Archive for the ‘definition’ Category

Scientism: bad word, useful idea?

2014/08/10

Scientism

I really hate that word.

I first read it from someone who seemed to be looking for excuses not to accept scientific results. Rather than argue against them using science, he simply labelled the approach “scientism”. He wanted to denigrate his opponents’ reliance on evidence and reason to answer important questions. I really despise this sort of anti-intellectualism.* Some people would rather hold onto their own beliefs than find out what is true.

That was my first experience. But that is not the only context where people use the word. I’ve recently heard it used in the context of legitimate criticism (in an old episode of the apologetics podcast “Please Convince Me”). There, host J. Warner Wallace was describing and critiquing a real trend among some people.**

He describes the idea like so: “If it can’t be told to us by science then we ought not even be paying attention to it.”

The trend is the idea that “Any important truth can be addressed by science,” and its corollary that “Anything that can’t be addressed by science is unimportant.” It’s a real trend – not only among lay commentators, but among prominent scientists and philosophers. It deserves to be countered.

Why is it a problem? It’s a problem because betrays an irrational ignorance. (Ironically, the people who follow this trend pride themselves on a rational, evidence-based worldview, and would be mortified if they were seen to demonstrate irrationality or ignorance.)

For one thing, the validity of science itself (as Wallace points out) cannot be demonstrated by science. That would be circular. Rather, the methods of science derive from a particular philosophical perspective on epistemology – how we come to believe things. Now, the epistemological underpinnings of science are quite sound. One cannot reject them without rejecting most of everyday common sense. But they are not derived from science.

For another thing, much of the world of human values is separate from science. It’s true that values such as honesty, curiosity, humility, and submission to reality are deeply embedded in the philosophy and practice of science. But other human values, such as compassion, respect, and loyalty are not part of science, nor can they be validated by science. Surely these values are proper and important topics to discuss in any society.

Beyond this, a survey of prominent online dictionaries and encyclopediae indicates that the word is here to stay. Wikipedia, Dictionary.com, Oxford English Dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster all have entries describing scientism. Of course it has multiple definitions, but they all agree that one use is (to use Merriam-Webster’s formulation) “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.

There are also scientists and other advocates of rationality that have weighed in on the value of identifying and criticizing scientism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an article identifying scientism and contrasting it with appropriate science – even calling out beloved scientists Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, and E.O. Wilson for stepping over that line. Massimo Pigliucci has weighed in here and here – in the first one he’s criticizing Steven Pinker’s wander into scientism here. I don’t wholly agree with Pigliucci’s characterization, but he has some valid points. A more prominent example of scientism may be Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, where he seems to want to define morality so that it falls under the purview of science. See this article by him outlining the position.

So, with all of this, why would anyone embrace this idea that the only important claims are scientific claims? It’s not entirely unfounded. For one thing, science does seem to be our best way of identifying true claims. If I can provide physical, repeatable, objectively-recognizable evidence supporting a claim, then everyone has good reason to accept the claim. If I can provide similarly concrete evidence contradicting a claim, then everyone has good reason to reject the claim. That’s the basis of science. To reject a truly scientific claim is equivalent to rejecting the evidence of the senses.

No other approach to knowing things is so powerful. Intuition is useful, but intuitive ideas are sometimes wrong. (How do we know this? Because we can test them. Scientifically.) Unaided reason is fun, and can point us in useful directions, but outside of abstract math and logic, unaided reason is limp without evidence to support it. (Look at how many ingenious, enjoyable, and ultimately wrong ideas the ancient Greeks had about the structure of the cosmos. And those ideas of theirs that were shown to be right? They were shown by – you guessed it – science!) Feelings, traditions, ancient writings … all of these things that people have leaned on and continue to lean on to provide insight, all of them are fallible, and all of them can be validated or invalidated by science.

In philosophy, there are ideas that cannot be tested scientifically. What is the nature of morality? What is the ultimate nature of existence? What does it mean to be conscious? Here are some questions which science cannot, even in principle, answer (although it can provide interesting and relevant clues). Philosophers can answer these questions.*** But their answers are never as robust or as compelling as the answers to scientific questions. Why should I adopt the desire-utilitarian perspective on morality? Why should I buy into the materialist metaphysical model? What’s to keep me from accepting the Cartesian dualist view of consciousness?

So I sympathize with those who conclude that science is the only way to know important things. It is certainly the way we get our most certain, unassailable beliefs. But it’s not enough, on its own, to populate a complete worldview.

