A program of the Center for Inquiry
In the preceding issue, Part 11 of this three-part symposium in print took a think-tank approach, emphasizing naturalism’s implications for education and public policy. In Part 2, we turn in a more critical direction. Variously, our contributors focus their criticism on philosophy itself; on a related discipline’s misapplication of the philosophical method; and, intriguingly, on two of the core concepts that underlie this very feature. In Part 3 (next issue), we will focus on specific applications of a humanistic philosophical naturalism (or a philosophically naturalistic humanism, as the case may be), followed by a sweeping declamation of the form an optimal relationship among science, philosophy, and secular humanism might take.
In our view, a robust and naturalistic philosophy can underwrite a fully satisfying, secular humanist alternative to worldviews based upon any form of theology, religion, or “religious” experience. It is because we consider philosophical naturalism so important as a bulwark2 of secular humanism that Free Inquiry is devoting parts of three successive issues to this special feature. The contributions in Part 2 are as follows:
It’s bad form to rebut one’s contributors before they have their say. Then again, it’s probably heavy-handed to bookend this feature with both an editor’s introduction and an editor’s summary/response. The middle road may lie in offering some general comments on issues that Haack, Law, and other critics have raised, then giving them the field to themselves.
The idea that philosophical naturalism and secular humanism are—and should be—closely related attracts three principal objections:
The first objection derives from countless sources. Frodeman and Briggle touch on it, to be sure, but so do claims by thinkers ranging from Stephen Hawking to Lawrence M. Krauss that “philosophy is dead”—to say nothing of thoughtful challenges to philosophy’s relevance from across the ideological and religious spectra. The second objection is instantiated principally in Susan Haack’s critique and the third in that by Stephen Law.
With that scene-setting complete, we offer our response.
First, is it worth thinking about the importance of philosophy itself? Sure. We secular humanists deeply value critical thinking in our personal, professional, and public lives, just as we value truth and education over faith and ignorance. Philosophy, not theology, can provide an overarching structure for how we seculars construct and live by our worldviews. But it’s fair to say that most of us don’t have the time, the inclination, or the need to worry too much about angels [sic] dancing on the heads of arcane, sub-sub-subdisciplinary pins. Philosophy matters, in part, because it provides the arena where specialist thinkers can ponder these matters—and later, speak about them clearly and forcefully to, among others, secular humanist audiences. Philosophy’s role in contemporary culture may be complex and sometimes internally conflicted, but, as Russell Blackford noted in Part 1 of this feature, at its best it has much to say that is supremely relevant to the enterprise of building secular and humanistic worldviews and to leading secular lives.
Second, is our naturalistic philosophy self-defeatingly scientistic? With due respect to 3, we think not. In our humanist view, the best philosophy is unapologetically linked to the sciences, in the sense that we advocate for the best of what has been thought and said in the empirical disciplines. That doesn’t mean that we spurn the humanities or that the arts aren’t important to us—for proof, simply review Paul Kurtz’s historic Affirmations of Humanism, on the inside front cover of this issue. We at the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry have always supported other forms of intellectual expression, so long as they don’t contradict well-established scientific thought and contain no supernatural elements. Yes, at base we think that there’s nothing “out there” beyond matter and energy and their interactions, but we have always built expansively upon that base. Not for us a sterile mechanistic determinism—if there’s one thing on which Haack and we may agree, it’s the red-herringness of Alex Rosenberg’s über-reductionist approach. (Philosophers by no means have to take so exaggeratedly narrow a view of naturalism, and, in practice, most don’t.) We don’t think that the language and purview of science is all that’s valuable in our philosophy. At the same time, science does assist us greatly in our daily consideration of reliable information.
Of course, it is true that science is fallible. And a good thing, too, because there’s plenty of better and better work left for science to do. (And plenty of better and better work for naturalistic philosophers to do in making sense of it all—ironically, we’re arguing for more philosophy here, not less!) Science should keep striving to get to the bottom of it all—“it all” in the sense of reality—as best it can. And philosophy should strive as best it can to help clarify science’s activities and explorations. But in our view, no one should try reducing Picasso to physics! Nor should a naturalistic commitment pose an obstacle to our speaking and thinking meaningfully—yet nonmystically—about phenomena such as “minds, morals, and mathematics.” Stephen Law sees this as a serious problem with naturalism; we disagree, noting that there is nothing nonnaturalistic in regarding these as emergent phenomena.
Make no mistake: we consider ourselves strict naturalists. But for us, “strict” naturalism simply means that we don’t think that philosophical positions without good reasons and evidence have—or deserve—any weight. We don’t think naturalistic philosophy should be subverted by supernaturalism in any form, either overt or thinly disguised.
There is much more to be dreamt of in our philosophy. The charge of “scientism” should not be a conversation stopper.
Third, is “naturalism” too confusing to be of any use? Quite the contrary, we think. If we can’t lean on naturalism to refute supernaturalism, what ism have we got left? Let’s face it: all isms are ambiguous enough to be argued over endlessly, but the conflict between mysticism and the orientation toward reality are basic enough—and central enough to secular humanism—that we feel justified drawing this line: naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Can technical thinkers continue spinning controversies in the gaps of that dichotomy? Of course they can. Nonetheless, that concept is good enough for our humanist elevator speeches and often for deeper thinking too. To be sure, we need to define and use naturalism more carefully and more effectively, as Daniel Dennett exhorted in the last issue.
Our naturalism should be expansive enough to embrace the aforementioned minds, morals, and math in a naturalistic way—and to treat insightful, creative, wonderful, life-changing peak experiences honestly, without ever calling them “religious.” We are unapologetic, nonreductive physicalists, but that’s still “strict naturalism” (nothing spooky) with matter and energy as part of that picture all the way down and art, literature, music, ethics, math, and whatever else all the way up! We—and the discipline—also need new philosophers, thinkers willing to come out about their own naturalism per se, and not just assume it and equivocate with students and the public about arguments that exist against religious interpretations of purely natural objects, events, and ideas.
But as secular humanists, use—and wield and learn from—naturalism we must.
So, are secular humanists naturalists? Should they be? As we’ve always said: Yes! By focusing on that commitment, a robust naturalistic philosophy can optimally help us to live entirely well, entirely without religion. At the same time, any hints in our philosophy of nonnaturalism or antinaturalism play straight into the hands of obscurantists and dissemblers, not least among them the John Templeton Foundation—but that is a matter for Part 3 in our next issue. For now, settle in, buckle up, and enjoy the critical cornucopia that is Part 2.