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Mock at Your Peril! Naturalism Is a Jealous Fraud


The scientific discoveries that might have supported the naturalist view of the universe, life, and the human mind have never actually occurred. Stubborn problems, old and new, make such discoveries less likely than ever. New technology in neuroscience, for example, has enabled unexpected new findings that point unambiguously in a non-naturalist direction, raising the suspicion of more such findings to come.

Naturalists are not taking it well; fighting superstition is easier than fighting magnetic resonance imaging. For some decades, we have simply been informed that “science would find the answer” to stubborn problems. But what happens if “stubborn problems” are signals that our ideas are incomplete and new insights are needed?

Today, “science” means naturalism. Whether current directions are fruitful or not, no non-naturalist approach may be entertained in principle. Karl Popper called this stance promissory materialism. It is the basic editorial position of most popular science magazines. It is less open to doubt than the laws of mathematics. Much popular culture passionately agrees. In 2005, a Darwin-in-the-schools activist advised her lobbyists to portray ID sympathizers “‘in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc.” The strategy may have backfired in recent years due to a number of conflicts with evidence. But many naturalists seem to see themselves as she did, fighting an existential evil. To entertain doubt about such a cause is a sin.

Popular science literature offers the pious naturalist a steady stream of lessons and tales in the form of articles in support of key doctrinal positions, only occasionally challenged by informed skepticism arising from decades of failure. Here are three common themes:

Artificial Intelligence: If HAL or Colossus Really Existed, Why Would They Want to Do Anything in Particular?

We have no idea what consciousness is but naturalism’s only possible model is: an evolved natural phenomenon. That’s a dogma, not a finding. As dogmas are prone to do, it generates assumptions. One assumption is that human beings can create conscious machines.

Stephen Hawking has taken, in recent years, to warning that artificial intelligence can destroy society: “Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it,” he said. “Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.” There Hawking reprises the theme of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) in which immensely powerful American and Soviet defense computers (Colossus and Guardian) merge to run the world as the ultimate total state.

The plot illustrates a longstanding confusion between consciousness (which we don’t really understand) and intelligence (whose operations we can incorporate into machines as extensions of ourselves). A powerful computer cannot have more insight or different intentions from its programmer’s ability for the same reasons as characters in a novel cannot have more insight or different intentions from the author’s conception. And, in the absence of consciousness, why would computers wish for power or anything else? If they lack wishes of their own, massive computers add nothing to the risks already posed by proliferating nuclear weapons.

Rodney Brooks, former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, hints at the confusion:

I am told that I do not understand how powerful AGI [artificial general intelligence] will be. That is not an argument. We have no idea whether it can even exist. I would like it to exist — this has always been my own motivation for working in robotics and AI. But modern-day AGI research is not doing well at all on either being general or supporting an independent entity with an ongoing existence. It mostly seems stuck on the same issues in reasoning and common sense that AI has had problems with for at least 50 years.

In a recent edition of Technology Review, we hear the worry,“Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony? Just about every AI advance you’ve heard of depends on a breakthrough that’s three decades old. Keeping up the pace of progress will require confronting AI’s serious limitations.”

Some keep the faith and add to it. Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame tells audiences that AI-induced collective consciousness will replace God: “Our need for that exterior god, that sits up there and judges us…will diminish and eventually disappear.” Given that naturalism considers consciousness as such an illusion, God will be a collective illusion. An organized religious enterprise, “Way of the Future” (WOTF), founded by Silicon Valley lightning rod Anthony Levandowski, is currently seeking non-profit status as a religion of technology “to develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead [to] contribute to the betterment of society.” Way of the Future’s site explains, “While biology has evolved one type of intelligence, there is nothing inherently specific about biology that causes intelligence. Eventually, we will be able to recreate it without using biology and its limitations.”

