Taking Stock

It is good to know that Paul Kurtz (“Surviving Bypass and Enjoying the Exuberant Life,” FI, Spring 1997) will be continuing the work of trying to wake up people to the values of humanism. During my recovery period I, too, did a lot of thinking about life, and I concluded that as a humanist I was on the right track. I realized how important it is for those of us who have had a good life to give of ourselves to try to bring a better life to those less fortunate. My way of doing this has been to work with Special Olympics at least two days a week, our local Conflict Resolution Center (we medi-ate all sorts of conflicts in the community in order to have a better place for people to live), and the local chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute. I make it very well known in connection with these activities that I am a secular humanist so people will see that it is not necessary to believe in a Supreme Being to lead a “good” life.

Irwin Ottenberg
Soquel, Calif.

Congratulations to my good friend Paul Kurtz on his recovery from open-heart surgery! I had the same procedure following a coronary episode at the 1992 International Humanist and Ethical Union Conference in Amster-dam. (Maybe there is something stressful about humanist conferences?)

Like Paul, I am a type-A personality. And like Paul, who is my senior by five years to the day, I have no intention of retiring from the good fight, working to make our society more humanistic and friendly to humanist values.

Edd Doerr, President American Humanist
Association Amherst, N.Y.

Children as Victims and Victimizers

Re: Hans Sebald’s article (“Witch-Children—Then and Now,” FI, Spring 1997): The Three Amiraults of Fells Acre Day Care, a few miles from Salem, have been in jail a dozen years without parole because they claim their innocence. The two women recently won the right to an appeal but the Supreme Judicial Court of our Commonwealth, by a 2-1 vote, concluded that, although they hadn’t been faced by their accusers, justice had been done.

I am ashamed that Massachusetts is the only state that continues to give credence to such guff (e.g., where is the “network of tunnels” by which the children were supposedly transported between buildings, and why were there no adults to support the claims of the children being tied to a publicly placed tree?).

Jonathan Macy
Boston, Mass.

Having worked in the mental health profession for several years, I am acutely aware of the sophistry surround-ing many cases of alleged pedophilia. Developmental psychologists have long since known that pre-adolescent children are frequently unable to think solely in the abstract. This means that such children neither comprehend the significance of a solemnized oath nor test notions of reality by theoretical means. This does not necessarily dispose them to telling lies. But it definitely will indispose them to understanding the truth in many instances. Hence, the uncorroborated testimony of children cannot be trusted on the witness stand, especially in emotionally charged cases of child molestation.

I do not suggest that we should remain insouciant in such cases. A society sporting humanist values certainly cannot tolerate the sexual exploitation of children—nor anyone else for that matter. But I do suggest that we are more likely to rid ourselves of this problem by cultivating rational attitudes toward sexuality than by instantly trusting the uncorroborated accusations of children.

John L. Indo
Bellaire, Tex.

Phillips Stevens, Jr., in “Children, Witches, Demons, and Cultural Relativism” (FI, Spring 1997) almost accuses Hans Sebald, author of Witch-Children: From Salem Witch-Hunts to Modern Courtrooms, of libel, yet the description he claims for an anthropologist’s job is more like a slander of that profession.

The pure descriptivist idea advocated by Stevens may be good from a scientific point of view, but certainly not from an ethical point of view. To say that “the vast majority of the world’s peoples today don’t judge `reality’ by Sebald’s standards,” even if gt*anted as true, does not mean that witches really ever did fly. If Stevens would look to himself to make judgements, he would come to the paradoxical realization that the world also does not hold to Stevens’s standards. While Stevens grants relative truth to the witch hunters, the witch hunters gave no such latitude to the accused witches. What accused was allowed to say “my reality doesn’t include witchcraft,” and escape with his or her life?

I do not know what to make of Stevens’s statement “the bases for their[mythomaniacal children’s] elaborations are facts that they were directly taught.” Elephants being slaughtered in classrooms are not facts, whether directly taught or not.

Stevens goes on to state the obvious reasons that children are believed: “because they are children, and apparently threatened, and because the defense and protection of children is instinctive in all animalian species.” So what else is new? The goal of the ethical and rational mind is to counteract instinct when instinct leads to harm. Who would defend eating a high-fat diet on the basis that we instinctively follow one?

