Worldview Elements

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Living Without God
Book Author: 
Ronald Aronson

"Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism, and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions."

Now that the new atheism has made its splash, the more interesting work remains of constructing positive alternatives to faith-based worldviews. It’s with this aim in mind that Ronald Aronson gives us Living Without God. As he puts it:

Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism, and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions. (18)

The master questions he attributes to Kant: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? Aronson addresses these and many cognate questions for the most part persuasively, drawing on a lifetime of teaching the history of ideas and citing the work of many others who’ve grappled with the same concerns. A first rate humanist scholar, he’s intent on showing we don’t need belief in god, or in Progress, the Enlightenment substitute, to see us through. He gives us an affirmative vision – there’s no religion bashing at all, fortunately – of how secularists can find meaning, solidarity and consolation without illusions. As he points out in the introduction, secularists and non-believers make up a growing proportion of the population in the U.S. and a majority in Europe, so there’s a market for such a vision. Not that he supposes his is the last word. As he puts it “I welcome the fact that others will dispute my list of essential questions, and will argue for better answers than the ones I give” (23).

Gratitude and interdependence

One question is: how can secularists properly feel gratitude for life without believing that there is an ultimate meaning for it assigned by a divinity, a being we can express thanks to? Aronson replies by highlighting our complete connection to the natural world, our utter dependence on the planet and all her resources, biological and social. Given this heritage, we should feel grateful for those antecedents, stretching back into the primeval past and out into our current environment, that give us our existence. We can “educate our sense of gratitude by becoming aware of our own sources” (56).  Even if there’s no ultimate intention behind nature, we need not suppose that the world is therefore absurd: “We belong to an order, a life system, which, however blind and indifferent to us as individuals, gives us our collective and individual possibilities” (46). As he rightly points out, the sense of absurdity, should it arise, arises from the parochial human demand that there be something more than nature to provide it with meaning, not from the perfectly self-adequate fact of nature itself.

Aronson is also right to note that awareness of our physical and social interdependence is obscured by what he calls the Western “autonomy myth,” what I’ve called the myth of radical autonomy or radical individualism, the idea that we are essentially self-made selves owing little or nothing to surrounding circumstances (59-62). Were we to question this myth (few do), we’d be in a better position to experience the truth of our inter-connection with others, and to feel the misfortunes of the unlucky as our own: there but for circumstances go I. That Aronson does so is much to his credit, although as we’ll see he’s not quite free from radical autonomy when it comes to responsibility and choice.

The insight of interdependence figures strongly in Aronson’s moral vision, so that social and economic inequalities become everybody’s business. Each of us, by virtue of our participation in the planetary socio-economic web, bears some responsibility for the welfare of our fellow beings:

…do we see ourselves as isolated, separate individuals, or instead recognize ourselves as belonging to, and depending on, a wider world?  Do we acknowledge our own map of dependence? If we were to open our eyes wide enough to consciously live our individual lives as members of a local, national, and global society, we might care more about providing the chance for a decent life for every individual, including adequate healthcare, nutrition and schools. (80-81)

The autonomy myth, which Aronson says seems to be growing even as our interdependence increases, can lead to “moral hardness,” the idea that since I’ve made it, so could everyone if they just worked harder (82). This allows us to blame the victim and evade our share of collective responsibility. Discarding the myth pushes us in the opposite direction: toward an expanded sense of self and solidarity which reinforces the moral imperative of achieving human rights and economic security for all, not just a privileged few. Even though we might be disillusioned of utopia, we can nevertheless be inspired and energized by the call to equality. So, as Aronson puts it

 …cynics will not win this argument. The articles of [the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights] embody the international consensus concerning human rights achieved by the late twentieth century….They explain how, without God, I can confidently talk about morality. They go so far as to asset that “the individual, having duties to other individuals and to the community to which he belongs, is under a responsibility to strive for the promotion and observance” of these rights. (89) 

Meaning and human hope

It is this communitarian picture of global yet personal responsibility, necessarily expressed locally in our individual lives, that constitutes the moral and motivational core of Aronson’s worldview. He has hope – not utopian, but realistic – that we can make small “p” progress, and he wants us to reclaim such hope as a public, not merely private resource. The grounds for optimism lie in historical examples of social solidarity, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the slow but perceptible trend toward the norm of equality:  “Always a result of specific actions by specific people, human rights reflect a collective and historically expanding determination to be free from domination” (208).  Aronson suggests that the hope generated by a politically progressive reading of our recent history, contingent and reversible though it might be, might serve as one secular substitute for belief in god. 

