A Theory of Reductive Naturalism: The Metaphysical Foundations of Non-belief

Introduction

What do you believe about God? What about global warming? Do you think euthanasia should be legalised? What about bible study in schools? Whatever your answer to these questions, it is very unlikely that you hold your views in isolation, independently of all your other opinions and perspectives. That’s not how human minds work. Instead, we hold our views in the context of a large set of overlapping and interconnected beliefs about what the world is, how it works, and why things are the way they are. This very large, overarching set of beliefs and conceptions about the world is what I call a ‘worldview’. When ideas become successful or popular, it is very rarely because of the specific merits of one idea considered in isolation. Rather, ideas are usually ‘sold’ as part of a ‘package deal’ – a set of interconnected, internally coherent beliefs about the world which people find attractive. Socialism, Fascism, Christianity, Humanism, and Environmentalism are all examples of such worldviews. As my choice of examples shows, the effect that such worldviews has on the world varies dramatically – ideas can shape the world for better or for worse. If, therefore, we want to shape the world for the better, we need to spread good ideas, and to do that we need to package these ideas in a way that people find attractive. To put it another way, it is not enough to just be right about a whole bunch of unrelated issues. Rather, one needs to incorporate these positions into a unified conceptual whole, to provide a worldview that people find intellectually and emotionally attractive. My aim in this short article is to present an outline of the key points concerning what such a worldview might look like from a Rationalist/Humanist/Atheist perspective. Specifically, the view that I am outlining is a form of reductive naturalism, the meaning of which I will explain shortly. It is a metaphysical theory, meaning that it makes claims about what exists in the world. I do not claim that this is the only possible naturalistic worldview that one can develop, but I do think it is a particularly compelling one which is worthy of serious consideration.

Reductive Naturalism

To begin, I must first explain what I mean by the term ‘naturalism’. This word is used in a variety of ways in everyday language, but in this context I am using it with reference to a particular set of philosophical positions concerning what sorts of things exist in the world. Put most simply, naturalism holds that only the natural world exists. While there is no generally accepted definition of ‘natural’ in this context, the usual conception is that the natural world includes all things that are not supernatural. Supernatural entities are such things as ghosts, spirits, magical forces, immaterial souls, gods, and immaterial forces like yin-yang from Chinese philosophy. Such supernatural entities are typically thought to be highly distinctive from anything that exists in nature in that they are not made up of matter, and do not follow determinate causal laws in the way the natural world does. I should emphasise that natural entities include not only things like particles, organisms, and planetary bodies, but also man-made artifacts like computers and political institutions. The relevant distinction is thus not between natural and artificial, but rather between natural and non-natural or supernatural. Thus understood, naturalism is simply the position that there are no non-natural or supernatural entities.

The version of naturalism that I am here defending is reductionist, meaning that according to this view, everything that exists is either a fundamental particle, or is something that exists and holds all the properties that it does solely in virtue of the arrangements and interactions of such fundamental particles. Another way of putting this is that according to reductive naturalism, if one specified the exact configuration of all the fundamental particles in the entire universe, then this would also be sufficient to determine all the properties of everything that exists within the universe. There is nothing ‘left out’ of reality beyond the arrangements of fundamental particles. A few points of clarification are necessary here. First, when I speak about ‘fundamental particles’ I do not necessarily assume that these are the same as what physics currently regards to be the fundamental particles of nature (quarks, electrons, photons, etc). Perhaps they are, or perhaps they are something yet more fundamental that we have yet to discover. All that is important to my case is that there are a determinate, relatively small number of such things, and that they follow causal laws in principle describable by a ‘completed physics’. Second, when I say that the arrangement of fundamental particles is sufficient to determine all properties about everything that exists, I am advocating a theory of ontology (what exists), not a theory of epistemology (how we know) or semantics (what words mean). To consider a particularly tricky example, according to reductive naturalism, the statement ‘Bob loves his wide’ must ultimately be either true or false in virtue of some state of affairs concerning particular arrangements of fundamental particles. This is not to say, however, that we come to know whether Bob loves his wife by examining states of fundamental particles. Nor is it to say that when we say ‘Bob loves his wife’ we are in any way actually thinking about fundamental particles. Rather, my claim is about what exists in the world that makes this claim true – the so-called ontological basis of the fact that ‘Bob loves his wife’. The claim of reductive naturalism is that even highly abstract and complex states as this ultimately pertain in virtue of the arrangement of fundamental particles. Thus, there is nothing outside of or beyond such particles and their interactions that is needed in order to bring about the state of Bob loving his wife. I am thus explicitly disputing the claim made by some philosophers that immaterial minds or Platonic forms or other non-natural entities are necessary in order to account for all the various phenomena that we know about in the world.

Even given these clarifications, many people typically find this reductive naturalism intuitively implausible. How, they say, can you claim that the interactions of protons and electrons are all that there is to such complex, indescribably rich phenomena as human emotions? A large part of the implausibility of my position, however, is removed once we consider the reduction hierarchically. That is, rather than trying to imagine jumping directly from subatomic physics to human emotions, we should instead think about the stages in which this reduction occurs. Subatomic physics underpins the structure and properties of atoms, which in turn bind together to form molecules. Molecules join together through various types of chemical bonds to form macromolecules like proteins and DNA which make up the cells of the human body. Different types of cells with different functions combine together to form tissues and organs, each with their own role in supporting the life of the organism. In the case of the human mind, neurons connect together in complex networks to form mental representations of various concepts, including ultimately those of loving another person. Considered in this incremental manner, I think the notion that facts about human thoughts and emotions are ultimately reducible to facts about brain states, which in turn reduce to facts about neuronal firing patterns, then down to proteins, molecules, and atoms, is far more plausible than it is if we think simply of jumping from atoms straight to the mind in a single leap.

The utility of a philosophical theory ultimately is determined by how useful it is in accounting for various phenomena that we wish to explain in the world. In the case in question, two of the most difficult phenomena that have led many people to posit entities beyond those of the natural world are the human mind and moral values. In this short article I have space only to very briefly consider these complex subjects, and I certainly do not claim to have a complete philosophical account of either. Nevertheless, I do wish to at the very least sketch the outlines of how a reductionist naturalistic worldview can account for the existence of both mind and morality in a way that provides a space for such phenomena without needing to posit the existence of any additional, non-natural entities.

Before doing so, however, there is one final concept (borrowed from physics) that I must introduce, namely the distinction between a microstate and a macrostate. A microstate is a single complete configuration of all the fundamental particles in a system. A macrostate, by contrast, is a set of microstates that share some property of interest. Macrostates thus refer to ‘higher level’ phenomena, whose existence is nevertheless wholly dependent upon the particular microstate the system is in. For instance, one example of a microstate is the exact description of all the positions and velocities of the air molecules in a room. We can then consider various macrostates which are higher-level properties that nevertheless are entirely determined by the microstate that the particles in the room reside in. refers to the set of all such microstates in which the room has a particular temperature. One example of a macrostate would be ‘the air temperature in this room is 30 degrees Celsius’. This macrostate refers to the set of all possible microstates that give rise to this temperature. Even though there are many possible microstates that can instantiate a single macrostate, the temperature of the room is still determined completely by the microstate. The macrostate is thus just a useful ‘higher order’ concept we use to refer to sets of microstates that are similar in some relevant way.

