Science and the Objectivity Myth Part 1

Atheist Presentation December 2011


Without doubt, the sciences are held as the epitome of rational knowledge-seeking in today’s industrialised and information world. Many sociologists argue that science has effectively replaced the pre-Reformation universal church as the central object of the public’s trust, respect, and awe, with some diminishing in recent times only. So, like the devoted of some 500 years ago, today’s public with little or no knowledge of the inner workings of science laboratories and organisations, effectively relies on blind faith in the ‘goodness’ of scientific progress. Fortunately, we feel vindicated with the regular flow of new technologies from smart mobile phones to 3D televisions. Sociologist Steve Fuller goes further to suggest “that our continuing faith in science in the face of its actual history is best understood as the secular residue of a religiously inspired belief in Divine Providence.”[1]

However despite its pre-eminence, science has and always has had its critics who seek to undermine claims of privileged access to universal knowledge about reality. Although traceable back to even ancient times, such as disputes between Plato, arguing for universal knowledge, and the Sophists, arguing for the particularities and contingencies of experience, my interest are in more recent times from the latter half of the twentieth century. Let us have a look at some interesting events.

Short History of Science and Its Critics

Thomas Kuhn

In 1962 Thomas Kuhn, scientist turned historian and philosopher of science, published his now-seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he compared scientific practices over time with the general perceptions of scientific history. Controversially, he rejected popular historical narratives of science as a progression of rationally-based knowledge, conducted by science heroes. Kuhn described scientific history as, in fact, long periods of normal or routine science, punctuated by major revolutions or shifts in our understandings. The existing mindset or paradigm, to use Kuhn’s term, would then be fully replaced, with the older one being seen as a quaint fiction. By paradigm, Kuhn included such things as generalisations e.g. laws of motion; metaphysical assumptions e.g. light as waves; values e.g. seeking simplicity; and exemplars e.g. paradigmatic textbook or laboratory examples and practices.

His work showed that popular writings of science history are so often just fictional reconstructions to explain today’s views and that past participants are re-interpreted with today’s motivations. We rarely speak of Newton’s alchemical research in the same breath as his work on physical motion, even though he spent more time on the former than the later and, we have every reason to believe Newton was similarly motivated for both types of research areas. Discarding previous paradigms as non-science and re-interpreting past people and events are often referred to the so-called ‘Whig’[2] history of science.

Kuhn saw normal science as periods of steady progress or ‘puzzle-solving’ contained within well-defined and relatively unchallenged limits of the prevailing paradigm. Research directions, experimental designs, theory proposals, corporate and government funding, and research observations are influenced by or, perhaps controlled by, the views of the time. Education and socialisation of incoming scientists guaranteed the on-going support for the prevailing views. Normal science is probably the stage we envisage when thinking of its activities.

However, as experimental anomalies mount (no longer able to be ignored or adjusted), some scientists, perhaps the less indoctrinated younger ones, conceive of different paradigms. I should note that this may not be a rational process as the underdetermination[3] principle often comes into play.   For some time, both paradigms co-exist until the newer one becomes the new orthodoxy. Scientists continuing to support the previous paradigm then become marginalised and separated from future funding. Even though Kuhn’s specific arguments have less force today, his overall observations are still seen as highly influential.

Another serious implication of Kuhn’s description of scientific history is that paradigms are incommensurable. Like philosopher Paul Feyerabend[4] some ten years before,[5] Kuhn claimed that the problems, concepts, and methods of one paradigm would seem incomprehensible when viewed from another. Einstein’s universe would seem incomprehensible in Newtonian terms. One outcome of this, mentioned previously, is to write fictitious scientific histories and to ascribe modern motives from the perspective of the current paradigm. As sociology lecturer, Sergio Sismondo says:  “Isaac Newton’s physics looks striking modern when rewritten for today’s textbooks, but looks much less so in its originally published form, even less so when the connections between it and Newton’s religious and alchemical research are drawn.[6]