If the term “scientism” is to have any legitimacy as a meaningful word (and not just a bogeyman for anti-intellectuals to sneer at), I think it must be used to identify this narrow perspective that dismisses any idea not grounded in science.

As a linguist, though, I still don’t think it’s a great term. For one thing, it carries the derogatory, anti-intellectual connotation I first identified above. It’s a word that at once denigrates another and identifies the speaker with a particular community. And for another, I just don’t think it’s a useful term to try to use more broadly. For example, what do we call someone who engages or embraces scientism? A “scientist”? Sorry, that term already has a very different meaning from what we’re discussing here. A “scientismist”? Too awkard. “Scientism-er”? Uh-uh. “Advocate of scientism”? Perhaps, but that’s not terribly felicitous.

I would love to propose my own term – perhaps explicitly formed as an antonym of “philosophy”: “misosophy” (by analogy with “philanthrope/misanthrope”). “Sam Harris is a misosophist.” “Thoughtful skeptics need to beware of falling into misosophy.”

misosophy [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fi] - the position that the only claims one should accept as true are scientific claims
misosophist [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɪst] / misosopher [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɹ] - one who asserts or accepts misosophy

I rather doubt that my coinage will catch on. It’s a bit phonotactically awkward. On the other hand, I don’t know if “scientism” can catch on either, in the useful-rather-than-simply-pejorative sense that I have suggested here.

What do you think?

————-

Footnotes

* This is a very emotional reaction, so I want to make it clear: I despise the anti-intellectual thought process, I do not despise the people who engage in it.

** I want to be clear, for those who listen to that podcast, that I do not agree with most of what J. Warner Wallace says. He rejects evolution. He thinks there is a strong evidential case for Christianity. He believes that historical claims are outside the purview of science. In other podcasts, he suggests that atheists have no way to ground their morality. I disagree with him about all of these things. But I agree that scientism as he defines it near the start of that podcast is a real thing, and it needs to be refuted.

*** I know many would say that theologians can also answer these questions. I agree that they can, but only insofar as they are acting philosophically. In fact, anyone can answer these questions, and many do. And when they do, they are doing philosophy.

Labels that define me

2014/06/03

This post was originally inspired by a very animated discussion with Jamie Ian Swiss in the this 2012 episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Long-time readers of this blog have learned something of my political views, my personal life, and various other things. But one thing I may never have explicitly done is lay out how I think these things interconnect.

For example, I am an atheist and a humanist. Some people think that “humanist” is just a euphemism for “atheist”, since most people who label themselves humanists are also atheists. But there is an important difference. In this article, I will briefly trace out some of the connections.

First, at the root, I consider myself a humanist. Though I consciously took on the label only a short time before beginning this blog, I think it has basically formed the basis of my approach to life since I was very young. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That captures my two core values: compassion and the pursuit of understanding. To me, that is what humanism boils down to. (Notice that this definition doesn’t imply atheism.)

Now, I think the best way to pursue understanding is through scientific skepticism – I am a skeptic. I once quoted Steve Novella (of the above-mentioned podcast, Skeptics Guide to the Universe) defining skepticism: “Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.” It’s not hard to form a belief; the trick is to filter good beliefs from bad ones. Skepticism is the toolkit for successful filtering.

One of the least important of my labels is atheism. This label simply means that nobody has yet convinced me that any god exists. It is one of many results of applying skepticism to claims that come at me. (Others of more consequence include accepting evolution, rejecting homeopathy, avoiding health fads, and a current push to learn more about Bayesian reasoning.) Though it has little importance in my epistemology, I would say that it is socially important. Atheists in some countries live under threat of violence and death. Even here in Canada, we are sometimes the targets of bigotry and hostility. So it is important for those who can safely do so to visibly identify as atheists (at least), so that others become aware of our existence and our normal humanness.

Another label that I like to hold is that of scientist. I am still very junior in this pursuit, and claim no particular prowess in it, but it is (in my mind) one of the most noble applications of skepticism, and I hope someday to contribute something significant to human knowledge through my scientific work.

I also have far more personal, less philosophical labels. I am a Mills by descent, and I have close ties with my family through shared traditions, history, and simple familial love. I am a daddy – a label whose meaning evolves as my children (now 4 and 6) develop into ever more amazing and surprising people. In no particular order, I am also a husband, a writer, a homeowner, a teacher, a son, and many other things. I try to exercise these parts of my identity in a way that aligns with my core values – values that come from my personal background and are defined, to some extent, by the main labels “humanist”, “skeptic”, and “scientist”.

