How many worlds?
But we don’t have to follow Ayer all the way. For most humanists, nature is the name we give to an inclusive and evolving reality, or better perhaps realities. Nature, we might say, is both one and many, a way of talking that classical philosophers like Plato would understand. For example, nature is one in that natural laws describe orderly processes like gravity and electricity that, as far as we can tell, pervade the world everywhere. The star and the microbe are not strangers to each other. A common energy describes them both. Similarly, and in some detail, we are learning through microbiology and the new genetics that all organic life shares a common biochemistry. It seems to be the case that wherever we are and whatever we look at appears to be patterned by the same natural laws, i.e. they’re “universal” is what we say. But of course, we have by no means seen all of the universe and, given time, never will. Another way of putting this is that nature is orderly or at least that’s the way it seems to us so far.
But when you look at the details, nature is also many. New stars appear and old ones vanish. New species appear and others die out. Rivers shape new canyons. Earthquakes fill in others. Wherever we look, nature both is and is changing. At the same time, our sciences and technologies evolve too. We discover unsuspected realities like the move we made less than a century ago from microbes to viruses or from electrons neatly circling around a nucleus made of neutrons and protons to a fascinating collection of sub-microscopic particles like muons and pions and who knows what else. Right now, we’re exploring the brain, still puzzled about the connection between “mind” and “brain.” We talk about “black holes” in space where light itself, energy itself, is “captured.” We measure distances of once unimaginable dimension. We talk of “light years” hardly realizing the distances they measure. With quantum physics, some of us think we can also talk sensibly, without talking science fiction or supernaturalism, about alternate worlds. We uncover mistakes in the knowledge we were once so sure about.
As we probe naturalism, we notice – as our examples show over and over again – the connection between metaphysics and the sciences. That tells us why it is that the sciences are basic to humanism and that knowledge of the sciences is basic for humanists. Without the discipline that the sciences impose on us, metaphysics can all too easily turn into wishful thinking. That might be fun or even comforting but it won’t get us closer to what’s really real.
Nature is going to surprise us, so we can’t settle for any given picture of the world. That is the clue to the way that humanists think about nature and it isn’t the way everyone thinks about nature. For example, Karl Marx predicted a certain social and political outcome in the future, the victory of the working class. For him, history had to develop in a certain way and had to be activated by certain specific social structures like capitalism and its overthrow by revolution. He was, philosophically, what is called an economic determinist which, for our purposes, means that there is indeed a given picture of the world and that other pictures are false if not dangerous.
Another example might help. Suppose that someone claims that a miracle happened, say a “miraculous” cure or an apparent ability to sense the mind of another person, or what have you. For the humanist, the claim is an invitation to ask metaphysical questions once again! Barring falsehood and confusion – in fact on analysis most such claims come down to one or the other – miracles are said to “defy” the laws of nature like someone rising from the dead or having the sun stand still. But, as David Hume, more than two centuries ago reminded us, our knowledge of nature is always incomplete and our understanding of it is always limited. Only if we could step outside of the world to see all of it at once in both space and time could we say that something is unnatural or miraculous. A miracle, in other words, is simply a rare or previously unnoticed event, perhaps even a new development in a world full of surprises. It is not evidence of otherworldly intervention; indeed, given the limits of our knowledge and the open-ended character of natural processes, it would be impossible to describe what evidence we could find that would assure us that such an intervention had taken place. As you can see, the humanist’s naturalism gets us into trouble with other metaphysical views pretty quickly, e.g. views that hold that miracles are real, unnatural and evidence of intervention by some non-natural being or that hold that history has to happen in a certain way and no other.
Reflection: General names like “nature” are part of our ordinary vocabulary. Think of other general names – to get you started “faces,” “heavenly bodies,” “games.” Add some of your own. If you met an alien who asked what is a “game” or what is a “heavenly body” or what is a “face” how would you answer? Would our alien understand us? How would you know he/she/it does?