Naturalism and The Truman Show

(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

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 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’?

(SeanO) #2

@CarsonWeitnauer My initial reaction is that if I were a naturalist I would very quickly point out two things:

  1. Christof looks much more like a calvinistic deity that controls everything than anything in the naturalist’s worldview - I would turn the analogy around and say the reason I do not believe in / submit to a deity is because doing so would make me Truman (if I were a naturalist)
  2. Truman’s life was fake - but the naturalists life is not fake - they have meaningful relationships, fun hobbies and engaging careers - all of these things are meaningful - so their life is not like the Truman show in that sense.

I think the problem is that a naturalist is not living in a fake world - they are guilty of idolatry or ignorance while living in the real world. They are finding ultimate satisfaction in God’s good gifts rather than God Himself. They have mistaken the gift for the Giver.

I think what you need is a story where the main character has good things - but they are sacrificing the ultimate thing for those good things. The closest stories to that produced by secular culture involve people who chase their career and neglect their family - by the end of the movie they realize how empty that is and recommit to their family. God is our Father and Creator - to reject Him is to miss out on a love deeper even than family or friendship.

The Silver Chair automatically popped into my mind, but it might not reach the audience you are trying to reach.

As an aside, I saw this movie and thought it was an interesting critique of living through reality TV rather than living your own life. In a way, when Truman stepped off the set he not only set himself free - he also set others free to go back to their own lives. Without Truman to distract them, they had to go back to figuring out their own life. His absence actually revealed an absence in their own lives. Maybe that is an angle you could play? We are a very distracted age.

(Andrew Bulin) #3

@CarsonWeitnauer, I’m inclined to @SeanO’s first point. This seems like the ending of the dream where the individual is able to step away from the hand of one playing god, no longer under his control. Maybe not even Calvinistic, but perhaps even more like the mythological gods who tinker with peoples lives as on a chessboard.

However, I do feel that John Gray paints an interesting picture of this idea that we believe we are in control, but nearly as in a dreamscape of our consciousness. He illustrates that we live in the imaginary world if we subscribe to humanistic morality. Gray would consider a moralistic atheist who doesn’t seriously believe he or she is being moral simply for the sake of getting along in society is a humanist at best, and a “Christian” at worst. It’s all an illusion. Maybe the Matrix is another good analogy?

These ideas are teased out fairly well in Gray’s book, Straw Dogs. In the section of “Vices of Morality,” he speaks of the allure of choice and morality, but not in the rational of being a part of reality.

Personal autonomy is the work of our imagination, not the way we live. Yet we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. New technologies alter our lives daily. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time we have little idea of what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free (110).

One of my favorite sections that I find interesting is “Deception,” where he digs further into his foundational thoughts that nothing around us is “real.” Beliefs of morality and humanism are false and directly tied to Christianity. Here Gray seems to take more offense to those who wish to pass themselves off as moral without any basis, whereas the Christians at least have an excuse.

If humanists are to believed, the Earth — with its vast wealth of ecosystems and life forms - had no value until humans came onto the scene. […] Among Christians the cult of personhood may be forgiven. For them, everything of value in the world emanates from a divine person, in whose image humans are made. But once we have relinquished Christianity the very idea of the person becomes suspect (58).

To his credit, Gray is right in qualifying the Christian’s reason for belief in the worth of personhood is from our creator. It seems that Truman’s value is external as well, but given by the producer of the show, and perhaps the people looking on. This also makes it similarly artificial (Gray’s view), but in the analysis that @CarsonWeitnauer may be giving, if it’s all fake, then what is the real construct? John Gray suggests the reality is not found in the humanistic appeals or morality used to make social life simply easier. The implications of this are frightening.

Finally, for those that believe the current state of concisioness makes up reality, then like in the Truman show, the construct of our relality is somewhat staged. For Gray, our consciousness believes it has made decisions based on a sluggish, constant self-reflection of the previous moments, and imposes self on top of it.

We project a self into our actions because by doing so we can account for the way they seem to hang together. The continuities we find are frequently imaginary, but when they are real it is not because anyone put them there (72).

