Podcast Interview (Part 1) with NonTheology – Metaphysical Naturalism and Secular Humanism

A couple of weeks ago I had a podcast interview with Gabriel McDonald from NonTheology. Not only did I have a lot of fun on the show, but I also think that we managed to produce a podcast that is both highly informative and entertaining.

Part 1 of the podcast is now available on NonTheology.

In the first part we discuss what it means to have a ‘worldview,’ and delve into the differences between Metaphysical Naturalism and Christian Theism as competing worldviews. We also talk at the beginning of the podcast about some dirty debate tactics that are common in apologetic circles, particularly in dealing with campus apologist Cliffe Knechtle.

Part 2 of the podcast will not be up until next weekend, but I will post the rest of the interview here once it becomes available. In part 2 I lay out arguments in favor of Metaphysical Naturalism, as well as respond to apologetic arguments against Naturalism (such as those of Alvin Plantinga). So stay tuned next week to hear the rest!

-Matthew Ferguson

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6 Responses to Podcast Interview (Part 1) with NonTheology – Metaphysical Naturalism and Secular Humanism

  1. vryc says:

    Nice to hear you’ve come across Eller. His ‘Natural Atheism’ was one of the first ‘atheistic’ books I read and it had a profound effect on me. I find myself disagreeing with a few of his ideas but overall, I find that he’s one of the most thorough atheistic thinkers and I’d love to see more of him in the frontlines of debate/conversation.

    Also, I’m really liking the overall direction that you’re taking with this new site. Filling out the metaphysical naturalist and secular humanist worldview is something that I think is cutting edge and something that is in sore need to gain a more cohesive idea-set.

    Thanks again and keep on doing the awesome work!

    • Thanks for listening to the podcast!

      Adams and I have a lot of plans for the new site, but we have both been bogged down recently with graduate work. We are hoping to explore issues of information technology, neuroscience, life-extending technology, artificial intelligence, trans- and post-humanism, etc. My hunch is that the world is going to be a very different (and probably really cool) place in the next 40 years, so we really need to start dialogues about how we are going to transition to a world where technology will radically change our lifestyles. For example, how will we program and live with intelligent computers?

      To connect this with Celsus, religion gets in the way of addressing these questions, since it anchors us to more primitive attitudes and metaphysical models that were made up thousands of years ago by iron age barbarians. If we can’t even maturely accept that the president is not a Muslim and that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old how can we maturely address the potential for artificially eliminating aging or using cyborg technologies? Our culture will really need to mature a lot to get past the delusional priorities and detachment from reality that religions, such as Christianity, spread. So metaphysical naturalism and secular humanism will need to go hand-in-hand with providing us with new metaphysical and ethical models to replace outdated religious ones.

      Fortunately, all of the U.S. polls suggest that our upcoming generation will be by far the most secular in history, the most technologically savvy, and the most forward thinking. If we can just get past the teabagger generation that came before us, hopefully we have some really good social progress ahead of us.

  2. The Science Pundit says:


    I finally got around to listening to part 1 and I have to say that I really liked it. I agreed with most of what you said, but I did have one strong disagreement that’s worth noting. While I agree with you that we humans tend to have a proclivity to see agency where there is none, I’m skeptical of the explanation you gave for why this is. I’ve heard the explanation before from others including Michael Shermer and have always thought that there was something fishy about it, but it took me a while to pinpoint exactly what the problem was. Like many other Evo-Psych Just So Stories, it sounds plausible and convincing at first, but when you begin to think about it critically, it just doesn’t add up. For starters, something need not be animate to be dangerous. If you hear a noise above you, it could be just the wind, or it might be a coconut about to fall on your head. More importantly, most every other animal on the savannah would have been subject to the same predators and other dangers that our distant ancestors were subject to. Surely a deer or a rabbit needn’t imagine agency in the rustling grass to recognize it as a potential threat? My guess is that this ability evolved in our pre-human ancestors long before we had the cognitive ability to “see agency.”

    Allow me to offer an alternative explanation which is, in my opinion, much more parsimonious. Perhaps our proclivity to prescribe agency to inanimate things is simply a side effect of the fact that we’re animals with a strong sense of empathy. Such a sense is highly advantageous when living in close knit human societies. The ability think like another and guess their motives will help one maintain the social skills necessary so that they and their offspring remain accepted by the group. A strong sense of empathy would be so useful, that (if we want to bring evolution into this) it would be strongly selected for. Furthermore, any disadvantage (and there would be plenty) of an overactive sense of empathy lead many to believe that the wind, sun, and volcanoes act with intention would be heavily outweighed by the advantages offered to communal animals like ourselves.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. I hope at least I’ve given you some food for thought. I just downloaded part 2 and I look forward to listening to it.


