“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Three: The Age of the Earth

In-the-Beginning-slideThis is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.

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“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Two: Science, Christianity and Bibilical interpretation

In-the-Beginning-slideThis is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.

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Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.

The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

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The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

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What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

Atheism as manifest in the West is an odd phenomenon – in many ways, it’s very much an off-shoot of Christianity. It’s essentially the result of taking Christ out of Christianity and trying to hang onto the rest if it. So we see widespread support for the “loving your neighbour as yourself” commandment, but a willful disregard for its other half (loving God with your all). There is plenty of acknowledgement of Jesus as a teacher, but not as Lord. “He said some good things, but he’s was just this guy, you know?”

The best description that I’ve heard for this condition is “cut-flower morality”. We think that we can remove the teachings and the wisdom from the divine root and still enjoy their beauty. We deny that humans are made by God, and still expect that humans have intrinsic value.

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Maths, science and abstractions

I attended a forum last week entitled “Is there certainty beyond science?”. As one of the speakers pointed out, perhaps a useful starting question would be, “Is there certainty within science?”, but the title did raise some interesting questions about what we mean by the words “certainty” and “science”.

Certainly (see what I did there?) there seems to be a common assumption that science at least aims to find certainty in the midst of confusion. The general perception is that science rigorously follows a trail of evidence to reach conclusions which can be claimed with a high degree of confidence. And there are even mechanisms to try and assess the degree of uncertainty in a given scientific theorem (although the willingness of adherents to acknowledge that uncertainty may be somewhat hit-and-miss).

What is often missing from the conversation is the impact of methodological assumptions on the usefulness of the conclusions which result from a particular methodology. Let’s look at mathematics as an extreme example.

Maths operates within the ultimate abstraction. It is a realm of pure ideas. This has advantages: because the system is entirely conceptual, the laws can be rigorously defined. This allows us to “prove” mathematical theorems by conclusively demonstrating a logical consistency. But to apply a mathematical concept to anything real, we must project from the abstraction back to the real world, where we cannot rigorously define the laws. Some of the projections are useful: arithmetic operations are easily projected onto everyday objects (so “3 bananas + 4 bananas” can easily be understood as seven actual bananas). Some projections are less straightforward: the relationship between a second-order differential equation and the acceleration of a car under constant force is not quite as intuitive.

Science also operates within an abstraction. The realm of science is limited by its methodological assumptions, such as philosophical naturalism and the regularity of nature. These assumptions are useful in that they allow us to limit the potential interactions that we investigate to those which are amenable to the tools of science. In other words, we limit what we will accept as an explanation of phenomena, and this allows us to define our area of investigation. But in making these assumptions, we have created an abstraction of the real world, and it is this abstraction that we investigate rather than the real world itself. As in the case of mathematics, the conclusions may or may not be readily suited to being projected back into our understanding of the real world.

It is worth noting that any of our abstractions are only definable from outside the system. We say that mathematics operates within a logically consistent and rigorously defined framework, but its logical consistency cannot be proven mathematically. (This isn’t a case of “It hasn’t been done yet”, this is a case of “It’s impossible even in principle”). We make a working assumption of methodological naturalism when we engage in scientific research, but we cannot scientifically demonstrate the validity of such an assumption.

Perhaps more interestingly, this also implies that we cannot fully define the operational parameters of the real world from within the system.

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

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Plus ça change…

I’ve just finished reading Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. What’s most fascinating to me is that it was written over 100 years ago and yet the issues that he’s discussing – materialism, evolution, determinism, conflicts fought in the name of religion, morality in the absence of divine guidance, etc. – are all exactly the same things that are shaping the debate today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here are a few selected excerpts:

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Chesterton on relativism:

“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one.  Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view.  We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”

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…on the faith of rationality:

“Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.  If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself.  I have no right to think at all.’”

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…on the philosophical aspects of evolution:

“Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself.  If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism.  If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into.  It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.  This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.”

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…on knee-jerk scepticism:

“The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it… It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end.  It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  Free thought has exhausted its own freedom… We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks.  We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

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…on the history of the Church:

“…in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple:  it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire.  The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.  It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again:  repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top… If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new.  She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch… How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”

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Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Chesterton on Miracles

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Believing and understanding

Yesterday I wrote about 3000 words on the limitations of the scientific approach as a tool for discerning truth. Today I’d like to focus on just 3 words:

Credo ut Intelligam

“I believe so that I may understand”

As I discussed in the last two posts, scientific inquiry is limited by definition to the material universe. Supernatural influence on the material, or events limited entirely to the supernatural sphere, are in principle inaccessible to science (thanks to its assumption of materialism). But because of what I observe, what I experience, and what my reason tells me, I cannot endorse materialism as a worldview. I accept its usefulness as a scientific premise, but I do not accept its truthfulness.

