In The Times, Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sachs, accuses Stephen Hawkins of doing bad theology while doing good science, when Hawkins purportedly said, “God did not create the universe.” This remark continues the scientist tradition of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), who said to Napoleon that he had no need for God as an explanatory hypothesis.
Sachs rightfully says that science and religion can potentially offer different, non-competing understandings of the human situation, although in practice this separation seems limited to a few liberal Western theologians. Science describes and explains our world in physical terms, whereas religion uses faith and tradition to claim greater purposes. Or, as Sachs puts it, religion seeks to answer the ‘why’ question, where ‘why’ means an underlying purpose and design. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) , like Plato before him, greatly influenced later Western theologies, particularly Christianity. Aristotle spoke of four different causes: (1) material cause (physical object itself); (2) formal cause (emerging shape of the object); (3) efficient cause (physical cause of today’s sciences); (4) final cause (inherent purpose or design of today’s religion). With any event, science seeks the efficient causes – what prior events caused the event. The efficient causes of science are limited to our self-contained physical reality. On the other hand religions work with final causes – what were the underlying purposes or design that explain the event? For Jews and Christians, the answer to final causes usually means understanding the will of God, sought outside the mundane world of science.
However I would argue that religious people regularly proffer faith-based causes for physical events, contradicting well-founded scientific explanations. God caused this or that. Or that disaster came from God’s wrath and so on. Even in Western countries, the reasonableness of Sachs’ separation seems hypothetical only, with conservative religious leaders happy to interpret God’s physical intervention in the world. Unfortunately for most religions in Western societies, science has effectively replaced them as the trusted source of knowledge. Or, as sociologist, Steven Fuller, often comments, the public now blindly trusts science as was done with religions in the past, and, ironically, with less knowledge or involvement wit the public. This change of public loyalties is reflected in the continuing decline of church attendances, where any professed spiritualities are clearly divorced from religious observances and church attendances.
Now, let us go back to Jonathan Sachs’ argument with Hawkins. Sachs now enters the scientific discussion by suggesting that his theological commitment to God is a better scientific solution (though hardly presented as a falsifiable hypothesis) than multi-verses. He evokes Occam’s razor, the principle of parsimony commonly associated with medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1285-1349), to suggest that God is the simpler of the two equally competing explanations. By simpler we usually mean needing less assumptions. This principle is much admired in intellectual thought and, ironically, is often used by atheists to exclude God when discussing the evolution of life. Evolution without God is simpler than with God for the same explanatory power. So, Sachs is claiming that his commitment to an ineffable, all powerful creator-sustainer God is simpler than proposing the possible existence of multiple universes to explain how our universe happens to have six, apparently improbable, constants that are needed for development of life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimensionless_physical_constant). In reality, this is the latest battle ground for the design (teleological) argument for God, now marginalised to the speculative realms of cosmology. Every day design arguments, like Paley’s watch, have been lost to science and therefore discarded.
Whether or not God is simpler than multi-verses is irrelevant to what Sachs is doing. On one hand he decries Hawkins for doing bad theology and then Sachs argues for his commitment to God by doing bad science. Using ‘God’ is like offering magic as an explanation for any scientific problem. It stops the conversation as God is outside the tool set of science, unmeasurable. Furthermore it is hard to believe that Sachs or any other theologian would simply walk away from his or her belief in God, if there was no scientific support. And he or she should, if God is put forward as a scientific alternative to multiple universes.
Jonathan Sachs should keep to his own advice and keep God in the realm of religious belief and faith and not try to re-engineer his characterisation of God as in any way scientific, measurable by the tool set of science. Do good theology and not bad science.
Alex McCullieNo comments
New Atheism = Fundamentalism
‘In that same that religious fundamentalists refuse to see anything good or truthful in any religion but their own, there is a form of atheist fundamentalism that refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion.’1
Both liberal and conservative theologians love to characterise the most outspoken critics of religion – speakers and writers like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – as militant or fundamentalist, in a similar vein to their religious equivalents. This is a cute but ultimately a disingenuous ploy.
Religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and traditionalists commonly believe in the exclusive truths of their religious beliefs and see others as deluded, immoral, blasphemous, or evil. I would argue that, from a world perspective, many if not a vast majority of active religious people think like that. Just to be clear, I am ignoring the religiously indifferent, those who nominate themselves as part of a religious faith or denomination, but who rarely engage with its beliefs and practices. I am considering those who ‘live’ their religions and would expect their numbers to run into the many millions. Contrast this with the so-called ‘New Atheists’. They seem to be the same six or so writers who are targeted by the religious defenders as atheist fundamentalists. So we are talking a vastly different populations of those who claim exclusive truth in their religions and those who deny any truth (if that is truly their claims) in those same religions.
Let’s look at book sales. Dawkins or any of the other ‘New Atheists’ would be over the moon with book sales in excess of 100,000 copies. Christian evangelical writers regularly sell millions of copies to fellow Christians promoting end of the world prophesies and the like. Again, the reach of the religious critics seems minuscule compared to the polemic writings of the religious folk.
So what’s the issue? Religious people seem overly sensitive to any form of overt criticism. In some way they want nullify strong criticism by discrediting the authors like Dawkins and others, as if the general public cannot decide for themselves the value of the writings. Instead of using ‘New Atheism’ as a pejorative term, they should deal with the issues. Analyse church behaviours, acknowledge the failings like systemic Roman Catholic child abuse, and argue the overall benefits.
Myth = Non-factual Truth Trumping Evidence
‘Myths may or may not contain literal and factual truth, but this is not the point of them. Attempts to understand them in this way ignore the intention behind them and create controversies about issues that may well be less important than the points that the myth is intended to make.’2
The author continues by arguing, as an example, that statement ‘Jesus walked on the water’ is less a claim of facts than a declaration of the divine power of Jesus. Hill also argues that we should be aware of the actual claims being made before criticising them. Fair enough. Unfortunately for Symon Hill and other liberal religious writers like Karen Armstrong, the vast majority of practising Christians around the world do believe that these biblical stories really happened (in our physical sense). There was a physical resurrection of Jesus after his execution, the core belief of Christianity. It is not seen as purely a metaphor for rebirth and new life. This claim and other ‘miracle’ stories are contrary to our best understandings of the physical world and need to be refuted whenever such physical claims are made (and they are made regularly). Stripped of their popularity and awe, their physical claims are simply preposterous.