Sarah Jones asks at The New Republic, Does Silicon Valley religion show that “The final end of science is the revelation of the absurd,” as John Gray suggests in The Immortalization Commission (2012)? One wants to ask, absurd in relation to what, exactly? Naturalists dismiss consciousness, reason, free will, and any ethics that arise from a non-natural source. Absurdity is a meaningless category if there is no truth to defy.

ET Must Exist if Only as a Perpetual Act of Faith

Traditional religions are sometimes defaced by faked or debunked miracles. But they also feature many events that cannot be disproven, only denied in principle as violations of naturalism.

Naturalism is different. It tends to encourage a belief in extraterrestrial intelligences when we have no shred of evidence for any non-terrestrial life forms at present, not even of the simplest possible type.

Carl Sagan, of enduring Contact and Cosmos fame, was an ardent believer. Longtime Sagan fan Robert Tracinski has mixed feelings about the naturalist trend to which his hero contributed so much: Fact gets dwarfed by narrative. “As the decades pass, Sagan’s imitators become less thoughtful and more propagandistic, less interested in conveying the actual scientific method and more concerned with just telling the public what to think.” That is a familiar trajectory for the popular expression of any state religion. Ironically, the paranormal that Sagan opposed, now freed from the restraints posed by demands for evidence and reason, has gone mainstream.

Naturalism, as expressed in popular culture, turns away from the facts about life beyond Earth for good reason. Hoped-for water flow on Mars appears, from a recent report, to be sand and dust. Dashed hopes for life on nearby Mars probably diminish the chances for similar exoplanets in galactic habitable zones. Exoplanet experts, who have much to gain from optimism, don’t think extraterrestrial life of any sort will be found by 2040.

Over the years, pop ET science coverage has begun to sound stale, unreal. Astrobiology tells us that Darwinian evolution can reveal how alien life forms ought to look, as if there were evidence that they exist. Some brood over the ethics of colonizing other planets, disrupting a “natural” environment, when we know of no other genuinely reachable and habitable planet. Others wonder how traditional religion would survive a space alien landing, though no pressing theological problem has surfaced among adherents. We are told at Live Science that famous people believe in space aliens, including space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow who is “absolutely convinced,” as if strong belief made the aliens’ existence surer. It’s unclear whether popular naturalist culture can grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there, possibly because if he doesn’t exist, it is more difficult to maintain that humans are not special.

The 98 Percent Chimpanzee Reflects on the 100 Percent Chimpanzee and Concludes Humans Are Not Special

A third naturalist doctrine advanced non-stop in pop science writing today is more ominous, that humans are just another animal in nature and an especially destructive one. Claims about AI and ET are usually addressed to non-experts, so we are not asked to violate our own everyday knowledge in accepting them. But we must dismiss the most unambiguous everyday evidence in order to see humans as mere evolved animals. Our acceptance of the doctrine in defiance of evidence establishes our commitment to naturalism.

Faithful readers are not expected to ask obvious questions, make obvious inferences, or reflect on everyday experiences in order to assess claims.

Don’t ask obvious questions? We are told by the BBC that apes are entering the Stone Age, which would be historic if true. But no one expects a thorough examination of the claims, lest the naturalist miracle be openly debunked instead of, as usual, quietly ignored.

Don’t make obvious inferences? We are told that intelligence tests are unfair to apes (NPR) because they never seem to be done right: “All direct ape-human comparisons that have reported human superiority in cognitive function have universally failed to match the groups on testing environment, test preparation, sampling protocols, and test procedures.” We must not suspect that the apes are just not up to the task. Similarly, we are told at Aeon that Homo naledi buried their dead, which “disrupts the whole conventional thinking about the distinction between modern humans and earlier species and, by extension, the distinction between us and the rest of nature.” We are not to suspect that the find casts doubt on current efforts to see naledi as the long-sought Darwinian missing link (half-human), now that floriensis and neanderthalensis have not answered that need.

Don’t reflect on everyday experiences in order to assess claims? Bonobos, we are told, help “without being asked” (“long thought to be unique to humans”). In reality, helping is well-known even among non-primates, and that includes helping other species when there is no apparent risk. Turtles will right upended turtles, though they cannot easily right themselves.