A more serious attack from incommensurability is our inability to have any neutral language that can compare the effectiveness of different paradigms. If this is true, then we have no rational means, no reasoned way, of justifying the replacement of one paradigm with another. If it can be a matter of faith only, this is a serious indictment of the claim that science is a rational process. A useful insight from Ludwig Wittgenstein, later post-modernists, and language-games, is participants within a paradigm will “…create their own vocabularies by giving special meanings to ordinary terms and phrases.”[7]

Even though the most extreme implications of incommensurability have received little general support and even from Kuhn’s own later writings, the implications continue to be debated amongst philosophers, sociologists, and scientists. It may be that incommensurability is better characterised as incomplete communication or problems with translation between paradigms. In fact, given that a paradigm will usually share the resources – measuring equipment, experimental results, and the like – with the previous one at least during transition, does suggest the some capacity to relate, even if a common observations and measurements are recast into very different interpretations.

Finally, incommensurability may operate at a deeper, non-rational psychological level, similar to the so-called tacit knowledge acquisition of exemplars mention previously as a part of a paradigm. Philosopher Alexander Bird argues this perspective in his paper ‘Incommensurability Naturalized[8]. He develops a psychological view:

The key idea in what follows is that we all use in thinking various cognitive capacities and structures that have the following features: (i) they cannot be reduced to general, formal rules of reasoning (e.g. formal logic); (ii) their existence and the mechanism of their employment are typically unconscious, so that they are deployed in a manner that is akin to intuition—what I call a semi-intuitive manner; (iii) they are often acquired as a matter of practice and repeated exposure and practice, so that they have the character of skills. The sorts of skill or capacity I am referring to here include: mental schemata, analogical thinking, pattern recognition, quasi-intuitive inference.

Social History of the Pap Smear

In 1998 Monica Casper and Adele Clarke published a paper of the social history of the Pap Smear. Finally, another interesting example of the interdependency of social and empirical aspects of science is the history of the Pap smear, as described by a research paper by Monica Casper and Adele Clarke[9]. Over the twentieth century the Pap smear moved from general rejection by scientists as expensive and unreliable to almost a mandatory part of women’s health and that had more to do with social changes than with science. The changes came from an increase of women’s health priorities; use of cheaper female technicians to reduce processing costs; automation of record-keeping enabling large scale testing and analysis; and greater localisation and targeting of benchmarks rather using against strictly universal measures. Until very recently the science has not changed since its early rejections as unreliable.[10]


Biomedical Research Today – An Insider View

In June 2011, John Ioannidis, professor of medicine at Stanford University, wrote an opinion piece in Scientific American[11]provocatively titled An Epidemic of False Claims, on the endemic problems with today’s biomedical research. Ioannidis identified serious flaws in research practices, which he traces to meeting the public’s ever-increasing expectations; fragmentation of exponentially increasing research programs; and researcher conflicts of interest with meeting the demands of lucrative corporate funding and achieving personal successes through highly-visible publishing. This is all under the control of “the oligopoly of high-impact journals [that] also  …[have]…  a distorting effect on funding, academic careers and market shares”.

John Ioannidis’s observations belie simple claims of scientific objectivity. Contrary to the objectivist view of science, he identifies the following problems: (1) claims based on single studies, with replication being done only “sparingly and haphazardly”; (2) withholding research data for competitive financial reasons and so preventing replication studies; (3) selectively reporting research results for maximum impact; and (4) deliberately designing and reporting studies to produce most favourable outcomes for research and, by implication, for the financial backers.

Late 20th century – Three Separate Attacks

(1)    from conservative Christians who sought to challenge evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. Intelligent Design, a repackaged version of Creationism, was promoted as an alternate scientific explanation that should be taught in the public school biology classes. The Kitzmiller vs Dover trial was a famous rejection of that attempt by Judge Jones.

(2)    From the socialist left who claimed that science and scientists have become pawns of large industrial and military organisations, the so-called industrial-military complexes. Comment of book of science changes?

