Category Archives: Secularization

Confronting Scientism, Secular Naturalism and Nihilism

I need to take stock of where I stand in my struggle against nihilism. I have made a case that traditional sexual morality rules out sexual nihilism and elimination of sexual nihilism is an antidote to nihilism. However, my defense of traditional sexual morality requires assumptions. To justify these assumptions, I must make a case that there is a certain moral order. In these posts, I have characterized this moral order as authoritarian morality or divine command morality.

A moral order which can be characterized as giving a divine command morality is a supernatural order. Defense of a supernatural order requires confronting views which deny the existence or even the possibility of anything supernatural.

What are these anti-supernatural or naturalist views?

There is naïve scientism. Naïve scientism holds that we can know nothing but that which can be known by the methods of natural sciences and believe nothing beyond what could be justified by natural science
Naïve scientism is easily set aside as self-referentially inconsistent. We cannot know by the methods of the natural sciences that only those methods give knowledge.

In my previous post, I pointed out that the inconsistency of naïve scientism can be removed by reformulating it as normative scientism.

Normative scientism proposes that we ought to hold that we can know nothing but that which can be known by the methods of natural science and believe nothing beyond what could be justified by natural science
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Normative scientism needs to be supported by a case that on the whole human beings would be better satisfied if they accepted scientism.

A look at the references in the Wikipedia entry for “scientism” reveals that the case for what I call normative scientism is not strong. Secular writers point out that valuable knowledge about human beings is gained through non-scientific conversation, literature, music, etc.,. And belief beyond what could be established by natural science is permissible if consistent with natural science. As William James pointed out in his famous essay “The Will To Believe” we risk missing great truths by such a restriction. Human life would be impoverished if we always strived to be “scientific.”

But there is a way of being anti-supernatural or a naturalist without holding any form of scientism. I call this secular naturalism. Secular naturalism presupposes an ontology. An ontology is a philosophical theory on what there is.

Secular naturalism can be presented as follows.

There is nothing but the objects, processes and events investigated by the natural sciences. However, there are ways of knowing about these objects, processes and events different from the methods of the natural sciences. Belief beyond what could be established by natural science is permissible if consistent with natural science and not about any objects, processes different from those investigated by the natural sciences.

Secular naturalism is not inconsistent as naïve scientism is. Secular naturalists have long ago dismissed logical positivism which claimed metaphysical thought was meaningless. The diverse ways of knowing accepted may well include a way of knowing the ontology is correct. Furthermore, a belief in a naturalist ontology is not about any objects, etc., beyond those accessible to natural science. I spent many of my professional philosophy hours with the efforts of W. V. Quine to establish a naturalist ontology. The objects we investigated were words or terms in formal languages.

A utilitarian moral case for secular naturalism might be hard to establish because many people would be distressed by its nihilistic entailments. Indeed, a secular naturalist might make a case that secular naturalism ought not be taught to those who are distressed if it is true.

Secular naturalism is far from well established. It is not perfectly clear what makes an object etc., beyond the scope of natural science. Quine regard even the meaning of words as supernatural objects. And there certainly is no recipe for reducing all objects, etc., to those investigated by physics. Such a reduction is the “Holy Grail” of secular naturalism.

However, the truth of secular naturalism is an open philosophical -metaphysical -question which I do not think will ever be conclusively decided by even the best philosophical thought. But the truth of some supernatural position, consistent with natural science, also remains a perennial open metaphysical question.

So ultimately nihilism can be set aside by development, or adoption of, a metaphysical scheme with a place for the supernatural plus faith, perhaps as a gift from God, that the scheme truthfully represents reality.

Nihilism must be confronted on the “battlefield” of metaphysics.

Progressive Progresses to Nihilism

The purpose of this post is to extend the previous post’s defense of progressive morality to defense of a progressive philosophy of life. I defend this philosophy as persuasively as possible for it is the philosophy which I must set aside to justify the theistic philosophy which supports the divine command morality I am presenting.

I think that I am entitled to present this secular progressive philosophy of life. I have lived with it since I started university study sixty four years ago, forty of which were as a philosophy faculty member at secular universities. It lies deep in my soul. It haunts me every day.

However, be aware that this is, a perhaps idiosyncratic, portrayal of philosophy by an undistinguished emeritus professor of philosophy.