It is worth making the point that the more mythic or nuanced understandings may be prevalent in our secular societies. Credibility almost demands that. However we are in a minority from a world-wide perspective where the biblical stories are taken more literally. A good acronym to remember is that we are WIERDs, from Western, Industrialised, Educated, Rich, and Democratic societies. Our societies are secular and in the world-wide minority.
Finally, I do believe there are benefits to be had in religious belief, a support and sustenance of a closely-knit community that we commonly lack in everyday secular life and the opportunities to find (or make) meaning of aspirations beyond our immediate needs. Unfortunately so many religions world-wide package these potential benefits in environments that are self-righteous, moralistic, exclusive, controlling, delusional, and demeaning.
According to the US Pew Forum (http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx):
Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.
So when you get the ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ from a Christian apologist, just respond with this survey. My favourite response to the need for the ten commandments for the basis of morality is to say something like: ‘interesting, I need to re-read them.
Ignorant atheist: ‘Oh, by the way. Where do I find them?’
Christian apologist: ‘The Bible!’
Ignorant atheist: ‘Yes, of course. But which part’.
Christian apologist: ‘Not sure. Old Testament, I think’
Ignorant atheist: ‘Yes, I remember. They are at Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21. Perhaps you better check them also now that you know where to find them! I’d also recommend the NRSV as a pretty good translation, although I’m fond of the Jerusalem. Bye now!’
Life has some pleasures.
Alex McCullieNo comments
I want to talk about ‘what is morality?’, both myth and reality. This talk is not about how you should behave: I’ll leave that to theologians, philosophers, and social reformers (and, perhaps, humanists). Each of us has a perspective of the world, through which we try to make sense of ourselves and things that happen to us. This is often referred to as a world-view from the German Weltanshauung. Tonight, I want to examine one aspect of that perspective, the moral world-view. My talk will be in two parts. Firstly, I want to survey three different ‘takes’ on morality, that of religion (evangelical Christianity), philosophy (modern analytical philosophy), and psychology (social psychology). And, secondly, I shall present a framework that attempts to explain the presence of varied moral practices around the world in light of our common biological evolution and our diverse cultural backgrounds. [Refer to handouts.]
What is morality?
Necessity of God
In March, 2010 Richard Dawkins appeared on ABC television program Q&A. This was part of his lead-up to being the keynote speaker at the World Atheist Convention in Melbourne. An audience member asked the following question that assumed the necessity of God for morality.
HAMZAH QURESHI: My question is for Professor Dawkins. Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong? [Notice the assumptions in his question: God is necessary for absolute morality (I probably agree with this), which is necessary for deciding right from wrong (I disagree with this).]
By the way, Dawkins’ unsurprising response was questioning which parts of the Bible give us the morality he speaks of. By ‘cherry-picking’ scriptures, traditional Christians so often embrace palatable passages as universal truths and reject the unpalatable ones as simply reflecting past times.
In an earlier debate between Paul Kurtz and John Frame titled Do We Need God To Be Moral? , Frame argued:
“Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt they exist. A witness to a crime sees the criminal and the victim, but what is perhaps most important remains invisible – the moral evil of the act. Yet evil is unquestionably there, just as moral good is unquestionably present when a traveler stops to help the stranded motorist on a dangerous stretch of highway.”
John Frame quite eloquently objectified harmful acts as evil, nicely tapping into our intuitions about human behaviour. Frame then continued in the debate to assume the separate existence of evil as self-evident and linked that to the necessity of God to explain the reality of moral good and evil.
George W. Bush regularly claimed that he was commissioned by God to rid the world of the evil of terrorism. In a 2005 BBC series Palestinian ministers claimed Bush said, ‘God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’
As the website CommonDreams.org commented:
From the outset he has couched the “global war on terror” in quasi-religious terms, as a struggle between good and evil. Al-Qa’ida terrorists are routinely described as evil-doers. For Mr Bush, the invasion of Iraq has always been part of the struggle against terrorism, and he appears to see himself as the executor of the divine will.
For traditional Christians, God/Jesus is both a moral role model and moral rule-maker. As a ruler-maker he: (1) defines right from wrong; (2) shows the behaviour and beliefs necessary to be good (usually through scriptures); and (3) gives us motivation to be moral in this world. Virtues for Christians are humility, compassion, and discipleship with an eye to a future reconciliation with God in this world or the next. Many Christians feel morally obligated to evangelise, to bring the ‘good news’ to others.
Contrast this to Judaism: ‘Judaism does not subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, but believes each human being to be born with the potential for doing both good and evil. The individual has to bear the responsibility for his or her actions and life becomes a struggle between the inclination to good and the inclination to evil.’
Morality as Reasoning and Logic
Western philosophy presents a different view of ethics and morality, one based on human reasoning. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have sought to find a few abstract rules to apply to all moral situations, to allow a kind of moral puzzle-solving. Should you remove the life-support from a person in a coma who has little or no chance of regaining consciousness?
Both popular ethical frameworks, utilitarianism – goodness is evaluated on outcomes – and deontology – correct application of universal rules (concerned with intent rather than outcome), seek to find and apply common abstract laws to all moral situations and dilemmas. Ethical thinking is almost a process of logical decision-making, a rational process of sorting through the choices and their implications. Unfortunately these approaches, in their simplicity, can lead to morally unintuitive solutions – killing one to benefit many or telling the truth to lead to even greater harm.