The Latin motto above was written by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), who is regarded as the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. He held that belief in God is the only way to make sense of what we observe. Reason can expand on faith, but faith must precede reason.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, described the correct perspective of inquiry thus:

“Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the Author of good and Father of light.” (Novum Organum)

As a contrast, let’s see how far materialism can take us. Peter Atkins, Oxford chemist and caustic-tongued atheist, believes that, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Bertrand Russell described a common materialist position when he said:

“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

It is worth noting, however, that this extreme scientism is logically incoherent. It is itself not a statement of science but an article of blind faith. Thus by its own assertion we cannot know if it is true. (Note: I use the term “blind faith” because I believe that this statement describes a belief held in spite of evidence).

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, observes that scientism even denies the validity of any non-scientific fields such as philosophy, ethics, literature, poetry, art and music. He continues:

“Science can tell you that if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill her, but it cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea in order to get your hands on her property.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

I would suggest that it is possible to have such knowledge of right and wrong, even though it is beyond the scope of science.

We must also note the difference in confidence which can be attributed to the findings of various scientific disciplines, because the scientific methodology relies on repeatability. Experimental sciences can often confidently deduce what is likely to happen under certain controlled conditions. Sciences which deal with unrepeatable phenomena (such as palaeontology and cosmology) are more deductive, and their conclusions must necessarily be less authoritative.

Even amongst these “historical” sciences, we can only proceed scientifically by simulating repeatability: we compare several independent fossil progressions; we draw analogues to living animals. We study hundreds of galaxies, trying to find common trends. We look at the operation of physics on an experimentable scale and extrapolate the findings to a cosmological scale. The philosophy is the same, although there are greater practical limitations to the experimental possibilities.

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Natural law (and order)

C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Grand Miracle, gives a striking illustration of the conditional status of “laws of Nature”. As Nature is the field studied by science, this also illustrates the impossibility of using scientific inquiry to address the supernatural. In the passage, Lewis is in conversation with a materialist:

“Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the Laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them … I think the Laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.”

“Half a moment,” said I. “Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?”

“Of course,” said he, “provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.”

“Ah, but that’s the whole point,” said I. “The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the Laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted.”

“No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey tricks like that.”

“Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.”

Note that I do not wish to undermine the value of scientific inquiry into Nature: I believe that it has great power to give insight into the natural order. But I think it should be obvious that science has important limitations in what questions it can reasonably address.

Once we head into the realm of the truly unrepeatable, we are studying history. And now we are truly off the scientific map.

Is it possible to have knowledge of historical events? Of course.

There are even ways to assess the relative confidence of historical knowledge, such as the extent and concordance of contemporaneous records, literary criticism of written accounts, archaeological confirmation of records and forensic examination of evidence.

Miraculous events are unique. That’s what marks them as miracles – they defy the natural order. But they do not contradict science, because as we have seen, science deals explicitly with the normal workings of Nature in the absence of super-Natural interference.

Lewis elaborates:

“This point of scientific method merely shows (what no one to my knowledge ever denied) that if miracles did occur, science, as science, could not prove, or disprove, their occurrence. What cannot be trusted to recur is not material for science: that is why history is not one of the sciences. You cannot find out what Napoleon did at the battle of Austerlitz by asking him to come and fight it again in a laboratory with the same combatants, the same terrain, the same weather, and in the same age. You have to go to the records. We have not, in fact, proved that science excludes miracles: we have only proved that the question of miracles, like innumerable other questions, excludes laboratory treatment.” (The Grand Miracle)

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Overlap in the Magisterium?

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth (Part II)

Update:

This post and Part I have been edited and combined into a single essay. The full version can be found here.

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Part I of this essay was an overview of how models (and scientific inquiry in general) actually work.

Let’s have a quick recap of the key points:

  • Explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
  • We make sense of complex systems by building models.
  • Models are built for specific objectives and incorporate assumptions.
  • The usefulness of a model depends on the validity of those assumptions.
  • We cannot modify our objectives without re-examining our assumptions.
  • Models can never be verified (shown to be true), only confirmed (shown to be useful).
  • Scientific theories are models.