Applications: Mind and Morality

Applying this distinction between microstates and macrostates to the cases of the mind and morality, we see that under the reductive naturalistic worldview, mental and moral states of affairs can both understood to be a kind of macrostate. In the case of the mind, examples of macrostates could be ‘he perceives the colour red’, ‘she remembers her grandmother’s face’, or ‘I believe that it will rain tomorrow’. These are all mental states of affairs which are expressed in a psychological language involving appeal to believes, perceptions, desires, etc. According to the theory of reductive naturalism I am advocating, all such mental macrostates ultimately exist in virtue of the (exceedingly large) number of microstates that are capable of instantiating them. There is, for example, a very large number of possible ways the atoms in my brain could be arranged such that they correspond to being in a state of ‘deciding’. Indeed, it is possible that microstates quite different to those which exist in my brain are also capable of instantiating mental macrostates, such as the arrangements of atoms making up the circuitry of an artificial intelligence. This position in the philosophy of mind is known is functionalism, and holds that mental states are constituted by the functional workings of a given system, and that different physical systems may be capable of producing the same functions and therefore of yielding the same mental phenomena. The exact details of functionalism are not important here, the point is simply that such a view fits very readily within the reductive naturalist paradigm that I have been developing, and is capable in broad terms of making sense of how mental states can exist in a purely material world. The key idea, then, is that mental states are not some mysterious things that cannot be accounted for in the natural world. Rather, appeals to mental states such as beliefs, desires, perceptions, and, even acts of free will, ultimately refer to very complex bundles of possible arrangements of fundamental particles. We cannot possibly specify in detail exactly what all these arrangements of particles look like, but nor do we need to, as the arrangements are defined functionally by the higher-level properties they instantiate. There is of course no need to replace such psychological terms with talk of fundamental particles, because that would distract from our purpose and lead us to getting bogged down in irrelevant details. The point of this analysis, rather, is that such psychological language and the mental states they refer to can fit quite comfortably within a naturalistic worldview, without needing to appeal to the existence of any additional non-natural entities.

We can apply much the same analysis to the case of morality. Morally good macrostates can be understood as states of affairs conducive to the flourishing or wellbeing of sentient creatures. Morally bad macrostates, by contrast, would be states of affairs that bring about the suffering and misery of sentient creatures. Obviously we would need to articulate in more detail what we mean by terms like ‘wellbeing’ and ‘misery’, however since we can readily identify examples of each I take it that these terms, while fuzzy, have a robust meaning that is sufficient for our purposes here. This position corresponds to the metaethical theory of reductive moral naturalism, though once again, the details of this theory are not of prime importance here. What I want to emphasise is simply the fact that moral states of affairs can be readily accorded a place in this naturalistic worldview in accordance with whether or not a particular microstate instantiates a macrostate that is conducive to wellbeing or misery. Thus, when we say something like ‘killing for fun is morally wrong’, this statement is true in virtue of the fact that the various microstates which instantiate the act of killing (obviously there are many ways to kill someone) also instantiate a macrostate in which the wellbeing of sentient creatures is diminished relative to a comparable macrostate in which this act of killing did not occur. There is no need to appeal to the existence of God or any other transcendent source of morality for such moral macrostates to pertain, as they exist purely in virtue of the fact that certain arrangements of fundamental particles instantiate the wellbeing of sentient creatures to a greater extent than other arrangements. Of course, whether one is motivated to act so as to bring about morally good states of affairs is another question entirely. My point here is simply to argue that the existence of morally good states of affairs is readily explicable under a reductive naturalistic worldview.

One possible line of objection to my arguments is that we still do not have a very good understanding of precisely how mental or moral states of affairs arise from (or ‘supervene on’) the interactions of fundamental particles. In particular, there is a sizeable gap in our knowledge between the level of the functioning of single neurons and the emergence of complex mental behaviours and sensations in large networks of neurons. As such, it might be argued that to claim that we can say the latter arise solely from the interactions of the former is premature. In response, I would argue that it is in fact not at all premature to make such an inference. Recall that I am not claiming we have a complete theory of how all of nature works – science is an ongoing endeavour. All I am asserting is that we can account for the core phenomena that we need to, including the mind and moral value, without needing to appeal to any entities outside of the natural world. In doing so, I have given an account as to how the mind and morality can be conceptualised in a reductive naturalistic worldview – I have given ‘a place where they can fit’ in a naturalistic ontology. For this to be plausible, all that is needed is sufficient reason to think it plausible that higher order phenomena such as the mind can potentially arise solely as a result of the interaction of fundamental particles. And I think that the current state of knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and psychology is more than sufficient to affirm that such a belief is plausible. Certainly we don’t have the full explanation as to how this occurs, but I think we have ample evidence to infer that it is plausible that it does. Most everyone is willing to believe that the immensely complex behaviour of financial markets arises purely as the result of the financial activities of individual traders and corporations, despite the lack of a detailed theory as to how exactly this occurs. Likewise, no one would seriously argue that fluid turbulence is the result of anything other than the interaction of molecules in the fluid, even though our understanding of the physics of fluid dynamics is still relatively poor. I thus content that we are similarly in a position to affirm the plausibility of mind and morality arising purely from the result of neural activity in the brain (and hence ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles), even though we lack a complete theory as to how this occurs.

Conclusion

While I have argued that we can plausibly consider complex mental and moral macrostates as existing solely in virtue of the interactions of fundamental particles, I have not provided any arguments to prove that this must be the case. There may well be entities that exist outside of the natural world, and therefore the theory I have sketched here may constitute a drastically incomplete worldview. My argument, however, is that a reductive naturalistic worldview has sufficient explanatory power to account for the existence of all the phenomena we would wish it to. Furthermore, reductive naturalism is a highly parsimonious worldview, meaning that it posits only the existence of the natural world (whose existence almost all worldviews accept), and nothing else besides. My argument, therefore, is that if we can account for all that we need to from the natural world alone, then we have no reason to posit the existence of anything beyond the natural world. As to the existence of entities outside of nature we, like Laplace, therefore have ‘no need for that hypothesis’.

A Critique of Crude Positivism: Why the Epistemology of Dawkins and Hawking Fails

Introduction

In this essay I wish to address a particular set of opinions that seem to be quite popular among many contemporary atheists, rationalists, and freethinkers. It is not a single specific position, but rather a patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives sharing a more-or-less constant core. Being somewhat amorphous, the position of which I am speaking does not really a distinct name. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall refer to this constellation of views as ‘crude positivism’. ‘Positivism’ is a complex and controversial philosophical perspective, which broadly speaking is characterised by a strong respect for science and empirical enquiry, and an opposition to truth claims based on metaphysical speculation, faith, or authority. My purpose here is not to attack positivism itself, but rather the relatively crude form of it that is popularised, to varying degrees, by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. While one again emphasising that I am describing a family of related and overlapping viewpoints rather than a single well-defined doctrine, three of the key most commonly-encountered components of this ‘crude positivism’ are the following:

  1. Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  2. Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.
  3. Pragmatism: science owes is special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

My goal in this piece will be to challenge these three claims. In particular, I will argue that the ‘crude positivism’ typified by these three views presents an overly narrow conception of knowledge, and represents an ultimately fragile basis upon which to ground challenges to superstitution, pseudoscience, and other forms of irrationality. My key contention is that we need to move beyond such crude positivism in order to have a stronger intellectual underpinning for the atheistic/rationalist/freethought movements. A final note on style: when I use the phrase ‘crude positivists’ I don’t mean to imply a well-defined group of people. I just use it as shorthand to refer to those who, to varying degrees, hold to one or more of the three positions outlined above.

