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Empiricism and Equality:
Prospects for Enlightenment 2.0

This article analyzes questions raised at the Beyond Belief 2 conference about the nature and role of religion in modern culture, and about the basis for our normative commitments. Allegiance to scientific empiricism tends to support the progressive value of universal human rights, but it increases skepticism about foundations for morality outside human biology and culture. Defending and extending liberal values is a political project which finds a powerful ally in naturalism.

Is secularism a religion? - Is religion adaptive? - The contest of values
Empiricism and equality - Extending progressive values
Anti-foundationalism and human flourishing - The grip of value


It seems to be a law of human nature that, no matter how much common ground they share, a group of individuals will quickly find something to disagree about, then divide into opposing camps. So it was at the Beyond Belief 2 conference – Enlightenment 2.0 – which brought together scientists, philosophers and other assorted academics, most of whom shared a strong commitment to empirical inquiry and humanism, but who strongly disagreed about some matters of fact and value. Is between-group selection a well-supported hypothesis about evolution that helps to explain human nature? Is the penchant for religious belief a functional adaptation that helped to make societies cohesive superorganisms, or is it merely a parasitic meme, fueled by tribalism and sowing dangerous irrationality? Are scientists, mostly liberals, ignorant about aspects of morality that are central to conservatives, and in denouncing religion, are some of these scientists wrongly marginalizing an important carrier of moral wisdom? Do people need to believe in a transcendent basis for morality, and if scientific naturalism provides no such thing, must we therefore deceive ourselves in some respects? Are there any basic moral truths ready to hand that we can agree on, and what’s their justification if god and the transcendent are ruled out? Such were a few of the questions that animated the talks and discussions, all well worth a look.

Drawing on some of the presentations, I’ll suggest how these questions interrelate and reach some tentative conclusions about the status of morality as understood from a naturalistic perspective. A commitment to scientific empiricism, although it might undercut the possibility of transcendent moral foundations, nevertheless supports the central liberal-progressive value of universal equal human rights. It does this by challenging non-empirical claims that some groups are more deserving than others. Oppositely, a commitment to faith and other non-empirical ways of justifying beliefs can help to subvert the norm of equality. It’s therefore the case that one’s allegiance (or not) to empiricism plays an important role in determining one’s moral landscape. But when it comes to deciding whether or not to commit to empiricism, and what moral system we should adopt, there’s no higher set of criteria which inform our decision. We discover ourselves possessed by our cognitive and moral commitments, a contingent matter of personality and culture. Although we can reason about them, there may be no principled way to choose among them independent of our commitments. This means that the contest between the systems on offer gets decided on a political, not ultimately rational, basis.*

*Note:  Since writing this, I've come to the conclusion that there is a fairly commonsensical rational basis for making a cognitive commitment to scientific (and more broadly, intersubjective) empiricism, as opposed to non-empirical ways of justifying beliefs. This is that empirically grounded beliefs are generally far more reliable as accurate representations of reality than non-empirical beliefs, for instance those based in uncorroborated subjective experience, intuition, revelation and authority. If so, worldview naturalism, which is based in such a commitment (a commitment that's independent of and prior to naturalism) is rationally preferable to all varieties of anti-naturalism.  About this see Reality and its rivals and the papers and reviews at the Theology page at Naturalism.Org.

The conference, the second in the Beyond Belief series hosted by the Science Network, was billed as an exploration of how to defend, extend, refine and consolidate the original Enlightenment, hence the title Enlightenment 2.0. Since the Enlightenment was largely about the rise of non-theistic philosophy and science, and the concomitant retreat of religious worldviews, the conference (as did the first in the series) included an assessment of the conflict between science and religion in the context of the so-called New Atheism. Given the interests of the hosting organization, this assessment inevitably came from a partisan perspective, that of scientific naturalism. Participants were therefore primarily naturalists (as opposed to supernaturalists) from various disciplines, although a few science-friendly theists were present.

Is secularism a religion?