I use “philosophy of life” to abstract the progressive stance on the significance of human life from the other topics investigated by philosophers. Philosophy has been a mix of giving guidance for a well-lived meaningful life, outlining a theory about the origin and structure of all that is, viz., metaphysics, developing and criticizing solutions for apparently irremediable conceptual confusions, e.g., “Is Socrates sitting the same as Socrates standing?” and critique of whether and to what extent any of those three tasks are possible. Plato did all of this.

Critique, primarily after Hume and Kant, has established as the dominant belief in philosophy, as I have practiced it, a belief that knowledge is gained only through the methods of natural science. This belief is called “positivism” or now “scientism.” Positivism denigrates development of metaphysical schemes to support claims about how to live as mere opinions- soft thinking- not worthy of philosophical thought.

Of course, no critique could stamp out grappling with conceptual confusions. Philosophical problems are too much fun -they are the play of lively minds. Regardless of its merits towards leading a good life, acquaintance with philosophical puzzles should be included in university education. It is intellectual fun for its own sake. Play, including intellectual play is a basic human good. It is part of a well lived life.

But back to the topic of a progressive philosophy of life.

Careful positivists do not make the self-referentially inconsistent claim that they know that only science gives knowledge. Careful positivists admit that they only believe that all knowledge comes from natural science. Positivism is not known to be true. Here we find a philosophy of life “hiding in plain sight.” It is a life-guiding background belief.

Usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, philosophy education at secular schools is regarded as a missionary activity to free students from any strong beliefs in fixed moral principles and some divinely set purpose for their lives. Acceptance of positivism certainly does undercut such beliefs.

Implicitly, positivism is regarded as a moral belief. (In mid 20th century positivists set aside emotivism to accept that moral language has proper use in guiding behavior.) So, how do careful positivists defend their philosophy of life? They defend it in the way progressives defend any moral claim: Justification is replaced with explanation. Or: Argument is replaced with a narrative to induce belief and then acceptance of the induced belief is justified as a proper response to reality by explaining how human nature causes the belief in response to the narrative. This is different from justifying a belief as correctly representing reality.

Pay attention to the facts which include scientific accomplishments and the failures and follies of religions and other ideologies. This narrative might take a few years of schooling to be given. What you hear will cause you to think that believing in positivism is most likely to produce the greatest satisfaction of human desires. That will cause you to think that everyone ought to believe in positivism.

The defense of positivism by defending it as moral progressives defend moral beliefs protects positivism from logical fallacies and inconsistencies. (A good criticism of a view states the view is a way free from procedural errors such as inconsistency. We want to criticize a view as wrong about the topic.)

Effective teachers can lead consideration of facts to be very effective in causing acceptance of positivism.

But human concerns are facts to consider.

The positivist philosophy of life does not really support progressive morality in so far as it promises no moral progress toward greater cooperation and less cruelty. It supports moral progress only in so far as it replaces traditional morality. It promises nothing for humanity. Nuclear war, climate change, fertility failure due to birth control and abortion could all lead to extinction of homo sapiens.

If you look at the facts, you will be caused at first to lose all faith in a purpose for your life or for the existence of homo sapiens. Part of seeing this hopelessness is a sense of horror at the prospect of a meaningless life. And it is a proper response to distract oneself from considering it too much. Giving our own meaning to our life and distracting ourselves from the fact that we invented it rather than being given it is morally permissible if not obligatory because distraction diminishes human anguish.

But realization that we are distracting ourselves from nihilism causes hope that positivism is not worthy of belief.

Why Be Moral? Secularism vs. Divine Command Morality

The question “Why be Moral?” is a significant question.

Verbally it seems like a trivial question of “Why ought I do what I ought to do?” An accusation of triviality might run: What is there about “ought” that you do not understand when you ask why you ought to do what you already know you ought?

A quick dismissal of the triviality accusation runs: You really do not understand all dimensions of the meaning of “ought” if you cannot sympathize with people who, when faced with demands of morality contrary to their inclinations, seek something to strengthen their resolve to meet those demands.

But is it a philosophical question?

Way back at the beginning of the twentieth century H.A Prichard challenged its philosophic significance in his influential essay “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on Mistake?” Mind, 1912.

