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Episode 34 | The Domino and the Dialectic

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In this third podcast in our series on free will, Justin sits down with Reason Revolution co-creator Tylor Lovins (@tylorlovins) and author J. R. Becker (@AnnabelleNAiden) to discuss the scientific, philosophical, and linguistic concepts underpinning the age-old philosophical problem.

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The Architecture of Language: On the Free Will Debate

The Architecture of Language_ On the Free Will Debate

Recently, Reason Revolution host Justin Clark sat down with author J. R. Becker to discuss the disagreements between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris concerning free will. As a complement to their conversation, I want to discuss free will from the standpoint of the meaning of concepts, to ascertain what the difference between Dennett and Harris amounts to and to shed some light on why this debate is happening in the first place.

Clark begins the conversation by outlining three ways of thinking about free will:

  1. Determinism, which understands free will to be an illusion because every action and event has prior causes, and these causes had prior causes, all the way back to the big bang;
  2. Libertarian Free Will, a position, Clark states, promulgated by Christian theology and existential philosophy, understanding free will to be total, that we are condemned to be free;
  3. Compatibilism, a sort-of middle ground, recognizes the truth of determinism that all actions and events have prior causes but does not understand this to be a defeater for free will.

This basic framework is accurate enough. It is interesting to me that Clark outright rejects libertarian free will, as the reasons one would accept it are very similar to those one would use to be a compatibilist. Although I am not sure how accurate it is to say existentialists are talking about free will when they talk about choice (rather than the political term “freedom”), the reason one would come from a libertarian free will position is that it begins with our everyday use of the word “choice” to radically ground the meaning of life in how we choose to be response-able for it, how we choose and live our values. This isn’t unlike the compatibilist position. To be a compatibilist is to essentially use everyday language to think about the meaning of concepts, rather than the scientific conception of reality. The difference between these two positions is essentially that the compatibilist is more accommodating (or perhaps more knowledgeable of different frames of reference) and therefore leaves the language of science to speak in its contexts and the language of existentialism to speak within its contexts. Let’s think more about this movement between everyday use and scientific use. Is it always more reasonable to begin from the scientific conception of reality?

Beginning at the End

I want to tell you a story about a famous philosopher from the 20th century, the two schools of thought he created, and how, although the latter school supersedes the former, the former is still alive and well. This story is not your usual story, because the point of the story is not so much what it refers to outside of itself but rather is the story itself; the very language it uses is as much the “author” of the text as I am.

We are linguistic beings, which means we both communicate through language and, at the same time, create the language by which we communicate. This isn’t so much a strange fact today. For instance, iPhones did not fall from the heavens. We understand that any new iPhone will be manufactured by humans and that it will, most likely, alter the ways we communicate and relate to each other in some way. What is less readily conceivable is applying this recognition to our most basic and natural communication tool: language. The language we use about things, situations, emotions, and the like give meaning to and partially determine our behavior toward them. A very clear example of this is how the word “thinking” has been displaced by the word “processing,” and how the rise of science has changed the metaphors we use to reflect and think about ourselves. Today, our brains are computers, and the hardware of neurobiology creates the software of consciousness. Is anything today so illuminating as this metaphor, and so radically different from the historical view of the spiritual soul, disconnected from all things physical, trapped within the prison of fallen, finite things? Not only has the metaphor informed the kinds of questions we now ask about what it is to be human, but it has altered our situation as humans, from the technology we create to capture, manipulate, and transcend our human capabilities to how we relate to each other. Accordingly, forms of language are, in some ways, forms of reality. If you question nothing else in this article, please question this statement: live with it, by it, for it, against it, without it, because of it. Just don’t forget it. Language causes and solves our problems. It is to language we must turn to understand the origins of our problems and the way to their solutions.

As we enter this story, let us not forget that the concepts we use and our forms of language belong to contexts, and these contexts are composed of specific problems, objects, and logics. Within these contexts, we either use language to extend our concepts to include more experiences, situations, and phenomena (as when religious people call a tragedy part of “the will of God”), or we use concepts to disrupt the very logic of the language we use and the contexts in which our language makes sense (as in when we use irony or hyperbole, or when Sam Harris says, “Free will is an illusion”). The great advantage we have over animals, as a result of our ability to use language, is that we can project possible futures, using concepts as extensions of realities. We can confer motives to things and predict their actions. We can ascribe cause and effect to the world and therefore project possible situations in which we must act. Grounding all this, however, is the fact that our primary tools for acting are not simply instinctual, but they are social. This is of course not to say that language acquisition is not instinctual,[i] but that rather our instincts have given us tools that far exceed the limitations of mere instinct, just as our thumbs give us abilities that far exceed its mere movement.

