Thursday, July 05, 2007

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses

Recently I came across the website of the Institute for the Future of the Book
, which declares:

The printed page is giving way to the networked screen. The Institute for the Future of the Book seeks to chronicle this shift, and impact its development in a positive direction.... For the past five hundred years, humans have used print — the book and its various page-based cousins — to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression. For now, we use the word "book" broadly, even metaphorically,... More profound, however, is the book's reinvention in a networked environment. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is not bound by time or space. It is an evolving entity within an ecology of readers, authors and texts. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is never finished: it is always a work in progress....

I would describe the situation somewhat differently. The print media have “embodied evolving entit[ies] within an ecology of readers, authors and texts" for quite some time. These systems have expanded to include movies and television -- the printed book has not been replaced. One such ecosystem centers on Jane Austen's novels, and includes various editions with prefaces by different commentators; contemporary book reviews; Cliff Notes for two of her novels; abridgements and curriculum guides; movies based on her novels; DVDs and reviews of the movies based on her novels (some of those reviews have appeared in print media and others on the Internet); and -- possibly the most interesting twist -- a novel entitled The Jane Austen Book Club . This novel is inexplicable if you don't read at least the summaries at the end of the book that describe the novels embedded in the story, and it's a lot more fun to read if you have actually read an Austen novel.

(Admittedly, the results of these ecological processes aren't uniformly good: I've seen some really awful movie re-makes, and often, if the earlier movie was based on a novel, the original story is barely recognizable in the remake. On the other hand, many books gain a wider readership because people who see movies based on them get curious.)
Besides, there are still advantages to reading material in print form; that's why people so often print out what they see on that networked screen. You don't need a power source to read a book, either. I think new technologies have simply expanded the information ecosystem that was already there. Maybe some day print books will disappear, but at least during a long transitional period, they will continue to occupy an important niche. And -- to continue the metaphor -- we will see hybrids. For example, Common Birds and Their Songs is a book that is packaged with a CD recording of the songs of the birds it describes.

Another hybrid is the book I'm reviewing here, Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses, by Thomas W. Clark. Clark is Director of the Center for Naturalism ,a 501(c) 3 non-profit educational organization devoted to increasing public awareness of naturalism and its implications for social and personal well-being.... [And] to foster the understanding that human beings and their behavior are fully caused, entirely natural phenomena, and that human flourishing is best achieved in the light of such understanding.” The Center's Advisory Board includes such notables as Susan Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett.

Because it's designed to work with other articles posted on the web, Encountering Naturalism (from now on, I'll just call it "EN") is short -- 101 pages -- and affordable at just $9.95. But, it's dense and thoughtfully written: even if you never use any of the links embedded in the text, the book stands alone as a good introduction to some important aspects of a naturalistic worldview.

The way the book is arranged, you can choose for yourself which topics you will read about in more detail, whether by reading suggested articles on the World Wide Web (to Clark's credit, not all those articles are on the Center for Naturalism's site), or by taking advantage of a thoughtful, carefully chosen bibliography.

"But what does the book say?" you're asking. Good! Now I get to tell you what I like best about EN. It doesn’t cover arguments against the existence of God! I’m not saying there shouldn’t be such books; but there are so many good ones that it’s refreshing to see a readable introduction to other important aspects of a naturalistic (or, if you prefer, humanistic) way of looking at the world. Clark explains in some detail why it is that, if you rule out supernatural explanations, you have to give up two other common beliefs: 1) the idea of a “soul” or a mind that it is somehow separate from your body, and 2) the idea of “free will” – meaning, Clark explains, actions and decisions that are not naturally caused (for example – by genetic predisposition, influence of drugs, or social conditioning).

EN spends little space explaining why these beliefs are false, offering a good list of references {some of them on-line) for interested readers. Instead, Clark explains how naturalism helps us understand ourselves and our personal relationships, and could lead to better-informed, more effective social policies.

An appendix titled “Concerns and Reassurances” briefly answers, critiques of naturalism –e.g. that it’s reductionistic, that offers a rationalization for irresponsibility, that naturalistic determinism means we cannot make meaningful choices. The discussion about choice was hard to follow – it may be that I need to re-read it, but seems more likely that it was not possible to do the topic justice in the space available. I look forward to reading more on this topic.
A second appendix includes that the quotes from a variety of sources including Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Bertrand Russell. I guarantee you will enjoy them.

What would I quibble about?

• Clark describes naturalism as “science-based”, then goes on to say (correctly) that naturalism “goes beyond” science. This could be confusing. Clark does explain that, while science uses empiricism as a tool, naturalism advocates say that as the basis for worldview. However, he doesn’t go into enough detail to fully clarify the issues for readers who are unfamiliar with this distinction.
• I’m surprised that, given the emphasis on understanding the brain and how it works as an explanation of “mind”, the work of Anthony D’ Amasio is not included in the bibliography. I hope to see this changed in a future edition, and trust that readers will find this work if they pay attention to the citations in other books in the bibliography.

• When I followed links to discussions of science on the Center for Naturalism web site, I found that they were primarily devoted to explaining why evolutionary science is indeed scientific, while creationism is not. This is an important issue, and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to find in emphasized on a website whose main purpose is to advocate of well-grounded social policy. But, I would have liked to see a discussion of the tricky question of how far we can go to a base policy on scientific findings that may become obsolete. For example, recommendations for breast cancer prevention, and for proper nutrition, undergo periodic revision as a result of ongoing scientific study.

Of course, it’s a good thing that science is self-correcting. But as we go about our daily lives, we hunger for certainty, and this problem deserves some attention

• This last point might be more aesthetic than anything else, but I was struck by a very sober – almost somber –tone in the discussion of the advantages of a naturalistic viewpoint. Yes, it is significant that, by understanding that our actions are dependent on causes out side ourselves, we are freed of inappropriate guilt for our own actions, and exaggerated resentment towards those who do us harm.

But where’s the joy? I think that understanding ourselves as part of nature implies that we are free to enjoy a sensory experience, rather than condemning such pleasures as low or even “sinful”. And, while Clark carefully points out that most of us behave morally because we know we are accountable to other people, he doesn’t say anything about the pleasure to be found in making other is happy. Love and friendship are as fully natural as fear of punishment. I do acknowledge the space limitations, but a well-chosen paragraph or two could add a lot to the substance of the book, without adding too much to its length.

The one reference to joy is on page seventeen. I dare you to find it –because I do recommend this book, and I look forward to learning from the supplementary materials on the Center for Naturalism web site, and in some of the recommended readings. If you’re going to buy a book for the bibliography, this just might be the one to buy.

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