In a world without God ordaining a person’s steps (Prov. 16:9) or cares for us greatly and relationally by comparison of His care for even the smallest sparrow (Mat. 6:36), the prespective of Gray does not provide for real purpose, reason of living, justice, resolution at the end of life, or reason for the chaos this world is in. His conclusion may be possibly where we are left with Truman when he wakes up to his reality:

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see (199)?

Though Truman can be free to “see” the reality of his existence, what is the real result if he lives without his false purpose, and how does that contrast from the freedom Christ gives?

(Carson Weitnauer) #4

Hi @SeanO,

Thanks for these insightful reflections!

If I was trying to tell the Christian story in a persuasive way, then I would want “a story where the main character has good things - but they are sacrificing the ultimate thing for those good things.” But what I want to find is an illustration that tells the naturalist’s story in an accurate but unappealing way.

That is, I want to fairly represent the naturalistic point of view. And if it is fairly represented, I think it is quite nihilistic and entirely unlivable. That is, let’s assume it is true for a moment. What then? The point of the Truman Show illustration is that we ought not want it to be true.

To your first point - if you don’t want to worship Christof or a deity, then you should also not want to submit to the illusions produced by your brain. You should be a realist who ‘sees through’ what our brains do to create the perception that our lives matter.

To your second point, yes, if Christianity is true, then the naturalist’s life is not fake. But what if naturalism is true? My argument - to quote Rosenberg and Gray among others - is that our own brains are projecting a fake reality. As real as it seems that our relationships, hobbies, and careers are, this is an illusion maintained by our brains - not the world as it is.

@andrew.bulin, thank you for the additional quotes from John Gray! I’ve been meaning to read Straw Dogs for some time and your post is additional motivation to do so!

As you summarized it:

…the perspective of Gray does not provide for real purpose, reason of living, justice, resolution at the end of life, or reason for the chaos this world is in. His conclusion may be possibly where we are left with Truman when he wakes up to his reality:

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see (199)?

That’s exactly it! Once we think the aim of life is to simply see - well, what is it we’re meant to see?

I think what Gray and others are arguing is that we need to leave Seahaven Island. That is, to “see through” the illusions that we are selves, that ‘humanity’ is a unified ‘thing’, that morality is real, that life has purpose or meaning, that we have free will, etc.

All of these aspects of our consciousness seem very immediate and real - obviously so - but the “scientific” account (on naturalism) is that these are only fictive constructs of our happenstance consciousness (/Seahaven Island). They are not objective features of the world of fermions and bosons that we have discovered. Rather, they are inventions localized to our inner worlds that may (or may not) benefit us in the struggle for survival and reproduction.

To try and be clear, I’m suggesting that the naturalistic perspective and this illustration map like so:
Our brains = Christof
Our consciousness = Seahaven Island
All that we value (family, friends, morality, purpose, etc.) = illusions of the island
Reality = Seeing through the illusion of our conscious perception to the scientific facts

I’d also love to hear from the @Interested_in_Atheism, @Interested_in_Evangelism, and the @Interested_in_Philosophy groups!

(SeanO) #5

@CarsonWeitnauer Those are good points. I’m not sure that if I were a naturalist I would agree my experience of life was being fairly represented, though I agree that naturalism leads to nihilism. Drawing the connection between Christof and our brain is interesting because Christof himself has a brain / acts with agency, so my own brain starts to spin at that point :slight_smile:

(Anthony Costello ) #6


My Epistemology professor at Talbot, a well-known apologist in his own right, shows the Truman Show every semester to his class as a study on the nature of truth and justified true belief. Truman, the character, seems to be locked in to an immanently physical world (a metaphysically natural world, so to say, and as you are suggesting).