The shared commitment to science did not, however, prevent considerable disagreement from arising over the status of religion – its nature, virtues and vices. First, what is a religion? Early in the conference, polymath Ted Slingerland suggested that there’s no clear distinction between secularism and religion when it comes to justifying values. Even liberal secularists find themselves strongly emotionally attached to moral values that have no clear empirical basis, for instance the claim of universal human rights and the importance of reaching non-violent, uncoerced agreements. Belief in such things is on a par, evidentially speaking, with belief in god, even though secularists aren’t usually aware of this. Nevertheless, Slingerland said “enlightenment religion” is distinguished from theistic religion by its commitment to evidence (the naturalist’s “empirical prejudice”), which largely accounts for its success: people like to be “well situated with regard to the structure of the world.”[1] This is why theistic, faith-based religions have retreated, at least in some parts of the world. But the irony, of course, is that the empirical prejudice taken all the way undercuts the easy assurance that our values find direct affirmation in nature. Nature, understood scientifically, doesn’t endorse any particular value system. The empiricist thus finds herself at a disadvantage in justifying moral claims compared to the religious transcendentalist, who believes her emotionally laden values are reflections of god’s will or some non-theistic transcendental equivalent. The enlightenment “religion of no religion,” driven by a commitment to science, has a much tougher time finding presumptively objective foundations for moral intuitions.

 Along the same lines, biologist and anthropologist David Sloan Wilson characterized the New Atheism itself as a “stealth religion,” religious in the broad sense of believing in things for which there’s no good evidence. Militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett believe, on no good empirical grounds, that theistic religion is simply “bad, bad, bad,” so paradoxically they harbor a religious conviction about religion itself. Now, it may be that believing in empirically unsubstantiated claims, what Wilson calls “practical realism” or "practical truth," is sometimes necessary (a key point of debate to which we’ll return), but not, Wilson admonished, when doing science. We have to get religion empirically right before we decide what to do about it. (Dennett replied sharply that his science, at any rate, passed muster.) But note that whether religion is good or bad is a normative question that presumes a value system about human flourishing, a system which ranks the relative importance of such things as moral clarity, social cohesion, individual rights and empiricism itself. If Wilson thinks (as does perhaps social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, see below) that religion as deception – one type of practical realism – might sometimes be a good thing, that’s because he thinks situations might arise in which only it can supply a necessary element for a particular conception of human flourishing, for instance one in which individual preferences are subordinated to the stability of the group. So Wilson’s charge against the new atheists, that they don’t see the good in religion because they don’t get religion empirically right, combines both descriptive and normative claims. Wilson himself recognized that these have to be disambiguated if we are to reason clearly. 

Is religion adaptive?

Both Wilson and Jonathan Haidt argued at the conference that a predisposition for religion likely played an adaptive role (perhaps via between-group selection) in allowing humans to achieve our current level of ultra-sociality, in which more or less stable societies of unrelated individuals have replaced nomadic tribes. This is an empirical claim under investigation. It’s therefore striking that both accept the normative claim that religion, or more broadly a departure from evidence-based beliefs, might be a force for good in promoting social cohesion in a way that allegiance to strict empiricism (what Wilson calls factual realism or factual truth, as opposed to practical truth) perhaps cannot. The link might be that if we take survival as a presumptive good – our basic value proposition – and if religion played a key role in survival by promoting group cohesion, then religion was good for us in Paleolithic and pre-Enlightenment times and might still be good for us now. It might still have adaptive social utility, as theorized by French sociologist Emile Durkheim a century ago.

Indeed, Wilson appears to take adaptation as a central value. In his talk, philosopher Daniel Dennett quoted from Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral: “Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.” And “It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.” And “…it appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.” For Wilson, it seems that whatever is adaptive is for the good, even false beliefs. Oppositely, if our central value proposition isn’t survival at any cost, but a conception of human flourishing which ranks other values higher (“Veritas,” “Give me liberty or give me death!”), then even if religion helps achieve social stability it isn’t necessarily good. It might leave us with a stable but odious society, as judged for instance by modern progressive standards.

