Monday, August 11, 2008

The Loss of Secularism in Naturalism, Part 1

Between the blocks of time I use writing this blog, answering questions on Yahoo Answers (under an assumed moniker,) and attending to the more mundane aspects of living such as feeding the wild animals right outside our back window, mowing the grass, preparing dinner for my partner and myself, attending AA meetings or watching 24 hour new networks or my favorite dramas, I read.

It has come to my attention that naturalism is a bigger deal in the world of academics than I could have imagined. I am not in formal academics; I have no "classroom" but this one and Yahoo Answers. Now I discover, through an article written by a local, esteemed philisopher that naturalism as a secular activity in academia was once the norm, whereas now it is being pushed out by the arguments of philosophical theists who argue that existence cannot be self-sufficient and the given.

Dr. Quentin Smith writes that naturalist philosophers desire to search for knowledge for its own sake, going so far as to claim they want the truth "whatever the truth happens to be (e.g., be it naturalism or theism)." "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism",

But, Smith writes, because academics in the second half of the 20th century had, for the most part, become secularized, that all of academia, aside from a few exceptions, was in the search for objective truth whether it turned out to be naturalism or theism.

"[D]epartments of theology or religion aimed to understand the meaning and origins of religious writings, not to develop arguments against naturalism."

As many of my readers are also users of Yahoo Answers, let me state that one of the big debates has been why the atheists assume such a large role in the Religion and Spirituality forum, and why the so-called philosophy students in the Philosophy forum often argued so vigorously for theist answers. The atheists in the R&S forum often made the claim, as did I, that even atheists have souls, that we have "spirituality," and that when not prodding the theists to make them angry, the goal was simply to set the record right, to state that theists didn't have all the answers, that religions were "set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit," as the American patriot Thomas Paine stated so boldly in his book, "The Age of Reason." (1794)

While all this and more may be true, it seems there is more going on being the curtains of academia that lead to the face off between the theists and the seculars. What this is, writes Smith, is apparently not even known explicitly by some of the academic seculars.

"Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism [ ] began to sweep through the philosophical community...", in effect, developing the very arguments for creationism that will lead to the death of naturalism if we naturalists don't wake up and begin taking back the epistemic high road.

Realist theists may be identified in this context as anyone who proposes a rational theory of creationism or intelligent design. Rational theism, according to Phillip E Johnson in his book, "Reason in the Balance," is true knowledge (!), starting with the belief of God as the Creator. "Theistic realism relies on a God that is real, personal, and acting in the world through mechanistic creationism."

To demonstrate how low the realist theists believe naturalism has gone, and perhaps not without some validity if we are indeed losing ground to their arguments, a site called "the evangelical outpost" (sic) finds plenty to laugh at concerning their opposition.

"Christian thinkers ranging from the profound to the banal have argued that philosophical naturalism is internally inconsistent and contradictory," it posts, calling naturalism a "naked emperor." "But we Christian critics now have a handful of unwitting allies in our cause. A small group of atheist philosophers, including Daniel Dennett and Brian Leiter, have instituted a new organization that will prove to be our best ally in the effort to expose the self-refuting philosophy: [ ] The website provides such a parody of naturalistic ideas that it couldn't be anything other than an elaborate prank."

Yet I assure you it is no "elaborate prank." The esteemed list of contributors to the site, called The Center for Naturalism would convince anyone of that. (They are listed on the home page.)

"Naturalism is the understanding that there is a single, natural world as shown by science, and that we are completely included in it," states the Center. That much is probably as easy to accept for the theists as for any atheist. But the next words are hardly the words of science, but of a type of humanism that seems more like the victim falling on his sword rather than as a leader in scientific thinking.

"Naturalism holds that everything we are and do is connected to the rest of the world," says the Center, without any scientific description of that "connection." It could just as easily refer to the butterfly effect. "Each of us is an unfolding natural process [ ] and seeing just how we are caused gives us power and control, while encouraging compassion and humility."

Is this an apologetic for what naturalism in science is supposed to be?

I was never under the impression that this was the nature of naturalism. My understanding of it is that it is the scientific view that existence is self-sufficient, the given, describable in axiomatic concepts and defendable as the default position versus some theory of ex nihilo where "nothingness" was at one time the condition of existence. My understanding of naturalism has nothing to do with social policies "encouraging compassion and humanity." While those may be outstanding values to encourage in the proper conditions, it strays far from a black-and-white, concretized description of naturalism as an epistemological position derived from logic.

Everytime some young student in Yahoo asks where the world or the universe came from, whether challenging the naturalists or seeking a sincere answer, the question automatically takes the default position that "nothingness" was once the conditon of the universe.

There are contradictions inherent in this default position, and for the rest of the week it will be the task of this blog to uncover those contradictions. In the mean time, until tomorrow, let me paste the definition of Naturalism from the Dictionary of Philosophy. This definition was written by B.A.G. Fuller, a Harvard professor whose clarity of grammar and syntax rivals that of Thomas Jefferson, and is just as often as difficult to digest on the first reading.

"Naturalism, challenging the cogency of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments, holds that the universe requires no supernatural cause and government, but is self-existent, self-explanatory, self-operating, and self-directing, that the world-process is not teleological and anthropocentric, but purposeless, deterministic (except for possible tychistic events), and only incidentally productive of man; that human life, physical, mental, moral and spiritual, is an ordinary natural event attributable in all respects to the ordinary operations of nature; and that man's ethical values, compulsions, activities, and restraints can be justified on natural grounds, without recourse to supernatural sanctions, and his highest good pursued and attained under natural conditions, without expectation of a supernatural destiny."

This has always been my working definition of naturalism, and I see nothing in it that refers even implicitly to an apologetic for its nature, and certainly nothing even remotely close to being social policy for compassion and humanity.

"And how," asks Quentin Smith, "have naturalist philosophers reacted to what some committed naturalists might consider as 'the embarrassment' of belonging to the only academic field that has allowed itself to lose the secularization it once had? Some naturalists wish to leave the field..."

That does not surprise me. What surprises me is that naturalism has lost the secularization it once had.

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This publication © 2008 by Curtis Edward Clark and Naturalist Academy Publishing ®
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