allows one to accomplish – the ‘truth’ about the things, etc in the physical world; given the nature of naturalism (nature of contemplation), we make use of non-natural method(s) to grasp the ‘truth’ (the universe, etc). This is the point i am making, even though naturalism allows one to discover the truth about the nature of the reality (bosons, etc)- although still incomplete (and will remain so due to the nature of the method and limits of human technology), one still needs non-natural methods (whatever that may be) in order to reflect on the nature of naturalism.

    Here is the question that still remains (i think for me) unanswered: given the fact that one comes to know that such and such neurons in the brain are responsible for – say allowing one to do mathematics- would one be satisfied by -just the naturalist answer? Wouldn’t one want to reflect on the results of mathematical activities and examine what they tell us about what mathematics is and its relationship with the universe? (of-course, the philosophers of mathematics, and mathematicians are engaged in this sort of activity, but i am making a different point) Would naturalism suffice to answer these question, or would we need another method to answer these questions?

    Maybe naturalism could answer the above questions (for i am not in position to answer this question)…

  • I’ve read Rosenberg’s piece in the NYTs and seen this episode but I am still not clear on what kind of naturalism he is advancing.

    Anyway, here’s another thought I had while watching. Regarding Rosenberg’s responses to the moral issues Flanagan raised, it doesn’t seem to me that Rosenberg’s explanation will do the kind of work needed for any kind of theory required for a normative outlook in the world. Rosenberg says something like it may be natural to behave morally and that provides all the normativity we need. (I hope I’m accurate in capturing his expressed views and apologize if I got them wrong).

    But then the problem is why ought we follow our natural moral instincts? I can imagine someone saying in response, “because we want to” but I don’t think this will do because of this. It is reasonable to me that we also have many natural instincts that may be detrimental to morality (such as instincts to rape or murder in some circumstances). It becomes difficult to see why we ought to follow or cultivate some of our instincts (namely the moral ones) rather than others (the ones detrimental to morality). A response here is that since most of our instincts are moral in nature, we ought to follow that and ignore any instincts that may go contrary and cause discord with the majority of our instincts.

    But what if the classical Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu, e.g. is correct and that the majority of human natural instincts are not moral but selfish and immoral? In fact, the thesis that humans are by nature essentially wicked is supported by at least some empirical evidence:


    Then ought we follow our evil instincts, ignoring our moral ones and murder, rape, etc?

  • Jay Jeffers

    Another fascinating Philosophy.tv episode. I enjoyed it very much. I have some concerns about Rosenberg’s views. My main concerns are somewhat related to NChen’s about the impact of nihilism on our everyday moral practices. But mine have more to do with Rosenberg’s claim that a (relatively) left-wing agenda follows when you combine our core morality with scientism (this topic was broached around 52:55 of the conversation).

    My best interpretation of Rosenberg’s view (from watching the discussion) is that we would keep constant “core morality” but expose the parts of our (society’s) moral beliefs that privilege right-wing convictions about keeping what you earn (i.e. desert should govern outcomes). If there are no free choices (as Rosenberg believes) then no one has actually earned their wealth in the sense we normally believe. Determinism rules out that we earned our talents, even. So right-wing meritocratic convictions are de-privileged.

    However, (as the argument goes) the way we organize society should be in line with *other* parts of core morality – presumably the parts that stress equality.

    But I have to wonder why the potency of scientism that de-privileges roughly right-wing moral concepts does not also debunk left-wing moral concepts. I mean this in the general sense that if core morality is debunked, it makes little sense to move from this state of affairs to raising some parts of core morality over others; it’s all been bebunked so there’s nothing left. I also mean this is a more specific sense in that “just desert” is a general moral concept that both political sides employ. The philosophers covered right-wing uses of desert in the discussion so I won’t go into it, and due to lack of time/space, I’ll merely gesture at the fact that the left too often uses a populist sense of justice to motivate its foot soldiers. I realize this use of justice is not the same as the “keeping what you earn” kind, but it’s a substantive sense of justice nonetheless. How does one survive nihilism while the other perishes? It seems to me that they rise and fall together, at least metaphysically.