Finally, I want to offer one more tool as you proceed to this story. Kenneth Burke points out in Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose that the ways in which we are trained to think and act in specific situations may make us blind to what is relevant and important in situations where our training does not apply. He calls this unfortunate fact “trained incapacity,” which, specifically, he defines as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindness.”[ii] Many secular humanists, unfortunately, fall into trained incapacity when they critique religion, especially when critiquing the notion of salvation as “escape.” Burke describes the problem with this criticism of religion well: “Whereas it [the motive to “escape” reality] applies to all men, there was an attempt to restrict its application to some men….While apparently defining a trait of the person referred to, the term hardly did more than convey the attitude of the person making the reference.” Burke wants to frame the problem of incapacity as a problem of “faulty means-selection,” which is a “comparison between outstanding and outstanding,” a comparison of relevant details between different situations (what stands-out in one situation and what stands-out in another). When we reason about the world, we reason by the means of language. As a result, the means of selecting what is relevant in certain situations, and how these relevant things connect with other relevant things in other situations, is a question of our means of selection, or, in other words, what concepts we use to talk about the things we are trying to talk about.

My claim, at the outset, is that Harris has a trained incapacity, and that this is a consequence of his scientific training. As a result, what Harris thinks is relevant in conversations about free will is the cause and effect continuum and therefore calls all talk about free will senseless (this is what it means to say “free will is an illusion”). Dennett, by contrast, examines how “free will” makes certain concepts like “responsibility,” “control,” “choice,” and “agency” relevant. Now, it is important to affirm that Harris’s scientific perspective is a legitimate enterprise and acknowledge that when we think scientifically, we must extend the logic of science as a means of selection for understanding the world. However, we must not fall into the trap that science is the only way to make sense of every situation and concept. Does knowing what chemicals are released in the brain in situations of “love” fully answer the beloved’s question, “Why do you love me?” Telling my wife we are in love solely because of our biology would be offensive to the language of love. Likewise, we must consider the extent to which Harris’s analysis is offensive to the social and linguistic understanding of free will.

Science and the Meaning of Concepts

In the mid 1910s to late 1930s, a group of philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists formed an influential club now known as the Vienna Circle. Among its most famous members like Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, W. V. O. Quine, Alfred Ayer, Frank Ramsey, and Karl Popper was Ludwig Wittgenstein, an esoteric and eccentric philosopher obsessed with language. The purpose of the group was to make philosophy into a science, to bring a precision to the language of philosophy that would turn it into a science. Using logic, mathematics, and empiricism, the Circle mounted a devastating critique against philosophical metaphysics. Perhaps the greatest and most obscure representative document of this critique is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Here, he laid the groundwork for the principle of verification: the meaning of a concept is its referent in reality. The principle of verification is that a concept is true, or has cognitive meaning, to the extent that it represents an object or state of affairs in reality; in other words, a concept is meaningful if it can be verified. This principle was a watershed for the logical positivist movement, or “positivism.”

Many things followed from this principle. For instance, it can be definitively claimed that religious language is contentless, senseless. The term “God” represents nothing in reality, and certainly is not derived from a state of affairs, and therefore it is meaningless. The principle seems to give truth claims of science a more robust framework. Concepts like “free will,” “soul,” and “ego,” can be thrown out without a thought, shown to be nonsense and without content. If a concept cannot be verified, it cannot have meaning.

Yet the principle is not without issues. One obvious problem is that it does not verify itself. It is a mere tautology.[iii] How do we know that a concept has meaning only to the extent that it represents something in reality? Well, because that’s how the Vienna Circle defined “truth” and “meaning.” The Vienna Circle’s concept of truth does not adequately account for the many different uses the concept has. Another problem is that it does not distinguish between statements that are descriptive (reports) and statements that are normative (imperative statements). Are all imperative statements nonsense? To say that something is “hot” or “cold” is to describe your world. We can verify whether something is hot or cold by our senses or by agreeing on what hot or cold means on a thermometer. But to say that something is “good” or “bad” is normative: one could say it’s good to be a Democrat and bad to be a Republican, or vice versa. What sense does this have from the positivist perspective? Where can I point to and identify the “good” of Democrats or “bad” of Republicans, unless I already assume the nature of this goodness? This is the is-ought problem, rearticulated. We will return to this later.

After Wittenstein wrote the Tractatus, he believed he solved all the problems of philosophy. These problems were either confusions of language, claiming content for its concepts where none could be found in reality, or philosophical problems were caused by railing against the limits of language. The limits of language are, indeed, the limits of philosophy. Famously, the final proposition in this influential work states, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Silence is the best we can do with questions about the ultimate things, those things which ground our languages, which form the connections between the is and oughts.

