Thomas W. Clark

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses


Review by Troy Dujardin, 2013

Review by Josh N. Hasler, 2010

Review by Troy Dujardin, 2013

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses. By Thomas W. Clark. Center for Naturalism, 2007. 103 pages. $10.00.

This intense little tome is a powerful and accessible introduction to the positive implications of the worldview called naturalism: the belief that the physical world that we inhabit is the one and only world there is, and that it encompasses everything there is. Clark achieves what he sets out to do, insofar as he presents the key tenets of this worldview and their implications in exceptionally clear and careful language. There are no obstacles to the reader’s understanding between the covers of this book. But that is also the book’s greatest deficiency, as the things that are left out are just as conspicuous as the points that are made. Perhaps it is Clark’s intention only to outline the most positive ways to understand those aspects of naturalism that are prima facie most controversial, but in refusing to address the counterarguments that are likely to arise in a number of other cases, he crafts a narrative that omits much that would be needed to convince a stubborn skeptic. What we are left with is a book of great value to anyone feeling an impulse toward naturalism, but of less use to anyone on the fence.

Clark begins with a very brief overview of what the naturalistic worldview includes before moving on to discuss specific implications of its parts. He describes an epistemology grounded in “a rational, evidence-based empiricism,” by which he means modern science (1). Its metaphysics is defined first and foremost by a resolute agnosticism about anything not yet empirically attested, which seems to entail a staunch denial of any sort of mind/body or soul/body dualism, and thus a denial of any sort of supernatural being—naturalism entails atheism. It also affirms that our universe is strictly deterministic, naturally creating difficulties for the freedom of the will, and Clark devotes many of his pages to this particular point. Having given this quick outline he proceeds to explicate naturalism’s epistemology at slightly greater length (ch. 2), followed by a series of explorations of the consequences of naturalism for human life on a progressively larger scale, moving from the individual level (ch. 3), to the interpersonal (ch. 5), to the social and political (ch. 6, ch. 8), and finally to the spiritual (ch. 7), with a brief excursion into the intellectual ancestry of naturalism (ch. 4). The whole thing is wrapped up by a consideration of the prospects of naturalism going forward (ch. 9) and three appendices containing further reassurances for the doubtful and quotations from an assortment of famous thinkers, both on the problem of free will.

In describing the epistemological commitments of naturalism, Clark goes carefully beyond the bounds of science as a method, giving us something broad enough to be useful as an everyday theory of knowledge, albeit narrow enough to refuse justification to beliefs that are not grounded in verifiable observations. “What’s considered knowledge is therefore both empirical (based on evidence) and publicly observable or intersubjective, as philosophers like to put it” (8). In other words, knowledge is pragmatic. Some proposition that is known can be proven, to whatever extent we can have proof without certainty, by the assent of multiple observers witnessing the correspondence of that proposition to the observable world. While this theory is simple and elegant, it will likely leave experienced epistemologists thinking there is still much to be done and many difficulties to be accounted for. For example, one might wonder whether the existence of qualia, seemingly an empirically observable phenomenon, throws a wrench into the works. Clark’s epistemology is not unsatisfactory, as a start, but his presentation of it here is incomplete.

As he moves on to examine what naturalism tells us about ourselves as individuals, Clark explores two consequences of supreme importance. The first is not unique to naturalism, but inheres in many forms of monism: we do not have souls. Our selfhood derives completely from the sum of our physical bodies’ parts, and consciousness is the result of the physical activity of the brain, nothing more. The second consequence is that we do not have free will in the traditional sense. When many people—including philosophers—think of free will, they mean that in regard to any particular choice, one could have chosen differently. According to Clark and naturalism, that is not the case. In fact, since the only conceivable alternative to decisions being caused is that decisions are made with no reason whatsoever, Clark maintains that the alternative to determinism is incoherent. Despite eliminating free will, Clark assures us that we can still hold people responsible for their decisions, in a proximate sense. It’s not entirely clear whether Clark is a hard determinist or a compatibilist, la P.F. Strawson; he waffles a bit, but seems to lean toward the latter. But it is bothersome that so much ink is devoted to this issue, while yet failing to address many of the painfully obvious concerns that such a view inevitably raises. For example, Clark explicitly claims that, because all outcomes are causally determined, genetic factors play some role in the successes of individuals. Although not strictly entailed by this view (and we should be careful not to commit any slippery slope fallacies), it is easy to imagine how it might be used to construct narratives in support of eugenics or racial superiority. Even though one might have to go out on a limb to derive such views from Clark’s account, their historical significance, especially in the last hundred years, seems to demand that they be at least acknowledged, if not rigorously addressed.