    Flanagan shares something like the same concern about Rosenberg’s argument, but Flanagan’s concern seemed more related to NChen’s: why won’t we just disintegrate into a world of “each against each” once we realize that no one deserves anything? I thought Rosenberg’s answer to this particular concern was adequate. But it still seems like left-wing convictions about equality rise and fall along with right-wing convictions about keeping what you earn. Nihilism doesn’t seem to favor one or the other, in other words.

    Again, I’m (at least provisionally) satisfied with Rosenberg’s answer that we won’t be able to act as if nothing matters even if we abstractly reflect on the truth of nihilism (which is true here for the sake of argument). Perhaps Rosenberg has reason to believe that right-wing moral convictions having to do with merit are more recent, artificial, or otherwise wrong-headed than left wing convictions having to do with equality, which could be a part of our imbedded moral took-kit that we couldn’t get rid of even if we tried. But, at the very least, it’s not obvious that left-wing and right-wing moral convictions are dissimilar in this way.

  • Rosenberg claims that we are *under the illusion* that we have purposes, find meaning, and have intentional states like beliefs and desires, etc. since you can’t find such things in fermions, bosons, neurons, neurotransmitters and other lower level physical constituents of ourselves. If it ain’t straightforwardly physical, it ain’t real, only illusory. But as Dennett points out, there are real *patterns* in nature as well as real physical constituents, and the reality of physically constituted patterns is established naturalistically by their playing robust and ineliminable roles in our explanations.

    So it is with behaviorally and verbally expressed intentional states and their objects (e.g., my beliefs, desires, purposes and hopes as an individual): whether or not neural states represent propositionally (and it isn’t clear they don’t at some level), attributed intentional states play an ineliminable role in explanations of human (and some other animal) behavior that permit reliable prediction and control, just as references to the denizens of physical and biological theory play essential explanatory roles in their respective domains.

    As naturalists, we can see there’s nothing immaterial or spooky going on in talk about purposes and meaning, since organisms and their behavior are fully physically realized. But there’s also no reason to suppose that we’re under an illusion in claiming to have purposes and pursue meanings in life, since referring to such things captures stable, brain-based behavioral patterns that can’t be captured at the level of our physical constituents. This allows us to understand ourselves in ways we otherwise couldn’t, where such understanding is cashed out concretely in prediction and control just as in any good theory. This qualifies intentional states as real as brain states. So I don’t see that the scientific story Rosenberg presents is a threat to the standard human-level account of why we do what we do, including the quest for meaning.

    More in response to Rosenberg’s “nice nihilism” is at http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2009/11/is-naturalism-nihilistic.html

  • w

    GREAT, thanks. Wish Maddy’s ‘Second Philosophy’ would get a mention as it is by far the best discussion of naturalism I’ve yet come across.

  • Robert Wolfson

    Hello, Alex—I’ll give you bosons and fermions, but how do we deal with those anomalies: dark matter and dark energy? There seems to be little question that those two things are out there. But do they come in the form of bosons or fermions? How do we deal with the, apparently incontrovertible, expansion of the universe, at an accelerating rate, without assuming dark energy, or something of the sort?

    Nice to see and hear you. Bob

  • Robert Wolfson

    Hello, Alex—I’ll give you bosons and fermions, but how do we deal with those anomalies: dark matter and dark energy? There seems to be little question that those two things are out there. But do they come in the form of bosons or fermions, or something else? How do we deal with the, apparently incontrovertible, expansion of the universe, at an accelerating rate, without assuming dark energy, or something of the sort?

    Nice to see and hear you. Bob

  • Bian

    Really appreciate this discussion. Hope to see more from these two in the future.

  • I also found Rosenberg’s answer to the political stuff intriguing but very much lacking in argumentation relying on major assumptions.