Strict Evidentialism

Crude positivists insist that all beliefs, or at least all beliefs concerning anything of importance, ought to be based upon appropriate evidence. While I agree with this as an abstract principle, I have concerns about the manner in which crude positivists typically interpret and apply this maxim in practise. The trouble is that, when challenged, nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something that they regard to be ‘evidence’. To consider a specific example, the evangelical Christian may claim to know that God works in the lives of believers because they have seen it happen with their own eyes, and experienced it personally in their own lives. Needless to say, this is not the sort of ‘evidence’ that adherents of crude positivism are likely to accept as legitimate. The question, however, is why not? After all, the justification in question is empirically based, in that it is derived from making observations about the world. Generally positivists respond that such experiences are uncontrolled and anecdotal, and thus cannot be trusted to provide reliable evidence. To this, however, the Christian may simply agree, arguing that while such experiences are anecdotal and thus do not qualify as scientific evidence, nevertheless they do constitute evidence of the relevant sort for the domain in question, namely the domain relating to knowledge and experience of God. According to this perspective, only certain particular phenomena or aspects of reality are susceptible to the investigative methods of the empirical sciences, and the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him would not be one of these areas that science can study. These phenomena can be empirically studied, but this is done by applying different standards than those used for scientific inquiry, using methods that are much more personal and experiential. Scientific methods are applicable in the scientific domain, while other methods and other forms of empirical evidence are applicable in other domains. I am not attempting to defend this ‘separate domains’ position. Instead, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to respond to a position like this by simply asserting that beliefs should be based on evidence, since that is not the point under dispute. That is, the question is not whether some form of ‘evidence’ is important, but the type of evidence is deemed acceptable, and how that evidence justified claim being made.

A related problem concerns the issue of how evidence should be interpreted. Crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence simply and unambiguously picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practise, however, this is almost never the case, as evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory in order to interpret. For example, in order to understand a historical text, one requires not only knowledge of the language in which it is written, but also a broad understanding of the relevant social and political context in which the text was written. Likewise the raw output of most scientific observation or experiments are unintelligible without use of detailed background theories and methodological assumptions.

Given the important role that background assumptions and perspectives shape our interpretations of a given piece of evidence, it is very common for different people coming from different perspectives to conclude that the same evidence supports wildly different conclusions. For instance, many young earth creationists interpret the fossil and other evidence in light of their pre-existing belief that the bible is the literal and infallible word of God, and as a result they conclude that the extant evidence points to a divine creation event in the recent past, devising various ingenious methods of reconciling their beliefs with the apparent evidence to the contrary. My intent is not to defend creationists, but to illustrate that it is not enough to simply say that creationists ignore the evidence. These creationists are responding to the evidence (indeed they argue that it supports their position), but are interpreting it differently on the basis of different suppositions and approaches. We cannot simply dismiss them as being blinded by their presuppositions, since (as I have just argued) evidence can never be interpreted in a vacuum, free of assumptions or preconceptions, but can only ever be interpreted in the context of an existing methodological framework and various background assumptions. To say this isn’t to endorse some form of epistemic relativism, but simply to point out that if we want to explain why creationists and others like them are mistaken, we have to move beyond the crude positivistic cry of ‘seek the evidence’, and articulate a more detailed set of criteria and epistemological principles upon which certain initial assumptions and modes of interpretation are to be preferred over others. We need to do a better job of explaining what types of evidence are most reliable, how to interpret evidence, and why these approaches are more conducive to the formation of true beliefs than other, competing approaches.

Narrow Scientism

The second aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I want to discuss is the view I have termed ‘narrow scientism’, which refers to the tendency to dismiss, or significantly downplay, the importance and status of all disciplines outside the natural sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, and geology produce reliable knowledge, while psychology is a bit of a question mark, and economics and political science are clearly ‘not sciences’, but belong with disciples like philosophy and much of the humanities, the domain of fuzzy opinion and not verifiable fact. This, at least, is the typical perception among my advocates of crude positivism. In my view, however, this disciplinary classification is arbitrary, and fails to demarcate any epistemologically relevant distinction. In particular, what is the justification for the view that the only ‘real sciences’ are only the natural sciences? It cannot be the result of having adopted a superior set of methodologies, since in many cases there is more methodological continuity across different disciplines than within single ones. For example, analytical chemistry and cognitive psychology are both largely focused on laboratory experiments, while in astrophysics and macroeconomics experiments are mostly impossible, and so these disciplines instead rely predominantly upon observation and development of mathematical theories. Likewise, piecing together the evolutionary relationships of different species has more in common with the linguistic analysis of different languages than it does with other subfields of biology. Nor can it be the subject matter of the disciplines which sets them apart, since there is a continuum between the study of primate behaviour in biology and the study of human behaviour in the social sciences, and also between the study of natural history in geology and biology, and the study of human history in the social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, many mathematical models originally developed in the context of physics and chemistry have also been profitably applied to many other fields, especially economics and sociology (e.g. equilibrium theory, network analysis, complex systems theory). My contention here is not that there is literally no difference between the natural sciences and social science or non-scientific disciplines. I do, however, think that there is a great deal of continuity and intermingling between them, both in terms of methodologies and subject matter, a fact which belies the sharp science/non-science dichotomy advocated by crude positivists.

This is not, however, merely a question of whether disciplinary boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. The real point I am trying to make is that crude positivists simply have no justification for elevating the natural sciences (whether their boundaries are fuzzy or not) on a pedestal above all other disciples. That is, I do not think the natural sciences are epistemically privileged in the way that crude positivists claim that they are. After all, what is so special about the natural sciences relative to, say, economics, history, or even blatant pseudosciences like astrology? The most straightforward answer, and I think the one crude positivists have mostly in mind, is that the natural sciences apply a rigorous scientific method not found in any of these other disciplines, and this method is more conducive to finding truth than other competing methods. My response to this is threefold. Firstly, I note that this is not a claim that finds a home in any of the natural sciences (i.e. it is not a scientific claim), but seems to appeal to philosophical criteria that lie outside of science. I do not think there is anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it seems to sit at odds with the crude positivistic view that only science is to be trusted. Secondly, as I have argued above, it is simply not true that the natural sciences systematically apply different methodologies to those used in other disciples. Within any disciple the quality of work varies dramatically, some being much more careful and rigorous than others, and this applies just as much to the natural sciences as to other disciplines. Thirdly, and most importantly, if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearers of the superior status, not the physical sciences themselves. Applying these same principles to any disciple should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards. If this is correct, and what is at the bottom of the success of the physical sciences is adherence to a particular methodology or methods of inference, then it is those methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in.