In this section, I want to explore the role of science in the search for ultimate truth.

We need to recognise the limitations of science as a method of pursuing truth, and with our newly-acquired understanding of models I hope that it will be clearer what those limitations are.

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Methodological naturalism and the limitations of scientific models

Science, as a collection of models (termed theories or hypotheses according to their level of confirmation), is built on a set of assumptions. These are broadly grouped under the philosophy of methodological naturalism, and could be summarised as:

  • The world we observe actually exists and is consistent.
  • We can use our reason and senses to explore it.
  • The material world is all that there is.

So we must ask ourselves: how useful is naturalism as an assumption?

The general opinion amongst philosophers of science is that it is a useful simplification. That is not to say that it is true, only that it is useful. Steven Schafersman, a geologist and prominent advocate against Creationism, writes that:

“… science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success … but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is.”

Philosopher of science Robert Pennock, also a prominent voice against Creationism (and Intelligent Design), is more explicit. In his 1997 paper for a conference on “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise”, he states that science “makes use of naturalism only in a heuristic, methodological manner.” He also argues against even the theoretical possibility of using scientific methodology to explore supernatural issues:

“Methodological naturalism itself … follows from reasonable evidential requirements in science, most importantly, that hypotheses be intersubjectively testable by reference to law-governed processes.”

Why does this preclude the supernatural? In the same essay, Pennock writes:

“Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the purported independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant and we observe the effect on the dependent variable. But by definition we have no control over supernatural entities or forces.”

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The pursuit of data

Assumption are fundamental to understanding the usefulness of the outputs of a model. But the assumptions underlying the scientific method will also influence the data that we subsequently look for. This limitation has been noted by philosopher Karl Popper and historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who notes that the “route from theory to measurement can almost never be traveled backward”. Theories also tend to build on each other, usually without revisiting the underlying assumptions.

Popper examines this problem of nested assumptions in his critique of naturalism:

“I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method.” (The Logic of Scientific Discovery)

Note again the emphasis (in the second sentence) on the problem of confusing model confirmation with verification. This self-reinforcement of theory dominates most of science. Kuhn writes:

“Once it has been adopted by a profession … no theory is recognized to be testable by any quantitative tests that it has not already passed.” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Pierre-Simon LaplaceWe will never find what we do not seek and are unwilling to see.

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The usefulness of models

In their correct place, of course, models are very useful. The great French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace used Newton’s model of gravity to calculate the motion of the heavens (as well as for predicting ballistics) in his masterpiece Mécanique céleste. Napoleon asked to see the manuscript, being greatly interested in ballistics. According to the story, after perusing the equations Napoleon turned to Laplace and asked, “Where is God in your book?” To which Laplace famously replied, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”).

Laplace was perfectly correct. He was using calculus to predict the motions of celestial bodies and bodies moving through air, and it is not useful to incorporate theological complications into that  prediction. Remember: as simple as possible, but no simpler. Of course, Laplace also didn’t include gravitational attraction from other stars in calculating the orbits of the planets. In the real world, we believe that other stars do exert gravitational attraction, but it is a useful simplification in our model that we ignore them at the scale of our solar system.

Laplace’s model does not correspond perfectly to reality, but it does allow us to make sense of data and make predictions, provided that we stay within the limits of its assumptions. Popper comments on the usefulness of the Darwinian evolutionary synthesis, despite the great limitations of that theory:

“Darwinism  is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program … And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin …  Although it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches … it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in detail the mechanism at work.”

But let us never confuse useful with true.

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Science and truth

So what can science really tell us, if not truth? Well, within the limitations of its assumptions, it can give us great insight into process and the nature of the material universe. But it cannot, by definition, tell us anything about the immaterial: including the supernatural, philosophical reasoning and morality.

The great Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Nonmoral Nature, commented thus on the limitations of science:

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians … indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

Indeed, science cannot even comment on the validity of its own assumptions: they must simply be accepted at face value for any science to be done at all. As per Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, they are postulates which cannot be proven by the system itself.

In our search for insight into the supernatural, we’re out of the territory of science. And recall the fundamental principle of modelling: we cannot change our objectives without re-evaluating our assumptions. So we can’t even adapt any current science to deal with these questions: science is simply not equipped for the task.