There is much more to say about identity and labels, but I think this will suffice for now.

Definition: secular

2014/05/30

Much of the disagreement between people – in areas of religion and elsewhere – centres around unacknowledged differences of definition. It is important to know what someone means when they use a word, and it is often pretty easy, if you’re paying attention, to notice that a difference of definition is serving as a barrier to communication. Please read this in the light of my recent comments on What words mean. I hope that people who disagree with me will continue to lay out their reasons in the comments, and everyone with me will tell me how well I am conveying my ideas.

Today’s definition: “secular”.

It is variously used to refer to “everyday life” (as opposed to consideration of religious ideas of the transcendent), or as a pejorative for the increasingly non-religious way many people approach life these days. What is common is that it tends to be associated with a lack of religion.

What seems to be disputed is whether “secular” approaches to life – particularly public life and politics – are actively anti-religious, or simply non-religious.

This distinction has come up before on this blog. Long-time readers will, I hope, already anticipate my preferred definition here.

When I promote secularization, or a secular public sphere, I mean one that does not privilege one religious perspective over another. That is, a secular government is one that does not take a side in questions of faith. It doesn’t promote prayer; it doesn’t prohibit prayer. It doesn’t encourage religious observance; it doesn’t discourage religious observance.

For the most part, I would say that is what secular governments aim for in the real world. (I’m quite pleased with this trend, so far as I have observed it in the countries I’ve lived in.)

So why might some people associate the word with anti-religious sentiments and actions?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that some of the vocal cheerleaders for secular government these days are atheists. The National Secular Society in the UK is a prominent example – they actively lobby against religious privilege in that country, and advocate for the equal treatment of atheists. And of course, many of the most vocal atheists these days are vocal in their criticism of religious beliefs. So it is natural for people to connect in their minds the word “secular” with “anti-religious”. Similarly, people like me who identify as secular humanists are all (so far as I know) atheists. From my perspective, this is because approaching the world from a secular perspective – one that begins as neutral toward religious claims – will tend to lead one to atheism. From another perspective, it may seem that secular has some built-in anti-religious bias.

Another reason is that, historically, pretty much every culture has privileged one or another religious belief in its laws and customs. So, when we move towards a secular society, those privileges tend to be lost. The groups who once enjoyed those privileges naturally feel like they are under attack. They lose their special voice in government (removal of laws that are exclusively motivated by religious dogma). They lose their special voice in education (removal of teaching materials that are informed by religious dogma, and/or that are in contradiction of scientific evidence). They are no longer able to impose their rituals on public events, to the exclusion of others (removal of sectarian prayers in council meetings, or the inclusion of other religious and non-religious voices).

To someone like me, who identifies with a group (atheists) that never enjoyed those privileges, it is laughable to hear religious people moan about intolerance when they learn that they will finally have to follow the same laws as everyone else.

But I certainly can understand how humbling and, perhaps, frightening, it must be to see one’s tribe fall from a position of accustomed privilege to become an equal among many competing voices.

And, of course, there are people who would like religion to disappear from the world entirely. There are dogmatic anti-theists who blame much human evil on religion, and then advocate that we would be better without this blight on our culture. There are ideologues who see religion – or at least, undomesticated religion – as a threat to their ideology (such as Stalinist or Maoist communism).

I am not one of those people. And, though some would call them “secularists”, I would not. They are not neutral to religion. A secular state is neutral toward religion.

So being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one a secularist. Nor does being a secularist automatically make one an atheist. For example, one of the main reasons the US constitution was formed in explicitly secular terms was because many of the religious groups in the fledgling country had fled from persecution in Europe. They recognized that a secular state – one that did not give state power to religious institutions – was the best protection for their religious freedom. Quakers, Unitarians, Deists … even, at different times, Protestants and Catholics, have experienced the tyranny of an ascendant religious power over those weaker in numbers or force. A secular state provides protection for everyone against the majority.

Current demographic trends show non-belief outstripping belief to varying degrees in many developed countries. If this continues, it may be that within a few decades atheists will be the majority. It will then be even more clearly in the best interests of the religious minority to have strong secular protections in place so that their religious freedoms are protected from possible attacks from this new majority.