It has been argued that the subject matter of the social sciences and other such disciplines is inherently ‘messier’ and more complex than the comparatively simpler physical systems studied by the natural sciences. However even if this is true, application of appropriate methodologies should still result in reliable knowledge – the only difference will be that the knowledge will be less precise and known with less confidence, since our understanding of the system in question is less complete and less detailed. This will not, however, result in a qualitatively distinct and far inferior form of knowledge, contrary to the claims of the crude positivists. Some argue that the subject matter of history and social science is such that it is not suited to study by the rigorous methods of natural science. If this were true, it would seem to leave us with two options: either no reliable knowledge about such things is possible in principle (i.e. we can say little or nothing about human history, how societies and economies work, etc), or the reliable methods of attaining knowledge in such disciples are distinctly different and at odds with those used in the natural sciences.

The former possibility strikes me as deeply implausible – why should we not at least be able to know a great deal about such topics through careful investigation, and furthermore how could we possibly know if this were the case given that we could not study these topics? The latter option seems equally unpalatable, for it is essentially identical to the argument by which the evangelical Christian claims that their supernatural claims are outside the bounds of scientific investigation. Indeed, if it is the case that the appropriate methods for studying any subject outside of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to and at odds with scientific methods, then any ground for objecting to irrational or unscientific claims is lost. Religious claims (“the divine cannot be studied scientifically”), alternative medicine (“human health is too holistic to be subjected to scientific methods”), or the paranormal (“the spirits don’t respond under controlled conditions”), it can always be argued that the subject matter lies outside of the natural sciences, and hence different, non-scientific investigative methods are applicable. In my view, this absurd outcome shows that, if we grant superior respect and status to the claims of the natural sciences, it must be because (when conducted properly) the natural sciences utilise justified and reliable general epistemological processes, processes which should similarly be conducive to knowledge acquisition when applied to other subjects. Crude positivists who instead reject any application of scientific methods outside of the natural sciences cannot then simultaneously berate those making religious, paranormal, and supernatural claims for failing to use scientific standards and methods, since by their own admission such methods are only applicable to certain subjects. Narrow scientism, then, is at odds with the core principle of basing all important beliefs upon reliable evidence.

Pragmatism

The third and final aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I wanted to discuss in this piece is pragmatism, the appeal to the past successes of science as the primary and overriding justification for its epistemically superior status. Science, so the argument goes, simply ‘works’: it puts men on the moon, builds aircraft that fly, and makes transgenic fish that glow in the dark. Ways of knowing that rely on appeals to authority, esoteric knowledge, or personal experience, are inferior precisely because they do not ‘work’ in this way. While I do think this sort of argument has some validity, I think the crude positivist goes too far in advocating practical utility as the defining feature of knowledge. One simple problem with this approach is that many people think that prayer, mystical experiences, etc, ‘work’ in a very real way – they pray to Jesus, and they feel God’s love pouring out over them. The crude positivist, of course, is unlikely to admit that as being a valid example of ‘working’, however all this shows is that science comes out best when judged by its own criteria of what it counts as legitimate ‘success’, while the types of ‘success’ (e.g. drawing closer to god, becoming one with nature, etc) defined by other ways of knowing are simply disregarded.

Beyond this issue of defining criteria for success, there is a deeper philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the ‘success’ of a theory, and the ‘truth’ of that theory. Most of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are, properly understood, really applications of engineering, not science itself. Of course, engineers utilise scientific findings and theories, but there is nevertheless an important distinction between the development of theory and its practical application. This is important because some schools of thought in philosophy, especially the sort of instrumentalist, pragmatic viewpoints that crude positivists are most closely aligned with, argue that the ability of a theory to deliver successful applications is insufficient to validate the accuracy of that theory in describing the way the world truly is. One example is that of Ptolemaic astronomy: it was capable of generating accurate predictions of the positions of the planets despite the fact that its underlying model for reality (an Earth-centred cosmos with the planets orbiting about crystalline spheres) is completely wrong. To take a more recent example, scientists and engineers still routinely use chemical and physical models which treat atoms as solid spheres interacting in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics. As a description of reality, this is entirely incorrect – atoms are mostly empty space, and what is not empty space consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to our best theories behave (very loosely) like smeared-out probability wavepackets, evolving in accordance with the laws of quantum (not classical) mechanics. Notwithstanding this completely inaccurate description of the underlying reality, however, the ‘billiard balls’ approach is still very useful and ‘delivers results’ in a wide range of applications. Such examples are one of the major arguments used by those philosophers who adhere to a position known as scientific anti-realism, which is the view that while science produces very useful predictive models, it does not necessarily describe the way things ‘truly are’. Thus, according to this view, science is not in the business of finding ‘truth’ per se, but merely of producing theories that are ‘empirically adequate’ and useful for prediction and practical application.

My point here is not to argue that anti-realism is correct, or that science doesn’t describe reality. Rather my argument is that either way, these considerations pose a problem for the simple pragmatism of crude positivists. If, on the one hand, scientific anti-realism is false, and scientific theories do truly describe the way the world is, then the extreme focus on scientific theories being special because they ‘work’ becomes difficult to justify, since under this view science is special not predominantly because it ‘works’, but because it yields true descriptions of reality. The simplistic pragmatism defence thus simply cannot work, and the fact that other disciplines (e.g. philosophy or theology) may not ‘deliver results’ does not mean that they cannot accurately describe reality. On the other hand, if scientific anti-realism is true, and scientific theories don’t necessary say much about the way reality truly is, then the crude positivist has no basis for critiquing non-scientific ways of knowing for not making predictions or ‘delivering results’. This is because these other ways of knowing (e.g. faith based) don’t necessarily claim to be able to provide predictive models, but claim to describe parts of reality as they truly are. If science and faith/intuition/etc are not even trying to do the same thing, the one attempting to generate useful models, the other not caring about predictive accuracy but about providing true descriptions of reality, then it is unclear how the crude positivist can even compare the two in the way they seem to want to. This approach also seems hard to reconcile with the fact that many adherents of crude positivism do very clearly make truth claims about subjects like religion and the paranormal. If this form of pragmatism is correct, then science and non-science aren’t incompatible, but rather are incomparable, for they are not even trying to do the same thing.

Conclusion

Some people will doubtless read this piece as an attack upon the value of science, or a defence of pseudoscientific, faith-based or emotion-based methods of reasoning. As I have said throughout this piece, however, this is not my intention at all. My goal is in fact to equip skeptics and rationalists to deliver a robust, cogent defence of the value of science and critical thinking in learning about the world, and the superiority of such methods over various rivals. What concerns me is that the constellation of views that I here describe under the label ‘crude positivism’ is quite popular among many rationalists and skeptics. As I have argued, however, I think these views are philosophically naive and very hard to rigorously defend. Worse, some of the more intelligent defenders of non-scientific practices, including religious apologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of various pseudosciences, are aware of the problems with such views, and will vigorously critique rationalists who espouse them. I think we can answer their objections, but to do so requires a greater familiarity with philosophy and relevant methodlogical issues than many rationalists and skeptics have, especially when they so often dismiss these fields as irrelevant. In order to advance the cause of science and rationality, therefore, we need to abandon ‘crude positivism’, and replace it with a more sophisticated, thoughtful, and philosophically rigorous account of science and rationality.