This is an essentially human-centered vision, in which life’s primary meanings are found in collective projects that increase our flourishing in this world. Although he acknowledges the situatedness of the human condition within an impersonal cosmos – “At bottom, I want to encourage our having the fullest possible awareness of our place in the universe, our belonging, our dependency, our responsibility” (162) – Aronson’s focus is primarily earthbound. It’s hard to fault this kind of humanism since it induces us to act in service to social ideals, and so will undoubtedly appeal to many as a central component of a secular worldview. Aronson’s call to action in the last chapter, while tough-minded, is wonderfully inspiring. But humanism, however ethical and planetary, might not be enough for those whose desires for meaning and significance include but are not limited to moral struggles, whose sense of wonder and possibility transcend the merely human, and who take themselves to be denizens not just of the planet but the cosmos.[1] 

Sartre’s bad faith

The special place of humanity in Aronson’s philosophy comes through strongly in his ideas about responsibility and choice. In a chapter called “Taking responsibility for ourselves,” he seems to suggest that human beings are metaphysically special in nature by having an unconditioned and self-creating freedom of choice. He follows Sartre in this:

…didn’t Sartre himself say “Man is responsible for everything he does”? As he insists, correctly, we are much more than products of our circumstances and environment: we are not raised like corn or cabbages to yield a foreordained result. Our own spontaneity is absolutely irreducible to any and all prior physical processes: “For human reality, to exist is always to assume its being; that is, to be responsible for it instead of receiving it from outside like a stone.” In the end, we make ourselves. (96, emphasis added)

Along the same lines he says

…even the most driven and fearful individuals will make themselves. People, no matter how conditioned by external forces, no matter how unaware of the actual processes at work within them, no matter how passive they seem, are always responsible for their lives. What does this mean, Sartre’s great insight, at the heart of his philosophy? Sartre electrified and scandalized people everywhere immediately after World War II by claiming that humans are free and responsible for themselves in any and every situation. He famously asserted: “The slave in chains is free to break them” and “We were never so free as during the German Occupation.” Despite their extravagance, Sartre wrote these lines only after carefully and patiently explaining the specific ways consciousness makes all humans free, all of the time – even the person being victimized by another’s power. (111)

The difficulty with all this – the assignment of ultimate responsibility and self-creation to the individual – is that it flies in the face of Aronson’s own repudiation of the autonomy myth. Moreover, he acknowledges that from a scientific perspective we’re not self-created: “In a universe governed by physical, chemical and biological processes, human beings, as physical, chemical, and biological beings, are no less determined than anything else by a chain of prior causes” (97) and “As the various sciences make clear, we are a rigorously determined part of a rigorously determined universe” (105). If we are fully determined creatures, how does consciousness confer on us the ultimate responsibility of Sartrean self-creation in which “our own spontaneity is absolutely irreducible to any and all prior physical processes”? Does consciousness somehow transcend its (possibly) deterministic material instantiation in the brain? There’s no scientific evidence I’m aware of that it does. Aronson seems to want it both ways: to acknowledge the naturalistic facts of our complete causal origination in biology and culture, yet reserve some locus of irreducible, self-caused freedom that makes us ultimately responsible for our choices, whatever our circumstances.

He well understands that he’s at an impasse: “We are wrestling with the Sphinx’s Riddle of the twenty-first century: What kind of being is it that is profoundly free, and yet whose decisions and actions are profoundly affected by forces beyond its control?” (101). He tries to attenuate the conflict by citing Habermas’ dualism with respect to personhood: yes, we are physical creatures, but as conscious, norm-creating subjects we escape being fully knowable as objects of explanation. Our freedom comes from being subject to reasons, not merely causes, and it is in reflective consciousness that we find free will:  “In becoming self-conscious, we place ourselves at a distance from our own being, and as a result can examine, evaluate and even change it. Here is where the self appears self-creating” (107). 

Appears, perhaps – but we shouldn’t mistake appearance for reality (see here). Our conscious capacities for memory, imagination and anticipation give us virtual distance from our situation, in that we can conjure “what-if” scenarios that help to guide action. But of course such processing is completely within our actual situation: we don’t achieve literal distance from our own being, a physical and logical impossibility. Our complex internal resources give us the power for proximate, but not ultimate, self-creation. Further, the neural processes that instantiate reasoning and anticipation are likely deterministic (see here), and as philosophers often point out, any indeterminism in how we make choices wouldn’t add to our self-responsibility since it wouldn’t reflect our character or motives. So it doesn’t seem that consciousness could give us the unconditioned freedom that constitutes one side of Aronson’s dilemma.