This almost formulaic approach contrasts with an earlier view of seeking to identify and emulate the qualities of a virtuous person. Virtue ethics, as it is called, was dominant in Greek and Roman times and even into the early Middle Ages. There has been some revival in recent times. Typical qualities of virtue were wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Morality was seen as complex and learnt over a long period by emulating the actions of the virtuous, by doing rather than analysing.
Human behaviour and Morality
Modern psychology tells us a different, more complex, story about our behaviours, reactions, and moral intuitions.
Firstly, much to the surprise of many, we actually handle most daily interactions with our environment, including others, automatically and outside of our own self-awareness. Emotional responses and feelings give us some feedback on these interactions. The subconscious has evolved over millions years to respond efficiently and rapidly to a diverse range of stimuli. In computer terms, it is adept at parallel processing. Unfortunately, like all large, highly structured objects, our subconscious is very slow and ‘reluctant’ to change – it is subject to considerable psychological inertia. Furthermore, due to evolutionary demands, our subconscious takes a negative view of the world, alert to any potential physical and social threats, real or imagined. In social terms, personal slights, diminished position and power, increased constraints, in fact, anything that may threaten our well-being is quickly picked up on the subconscious radar as potential threats. As you can imagine, this makes sense in evolutionary terms. It is better to have potentially false positives by running away from a bush moving in the wind than staying around to be another animal’s next meal.
Our consciousness evolved much later to support our subconscious processing, to give us the evolutionary advantages of planning, organisation, and conceptualisation. Compared to our subconscious, our consciousness is rather limited, in being able to concentrate on one thing at a time (despite female claims) and for limited spans of time. Again, in computer terms, it is limited to single-tasking and, probably, is still in beta.
So, a more realistic way of seeing the relationship between our subconscious and our consciousness is, perhaps, using the metaphor of our all-powerful subconscious as an ‘elephant’ with our consciousness considered to be its ‘rider’. The rider cannot directly force an elephant to do certain tasks through a battle of wills alone. It requires years of training of the elephant by the rider, and experimental evidence suggests something similar applies to us. So at different times the rider and elephant can work together as a well-oiled team and, at other times, they can be at odds.
Some possibilities for this retraining our elephant appear to be the longer-term approaches of meditation and cognitive therapies and, even, short-term strategies with drugs like Prozac (of course with all its potential side-effects). Each approach seeks to re-train or change the ways the elephant works. Even changing one’s environment, like banning all fattening foods from a household as part of weight reduction program, takes a similar approach. By the way, this idea of change is not new and has been reflected in many traditions. Buddhism comes to mind as one that has always sought to challenge our concept of ‘conscious control’.
Secondly, we have a wonderful ability to overestimate our morality while being critical, perhaps hypercritical, of others. (Matthew 7:3 ‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s* eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?’) Even when researchers highlighted this to participants, they saw that as useful for spotting how others fooled themselves. Perhaps the rider is also our P.R. consultant, spinning our most acceptable life-story.
Thirdly, we often oversimplify violence as between the all-good and the all-evil with the victim as totally innocent and the perpetrator as totally culpable. We automatically assume the victim’s view represents the ‘real’ situation, while research shows a typically more complicated reality. Bush’s war on terror was filled with these over-simplifications, leading to many tragic consequences.
Here are some other experimental results of psychology that question our notion of conscious moral decision-making:
- We rationalise many of our moral reactions, even though the explanations have often little to do with the situation under question. Experimenters deliberately posed morally problematic situations but with no obviously harmful outcomes. Case studies, involving eating human flesh and sibling sex, caused strong moral reactions where participant justifications are challenged by the experimenters. Participants changed their objections until finally admitting to having no plausible reasons. ‘It just is.’ The rider now becomes the lawyer rationalising our automatic reactions.
- Researchers have discovered the influence of ‘priming’ on our attitudes and reactions. Experiments of selective word-games with deliberate word associations demonstrably affect the subsequent attitudes of subjects without their awareness. Even hot and cold can affect our responses to people. [Discuss relevant experiments.]
- Twins experiments demonstrate the significant role of genetics in our reactions to others across all our traits. …the “giggle twins” (so-called because they “laugh and fold their arms the same way”), Barbara Herbert and Daphne Goodship spent the first four decades of their lives apart. In the time following their reunion, they’ve discovered some remarkable parallels in their lives — both had miscarriages followed by the birth of two boys and then one girl.
So, perhaps, David Hume, Scottish philosopher (1711-1776), was correct from the perspective of psychology in saying, ‘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” 
Summarising the Moral Views
What does all this mean for morality? Ironically, religion and modern philosophy are similar in seeking to apply universal rules to our moral lives, rules independent of individuals and cultures. On the other hand, religion and psychology both propose long-term strategies for shaping moral lives through rules, principles, and practice. However, unlike other views, psychology recognises the fallibilities of our self-perceptions and influences of local cultures on moral intuitions. Each view makes very different claims of authority. Religion claims transcendental authority; philosophy claims universal reasoning; and psychology claims observed social behaviour.
What is morality? Is it transcendental rules or universal logic or part of culturally-based human behaviour?
What should we do? Should we obey divine laws or apply moral reasoning or train the ‘elephant’ to be virtuous?
Few Final Remarks
(1) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy takes a more nuanced and Earthly view, equating morality to more like a backyard game of baseball or cricket. It is public, informal with no arbitrating authorities, and replicated from yard to yard often with considerable variety.
(2) Universal moral proclamations and observed human behaviour seem worlds apart. We observe an amazingly diverse range of moral practices across cultures, even within our own. Euthanasia, abortion, and same-sex marriages and adoptions all evoke strong, even violent, reactions within Australian society, let alone across the world. Do North African women circumcising their daughters, even violently, see themselves as being immoral or are they just doing what is right and necessary in their culture? I am sure the Twin Tower bombers considered themselves on a great moral crusade. (I apologise for the irony of the term ‘crusade’.)