(3)    From a broad, disparate group of academics and intellectuals – sociologists, literary theorists, and some philosophers – who challenged even the possibility of universal knowledge.  They suggested that the sciences or historical research or capitalism (through globalisation) or religions for that matter are telling their stories or narratives, which Lyotard famously called ‘Grand Narratives’.  And, most importantly, there are alternative narratives, equally valid. Though having differing agendas, these critics saw these stories as essentially political or ideological. Science was portrayed as a Western ideological tool to colonise other cultures. This is the famous or perhaps infamous Post Modernism. It reached its academic Zenith in the late 20th century. Although waned now, our society has absorbed many of its ideas with the Internet science deniers and sceptics.

[1] Steve Fuller, Science, Acumen Publishing Limited, Durham, 2010, p. 1.

[2]The British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term “Whig history” in his small but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the King. The term has been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any teleological or goal-directed, hero-based, and trans-historical narrative.’ Quoted from Wikipedia

[3] Scientists often seek to explain empirical data with competing hypotheses. Quite commonly, many are equally capable of doing so and therefore are said to be underdetermined by the evidence. And, as a result, scientists have no logical way of conclusively selecting one over another.  Scientists must resort to other criteria.

[4] Feyerabend was a critic of the single scientific method claim.

[5]Although Feyerabend first used the term ‘incommensurable’ to describe successive fundamental scientific theories in 1962, he had developed his notion of the incommensurability of scientific theories more than ten years prior to the appearance of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).” Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene , “The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[6] Sergio Sismondo, An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies 2nd Edn., Blackwell Publishing Ltd, West Sussex,  2101, p.17

[8] “Incommensurability Naturalized” in Rethinking Scientific Change and Theory Comparison (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 255, eds LÃna Soler, Howard Sankey, and Paul Hoyningen-Huene) Dordrecht: Spinger (2007) 21–39.

[9] Monica J. Casper and Adele E. Clarke, Making the pap smear into the ‘right tool’ for the job: Cervical cancer screening in the USA, circa 1940-95, Social Studies of Science 28: 255-90, 1998

[10] Recent technical improvements to improve the pap smear do not affect the overall argument that the acceptance of the pap smear are from social changes rather than technical ones. Dorothy L. Rosenthal discusses recent technical improvements in: Dorothy L. Rosenthal, Automation and the Endangered Future of the Pap Test,

JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (1998) 90(10): 738-749 doi:10.1093/jnci/90.10.738

[11] John P. A. Ioannidis, An Epidemic of False Claims, Scientific American, June 2011, p. 8

Course: GOD IN TODAY’S SOCIETY CAE Melbourne from 7 Aug

I’m running a new course at Centre for Adult Education, CBD Melbourne 7 Aug to 4 Sep 2012:


We discuss different concepts of God from the interventionist, personal God to the good spirit to nature. Bookings are coming in fast, so check and book at the CAE site:

Alex McCullie

Pursuing the Humanist Vision (Presentation)

This is the transcript of a presentation I gave to the Annual Humanist Convention in Australia.


Thank you for allowing me to present at the 46th Annual Humanist Convention. It’s certainly a great pleasure to be here.

I call myself a naturalist, who, like secular humanists, most other naturalists, and many atheists, share a common belief in the dignity of people to live self-determined and fulfilled lives, unencumbered by repressive superstitious traditions. All ideologies – both religious and political – should be open to criticism and, potentially, open to rejection. And, ultimately, I see a free secular society, especially with a strong publicly-funded non-religious education system, as being fundamental to achieving the humanist vision.

Humanist Scorecard

Let’s have a look at the humanist scorecard around the world. Some events can give us hope.  Three recent examples come to mind. Firstly, ordinary citizens throughout the Middle East and North Africa are risking their lives to challenge the authority of their brutal, repressive, and often theocratic, regimes. These are essentially secular – not religious – movements of all age groups, especially younger ones, who seem to be, ironically, inspired or energised by being part of the ‘Facebook’ generation, the social networking of the Internet. I say ‘ironical’ as the Internet exemplifies today’s post-modernist ethos often portrayed at odds with the universal values of humanism; a theme I’d like to return to shortly.

