Who cares about philosophy, anyway? You must, because you have one.
If you’re like most secular humanists, your philosophy owes much to naturalism. Naturalism in ph ilosophy entails the rejection of the supernatural and is rooted in the domain of matter, energy, and their interactions. In Free Inquiry’s pages, Richard Carrier once audaciously suggested that naturalism reduces to the dictum that “everything mental is fundamentally nonmental.”1 Naturalism is the view that the world of everyday physical experience (essentially, nature) is in some important sense all that there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method. Naturalism asserts that supernatural entities such as God do not exist and warns that knowledge gained without appeal to the natural world and without impartial review by multiple observers is unreliable. It presumes that reality is objective—that truthful propositions about the universe are true for all inquirers and are true regardless of whether any of us want them to be true or not. That’s why when one of us (Flynn) wrote what became the Council for Secular Humanism’s official definition of secular humanism, it was described as “a comprehensive nonreligious life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system”.2(emphasis added).
We assert, then, that philosophical naturalism is a key concern for secular humanists, even for those who may not knowingly articulate a specific philosophical position. It is foundational in our quest as secular humanists to discover this-worldly answers to the greatest question of all: How ought we to live?
Free Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry have long histories with naturalism. Since its founding, Free Inquiry magazine has planted one foot in academic philosophy and the other in the world of everyday affairs. In large part, this reflects the stamp of our founder, Paul Kurtz, the most prominent secular-humanist philosopher of the midto late-twentieth century. In 1998, Kurtz called for a heightened defense of naturalism, exhorting “scientists and skeptics” to “defend naturalism, not only as a method of inquiry, but as a scientific account of the cosmos and our place within it, and the basis for a new humanistic ethics appropriate to the world community.” For Kurtz, to embrace naturalism “and to accept it with courage could be the harbinger of a new, creative, moral future for humankind.”3. In a 2007 editorial, Kurtz set out to refine his definition of secular humanism. “Three terms to describe our position come readily to mind,” he wrote: “First, we are scientific naturalists. . . . ” In the context of this feature, what the other two terms were matters little; what matters is that without hesitation, Kurtz gave naturalism first place. And lest any reader be unsure what he meant by the word, he added: “The perspective of scientific naturalism is nature first and foremost, not the unknown transcendental realm of the theist.”4
Kurtz was not alone in emphasizing the deep connection between philosophical naturalism and the life stance we share. In a 1984 Free Inquiry article, philosopher Thomas S. Vernon described humanists as “people who place themselves in the naturalistic tradition of human thought.” He continued, “If you believe that the slow and painstaking procedures known collectively as the scientific method provide the best route to an understanding of our world, then you are to that extent a naturalist and have taken at least a significant step in the direction of humanism.”5. In a 1987 letter to the editor, longtime movement stalwart Corliss Lamont (author of that evergreen text The Philosophy of Humanism) simply conflated humanism with naturalism: “Naturalistic humanism is a life-affirming philosophy with the supreme commitment to the welfare and happiness of all humanity, with no belief in supernatural entities and with reliance on the methods of reason and science, democracy and compassion.”.6
The commitment to naturalism wasn’t expressed solely in Free Inquiry. In September 2007, the Center for Inquiry held an important scholarly conference at its Amherst, New York, headquarters. Its topic: “The Future of Naturalism.” It was one of a series of high-profile academic conferences held at CFI during the first decade of the new millennium. Organized by CFI’s then-education director, John Shook, it brought together two dozen prominent naturalistic philosophers including John Anton, Arthur Caplan, James Gouinlock, Brian Leiter, Nicholas Lescher, Joseph Margolis, Ernesto Sosa, and others to discuss the prospects for the naturalistic outlook. At the top of the program distributed to conference attendees appeared a boldfaced statement: “Naturalism is essential for the secular humanist worldview.” The proceedings of this event were gathered into a book edited by Paul Kurtz and John Shook, also titled The Future of Naturalism (Humanity Books, 2009).
Driving home the point that naturalism can inform areas of human life beyond the purely cognitive, one of us (Walker) offered in various fora a concept called “narrative naturalism,” centering on the ways in which a naturalistic perspective could contribute deeply to human beings’ search for meaning in the narrative of their lives.7 Again, this amplifies the point that naturalism, properly understood, has implications that reach far beyond our view of the importance of science.