Changes to our moral intuitions even happen over our lifetimes. For many today, homosexuality is not evil but an expression of personal choice, attempts to find happiness. Only a short time ago it was considered immoral and declared illegal across our society. On the other hand, tobacco smoking has moved from being chic to an almost that of a social and moral pariah with ghettos of smokers outside every work place.
(3) We intuitively hold to many ‘folk’ notions about the world that are unsupported by evidence. The world is a battle ground of good and evil forces, where good strives to overcome evil. Our religious traditions have encapsulated this concept in their theologies. We also believe in some sort of universal justice or balance, where ultimately good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. This justice may be occur in this world or the next. So we often struggle to find meaning when the good appear to suffer unnecessarily.
Moral Foundations Theory
Jonathan Haidt (University of Virginia) with other researchers have proposed a framework to explain and understand the diversity of our moral intuitions. Haidt compares our moral intuitions to taste, where we have evolved capacity to distinguish between bitter, sweet, and sour and still have developed an endless variety of cuisines. Similarly with morality, we have evolved some common psychological states or moral potentialities that have been enabled and shaped by personal histories and cultures. However, unlike traditional liberal thinking about morality, Haidt argues that many cultures and communities place as much moral weight on group identity issues and bodily cleanliness as on individual well-being and rights. Let us work through the handout to learn more.
 Carl S. Ehrlich, Understanding Judaism (London: Watkins Publishing, 2010)
 This metaphor was proposed and developed by Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/
 NRSV, http://bible.oremus.org/
Roy F. Baumeister, Evil (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999)
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (184.108.40.206)
Positive Psychology, founded by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, is one attempt of applying psychological research to improving human fulfilment and happiness. Seligman says that Positive Psychology is ‘a science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions promises to improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless.’ http://www.bdp-gus.de/gus/Positive-Psychologie-Aufruf-2000.pdf
The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd edn. 2006 ed. Robert Audi, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge p586
 See http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php for Moral Foundations TheoryNo comments
Let us look at some foundational beliefs or truth claims of Naturalism.
Firstly, like most people, naturalists are realists, believing that there is an external reality independent of our thoughts and perceptions. So if we see a chair in a room, not believed to be an illusion, we assume the chair will still be in the room even after we have left. All this is uncontroversial as, overwhelmingly, most people hold the same view. It is worth noting that philosophers often distinguish between naive and critical realism with the former accepting perceptions ‘as is’ and the latter seeing our perceptions as heavily interpreted.
Interestingly, the opposite position of idealism sees our reality as a human (social) construction. Of course, this will be a more challenging concept for most. Before scoffing at even mentioning this alternative view, we need to recognise that without a god-eye’s view, independent of any particular world-view, we have no simple way of proving the truth of one view over another. That is why philosophical scepticism can so effectively question our fundamental assumptions about life, even something as fundamental as an independent external reality. However, perhaps, that discussion is better left for another time.
Secondly, naturalists believe we are part of a single reality that is both orderly and knowable, at least potentially. Unlike most religious world-views, Naturalism has no sense of the reality being inherently mysterious. Naturalists envision a single connected physical reality of mass and energy, existing in time and space (at least according to today’s best understandings), all derived from the same ontological ‘stuff’. This reality is often referred to as ‘nature’. I should note that the connections of nature are seen as strictly non-conscious in any sense we understand that term. Therefore, for consistency, naturalists reject any sense of a design, purpose, or meaning coming from some cosmic consciousness. Naturalists would see this as wishful thinking, a concern about being unloved in an unloving (and unlovable) universe, the well-known absurdity of existentialism. I am happy to explore that idea further during later discussion.
Therefore all causes and explanations of our existence and our experiences – behaviour, aspirations, feelings, self-conceptions, spirituality, and so on – are ultimately attributed back to physical causes, even if we do not yet understand those connections or associations. As soon as the body and brain stop processing, so does our self-awareness.
So how do we know about this physical world? We do this through human perception supported by human reason. It can be immediate – I see or hear now – or from memory – I perceived those things yesterday – or from the testimony of others – they told me of their perceptions. Of course the vast bulk of our knowledge is from the testimony of others as part of our shared social knowledge. Similarly our perceptions can be direct or through specially constructed instruments to enhance our perceptions. As an aside, we need to recognise that all perceptions are sense experiences, interpreted within our respective social and cultural contexts. No observation is made uninterpreted. Therefore, in philosophical terms, I would expect most naturalists to be empiricists with knowledge coming from those interpreted sense experiences of the external world. To quote a famous television series “the truth is out there”.
Therefore it is not surprising naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences, like natural sciences and most social sciences, as primary sources of information about the world. And why should this not be so? Of all our human projects, the modern sciences have provided the most reliable information about the world – much more reliable, for example, than the revelations of self-declared mystics over the years. And this is despite failings throughout its history. The success of the sciences over the last few hundred years has been, to no small measure, in using methods to reduce human bias, wishful thinking, and perceptual errors. Combining controlled experimentation, well-supported consistent reasoning methods, and open discussion with peer criticism, the sciences gather, analyse, and explain data very effectively about our world. Put simply, the sciences define the external reality for a naturalist, and the rest they consider to be human wishful thinking.
As the sciences are a foundational part of a naturalist’s world-view, let us look at the nature of science, even briefly. Science develops models to explain and understand the world we inhabit. Some areas of science require specialised mathematical languages to express concepts, where our everyday human languages are inadequate. This often leads to confusion when scientists use everyday terms metaphorically to explain their research areas. Religious terms, without their theological meanings, become popular metaphors to express their awe and wonderment. It becomes amusing when religious apologists then seize these opportunities to claim a scientist’s belief in god. In this context, another Einstein quotation comes to mind: ‘I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.’ And just for the record, Einstein wrote in a private letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, ‘The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.‘
Although on-going scientific research leads to the questioning and adjusting of models, Thomas Kuhn famously showed that this model-making is itself set within and defined by the prevailing paradigm of the time, and that paradigm both frames the questions asked and guides research along particular pathways. So it is probably more realistic to see science as socially-based intellectual activities and to treat “objective” knowledge as something more akin to commonly accepted social knowledge, arrived through agreed observational methods supported by special reasoning techniques. Do not get me wrong. The social nature of science does not reduce its efficacy and the force of science’s explanatory work. We just need to recognise that science is a part of our social enterprise rather than some sort of independent fact-driven objective process. Sometimes these two conflicting views of science are contrasted it as archaeology, uncovering facts, versus human construal, making human-constructed models. Finally, another way of considering this is to see science as dealing with transitory scientific objects rather than the more enduring external objects themselves. So, over time, the ‘sun’ as a scientific object varies as our understanding of the sun varies, but the ‘sun’ as an external object is still essentially the same sun. All this could be summarised with the aphorism, ‘the map is not the territory’; often associated with Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics.