Wilson and Haidt seem somewhat in the first camp (many caveats here obviously, since they are both good progressives), Dan Dennett and Sam Harris in the second. All four agree about staying true to science when making factual claims about the world, but disagree to varying extents on the possible value of promulgating unwarranted beliefs (Dennett admitted that lying is sometimes, but not usually, the best policy.) Their disagreement over the goodness or badness of religion might ultimately be a disagreement about values and culture. What should we most value, social cohesion made possible by the sort of cognitive blinders religion imposes, or a culture that stays true to science, and thus encourages a possibly destabilizing individualism? The answer to this isn’t obvious, and indeed it may be a false choice, as we’ll see below.

The mixing of descriptive and normative claims was particularly apparent in Jonathan Haidt’s remarks. He presented his empirically grounded five foundation theory of morality, in which the role of reason is largely to supply post hoc justifications for moral intuitions. For liberals, morality comprises two foundations, namely norms about treating individuals fairly (fairness/reciprocity) and minimizing personal harm (harm/care), while conservatives add to these the values of authority/respect (based on dominance hierarchies), in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity, which primarily serve to bind individuals into a close-knit community. Conservatives therefore end up with a five foundation moral system, and Haidt presented evidence for this from attitudinal surveys. He pointed out that the conference participants were overwhelmingly liberal (as most scientist-academics are) and therefore emotionally attached to two foundation individualist and “contractualist” morality. They are consequently at risk of overlooking the existence of (an empirical claim) and virtues of (a normative claim) the other three group-sustaining foundations. By assigning and enforcing clear and consistent roles and values, these foundations provide what Haidt calls moral-communal capital, defined as “social capital, plus institutions, traditions and norms that guarantee that contributions and hard work will be rewarded, and that free riders, exploiters and criminals will be punished.” Moral-communal capital promotes group cohesion while protecting against liberal individualist anomie. Now, since religion works well to create moral-communal capital by giving us secure goals and values, albeit based on false premises, perhaps we should admit that religion isn’t all bad, because it's adaptive in creating moral communities. So Haidt, like Wilson, resists the normative claim on the part of at least some new atheists that, as Christopher Hitchens puts it, religion poisons everything.

Haidt’s limited support of religion and conservative five foundation morality (he acknowledged their risks and costs several times)[2] assumes a value system coupled to an ideal of human flourishing. There are intrinsic human goods, namely having secure roles and values assigned by the group, that individualist liberalism can’t easily supply, so perhaps we must grant religious conservatism a place in society, as much as it offends our empirical and progressive sensibilities. Further, Haidt worries that societies that don’t create sufficient moral-communal capital are at risk of disintegration; they can’t compete against more cohesive societies. For Haidt, just as for Wilson, group adaptation and survival seem to operate as central values which might require us to suspend disbelief. Religion isn’t necessarily all bad because it helps us stay adaptively deceived, if such be necessary.

But is deception necessary? This is one of the more interesting claims tendered by apologists for faith-based religion. Must we compromise scientific empiricism, that is, believe in things without sufficient evidence, in order to achieve a stable culture in which human beings can flourish? Put otherwise, can we live sustainably – psychologically, materially, and politically – in the light of naturalism?  

The contest of values

To answer this question we must first put our value cards on the table: what counts as a culture worthy of survival? Will any sort of culture do, just so long as it persists? Since most participants at the conference agreed that North Korea is an abomination (although things might be improving), one plausible answer to this question is No: there might be some human states of affairs – tyrannies, slave cultures, various Brave New Worlds – to which extinction is preferable. But Wilson and Haidt, for whom adaptation in the service of group survival seems paramount (at least according to some of their remarks and writings), could conceivably disagree. Individuals and their rights aren’t the ultimate source of value, rather it’s groups, one of evolution’s cleverest innovations. The superorganism of society has, perhaps, its own agenda to which individuals should submit. Now, I don’t seriously suppose either Wilson or Haidt would endorse this proposal, which attributes literal needs and intentions to groups, and gives these priority over individual interests. But it’s worth mentioning as an extreme conceivable position someone might take as a value proposition.[3]

If survival is ruled out as our ultimate value, we then face the daunting question of how to justify our conception of human flourishing against its competitors.[4] This is the question of the culture wars, both in the US and globally, a question illuminated by Haidt’s theory of morality. As discussed above, according to his analysis liberals and conservatives have different value systems (two foundation vs. five foundation) which determine different ideas about what a culture should look like. How do we decide which system to endorse, or, if we believe that all five foundations have merit, how do we decide the relative importance of individualist versus communitarian values? Just about everyone, according to Haidt, places some value on fairness and justice and on protecting individuals from unnecessary harm, but what moral weight should we accord to hierarchical authority and respect, in-group loyalty, and conventional notions of purity and sanctity?  

