Judith Walker, Tom Flynn

In the preceding issue, Part 11 of this three-part symposium in print took a think-tank approach, emphasizing naturalism’s implications for education and public policy. In Part 2, we turn in a more critical direction. Variously, our contributors focus their criticism on philosophy itself; on a related discipline’s misapplication of the philosophical method; and, intriguingly, on two of the core concepts that underlie this very feature. In Part 3 (next issue), we will focus on specific applications of a humanistic philosophical naturalism (or a philosophically naturalistic humanism, as the case may be), followed by a sweeping declamation of the form an optimal relationship among science, philosophy, and secular humanism might take.

In our view, a robust and naturalistic philosophy can underwrite a fully satisfying, secular humanist alternative to worldviews based upon any form of theology, religion, or “religious” experience. It is because we consider philosophical naturalism so important as a bulwark2 of secular humanism that Free Inquiry is devoting parts of three successive issues to this special feature.
The contributions in Part 2 are as follows:

  • In “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” philosophers Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle suggest that the discipline once known as natural philosophy went lastingly astray when it settled into the academy late in the nineteenth century. With that move, they argue, the “queen of the sciences” devolved to be just one more restricted discipline among others.
  • In “Why Philosophy of Religion Must End,” Christian apologist-turned-atheist John Loftus examines the hybrid discipline of philosophy of religion. In his view, it no longer has a place in the academy, and surely not in any secular institution of higher learning.
  • “Naturalism in Philosophy: Can It Be Saved?” is excerpted from a position statement drafted by these editors and shared with a cross-section of philosophers and humanist/atheist opinion leaders early in the development of this feature. Since the next two contributions engage more or less directly with issues raised in that statement, we reproduce key portions of it here so that the essays by Susan Haack and Stephen Law can be read in context.
  • In “The Real Question: Can Philosophy Be Saved?,” the distinguished philosopher Susan Haack challenges several of the editors’ contentions. In particular, she doubts whether naturalism is under attack in academic philosophy and suggests, on the contrary, that the most urgent threat to philosophy lies in scientism, a side effect of a too-cozy naturalism.
  • In “Must Humanists Be Naturalists?,” British philosopher and frequent FI contributor Stephen Law argues that philosophical naturalism and a robust secular humanism neither have nor require a close and necessary relationship. In fact, Law suggests, they are best regarded independently.

It’s bad form to rebut one’s contributors before they have their say. Then again, it’s probably heavy-handed to bookend this feature with both an editor’s introduction and an editor’s summary/response. The middle road may lie in offering some general comments on issues that Haack, Law, and other critics have raised, then giving them the field to themselves.

The idea that philosophical naturalism and secular humanism are—and should be—closely related attracts three principal objections:

  1. Philosophy, as a field and as an important personal endeavor, is either moribund, irrelevant, or both.
  2. Our naturalistic philosophy is narrowly and negatively “scientistic.”
  3. Basing secular humanism on philosophical naturalism—at all—is for various reasons a tactical error.

The first objection derives from countless sources. Frodeman and Briggle touch on it, to be sure, but so do claims by thinkers ranging from Stephen Hawking to Lawrence M. Krauss that “philosophy is dead”—to say nothing of thoughtful challenges to philosophy’s relevance from across the ideological and religious spectra. The second objection is instantiated principally in Susan Haack’s critique and the third in that by Stephen Law.

With that scene-setting complete, we offer our response.

First, is it worth thinking about the importance of philosophy itself? Sure. We secular humanists deeply value critical thinking in our personal, professional, and public lives, just as we value truth and education over faith and ignorance. Philosophy, not theology, can provide an overarching structure for how we seculars construct and live by our world­views. But it’s fair to say that most of us don’t have the time, the inclination, or the need to worry too much about angels [sic] dancing on the heads of arcane, sub-sub-subdisciplinary pins. Philosophy matters, in part, because it provides the arena where specialist thinkers can ponder these matters—and later, speak about them clearly and forcefully to, among others, secular humanist audiences. Philosophy’s role in contemporary culture may be complex and sometimes internally conflicted, but, as Russell Blackford noted in Part 1 of this feature, at its best it has much to say that is supremely relevant to the enterprise of building secular and humanistic worldviews and to leading secular lives.

Second, is our naturalistic philosophy self-defeatingly scientistic? With due respect to 3, we think not. In our humanist view, the best philosophy is unapologetically linked to the sciences, in the sense that we advocate for the best of what has been thought and said in the empirical disciplines. That doesn’t mean that we spurn the humanities or that the arts aren’t important to us—for proof, simply review Paul Kurtz’s historic Affirmations of Humanism, on the inside front cover of this issue. We at the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry have always supported other forms of intellectual expression, so long as they don’t contradict well-established scientific thought and contain no supernatural elements. Yes, at base we think that there’s nothing “out there” beyond matter and energy and their interactions, but we have always built expansively upon that base. Not for us a sterile mechanistic determinism—if there’s one thing on which Haack and we may agree, it’s the red-herringness of Alex Rosenberg’s über-reductionist approach. (Philosophers by no means have to take so exaggeratedly narrow a view of naturalism, and, in practice, most don’t.) We don’t think that the language and purview of science is all that’s valuable in our philosophy. At the same time, science does assist us greatly in our daily consideration of reliable information.