Today science is almost unquestioned in its knowledge-making about the external world. But how does it deal with our inner world – the world of consciousness, free-will, the self, and sensed spirituality? The explanations of neuroscience, for example, involving neurons and synapses seem unsatisfying to most and fail to capture the essential human qualities we associate with them. Though naturalists believe that all human experiences have physical causes, they too often want to describe and explain consciousness, for example, in terms other than its underlying physical processes.
It is worth here drawing a distinction between reductive materialism and Naturalism. Reductionism is the process of understanding the whole by examining its parts, and this methodology has been and continues to be a very successful analytical approach for most sciences. Therefore a radical reductionist would seek to reduce all human experiences to physical descriptions and explanations, such as body-brain processes. In their world, mind states and mental processes do not exist. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California who promotes eliminative materialism – a radical form of reductionism, is famous for describing and explaining consciousness and other ‘I’ aspects of ourselves as brain processes to rid us of myths like the ‘mind’ and the ‘soul’.
Many naturalists are comfortable describing our inner world in language not directly linked to physical causes. They will even entertain such concepts as emergent properties to acknowledge that there may be higher-level properties not directly attributable to, but still dependent on, specific physical processes. Perhaps, this is analogous to discussing the aesthetics of a chair without referring to its sub-atomic particle structure. However, it should be stressed that ultimately naturalists still regard all human experiences as having necessary underlying physical causes and nothing else. So a naturalist may be comfortable attending a yoga class for health benefits but would reject any talk of extra-physical explanations with mysterious energy forces and universal connections.
So what are some implications for a commitment to an empirical understanding of the world, especially from that of science?
Truth is out there: whatever it is. A naturalist sees a single physical reality, best understood by our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, most social sciences, historical research, and so on. The resulting knowledge-base – ever-growing, critically-evaluated (and re-evaluated) – is then the best bulwark we have against human wishful thinking, religious delusions, and wild shamanistic claims. (Of course, we are familiar with now famous semi-religious claims of Steve Jobs for his iPad that, obviously, got through this guard.) This knowledge-base can and will change regularly both at the margins and sometimes in fundamental ways from the on-going research and, perhaps surprisingly, from changing social contexts.
Critics of Naturalism see its weakness as depending on something so changeable and provisional as scientific understanding. It is true that speculations, questioning, and changes are significant at the frontiers of science – the very small of Quantum Physics, and the very large and very distant of Cosmology. Fortunately the vast majority of scientific knowledge is highly stable and usable. Even though this is so, we still need to leave claims of certainty and absolute truth to the imaginings of Evangelical pastors. Again, Einstein said, ‘…shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.’
What about me? Appealing to our empirically-based knowledge seems least satisfying for relating the perceived significance and reality of our inner worlds. An aside is useful here. We can see our relationships with others in ‘person’ perspectives. I am my first person; you are my second person; and he, she, they or it are my third person. (Some theologians argue that religions are about second-person relationships with god, while naturalists see all of religions meeting strictly first-person needs.) The empirical sciences describe the world in strictly third-person terms to retain independence of any particular view. On the other hand, our inner worlds are strictly first-person with only us having privileged access. We assume others have similar inner worlds by analogy from their behaviour – they sound and act as we do. As I have said, naturalists are committed the inner world coming from physical causes – it ends with the expiration of our physical bodies. Incidentally, our ability to simulate our inner-world feelings on demand with drugs and electrical stimulations supports this view.
However naturalists have no easy way of addressing people’s desire for some grand purpose, for feeling significant in a larger indifferent world. Naturalists have no mysterious beings, forces, and essences to evoke for placating our sensibilities. Religions grew out of that need with complex practices, beliefs, and creeds. On the other hand naturalists, unlike their eliminative cousins, will engage in emotion talk to access and enjoy those feelings in their own terms to give some inner purpose and happiness. By subscribing to physical causes, naturalists treat an empirically-based physical view as a “reality check” against extravagant extra-physical claims.
Morality is a social business. Unlike traditional religious people, naturalists see morality as a strictly human social affair having derived from biological evolution (giving us the common things), enculturation (giving us the multiple variations), and genetic inheritance. My handout, Naturalist Morality, [to discuss] shows some of the extensive inter-disciplinary work being done by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists today to describe and understand naturalistically the intuitions we call morality. The bottom line is that there are no absolute moral injunctions or laws given to us from outside our physical world. Ultimately, I would expect that there will be less ‘shoulds’ from Naturalists than many religionists. Hopefully, they would be less prescriptive about human behaviour than their religious counterparts.
Naturalist uncertainty versus Christian mystery. Both Naturalists and Christians recognise the finite nature of humans and, therefore, our inability to see the reality ‘as it is.’ (A question for discussion: should even talk about reality ‘as it is’, as our reliance on perceptions, ideas, and revelations make reality somewhat problematic?)
For Naturalists, using science as a primary source of knowledge, it is the recognition that all our perceptions are interpreted by physical processes, set within our personal, familial, and cultural histories. Scientific research is based on uncertainties and probabilities through the use of measuring instruments, observer involvement, and deriving generalisations through induction from the particulars. This is well-known and accepted in science and, even, celebrated by some.
