Letters to a Concerned Free-Thinker, Letter # 8: The Natural Identity
Humanity ponders its existence when it gazes at the stars, for it knows deep inside that it longs to return home; lost children of the stars crying out for love. From the small ant to the large supernova, all inhabit a universe filled with the most beautiful array of different and exciting phenomena. Homo sapiens, like other mammals, are offered an opportunity of life for a short glimpse of cosmic time. This life that has been offered (the life that the universe and all of nature has luckily spared through billions of years of evolution) is to be cherished. We are but the products of vast eons of time. For this reason – and for the sake that many of our past ancestors have been wiped away by nature – it should propel us to do our best, for the short amount of time offered to us is fleeting constantly. Truly is it magnificent to look around at nature and relish in the sunshine of the day, looking upon the stars at night – all of this should fill every mammal with joy and inspiration. Yet, humanity confines itself to quarrels over tribal matters – which fraction of the world belongs to whom, which God gave us this and that, etc. All these quarrels have halted humanity’s progress towards greater heights and new distances, and have kept humanity wallowing in its infancy. These tribal disputes have threatened to erase the last four centuries of real progress that has been made in the way of human rights, knowledge – and have threatened to undo historical advancements. It was the enlightenment values that brought the fall of monarchs, and it was the values of mental autonomy that brought an end to tyrannical regimes. With the removal of tradition, and the removal of the need for divine warrant, humanity has spared itself from an eternity of slavery and torment; finally beginning to awake from its long slumber. Appeals to the heavens have been heavily reduced with the ever growing knowledge of the cosmos. The need for the numinous has died within humanity; the need for humanism has replaced the left over void. If one such God existed, then it is most surely dead to humanity.
Humanity’s origins lay in nature itself; what it does in nature ultimately determines its prospective meaning. What we wish to do with our lives is but our own choice, we can squander it on trivial matters or we can use it to further enhance our perception of the world. The feeling of smallness coupled with the feeling of no objective purpose, may cloud the minds of some, but to them they must realise that meaning comes with interactions with nature itself; and the things one does with the situation they are given, determines the life they will lead. Thinking individuals, those who look at the stars and look at humanity in the light of discovery, set themselves up as pioneers – pioneers who are on the horizon’s edge of knowledge. Every thought about nature is a thought about the possibilities that can come from understanding it, and in order to understand it one need to find themselves in the cosmos; one needs to forge their own ‘natural identity’.
Everything that is matter, matter which can be computed and quantified, can be said to be a part of the ‘natural paradigm’ of existence. This natural paradigm is the only paradigm that is open to humanity; the world that exists to humanity is the world found in the senses. Everything that the senses take in is an aspect of material. There is no independence between creature and material; creatures are formed from material substances. Everything in the universe– every small insect, large mammal, celestial object – is made up of these substances. The substances that make up one’s hand are the same substances that make up stars. The atoms that make up the fabric of nature play a great part in our understanding of the universe. In light of this fact, we base our thinking within the world around us – interpreting, via our senses, objects and organisms around us. The understanding that humanity is but one piece of a grand puzzle can stir the imagination, as it puts into perspective the identity of the individual. The natural identity is humanity’s identity in the cosmos; it is how it views itself in light of the findings of science, and how it orientates its knowledge.
Consciousness arises from the brain, and is the product of mental computation – nothing more. Consciousness, or what philosophers try to explain as consciousness, exists as something – or mustexist as something – formed from matter, as matter is all there is. When a person has their frontal lobe blasted by a shotgun, having bits of their brain forced violently from their skull, the essence of their being – the essence of their existence within the realm of nature, and anything that was perceived as being conscious within them – is dead and gone; if one destroys the neurons of the brain, then one destroys consciousness. If they should live from the event, however, then they most surely will be different in thought than they once were, as the mind’s state has been altered. When a person like this is in the condition they are in, or is found in this condition by others, the emotions that will come from the sight of such a grotesque scene, are but the products of material processes. The empathy that was exerted, the heart felt emotions and the genuine tears shed for the scene, are but by-products of the material world that they live in, and the elements that they are comprised of. This may appear to be a very reductionist way of assessing the scene, given the violence involved, but it is a real picture of the event. Some may find my description a tad bit cold (even a little naïve), however I try to look at the situation for what it is, not for what I want it to be. Yet, should they really feel cold? Why is it that people reject such descriptions? Can they not handle the reality of the world? Despite such questions, there is an underlining silver lining to this. Instead of feeling cold about reality, we should instead feel awe struck and amazed by such understandings of the complexity of the world, and the history behind its formation – that it should lead us to truly cherish it. The child does not relish in the fact that it is but a mammal, it relishes at the moments of life it manages to get, and the wonders of existence it finds itself in. Should this feeling die amongst adults, or should this feeling of enjoyment be fostered? It is up to the individual to judge for themselves.
Meaning comes from the individual; as all of humanity is forced into existence, and is forced to lead their own path. This ‘creation’ of meaning is the essence of the free individual, who has taken control over their identity in nature – and forged from it – a brighter world for themselves. As Jean-Paul Sartre once put it, “Man is condemned to be free, because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”(Existentialism is a humanism, 1945). The condition of humanity is comparable to that of an abandoned child; once made orphan by mother, it now must find its own path…regardless of the struggle. This existential perspective can be hard to swallow, but it is just one perceptive that offers the individual hope. Existentialism provides the individual a philosophy of freedom, some might find this freedom too overbearing, and others might find it right, but it is a freedom none-the-less. Philosophies like existentialism help give solace to the individual, and help build upon what it means to be human in existence. However, though such a philosophy is popular to continental individuals, it is not the only philosophy that is useful. In science especially, the dominant form of philosophy is that of naturalism.
