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Naturalism, for kids

May 4, 2011

I’ve often been asked by some of my Mormon friends, “What happened? Why don’t you believe anymore?”

The answer is simply that my worldview changed from one that accommodated the supernatural to one that rejects supernaturalism in all its forms. I came to value evidence over tradition, authority, revelation, or feelings. That is, my atheism is the product of a naturalistic worldview.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who didn’t understand what I meant by “naturalism.” This isn’t surprising—even though it may be a fairly common way of looking at the world, most people don’t use the philosophical terminology.

Since the major theme of this blog is on parenting as an atheist, I thought I’d write how I might explain naturalism to a child.

Imagine that we have two big buckets, and that everything in the world can be put into one of these two buckets. One bucket holds everything that we know is real. The other bucket holds everything that is just pretend.

What would we put in the bucket of real stuff? Everything that’s real, of course! You’re real. I’m real. This house is real. Trees and stars and birds are real.

What would we put in the bucket of stuff that is just pretend? Anything that comes from people’s imaginations or that exists only in books. Some things that are just pretend are unicorns, fairies, dragons, gods, devils, angels, ghosts, spirits, UFOs, or cartoon characters.

Most people think that things that are just pretend are real. Most people believe in a god or gods. And lots of people used to believe in dragons. But if a person can’t show that something is real, then it is probably just pretend.

If you don’t believe in stuff that is just pretend, then you’re a naturalist.

Okay, I know there are some problems:

  • This isn’t very interesting text for a children’s book.
  • I’m generally wary of dichotomous thinking, but existence and non-existence is one duality I’m fairly comfortable with.
  • I also know that there are things like quarks or dark matter, which the average person can’t observe directly, yet which are presumed exist.

Anyway, here is a concise (4 paragraph) grown-up version of naturalism that I like quite a bit. Go read it.

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  1. A.Dad,

    Is it a properly basic belief for me to believe (as I do) that you exist? Should I treat your postings with a heavy dose of skepticism? I mean think about it:

    i. I have never seen you.

    ii. You say that you exist by virtue of your postings on this blog (you have *revealed* yourself in a sense) but I have no way of knowing that you do in fact exist.

    On what empirical basis can I *prove* that you exist? Would I have to meet you face-to-face? I do believe that you exist, however none of those proofs are empirical. Is it irrational for me to believe that you exist?



    • Don’t ignore the shading of probability. The probability of a god’s existence is not equal to the probability of my existence. No one has ever provided any good evidence for a god, but there’s ample evidence that there are bloggers. You’re one yourself.

      Keep in mind that I hold a naturalistic worldview, meaning that I do not believe in gods, ghost, spirits, or anything for which there is no evidence of existence. If you truly think that God’s existence is equally as probable as a fellow blogger’s existence, you’d first have to provide evidence for the existence of a god. Otherwise, we may claim that my existence and the existence of absolutely anything your imagination can dream up are equally probable.

      • Hi A. Dad,

        What you have written is a bit of a red herring but I certainly don’t mind the interaction. What I was asking you was concerning your epistemic commitments. My point of course being to establish that certain beliefs are properly basic such as the existence of *other* minds, bloggers.

        In order to address your question it is important to establish the logically prior question: *what do you consider evidence*?

      • Evidence is:
        – Tangible. That is, it has to be real. It has to exist.
        – Measurable.
        – Repeatable.
        – Falsifiable. If the assertion is false, then its falsehood can be demonstrated.

        What I would not accept as evidence are revelation, authority, tradition, or feelings.

        It seems pointless to relate evidence to theological claims, because by the admission of nearly every religion, the very definition of faith is to believe despite the lack of evidence.

  2. A. Dad,

    You wrote: seems pointless to relate evidence to theological claims, because by the admission of nearly every religion, the very definition of faith is to believe despite the lack of evidence

    What you are advocating is Fideism. I would disagree with both your definition of *faith* and the underlying fideism.

    Setting that aside for a moment, you used the word *tangible* the definition of which is perceptible by touch. Evidence must be tangible or accessible by touch?

    Using the above criteria: Can I assume that you reject the laws of logic? If they are perceptible by touch, could you mail them to me? I will gladly pay the postage.

    Perhaps you don’t mean tangible in this sense, perhaps you mean apprehended by one of the senses. In this case let’s test this definition of evidence:

    Suppose I am driving my car and ahead of my car, I see a large puddle of water.

    Tangible: Yes. I apprehend it with my vision

    Measurable: Not sure about this one, but perhaps yes since it appears to be a certain distance from my car.

    Repeatable: Yes. On sunny days many of these puddles appear.

    Falsifiable: Yes. It is either true or false.

    According to your definition, mirages would be considered evidence. But, what about the fact that I read in a book [*revelation*] that mirages were in fact optical illusions that are not really real? Should I reject this revelation and accept as fact, mirages based on my empirical evidence?

    • Yes, by tangible, I meant any of the five senses.

      Mirages and any perceptual or psychological tricks can be explained by natural phenomena. There’s no need to invoke the supernatural.

      Reading information from a book is not the same as revelation as the word is used in religion. Again, there’s a distinction between the natural (reading something in a book), and the supernatural (getting a thought from some supernatural source).

  3. I think that perhaps you are misunderstanding the thrust of my argument. This is not a question of invoking the supernatural per se. Rather this is a question of knowledge acquisition.

    In my example, I never mentioned the supernatural until the end. What I was attempting to demonstrate that according to your *own* criteria a mirage would qualify as evidence. Is the natural phenomena that you mention in addition to the criteria that you used to determine what is an evidence?

    In order to effectively address the argument that I offered you would have to demonstrate how a mirage would not be considered an evidence without appealing to some other source; you cannot have this both ways. Either your senses provide knowledge or they do not.

    • I’ll agree that seeing a pool of water on the road in the distance on a hot day is one source of information (an evidence) about whether there is water in the road. But what one has to do is to obtain information from as many sources as possible and to see in what direction the preponderance of evidence lies. If the water appears to dry up within seconds, we ask ourselves (or even test) whether it possible for a pool of water to evaporate within so many seconds at a particular temperature. No. Has there been rain within the past day or two? No. Is anything else wet? No. Is there an alternative explanation for why the road appears to be wet up ahead? Yes — it has to do with the hotter air just above the road having less density, thereby bending the light. What if we ask someone to sit and observe the road while you drive up on the spot from a distance? The observer reports no water. So if the bulk of other sources of information do not support the proposition that there is water in the road up ahead, we conclude that there is no water in the road, despite the one bit of outlying evidence that there appears to be water.

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