For Christians and people of most religious traditions, the ‘mystery’ represents a permanent gap between claims of human understanding (knowledge derived from people) and claims of religious revelation (knowledge revealed from god through tradition). Faith is the acceptance of this mystery as a necessary part of the religious world-view. Christian claims of Jesus’ physical resurrection after his execution is seen a mystery, unquestioned and accepted by the faithful, but inexplicable by human knowledge and reason.
Perhaps, whereas the Naturalist sees uncertainty as a limitation of process and one to be continually tackled and questioned, a Christian would see the mystery as an inevitable part of belief in their religious traditions.
Seeking Happiness for a Naturalist
Finally, Naturalism offers no simple directions of how to achieve happiness, or even whether or not that is at all possible. Perhaps, one can do no better then look back to a very early Naturalist, Epicurus of fourth century BCE Athens, who had the following advice:
- Keep close contact with family and friends over your lifetime. Epicurus essentially started a friendship cult.
- Live a moderate, debt-free life (to reduce your worries).
- Leave time for personal reflection and contemplation.
Thank you.No comments
Benedict marked his arrival in Britian with an attack on secularism and atheism with the predictable Nazi comparison. The Pope might be better turning his moral indignation inwards to the systemic child abuse by his fellow Catholic churchmen. Years of church denial and cover-ups should be of greater moral importance to humanity than his attempting to perpetuate their irrelevant superstitions. The Papacy hypocrisy must test even their Catholic saints!
See Guardian report below…
Alex McCullieNo comments
Most naturalists see reality as an orderly and knowable place. Orderly in that things occur and reoccur in predictable ways. It is hard to imagine how life could evolve if things had been otherwise. Reality is also knowable, well at least in theory if not in practice. A naturalist rejects the idea of anything inherently ‘mysterious’ about our world, contrary to most religious traditions.
Our way of ‘knowing’ the world (with all due concerns about the word ‘knowing’) is through human perception supported by human reason, empiricism in philosophical terms. We have no other sources. Our perceptions can be from immediate senses or from recalled memories. However the bulk of human knowledge, our social knowledge, comes from the testimony of others from their perceptions and reasoning. Hence, not surprisingly, naturalists reject revelation as a genuine information source and are suspicious of any a priori claims to knowledge – knowledge without prior experience. Artificial, self-contained rule-based systems, such as mathematics and games, are well-known exceptions.
The unreliability of human perceptions is well-known. Seeking to confirm prior opinions, people’s wishful thinking and delusions block attempts to be truly objective. In recent years our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, social sciences, and historical research – have clearly been our best efforts at harnessing human perceptions while controlling human fallibilities. They have produced more reliable information about the world, than numerous religious proclamations over the years. One amusing example is the early Christian predictions, some 2000 years ago, of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom through Jesus of Nazareth. Christian zealots, Gospel writers and Paul of Taurus, were quite clear about this, even though apologists since then have attempted to reinterpret these failures away.
And what about the belief in a god ? Almost automatically, a naturalist would reject the belief as accepting something so completely incomprehensible. The naturalist’s reality is one of mass and energy existing within time and space and that we are an intrinsic part of that world. Even though known reality expands and contracts with changes in our empirically-based knowledge, all ‘things’ are of the same ontological stuff. ‘God’ stands for something else entirely – different stuff, imperceptible and unfathomable by human reason (not surprisingly according to naturalists). Even the idea of such as thing, outside of that found in imaginative fiction, is amusing or perhaps even offensive to the sensibilities of a naturalist. When asked why, a believer simply declares it to be so, accepting faith over any contrary human perception and reason. Not coincidentally, the believer’s verbalisations are shaped by his or her own religious traditions. God is then explained by rewordings like ‘master’, ‘lord’, ‘shepherd’, ‘cosmic consciousness’, ‘essence’, and so on. This is the fine art of substituting one set of magical words for another.
Our lives are full of uncertainties with incomplete and changing understandings of the world. How we explain and accept these uncertainties separates naturalists from the religionists, like the evangelical Christians. For naturalists, this is a normal consequence for being part of a complicated physical world. Though acknowledging our inherent limitations, naturalists, like scientists, continue still to strive for full knowledge and understanding of the world, to overcome our limitations. By contrast religionists explain this uncertainty by imagining an unknowable consciousness called God, one who created the world and now maintains it. And, of course, this is done in ways we do not understand.
Unfortunately for religionists, the empirically-based sciences have effectively replaced religions as the major knowledge-makers in our secular society. Very little of today’s world understanding comes from religious traditions. 2000 to 3000 year-old explanations no longer hold credence and respect they once had.
So what are typical naturalists’ reactions to beliefs in God?
- Irrelevant: the naturalist sees no need for any God to explain his or her world or to find personal meaning;
- Incomprehensible: the idea of any existence outside of the physical world does not even make sense to a naturalist. It is more incredible that most Christians claim their God has consciousness and is even worthy of worship;
- Offensive: hopefully explanations are no longer of angels and demons. To naturalists, theologies are still rooted in those ancients beliefs with human styled non-physical beings. Religions are re-calling past superstitions, rather than seeing humans as an integral part of the physical world like all other living things. We need to acknowledge that we physical only, without an exclusive non-physical soul.
Alex McCullieNo comments
How often do religious folk criticise atheists and naturalists of scientism, their ‘bogey word’ for applying scientific scepticism to religious claims? Alexis Bonari has kindly written her take on the issue. Thank you, Alexis. You can catch more of her writing at scholarships.
Does Scientism Equal Faith: Combating Misconceptions
Can a belief in natural science ever be classified as religious faith? Most atheists have heard this question raised at least once by those of a religious persuasion. Atheists often pride themselves on their ability to see through superstition and culturally mediated belief systems. Some critics, however, claim that they are guilty of scientism. In other words, does an atheist fall off the rationality bandwagon when he or she believes that science is the most authoritative worldview, and/or that science will potentially provide all the answers if only given enough time?