Wittgenstein’s retirement from philosophy was brief. He soon realized the positivist conception of language did not adequately account for the complex ways in which language is used and still has meaning. Consider metaphor, poetry, body language, allegory, and the like. These uses of language clearly say something, and for language to say something is for it to “make sense,” to “have meaning.” Whether or not words refer to things or states of affairs is not the whole question of meaning or truth, Wittgenstein realized. Language acquisition and use plays, perhaps, an even larger role than reference. Consider when a mother points to a ball and says, “ball” to her toddler. How is the toddler to know that when the mother points to the ball the toddler isn’t supposed to follow a line from the elbow, or that the mother isn’t talking about the ball but about the color of the ball, or the shape, or even the space the ball fills by its existence? The toddler comes to know what “ball” means by interacting with the ball, by learning how “ball” is used in the contexts in which it is appropriate to talk about “ball.” This is the central insight of Wittgenstein’s later work, his rebuke to positivism: The meaning of a concept is its use in a context: meaning is a function of context.

Do We Agree on the Facts, or Are We Just Playing a Semantic Game?

Let’s return to the topic of free will but with a different light: the determinist position appears to be derivative from positivism, whereas Dennett’s Wittgensteinian and pragmatist influences shows in his position, for it matters to Dennett that our reflection on concepts begins on the basis of accurate use of these concepts. We can call anything truth: but does the arbitrary changing of definitions mean anything? This question brings to mind the work of James K. A. Smith, presently a popular theologian in ultra-conservative Calvinist circles, who relies on stale arguments and linguistic slights-of-hand. For example, he defines “liturgy” as anything that shapes our desires. So it appears “deep” when he makes the claim that basically everything is liturgy: from the ways in which we shop at malls to our daily after-work routines. One implication in calling desire-shaping phenomena “liturgy” is to suggest that we’re all “religious” at the core. And, indeed, this is assumed in the very conception of the matter. This is an extremely boring and underhanded way of saying something without saying something: Smith is an expert at employing the “deepity.”[iv] But it’s a telling example of how the words we use can affect our perceptions of our objects of study. Why not just substitute “liturgy” with “stimuli?” Well, for one reason, Smith would be out of a job. Additionally, there would no implication, in any given instance when we use “liturgy,” that forming habits fulfills a religious need. Smith’s trailblazing conclusion, that desire-shaping practices are ultimately about “worship,” would not be assumed at the outset. Smith’s method of argumentation is one way to have your conclusions made for you: the very words we use shape our intuitions as linguistic beings.

What does it mean to ask if we agree on “the facts?” Consider that you’re having a discussion with James K. A. Smith on desire-shaping practices. What sense does it make to describe the things that draw our attention and shape our desires as “stimuli,” and not “liturgy?” Are we disagreeing about facts, here? Is it all “just semantics?”

The fact is that our words shape and, in some ways, determine, what we see in the world, giving rise to disparate forms of thinking about what is “the world.” If we use “liturgy” to talk about desire-shaping practices, the inferences we are compelled to make by the use of the concept itself infer that when we conduct acts which shape our desires (that is, when we do anything), we are indeed performing acts of “worship,” and the places in which we perform these acts of “worship” are our “holy” sites. This is what I mean when I say that the conclusions are already contained within the very assumptions from which we begin any analysis. For Smith, just as for Harris, the facts are given as a starting point. Consider what would follow if we began our analysis of desire-shaping practices from the mechanistic conception of the universe. Unlike Smith, Harris would say that we do not shape our desires (“liturgies”) by “performing acts of worship” in “holy sites,” but by being influenced by the “conditioners” in our “environments.” Nothing like “worship” or “holy sites” is insinuated by the use of the words “conditioners” and “environments.”

As such, using a word like “facts” is more so determined by our our points of reference, our forms of analyses, and not so much what we find in the world. Our very use of the concept of “fact” delivers objects in the world which are essentially different from the objects in the world we find when we think of things as projections from our emotions, as symbols of what the future will bring, or as “miracles.” Both Smith and Harris can agree on the “facts,” to the extent that they can analyze the same situations, but what these facts are named, whether “liturgy” or “stimuli,” is just as important in shaping what the facts mean as the objects and situations under investigation.

So What is at Stake?

The free will debate is simply a good representation of what occurs in every discussion where science attempts to analyze concepts derived from everyday use but without paying attention to the inferences we make by these concepts: concepts like “mind,” “thinking,” and “belief,” and “morality.” This debate is also a good example of the difference between positivist and ordinary language philosophers. But let us take a look at another aspect of this debate, moving beyond the analysis of the concepts put in play, and consider the consequences that follow from these concepts.

The debate between Harris and Dennett boils down, in some ways, to the question B. F. Skinner raised half a century ago. When we are trying to understand the reasons for actions, do we look at the intentions of the person from our everyday use of concepts and within a normative framework of moral responsibility, or do we look at the conditioners of action, the mechanics of the universe that make some actions more likely than others and put in place mechanisms that will influence better outcomes? This is the crux of the free will debate between Dennett and Harris. And to the extent that we side with Dennett, we are looking for ways to innovate our normative schemes, to extend some concepts and retract others when it comes to our language about free will, responsibility, and justice. And when we agree with Harris, we are looking at the physical mechanisms of the world in order to manipulate and shape them to improve society.