The dilemma forces him to describe human beings as simultaneously free and not free. For instance, describing those growing up in poverty he says

Free to choose as never before, and free to move around as never before, young poor blacks are directly in charge of their lives as never before in America – but usually lack the means and the ability to do much more than perpetuate a self-defeating and violent youth culture that reflects their environment…Most conscious beings who are free to choose, living in such conditions, cannot help but remain seriously undeveloped, unable to magically invent themselves into the mainstream without appropriate skills, incentives, or opportunities. Free, they are thus unfree in decisive ways. They will become responsible for making their own lives, but they are certainly not responsible for the conditions under which they have to make themselves, or even for the skills with which they try to understand and adapt to their conditions. They are responsible for making themselves, yes, in a social situation that is responsible for their continuing deprivation. (118-9)

One wonders how someone can simultaneously be free and yet “lack the means and the ability” to change their culture. How can someone who is “unfree in decisive ways,” who is not responsible for her circumstances or the skills available to her, be free and responsible for making her own life such that she deserves blame for not making better choices? Note that this question applies to all of us, not just those raised in poverty. Is there something about human agents that categorically transcends their circumstances? Aronson says yes: “a modest, but still decisive, margin of free activity” (112). What is this, precisely? It’s the capacity of the individual to contribute something beyond what’s given to her by her biological and social circumstances. He again quotes Sartre: Freedom is “the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him” (112).  But again one wonders how this small movement originates, where it comes from. How can a totally conditioned being be in some sense unconditioned in its behavior? This is the supernatural mystery at the core of Sartre’s and Aronson’s notion of human agency.

The solution to the Sphinx’s Riddle is simple: drop the idea that consciousness affords us the freedom of literal and ultimate self-creation. After all, there’s no empirical evidence that we have such freedom. Sartre was wrong to think we somehow transcend our circumstances and thus bear ultimate responsibility for our choices. What Sartre failed to see, judging by how Aronson invokes his philosophy, is that we don’t have to be ultimately free or self-created to take and assign responsibility, or to be held responsible. Our spontaneity, consciousness, decision-making capacities and moral sensitivities need not be irreducible to prior circumstances and conditions for them to be real, and to be the adequate basis for our responsibility practices (see here and here). We remain moral, effective agents in the absence of contra-causal free will. Sartre’s ideology of radical freedom is an instance of the bad faith he thought determinist philosophies were guilty of, but in the opposite direction: an empirically unjustified faith in human causal exceptionalism.

This matters greatly since it affects our attitudes about those who don’t make the grade in life – drug addicts, criminals, the homeless, etc. – all those that Aronson believes (or should believe, given his agreement with Sartre) could have made better choices in their tough circumstances, but simply chose not to. As much as Aronson decries the autonomy myth, it’s the myth in full force to suppose that “there is a modest, but still decisive, margin of free activity” that can’t be explained by a person’s causal history. Any kernel of absolute freedom, however small, is routinely used (especially by punishment-oriented conservatives) to justify assigning full, ultimate responsibility to individuals who make bad choices. This lets society and the rest of us off the hook while deflecting attention from the actual social and biological causes of human failings. Seeing that we don’t have such freedom, we become more compassionate, more cognizant of causes, and therefore more interested and adept in addressing conditions that produce poverty, criminality, addiction and other behavioral problems (see here). Aronson’s progressive concern for social injustice and inequality would be better served were he to abandon Sartrean freedom in favor of a fully naturalistic conception of human nature. More generally, a thorough-going naturalism about personhood is a necessary component of any coherent secular worldview that claims consistency with the most objective understanding of ourselves, that given by science. We must not only learn to live without god, but without supernatural free will, and doing so leads us in a progressive direction.[2]

Refusing to know

Aronson’s commitment to human causal exceptionalism carries over into the next chapter, “Choosing to know,” in which he discusses the prevalence in the United States of beliefs in such things as creationism, paranormal phenomena, ghosts, witchcraft, and astrology. He lays blame at the doorstep of those who, using their Sartrean freedom, willfully choose to remain ignorant of mainstream science:

The point is, as Jean-Paul Sartre said (in a little-known posthumously published book, Truth and Existence), to be ignorant is to choose to ignore; it is to look away from what there is to know. Creationists ignore, turn away from, refuse to acknowledge, what is there and waiting to be seen, and for which there is ample evidence: modern science’s understanding of how the earth, plants, and animals came into existence. To choose not to know that humans have evolved over millions of years is to ignore what we have collectively learned is so. It is, in Sartrean terms, to engage in bad faith, an act of denial. (125)

But of course the irony here is that a scientific understanding of why people ignore or downplay science can’t involve a radically autonomous choice on their part, since there’s no scientific evidence that choices are autonomous in this sense. To say creationists are guilty of Sartrean bad faith in their ignorance is itself, from a naturalistic, scientific standpoint, the bad faith of believing without good evidence that the choice to know (or ignore) is in some respect unconditioned.

In championing a secular enlightenment, Aronson rightly wants to answer some basic questions about our cognitive practices: “Why, if people do possess the capacities to understand the world and themselves, do they often choose not to employ these? And given all the bizarre and distorted things people choose to believe, what does it take to exercise these abilities?” (127).  If we knew the answers, we’d be in a better position to create the conditions which induce people to use reliable modes of knowing, for instance empirical modes exemplified by science. Aronson does indeed explore some of the psychological and social factors that, as he puts it, stifle “the will to know.” Among them is our increasingly specialized technological culture which demands that education impart increasingly specialized skills. This results in deemphasizing such things as critical thinking, interdisciplinary knowledge, and attention to epistemological questions of how we know what we know. Add to this the possibly innate human cravings for certainty, security and ultimate meaning, all of which predispose us to see a benign intention in nature, and it’s no wonder that when it comes to worldviews many folks end up in supernaturalism and superstition.

It is this sort of analysis – causal, situational, empirical – that can answer Aronson’s questions about why we are so epistemically challenged in the US. But then we shouldn’t hold creationists ultimately responsible for their cognitive shortcomings, as Aronson does here:

…like everyone else, creationists are subject to a culture that often fails to equip people to think scientifically, to conflicting mountains of knowledge demanding to be assimilated daily, and to schooling that does not insist that their people develop and exercise their capacities to know actively and integratively. Nevertheless, even if we might explain in these various ways some of the forces that make creationists fearful of using their reason, the fact remains: embracing creationism is a refusal of the responsibility, as Sartre calls it, to “act, create, reveal, verify, accept.” To do so would lead to reconciling one’s faith with the realities of life rather than visa versa. Rejecting evolution is a choice to be ignorant. (145)

Note that the blameworthy Sartrean choice to remain ignorant of science trumps all of Aronson’s empirical explaining. Such a choice ultimately can’t be explained except as an unconditioned act of will, in which case policies designed to increase acceptance of science might be thwarted by unconditioned and hence uncontrollable refusals to know. This is a pessimistic conclusion indeed, and one which might harden attitudes towards creationists, who on this account are perverse, willful deniers of knowledge. But since, contra Sartre, there’s no good reason to believe in such unconditioned refusals, we can remain optimistic that the right mix of educational and economic policies might eventually turn the tide in favor of science. This also leads to a more empathetic understanding of our worldview adversaries, since we can no longer regard them as ultimately self-caused in their errors.

Aronson ends the chapter asking: “What can we know, then? An amazing amount if we free ourselves from fears, prejudices, and official stories, and if we develop the disposition to avoid weird beliefs and we learn to make connections” (149). Quite right, and we must especially apply this recommendation to our culture’s official story about human choice-making, a story wedded to the weird belief that human beings are disconnected in some crucial respect from nature and thus can transcend causality and circumstances when choosing their epistemologies, worldviews and even their very selves. Were Aronson to reject this belief, to take this last, necessary step in naturalizing human nature, his secular philosophy would gain in coherence and compassion.

Death and nothingness

It is perhaps fear of death that, consciously or unconsciously, most drives people into the arms of faith-based religion, so Aronson devotes a chapter to how we can face death and dying without belief in god. As elsewhere in this book, he gives us a wise yet practical perspective, and much specific guidance that draws on his own life experience. He argues that if we permit ourselves to fully experience the pain of loss, to truly mourn the passing of loved ones, thus admitting the power of death over us, we are not diminished but rather enriched. If we acknowledge the fundamental truths of human interdependence and global impermanence in our response to dying, our lives gain a depth and authenticity that would otherwise be missing. The acceptance of death can inform each moment of life without overshadowing life itself, inspiring us to be fully engaged in our existence. And the finality of death forces us to attend to the question of whether indeed we have lived fully. If we have, we can also accept the slow but inevitable decline and disappearance of our faculties in old age. Aronson points out that most religious rituals associated with dying are “steeped in denial” that death is the end of the person (161). So as the end comes, the secular challenge is to find the grace in death, to arrange a life-affirming moment in which the dying person takes leave with dignity and love. Death, both foreseen and undergone, thus helps make life meaningful for the secularist; it isn’t a threat to meaning that must be denied or overcome, even if we can’t help but flinch at the prospect of our own non-existence.