To answer this question one must look at the evidence for both arguments. Critics of scientism claim that such complete reliance on science for answers ignores knowledge that can be obtained only by experiencing a phenomenon, i.e. experiential knowledge. Religious people often take offense when atheists attempt to determine a scientifically derived explanation for their religious experiences. While they might concede that there are, for instance, neurochemical events that go hand-in-hand with experiencing the presence of god, they believe that focusing on potential scientific explanations would be to miss the point entirely.
When Is Science Irrational?
At their least rational, atheists and scientists claim that nothing can exist outside of our current scientific models. This is an irrational statement, as it assumes that these models are infallible. The fields of theoretical physics and applied mathematics have provided us with compelling evidence suggesting that it is literally impossible to create a completely accurate model of the universe. These types of theories undermine the idea that one can have absolute certainty through science.
Scientism ≠ Religion
But where does that leave the debate? Does the lack of certainty through science mean that atheists should abandon their stance in favor of religious faith? The answer is a resounding, “No”. In order to combat these arguments, atheists must become truly comfortable with some level of uncertainty. Even though science may not be the infallible truth-definer that enlightenment philosophers believed it to be, that doesn’t mean that it should be put into the same category as a religion. Religion relies completely upon faith. Those who trust science over religion are at least choosing the scientific method, an attempt to prove any theory before accepting it as fact.
As with many answers, there are no absolutes. Certainly, there are some atheists who cross the line from rational deliberation into territory that requires faith. Perhaps human nature, our desire to believe in some sort of absolute spiritual or otherwise, drives this trend. If atheists remain intellectually honest, and attempt to curtail these drives within themselves, accusations of scientism will fall by the wayside.
Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She often can be found blogging about general education issues as well as information on college scholarships. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.2 comments
Excepts of description from Amazon. This is a highly recommended collection of essays.
Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life [Hardcover]
Louise M. Antony (Editor)
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (August 8, 2007)
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
“The authors answer, forcefully and intelligently, the standard arguments against atheism.”–V.V. Raman, CHOICE
“This Atheists R Us compilation differs markedly in tone from Hitchens and Dawkins. Excellent fare for Christian small groups whose members are genuinely interested in the arguments raised by atheists.”–Christianity Today
“Rather than the foolishness of Dawkins or Hitchens, these [essays] are compelling and sophisticated arguments that religious people ought to confront….”–Tikkun
“This collection strikes me as an excellent example of how comprehensible philosophical writing can be at its best. By and large, the essays are written in a clear and direct style, free of philosophical jargon. many who read it will find themselves also engaged at a level that is not merely academic.”–George I. Mavrodes, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
“Taken as a group, these readable, personal, and provocative essays make it clear that there are many kinds of non-believers, and even many different elements that make up a single skeptical outlook. Contrary to the popular image, atheism isn’t all rebellious trumpets and defiant drums. That part of the orchestra is essential, but here we have all the varieties of unreligious experience, a full symphony of unbelief.” –Free Inquiry
Atheists are frequently demonized as arrogant intellectuals, antagonistic to religion, devoid of moral sentiments, advocates of an “anything goes” lifestyle. Now, in this revealing volume, nineteen leading philosophers open a window on the inner life of atheism, shattering these common stereotypes as they reveal how they came to turn away from religious belief.
These highly engaging personal essays capture the marvelous diversity to be found among atheists, providing a portrait that will surprise most readers. Many of the authors, for example, express great affection for particular religious traditions, even as they explain why they cannot, in good conscience, embrace them. None of the contributors dismiss religious belief as stupid or primitive, and several even express regret that they cannot, or can no longer, believe. Perhaps more important, in these reflective pieces, they offer fresh insight into some of the oldest and most difficult problems facing the human mind and spirit. For instance, if God is dead, is everything permitted? Philosophers Without Gods demonstrates convincingly, with arguments that date back to Plato, that morality is independent of the existence of God. Indeed, every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong. Moreover, they contend that secular life can provide rewards as great and as rich as religious life. A naturalistic understanding of the human condition presents a set of challenges–to pursue our goals without illusions, to act morally without hope of reward–challenges that can impart a lasting value to finite and fragile human lives.
Collectively, these essays highlight the richness of atheistic belief–not only as a valid alternative to religion, but as a profoundly fulfilling and moral way of life.
Over the last three years, I have conducted courses on Atheism and Agnosticism at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne within the Lifestyles department. Given the diversity of participants, we would spend the first night clarifying the usage of both terms, a controversial discussion even within Atheist communities.
We typically would reduce atheism to the usual ‘disbelief or rejection of the god’ of society. In past times, that meant accusing Socrates of atheism for not believing in the gods of Athens and, even, early Christians for rejecting the gods of Rome. For us, it usually refers to the Christian god as the dominant form of worship. So atheism is a statement about our claims about reality or Metaphysics in philosophical terms.
Most saw agnosticism as a gentle form of atheism, the sort of atheism that can be declared in polite company. This is a far-cry from Thomas Huxley’s coining of the word in the 1860s to curtail any claims of certainty about rejecting god. ‘God is inherently un-knowable’ is closer to his conception of agnosticism. Again in philosophical terms, it is an epistemological claim, one about the nature of knowledge.
So, atheism and agnosticism are dealing with only limited aspects of our perspectives of the world. Therefore, neither of the concepts is an opposite of Christianity, which makes many more claims about the nature of reality and ourselves, and even on how we should behave. Enter Naturalism. Unlike atheism, Naturalism seeks to address a broader range of significant issues about life rather than be restricted to the existence or non-existence of god.
Before speaking specifically about Naturalism, let me introduce a useful way of discussing and comparing different perspectives, the world-view, a literal translation of the German Weltanshauung. Not surprisingly different writers interpret the concept in different ways. For me, world-view is an intellectual framing of our experiences, including our intuitions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs about ourselves in the world. While acknowledging that deeply held emotions underlie our reactions to the world, I see that verbalising a perspective as a world-view makes it an intellectual process at rationalisation, similar to retelling of a dream. So a world-view provides a person and his or her community with a verbal tool set to describe, interpret, and explain experiences, emotions, and thoughts and in many cases to prescribe appropriate behaviours to be consistent with that world-view.