Going back to the is-ought problem as introduced earlier, we can say that both the descriptive and normative frameworks are different for Dennett and Harris. For Dennett, the descriptive side of his analysis involves looking at the everyday situations in which it makes sense to use “free will” and then to outline the inferences we make in those situations, the consequences of using this concept. For Harris, the descriptive side involves data about the mechanisms of reality. What we count as descriptions, or the “is” of reality, informs, then, the “oughts” that follow. For Dennett, to rid us of the concept of “free will” is to rid us of the kinds of practical, social relations in which we participate when, in the everyday world, we use this concept. That’s why Dennett wants to talk about the moral aspect of free will. For Harris, to lose the concept of free will is to lose nothing, because both morality and free will are about the mechanisms of reality, and just as our moral intuitions are facts that pertain to the operations of these basic mechanisms of reality, so too is the illusion of free will. We have Dennett representing Wittgenstein’s later position and Harris representing his earlier philosophy.

The difference between Dennett and Harris is not only in the frameworks from which they analyze the problem of free will, but in the consequences that follow from their methods of analysis. To accept both projects as legitimate, which I think we should, would mean that we should work both to be linguistic innovators and also social revolutionaries. We should be attentive to the ways in which language shapes thought but also be open to using the tools of science to move beyond mere argumentation and hermeneutical innovation to improve society. The public clash between two legitimate ideas generally revolves around the fallacy that these ideas must be integrated in some theoretically general way for them both to be legitimate, or else one must give way to another. What is more likely true is that Harris and Dennett have different levels of analysis, and that it is a fallacy to think different levels of analysis must be reconciled in general ways. Rather, they must be married in the life and action of individuals, and to the extent that one level is more useful for some people in some situations than it is for others in other situations, then one level of analysis will be more significant and appropriate. We must move beyond the rationalist fallacy. Employed in a different example, this fallacy would have us believe that to use 1+1=2 we must understand the nature of addition and how 1+1=2 can both be grounded in quantum physics and explain why my wife is angry at me for not walking my dog this morning. The rationalist fallacy bewitches us by making us think we have to have a theory of everything to have a perfect language. Yet, we know, different levels of analysis are true in different ways, for different projects, and for different people.

Ending at the Beginning

The difference between Harris and Dennett amounts to this: while Harris is unwittingly reducing other vocabularies to his scientific vocabulary and thereby displaying a trained incapacity, Dennett wants to keep both vocabularies for creating different contexts, exploring different kinds of experiences, and communicating different ways of existing. The contexts in which free will makes sense are not forms of existence that are delusionary, as Harris would have us think. As Kenneth Burke puts it, “To explain one’s conduct by the vocabulary of motives current among one’s group is about as self-deceptive as giving the area of a field in the accepted terms of measurement.”[v] Put another way, “Motives are shorthands for situations.”[vi] When we consider a breach of contract, what is relevant, in these situations, is not as Harris would have it: a consideration of the cause and effect universe and every single way in which our actions and decisions have prior causes. Rather, what is important for Dennett’s form of free will is that the person has “chosen” to breach the contract, based on the concepts we use in contractual situations. When we say a person made a “choice,” we are saying the possible future outlined in the contract in which “breach” makes sense has been actualized: we are not stating a description of neurobiology or physics. We are using concepts, just as scientists use concepts to both create and describe the world, to make sense and act in the world where “contractual relation” is our current situation. Against Harris’s referentialism, Dennett’s free will reaffirms Wittgenstein and Burke: the meaning of our words has to do with relevance, what it makes relevant, and not reference.

We’ve talked so much about language at this point. Let us just throw out, as the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a simple point of logic which Harris and Becker himself do not seemingly acknowledge. In the podcast, when Becker brought up the Libet Experiments to ground his claim that our choices are predetermined, he did not, also, acknowledge, as Kenneth Burke does, that “The discovery of a law under simple conditions is not per se evidence that the law operates similarly under hilighy complex conditions.” This is a fact we should have learned from the history of science, when the simple Newtonian vision of the universe was displaced[vii] by the Einsteinian vision.

Our ending is where we began, with the recognition that we are linguistic beings, and that the way in which we use words matters. Also, in the spirit of late Wittgenstein, we end with the American who arrived, at approximately the same time, with later Wittgenstein to his later conclusions, to the rebuttal of his own early philosophy.

“We discern situational pattern by means of the particular vocabulary of the cultural group into which we are born. Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful. Other groups may select other relations as meaningful. These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality—hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions about what reality is.”[viii]

 


 

Photo Credit: Jef Safi

[i] Indeed, this is absolutely the case, as Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct.

[ii] Kenneth Bruke, Permanence and Change, 7.

[iii] I refer to this as “tautology” rather than “axiom” to point out a basic point of later Wittgenstein’s insight. Our definitional statements that are supposedly “self evident” actually are the boundaries of our conceptual schemes our language games. They show the logic of our basic conceptual framework: this is what “definition” means in a function sense.