Of course, it is true that science is fallible. And a good thing, too, because there’s plenty of better and better work left for science to do. (And plenty of better and better work for naturalistic philosophers to do in making sense of it all—ironically, we’re arguing for more philosophy here, not less!) Science should keep striving to get to the bottom of it all—“it all” in the sense of reality—as best it can. And philosophy should strive as best it can to help clarify science’s activities and explorations. But in our view, no one should try reducing Picasso to physics! Nor should a naturalistic commitment pose an obstacle to our speaking and thinking meaningfully—yet nonmystically—about phenomena such as “minds, morals, and mathematics.” Stephen Law sees this as a serious problem with naturalism; we disagree, noting that there is nothing nonnaturalistic in regarding these as emergent phenomena.

Make no mistake: we consider ourselves strict naturalists. But for us, “strict” naturalism simply means that we don’t think that philosophical positions without good reasons and evidence have—or deserve—any weight. We don’t think naturalistic philosophy should be subverted by supernaturalism in any form, either overt or thinly disguised.

There is much more to be dreamt of in our philosophy. The charge of “scientism” should not be a conversation stopper.

Third, is “naturalism” too confusing to be of any use? Quite the contrary, we think. If we can’t lean on naturalism to refute supernaturalism, what ism have we got left? Let’s face it: all isms are ambiguous enough to be argued over endlessly, but the conflict between mysticism and the orientation toward reality are basic enough—and central enough to secular humanism—that we feel justified drawing this line: naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Can technical thinkers continue spinning controversies in the gaps of that dichotomy? Of course they can. Nonetheless, that concept is good enough for our humanist elevator speeches and often for deeper thinking too. To be sure, we need to define and use naturalism more carefully and more effectively, as Daniel Dennett exhorted in the last issue.

Our naturalism should be expansive enough to embrace the aforementioned minds, morals, and math in a naturalistic way—and to treat insightful, creative, wonderful, life-changing peak experiences honestly, without ever calling them “religious.” We are unapologetic, nonreductive physicalists, but that’s still “strict naturalism” (nothing spooky) with matter and energy as part of that picture all the way down and art, literature, music, ethics, math, and whatever else all the way up!
We—and the discipline—also need new philosophers, thinkers willing to come out about their own naturalism per se, and not just assume it and equivocate with students and the public about arguments that exist against religious interpretations of purely natural objects, events, and ideas.

But as secular humanists, use—and wield and learn from—naturalism we must.

So, are secular humanists naturalists? Should they be? As we’ve always said: Yes! By focusing on that commitment, a robust naturalistic philosophy can optimally help us to live entirely well, entirely without religion. At the same time, any hints in our philosophy of nonnaturalism or antinaturalism play straight into the hands of obscurantists and dissemblers, not least among them the John Templeton Foundation—but that is a matter for Part 3 in our next issue. For now, settle in, buckle up, and enjoy the critical cornucopia that is Part 2.



  1. In the August/September 2017 issue, “The Fight for Our Philosophy” was described as a two-part feature. Because of the number of high-quality submissions received, after the previous issue went to press it was decided to expand the feature into three parts.
  2. Apparently, this marks a point of divergence between the Council for Secular Humanism and our friends at the American Humanist Association (AHA). In the Summer 2017 issue of AHA’s member newspaper, Free Mind, outgoing AHA Development and Communications Director Maggie Ardiente noted approvingly that “AHA’s focus . . . used to be mostly academic and centered on developing the humanist philosophy” but is “now more about political activism and engagement.” Ardiente described this as “an excellent move on the part of the AHA board of directors.” Having come to a fork in the road, apparently we and the AHA took it. The Council for Secular Humanism and FREE INQUIRY remain committed to philosophy’s vital importance to the humanist enterprise.
  3. It is worth noting that FREE INQUIRY’s sister publication, Skeptical Inquirer, published one of Susan Haack’s core critiques of scientism in two parts in 2013 and 2014—“Six Signs of Scientism, Part 1 and Part 2,” Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2013 and January/February 2014.

Judith Walker

Judy Walker has degrees in sociology, anthropology, and law. She has served as an Assistant Colorado Attorney General representing Colorado state institutions of higher education and in key positions in development for the University of Colorado. She is currently a CFI Institute fellow specializing in philosophical naturalism and a former CFI board member. Her work has been published in Free Inquiry magazine and other philosophical and freethought publications.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).