A Vision for a Secular Australia: Talk Notes

Notes for a debate I participated in at the University of Melbourne, 18 August 2016

Key principles

  • Begin from the premise that Australia is a liberal democracy, and should strive to best implement this form of governance
  • A liberal state does not enforce one vision of ‘the good life’ on its citizens, but which seeks to establish a free, fair, and cohesive society in which individuals can pursue their own vision of the good life, subject to the no harm principle
  • The state best achieves this aim when it takes no position on matters of faith or religion
  • A secular state is thus a state where the government abstains taking a side or conferring any advantages or disadvantages on the basis of religious belief, or lack thereof
  • Secularism is thus a position about the proper relationship between the government, including legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and its citizens and their religious practices (or lack thereof)

What secularism is not, or should not be

  • State atheism: enforced or promoted atheism is just as contrary to secularism as having a state religion
  • Opposition to Christianity: while in Australia a focus on Christianity is natural, secularists should be just as concerned about any efforts to privilege or disadvantage any other religious or irreligious belief
  • Total privatisation of religion: expression of faith can still be a public activity in a secular state. I’m not an advocate of the hardline French model of laicite, which I think is anti-liberal. Religion can be taught in the streets and promoted by public figures, be cannot be promoted or disadvantaged by the state
  • (Most controversially) separation of religion from politics: religion always has and always will have political dimensions, and secularists should not try to forbid or remove this. A liberal state needs to allow for freedom of exercise of political beliefs, including on religious grounds. Such beliefs, however, ought not have the effect of specifically benefiting or disadvantaging religious groups through government policy

Some policy applications, deriving from these principles

  1. No government-funded chaplains in schools
  2. No institutionalised prayers in parliament
  3. No special provision for SRI in public schools
  4. ‘Advancement of religion’ not considered a charitable purpose
  5. No special religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws
  6. No government preference for funding to religious charities or social institutions
  7. Government standards of service applicable to all government-funded institutions, with no special religious exemptions (in particular, access to reproductive services provided by all government funded medical centres, provision of age appropriate sex education at all government funded schools)

Why Christians should endorse Secularism

  • History of Christian persecution by authorities:
    • Persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire
    • Persecution of those attempting to translate the bible into vernacular
    • Corruption and abuse associated with mixing of religious office and political power
    • Persecution of Protestant reformers
    • Persecution of dissenters and other Protestant minorities
  • Religious freedom was in large part invented by Christian minorities wanting religious freedom. Atheists and agnostics likewise have a long history of persecution for their beliefs. It is precisely because of this shared history that we should join together in support of a secular Australia

Islamic Contributions to Scholarship

School students the world over regularly experience all the pain and pleasures of learning algebra. What few students realise, however, is how much they have to thank medieval Islamic scholars for the development of the ideas they are learning. The word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic al-jabr, which means roughly ‘restoration’ or ‘rejoining’. It was developed by ninth century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in his most impressively entitled The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. Al-Khwārizmī also gave his name to the world ‘algorithm’, referring to the method he developed of solving mathematical problems by systematic application of particular abstract rules – the very rules that students learn to this day in elementary algebra courses.  Students also have medieval Islamic scholars to thank for the numerals they use in calculations (1,2,3, etc), which were originally developed in India and then passed on to the West by Islamic mathematicians. Although modern students might perhaps feel less than grateful for this contribution, anyone who has ever attempted to do arithmetic using Roman numerals (the preferred method in the west before the adoption of Arabic numerals) will understand how much of an advance they represent.

The contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars to human knowledge extend well beyond algebra, encompassing a wide range of fields such as mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. The modern scientific discipline of chemistry evolved from medieval alchemy, and the English word ‘alchemy’ derives from the Arabic al-kīmīā. Such a word borrowing is due in large part to the influence of such scholars as Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (‘the Persian Socrates’) and Jabir ibn Hayyan, both of whom purified a wide range of chemical substances, and whose works describe in detail various chemical apparatuses, some of which are still in use to this day. In the field of astronomy, Syrian astronomer and mathematician Al-Battani calculated the length of the solar year to within an accuracy of two minutes, his work later being influential to Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Copernicus in the development of heliocentrism. The tenth century Basran scientist and philosopher Hasan Ibn al-Haytham was so profoundly influential that he has been called ‘the second Ptolemy’. He wrote numerous influential works on optics, astronomy, and geometry, and was an early proponent of what we would now describe as the ‘scientific method’, including the use of empirical observations and mathematical models to understand natural laws. Ibn Sina, like many contemporary Islamic thinkers, made contributions to many fields, but is perhaps most well known for his monumental medical encyclopaedia The Canon of Medicine, which was used as a medical text throughout the Islamic world and in Europe until as late as the seventeenth century. Islamic scholars also made important advances in the field of geography, such as the notable work of twelfth century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. He produced a fascinating work called ‘the Book of Roger’ (after the Norman patron who commissioned the work), which discussed in detail the physical geography and social and political customs of all lands and peoples of the known word, from Western Europe across to East Asia. Al-Idrisi produced a world map which remained one of the most accurate in existence for centuries, until the voyages of discovery of the fifteenth century.

Most of the developments discussed above, and many others besides, took place during a period often referred to as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, which lasted from roughly the eight through to the thirteenth centuries. Understanding why the Islamic world flourished during this period, and how influential their contributions were to prove to Europe, requires some knowledge of the historical context in which these developments occurred. To appreciate this story, we must journey all the way back to the fifth century AD, in the dying days of the Roman Empire. As the western portion of the empire progressively decayed and collapsed under the combined assault of barbarian attacks and internal unrest, economic and cultural life became increasingly disrupted. The gradual collapse of central administration meant that the famed Roman roads, so vital for connecting together disparate regions of the Empire, fell into disrepair. Local townships and petty lords took over the provision of security at a local level, hampering commerce and cultural exchange between regions. With the economic and political decline came a reduction in the degree of urbanisation, falling literacy levels, sharply decreased manuscript production, and an overall reduction in the resources available and interest in the pursuit of science of philosophy.Such a comparable decline, however, did not occur in the eastern regions of the Empire, and it was these relatively wealthy regions, still preserving much of the learning of the ancient world, which came under Islamic rule beginning in the seventh century. The period of relative order, prosperity, and unity that the Islamic world from Persia to Spain experienced in the following centuries helped to foster the bourgeoning of Islamic science, philosophy, and culture. Islamic achievements of this period therefore far outstripped anything taking place in contemporary Europe, which by comparison was economically backward and hopelessly fragmented into numerous feudal principalities.

Beginning around the eleventh century, increased economic and cultural exchanges between Western Europe and the Islamic world (largely taking place through Spain and Sicily), led to a transferal of many texts, ideas, and technologies to the West. Of particular interest to Europeans were the Arabic translations of many classical Greek writers, relatively few of which had been preserved when knowledge of Greek had been lost in the west in the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As more of these texts were translated into Latin (the universal language of scholarship in the west), many of these texts became available to European scholars for the first time in centuries. Particularly important as the so-called ‘rediscovery’ of the works of Aristotle, which although preserved in the East had largely been lost to the West, and the translation of which into Latin resulted in a wide range of philosophical and theological upheavals, notably influencing the work of leading medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Today, many scholars believe that the contributions of medieval Islamic science, philosophy, and mathematics to Western Europe, as well as its important role in preserving ancient Greek texts, helped to foster first the Renaissance and later the rise of modern scientific thinking in early modern Europe. In particular, the rediscovery and reimagining of many works of literature and philosophy of classical Greece and Rome that characterised the period would likely have not been possible had these works not been preserved in the Islamic world. It is unfortunate that today, with the central nexus of scientific and philosophical work now having shifted elsewhere, so few remember the vital contributions of the Islamic world at a time when Western Europe, by comparison, produced very little of scientific or philosophical value.

