July 22, 2010
The name, the Institute for Science and Human Values, suggests a compelling relationship between how we come to know and how we aim to act. Is this justified? The naturalistic fallacy states it is not possible to obtain a prescriptive system from a descriptive one. In other words, if this is true, we cannot expect to get our morals from scientific knowledge of the natural order. This in turn suggests that any claim to a close relationship between science and human values, or ethics, may be exaggerated if not mistaken. The following arguments will demonstrate that while the naturalistic fallacy may be formally correct, scientific knowledge is highly relevant to choosing those actions that best conform to our most basic ethical principles, and is often an excellent guide to refining those principles as we learn more about ourselves from advances in the sciences.
First, it is useful to remind ourselves that science is a way of knowing about the natural order, the only one that by definition combines observation, experimentation, and logical analysis. There is no place for “faith” in this process, unless by faith one means the conviction that the process can work when applied to understanding nature, as opposed to “supernature.” While many people make claims for the supernatural, no person to date has ever discovered the tiniest fragment of evidence for its existence that would pass the muster of science. Had such a fragment ever been discovered, every reasonable person, especially scientists, would agree it was the most important discovery in the human saga and it would become generally known. That it is not generally known and that it has been passionately sought gives apt demonstration that the probability of its existence becomes almost vanishingly small. Thus, as far as evidence and reason can take us, the only order with which we need concern ourselves is the natural order of which we are a part.
The idea that science is only one way of knowing has been emphasized by certain intellectuals in defense of other ways for which equal weight is sometimes claimed. As long as we restrict ourselves to the natural order, that claim can be disproved. This can be demonstrated by creating a sliding scale with science, as defined above, at one end and faith, as usually understood, at the other. This leaves only three possibilities for a truth claim. It must either be based on science alone, on faith alone, or on some combination of the two that lies somewhere in between. Of the three, only science is based on what can be confirmed by our senses, properly extended by instruments, and combined with logical thought. Sophisticated arguments can be offered speculating on the role of the nervous system in interpreting “reality.” However, if the nervous system itself is only part of the natural order mentioned in the previous paragraph, then it too can be studied by the scientific process, as is occurring right now. There is no doubt that science is a superior way of knowing the natural order.
The Rationalist Press Association was founded in 1899, the same year that Robert Ingersoll, the America's leading agnostic of the nineteenth century, died. Both shared the same commitment to rationalism. This rationalism spoke to the interests and needs of the nineteenth century, and it may seem a bit quaint today. The publishing programme of the Rationalist Association made a major contribution in its day, and we look back to this with gratitude. The founding statement of the RPA is still attractive to us today-though we need to elaborate on it, for example, by emphasizing the role that scientific methods of inquiry provide in testing claims to truth, and also seeking to apply science to concrete moral, political and social problems. The broad rationalist, secular, scientific agenda nonetheless has made many strides in the last century and on many fronts: Science and scientific methods continue to make impressive gains and to be applied to wider areas of human interest. The right of dissent, including atheism, is now widely accepted, at least in the democratic countries of the world (the problem that Bradlaugh faced is very rarely encountered today). The educational institutions, schools, universities, and colleges in most democratic countries are permeated with secular concerns and interests. And there are great libraries, museums, magazines, and books devoted to furthering science and reason.
Unfortunately, at the same time, there are many minuses. Notably, there has been a growth of fundamentalist and orthodox religions throughout the world--they have not declined as confidently predicted in 1899. Similarly, the 20th century has seen the rise and defeat of irrational totalitarian ideologies, such as fascism and communism. And in recent decades there has been a growth of new cults of unreason and the paranormal, fanned by irresponsible media. Postmodernism has also emerged to challenge the rationalist outlook.
The greatest failure is, of course, that the double standard still persists today as in 1899. Many highly educated persons (including scientists) will apply rationalism to their own fields, but will nonetheless continue to defer to religious faith. Criticism of religion is considered, in many backwater countries (such as the United States), if not dangerous, at least in bad taste.
In 1999 we can ask, What is to be done in the future? I wish to briefly suggest three necessary additions to the rationalist agenda:
First, rationalism needs to go beyond an intellectual statement or a limited publishing programme, and to be supplemented by humanism. This has already occurred with the founding of the British Humanist Association and other humanist organisations worldwide. It is recognized that we need to translate rationalism into praxis and go beyond being a debating society. It is the relevance of rational humanism to a person's eupraxsophy or life stance that is vital, including its relevance to concrete moral, social, and political issues.
by Paul Kurtz
I consider the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki possibly the worst moral crime in American history. Two hundred thousand people were killed and countless thousands were maimed for life-the innocent civilian populations of those cities were decimated...