Naturalism is the poetry of science, for with it science has its basis in reality. Science works from methodological naturalism, which takes the view that components in existence can be assessed through the scientific method. The scientific method uses the natural sciences, conjoined with induction, to assess reality and build models of reality to draw provisional conclusions, and to make future predictions about it. Methodological naturalism is what scientists use to investigate the hidden mysteries of the universe. By constructing hypotheses and testing those hypotheses through experimentation, seeing if those hypotheses stand the test of reality and scrapping them if they do not, the scientist constructs models of reality. These models are falsifiable and allow for the scientist the ability to make predictions about reality. If these hypotheses stand up to the scientific method, then they are regarded as theories and are incorporated into science. A model has to be simple in its language, but rich in its explanation; following evidence where it leads, and taking simple explanations over complex ones. Methodological naturalism is at the heart of science; however it is the child of ontological naturalism, which is another aspect that needs explanation.
Science is natural philosophy, as it explores nature and structures thoughts around it. Through the unweaving of the fabric of reality and ultimately understanding its complexity, humans both enrich their prospect of knowledge and enrich their sense of meaning. Ontological naturalism takes the findings of methodological naturalism, and expands upon those findings to create a metanarrative. This narrative accounts for the story of the universe. Ontological naturalism seeks to weave the findings of methodological naturalism into a model of thought. This model helps frame the scientist’s understanding of reality, and helps give credence to phenomena within nature. Both methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism go hand in hand, and create the philosophy of naturalism. Nothing exists outside the natural, as the natural is existence (as aforementioned); anything that seeks to go beyond nature goes beyond existence. This would mean that the supernatural does not exist, as the supernatural seeks to establish a paradigm outside the natural paradigm of existence.
Supernaturalism, the opposite of philosophical naturalism, would place another realm of existence above the natural paradigm of existence – and thus go beyond natural explanations of reality.Supernaturalists would posit the existence of supernatural agents that are responsible for nature, positing that these beings gave life to humanity and all of existence. Some would even go so far as to posit the existence of a spirit, or an inner being that exists within humanity. And by what basis do they have to make such claims? Well, that would depend upon who you asked. Supernaturalists are as varied as nations, with each supernaturalist having their own branch of nonsensicalness. To cut the roots of this tree of irrationality, the basis of which entirely rest upon speculations, let one consider what supernaturalism is. Simply put, supernaturalism is a bad parody of naturalism; the idea that something exists outside the realm of the natural is a paradox in itself. For if supernatural beings existed, then they would occupy a greater realm of the natural, and hence be considered natural beings! Anything that is said to go beyond the descriptive laws of nature, and seeks to escape the knowledge of humanity, is considered to be a part of the ‘unknown’, not the ‘supernatural’. When humanity develops the tools to investigate the unknown, then the findings will be considered natural, not ‘supernatural’. In other words, there is no methodology by which to distinguish the supernatural from non-existence. Until the supernaturalist posits a methodology to prove their claims, their claims will have no basis to rest upon. I mean, how do they expect the rest of humanity to interpret the supernatural, when the supernatural goes beyond what the senses can perceive, which is the natural? The fact of the matter is that the supernatural can be negated a priori, as the term itself is nonsensical. Whether it is claims of entities such as gods, ghosts, goblins it must not be forgotten that these things need to manifest themselves in reality, in order for them to exist.
One may criticise the natural paradigm of existence by referring to the multi-verse theory. This theory posits that there exist multiple universes, with each that may operate on different physical and epistemic rules and laws. One could ask, “Wouldn’t any universe, whose laws are different to our own, be considered ‘not-natural?” The response to this question can be expressed through an analogy: Imagine the natural paradigm of existence, as being a huge jewellery box; a meta-jewellery box. In it there are various different compartments, with each compartment being dedicated to a particular set of objects – one compartment may contain earrings, another may contain rings, etc. All these compartments are different in contents to one another, but they all are still a part of the Jewellery box. Objects that exist in one compartment will not be able to occupy another compartment, because each compartment is separated by limitations. An object that wishes to occupy another compartment, needs to get pass the limitations of its compartment.
The natural paradigm of existence is the meta-jewellery box, and each universe will occupy it as a compartment. Though one cannot be sure of whether they will get pass the limitations of their compartment, one can at least attempt to get as much as possible from their own compartment. The natural identity is the identity found when the individual dares to understand the compartment they are in, and dares to understand the set of circumstances that they have been given. The more that one understands their place, and denies themselves the delusion of ultimate attention, the more the individual will be able to start to make progress. We have come too far in the last 4.5 billion years of evolution to give ourselves to anthropocentrism. Whatever is in our power, we need to deny ourselves the obnoxious delusion of our supremacy; that everything ends with us. However, we must also not forget the value of life the cosmos has allowed us, and the obligation to fulfil what time we have with exploration to the stars. We are children of the stars longing to return home. How awesome it is to be alive, and to be living right now. As the great astronomer Carl Sagan once said,“Somewhere, Something incredible is waiting to be known.”
Knowledge is power.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson