Thursday, July 1, 2010

Secularism and Naturalism: Where the Wild Worldviews Are

In a recent Free Inquiry (a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism) issue, the idea that four separate bases for worldviews (atheism, naturalism, secularism and humanism) are interconnected and ought to work together for the advancement of humanity came up. The interplay among them is certainly complex, and while I agree in principle that they should be combined in order to create a very powerful tool, in practice, these often come into conflict, and in different circumstances, I tend to prioritize some over others.

In my last post, I discussed atheism as a topic for discourse and its uses. I came to the conclusion that it’s potentially fruitful ground for personal conversations that focus on frank discussions about belief and understanding where a person is “coming from.” It can also be useful on the national or global stage in order to spark the growth of any and all movements associated with atheism and to foster this growing community.

On to secularism! It's not the same as atheism, not by a long shot, but they're often confused. Secularism refers to “the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.” It can also be described, in a more rigid sense, as the separation of religion from the nonreligious, the private declaration of faith from the public daily interactions. That train of thought generally leads to the concept of being free from religion in public life, France-style, but because I tend to prioritize freedom of speech above this sort of thing, the more important definition regards public decision making. This version of secularism simply indicates that while religion can inhabit the public sphere, it has no jurisdiction there.

Secularism is extremely important when dealing with the interaction of the private and the public. From a practical standpoint, in this day and age, one simply cannot depend on all the members of a community being religious in order to form a consensus or come to any agreement on important issues. Contrary to the belief of one George Herbert Walker Bush, atheists are citizens too. The connections that are necessary for public and political life simply can no longer be relegated to the religious realm. From a more philosophical view, even if everyone in a given polis were religious, religion would still be a terrible justification or source of any arguments or points put forward. At its best, religion is a manifestation of a much more fundamental human propensity to attempt to make sense of the world around us and to form tightly-knit communities. Bonding over these and other shared aspects of our humanity is a more useful and noble endeavor than trying to use one twig on the tree of human flourishing in order to bring people together. For these reasons, as well as the fact that faith happens to be a supremely untenable epistemology, any purely religious reasoning for something that affects the community as a whole can and must be thrown out forthwith. This is not to say that religious people have nothing to add to public discussion. On the contrary, there are many religious secularists. There are also many famous philosophers (Kant, Locke and Descartes come to mind) who were religious, derived much of their ethics from religion and who were nonetheless able to come up with well reasoned secular arguments for their position. Arguments must be subject to public scrutiny, and as such it would be in their favor, were they to survive the onslaught of critical thinking, to be based on empirical evidence and reasoned logic, and here lies the basis of the importance of public reason.

Then there’s naturalism, which can be both an epistemology and an ontology. As an epistemology, it tells us that the most practical method for understanding the natural world is observing it in systematic, rigorous ways. Useful knowledge can be arrived at by a thoughtful application of methods such as creation of hypotheses and constructions of experiments designed to test them. It lets our knowledge of reality be defined and informed by, well, reality. And lest it be assumed that naturalism is inherently flawed by its reliance on potentially flawed methods of collecting empirical data, note that well-designed, replicable experiments to test well-constructed, falsifiable hypotheses are intrinsic to the system. (This might be a good place to posit my completely ridiculous mathematical conceptual framework, which involves thinking of scientific evidence as the rational numbers and the real world as the real numbers, which are compact. If you’re a fan of the dreamer problem or similar philosophical conundrums, think of reality as isomorphic to what we see.) And, as can be seen in the history of knowledge, science and technology, naturalism has worked spectacularly well.

Well enough, in fact, that one could extrapolate from the epistemology to the ontology. If that method of collecting and advancing knowledge about the world, why might we not begin to discount and discredit any unfalsifiable or un-truth-apt statements or hypotheses when it comes to making truth claims? In that case, we would start to think of the world as limited in some ways, limited to that which can be observed and studied, in which case one might come to the conclusion that nature is all there is, and all there is is nature. If you’re not comfortable with that, I would suggest accepting that there might be forms of knowledge and reality not accounted for in this framework, but given that there is no way of rigorously investigating the matter, and the nonmaterial generally has little or no effect on the material, such forms may as well not exist. Which of course brings up the question of what it means to exist, but I think I’m using a pretty intuitive, common-sense definition I might formulate more rigorously another time.

So I think it follows pretty clearly here that naturalism is best prioritized at times when the accumulation of knowledge is paramount. If one wanted to take a holistic view, one might notice that naturalism can give us the sorts of information that are best suited to public discourse within the realm of secularism. If these two systems are practiced in a certain way, they’re likely to result in atheism, and raising the visibility of that particular minority might well bring voice to these other issues. How all of this affects humans and how humans interact with each other will wait until Humanism: The Gripping Finale You’ve All Been Waiting For!

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