[iv] “Deepity” is from an amusing chapter in Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

[v] Burke, 21.

[vi] Ibid., 29.

[vii] I say displaced and not “replaced” because Newtonian physics still works when we are measuring short distances, but we need Einstein’s theory of relativity to measure distances between planets. I heard Lawrence Krauss make this point.

[viii] Burke, 35.

Episode 23 | The Interview: Natalie Newell

This week, Justin chatted with Natalie Newell, co-host of the Science Enthusiast podcast and the director of the new documentary, Science Moms.

They talked about her upbringing and foray into the world of skepticism, the work she does on the Science Enthusiast, and the impetus and reception of Science Moms.

Learn more about the film: http://www.sciencemomsdoc.com/

Her conversation on the Opening Arguments podcast: https://goo.gl/Hy83cy.

Check out our website. All episodes and additional content are available there: www.reasonrevolution.org.

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Episode 22 | Ask Me Anything #2

This week, Justin answers your questions in his second AMA episode. Topics covered include: Bill Nye’s new TV show, religious beliefs of the Presidents, the historical research on freethought, free will, the science of ethics, and other topics.

Check out our website. All episodes and additional content are available there: www.reasonrevolution.org.

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The Promise of Secular Humanism: Towards a Better Way of Life

In my previous essay, I explored the implications of life without gods and the supernatural. Acknowledging that the abandonment of traditional religion requires a complementary philosophical system, I will present secular humanism as a rigorous and applicable framework for human flourishing. This brief overview will not be exhaustive; it will present an outline for this methodology and present concise arguments in its defense. In sum, a life based on the application of one’s reason, ethical individualism, and democratic participation can facilitate a life of joy, freedom, and achievement.

The Humanist Epistemology

A secular humanist’s epistemology (theory of knowledge) is built upon three essential components: reason, methodological naturalism, and skepticism. First, reason is the foundational pillar that the other components work from. Reason is the capacity of human beings to create abstract thoughts and/or conclusions based on the concretes of reality. It is the emergent faculty of our brains that allows us to conceptualize and systematize the world. The humanist believes that reason, or our ability to perceive and then conceive, is purely natural and without the need for “faith” or “revealed wisdom.”

Philosopher Harry Binswanger has delivered a series of lectures emphasizing this point, basing his conclusions off of the principles of an Objectivist epistemology. In Binswanger’s estimation, perception (taking in information via the senses) is the “given” in our understanding of the world, in that it requires mere physical processes. Abstraction and conceptualization, which turn our perceptions into knowledge, are processes that require discrimination and systemization of the “raw material” of perception. This is where reason comes in. Nearly anyone can perceive a quasi-spherical red object or a vibrational difference in the atmosphere with their senses; it requires reason for the concretizing and systemizing process of conceptualization to understand that it is an apple or a song.

Faith by-passes the entire process of knowledge, by appealing to “revealed” truths that one accepts without the steps of perception, concretization, and abstraction. It treats knowledge as a top-down proposition, akin to Plato’s “forms” or Kant’s “pure reason.” This is a completely inverted understanding of epistemology. As Aristotle, Locke, and others have rightly noted, knowledge is a bottom-up process, requiring ever more complicated levels of thought to arrive at our conclusions. Therefore, it is essential within a humanist understanding to properly acknowledge the importance of perception and reason to epistemological questions.

Second, it is important to base our perception on a solid foundation, which in this case is methodological naturalism (MN). An astute summation of methodological naturalism comes to us from the RationalWiki:

Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses. To avoid these traps scientists assume that all causes are empirical and naturalistic; which means they can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.

MN does not rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but rather recognizes the complicated and often problematic investigations of the supernatural. This view is contrasted with philosophical naturalism (PN), which holds that the natural world is all there is and no supernatural exists. While some humanists hold the position of PN, it is more philosophically and intellectually honest to accept MN.

Having said all that, it is important to note that MN does not ignore supernatural claims altogether. When a faith healer says he can cure cancer or a psychic claims to know intimate details of your life, these are specific, testable claims that can be refuted by the scientific method. Even more broadly, when a religion makes specific claims about the natural world (God created the world in six days, God stopped the Sun in the sky, Jesus rose from the dead), these can also be debunked by scientific investigations. What MN cannot do is refute God or supernaturalism all together, seeing as these concepts are too broad and amorphous to be falsified, a key component to the scientific method. Therefore, Humanism’s dedication to MN, and its lack of confidence in supernaturalism and gods, is based on the simple logic of Occam’s Razor. If a phenomenon can be explained by natural means, it is therefore unnecessary to attribute them to supernatural means. Additionally, if a phenomenon we attributed to the supernatural is proven to be true, it is then added to what is natural.