Other people’s definitions and discussions:

Oxford dictionary online main definition: “Not connected with religious or spiritual matters”

Google search definition: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis”

Dictionary.com main definition: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal”

Merriam Webster definition 1b: “not overtly or specifically religious”

Free Dictionary definition 2: “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body”

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance glossary entry for secularism: “A term created in 1846 by a British freethinker George Holyoake:

  • The belief that government decisions should be made independently of religious considerations.
  • The promotion of ideas and values not based on religious criteria.”

Wikipedia article on secularity

Other commentators: No Forbidden Questions, and here’s a debate at Camels with Hammers that revolves (in part) around competing definitions. It is clear to me that not everyone sees “secular” as I do. I’ll try to use the word carefully.

What words mean

2014/05/26

I’ve offered a few definitions on this blog. For those who know I am a linguist by profession, but who don’t know many linguists themselves, I fear this may come across as an attempt to impose definitions by authority of my expertise.

So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how linguists actually approach language.

I thought I’d spend a thousand or so words giving a brief introduction to terms like “prescriptive” and “descriptive“. Maybe talk about the inexorability of language change. Perhaps I could indulge in some side-notes on how most of the cherished rules of modern grammarians are violated not only by the common speakers and writers of English, but also by the authors the grammarians admire, and also (far too often) by the grammarians themselves, when they’re not paying attention.

I’d indulge in a rant or two here and there, and generally weary everyone into either agreeing with me or walking away.

Then I realized, if people want to be bored by all this stuff, they can bloody well come and take Linguistics 101, pay tuition and help keep me gainfully employed. And anyway, you don’t need all that to see the main point anyway.

It all boils down to this:

  • Linguists are scientists. We want to know how language actually works.
  • Behind everything else, language is about being understood – conveying an idea from one mind to another.
  • Words mean what people use them to mean.

Oh, there’s more. Syntax, morphology, phonetics (oh, sweet phonetics!), semantics … but each of them boils down to that one point.

Words mean what people use them to mean.

That’s what my definitions are about. I want to be clear how I’m using words, so we can communicate as clearly as possible.

Definition: free will

2013/02/05

I was listening to a skeptical podcast – the Legion of Reason, out of Calgary – and the topic of free will reared itself. It’s a fascinating topic, because (as in this case) many people who agree with me about atheism, humanism, and loads of related social positions disagree very firmly about the appropriate attitude to free will.

I would like to clarify and expand on what I have said recently on this blog about free will. First, though, I thought I would start by exploring the definition.

Like my previous definition posts, I will present how I see it free will, and point out some of the ways that people differ.

First, note that the term “free will” is made of two words. So let’s start with a simple definition:

Free will is the unconstrained (free) exercise of one’s intention to act (will).

No problem so far. But what counts as a constraint?*

This is where people differ. For me, unconstrained means that, when I have a desire to act (whatever the reason for or source of that desire), I am able to follow through.

When I want to stand up, I can. I am not tied down; I am not too weak.

When I want to go bungee-jumping, I can. I do not have a subconscious aversion preventing me from taking that last step; I do not have overly-protective parents hiding my keys to keep me from driving to the jump site.

Constraints can take the form of physical bonds, financial shortfalls, or even irresistable psychological compulsions (addiction is an interesting area for examining edge-cases in free will).

Other people – the “libertarian free will” crowd – consider that any reliable causal predictor of a decision is an intolerable constraint, undermining freedom of will. The most popular expression of this is the claim that determinism undermines free will. That is, if the universe really does operate according to immutable, universal laws of cause-and-effect that completely determine the behaviour of everything in the universe, then everything we do is physically “constrained” to a single possibility (whether or not we can ever know that possibility in advance).

I find this position odd for two reasons: the “chain-link” and the “character”.

First, even if my actions are determined in advance, it may still be the case that my intentions (part of the physical universe) are the proximate cause of my actions: I stood up because I wanted to stand up. Sure, I may have wanted to stand up because my bladder was full, which was because of all the tomato juice I had consumed earlier, which was because of that unfortunate incident with the skunk, and so on and so on to the beginning of our clockwork universe. But the immediate reason I stood up was because I chose to. It was an exercise of my will. My will is a crucial link in the great causal chain that led to the event. To me, the idea of freedom is how that link that is my intention relates to the link that is the outcome, not how it relates to all the other links.

Second, it baffles me that mere predictability is considered a defeater for free will. Just because someone can guess what I’m going to do does not make me less free. If my child cries out in pain, I run to help them. That behaviour is predictable. In fact, part of being a good parent is letting my children know deep down that I will react that way. Does that mean I am not exercising my free will when I choose to help them? Of course not. Is my obedience to traffic laws a subjugation of my free will? No, it’s an expression of it. I try to cultivate a character that leads me to behave well. This entails being predictable in a wide range of situations.

