Moral naturalism.

Last month I commented on a conversation over at NewSojourn, “Where Does ‘Ought’ Come From?“, where he commits the fallacy of the false dilemma by saying that you either believe morality, ethics, “proper” civil behavior is dictated by a (the Christian) god, or else there is no such thing and any claim to believe in ethics and morality if you’re not religious (Christian) is a lie. Or his word, “hogwash.”

Well of course, as an atheist and a naturalist (no, NOT nudist!) I’m also a secular humanist, so I take great offense at the idea that you have to be either a religious believer (Christian specifically) or a nihilist. There is something in between that is perfectly complimentary to the idea that morality exists (because it does) without the need for any god (because there aren’t (–even so, why specifically Yahweh and not one of the other 2400 gods?)

But better than any response I’ve given, I just listened to the latest Point of Inquiry podcast with an interview with naturalism philosopher and Vice President for Research and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry:

♦ John Shook – Naturalism and the Scientific Outlook

It’s not a very long episode, only 25 minutes, and I think the way he discuses the argument for naturalism as a philosophy and a worldview is pretty much the final word in my book. He also discusses the role of science in society and the way science is not a study of scientists (which is what creationists and anti-scientists want to make it out to be), but an examination purely of nature and the evidence from the examination of nature regardless of the people involved.

Here are some nice bits:

Naturalism is a worldview, a philosophy of you like, that understand reality through experience, reason and science. And I break it down into these three more simpler elements but it’s necessary to understand: they work together. …

You cannot have naturalism without science. But, we have to understand, science itself is based upon our experience of the world, and, reasoning about the world. We draw inferences, we test hypotheses, we draw tentative conclusions about what reality is like. Sometimes, opponents of naturalism, love to appeal to experience independently of science, or to reason (let’s say some rational arguments for the existence of god), again–completely unhinged from science. …

The diversity of human experience is incredible! Of course religious experience is part of this. What naturalism simply demands is that… experience is not enough. Experience has to be tested by rational standards of coherence and common sense, and also it has to be consistent with science. …

Strictly speaking, science itself as a list of cutting-edge theories, that are best tested by experiments, you can’t directly infer moral conclusions about how human beings ought to live. You can’t read them off…. You can’t detect values with a microscope. There have been some objectionable philosophies that have attempted this. For example Social Darwinism once proliferated: ‘Rich people ought to survive because obviously they’re more fit,’ this sort of bogus, junk science really is a logical dead end. … Humorously, this junk science, this propaganda of Social Darwinism, was actually playing a card played by theologians played by time immemorial. ‘If it’s natural, it’s right.’ This presumption being by theologians: God set up nature so God must have deemed it right. That principle just have to be thrown out as completely illogical and unsupportable, so scientists shouldn’t do it either.

What I would suggest is that instead we remind ourselves that as naturalists we rely on experience, reason, and science–it’s the unity of the three of them that really allows naturalism to tell us real information about how human beings ought to live. Especially the experience. Sometimes naturalists think by discarding supernaturalism they have to completely discard the religious cultural heritages of humanity too. And we don’t have to do that. What we can do is we can distinguish between what doesn’t work anymore in religion and what still may work. For example: moral wisdom, about how human beings ought to live. Now of course it’s couched too often in mythological language… and it is horribly outmoded.

So, naturalism would recommend, not that we start from scratch, some blank slate, some a priori principles of pure reason to deduce how we ought to live; instead what we ought to do is we ought to critically examine and test this cumulative body of moral wisdom that comes from the world’s cultures. After all, there’s sort of an evolutionary wisdom here. Most of these cultures have lasted for hundreds if not thousands of years, human beings have to a certain extent, successfully flourished, why discard this body of wisdom? So a naturalist would say: ‘We could build a new non-religious, secular culture–not in some a priori fashion or by consulting intuitions or anything like that, but simply by taking from the best of the other world cultures. …

And from there they discuss value of life, the meaning of life, and cosmic ego versus personal ego and what may be in between when defining meaning and passing values on.
It’s a good listen!