I would like to mention two risks when analysing world-views. I am drawing from ‘A New Science of Morality’, a talk given by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, at a recent Edge seminar. Firstly, we need to be aware of being WEIRDs, people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic societies. We are a minority in the world and need to be careful not to see ourselves as the norm. Secondly, we need to be aware that human reasoning evolved to win arguments and not to pursue the truth. Using reason to justify our actions and beliefs leads to the well-known confirmation bias.
An example of misunderstandings from seeing things as a WEIRD is our concept of self. We emphasise the individual – personal rights, personal goals, and personal ownership. When doing historical research or examining other societies, we bring an individualistic sense of self with us. However many communities interpret ‘self’ in a vastly different way, as a collective self of group identity. Jesus scholars regularly face this problem with their studies of first century Middle-Eastern societies. According to Bruce Malina, ‘Who do people [others] say that I am?‘ was and is a commonly thought of question, though rarely asked. In collectivist communities people see themselves as defined by the opinions of significant others. This is something similar to the behaviourist quip: ‘You seem okay. How am I?’
I should mention that many writers even dispute the concept of world-view, as it implies some sort of consistency of our intuitions, beliefs, and ideas. It may be more accurate to characterise our verbalisations about life as trying to normalise a changing, contradictory, patchy, and often inaccessible ‘mishmash’ of emotions and thoughts. Simple honest reflections of our attitudes seem to confirm these concerns.
Despite this caveat, the concept of world-view provides a useful way of talking about fundamental perspectives and, particularly, for contrasting religious with non-religious ones. We need to remember that in reality a person’s perspective is based on deeply held beliefs or assumptions developed from his or her familial and cultural backgrounds. So someone growing up in an Islamic tradition, especially if educated in a Madrassa, will hold a perspective dominated by an Islamic world-view. He or she may later question aspects of that view although it is hard to imagine any fundamental change. Similarly, my view developed in a very secular household where religious practices were seen as cultural artefacts. Christian concepts like God, Christ, and The Trinity hold little real meaning for me and are empty of feelings. In summary, my approach is to see a world-view as an intellectual rationalisation of our attitudes and a way of enabling discussion and some possible change
Perhaps more controversially, each world-view is underpinned by foundational beliefs or truth claims that, I suggest, we are unable to prove or disprove. Within a world-view itself the language tool-sets are built from those very assumptions, which cannot be then used to verify them. Similarly, the tool-sets of other world-views are based on different sets of assumptions and are again problematic for challenging the assumptions of others, in any independent way. None of us have a god’s eye view. Or as Albert Einstein once put it, ‘Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.‘ So is the only alternative a Post-modernist ‘free-for-all’, where all world-views are of equal value? No, I believe there are ways of comparing the efficacy of world-views, but more on that later.
What are those fundamental questions? We even have to be careful about what questions we pose, as questions themselves include and exclude issues. Framing the question controls the nature of the dialogue.
So, not surprisingly, Evangelical Christian world-views always include questions about a personal-style god, which would be meaningless to those from many Eastern religions without personal gods. So here are some questions:
- What is our reality and what does our ‘world’ consist of? (Metaphysics)
Possibly where has it come from and where is it going to?
What am I and what is my position in the world?
- How do I know? How can I know truth? What is knowledge and truth? (Epistemology)
- Why do I behave as I do? How should I behave? (Ethics)
- And, possibly more specific questions like: what is the nature of history? (events linked for causes and effects only or linked by some grand narrative – reoccurring cycles, pre-Christian or linear progress to a greater goal, Christian)?
Unfortunately the term world-view has been usurped by Christian writers. Just check the Internet or books at the Amazon site. So these writers’ categorise world-views in Christian’s terms with the underlying questions being Christian questions, such as ‘Is there a personal God?’ Then the assessments are from an Evangelical Christian perspective. For example, The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire presents a catalogue such as Naturalism, Christianity, Existentialism, Nihilism, Post-modernism, and so on with the Christian world-view being shown to be more comprehensive and fulfilling. No surprises there.
Previously I mentioned a possibility of comparing world-views, even though we are inevitably within our own view. We can consider three aspects:
- Coherence or internal consistency (internal conflicts of explanation?) Are there some parts of the world-view that is inconsistent with other aspects? Often these differences are rejected by supporters or patched over by apologetic arguments.
Note: internal consistency is often an adequate measure of truth for post-modernists.
- Correspondence to experience (explanatory powerful?) How well does the world-view account for the range of our experiences? Of course, the confirmation bias haunts any analysis about explanatory power. Does a materialist view of the human being provide explanations that meet our needs? Does a loving, all-powerful God reconcile with the death of a young baby?
- Comprehensiveness (any gaps?). Here atheism or theism falls short of a comprehensive world-view. Science may similarly do so.
Every world-view has short-comings. For example, the ‘Problem of evil’ – presence of gratuitous suffering with an all-powerful, all-loving god – presents an Achilles’ heel for an Evangelical Christian world-view. Reconciling our inner-world of consciousness with a strictly materialistic view of the world is perhaps another one.
 URL: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality10_index.html
 Bruce Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons”, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 44.
 Malina emphasises that (1) self was interpreted by a group understanding; (2) there was little sense of self-reflection, no associated concept of internal psychological processing; (3) complete separation of sexes with vastly different roles and responsibilities; (4) personality characteristics were seen as expressed behavioural terms only e.g. knowing a women is have had sexual intercourse with her; (5) physical characteristics and deformities were signs of permanent personal qualities.
 Susan Johnston audio lecture Religion, Myth & Magic http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B0031UCWWA
…religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered. (Page 8 for accompanying guide)
 Sire James M., The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edn. (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2009)1 comment