I know that there is some psychological monitor inside all of us that doesn’t like the idea of any constraint – real, practical, or metaphysical – on our behaviour. When I hear libertarian free-will advocates declaiming, I often have to step back before I see again why their arguments fall flat. But it bugs me that so few people seem to see that the aspects of freedom which are important to them in daily life do not depend on libertarian free will. It bugs me that they never seem to see the conflict between virtue – the development of a character that consistently chooses to follow predictable patterns of virtuous behaviour – and this idea of completely acausal decision-making. I think my approach above not only captures my own aesthetic preferences regarding the definitions of free will, but also the way we tend to apply the concept to our real lives. We are not worried about whether some unknowable causal chain irrevocably caused us to want to do what we did, but rather whether we were able to do what we intended.

I think the above works, regardless of whether one sees the “will” as part of the physical world (materialism) or existing in some separate realm (dualism). I also think it is essentially independent of the question of whether a god exists or not.

Though I’ve looked at free will in this way for several years, I don’t know if I’ve ever articulated this particular position. So I would like to know if you can see any obvious holes in the compatibilist position I am promoting here. Do you? If so, please let me know!

On the other hand, are there any other compatibilists out there who agree with my position? Or libertarians who find the above arguments thought-provoking?

Any theists or folks familiar with theological approaches to free will? What do you think? My impression is that most theists are libertarians, but I have heard that Calvinists and perhaps some others are determinists, and so may have some sort of compatibilist approach to free will. Or they may just deny that we have free will.

Footnote:

* I may address what is meant by “intention to act” at a later date, or in the comments if people want to bring it up. For now, I’ll just assume it’s fairly obvious.

Definition: “religion”

2011/09/24

I’ve been asked for my definition of “religion”. I’ve blogged for some time now without really offering a definition.

Let me offer the normal preface: I do not offer my definition as a prescription, nor lean on my authority as a trained linguist (can you believe I have a doctorate now?) to suggest that others ought to conform to my opinion here. I’m simply trying to clarify how I tend to use the term, in hopes that this will help people better understand what I write on this blog. See here for a friend’s much more eloquent summary of the linguist’s standard attitude to prescriptivism.

So here goes…

A religion is a system of thought or belief that includes some supernatural, transcendent entity or phenomenon.

Now, what would count as a religion under this definition?

  • Certainly, any belief in a god or gods – orthodox forms Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Paganism – is a religion.
  • And not just organized religions: any belief in a god or gods, even if it’s outside the scope of any particular organized religion, is a religious belief. This includes deism, the belief in an impersonal creator-god.
  • It is possible to believe in an afterlife without believing in a god; for me, this too falls under the umbrella of “religion”.
  • Similarly for belief in karma, fate, etc: they are transcendent and supernatural, and so they are religious.

What doesn’t count as a religion, by my definition?

  • Atheism and humanism are not religious systems; the one specifically excludes the supernatural, the other is simply defined without reference to religious elements.
  • Other systems that exhibit social elements analogous to organized religion – sport fandom, the adulation of celebrities, some flavours of patriotism – are not religions. (Though, of course, I reserve the right to use the term “religious”, as any other term, metaphorically when talking about such phenomena.)
  • Science is not a religion. It saddens me to have to even mention this, but there are those who would lump science in with religions.
  • Ethical systems are not religious, except where they invoke supernatural justifications (God-the-Lawgiver, or supernatural versions of karma, the threefold law etc). It is here that I would say Unitarian Universalism, as an overall movement, is not religious. The organizing principles of Unitarianism are non-religious ethical precepts, not specific supernatural beliefs.
  • Superstition, astrology, and other (non-supernatural) instances of human credulity are not religious. The whole “alternative medicine” scam is not (in general) religious.
I think this definition broadly agrees with the common usage of the term. I also think the term “religion”, and affiliated terms like “religious” or “spiritual”, are messy things.

Categories

2010/12/23

Here’s a post from the vaults. I wrote it almost a year ago, but never got around to finishing it and posting it.

We are a categorizing species. We like to divide the world up into distinct types of things: animals and plants, men and women, natural and artificial. This tendency is useful – perhaps even necessary – but it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these distinctions are artificial. They are products of our perception and our thinking, rather than inherent features of the world.