The Failures of New Atheism

Introduction

As for social and intellectual movement, the term ‘New Atheism’ is a diverse and contested notion, potentially encompassing a wide diversity of positions and ways of thinking. My subsequent discussion of the differences between ‘New Atheism’ and ‘Old Atheism’, therefore, should be understood as explicating general tendencies, rather than presenting an absolute binary dichotomy. This caveat being made, however, I believe that the New Atheist movement does exhibit sufficient regularities and commonalities for us to make some tentative general observations.

In contrast to Old Atheism, by which I mean atheism as it existed roughly prior to the turn of the Millennium, New Atheism has tended to be much more assertive in the public discourse, much more eager and willing to make its views heard, and much less concerned about respecting the religious beliefs or faith of others. New Atheism also has tended to focus, to an even greater degree than did Old Atheism, on the social and political harms of religion, especially fundamentalist religion. New Atheism has also placed a much greater emphasis on creating a sustained mass movement, and of developing a socially and politically engaged atheism. All three of these trends are themselves worthy of much deeper analysis, however in this article I want to focus on a fourth major trend that I observe in New Atheism, one which I find to be a much less positive development. Simply put, I believe that New Atheism represents an intellectual retrogression from Old Atheism, doing away with the sophisticated philosophical positions of old, and replacing them with a crude form of scientism and general disinterest in rigorous philosophy. In this essay, I will argue that this trend represents a profoundly negative development in the history of atheistic thought, and puts atheists and rationalists in a poor position to counter increasingly sophisticated apologetic arguments.

Atheism: Old and New

New Atheism is undoubtedly a movement thoroughly infused by scientists and the scientifically minded. Beginning with the canonical ‘four horseman’, we find that Richard Dawkins is a biologist, Sam Harris a neuroscientist, and Christopher Hitchens a journalist. Daniel Dennett is the only professional philosopher of the four, though he too represents a particular strain of highly scientifically-minded philosophical thought, and is not himself a specialist in philosophy of religion. Other prominent figures associated to varying degrees with new Atheism include Victor Stenger (physicist), Laurence Krauss (physicist), Jerry Coyne (biologist), PZ Meyers (biologist), AC Grayling (philosopher), Michel Onfray (philosopher), Dan Barker (former pastor), Michael Shermer (historian of science), Bill Nye (biologist), and Neil degrasse Tyson (physicist). Though this list is hardly comprehensive, it is I think representative of the strong (though not exclusive) domination of New Atheism by scientists, particularly biologists and physicists.

This preponderance of scientists in the New Atheism contrasts greatly with the much larger proportion of prominent philosophers among Old Atheists. Key atheist figures from the twentieth century include Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul-Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew, Michael Martin, John Mackie, and Richard Rorty. All of these figures, with the possible exception of Freud, were notable philosophers who provided robust and challenging arguments against religion. Such thinkers, as I have indicated, are much less preponderant among the New Atheists. Indeed, a number of New Atheists or allied thinkers, such as Dawkins, Krauss, and Tyson, have publically expressed their disinterest and indeed active distain of philosophy in general, or philosophy of religion in particular. From their public remarks, many New Atheist thinkers and their supporters seem to endorse some form of scientism, a view (not widely accepted even by scientifically-minded philosophers) which asserts in essence that science is the only legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the world. New Atheism has largely turned its back on serious philosophy, embracing science as the queen of all human knowledge.

The Christian Resurgence

Contrasting sharply with the New Atheist turn away from philosophy, since roughly the late 1960s there has been a surprising resurgence of theism in general, and conservative Christianity in particular, within the Anglo-American philosophical world. This resurgence has been manifested in several ways, including the publication of a series of highly influential works by thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and William Lane Craig. Supporting this burgeoning Christian scholarship have been two academic societies, the Evangelical Philosophical Society was (founded in 1977), and the Society of Christian Philosophers (established 1978). Both these societies have their own peer-reviewed academic journals, respectively Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy, which regularly publish articles relating to Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics.

This resurgence of conservative Christianity with the academy has been mirrored by the rise in popular evangelical apologetics. A simple Google search reveals a positive cornucopia apologetic ministries and organisations: The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (founded 1995), Creation Ministries International (founded 1977), The Christian Apologetics Alliance (established 2011), Reasonable Faith (founded 2008), and Cold-Case Christianity (founded 2013) are just a few representative examples. Many of these groups and thinkers are financed and publicised by evangelical Christian universities such as Biola University, Denver Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Southern Evangelical Seminary, all of which also over masters degrees in apologetics. Needless to say, organised atheism lacks anything like this degree of institutional support.

This new brand of evangelical apologetics bears little resemblance to the uneducated, scientifically illiterate caricature that New Atheists frequently present of theists. On the contrary, many of these Christian thinkers utilise a wide range of cutting-edge discoveries and concepts from both philosophy and the sciences. In his Kalam Cosmological and Fine Tuning Arguments, for example, William Lane Craig synthesises old philosophical arguments with new scientific discoveries and ideas such as the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, Boltzmann branes, and quantum cosmology. Alvin Plantinga has constructed a sophisticated and much-discussed version of the Ontological argument using modal logic, and has also built upon recent work in reliabilist epistemology to develop a careful argument defending belief in God as properly basic. Richard Swinburne has used principles of inductive logic and bayesian inference to argue for the Resurrection of Jesus. Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins has argued on the basis of modern findings in biology and neuroscience for the compatibility of Christianity with evolutionary biology.

New Atheism’s Intellectual Shortcomings

What do the New Atheists have to say in response to this rising tide of increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced evangelical apologetics? With a few exceptions, such as the excellent writings of Dawkins and PZ Meyers against creationism, and the work of Stenger critiquing the Fine Tuning argument, on the whole the answer seems to be relatively little. One searches in vain through the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others for detailed, careful examination of the apologetic arguments raised by Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, and others. Indeed, as I noted above, generally New Atheist thinkers express considerable distain for philosophy of religion, and evince little or no interest in presenting carefully-crafted responses to apologetic arguments. A related severe shortcoming of the New Atheist movement is its predilection towards outmoded scientistic approaches to philosophy, harkening back (though generally without attribution) to the early-twentieth century Vienna School in holding that claims which are not scientifically or empirically verifiable or testable are meaningless and not even worth discussing.

The New Atheist movement is also particularly poor at advancing any positive arguments in favour of atheism as a worldview. A common approach is to mock religion for its many absurdities, denounce its many negative social and political consequences, and then make various self-aggrandising statements to the effect that modern scientific discoveries in biology, physics, neuroscience, etc, have made theism obsolete and indefensible. The multifarious epistemological, ontological, ethical, and other assumptions which underpin such beliefs are rarely addressed, and almost never with reference to contemporary literature on the subject.

There are a number of atheist philosophers who have produced sophisticated, thoughtful responses to Christian apologetic arguments, including Kai Neilsen, Theodore Drange, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Michael Ruse. Such thinkers, however, have substantially lower profiles than either their New Atheist or Christian apologist counterparts, and also typically have not been much associated with the New Atheism movement. Indeed, Michael Ruse has been highly critical of New Atheism, describing it as ‘a bloody disaster’. Similar views have been echoed by other philosophers, for example in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, it is remarked that ‘New Atheists are largely seen as bush-league by professional philosophers of religion’.