Secondly, Nigeria has a notorious history of sectarian and tribal violence between the Islamic north and the Christian south. Both religious groups have sought to dominate, convert, and kill one another. However Nigerians have just conducted peaceful and fair elections under international monitoring where, again, ordinary Nigerians queued for hours to express self-determination at the ballot-boxes. Many even stayed at those polling centres to ensure their votes were counted legitimately. Unfortunately there is a sad postscript to this story. That peace ended with riots in northern Nigeria after the election of southern Christian, Goodluck Jonathan. 200 people were killed as a result. Umar Marigar of the Red Cross told the BBC that “The violent protests turn from political into ethno-religious crisis. As such, people might like to engage in retaliatory attacks. This is what we are always afraid of.[1]

And, thirdly, praise them or condemn them. Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and other whistle-blowers valuably expose the often self-righteous secrecy of governments and organisations, as they try to implement anti-humanist values and actions in the name of the ‘greater-good’. I’m sure you are familiar with many examples – US and its allies secretly rendering detained suspects between countries to avoid legal restrictions on interrogations; the Roman Catholic Church covering up extensive child abuse by its office bearers; and, of course, extensive lying over the search for Iraq’s famous, and necessarily illusive, weapons of mass destruction. Truth, as always, is the first casualty with people being its actual victims. Whistle-blowers are one way, though perhaps not the best, of monitoring these organisations.

So, despite some positive stories, there is much work to be done by humanists. Conservative US state legislators are enacting laws to effectively restrict abortions, undermining the ‘Row v Wade’ (1973) Supreme Court decision.

Some states are making it exponentially more difficult, both financially and psychologically, for a woman to have an abortion. In South Dakota, a woman now has to wait at least 72 hours after seeking an abortion to have the actual procedure and is legally required to obtain counselling from a “crisis pregnancy center” — which are unregulated by the state and have the explicit goal of talking women out of abortions — before having the procedure.[2]


Just recently the Republicans attempted to cut US Federal funding for family planning programs as part of their rejection of budget funding. Ultimately President Obama held his ground on such a move. So conservative forces will use every opportunity to undermine or remove society’s humanist policies that conflict with their own particular sets of values. Humanists need to be vigilant in protecting and extending humanist values embedded in our secular society.

In Pakistan, five out of six men charged over the group rape of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002 were released by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The sixth man was convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to jail time. The rape was ordered by village elders after Mai’s brother was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.  Mai claimed that 14 men were actually involved. As the Guardian reports (21 Apr 2011):

The supreme court was heavily criticised by human rights groups for the verdict, which they said put the safety of all Pakistani women at risk. Rape, “honour killings” and other crimes against women in Pakistan are routinely poorly investigated by police and go unpunished by the courts.[3]

Finally, I’m sure you are all familiar with various attempts to introduce Sharia law for Muslims living within secular societies. The fear is that our emphasis on cultural pluralism offers an opening for Sharia law, even in limited ways, and thereby compromise hard-won human freedoms. According to Civitas (Institute for the Study of Civil Society in the UK), there are 85 Sharia courts operating in Britain, of which 12 operate within the British legal system. In the report “Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All?”[4], Civitas expressed three concerns: (1) voluntary arbitration seems impossible with the community intimidation of women; (2) Sharia law does not treat women equally; and (3) religious guidance depends on fear of God and desire to be in good standing within the community. However, we also need to be careful how we apply secular laws to insular communities so to protect the very people that concern us and not cause greater hardships. This is always a dilemma.

