I’ve recently been trying to find an illustration that helps explain a common, naturalistic point of view in a way that is both fair to what some leading naturalists say about their beliefs and that simultaneously reveals why this is not a persuasive point of view. Here’s my latest attempt; I welcome your reflections on how well this illustration works!
First, think of the movie The Truman Show. Though I’ve watched it, I borrowed and adapted the following plot summary from the helpfully named GradeSaver.com website. The movie is about Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, who is the unknowing star of a TV show called, “The Truman Show". Two actors, Hannah Gill and Louis Coltrane, act out the roles of Truman’s wife and best friend. Thousands of hidden cameras document his entire life on Seahaven Island, which is a giant television studio under a dome, controlled entirely by Christof and his production team.
Now imagine Truman celebrating his birthday. He gives thanks for his wife and her love for him. From his perspective, this is a sincere and real feeling. But the reality is, she doesn’t love him. In fact, she is using the pretense of marriage to earn her salary. For instance, one of the odd things in their marriage is that she will suddenly do product placement advertisements!
Truman feels authentic gratitude. As we all do. But if he knew the truth about his life - if he had more evidence and logical consistency, then he would realize that he isn’t really married to Meryl and his best friend isn’t Marlon. Once he broadens his understanding, and gains a greater understanding of what is true, this would crush his experience of gratitude.
Take a second to think how Truman looks back on his pretend marriage and friendship after he escapes from Seahaven Island! I imagine he might be furious that these people willingly participated in a massive fraud to advance their careers and make money. Their deceit led to his entire childhood and life experiences being stolen from him. His entire life was commercialized and turned into entertainment for the world.
To sum it up, as long as Truman isn’t aware that his life is entirely manufactured, he can be authentic and happy. However, once he knows the truth, he will feel bitterly disappointed. He would be right to believe that life in Seahaven Island fails to be meaningful, good, or worthwhile.
So here’s the thought experiment: if naturalism is true, then our brains are like Christof. The neurons manufacture "Seahaven Island” for each of us, providing the conscious awareness and perception that there are persons, that life has a purpose, that there’s a difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and so on and so forth.
This powerful illusion is maintained because organisms that are duped into having these beliefs outcompete the ones that don’t believe their life has a purpose, that morality is real, and so on.
Some naturalists are willing to be candid about what a naturalistic point of view requires. For instance, here’s how Dr. Alex Rosenberg, a Professor at Duke University, and the co-director of Duke’s Center for the Philosophy of Biology, explains it in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality .
Science provides clear-cut answers to all of the questions on the list: there is no free will, there is no mind distinct from the brain, there is no soul, no self, no person that supposedly inhabits your body, that endures over its life span, and that might even outlast it. So, introspection must be wrong…
The physical facts fix all the facts. The mind is the brain. It has to be physical and it can’t be anything else, since thinking, feeling, and perceiving are physical process— in particular, input/ output processes— going on in the brain. We can be sure of a great deal about how the brain works because the physical facts fix all the facts about the brain. The fact that the mind is the brain guarantees that there is no free will. It rules out any purposes or designs organizing our actions or our lives. It excludes the very possibility of enduring persons, selves, or souls that exist after death or for that matter while we live. Not that there was ever much doubt about mortality anyway.
The conclusion that scientism comes to is that objections to naturalism are correct. If there were a subjective point of view that belongs to the self, then this would indeed be a fact not fixed by the physical facts. Since the physical facts do fix all the facts, there is no such point of view, no self, no person, no soul. That is the last illusion of introspection.
Similarly, in his book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray quotes Shestov, a Russian philosopher, who wrote:
People seek the meaning of history, and they find it. But why must history have a meaning? The question is never raised. And yet if someone raised it, he would begin, perhaps, by doubting that history must have a meaning, then continue by becoming convinced that history is not at all called to have a meaning, that history is one thing and meaning another.
Gray also quotes Schopenhauer, "What history relates is in fact only the long, heavy and confused dream of mankind.” Gray goes on to comment (italics my own):
Schopenhauer’s thought has some limitations. He denounced the world as illusion, but nowhere explained how or why this illusion had come into being. His conception of salvation is no less problematic. If what lies behind the world is nothingness, the simplest path to salvation is suicide. Schopenhauer resists this implication with the argument that killing oneself solves nothing, since the will simply renews itself in some other form. But if life is nothing but pain, death resolves everything for the suffering individual – however illusory he or she may be.
On the other hand, accepting that the world is an illusion need not mean seeking to escape from it. As Schopenhauer pictures it in much of his work, human life – like everything that exists – is purposeless striving. But from another point of view, this aimless world is pure play. In some Indian traditions, the universe is the play (in Sanskrit, lila) of the spirit. Schopenhauer held fast to the belief that the world was in need of redemption. But from what? Everything that exists is only maya, after all. Seeking no deliverance from the world’s insubstantial splendour, a liberated mind might find fulfilment by playing its part in the universal illusion.
That is, as I understand Gray here, in responding to this bleak unveiling of life’s meaninglessness, some naturalists might go for the ‘optimistic’ take. Yes, our brains each manufacture an individualized Truman Show, but what can you do? This is a biological imperative. It is fate. It is necessity. There’s no escaping it. And, as it turns out, my Truman Show is a relatively happy, purposeful place to live. So I’m content to enjoy the ride and have fun on the island.
However, as we considered this situation from an “outsider” point of view, from looking at Truman’s post-Seahaven Island experience, it seems to me that this is a deeply irrational point of view.
What are your thoughts? Does The Truman Show analogy ‘work’?