As regards the notion of monism, Clark’s account is characteristically clear, but also brief to the point of being unsatisfying, giving no substantial answer to the manifold questions about empirically observable entities that seem to be nonphysical; things like numbers, universals, percepts, etc., are not addressed. We are left with a minimal promissory note: “Why neural activity should be associated with subjective consciousness is of course a deep scientific and philosophical puzzle, and understanding the precise mechanisms by which the brain controls behavior is perhaps decades away” (15). This aligns properly with the agnosticism about such things demanded by naturalism’s epistemology, to be sure, perhaps failing the test of intersubjectivity. But skeptical readers will not likely be convinced that dualistic worldviews that do account for these sorts of entities, the existence of which most people will individually attest to, can be done away with so easily. Naturalism might be able to account for everything there is, but it hasn’t done so yet.

Most of naturalism’s potential effects on society and policy stem from its aforementioned denial of free will. Clark claims that understanding the causal background of our own actions allows us to work toward self-betterment more effectively, pursuing the proper kinds of actions to adjust those causes in the future, as opposed to impotently trying to will ourselves to be otherwise than we are. In dealing with other people, we will be more compassionate when we come to see that their actions, too, are caused, such that they could not have done otherwise than they did; in fact, even we would have done precisely as they did, given the same causal factors. Thus, we cannot attribute ultimate praise or blame to anyone, which is supposed to lessen our instincts toward severe punitive responses to misbehavior. Clark thinks this worldview can make us more compassionate in our personal relationships, while leveling societal inequalities that result from unfair attributions of praise and blame. While he’s right that many progressive steps can be taken from this starting point, he wildly overstates the effectiveness of intellectually accepting this view to be true. He paints a picture wherein human beings are capable of acting completely rationally based on their belief in naturalism, which is simply not how we work. As a platform for social change, naturalism can play an important role. But for personal change, there must be some process of deep, psychological inculcation, about which Clark has nothing to offer here.

The chapter on naturalizing spirituality is likewise a little thin, although it seems to be on a promising track. Clark appeals to the feelings evoked by the realization of what he calls our universe’s inscrutability. The shortcoming of this particular chapter is that it fails to get much beyond mere feelings. “Experiences of awe, astonishment, rapture and connection are central aspects of spirituality that naturalism affords us” (59). While Clark does not argue that spirituality reduces completely to these experiences, it seems implied. Anyone with deep religious commitments who is in search of ways that naturalism might be able to accommodate more than just their feelings of reverence, however powerful and important those might be, will be disappointed. Rather than considering the forms that religious ultimacy might take within the naturalistic worldview, Clark advocates for a wholesale rejection of the notion of ultimacy: “The direct appreciation of the inscrutability of existence, letting go of the need for an ultimate purpose, can have a profound and positive psychological impact” (59). Giving up ultimacy in favor of a “positive psychological impact” is not likely to sit well with many of the spiritually inclined, and I think it is a mistake to imply that this represents the only opening for spirituality within naturalism.

The book’s greatest success is in giving contemporary naturalism a resplendent heritage, tracing its aspects back into the ancient depths of both eastern and western philosophy (the Buddha and Thales, respectively), and following its development through the Renaissance and into the modern era. There is a strong conveyance of the fact that to be naturalist is to take part in a storied tradition going back just as far as any religion that claims to be “more traditional.” Naturalism occupies a position of legitimacy equal to any among the catalogue of worldviews available to us, which is important to be mindful of in a social environment such as ours, often slow to admit “newcomers” to the table.