Humanist Future

Now let’s look ahead, and I’d like to mention two challenges to humanism. Firstly, we are experiencing an increase of religious faith world-wide and, more concerning, from fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements, which demand follower conformity and submission often conflicting with humanist values. According to sociologist, Peter Berger, ‘As one looks over the contemporary world, it’s not secularization that one sees, but an enormous explosion of passionate religious movements.’[5]

We can expect to see religious faiths playing a greater, not lesser, role in international affairs. In 1990 Islamic countries declared the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as an alternative to the UN’s declaration of human rights. They sought to enshrine internationally Sharia law as the basis for Islamic human rights. Also, even though there is an increase in electoral democracies world-wide – a good thing – we see faith-dominated nations implementing public laws and administrative systems contrary to Western humanist values. The criminality of homosexuality and apostasy in Malaysia and selective application of women’s rights in Pakistan are some examples.

Another concern is the rise of those ‘passionate’ religious groups within Western societies, especially in the US and Europe. Through increased migration and higher birth rates sectarian groups seek legal exemptions or special treatment (such as Sharia courts, mentioned previously) while larger conservative groups seek public policy changes (such as restricting abortions and divorces and diluting science education that conflicts with religious faith). These trends are worrying as they potentially threaten the Enlightenment ideal of providing reason-based equality and fairness for all citizens.

The second challenge to humanism is the replacement of the rational certitudes of secularism with the pluralism and uncertainties of a post-secular world, a world where personal truths and realities dominate. Post-modernism may had its academic zenith in the late 20th century, when it was cool to quote incomprehensible Foucault, Derrida, or Lyotard, but its effects are strongly felt today with the blurring of right and wrong; truth and fiction; and past, present, and future times, especially in the virtual worlds of television, the Internet, and of course the arts. [As an aside, one of my pet peeves with the History Channel on FoxTel cable television is its indiscriminate mixing of historical analyses, retelling of myths (especially biblical ones), and wild speculations with little discussion of the historical support for these stories.] So for post-secularists, ‘observation’ has become ‘construction’ and ‘knowledge’ has become ‘interpretation’.

The rationale of humanism, like that of the sciences and most religions, is founded on the belief in a single truth with a capital ‘T’ and in a single reality with a capital ‘R’. And, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, humanists and scientists both hold reason as central to the quest for human understanding. Unfortunately, such claims are no longer as credible today and are often met with ‘that may be true for you, but…’. So humanists need to find new ways of presenting their messages in attractive rather than just logical ways in this post-secular reality.

So, finally, let me offer some gratuitous advice before discussion time. A.C. Grayling famously said that the only form of intolerance acceptable in a tolerant society is towards ‘intolerance’ itself. We recognise this contradiction as a necessary truth. Similarly surprising, I would argue that rational humanists need to evangelise – to proclaim the ‘good news’ of humanism – so to impassion today’s post-secularists against destructive religious and political polemics on one hand and misguided tolerance on the other. As David Hume said some 300 years ago, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’[6], so humanists go out there and be very passionate.

Thank you.


[2] Huffington Post 14 Apr 2011



[5] P. Berger & A. Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 4.

[6] D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)  II.iii.3/415

Comment: recommended readings on Morality






Blog: Natural Philosophy of Life

Overview as quoted from the site (

Natural Philosophy

The natural philosophy of life offers a simple, elegant, and powerful alternative to religious dogma. This philosophy has a firm foundation in nature, science, and reason. It is centered on the core values of honesty, generosity, equality, and freedom.

News: Seminar Feb 2011 Melbourne – alternatives to dogmatic atheism

Hegel Summer School 2011:

The New Atheism: Just another Dogma?

Saturday, February 12th 2011

Oases/Borderlands, 2 Minona Street, Hawthorn

10.00 – 5.00, followed by drinks
This year’s speakers and topics are:

Tamas Pataki: „The New Atheism: Just Another Dogma?“

Cameron Shingleton: „Overkill: Richard Dawkins and The Limits of Pop-Scientific Atheism“

Petra Brown: „Messianic Atheism: Giving the Golden Calf a Good Roasting“

Stephen Stuart: „Dangerous beliefs: Zealotry, Wisdom and Public Health“

The „new Atheists“, notably Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins, have been getting a lot of media time, setting up a choice between narrow-minded and dogmatic atheism versus religious faith. This is a false dichotomy. Belief in God is consistent with a perfectly rational materialism, just as not believing in God does not necessarily imply a dogmatic assertion of the non-existence of God.