If secular humanism holds philosophical naturalism in high regard, the same is not true elsewhere in contemporary culture, where naturalism is often denigrated. This is as true in the abstruse realms of academic philosophy as it is in ordinary discourse. Naturalism faces continuing resistance by, for lack of a better term, believers. Whether they believe in an orthodox religion or some fuzzier “spirituality,” and whether they are professional philosophers or laypeople, believers . . . in something . . . push back against naturalism in an aggressive effort to preserve a conceptual space for the otherworldly in consensus worldviews.
But to imagine that all of this resistance is spontaneous would be naive. Over some thirty years, the deep-pocketed John Templeton Foundation has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting and shaping the resistance to naturalism, sometimes ham-fistedly, sometimes with disquieting subtlety8. The Foundation bestows the annual Templeton Prize, which “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”9 Its cash prize is adjusted each year to slightly exceed that of the Nobel Prize. The 2017 Templeton Prize went to Notre Dame analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga, whose tortuous arguments for the existence of God and outspoken advocacy for believing philosophers to let their faith inflect their work have had a powerful—and from a secularist perspective, largely negative—effect on the field.
Templeton has been an active grantmaker in the hard sciences for many years; there is an ongoing dialogue over whether scientists of a naturalist bent can accept Templeton funding without compromising their integrity. Famed biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Illusion, now a member of the Center for Inquiry’s board of directors, openly spurns Templeton support, charging that “decent scientists are, in effect, bribed to betray their principles and lend the prestige of their name to promoting superstitious nonsense which, but for the money, they wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.”10 Richard Dawkins, personal correspondence, March 15, 2017. Less well known is Templeton’s dogged grantmaking in disciplines outside the hard sciences. The “Templeton effect” has shifted the balance between naturalism and supernaturalism in the humanities just as it has in the sciences. In academic philosophy, where high-dollar grants were previously almost unknown, Templeton’s largesse has profoundly altered the funding landscape. Much of it fuels projects that—you guessed it—explore and promote alternatives to naturalism. ‘To name one example, Templeton grantmaking helped to fund publication of The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism, touted as a basic academic text. Edited by Kelly James Clark, a theist, the book purported to offer an objective analysis of naturalism in all its forms but actually took an erosive approach toward the most rigorous forms of philosophical naturalism. FI columnist Russell Blackford offered a devastating review of this work in a recent issue.’11
We’ll train a critical light on Templeton’s activities in our next issue. For now, suffice it to say that when it comes to naturalism, a cluster of related culture wars is ongoing. And naturalism’s opponents—especially those attuned toward an “awe-and-transcendence” sort of spirituality—are gaining ground.
With all this in mind, Free Inquiry conceived this special feature section under its honorary chair, philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett. The editors solicited essays and opinion from a wide range of distinguished writers and thinkers. To judge by the number who accepted our invitations, something about this subject strikes a nerve, underscoring philosophical naturalism’s crucial importance to the secular humanist project.
In this issue, the first segment of “The Fight for Our Philosophy” takes something of a think-tank approach, focusing especially on naturalism’s implications for education and public policy. Our opening essay is by Dennett. In “Philosophy as the Las Vegas of Rational Inquiry,” he raises some of the core issues that this feature explores. We who take naturalism as our philosophy must recognize that nonnaturalists and antinaturalists will always be with us in the rather woolly arena of academic, scientific, and moral debate. (Not for nothing does he call it “Vegas.”) Our opponents may be “phoolish” (a delightful coinage by Dennett and his colleague Stevan Harnad), but they have every right to be in Vegas. Still, it’s for the best that much of what they do there should stay there. We naturalists can help to ensure that by maintaining what Dennett calls “sterner, more demanding rules of presentation.” That is to say, it should be obvious to outside observers that we naturalists are behaving ourselves, pursuing our inquiries in responsible and relevant ways. Dennett speaks of minding “the environmental impact of our musings”—something our more frivolous intellectual opponents don’t always attend to. Dennett also stresses the value of interdisciplinary work, an area our contributors will address more explicitly in Part 2 of this feature. Our overall aim should be to “broadcast the sound conclusions of philosophical analysis”—not without a sense of play, but never in phoolishness.
Russell Blackford’s “The Future of Philosophical Naturalism” offers a template for explaining what the “robust form” of naturalism we advocate consists of, especially with respect to the general distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism (even though that will always be the object of phoolish quibbles). For Blackford, in any such contest naturalism is the clear winner. Has any supernaturalist system ever matched the predictive capacity of science? Though naturalism can in this regard “run on its record,” we must nonetheless couch our views in language not remote from “the existential homes of ordinary people.” Finally, Blackford discusses the moral dimensions of naturalism in ways that help to flesh out the “How shall we live?” and “What shall we do?” dimensions of naturalism as the basis of a humane and humanistic life-stance.