Differing moral systems undergird different conceptions of human flourishing, which can in turn lead to very different cultures, especially with regards to equality. For example, in societies founded on traditional Islam, religiously justified social hierarchies give males authority over females, while in-group loyalty to religion makes infidels second class citizens, if that. Individuals categorically do not have equal rights, since the group-oriented moral imperatives of authority and loyalty confer privileges (education, political participation, wealth) on those who hold high rank and proper belief, and rightly so by the lights of this conception of human flourishing. For liberals enamored of social equality, this conception is a cultural nightmare. Although there might be some level of justice and welfare accorded all persons in a fundamentalist Islamic state, liberals (and many Western conservatives, no doubt) see a wholesale disregard for the human potential of over half its citizens. What could possibly justify such inequality? Faith-based religion and other varieties of non-empirical beliefs is what.

Empiricism and equality

By contrast, there is no science-based, empirically derived justification for supposing any class of individuals merits fewer opportunities for self-development, or for limiting their rights to education, political participation, owning property, or any other right commonly held by individuals in liberal secular societies. Such limitations and discriminations can only find justification in non-empirical beliefs about the privileges owed those ranked higher in a social hierarchy, or belonging to certain in-groups, whether based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religious identification, or other denomination. The history of progress in human rights (progress as progressives see it) is the dismantling of such justifications, of showing them to have no basis in empirical fact.

Whatever biological and cultural differences exist between genders, races, ethnicities, religious groups and nationalities, there are no scientific grounds for supposing members of out-groups, or low status members of in-groups, deserve not to have their human needs met, or not to develop their full potential by according them the same rights as others. As scientific empiricism has won allegiance as our guide to reality, displacing faith and other non-empirical grounds for belief, the discriminatory social practices built on such beliefs have been deprived of their rationales, making the presumption of equal rights more and more the norm. It’s also the case that any departure from science in deciding what’s true about human beings lends potential support to the social discrimination often (but not always) entailed by moral foundations of hierarchy and in-group loyalty. Faith, scriptural authority, intuition and revelation, all non-empirical grounds for belief, can open up belief-space in which justifications for inequality might be devised.  

This means there’s a connection between allegiance to empiricism and important elements of the liberal-progressive conception of human flourishing, which places a premium on equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (what I call for short the autonomy right). If you think truth claims should be backed up by evidence, then you’ll be skeptical of moral systems that deny the autonomy right on the basis of non-empirical beliefs about certain groups, or one's position in a group – the supposed unnaturalness of homosexuality, the religiously ordained subservience of women, etc. This could be why most of the conference attendees, largely scientists and philosophers by trade, were liberals.

But maybe, as Haidt suggests, the individualist conception of human flourishing is too thin, depriving us of central human satisfactions related not to autonomy, but to belonging. It might also render us vulnerable to anomie and social disintegration. Certainly the libertarian animus against centralized regulation, taxation and social programs might undercut our capacity for collective action, for instance on global warming. If Haidt is right to some extent, must we then resort to faith-based religion to patch the hole in two-foundation morality, and must we sacrifice equality for the benefits of a satisfying and possibly advantageous identification with the group?

Extending progressive values without self-deception

Given their values, progressive naturalists (who often call themselves humanists) would obviously hope not. Humanists would like to suppose that we need compromise neither empiricism nor equality to feel like we belong, have secure social roles and values, and have a culture that can compete successfully with those we believe are less enlightened. Here are some reasons to think this might be possible, and indeed necessary.