Finally, a humanist epistemology benefits from a healthy dose of skepticism. For this perspective, we turn to the master of skepticism himself, the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume explains the fallibility of the human mind:

The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have us’d all imaginable caution in forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hop’d to keep clear of those contradictions, which have attended every other system.

In other words, perceptions are not knowledge. They can be twisted and contradicted from what is actually going on in the real world. This is why the process of reason is indispensable to our lives. Reason allows us to peel back the layers of “contradictions and absurdities” and come to a more accurate conceptualization of reality. As I noted in my previous essay, humans are emotional and messy, often led astray by our biases and misperceptions. Skepticism guides our thinking away from our initial perceptions and requires us to investigate deeper to best approximate our understanding of the world.

The Personal Level: Ethical Individualism

Moving from epistemology to ethics, a predominant theological and philosophical worldview focuses on the collective nature of human beings. In more fundamentalist strains, it can be a complete negation of a person’s thoughts, desires, and talents. For example, the ideologies of Islamism (the politicization of certain sects of Islam), fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, and orthodox Marxism require that the individual be subservient to the cause, or the “ideal” of the faith. In a secular lens, this type of view can be summarized by the 19th century philosopher, and founder of the term “altruism,” Auguste Comte: “The individual must subordinate himself to an Existence outside himself in order to find in it the source of his stability.”

This view wholly distorts our human nature. While some scholars quibble over the nature of group level selection (see Haidt), the foundational level of selection concerns the individual. Human beings, much like our primate ancestors and scores of other beings before us, evolved based on mostly individual changes which then added up over time. As Michael Shermer noted in his masterwork, The Moral Arc:

 “. . . the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that the discrete organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species . . . but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and there ought not to be subservient to the collective.”

This has profound ethical implications. While it would be unwise for us to directly extrapolate a system of ethics from biology, it is helpful to understand these conclusions and their relation to us as social creatures. Humans are inherently social; we desire communication and connection. However, that does not mean we should seek to achieve these connections through collectivistic means.

Building off of that, my personal view of humanism is built on the guiding principle of individual rights. As John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said, “I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This notion is bigger than biology. It is also built on the Enlightenment principle of “self-proprietorship,” beautifully outlined by the English Leveller Richard Overton (as quoted by intellectual historian and philosopher George H. Smith):

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man.

In essence, your life belongs to you, to do with it as you see fit, so long as you do not violate the rights of another. This is a bedrock ideal within the Enlightenment political tradition and one that continues to expand the rights of all people.

In Overton’s time, they attributed individual rights to a sovereign God of nature (similar to Jefferson and the founder’s notion of “Nature’s God.”) While this tradition has historically been built upon that premise, it is equally valid to base these rights upon the virtue of being a thinking, sentient being with the capacity for reason. Philosopher Corliss Lamont described this concept’s classical roots and its modern application:

It is the Humanist view that if the individual pursues activities that are healthy, socially useful, and in accordance with reason, pleasure will generally accompany them; and happiness, the supreme good, will be the eventual result. This ethical doctrine goes all the way back to Aristotle and is called eudaemonism (Greek for happiness). It contrasts with hedonism, which holds that pleasure alone is intrinsically good, by putting primary emphasis on the sorts of activities that a person chooses; at the same time it assigns an important and pervasive role to pleasure. “Pleasure,” as Aristotle said, “perfects the activities,” yet remains secondary. The Humanist ethics, then, “recognizes that the intentional objects of human striving are, in point of fact, not pleasures, but pleasurable things. And by identifying the good with voluntary activities and preferred objects, which are publicly observable, it facilitates discovery, measurement and production of the good.”

Therefore, that which is in accordance with the overall flourishing of the individual, within the context of their own life and their relation to others, undergirds a humanist conception of rights. Supernaturalism and/or god(s) no longer remain necessary.

As mentioned above, a person’s relation to others must also be taken into account. Individualism does not imply a short-sighted selfishness. Rather, it represents a committed recognition to the dignity of each person as well as the need for social cohesion for the flourishing of our species. Lamont, again, elucidates this point perfectly:

Humanism, then, follows the golden mean by recognizing that both self-interest and altruism have their proper place and can be combined in a harmonious pattern. People who try to serve humanity must permit humanity to serve them in turn. Their own welfare is as much a part of the welfare of humankind as that of anyone else.

Our individualism must be grounded on an ethical promise to advance our own interests while seeking to advance the interests of society as a whole. Even though the Devil will be in the details (pun intended), it is the ethical project of humanism that protects individual rights while advancing all of humanity forward.

The Societal Level: The Moral Instinct and the Moral Framework

In the last section, I mentioned the devilish details of the individual’s ethical relation to others, generally known as morality. In my view, our morality breaks down into two major components: the moral instinct and the moral framework. Our moral instincts are the product of natural selection, they “guide our behaviors toward the goal of survival and reproduction.” Base emotions like fear, hunger, dominance, and justice, among others, evolved over millennia so our genes could be passed on from generation to generation. This has not only made us successful biologically; it has made us successful morally. As such, actions which originally evolved to help direct kin began to help non-kin, especially once we developed our social systems.