    For example, he says that punishment and distributive justice itself is a leftist notion and says that his form of naturalism justifies a less punitive and more egalitarian society in terms of distributive justice. His reasoning is that [deterministic] causation makes free will and hence moral responsibility impossible. But he then goes on to say that we cannot abandon our (in P.F. Strawson’s words) reactive attitudes due to their naturalness. But presumably some of our natural reactive attitudes are retributive and its unclear that they would be assuaged by the realization that we are unfree beings without punishing (or rewarding people in the case of our inclinations to praise).

    Moreover, Rosenberg relies on these assumptions

    1. that naturalism implies that determinism is true

    2. that determinism makes free will and moral responsibility impossible

    The first is an open question. Philosophers of science and physicists are not convinced that all our actions are determined. As to 2. most philosophers are compatibilists. Also even if the world were not deterministic, most philosophers would probably believe in free will since there are also incompatibilists and most compatibilists theories of free will does not depend on the truth determinism/indeterminism, either would do. It seems that Rosenberg would need to offer a serious rebuttal and defend the small minority of philosophers (12%!)who do not believe in free will.

  • Hi,

    Thanks for this.

    Rosenberg appears to link physics to a kind of mechanistic-cum-atomistic (MCA) view of matter. The core components of a MCA view of matter can be summed up as follows:
    1) Homogeneous and of the same nature and only distinguished by quantitative differences of size, shape, mass, spin, tension (string theory) and motion.
    2) Having no intrinsic finality or goal-directedness.
    3) At the fundamental level has no conscious activity.
    4) In ancient Greek atomism there are two fundamental principles, atoms (Greek = átomos) and the void. These are analogous to today’s “fundamental particles (bosons and fermions if you want)” and “empty space-time” respectively.
    5) All change is described in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of these fundamental principles.

    Rosenberg says:

    The basic things everything is made up of are fermions and bosons. That’s it. Perhaps you thought the basic stuff was electrons, protons, neutrons, and maybe quarks. Besides those particles, there are also leptons, neutrinos, muons, tauons, gluons, photons, and probably a lot more elementary particles that make up stuff. But all these elementary particles come in only one of two kinds. Some of them are fermions; the rest are bosons. There is no third kind of subatomic particle. And everything is made up of these two kinds of things. Roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of. Fermions and bosons. All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.

    Rosenberg, Alex (2011-09-26). The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (Kindle Locations 523-530). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

    So Rosenberg seems to endorse and assume some sort of MCA which of course is a metaphysical view not an empirical one. The logic and rationality of this view cannot be determined empirically.

    Aristotelian metaphysics is perfectly compatible with modern physics (and vise versa) so Rosenberg has to at least make an argument for why his particular metaphysical thesis is logically and rationally supportable or even superior. However, since Rosenberg’s scientism and naturalism appears to limit all knowledge to empirical sciences it is also logically impossible to ever know whether such a position can ever be rational or irrational or logical or illogical. Pure blind faith that cannot in principle be logically grounded in empirical science (as opposed to how faith is normally understood) appears to support Rosenberg’s metaphysical view.

    Rosenberg also seems to endorse Darwin’s view of natural selection as some sort of causal factor in biological change. In other words natural selection is prescriptive and not descriptive if we are to accept Rosenberg’s view of natural selection. He writes:

    When it comes to the biological realm, all that is needed to banish purpose is the recognition that the process of natural selection Darwin discovered is just physics at work among the organic molecules.

    Rosenberg, Alex (2011-09-26). The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (Kindle Locations 911-913). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

    Darwin was a teleologist precisely because of his view of natural selection. So Rosenberg’s assertion that natural selection banishes purpose seems incoherent. Aristotle’s formal and final causality are preserved in Darwin’s natural selection, however, natural selection as used by Darwin is some sort of extrinsic teleological factor or force or cause relative to the matter as conceived by the MCA metaphysical view of matter while the formal and final causes of hylemorphism are intrinsic to substances (fermions and bosons are just kinds of substances according to this view). This view of natural selection is another metaphysical view of Rosenberg and again, if we are to accept Rosenberg’s scientism and naturalism then it seems he will have to accept it on pure blind faith that cannot logically be grounded in empirical science.

    Here are a few questions regarding the nature of natural selection and I hope Rosenberg can share his views on these questions.


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