First, it isn’t clear we need to be self-deceived in some respect to create moral communal capital. There could conceivably arise a motivating moral vision consistent with science that could bind diverse populations together with a shared purpose. Dennett suggested at the conference (and in Breaking the Spell) that, if we give children a good education about the tenets of all the world’s faiths, a benign religion (religio: to bind together) might someday arise. Indeed, there’s a candidate on offer: a commitment to environmental sustainability reinforced by love and respect for the natural world. Critics of the progressive worry about global warming have derided sustainability as the new liberal religion, to which liberals could reply: precisely! Here’s a moral issue of epic proportions that could, if skillfully articulated, bind all races and nations, a sure cure for individualist anomie. What have you done recently to save the planet? The group-oriented norm of personal sacrifice for future generations of humans, not to mention other species, might fill the moral bill quite nicely. Who says liberals can’t join together?[5]

Second, as Dennett also said at the conference (he said many wise things – typical), it’s too late for self-deception: the cat of science is out of the bag and we can’t go back. Information will have its way with us, so it’s a bad bet to suppose faith-based religion will out-compete empiricism. David Wilson’s practical realism – suppressing facts that challenge non-empirical wishful thinking (e.g., the reality of global warming) – is “an engine of hypocrisy,” an affront to the virtue of truth-telling. Besides, its practical costs are too high, even for most conservatives. The debacle of the Bush administration is a sad case in point. Better to face the facts and adjust our beliefs and actions accordingly, even if we sometimes find it discomfiting.

Third, as Haidt acknowledged, there are significant downsides to faith-based solidarity. Among them are the exacerbation of tribalism, authoritarianism, absolutism and fundamentalism, all of which are potentially disastrous as the world gets smaller and the technology of destruction becomes more efficient. It isn’t clear that we can reap the benefits of increased moral-communal capital based on sectarian religion while avoiding the between-group conflict that might have shaped the propensity for religion to begin with. Using religion to achieve social cohesion could make its attainment impossible when and where it matters most: in the long run on planet Earth. We’re better off supposing that people can fulfill their group-ish needs without resort to sectarianism, and that we can devise fact-based grounds for social cohesion that will permit the achievement of a truly global solidarity.

Lastly, for liberals like Haidt and Wilson, not to mention the rest of the conference participants and other progressive constituencies, secular and religious, there is no going back regarding equality, just as we can’t go back on empiricism. The norm of equal and universal human rights is now too deeply entrenched, too basic a value, to be sacrificed for any other consideration. Equality may not be endorsed by nature, but it has a firm grip on the Western moral imagination. Any increase in group orientation, based in religion or not, will have to accommodate each person’s autonomy right. There’s no reason this can’t be done; after all, commitment to values isn’t a zero sum game, and groups can be composed of self-respecting equals just as well as instantiate a hierarchy.

Anti-foundationalism and human flourishing

So, perhaps supernatural religion isn’t needed to extend individualist morality in the direction Haidt thinks might be good for us. As Sam Harris put it, “It’s not fatuous to think we can get along without religion, just like we’ve gotten along without witchcraft.” We can in good faith remain unapologetic progressive naturalists and humanists, knowing we stand a good chance of bringing about a culture worthy of survival by our lights. We don’t need to sacrifice either empiricism or equality to find a secure, meaningful place in a cohesive society.

But having laid their value cards on the table, and having shown their internal and practical consistency, humanists will not have impressed those who think of the Enlightenment as a fall from grace. The opposition has another set of cards, perhaps equally self-consistent, that motivate a very different conception of human flourishing. Harris spoke passionately in defense of a value system that seems obvious to us, that the basic objective guide to moral action is to reduce human suffering and maximize happiness. Do we really need, he asked rhetorically, any more research or discussion to agree that love is better than hate, that compassion is better than cruelty?  Is there any doubt that killing people for apostasy is a bad strategy for human well-being?  Well, that depends on your conception of human well-being, which is linked to your value system as backed up by your worldview. The difficult anti-foundationalist truth about human morality is that there is no value, however objective and inviolable it may seem to you, which can’t be second guessed by someone else’s idea about what’s most important. That apostasy merits death makes perfect sense for those who believe, as some do, that human well-being is for everyone to attain perfect conformity to the will of god. Increasing suffering in this world, even of innocents, might be the necessary price of well-being in the next.