I’ve just listened to a conversation between atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (audio link here), which has me thinking about another distinction that is prominent in many people’s minds: that between religion and atheism.

I encourage you to kick back and listen to it. Hitchens is in fine form as always, barbed and eloquent. Sewell is pleasant, and doesn’t let Hitchens’ thorns throw her off. Come back when you’re done.

Ready? Let’s carry on …

In the conversation, each of the speakers expresses some ideas and attitudes that I agree with, and some I disagree with. I am an atheist and a member of a Unitarian community (a state seems contradictory, or at least dissonant, to many atheists).

My own way out of this apparent problem is to see it from the perspective of my  primary “worldview affiliation” (for lack of a better term): humanism. This is a label that I think applies equally well to both Hitchens and Sewell (and generally to both atheists and Unitarians).

I agree with Hitchens (as did Sewell) when he says that there is no moral act that can be motivated by religion but not by an atheistic worldview. I accept this “atheist” claim that religious belief is unrelated, in general, to ethical behaviour.

Sewell asks, however, whether Hitchens can accept that some people are motivated by their religious beliefs to do good. It seems clear to me that some people find inspiration for doing good from their religious beliefs. Others, like Hitchens and me, find our inspiration for good behaviour from personal experience, or from science, or from philosophy. I suspect that many people draw on both religious and non-religious ideas to motivate their good acts.  Hitchens evades that question in the conversation. Rather than admitting that at least some people act better because of religious belief, he falls back to his customary reel of evil deeds motivated by religion.

I think he could acknowledge her point without conceding that religion is always a good thing, or even that, on balance, it produced more good than harm. But it does sort of weaken the punch of his book’s subtitle: How religion poisons everything. Everything, Christopher? No.

On the other hand, Hitchens and I (and many other humanists, I think) are frustrated with the Unitarians’ definition of themselves as religious. Sewell uses the Bible as inspiring literature.

I consider myself a Christian.  I believe in the Jesus story as story, as narrative, and Jesus as a person whose life is exemplary and that I want to follow.  But I do not believe in all that stuff [referring to the crucifixion as redemption for sin] … (around the 10:15 mark in the audio)

She doesn’t think it’s literally true, but the stories embody common human themes and metaphors. She prefers Biblical stories to other stories perhaps – so I (a science-fiction enthusiast) would call her a “bible enthusiast”. But religious? Not in any normal sense of the word. (Perhaps I’ll cover that in a future “definition” post.) With apologies to my Unitarian friends, I have to agree that it’s odd and often misleading to call themselves religious.

So, where does that leave us? Like I said above, I think I basically agree with both of them about the important stuff.  I share Hitchens’ dislike for the Christian story – either as literal history or as an inspiring fictional tale.  I agree with Sewell that religion does inspire some good, and that it works for some people where the non-religious alternatives might not work for them.

I still haven’t completely resolved, for myself, the odd identity thing with Unitarians – are they “religious” (in which case I’ll need to accept a very eccentric definition of the word “religious”) or not?  I think it is around this question that my own reluctance to call myself a Unitarian revolves.

Hmm … that gives me an idea. Stay tuned …

(Thanks to Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for pointing out the exchange between Hitchens and Sewell.)

What kind of atheist?

2010/03/16

Both Luke at Common Sense Atheism and Sabio at Triangulations have presented taxonomic breakdowns of the sort of differences one finds between atheists.  I thought it might be worth laying out my own position.  See their blog posts for some of the other alternatives in these categories.  I have not used all of their categories, but the following covers the most important points:

Self-labels:

I’ve discussed some of these before.  I prefer to call myself a humanist.  I am also an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, and freethinker.

Level of certainty:

On Dawkins’ scale of 1 (strong belief in a god or gods) to 7 (strong belief in no god), I generally fall around 4.  For most specific claims that I’ve heard made by particular religions, I fall closer to 6 or 7.

Level of affirmation:

I am an implicit (or “weak” or “negative”) atheist:  I withhold belief in the apparent absence of evidence.  I do not assert that there is no god; I simply decline to assert that there is a god.

Scope:

Broad – I apply the same lack of belief to all god-claims I have encountered.

Openness:

I am open about my beliefs, though I am cautious around new acquaintances and certain family members.  I am (obviously) quite open online.

Degree of action:

I affirm my beliefs, I blog about them, and I donate to humanist-themed charities.

Degree of enchantment:

I am a very enchanted naturalist.  I find the natural world (including all of us) to be a truly wonderful place, and am delighted to have some time to experience it and grow to understand it.