Here’s a story to illustrate this point. In his book, Life Driven Purpose, Dan Barker recalls a story about saving a baby from being harmed at an airport. He was waiting to board the plane when he noticed that a woman had placed her infant “on top of a luggage cart, about three or four feet off the ground, and the father must have stepped away for a moment.” Out of the corner of his eye, Barker saw the carrier starting to fall to the ground, “made a quick stride to the left,” and his “finger tips caught the edge of the carrier as it was rolling towards the floor.” The mother quickly assisted him in leveling the carrier and thanked him for his action. Now, why would he do something so moral without much intellectual consideration? Barker explains:

We are animals, after all. We come prepackaged with an array of instincts inherited from our ancestors who were able to survive long enough to allow their genes–or closely related genes–to be passed to the next generation because they had those tendencies. An individual who does not care about falling babies is less likely to have his or her genes copied into the future.

The moral instinct compels us to carry out many actions without any logical considerations; we just act in accordance with our human nature. Acknowledging this aspect of who we are goes a long way to improving our ethical systems in the future.

Complementing the moral instinct is the moral framework, what we commonly call “ethics,” or a system of conceived principles that advance flourishing and limit suffering, not just in humans but in an ever-growing moral universe. One way to conceptualize the moral framework is philosopher Peter Singer’s “expanding circle.” Based on an earlier concept from historian W. E. H. Lecky, Singer’s expanding circle hinges on the “principle of interchangeable perspectives,” which requires moral agents to rationally defend their actions without prizing their own status over anyone else. In other words, it’s a more elaborate variation on the golden rule, but with a twist: make moral decisions among others as you would have others make moral decisions among you. The circle expands, as the metaphor goes, as we socially evolve to include more than just other individual humans. With time, it will include “members of our in group, to members of other groups, tribes, states, and nations, to all members of our species, to members of other mammal species, to all sentient beings, to the biosphere.”

Using the moral framework will challenge our culturally-ingrained notions of moral behavior, as it “puts morals more on a par with scientific discoveries than cultural conventions.”

Using the benchmark of advancing flourishing and limiting suffering, there are ways in which behaviors can actually be assessed as moral and immoral. “There really is a better way for people to live,” Shermer argues, “and in principle we should be able to discover that through the tools of science and reason.” Notice that he says both science and reason when discussing moral values, with science being the investigatory component and reason being the evaluative component. This is for a reason. Unbridled science (eugenics, atomic weapons) and unbridled reason (totalitarian philosophies such as Fascism and Marxism) can lead to immoral actions; it is only through what biologist E. O. Wilson called “consilience,” or a unification of knowledge, that we can make the best moral decisions. In all, the moral instinct and the moral framework serve as two equal sides of the ethical coin. The instinctual and conceptual both have a say in how we advance our lives and the lives of others.

The Political Level: Rights as Paramount, Science and Ethics Guide Policy

Finally, the political sphere, which combines individual and social concerns, becomes the normative framework for ensuring the flourishing of each component listed above. Democracy, the most successful and beneficial form of government, is predicated on the protection and/or fulfillment of rights through the “freely given consent of the governed.” These rights can be broken down into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are rights that the government cannot take away from you (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc.) while positive rights are those that are granted by the government, such as a right to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a living wage or pension system. The best encapsulation of both types of rights comes from President Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms Speech,” delivered in front of Congress in 1941. The “four freedoms” are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are negative rights while the latter two are positive rights. Our modern democratic tradition hinges on these ideals, which fit nicely into a humanist framework.

Humanist scholars such as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Paul Kurtz all stress the importance of a healthy democratic society based on the bedrock of political rights. Dewey, in his essay, “On Democracy,” wrote of the necessity of negative rights:

While the idea is not always, not often enough, expressed in words, the basic freedom is that of freedom of mind and of whatever degree of freedom of action and experience is necessary to produce freedom of intelligence. The modes of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are all of this nature: Freedom of belief and conscience, of expression of opinion, of assembly for discussion and conference, of the press as an organ of communication. They are guaranteed because without them individuals are not free to develop and society is deprived of what they might contribute.

Negative rights ensure that individuals are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience and intelligence to fulfill the needs of themselves and others. To implement these values, a democracy requires a strong separation of church and state and a free press, so that all citizens can implement the values they hold dear without violating the negative liberties of others.

On the other hand, Hook notes of the “positive requirements of a democracy” in his essay, “Democracy as a Way of Life.” Among the various requirements, the most important to this discussion is Hook’s notion of “economic democracy.” He explains:

By economic democracy is meant the power of the community, organized as producers and consumers, to determine the basic question of the objectives of economic development. Such economic democracy presupposes some form of social planning, but whether the economy is to be organized in a single unit or several and whether it is to be highly centralized or not are experimental questions. There are two generic criteria to decide such questions. One is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization makes possible an abundance of goods and services for the greatest number, without which formal political democracy is necessarily limited in its functions, if not actually endangered. The other is the extent to which a specific form of economic organization preserves and strengthens the conditions of the democratic process already mentioned.

