Thursday, November 30, 2006

Secular Thinking, Science, and Ethics

by Tibor R. Machan

The Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization that publishes some important and interesting literature mostly in support of construing the world without recourse to mysticism or faith in supernaturalism, placed an ad in The New York Times recently. It calls for us all to take the scientific perspective on the world more seriously and leave aside the religious approach, especially religious fundamentalism.

A central passage of this ad goes like this: "Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy ..."

Now I have sympathies for this viewpoint because I, too, think that reliance on faith is divisive and very unsure-footed. That's why there are about 4200 different religions in America alone, all with their own conceptions of the world and how people should live in it. And, yes, science seems to be far more unified across the world, even the ages, even though there are, of course, many disagreements brewing among scientists of all types. All in all, though, science does offer up more reliable understanding than religion.

Still, religion has the corner on one area of human concern which science has been approaching very ineptly. This is morality or ethics. Scientists have never quite managed to escape the paradox of claiming that there isn't any free will at all, everything just happens because it must happen, while at the same to complaining about how people behave, especially about science! Well, if we are moved by impersonal forces, the laws of physics, chemistry, biology -- especially genetics -- then why complain? It's all que sera, sera, isn't it? If this scientific approach is right, then all the lamentations about how people view science is itself pointless. They just do as they must, so why beef?

Moreover, there is the problem that science itself doesn't have much to offer about whether we ought to respect it. Nor can science itself demonstrate that it "provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems." That, assuredly, isn't a scientific claim, provable by experimentation and other scientific procedures. Thinking that science can legislate about the merits of science is folly -- as demonstrated by the fact that the Center's ad hasn't an ounce of science in it backing up its claims about the reliability of science.

So there is a problem with secularism as understood by most of the folks at the Center of Inquiry. It doesn't address one of the most important issues in human affairs, namely, how we ought to live. Sure, there are claims that we ought to honor science but this isn't something that is well supported. Science itself cannot do it so what will? The ad doesn't say.

The bottom line is that the scientific -- some critics will call it "scientistic" -- approach needs to be supplemented with something and champions of secularism aren't generally very good at showing how to do this. Once they step away from science itself, they need to turn to some other source and what should that be? Philosophy? Of course, there are about as many schools of philosophy seeking adherents as religions. Sure, most promise ways of solving human problems that avoid the pitfalls of faith based solutions -- they claim that their ways are available to all without recourse to some supernatural guidance that is very hard for people to grasp rationally, practically. But beyond this, there is very little unanimity among philosophers.

My idea is that folks at the Center of Inquiry and other such organizations ought to advance their positive case and stop denigrating other positions, especially by besmirching their ways of trying to find solutions to our problems. No approach has found universal acceptance; each is trying to put its case out there to be considered. So let's put out our various proposed approaches to solving human problems and let there be a debate about that instead of dismissive messages about how some approaches are inadequate. Let, so to speak, the free market of ideas decide. Yes, it is best for this purposes, for government to stay out of the fray, as the Center's ad suggests. But beyond that, it is most fruitful, I think, to simply stick to arguing the substance without calling into question anyone's good will.

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