Most of Truman’s beliefs about that world are actually true (i.e. at least as to how it functions, the colors of the clothes people wear, the smell of a rose, the fact that 2+2=4, etc.) But, things start to happen to him; i.e. he starts to have evidence that there is something else going on than just the world that he is presented with. There is evidence that seems unnatural or out-of-place to his common experiences (e.g. the spotlight falling from the sky and crashing right in front of him, the super-fan skydiving onto the scene). These evidences mount and begin to point him to a reality that is other than his immediate experiences, and on it goes, until he can no longer accept that what his daily experiences are, are actually the whole truth. In a sense, it is Plato’s parable of the cave retold for the modern audience, except here we also get Christof (the name is obviously a reference to the Christian story and Christ).

At the end, Truman eventually puts his life on the line to know the Truth, and, in the end, he does discover it. I think this is actually a really good analogy for a lot of concepts that are relevant to not only the Christian story, but the nature of truth itself (i.e. that it is objective, and that we can discover the Truth, it is not just a projection of the brain, as Rosenberg and others would assert).

As far as Rosenberg, although he seems to be one of the more, well “grumpy” atheist philosophers (see his debate against WLC), I actually respect his view, because to me it seems at least consistent. If physicalism is true, then something like what Rosenberg says is probably true; and to hold to some kind of ultimate meaning or purpose in life is essentially an exercise in self-deception. If physicalism is true, then one can perhaps “sit back and enjoy the ride,” but also, it seems eminently reasonable (whatever “reason” might be) to also commit suicide as soon as one has a bad enough toothache. Why put up with any amount of pain, if there is neither any significance or meaning to our experiences or actions in the world?

This leads to another point you make, about what it might be like to experience only pleasure, yet without really enjoying anything like libertarian freedom. Huxley wrote about this in his masterpiece _Brave New World_where “soma” was the literal opiate of the people: a perfect drug to make the brain always be in a state of pleasure or tranquility, never pain or strife. Of course, Huxley’s book is supposed to terrify us, a dystopian vision, and it usually does (and obviously should) succeed in scaring us.

Robert Nozick, the philosopher, also has a short article called “The Experience Machine” which also addresses the idea of guaranteed pleasure vs. real freedom:

The conclusion Nozick comes to is that since we have good reasons to not plug into the experience machine, that pleasure is not all we really want in life. Now, admittedly, in The Truman Show, Truman actually has sad, painful and traumatic experiences. But, my point here is that the reason I think we have good reason to not want to “plug in” to the Experience Machine, or take the “soma”, or “stay in the Matrix” is because Truth actually exists. That truth itself would be what grounds our desire to not want a fabricated existence.

In fact, it seems to me, it must also be what grounds Rosenberg’s attempt to demonstrate the “truth” that there is no meaning to the universe. Rosenberg may want to get rid of meaning, but he is still arguing that he has discovered what the Truth is. This is also why his own view (and he admits this) is self-defeating, because although he argues that it is true that there is no meaning in the universe, he is also arguing that that belief is not the product of rational deliberation or revelation, but just a series of thoughts randomly generated by unintentional brain states.

With regard to @SeanO point about Christof being like a calvinist construal of God, I’m not sure if that needs to be the case. After all, the movie makes it clear that Christof makes mistakes and cannot control every circumstance or condition within his world (e.g. the spotlight falling from the sky, the actors breaking from the script, etc). Also, Truman can make free decisions within the world he lives, and it is up to Christof and his crew to alter their plans if Truman makes any unsuspected moves. In that sense I see Christof as being more like the god of open theism, always able to manipulate the conditions to his satisfaction after a free will choice is made, the way a master chess player might work, but not actually determining Truman’s affections, intentions and actions.

Hope that helps.

in Christ,

(SeanO) #7

@anthony.costello Has your professor ever tried using this analogy with someone who is a naturalist? I would be curious to know some actual responses from people with that worldview.

After doing a bit more digging I found that bloggers have taken a number views of this story - the one proposed by @CarsonWeitnauer being among them and the one that seemed the most obvious to me as well. I wonder if there is any authorial intent here? Nonetheless, it looks like Christof means very different things to different people.