Like Dewey, he’s leaving options open to the citizens of democratic societies, such as whether to be more capitalist and less socialist or vice versa. In doing so, Hook defends the principle of positive rights in the same fashion that Roosevelt did: to advance human flourishing.

Lastly, we come to Paul Kurtz and his thoughts on democracy from his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism. Kurtz reaffirms the considerations made by Dewey and Hook but also emphasizes the value of discourse and participation to a functioning democracy. “. . . a political democracy,” Kurtz writes, “can be effective only if its citizens are interested in the affairs of government and participate in it by way of constant discussion, letter writing, free association, and publication. In absence of such interest, democracy will become inoperative; an informed electorate is the best guarantee of its survival.” Each of these views on democracy require citizens to use reason, from protecting their liberties and organizing their economies to discussions among others and petitioning the government for a “redress of grievances.” None of these things happen by virtue of a god or how many prayers a person can say. Rather, democracy is a human-centered, action-oriented enterprise that protects rights, builds economies, facilitates discussions, and encourages achievements.

With that in mind, a functioning democratic society relies on both science and ethics to inform our public policy. With such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty, law enforcement overreach, sex education, vaccines, and stem cell research, it is essential that we apply our best thinking to these social problems. With only science as a guide, a government falls privy to overbureactization and malfeasance, and at worst, enacts policies which violate individual rights (eugenics, forced sterilization, genocide). This is why an ethical component, based on the application of reason as well as the guidepost of human flourishing, should always play a core role in shaping policy. It will not always provide us with easy answers, but it is far better than leaving our democracy to the whims of crackpots, religious fanatics, and overzealous central planners.

Conclusion: Humanity’s Future

Like so many ages before us, our age falls prey to barbarism, mysticism, hero worship, tribalism, superstition, and flat-out nonsense. To avoid these trends, we need a philosophy of life that prizes reason over faith, knowledge over ignorance, freedom over tyranny, and most importantly, humans over dogmas. Secular humanism is exactly that kind of philosophy. It is a way of life that puts human beings at the center of their own destiny, no longer chained to the whims of fundamentalist religion or totalitarianism. Its openness to new ideas and diversity of thought allow for a more enlightened religion, one that is compatible with humanism’s core principles. If one has left gods behind, it gives you the framework to live a moral and fulfilling life. The beauty of humanism is that it isn’t much of an “ism” at all; its essential values allow for a multiplicity of worldviews to coexist together, in something akin to Robert Nozick’s notion of a “utopia of utopias.” By leaving society free, open, and dedicated to human flourishing, all people can live among one another with more peace, prosperity, and progress.

Isaac Asimov said it best when he declared that, “Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide, that they are best capable of developing values that succeed in satisfying human needs and serving human interests.” This is the apotheosis of humanism. Despite our flaws and failures, humanity has achieved so much in its time. We have conquered the heavens and the earth, built civilizations, eradicated diseases, ameliorated poverty and suffering, expanded freedom and opportunity, and created art and literature that will last for ages. All of this occurred because we valued our lives and dedicated ourselves to improving them. Every minute we waste speculating about the afterlife limits the value of our lives right now. We are young in the vast chasm of the universe, grasping for glimpses of truth and wisdom. We have so much to learn, which requires us to leave behind the shadows of our past and walk into the light of the future with an open mind, an open hand, and an open heart. Humanism gives us the path; we just have to take the first step.

Episode 18 | The Dangers of American Theocracy

 

This week, Justin had a conversation with his friend Adriane about abuse, neglect, and harm done in the name of religion. They discussed her upbringing and eventual path to atheism, how religious exemption laws harm public health and children’s rights, the current political climate, and the value of citizenship.

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Episode 17 | The Interview: Karen Garst

This week, Justin sat down with Karen Garst (@karen_garst), founder of the Faithless Feminist blog and editor of the new book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion.

They discussed her path of our religion, how her feminism informs her views of politics and atheism, her newest book, and her recent trip to the controversial Mythinformation Conference in Milwaukee.

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Episode 15 | The Interview: Kelsey Gordon

This week, Justin talks with friend and historian Kelsey Gordon. They talk about her questioning of faith, her research on mid-century American popular culture, and the current state of American politics.

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Episode 14 | The Interview: Zerin Firoze

This week, Justin sits down with ex-Muslim activist Zerin Firoze. She shares her story about growing up in Bangladesh, leaving Islam, facing persecution in her home country, her move to the United States, and her role as an activist.

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Episode 13 | Thoughts on the “New Center”

In this special episode, Justin shares his thoughts on the current state of politics and the emerging “New Center.”

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