Mystical inclination:

I am somewhat mystical, as I understand the term.  Although I enjoy knowing and understanding things, I find a certain amount of delight in thinking about things that my understanding doesn’t (or cannot) penetrate.

Non-theistic leanings:

I incline to believe in an entirely natural universe, with no transcendent personal nature (no god or ur-consciousness).  I am flatly agnostic on the question of a prime mover (the deists’ god).

View of reason:

Reason is the discipline that most reliably allows our deeply-held values to be expressed in effective action.  It is indispensible for leading a fully authentic life.

Faith items:

In the absence of proof (or even the possibility of proof in principle), I believe that my perceptions are caused by real objects and events.  I believe that the past is a generally-reliable guide to the future.

Stance toward religion:

I am relatively indifferent toward beliefs.  Though I am often curious what people believe and why, I am rarely inclined to condemn beliefs in themselves.  As for religiously-motivated actions, I respond to on their individual merits (as I do actions in general).

Religious participation:

I attend a weekly Unitarian service.  I sing along to most of the hymns.  Is that religious participation?  Not to me, though I guess that largely depends how widely you define religion.

Belief history:

I am a lifelong non-believer.  I’ve “tried out” Paganism, Mormonism, and more mainline Christianity.  That is, I have explored them as different ways of approaching the world, and dipped my toe in the practices associated with each.  But I never adopted the beliefs though (so far as I can recall).

Theory of religion:

I am far from certain about this, and am content to leave explanations to those who study it more rigorously (sociologists and psychologists, that is, not theologians).  From what I understand of their findings, I suspect that the existence of religion in the apparent absence of supernatural reality is due to some combination of adaptive cognitive biases and historical accident.

Degree of secular superstitious thinking:

I have bad habits, and habits that are not harmful but are not grounded in reason, but I don’t know of any that could be called superstitious.

Summary:

I hope that this has helped to clarify some of my positions, and perhaps further elucidate what I mean when I call myself an atheist.  As with any such declaration, I reserve the right to change my mind about things as I learn more about myself and about the universe around me.

How about you?  How would you fill in the above categories?

My definition: humanist

2010/02/09

Happy HumanWell, I’ve managed to post three “personal definitions” so far without tackling the one that is probably most relevant to this blog:  what is a humanist?

Partly this is because the term humanism isn’t as misunderstood as the other terms I’ve covered:  atheist, Christian, and fundamentalist.  It is unfamiliar to many, but at least folks don’t tend to have conflicting ideas of what it means.

But, in the comments to the post about fundamentalism, I was directly asked about a definition of humanism.  So, at long last, I thought I’d tackle it.

First I’ll give the usual caveat.  I offer the definition here to clarify what I mean by the term humanist.  I’m not trying to impose this definition on anyone else, or to declare that all other definitions are “wrong”.

So let me start by identifying the two core features of humanism as I understand it.

One is compassion.  A humanist outlook takes human well-being as a central value.

The other is reason.  Humanism entails using rational enquiry to decide what is true and what is false.*

Now, I would love to leave it there.  If you live a life that demonstrates the values of compassion and reason, then I think you are entitled to call yourself a humanist.  But there are some side-effects of this definition that affect who will call themselves a humanist and who will not**.

For example, it omits mentioning the existence (or non-existence) of any god.  Most people who believe in a god also value compassion and reason.  Are they humanists?

My tentative answer is no, for two reasons:  they don’t call themselves humanists, and people who do call themselves humanists don’t call believers humanists.

Believers tend to choose other labels themselves – labels associated with their god-belief:  “Christian”, “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Pagan”.  The extra values associated with those groups vary, but generally include obedience to the god(s) they believe in, commitment to certain rituals (Hajj, prayer, Communion, etc), and veneration of particular texts as sources of sacred truth.  Religious people give some or all of these values a privileged position above the humanist values of compassion and reason.  A related point is that, while atheism and humanism are not synonymous, the association is strong enough that many religious people probably avoid the label humanist simply because it seems to imply atheism†.

Like many self-described humanists, I think religious people, by accepting the existence of a god, are not fully living up to the stated value of reason.  I know how arrogant this sounds – remember that it’s just another way of saying that I think I’m right (otherwise I wouldn’t call myself an atheist).  I may be wrong, but this is my best guess so far.

So only people who lack god-belief (atheists – but not all atheists) choose take on the label humanist, and nobody – neither believers nor non-believers – applies the term humanist to believers.