Perhaps on an austere conception of philosophy quests for moral motivation are not philosophic. I do not hold such a view of philosophy. However, while not forgetting that this significant question is primarily about motivation, I shall not focus on motivational dimension of the question. I use the question as an occasion to sketch out pictures of what is involved in obeying moral laws. “This issue of motivation for being moral can be developed as question for fundamental philosophy – call it metaphysics, ontology or study of being per se. It ultimately becomes a question of whether or not in being there can be a moral order.

David Hume is well-known for reminding us that “is” does not imply “ought.” Two other connections between “is” and “ought” are less remarked upon. Logically we cannot infer that something is done from there being a moral law that it ought to be done. Of even more importance is the truth that in nature what ought to be done frequently, far too frequently, does not occur.

There is an obvious difference between moral laws and physical laws. Regard a situation to which a physical law applies a cause. Regard the action that the law says follows the situation an effect. In the physical order the effect occurs invariably. Apparently there is no need for an intermediary to link cause and effect.

For the moral order regard a situation to which a moral law applies a cause. For instance, an opportunity to steal under the law “Do not steal” is a cause. Regard what the moral law demands for a situation an effect. Not stealing in the example is an effect of the law. As just noted: all too frequently effect does not follow cause in the moral order. In the moral order there is a need for an intermediary to link cause and effect.

Human choice is the intermediary connecting “ought” with “is.” We can choose not to make the connection. We are asking whether we ought to make that gap invariable. What should move our will to do what is right?

Choosing is for something. Choosing is goal driven – teleological. So investigating how choosing, or willing, connects moral cause with moral effect is investigating why the choice is made. Investigating for what a moral choice is made we are investigating at least an aspect of the issue of why we should be moral.

Looking at the “Why be Moral?” question as an occasion to ask what links moral cause with moral effect can lead to many, if not all, of the questions of moral philosophy. For instance, it provides an occasion for asking whether there are moral laws and choices let alone free choices.

I am comparing what I have called divine command morality with progressive morality. I am not preparing a book on moral philosophy. Developing a metaphysical account, or as I prefer to say “a picture,” of reality suitable for divine command morality is what I plan to pursue in my next few posts. Development of this picture of a dynamic moral order is part of my critique of secularism. This dynamic moral order is part of a religious picture of reality which seems presupposed by our ordinary moral language. Thus a rigorous secularism needs to radically revise our moral language. Pointing out that need is a criticism of secularism.

Authoritarian Morality as Divine Command Morality

The purpose of this post is to give a philosophic reason for re-labeling “authoritarian morality” as “divine command morality.” Secularization is primarily a religious movement but it also contains a philosophic reductionist program. I want to turn my development of authoritarian morality into a critique of secularism by critique of its reductionist program.

Reductionist programs aim to show that some of the kinds of things we talk about cannot be real – cannot have being. Thus, nothing we say about them could be true. For instance, a materialist reductionist program aims to show we need say nothing about thoughts and sensations to say all that can be true. A secularization reductionist program aims to show that we need say nothing about anything resembling a god, goddess or sacred item to say all that can be true. Reductionist programs have the strong goal of showing that certain kinds of things cannot be. They do not aim at showing only that there are not these kinds of things. *Reductionist programs are at the heart of philosophy – what is being such that some of what we talk of can have it and others we talk of cannot?

I have constructed the concept of authoritarian morality from the notion of moral harm as a notion of harm which ought to be for violation of a moral law. I have shown that there is a close match between our ordinary moral talk and the moral talk of a hypothetical person who explicitly held an authoritarian moral theory. See, for instance, Authoritarian Morality in Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural.The concept of a moral authority was developed far enough to justify talking of the moral authority as a god. See Core Concepts of Authoritarian Morality and Authoritarian Morality Enchants Reality

So, the philosophic component of secularization needs to show that the notion of moral harm is of something which cannot be. If successful, secularization has very significant implications for how we should think of morality. Morality becomes weak progressive morality. For instance, secularization tells us that if we think clearly we will not think that any harm which does occur is harm which is deserved because of a violation of a moral law.

To review: Secularization requires elimination of the notion of moral harm. Elimination of the notion of moral harm renders morality insignificant if we really think about what we assert in a moral judgment. A secularist should, as future posts will bring out, hold an emotivism interpretation of moral judgments.

* In my book: A Kantian Condemnation of Atheistic Despair: A Declaration of Dependence Lang Pub. New York 1997 I show that serious atheism is modal atheism which holds that there cannot be a God.