The same anti-foundationalist point holds for cognitive commitments, which is why Harris’s appeal to science as the arbiter of moral truth[6] won’t cut any ice with conservative fundamentalists, or with progressive theologians for that matter. As a perusal of the current science-religion debate will show (see here, for instance), it’s the capacity of science to reveal the world in all its dimensions that’s contested, among other things. Despite their differences, Islamic imams and Christian apologists at least agree on this: that there are better ways of knowing what’s ultimately real than astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience and psychology. The idea that beliefs about the most important things – human flourishing and the fundamental nature of reality – need evidential backing is an affront to scriptural authority. Further, it isn’t clear how science, morally neutral, can ground ethical facts. As noted above, science doesn’t validate, that is, justify, our possibly conflicting moral intuitions, even though it might be able to explain their origins in human nature and culture.

The upshot of all this is that we’re faced with a conflict of values systems that are part of worldview packages containing very different epistemic and metaphysical commitments. It seems unlikely that there is a further criterion outside these worldviews, acceptable to all parties to the debate, that could decide the question of which is better. This is the by now familiar anti-foundationalist point against the naïve normative realist, who supposes there must be an objective basis outside competing value commitments on which we could render a verdict.*

*Note: As noted above in the introduction, it now seems to me that there's a rational basis independent of naturalism to prefer intersubjective empiricism (and therefore science) to other ways of justifying beliefs. So I think there might well be a reply to the anti-foundationalist at least as far as epistemology is concerned. About this see Reality and its rivals and the papers and reviews at the Theology page at Naturalism.Org.

What then, are the prospects for the Enlightenment? Preserving it and extending it involves, as Harris himself said, a battle of ideas. But it’s a battle without a referee, or any agreed upon rules. Even the idea that people should talk, not fight, to promote their vision of the good is contested, as Slingerland (the conference’s resident anti-foundationalist skeptic) pointed out. But the enlightenment side of the battle does, in fact, believe that it’s better to talk than to fight, and that the democratic procedural norm of open debate is, paradoxically, worth fighting for. Why? Because it’s an integral part of a recently developed, but strongly held worldview that supposes each individual has a rightful place at the table, that no particular person or persons, whatever their group, should have a greater say in deciding what’s best for society than anyone else. The norm of equality thus militates against coercion. And as we’re seen, equality is in turn reinforced by a commitment to empiricism. Therefore, anything we can do to spread the memes of science, skepticism, critical thinking and naturalism will help the cause of equality and procedural democracy. But there are no deeper grounds upon which to take a stand, nothing that will convince adversaries who share too few of our norms. The battle for the Enlightenment is therefore a political project as much as intellectual; it’s a matter of installing bedrock normative commitments about knowledge and morality as well as a matter of mounting good arguments.

The grip of value

Even if we conclude, in the light of science, that these commitments are a contingent matter of human nature and cultural development, we’re not about to abandon them since there are no better norms in the vicinity. As Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish and others have argued, contingency is no bar to a full-blooded allegiance to values, precisely because we’re hard-wired for moral commitment. At the conference, Slingerland pointed out that, because of their strong emotional valence, we can’t act as if our value systems are merely private matters of taste. Instead, we’re always casting about for something transcendental or metaphysical to ground them. Naturalists, if they are honest, will admit there’s nothing out there which can do that, there’s only the social experimental process of trying out various systems and the political project of promoting the ones we find work best, according to our lights. Philosophers Patricia and Paul Churchland, Dennett, and a few others at the conference made this point: ethical wisdom is a work in progress, a matter of “constraint satisfaction” operating over human nature and culture, not a discoverable metaphysical truth. Our evolutionarily derived propensity to imbibe such wisdom and endow it with great motivational weight (give me liberty or give me death) makes it psychologically basic. Since there’s nothing deeper to which we can commit ourselves, and since we often do reach consensus on values, we can justly call our hard won moral wisdom objectively real, not merely a private matter.