Perhaps because Truman’s moment of revelation is so pivotal to the story we all are capable of finding our own personal epiphanies in the story - which means that we interpret it in light of our worldview? Jordan Peterson might say that the Truman Show is an archetype :hushed:

The View that Christof is the Secular Worldview / Satan

Found this interesting critique on a Catholic blog:

Thus, Truman is emphatically not a secular myth of Man Outgrowing God or a Promethean tale of Man Learning to Live in a World Without Pie in the Sky. The film is, in fact, highly amenable to the Catholic hope of Heaven. For it is, after all, Jesus who condemns “the god of this world” and assures us there is a reality which is larger than what we see around us. Conversely, it is secularism which attempts to squash at every turn the longing of the human heart for a world beyond what is presented to our senses. It is Christian hope that seeks heaven. It is secularism which laughs this hope to scorn and insists (just like Christof) that the cosmos inside the Dome is, in the words of Carl Sagan, “all there is or ever was or ever will be.” Truman’s hope can’t be kept in by Christof’s dome. But it is secularism, not Catholic faith, which builds such domes constantly.

Christof as a Paper Tiger View of God

Here is a blogger who saw what seemed obvious to me - Christof is a parody of deity.

As with Truman, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who this is referring to. Christof is a portmanteau of Christ and of, in that he is the Christ of Truman, his own personal creator. He is unseen and all powerful wielding total control over the show. He decides the direction of the show, who goes and who remains. In one particularly thought provoking scene Truman is out on the water sailing toward freedom. To stop him Christof brings about a huge storm. Persistent in his rebellion, Truman continues to fight his fear as Christof orders an editor to increase the waves. “We can’t let him die in front of a live audience!” barks one of the show’s stakeholders. “He was born in front of a live audience.” he quickly replies. The editor refuses to increase the obey causing Christof to react angrily and do it himself. His behaviour embodies much of what is criticised about the Christian God in today’s culture. There is a hint that this creator is a tyrant who is selfishly exploiting the freedom of a human being for his own gain, reckoning his desires more important than Truman’s free will. Such is a common argument amongst the new atheists

Christof as Part of Selfish Consumer Culture that Objectifies People

And yet there is a third view - that Christof is representative of a commercialized world where we extract value from both people and things.

Truman is no more than an object that they trick and control simply to make a profit. Christof’s obsession to continue the show without considering its consequences to Truman proves Christof has only a partial view of Truman. Christof exploits Truman by treating him only as a commodity rather than a person.

Despite his ingenuity in television broadcasting, Christof is a part of “the sickness.” He embodies Buber’s notion of being a person who only looks at the I-It in life. Christof is a self-centered and selfish character. He does not view Truman and his entire being, as a human, but rather as a way to create success.

(Anthony Costello ) #8


I don’t know if he has ever shown it to a secular or non-believing audience. But, I will ask him.

With regard to Christof, I guess we would have to know the script writer’s intent in order to really know what or who he was supposed to represent. Obviously, it is ambiguous, even if everyone tends to interpret him as some kind of god-like figure; which clearly he is.

My guess, since this is a Hollywood film, is that Christof is a kind of “paper tiger god,” a parody of the God of the bible meant to ensure the audience that it is best to free oneself from the shackles of religion and be one’s own “free-thinking” person. Unfortunately, if that is the intent behind the character, I think it ultimately fails. Mainly because Truman is trying to free himself from a god he knows nothing about.

Now, if Christof had entered into Seahaven himself, and actually given Truman knowledge about not only the reality beyond Seahaven, but also ate with him, drank with him, became his closest and most trusted friend, and then…died saving him from some horrible accident; well, then we would have a biblical Christof, and not this pagan god who plays and toys with the lives of mortals, as @andrew.bulin has already pointed out.

in Christ,

(SeanO) #9

@anthony.costello In a way I think it is impossible for someone who rejects God to portray Him accurately because their unbelief seeps into all that they do. They do not believe that God either exists, is good or is near to us, therefore when they portray God they ultimately portray a false god. The god they portray is as weak and uncertain as the god in which they do not believe.

Hebrews 11:6 - And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

As far as authorial intent, I’m not sure whether the movie producer intended Christof to be a god or to be just another representative of consumer culture. I think both are strong possibilities.