I do not propose allowing supernatural explanations into science. But I do suggest that it is very misleading to imply that science in any way supports a materialist worldview. This is mere question-begging: scientific theory, by its very assumptions, operates within a materialist worldview.

But we do not live in “science”. We live in reality.

Are we searching for truth, or are we searching for a theory nested in unprovable assumptions?

If the supernatural exists, it is beyond the tools of science. But if we have a supernatural aspect to our existence, it is not beyond our experience. To limit ourselves wholly to a materialist view may deprive us of fully experiencing a part of ourselves.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues strongly for this line of thinking. He wrote:

“If you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused – as most of the world’s people believe – you won’t be able to reach that truth scientifically.”

Are you missing out on something important by clinging to rigid materialism, perhaps because of a mistaken belief that such a worldview has scientific justification? Is there anything more to life?

Not to science. To life.

C. S. Lewis, certainly, had no doubt about the importance of our supernatural aspect. In Mere Christianity he described the human condition thus:

“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

What are you missing out on?

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth (Part I)

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

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Secular (in)Humanism

From Wikipedia: “Secular Humanism is a humanist philosophy that espouses reason, ethics, and justice…”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here’s the problem:

Secular humanism is an example of what has been called “cut-flower” morality. That is to say that it has grown out of a Western culture rooted in Christian principles and ethics, and it assumes that it can cut off and keep those attractive aspects while discarding all that bothersome baggage of Christianity itself.

If we look a little further into – oh, let’s call them the “articles of faith”, for convenience – of the Council for Secular Humanism, we see that:

“… religious experience … redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural … We consider the universe to be … most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However, we find that traditional views of the existence of God … are meaningless”

“Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe.”

So let’s break that down for what it’s really saying:

  • Religious experience gives meaning to our lives, but is not related to any spiritual reality and is in fact a meaningless illusion.
  • Furthermore, we accept any evidence and are open to any new possibility as long as it has no theological implications, because those are a priori defined as rubbish.

We’ll leave this hit-and-miss adherence to scientific rigour for another discussion. But it’s the morality that I really want to examine in this essay:

“… secularists deny that morality needs to be deduced from religious belief … we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”

So, maximising human happiness is the ultimate goal, and while there is no “absolutist morality”, there are “objective standards”. It has been an ongoing (and notably unsuccessful) pet project of atheist philosophers for centuries to deduce a basis for objective morality apart from a theistic worldview, but let’s look at some specific examples. (Lest I be accused of cherry-picking particularly offensive statements made on an off day, I have included references to the relevant works if you would like to research them further).

Julian Huxley was the founding president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952, a broad umbrella organisation covering secular humanism, atheism, rationalism and the like. As well as being an extremely prominent secular humanist (and the first president of the British Humanist Association), he was a ground-breaking biologist in the field of evolutionary synthesis and the grandson of T. H. Huxley.

He was also a prominent member of the British Eugenics Society – indeed, was President of that institution from 1959-62. His view was that:

“The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore … they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation.” (Man in the modern world, 1947)

Another prominent voice among the secular humanists is Peter Singer, who is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and has held positions at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the University of Oxford. In 2004 he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. As well as supporting bestiality “as long as it’s not abusive to the animal”, Singer believes that early-term abortion is morally acceptable, not because of any usual pro-choice arguments, but because killing a human being is not necessarily wrong:

“[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.” (Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, 1994)

He extends this line of thought further, arguing that killing an infant which the parents do not want is morally acceptable, as it would result in more happiness overall than allowing the child to live. (For the full discussion, see Practical Ethics, 1993 – it’s too depressing to quote extended passages).

I have chosen these passages for this essay, not because they are morally repulsive and I wish to score an emotional point, but because they are the logical outworkings of a secular humanist worldview when applied consistently to the field of morality by the leaders in the movement.

What I am even more concerned with is why we find these concepts repulsive. It is not our rationality which objects – I suggest rather that it is specifically our humanity that is repulsed by infanticide and eugenics.  And I assert that the logical product of secular “humanism” is a coldly rationalist shell with all traces of humanity removed.

Can the flower of our morality survive without the nourishing root of a Christian worldview? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the finest commentator on the great Soviet experiment with institutional atheism in the 20th century, summarised his views thus:

“…if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

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Related posts:

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism

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