My assessment of New Atheism as a movement, therefore, is that it represents a shift in atheist thinking away from the philosopher and towards the scientist, and consequently has led to a relative decline in the intellectual standing of atheism as a worldview. Indeed, whilst New Atheism has been successful in raising the profile of non-belief and in drawing greater attention to the harm and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion (both noble pursuits to be sure), I believe it has failed in its endeavour to provide a rigorous, carefully constructed, philosophically defensible account of the world around us and our place within it.

Why it Matters

Why should we, as rationalists and critical-thinkers, care about these developments? I think there are several reasons. First, as freethinkers we have an obligation to the pursuit of truth through examination of the best available evidence, careful argumentation, and critical analysis of reasons given for different beliefs. It reflects very poorly upon our position if we continue to repeat the slogan ‘there is no evidence for the existence of God’, whilst turning a blind eye to the many rigorous, carefully-development arguments that have been and continue to be advanced by Christian apologists and theistic philosophers.

Second, inquiring minds who seek out the best evidence and arguments increasingly are encountering the writings of Christian apologists and philosophers, and then searching in vain for persuasive responses in the New Atheist literature. This leads some, I suspect non-trivial, number of people to either adopt or maintain strong evangelical convictions. This is of concern to me because it represents, particularly in the case of young thinkers, a diversion of talent and intellect away from potentially more productive endeavours such as science or humanist causes, towards Christian apologetics programs, theology, or Christian ministry. To me it is a tragedy that even a single person would devote their life in pursuit of a false set of beliefs, let alone that this may happen in part as a result of the failure of New Atheists to provide clear and robust refutations of apologetics material. A corollary of this is that atheists themselves might also be concerned about holding false beliefs, particularly if they cannot provide adequate responses to apologetic arguments.

Third, the prestige and influence of any intellectual movement is, in the long run, substantially affected by its ability to add to the store of human knowledge, and to produce new and insightful ways of understanding the world. For the most part the New Atheists, (in disturbing contrast to the new apologists), have failed to do this, and I believe it is partly as a result of this failure that their influence in intellectual circles is waning, and will continue to wane unless the movement substantially lifts its intellectual game.

All of my criticisms of New Atheism would not be so much of a concern if this represented but one among many competing brands of atheistic belief, since if New Atheism proved not up to the challenge of providing rigorous philosophical responses to the new apologetics, other approaches to atheism could fill its place and step up to the intellectual mantle. Unfortunately, given the relatively small monetary and organisational resources of atheist, freethought, and humanist groups (certainly in comparison to the many incredibly well financed Christian churches and universities), it seems that there is not really room for more than one significant ‘brand’ of atheism. New Atheism seems to have ‘crowded out’ other approaches to atheism, at least in the popular consciousness and discourse. Consequently if New Atheism fails to present a philosophically rigorous and persuasive response to the new apologists, this will be taken to represent a failure of atheism or freethought as a whole to provide such a response. To avert this deeply concerning outcome, we as rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists, must learn to better combine the New Atheist passion not to be silenced with the Old Atheist respect for careful philosophical argumentation. Anything less represents, in my view, an abdication of our intellectual and social responsibilities.

Sources

Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” Philosophy Now (2013).

Dougherty, Trent, and Logal Paul Gage. “New Atheist Approaches to Religion.” In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, edited by Graham Oppy, 2015.

Ruse, Michael. “Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster.” Science and the Sacred (2009).

Taylor, James E. “The New Atheists.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015).

The Concept of ‘Freedom of Speech’

Introduction

What is freedom of speech? Most people agree that free speech is something we should uphold, but there is widespread and apparently increasing disagreement about the meaning and applicability of the concept. In this article I will not seek to provide a definitive answer to this complex question. Instead, I shall confine myself to an analysis of some of the key issues that are relevant to the debate, with a particular focus on highlighting certain concepts and distinctions, a proper understanding of which I think would greatly further the public discussion about this important topic.

‘Unlimited’ free speech

Let us first consider the phrase ‘freedom of speech’. There are two important terms here that require discussion: ‘freedom’ and ‘speech’. In this context ‘speech’ is typically understood in quite a broad sense, incorporating a wide range of methods for conveying a message. Speech is therefore not limited merely to verbal communication but includes distributing written texts, displaying photographs, producing motion pictures, and even symbolic acts such as flag burning or holding a political rally. Regarding ‘freedom’, in political philosophy a distinction is sometimes drawn between the freedom to achieve some end or undertake some action (‘freedom to’), and the freedom from being restricted or interfered with in some way (‘freedom from’). While in some cases it can be unclear as to which type of freedom is meant, or even how exactly to distinguish between the two, in the case of freedom of speech it seems fairly clear that what is meant is ‘freedom from’ and not ‘freedom to’. Nobody thinks that by ‘freedom of speech’ what is meant is that we should have the right or ability to achieve whatever goals we might have for our speech, or that others must listen to or agree with our speech. There is no positive right for our speech to do anything or have any particular effect, so long as we are able to propagate our message in a manner such that people at least have the opportunity to hear it. Thus it seems clear that the usage of ‘freedom’ in the concept ‘freedom of speech’ should be understood primarily in the negative sense, of the freedom from being interfered with or restricted.

If to have freedom of speech is to be able to speak without some kind of restriction or interference, then what sort of restriction or interference would constitute a violation of this freedom? Some people hold the view that any restriction or limitation on speech of any form constitutes a violation of freedom of speech; however this absolute or ‘unlimited’ form of free speech is simply incoherent. Asking people to speak only one at a time in a group discussion, and requiring those who violate this rule by interrupting or speaking over others to either cease talking or leave, does not in any meaningful sense constitute a restriction of ‘freedom of speech’, since allowing the interruption to continue would be to restrict the speech of the original speaker. Unless we wish to say that the ultimate incarnation of free speech is everybody yelling at once and nobody able to listen, we must accept that at a minimum certain limitations and restrictions of speech are necessary in order to ensure that talks, discussions, and other forms of communication can occur in an orderly and intelligible manner. Ejecting hecklers who are actively disrupting a talk or discussion, therefore, does not constitute suppression of free speech.

Harm and hate speech

When considering what sort of restriction would genuinely constitute a limitation to the exercise of free speech, we are faced with two main questions: what type of restrictions do we think are legitimate or appropriate, and what sorts of speech should they be applied to? To consider the second question first, John Stuart Mill famously defended the harm principle, according to which the only justifiable reason for restricting freedom of speech is in order to prevent harm to others. In this context, harm is usually understood to mean relatively direct harm, resulting in damage to person or property, or the clear violation of somebody’s rights. Thus, incitements to violence, threats, blackmail, libel, fraud, revealing state secrets, and blatantly false advertising would typically be regarded as examples where speech does clear and direct harm, and thus can justifiably be restricted under the harm principle. There is, of course, disagreement as exactly how to understand the notion of ‘harm’, and how broadly or narrowly it should be construed. Certainly not any type of harm is sufficient – for instance, if my (non-libellous) speech causes a business to lose sales or a political candidate to lose votes, this does not constitute a reason for restricting my speech because the harm is not the result of any damage to life or property or infringement of rights. The harm is not a direct consequence of my speech, but rather a by-product of other people’s reasonable and quite legal responses to the information or arguments I have provided them. Though the business or political may be worse off, they have not been ‘harmed’ in the sense meant by Mills, and thus there is no case for restricting my speech.