In “Naturalism and the Fundamental Question,” Stephen Maitzen tackles a famous question that antinaturalists fondly imagine can unhorse the unwary naturalist: “Why is there anything, rather than nothing at all?” Maitzen offers a refreshing, naturalistic take on the subject, in the process reinforcing naturalism—in preference to supernaturalism—by example. To those uncomfortable with the prospect of an infinite regress of reasons, Maitzen asks, why should explanations come to an end—and most especially, why should they end with God?
Philosopher and intelligent-design critic Barbara Forrest offers “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection,” a close examination of two forms of naturalism whose difference takes on outsized importance in controversies such as those surrounding the teaching of evolution through natural selection in public schools. Forrest stresses that methodological and philosophical naturalism naturally go together and that methodological naturalism does not compel us to cede any conceptual territory to supernaturalists.
In “Goldilocks Naturalism,” philosophers Scott Aikin, Thomas Dabay, and Robert Talisse present a view of naturalism as the philosophical position that is “just right.” Their guidance helps us to dissolve the phoolishness of pseudo-problems. It offers optimal guidance in how we do philosophy against our opponents, using naturalism all the way down.
What is at stake in our war against the advancing encroachment of philosophical supernaturalism? More than ever, we need to understand where we stand. We face genuine threats to a philosophical current that frames so much of secular humanism. In Part 2, our discussion will turn to more critical—and more contentious—aspects of the fight for our philosophy. We have argued that there is a war going on. Is philosophy, as a field, still important and useful? Can it reach out to the sciences and other disciplines effectively without losing its distinction as a discipline, fending off charges of arcane academic irrelevance and narrow-minded “scientism” in the continuing two-cultures war between the humanities and the sciences?
It seems clear where the wrong answers to these questions might lead: down a slippery slope toward conceding, without cause, that there is something genuine about religion, theology, and “religious” experiences—that there is an authentic human need for a spiritual domain, with the assumption of its higher reality.
We present this two-part special feature in the hope that it will motivate our readers to identify themselves as philosophical naturalists—and, when necessary, to take the barricades in defense of a completely secular philosophical life-stance that is in very real ways fighting to survive.
- Richard Carrier, “On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview,” Free Inquiry, April/May 2010.
- Tom Flynn, “A Secular Humanist De nition: Setting the Record Straight,” FI, Fall 2002, p. 42; republished in adapted form as the Council for Secular Humanism brochur
e Secular Humanism Defined, most recently reprinted 2009.
- Paul Kurtz, “Darwin Recrucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?,” FI, Spring 1998.
- Paul Kurtz, “Yes to Naturalism, Secularism, and Humanism,” FI, April/May 2007.
- Thomas S. Vernon, “Humanism Is a Philosophy,” FI, Winter 1984/ 1985.
- Corliss Lamont, “A Positive De nition of Humanism,” Letters, FI, Fall 1987.
- “Narrative Naturalism” began its development as a multipart course tit led Naturalism through Narrative: Knowledge, Ethics, and Identity in the Creation of Meaning, which Judy Walker taught at the CFI Institute Summer Session in August 2008. Walker further developed ideas from the 2008 course into a paper that she first delivered at the CFI conference “Dewey’s Impact on America and the World” held in Amherst, New York, October 22–24, 2009. The paper was reprinted in the proceedings book of the conference, Paul Kurtz, ed., Dewey’s Enduring Impact: Essays on America’s Philosopher (Prometheus Books, 2011). The paper was adapted into an article, titled “Narrative Naturalism,” which appeared in the April/May 2010 issue of Free Inquiry magazine and was later reprinted in the best-of-Free Inquiry anthology Secular Humanism and Its Commitments (Inquiry Press, 2012). The most evolved version of this presentation is available online at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/docs/ NarrativeNaturalism.pdf.
- See Mark Friesel, “The Templeton Prize: A Danger to Science?” Free Inquiry, Summer 2001; Alexander Saxton, “Sir John Templeton’s Foundation,” FI, June/July 2007.
- http://www.templetonprize.org/abouttheprize.html. Accessed April 27, 2017.
- Richard Dawkins, personal correspondence, March 15, 2017.
- Russell Blackford, “Natural and Supernatural (Whatever They Are!) ” (review of The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism, FI, August/September 2016).