I suppose it is also worth pointing out why I and many other people prefer the label humanist to atheist.  After all, if there’s so much overlap, why not simply go with the term that most people know?

First, the definition of atheist is not always obvious.  That’s why I offered a post on what I and others mean when we call ourselves atheists.  Second, the term atheist is so fraught with emotional baggage that in some situations it’s worth avoiding on that basis alone.††  Third and more importantly for me, “atheist” and “humanist” mean different things.  Being an atheist is about what you don’t believe.  Being a humanist is about what you value.

For me, atheism is a consequence of living as a humanist.  I withhold belief in a god because the belief is both irrelevant to my capacity to behave compassionately, and unsupported by rational evaluation of the evidence before me.  As I’ve said before, if someone showed me convincing evidence that a god exists, I would no longer be an atheist, but I would continue to value compassion and reason above all else.  I would remain a humanist.

To sum up:  I take humanism to be an approach to living based on compassion and reason.  I think that this approach leads to atheism, but that atheism is not an inherent part of humanism.  Religious belief is not in principle contrary to humanism, but seems in fact to be inconsistent with a rigorous application of the twin values of compassion and reason.  When I call someone a humanist, I’m asserting that they take reason and compassion as the root of their worldview, that they probably don’t believe in the supernatural, and that they probably self-identify as a humanist.

Let me know if that isn’t perfectly clear.‡

Footnotes

* I confess to borrowing this characterization directly from the Humanist Network News podcast, which introduces humanism as “a worldview based on reason and compassion”.

** Observant readers will notice that I am implicitly taking self-identification as an important test of what it means to be a humanist.  This is a common attitude among linguists:  words get their meaning through usage, so the meaning of a word like “humanist” (or “Christian” or “banana”) will be largely shaped by the people who take that word as a label for their beliefs.

† I’m not suggesting that all religious people have some bigoted bias against atheism.  (Some do, some don’t.)  I’m just saying that they don’t want to take on a label that would misleadingly imply they are atheists.

†† But not all circumstances – I’m happy to call myself an atheist if someone asks whether I believe in a god, or simply asks if I’m an atheist.  I should also add that some atheists avoid the term “humanist” because they think it’s just a cowardly way of avoiding the controversial but more appropriate term “atheist”.  (See for example this discussion at the Rational Response Squad forums.)  Let me be clear:  I am an atheist.  But I am also, and more fundamentally, a humanist.

‡ Sorry about all the footnotes.

Some links to other definitions

(Note that these definitions, as they are based on use, often give religious disbelief more weight than I do.)

Wiktionary.
Cambridge Dictionary Online.
Dictionary.com.
Oxford English Dictionary (access not free).
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
BBC article on humanism.
Humanist Society of Scotland.
International Humanist and Ethical Union “minimum statement“.
Humanist Academy (Scottish humanist educational charity).

Image credit

The Happy Human is trademarked by the British Humanist Association and is used worldwide as a symbol of humanism.  I use the version from the Wikimedia Commons, which is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.  It was created by Denis Barrington for the British Humanist Association, and adapted to the current format by Howard Cheng.

More on Free Will

2009/12/24

Since my March article about free will, I’ve learned that my position – that having free will is consistent with a mechanistic model of the universe (with or without quantum uncertainty thrown in) – is known as compatibilism.

I recently read Thomas Pink’s book, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (from the excellent Very Short Introduction series put out by OUP) – and so I now fancy myself knowledgeable enough to connect my own casual ponderings with the great web of philosophy.

The position Mike took in his article is known as scepticism (in the context of free will, a combination of incompatibilism and a belief in causal determinism – not to be confused with other, more general forms of scepticism).

Guess who Pink identifies as the first compatibilist? Here’s a quote:

A FREE-MAN, is he, that … is not hindred to doe what he has a will to … from the use of the word Free-will, no Liberty can be inferred of the will, desire or inclination, but the Liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe.

The quote is from p65 of Pink’s book, and it’s by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a Hobbesian – he wrote about more than just this, and I don’t know if the whole of his philosophy would appeal to me. But I tend to agree with this quote.

Note that this passage makes no claims about what it means for someone to “have a will to do” something. One thing I like about compatibilism is that it does not rely on a particular model (deterministic, non-deterministic, etc) of the universe.

See also:

Wikipedia article on Free Will.

Image credit:

Image of Hobbes via this collection. (On the topic of this post, check out this fan comic, inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes scene shown here.)

 


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