Our four speakers explore non-Deist alternatives to the dogmatic brand of Atheism now being promoted and expose the questionable foundations of the New Atheists. The need for a third way, over and above religious tolerance is important if a genuinely humanist way of life is to be possible in modern conditions.

For more detail and further program and abstract updates go to:

The Hegel Summer School invites you to a day of fruitful philosophical discussion in a collegial environment. The cost will normally be AUD 30 but we can offer a concession rate of AUD 20. Lunch and tea/coffee included.
Please pay in cash on the day and RSVP (including your dietary requirements) by COB on Tuesday, 8th of February 2011 to Lea Campbell on

News: Richard Dawkins Celebrates 400 years of King James Bible

KJB was first printed in 1611 and this is the 400th year. Richard Dawkins, outspoken religious critic, assists with the celebrations as he, like many of us, recognise the major literary influence of the 1611 Bible.

Alex McCullie

News: Three new CAE courses Feb-Apr 2011 – Historical Jesus, Views of Morality, and World-views

I’m running three courses Feb to Apr this year at the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne.

Centre for Adult Education: Melbourne


What is Reality?
We shall examine two competing ways of understanding reality. Naturalism with its strictly physical world-view and traditional Christianity with a divine creator and organiser. Since the 18th Century Enlightenment, western society has moved away from traditional Christian understandings to a more naturalistic view of existence. We shall compare the two views.

What is Truth?
Modernism (there are universally reasoned truth) and Post-modernism (we can have personal truths only) also compete with different explanations on the status of knowledge and truth. This conflict lead to the (in) famous science and history wars of the late 20th century.

5 sessions:
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 19/04/11, 03/05/11 to 24/05/11

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

Click to book

Centre for Adult Education, Melbourne

Explore the historical Jesus, separate from the figure of devotion. In doing so, review the use of Christian and non-Christian sources and treatment of miracle claims, society, political and religion of early first century Israel and Middle East, analysing the primary source – the Gospels, review of research from the past 300 years, how Jesus, the man, is profiled by today’s scholars.

Class details
5 sessions:
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 22/02/11 to 22/03/11

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

Click to book
Centre for Adult Education: Melbourne

We think about moral issues every day. Newspapers, television programs, and internet web-sites tell us what is immoral and moral.

Class details
5 sessions:
Tuesdays 7.30PM-9.00PM: 22/02/11 to 22/03/11

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

We explore two traditional foundations of Western moral attitudes – traditional Religious beliefs and Philosophical thinking – with the more-recent and challenging research of Moral Psychology and ask the questions, does morality exist? Can there be universal moral rules? How do we know right from wrong? What is evil? How does culture influence morality?

Click to book

Comment: Eradicating the free-will myth – the ‘always’ illusive dream

Like most naturalists, I consider the concept of human free-will, ability to rationally choose one action over another independent of or inspite of prior causes, as one of the last great myths to which most people subscribe.

I grew up in a very secular family with a ‘what is the evidence’ mentality. So seeing ourselves as an intrinsic part of the physical world has always been an obvious approach to life. Moreover, overlaying a supramundane existence on that physical world that happens to address coincidentally human needs seemed all to fanciful to be plausible. Over the years of studying and lecturing in philosophy, religion, and science (with some history thrown in), I have softened my criticisms of those who actually believe in the supramundane. My position isn’t quite as ‘obvious’, as I have always assumed.

Free-will is another intrenched example for all of us. We all know the dilemma. Our best conception of the world seems to be that of direct observation guided by subsequent reasoning, the methods of the (natural) sciences. The sciences offer our best hope of disassociating our wishes and desires from the understandings of the world about us, the ‘It’ in Martin Buber’s terms. Similarly ’cause and effect’ is a model that well explains our experiences in that world. Only experimental results in Quantum Physics have presented dilemmas for the cause and effect model.