Most of what we hear about human beings does not check out but we risk being thought  “anti-science” if we say so. We hear that romantic love evolved because it improves reproduction rates even though, as Australian philosopher David Stove noted in Darwinian Fairytales (2007), human experience generally shows that passionate romance is not especially likely to result in large families. And how did loneliness evolve? “Like thirst, hunger or pain, loneliness is an aversive state that animals seek to resolve, improving their long-term survival.” It has nothing to do with explicitly human concerns or emotions.  Meanwhile, carefully planned human activity, carried out over tens of thousands of years can be portrayed as a natural happenstance, “putting us on a par with the natural world, where we have species like ants that have domesticated fungi, for instance.” At times, we may need to remind ourselves that ignoring what we know from experience is an act of naturalist faith.

The claims we hear are often ridiculous but then the believer is not a critic. Gender theory, we hear, is harmful for dogs, as if dogs could care about such things. Sheep recognize images of human faces (BBC), which “shows that sheep possess similar face recognition abilities to primates.” One is tempted to break with propriety and observe that sheep would probably learn to recognize any part of human anatomy if fodder was the familiar reward. If anything, this finding should cast doubt on the significance of facial recognition in primate apes but we are not supposed to infer that, are we?

Mock at your peril! Naturalism is a jealous fraud; its believers build their world around its tenets. And it is becoming a more dangerous world. British philosopher Roger Scruton asks, why do we think it a crime to kill an innocent human but not an innocent tapeworm? “These questions lie at the center of philosophical inquiry today, as they have since the ancient Greeks. In a thousand ways we distinguish people from the rest of nature, and build our life accordingly.”

Well, we used to. As Wesley Smith often documents in these pages, that distinction is beginning to blur. Humans can be seen in polite circles as infections, like tapeworms. Along those lines, we might want to keep an eye on the trajectory of “critical plant studies,” which “challenges the privileged place of the human in relation to plant life and examines this through a series of lenses: ethical, political, historical, cultural, textual, and philosophical.”

It’s not just that media-darling disciplines ruled by naturalism tend to fail the facts. They fail the facts at precisely the points where they should succeed if naturalism were true. Einstein’s modernist theory passes stringent tests while naturalist cosmology flirts with abandoning them. Amputees can control increasingly sophisticated prostheses using only their thoughts but consciousness is an illusion? In the midst of a flurry of pop science claims that free will does not exist, Google’s truthbots prove no match for humans who lack confidence in what Google employees think is fake news.

It doesn’t help that science journalism is uniquely bad. One problem is that, relative to news writers in other fields, science journalists tend to adopt the role of “defenders” of science. I call it pom-pom waving. To see the difference pom-pom waving makes, consider how you would feel if your local sports columnist was a defender of “sports” in general and too driven by ideology to be a reliable source of stat and play analysis. You’d do best to go elsewhere for eye-openers and for the bigger picture.

Others have noticed a problem with science journalism. From a March editorial in Nature:

There has been much gnashing of teeth in the science-journalism community this week, with the release of an infographic that claims to rate the best and worst sites for scientific news. According to the American Council on Science and Health, which helped to prepare the ranking, the field is in a shoddy state. “If journalism as a whole is bad (and it is),” says the council, “science journalism is even worse. Not only is it susceptible to the same sorts of biases that afflict regular journalism, but it is uniquely vulnerable to outrageous sensationalism.”

But the “sensationalism” to which the editors refer is hyped-up monochromatic naturalism. If, due to historic commitments, Nature’s editors simply cannot address the underlying weaknesses of naturalism, as demonstrated by growing distaste for evidence and reason, their attempt to gloss over the bad news on procedural grounds will quite properly be seen as an admission of helplessness. In that case, it is not clear how public respect for science can come out a winner here.

Photo credit: funnytools, via Pixabay.