Clark closes with some optimistic words about the future of naturalism, and he has indeed presented a hopeful picture of its many virtues. If the book suffers by eliding some difficult challenges to its system, it is mainly because those omissions will discourage skeptics, limiting the book’s audience to those already inclined to agree with its positions. Nonetheless, Clark has produced a good introduction to the many positive aspects of naturalism, and this book will serve as a wonderful source for anyone interested in its advantageous implications.

Review by Josh N. Hasler, 2010

Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses. By Thomas W. Clark. The Center for Naturalism, 2007. 104 pp. $9.95.

I imagine Thomas Clark as an elderly children’s librarian. Settling down in a reading room, a group of children prepare to hear his story, each a determined young life eager to add another link to his or her personal causal chain. The children, comforted by the crumbs of humanistic apple pie yet gleaming in his bearded pate, sit attentively as Mr. Clark (forgive me if I imagine him with rimless glasses and in floral print) begins to read aloud his Encountering Naturalism or what could have been as easily titled Doff, ye, the Chains of Freedom.

Clark tells us a naturalist story about battles of determinism against free will, science versus the soul, and compassionate progressives reasoning with blind ideologues—all without the swashbuckling scientific aggression of Richard Dawkins or the biting, ironic drone of Christopher Hitchens. This story is a bit different. Clark’s villains are determined causes, his heroes determined causes, and his plot a determined cause. You would be right in guessing that causes make up the beginning, middle and end. Causation—or circumstance—fills every role in Clark’s naturalistic worldview. He pinpoints free will as the common cognitive error leading to dangerous conceptions of life, justice and politics. Of that disease supernatural religion is only one among many contaminated creatures. Be warned, though, to those nervous about losing their free will Clark warns that his naturalism is not for the weak (10).

Clark’s critique of free will combines notions of liberty and determinism, a recipe from David Hume’s compatibilist theory that he faintly warms up for the modern reader. Clark’s liberty is the uninhibited employment of human will toward its desires—desires determined by genetics and environment.

Although the URL’s cheerfully strewn about the text offer a puzzling distraction, the well-selected quotes in Appendix B are the real icing that makes one forget the cake. Arthur Schopenhauer seems able to sum up this hundred-page tract against free will in a few lines: “You are free to do what you want, but you are not free to want what you want” (96).

Competing conceptions of freedom would reject this thoroughgoing network of material causes, but Clark argues that the supernatural souls required for “real” freedom would simply be arbitrary causes. Such contra-causal wills would be but rolling dice without material or physics to govern them. Even if there were a contra-causal supernatural realm, Clark notes that any ultimate purpose it might give to existence would be as arbitrary as soulish wills (57). Again, among the infomercial-esque testimonials, Clark includes Nietzsche’s criticism of the self-made man myth as “pulling oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness” (96), yet again providing a pithy perspective while outclassing the book.

Clark’s conception of liberty then begins to ballast some political weight. He identifies the shameful state of hot-button political disputes in which the soul, essentialism, and free will seem the likely vandals. Because of its rejection of free will, naturalism leans toward a progressive politic sans any language of free will or the merit it implies. Similarly for environmental concerns: “knowing the deterministic story behind cultures that in hindsight were doomed is absolutely necessary if we are to be properly cognizant of the hazards ahead” (46). Knowing the history of determinism “gives us compassion and gives us control” (44). For naturalist politics no soul means no essential properties of personhood are bestowed on an undeveloped fetus (63), no essential sacredness lies in “sheer existence” (65) and no one essential form of sexuality trumps the others. Retributive justice also smacks too much of the laissez-faire and prompts Clark’s support for criminal rehabilitation rather than punishment. He writes, “however misguided we suppose them to be, we can’t suppose that given their circumstances [our enemies] could have believed and acted other than they did” (47).