Some have argued that the ‘no harm’ principle does not go far enough in identifying the range of cases in which restriction of freedom of speech is justified. Hate speech is a particularly controversial example of a type of speech which many think should be restricted even if it does not cause harm in the narrow sense envisioned by Mill and his supporters. Traditionally, defenders of free speech have argued that whether or not speech is offensive or even intimidating is highly subjective and indirect, and thus is not a sufficiently clear or direct form of harm to justify restricting free speech. On the other hand, supporters of restricting hate speech typically contend that vilification or demonization of particular groups of people is contradictory to the fundamental principles of a free, democratic society, under which the basic equality of all persons is a fundamental precept. As such, hate speech has no place in such societies and no legitimate basis for legal protection. Defenders of this view also argue that the marginalisation produced by hate speech can have profound social and psychological effects on those it targets, which while perhaps not being as direct or tangible as Mill would have liked, nevertheless constitute very real and important forms of harm which should be included when determining what sorts of speech to restrict. An example often cited is the obviously chilling effect and implied threats entailed by a planned Neo-Nazi march through the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Skokie in 1977. Speech that discriminates and denigrates, particularly with respect to minority groups, is thus not considered to be the sort of speech which warrants any particular protection. A significant dispute concerning the extent of free speech concerns how much importance should be given to what may be called ‘psychological harm’, or forms of harm that are not tangible but may nevertheless be real in their negative effects.

In my view, one of the biggest problems with the dispute concerning the status of hate speech is that the concept is poorly defined. Very rarely will anyone directly characterise their own position or speech (mere graffiti aside) as directing hatred towards others, and so using explicit appeals to hatred will not be particularly useful. What to one person is hate speech directed against a vulnerable minority, is to another person simply an expression of some viewpoint that other people find offensive or upsetting. As such, ‘hate speech’ cannot usually be identified simply by the use of blatant statements of animosity, but requires detailed analysis of the content of the speech in question. Such analysis, however, seems to be impossible to perform in any objective way, and effectively seems to amount to making judgements as to how disagreeable or offensive the given speech was. Use of the label ‘hate speech’ also fails to adequately consider other factors pertinent to the question of whether particular speech is acceptable or not, including the context in which it occurs, how easy it is to avoid the objectionable speech, and the social value of the speech. An academic book making claims that some regard as hate speech, for example, is (at least potentially) more socially valuable and certainly easier to avoid in comparison to public posters displaying racial slurs. While both of these instances of speech may arguably count as hate speech, it is not clear that the same restrictions would be appropriate in each case, and thus the use of the single label potentially obfuscates more than it clarifies. Furthermore, many arguments in favour of restricting hate speech implicitly appeal to various strengthened forms of the harm principle, for example by considering psychological as well as physical harm. As such it may be more helpful to simply phrase the debate in terms of what sorts of harms are considered to be sufficient to warrant restriction of free speech, and contrast such harms with factors such as how easy the speech is to avoid and how plausible the speech is to have some form of social benefit, thereby side-stepping the thorny issue of whether given speech is hateful. This would potentially help to clarify genuine points of disagreement and avoid confusion over ill-defined terms like ‘hate speech’.

Censorship vs no-platforming

Another point of dispute concerning the freedom of speech relates to what forms of restrictions are appropriate and who should implement these restrictions. In recent years many universities and other public venues have been criticised for engaging in ‘no-platforming’ policies whereby particular people are banned or disinvited from delivering talks or participating in conferences, on the basis of remarks they have made which are deemed to be unacceptable or inappropriate. Some observers have condemned this practise as a violation of freedom of speech, while others defend the practise on the basis that freedom of speech is only concerned with government restrictions on speech. On the one hand, there is a clear difference between exercising of government censorship to prevent people from engaging in certain types of speech, and a private entity such as a company or university refusing to host someone espousing a particular point of view. Newspapers, publishers, venues, and websites all have the right to utilise their property and influence as they wish, and it is unreasonable to require them to host points of view which they do not wish to provide a voice to or find morally objectionable. On the other hand, as Mill pointed out, the influence of social pressure and disapprobrium can sometimes be a very powerful means of shutting down legitimate discussion and suppressing or marginalising minority points of view. Furthermore, an abstract right to freedom of speech does little good if one cannot find a venue to speak or printer to publish one’s ideas. If we think that freedom of speech is in general something that is valuable, therefore, it seems reasonable that we would regard both private and government restrictions on such freedom as at least potentially worthy of concern. It does not follow, of course, that we should have the same standards or criteria for determining the circumstances in which it is appropriate for each party to infringe on such freedoms. We may, for instance, think it inappropriate for a university to refuse to host a speaker merely because they disagree with the stance of that speaker and find his views objectionable. However, if that same speaker has engaged in discriminatory and demeaning speech directed at certain minority groups, we may think it justified for the same university to refuse them a platform, even if we do not regard the harm done by this speech as sufficient or direct enough to warrant government restriction of that speech.

A final point to be raised is that merely because some type of speech should not be restricted by the government does not entail that such speech should be free from all negative consequences. In particular, one may regard certain forms of speech as highly offensive, immoral, incorrect, or otherwise inappropriate, and may thus denounce them in the strongest possible manner, without advocating that such speech should be made illegal. The key distinction here is between believing that people should legally be allowed to say something, and believing that they should say that thing. One may believe that someone should have the right to say something, even if one does not think it is right for them to say that thing. This distinction tends to be missed in at least two distinct ways. One the one side, some people conflate allowing certain speech with endorsing the content of that speech, which is fallacious since merely refraining from making something legally punishable is not equivalent to endorsing that activity. On the other side, some people seem to think that any strong criticism of particular speech, or any injunction that some things should not be said, is equivalent to advocating elimination of freedom of speech. This is also fallacious, since believing that something should not be illegal does not mean that one cannot simultaneously denounce that thing as wrong and attempt to persuade people not to do it. We widely recognise, for example, that lying is generally wrong even though (outside of certain contexts) it is not illegal to do so, nor would many people think it should in general be made illegal. This distinction between debates about what should be legal or illegal on the one hand, and debates about what is right or wrong on the other, must be properly understood if we are to make progress in debates surrounding freedom of speech.

Conclusion

Overall, it seems to me that the debate about freedom of speech will be assisted by greater clarity of core concepts and issues under dispute, such as the difference between morality and legality, and also by a greater willingness to recognise the importance of nuance and considering the various circumstances surrounding a particular act of speech. Dogmatic assertion of the absolute right of free speech on the one side, and unclarified use of vague terms such as ‘hate speech’ on the other side, can both be unhelpful in achieving a workable compromise regarding what types of speech should be restricted under which situations using which particular methods.

References

Victoria Bekiempis, “Why the ACLU is right to represent the Ku Klux Klan”, The Guardian (2012), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/29/aclu-right-represent-ku-klux-klan

Sean Faye, “If you don’t like no-platforming, maybe it’s you who’s the ‘special snowflake’”, Independent (2016), http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/if-you-dont-like-no-platforming-maybe-its-you-whos-the-special-snowflake-a6884026.html

David van Mill, “Freedom of Speech”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/freedom-speech/

Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.