This is why I think Slingerland went a bit too far in his moral skepticism by saying that “the values...that populate our world aren’t real.” We must, he said, operate with a dual consciousness: part of ourselves is fully engaged in life, acting as if human rights and moral agents are real, while another understands that actually we’re just organic robots.[7] The (difficult) trick is to know when to take the human-level stance or the physicalist stance. This view, cognitively divided against itself and therefore unstable, still hankers after metaphysical foundations. Slingerland supposes that since we don’t find ethics written in physical, empirically-confirmed reality, we must operate as if objective moral norms existed, as if universal human rights were real.[8] But, once we see that a contingent, politically derived ethical consensus is as real as ethics could conceivably get on a naturalistic understanding, we don’t have to play the “as if” game: there really are morally responsible agents, there really are human rights.[9] We can proceed without being of two minds about life, a simpler and motivationally more effective proposition.

From an evolutionary perspective we can explain why we might want something more, ethically speaking, just as people often want something more, existentially speaking. Many want a purposeful cosmos and therefore posit a creator to endow it with meaning, and many want an ultimate back-up for their moral intuitions. There’s no evidence available to the naturalist to warrant belief in either, but fortunately there are viable naturalistic alternatives. Our lives gain real meaning in the pursuit of human goods such as knowledge, skills, security, community, love, pleasure, and all manner of compelling practical and aesthetic projects. Similarly, we construct real value systems that find sufficient justification within the normative parameters bequeathed us by evolution and culture (see Naturalism and Normativity on this).

The fundamental question facing the builders of Enlightenment 2.0 is whether we can live in the full light of empiricism, one of the Enlightenment’s central achievements, or whether must we deceive ourselves in some respects to carry on, which would of course betray our commitment to truth as we understand it. Can we become full-fledged naturalists, those to whom the world described by science is enough, or must we suppose, counterfactually, that there’s something more? Some think we can’t handle the truth, since without supernatural or transcendental foundations we’re left staring into an abyss. But once we see that meaning and morality are perfectly real, though not supernaturally or transcendently grounded, we won’t have to play the as-if game, deceive ourselves or split our consciousness. Moreover, a steadfast commitment to evidence as the basis for belief is a powerful ally in achieving the norm of equality, another of our central values. For these reasons we can, and should, confidently aspire to a full naturalistic enlightenment.

TWC, January 2008


[1] Note however that on the assumption that we want reliable beliefs about the world, we can justify the “empirical prejudice” as a rational preference, since intersubjective empiricism has no rival in this regard.

[2] In fact Haidt seems of two minds about this. In an essay posted at Edge.Org he writes: “My conclusion is not that secular liberal societies should be made more religious and conservative in a utilitarian bid to increase happiness, charity, longevity, and social capital. Too many valuable rights would be at risk, too many people would be excluded, and societies are so complex that it's impossible to do such social engineering and get only what you bargained for.”

[3] In the Q&A after Sam Harris’ talk, Ronald de Sousa questioned the idea that adaptation should be held as a primary value.

[4] Owen Flanagan considers differing conceptions of human flourishing and their justifications in his book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World.

[5] More broadly, religious naturalism (or naturalistic spirituality) presents itself as a viable fact-based replacement for faith-based religion.

[6] He said at one point “We can say, scientifically, that some worldviews are worse than others. It’s unscientific not to say so.”

[7] About which see Keith Stanovich’s terrific book, The Robot’s Rebellion.

[8] Steven Pinker once took an as-if position about (libertarian, contra-causal) free will in his book How the Mind Works, see here. I think we’re better off admitting we don’t have it, although others disagree.

[9] Similarly, we can say that we have actual knowledge of reality, even though the cognitive norm of science is a culturally evolved human achievement. Why? Because there’s no better way of knowing in the vicinity. The maxim for the naturalist normative realist might be: If a standard for realism about true knowledge or correct ethics is logically or empirically unattainable, it’s misconceived and should be abandoned for a more realistic, attainable standard. A similar point is made in the context of the free will debate here.


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