My only disagreement in this chapter concerns Arsonson’s conception of death and non-existence itself. He quotes Epicurus: “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” This is to say that death cannot be an experienced fact for us, for instance an experienced eternal “nothingness” or darkness. We do not undergo or endure what philosopher Galen Strawson calls the “eternity of non-existence.”[3] But at several points Aronson writes as if we’d be correct to anticipate nothingness or non-existence, for example:

I fear this end because I want to live, I want to be, not as dispersed atoms but as the self that I am. That self already knows a considerable amount about the nothingness that awaits me, and I resist this, even if I never say a word about it. I know that my mind will stop working, all sensation will cease, I will have no feelings, my power of motion will stop, time will end.  (153-4) [4]

This intuition is common enough, but we shouldn’t imagine that when we die that nothingness awaits us, since that supposes the subject persists after death. The nature of consciousness is such that it’s impossible for it to witness its own cessation, so we shouldn’t anticipate the “end of time” at death. What we should anticipate is an interesting philo-scientific question, one explored in Death, nothingness and subjectivity.[5] Here I’ll just suggest that naturalistic conceptions of death and consciousness might provide some comfort for those who fear nothingness, since although the particular person ends, consciousness, for itself in all its myriad forms, in this universe and others that might exist, arguably does not.

Structuring a worldview

Despite my occasional disagreements, overall Aronson gives us much to reflect on in this book, and much that will ring true for secularists looking for an affirmative naturalistic philosophy. There are many, many insightful observations on humanity, society, ethics and existence, organized by the particular question of life at issue, whether it be death, hope, responsibility, knowledge or social obligation. All this makes the book eminently worthwhile. That said, to my way of thinking Aronson hasn’t quite given us a systematic secular worldview, but rather a rich resource on essential particulars that any such worldview must encompass. A more systematic approach might, for instance, state and defend the worldview’s epistemological assumptions about how we know what we know; then describe its ontology – what its modes of knowing show to exist; then perhaps offer a picture of human nature and human agency – who we are, essentially. Given this overarching cognitive framework, it might then develop an account of a naturalized, secular ethics and explore the worldview’s personal, social, political and existential ramifications. Although Aronson has done some of this work, what’s missing is an explicit structure that would weld his many insights into a unified philosophy.

As someone engaged in the project of developing systematic worldview naturalism (a sketch is here), I’m undoubtedly biased in wanting more structure, something in the way of a roadmap for answering life’s vital questions. Of course it could be that life and our questions about it will always outstrip any complete systematization (and maybe they should!), but we won’t know unless we try. In Living Without God, Aronson gives us important and sincerely expressed worldview elements, many of which I think will survive in what I expect will be friendly competition and collaboration in secular worldview construction. Given the variability in human personality, upbringing and taste, there will undoubtedly be markets for more than one coherent secular philosophy, but there might also be an eventual convergence, especially if science and other forms of intersubjectivity end up as our favored epistemology. Aronson knows we’re in the early stages of this project and doesn’t pretend to have the definitive answer, or even the definitive questions. But what he does have, in spades, is the breadth of knowledge and vision to make him a first class explorer of the terrain to be mapped.

TWC - December, 2008


[1] In his book Reason and Reverence, William R. Murry suggests that humanism is too small a stage for our existential concerns, and so recommends adopting religious naturalism. In a rather different departure from humanism, so-called transhumanists find a more durable, ultimate meaning in the possibility that we might self-modify into creatures (cyborgs?) whose concerns might be alien to us in our current form.

[2] The myth of contra-causal free will is perhaps the major stumbling block for secularists in the project of developing a consistently naturalistic worldview. A good example is (again) William R. Murry, see here. See also the free will page.

[3] In Strawson’s “The self.”

[4] Another instance: “Although neither gives us a full appreciation of life in the face of dying, their key insights – Epicurus’s notion of death as nothing and [Ernest] Becker’s theme of the denial of death – do point us in the right direction. They provoke us to encounter the nothingness that awaits us, and to face up to our own impulse to deny that we will die.” (155)

[5] This was the topic of a recent Scientific American article by Jesse Bering, Never say die: why we can’t imagine death.