    • Hey Javier,

      Thanks for listening to the podcast! I think we can both agree from everyday experience and psychology that humans have a proclivity towards agent over-detection. I also think that it is fair to say that much of the belief in the supernatural stems from such causes (e.g. imagining ghosts in dark places, interpreting illnesses to be caused by evil forces, seeing faces on inanimate objects, etc.).

      The question is how (evolutionarily) we developed this drive towards agent over-detection. One thing I want to stress is that pattern recognition is an attribute of more intelligent animals. The smarter the animal, the more complex and subtle patterns it can recognize in its environment. Hence why humans are not the only animal to distinctly recognize agents. Dogs and cats can, for example, and can even remember specific individuals.

      I think that empathy, which you noted, comes with recognizing more intricate patterns, such as agency. When we can be aware and cognizant of an agent’s attributes, we start to understand things from that agent’s point of view, as well as to guess its motives. Living in a social community, we regularly have to interact with intelligent agents, so we are accustomed to being on the lookout for personal causes and intentions behind things. So I agree that empathy can easily be a factor that contributes to our agency over-detection.

      That said, I think the danger factor still comes in to play. For one, a deer or a rabbit may not need to detect agency to run away, but more intelligent animals can. Take a cat for example. Cats are wired to detect agency for hunting, stalking, etc. I think that part of it is that predators (including omnivores) have a higher level of intelligence (from eating more protein) and also have to rely on greater pattern recognition to hunt. Hence why predators have better depth perception, eyesight, etc.

      Now, we humans and cats are hunters. However, that does not mean that we are also not the target of other predators. As such, we can use our acute pattern recognition skills to detect agency in potential threats to our survival. We need not confuse all stimuli (e.g. a falling coconut) with a potential agent. However, we may confuse noises and sensations that are more associated with agency (e.g. hearing a creaking door at night: could be a person opening it or the wind blowing it open) when we over-detect agents. So I don’t think we have to confuse all threatening stimuli with agency to still fallaciously identify a fraction of such stimuli with agency, when that fraction is more easy to confuse based on similarities in the stimuli.

      I think that there are also other patterns that can cause us to have fallacious interpretations that lead to supernatural belief. Take disembodied causation for example. Early humans couldn’t see what caused volcanoes and earthquakes, so they assumed that there must have been a “super” natural cause, as no evident natural cause could be observed. Likewise we have cognitive illusions, such as thinking that the Sun revolves around the Earth. We, quite naturally, thought Earth was at the center of the universe, based on an illusion in our perception of the cosmos.

      So, I think that our complex pattern recognition, our intimate awareness of and drive to detect agency, and finally natural illusions in our environment that cause confusion with agency, are what come together to cause the fallacious human instinct for agent over-detection. Those natural illusions need not only be those relating to safety (which was the example I gave in the podcast). Illusions caused by empathy, which you noted, can be another factor, as well as disembodied causes. However, I think that there can be multiple types of illusions, and the safety one that I noted in the podcast can play a major role in the applicable circumstances.

  3. John says:

    Hi Matthew – Really enjoying both your writing and audio interviews. Recently I have been running across Christian apologist/philosophy types who have been using “Inference to the Best Explanation” as a defense of their Christian worldview. I sense that this is yet another attempt to subvert successful Naturalistic arguments against god and turn them against us. Have you encountered this, and if so, I would be interested in your observations. Thanks.


    • Hey John,

      As was discussed in the interview, it is often Christians who are more eager to bring up “worldviews” and “inferences to the best explanation” than atheists. But I think the reason why is that they cannot provide any direct evidence for the entities in their metaphysics. Christian apologists, for example, cannot show us God or where Heaven is, nor can they provide empirical evidence for miracles.

      Because of this problem, apologists often make inferential and circumstantial arguments for their beliefs. They argue that you can infer God’s existence from things such as alleged features of design in our universe, and they argue that the circumstances behind the early Christians’ belief in the Resurrection can only be explained if Jesus actually resurrected from the dead.

      All of this is an elaborate system of excuses to avoid giving direct, empirical evidence. Apologists know that they cannot do it, so they try to give other types of more mundane evidence to provide inferences towards their more extraordinary claims. However, all of these inferences and circumstances are based on far, far too tenuous of evidence to even remotely make their conclusions valid. Here is a great interview with philosopher Louise Antony about how none of the arguments that apologists present for their theism actually lead to their Christian worldview.

      The benefit of naturalism is that it is based on entities that we can directly observe. We observe natural events and natural causes all of the time. All that naturalists infer is that the natural events and causes go back further from beyond what we can directly observe. So naturalists are assuming that the observable is also taking effect in unobservable places, whereas the apologists are positing unobservable entities to be acting in unobservable places. Basically the god-of-the-gaps in a nutshell. I think that the naturalist has far stronger grounds for her inference.

      P.S. Sorry for the slow response. I have been swamped with graduate work lately and haven’t had time for the blog.

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