While typically clear, Clark occasionally slips into vague terminology when referring to values. Democratic openness contrasted against authoritarian rule he calls a “fundamental value” (69), an odd choice of words considering his arguments against the religious right. Clark nonetheless extends this egalitarian principle over and above the naturalistic worldview, but elsewhere suggests that naturalism is the key for clearing the democratic “cognitive common ground” (70). This enlightenment ideal seems an admirable goal for tempered communication among otherwise frustrated or even hostile peoples. This humanist politic is based on compassion and empathy stemming from an acknowledgment of determinism; “after all,” Clark writes, “you too would have suffered the same fate had you been dealt this genetic and environment hand” (44).

In Appendix A, Clark rebuts with varying success charges of naturalistic fatalism and other common concerns about agency, power, morality and responsibility. In this context fatalism appears to deny that we have any real causal power. Clark responds, “without making efforts we don’t get what we want, therefore the future we want depends on us to a great extent” (79). Defending responsibility Clark gives the human self and moral agent the status of a complex bundle of causes capable of effecting desired ends. As the locus of positive or negative causes, the single human agent can be held responsible for good or bad social outcomes of his or her actions. So initial blame is certainly a live option for Clark, although a deep sense of ultimate blame is not. Moreover, because things are caused, Clark writes, it does not mean that we are not a creative species. He writes, “far from being banned by determinism, novelty is instead pretty much the norm” (87). The way things unfold is indeed novel, but it is the only way they could have unfolded. Our historical imagination is not permitted many regrets.

Although he warns against reassurances, Clark is quick to console our deepest desires for meaning as valid but caused. They do not warrant our grasping ultimacy. The existence Clark sells is a “perpetual progress” without a transcendent goal—an otherwise profound notion he swipes from Nietzsche and seems determined to make less cool. Clark tolerates no whining about the loss of transcendent meaning (90). Rather, our desires for ultimate meaning and reality Clark satisfactorily replaces with a realization that our condition is “a very curious one indeed” (58). Such a counter offer would be anti-climactic at the end of a good cartoon; much less in closing a conversation about ultimacy. It is a bullet the reader must bite.

Clark’s naturalism requires a certain toughness from its adherents, yet quickly grants them life, love and liberty. This spectrum makes the intended audience of the book unclear. Are potential naturalists the weary religious who desire the reassurance of both science and a meaningful worldview, or are they hardheaded freethinkers who need no blather about comfort? How tough need we be to sign on? Clark sells a nature with all the comforts of home (our planet) and family (the ape and animal kingdom). It may be true, but many find little comfort in being the most complex flotsam in the cosmos—but as Clark later says, “what’s not to like” (71)?

By “accepting the full scope of causality” (46) Clark predicts that we can politically drop the “differences in merit derived from the exercise of free will” because, “[i]nequality, at bottom, is simply the reflection of what people deserve” (42). Rather, whatever merits exist Clark recognizes as “function[s] of family status at birth, innate talents, access to education and other social resources, and numerous other environmental and biological factors” (42). Ultimately, we get “lucky” (42). With selves reduced to an amalgam of historical accidents, Clark drives home a valid but old point about compassion for the other in the face of the complexity we find in biology and sociology.

If only such complexity could be found in the book itself, which amounts to a “free-thinker” summing up the human condition in a few pages. That this process is aided at all by our typing awkwardly placed URLs by hand is questionable. So I feel obligated, nay, caused to inform the reader that Amazon sells this book for $9.95. I once heard on a commercial that this much would feed an entire family in a developing country for a month. Fronting the aesthetic of pamphlets handed out by folks of competing ideologies this book might have been better left on the Center for Naturalism’s website where its content can be found for free. Clark’s naturalist infomercial is as good as any other—especially for those who would prefer a blender to preparing a good meal or want a blanket with sleeves. Similarly, at the end of the day all we know is that Clark makes us a lot of promises, but we also get the feeling we ought to have used our time in more educational encounters. To be fair, as an introduction and printed form of a website Encountering Naturalism may serve its purpose. But as a book, for both the children’s sake and for ours, it needs pictures.