Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning

By Ken Perrott 18/12/2012 4

I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.


The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.


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4 Responses to “Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning”

  • Just out of interest Ken, “moving forward” suggests to me some kind of goal. What wld the goal of naturalism be?

  • John, I personally don’t use terms like “naturalism” but acknowledge many do. Often not appropriately. One io my reasons is the vagueness of such terms, the fact that people interpret them differently. Names can get in the way of meaning.

    However, I think in this situation we have a number of philosophers and scientists who vaguely adhere to a naturalist outlook and wish to discuss what this means and hopefully get some agreement. That’s moving forward.

    While this includes concepts like reductionism and emergence which they dealt with quite theoretically on the first day it must also include things like meaning and morality. Issues covered by philosophy, bedevilled with medieval thinking and yet now being informed by scientific investigation. I think in both these videos we see the discussion participants presenting a diversity of concepts but finding a lot in common.

    That again is moving forward.

    I don’t know if this is what you mean by a goal? If it’s not can you provide examples to help understanding.

  • Thanks Ken. “Moving forward” is used ad nauseum nowadays & often I wonder where people think they are moving too?

    Your suggestion, to paraphrase, is that they seek agreement on some areas of commonality (I’d call it a goal). This leads me to think, is this a merely talking about lots of stuff and compilng a list of what is agreed on (a post-modern approach), or does it involve the intention to persuade to a particular position (the “old shool” approach)? In either case I wonder what the point is unless there is some common goal that is bigger than the group.

  • I know what you mean about the current beauracratic use of the term “moving forward.” It’s a real turnoff. However, I am sure that the words are being used more meaningfully here.

    Nevertheless – it’s only a title – nothing to get fixated on.

    I notice you present only two alternatives as if that covered the possibilities. Perhaps the best way of understanding the workshop is to actually watch the videos. From what I have seen so far (about 2/3) your alternatives don’t apply. They certainly aren’t being post modernist, nor are they into persuasion.

    To me they are simply into clarification about what a scientific philosophy should be. Important because it is often under attack. What is meant be reality, what is the relationship between physics and the other sciences, what can a scientific approach say about morality and meaning, free will, etc. All these things get debated in the popular literature, and there is a “naturalist” – “supernaturalist” divide. I think many philosophers are very disingenuous (for ideological reasons) about science. I think most philosophers are very imprecise about the meanings of the words they use – even important words like “naturalism,” “supernatural,” (definitions are usually circular). Or even “knowledge.” I have often been amazed at how inadequate philosophical definitions of “knowledge” are when confronted with concts of scientific knowledge.

    There have often been quite sharp public disagreements between some of these people – particularly between Massimo Pigluicci and Rosenberg, Dawkins, Coyne and Dennett. It’s good to see them coming together in a forum where they can discuss their different approaches in good faith and amicably.

    Maybe you have trouble seeing a point in this – but I am sure they saw it as worthwhile. Its not really any different to a load of workshops you and I have and will attend over our careers. And of course the issue is wider than them. Most of them have written books on the issues. Those books are read widely and I am sure interested viewers like me welcome the chance to see the ideas they have read about being discussed more deeply.