However our scientific approach with its causes and effects seems most unsatisfactory and unintuitive when it comes to our ‘I’ world – the potentially imaginary world of free-will, self, consciousness, love, and so on. Take free-will. Despite my lifetime of naturalism (even before knowing the term), I still get mad at rude drivers, discourteous waiters, violent people, and mass murders who presumably had not chosen to do the things they did. And to further complicate things I imagine I didn’t choose to get mad either. Their rudeness and violence and my reactions were the inevitable results of prior causes and none of us are immediately responsible for these acts (though perhaps partially for our specific makeups that contributed to these acts). My last bracketed comment asks whether our prior thoughts can be part of the causal mix for future actions. This thought is consistent with ‘us as conscious riders of our subconscious elephants’ analogy used by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. Either way most people out there will give me short-shift, if I put this ‘not responsible’ argument, especially for the committers of heinous crimes. Perhaps my audience was caused to do so.

So I see a disconnect between abstract and interesting discussions of free-will by philosophers and the assumed free-will practice on the ground. Fianally I’m probably fortunate, at least compared to fellow travellers in the US, that our justice system in Australia seems less driven by retributive punishment, which would be so offensive to the non-free-willers. We are not into consecutive 99 year jail terms for serious offenders, for example, or for jail time for relatively minor offences. This may not always be so if the conservatives have their way here.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Atheism & Secular Religions

In practice atheism is the rejection of the belief in society’s dominant form of god or gods. This could be strong (rejection) or weak (disbelief). Even early Christians were accused of atheism for rejecting the gods of Rome and Socrates for rejecting the gods of Athens. For most Western atheists today it is rejecting some form of Christian theism.

Many atheists go further. They extend the rejection to all supernatural or immaterial claims of ghosts, saints, afterlives, out-of-body-experiences, and miracles. This rejection approaches the world-view of naturalism, where all human experiences are seen as coming from strictly physical causes, causes as identified by the empirically-based sciences. So atheism itself is a relatively narrow ontological claim, a claim of no god or gods. It is not  that of a comprehensive world-view like naturalism or most religious traditions. Whether or not atheists support naturalism, I would like to think that they embrace the ideals of scientific enquiry. Moderate scepticism, open questioning, fair-minded analysis, and willingness to forgo previous beliefs in light of new experiences are worthwhile aims for any intellectual enquiry.

Most atheists would see religious beliefs and practices as supporting and promoting deluded supernatural claims. Membership in religious communities may offer social benefits, but they are founded on deluded claims, wishful beliefs ahead of rational thought. However the secular versions of religions, such as secular Buddhism and secular Judaism, create dilemmas for atheist and believers alike. How can someone be an atheist religionist?

The on-line atheist forum, Atheist Nexus, has been buzzing with discussion on the status of secular Buddhists. As Buddhists, they have typically have no Jewish-, Christian-, or Islamic-style personal God. The secular versions reject reincarnation and limit Karma to the everyday Western understanding of this life only. A supporter of secular Buddhism claimed that the Atheist Foundation of Australia had unreasonably extended its definition of atheism (beyond those commonly accepted) to exclude the secular versions of religions. He argued that atheism should be restricted to the original etymology of atheism, without (‘a’) god (‘theism’). This is interesting but is not necessarily a valid argument for today’s usage, the so-called etymological fallacy. A secular Buddhist or a secular Jew therefore would have just as much right to ascribe to atheism as any non-religious person. So does an active membership in any religious community automatically preclude someone from being an atheist?

Most religious practices involve worship. Buddhists, secular or otherwise, come close to worshipping Buddha. Atheists usually would not revere Darwin, Bacon, or Dawkins in the same way, admire yes but worship no. Worship, a common feature of most religions, (1. To honor and love as a deity; 2. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion, according to seems something as an antithesis to atheism, and something that probably does preclude active secular religious people from, at least, a commonly-held broad sense of atheism.

Alex McCullie