If one holds atomic scientists to be morally accountable for the atomic bomb, then we must hold anthropologists to account for the dubious ethical uses to which their moral relativism are put. Then, even disregarding the moral imperatives on the scientists’ part, the general public and leaders in particular must certainly be held responsible for the ethical use of both atomic and anthropologic knowledge.

Charles Kluepfel
Bloomfield, N.J.

I would not have expected FREE INQUIRY to provide a forum for Philip Stevens’s anti-scientific relativism. By characterizing mythologies that differ from culture to culture as “reality” he seems to give them the same status as the hard facts of our existence. This would imply, for example, that, in considering the various aspects of the culture brought to them by the Conquistadors, the Aztecs would have found it just as easy to doubt the reality of horses, firearms, and smallpox as that of demons, angels, and the Trinity. Stevens similarly attaches no importance to the reliable, accurate, and precise prediction of hard facts when he dismisses science as just another cultural construct, thus giving it the same status as witchcraft. Blurring the distinction between private experiences within our minds and shared experiences in an objective, external universe may be a reality in his culture, but it is not in mine nor, I would hope, in that of most anthropologists.

John G. Fletcher
Livermore, Calif.

Phillips Stevens replies:

I ask these concerned writers to refer to my article again, prepared with the following brief sentiments, which I had obviously erroneously, assumed to be understood: of course I would not assert that another culture’s contrary concepts of “reality” nullify—or even have equal validity with—anything shown to be real by the principles of the scientific method. And, as I stated in the conclusion to my article, there certainly are culturally universal moral standards. As I assert to all students, you are not expected to accept another’s concept of reality; you don’t even have to like it. But you absolutely must understand it; and it may be very, very wrong, and even potentially harmful to the basic expectations of human dignity to which all humanists aspire, to judge and condemn others’ world-views from the tenets of our own.

The doctrine of cultural relativism is absolutely central to cultural anthropology, and it has been for many decades. And, of course, anthropologists think it ought to guide the judgment of any others whose interests take them into belief systems that differ from their own.

The Legacy of World War II

The last two words of Edmund Cohen’s article in the Spring 1997 issue of FREE INQUIRY (“National Character, Collective Guilt, and Original Sin—the Goldhagen Controversy”) were “how sad.” They were the only words in the entire article with which I found myself in agreement. How sad that the editors of FREE INQUIRY, a journal given to objective and fair-minded publication, could not find a single offsetting article supportive of Professor Goldhagen’s position. How sad that in its action FREE INQUIRY became, for all intents and purposes, an apologia for the brutal and excessive behavior of the German people during World War II.

Joseph A. Platow, Ph.d.
Fullerton, Calif.

Paul Kurtz replies:

There is absolutely no truth to Dr. Platow’s statement that FREE INQUIRY has become “an apologia for the brutal and excessive behavior of the German people during World War II.” Do you not mean Germany and its government? Surely you cannot indict all of the German people for what the Nazis did. We are bitterly opposed to the terrible evils of the Third Reich from 1933-45 and in no way do we or I condone it. The Holocaust was an infamous crime that we view with disgust.

Mario Bunge Replies to His Critics

Dennis J. Delprato and Noel W. Smith (Letters to the Editor, FI, Spring 1997) have attacked my piece “The Pope, Evolution, and the Soul” (FI, Winter 1996/97). Mr. Delprato accuses me of advancing the “anti-humanistic brain dogma,” whereas Professor Smith dismisses what he calls my “mentalism.” Both critics challenge the thesis that mental processes are neurophysiological processes. But neither even mentions neuropsychology (or psychobiology, biopsychology, or physiological psychology). This approach to the age-old mind-body problem rests on the psycho-neural identity thesis, and it is currently garnering one triumph after another. This can be seen by anyone willing to consult the general science journals Science and Nature, or any of such specialized journals as J. Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology, Physiological Psychology, or Psychobiology.

Both critics adopt psycho-neural dualism, Delprato explicitly, and Smith tacitly. Neither of them realizes that dualism is nothing but the secular translation of the religious dogma that the mental is immaterial and indestructible.

Taking Stock It is good to know that Paul Kurtz (“Surviving Bypass and Enjoying the Exuberant Life,” FI, Spring 1997) will be continuing the work of trying to wake up people to the values of humanism. During my recovery period I, too, did a lot of thinking about life, and I concluded that as a …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.