I was on the Western Front in the American Army of liberation of Europe when the news broke of the bombings, having witnessed the infamous death camps of the Nazis and their many crimes first hand. I literally broke down when I heard about these actions of Truman. While all of my comrades were cheering, I asked what could possibly be the moral justification for these dastardly deeds. We were told that it would shorten the war and thus save American lives--hardly a sufficient reason.
They could have detonated the bombs first on uninhabited atolls in the Pacific, notifying the Japanese of our new weapon and enabling them to surrender before the bombs were used on entire civilian populations. These acts were among the most heinous in human history, perpetrated by a democracy no less, which believed in human rights. Humanists should mark that event in protest and remorse ....Paul Kurtz
The Code for Global Ethics: Ten
Advance praise for
“Rodrigue Tremblay points out in The Code for Global Ethics that we need to abandon selective moralities . . . [and] move to a higher plane in which all members of the human family are treated equally as persons. . . . Dr. Tremblay eloquently defends this form of rational humanism.”
—Paul Kurtz, PhD, founder of the Center for Inquiry and the
Institute for Science and Human Values
“This book represents a valuable and indispensable guide through the complexity of modern life and moral issues facing us every day. It offers a natural and far superior alternative to traditional religious moralities.”
—Marian Hillar, MD, PhD, professor of philosophy and religious
studies, director of the Center for Philosophy and Socinian Studies, and
author of The Case of Michael Servetus (1511–1553) and Michael
Servetus: Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr
“Tremblay’s ten principles provide us with a rational jumping-off point toward a new society no longer exploited by the power elites of church, state, and business.”
—Victor J. Stenger, author of the New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis
“Dr. Tremblay offers historical argument and proposals for integrating humanist philosophy into both our everyday lives and our social institutions. Policymakers and laypersons alike should heed his account of humanist principles, for in them lies a path to greater peace, tolerance, and societal progress.”
—David Koepsell, JD, PhD, former executive director of the
Council for Secular Humanism and assistant professor of ethics at the
Delft University of Technology
Jack Van Pelt
All people born on this planet received a legacy from generations past, as will future generations. Such legacies as science, art, philosophy, humanism, freedom and equality, are treasured because they enhance the human condition. Unfortunately, for most of the earth’s inhabitants, the legacies they receive are greed, war, pollution, dominance, imposed ignorance, starvation, pain and suffering, and even death. The planet has become a playground for some of the world’s most immoral people to impose their will on the rest of humanity as well as on the earth itself. As the unfolding world events are becoming more global in nature, the need for a unified planetary response is becoming more evident. If such immorality and greed are left unchecked, the results will be devastating to the planetary and human condition. Even though the past cannot be changed, the future certainly can be, and that’s where we, the present, emerge as the shapers of the future.
What can be done?
The course is clear for individuals that believe in a human condition that includes freedom of speech, the right to a healthy and clean planet, the right to hold an individual belief system, and the freedom from those who would take away these rights. Regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, likeminded people must work together as a planetary coalition, guided by ethics, science, reason, morality and empathy. This coalition must be vocal, active, and dedicated to using all the tools at their disposal to create a unified force that cannot be ignored.
Second article in Secular Woman’s Women’s History Month Series.
by Toni Van Pelt
Adapted from NY Times story by Judy Pehrson 2001
The struggle for enfranchisement in the United States, a woman’s right to vote, actually began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, led by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony (Judy Pehrson NY Times 2001). The Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the convention demanded the right to vote, as well as equal rights in education, industry, the professions, political office, marriage, personal freedom, control of property, guardianship of children, making of contracts, the church and in the leadership of all moral and public movements.
The Suffrage Amendment was introduced into Congress a generation later, but it remained on the shelf. By 1912 it had only once been voted on in the Senate in 1887 and never in the House of Representatives. It had not received a favorable report from the committee of either house since 1892, and had not received a report of any kind since 1896. Suffrage had not been debated on either floor since 1887. To add to the bleak outlook for the amendment, incoming President Woodrow Wilson opposed it.
Written by Leo Igwe, Fellow, James Randi Educational Foundation
For too long, African societies have been identified as superstitious, consisting of people who cannot question, reason or think critically. Dogma and blind faith in superstition, divinity and tradition are said to be the mainstay of popular thought and culture. African science is often equated with witchcraft and the occult; African philosophy with magical thinking, myth-making and mysticism, African religion with stone-age spiritual abracadabra, African medicine with folk therapies often involving pseudoscientific concoctions inspired by magical thinking. Science, critical thinking and technological intelligence are portrayed as Western — as opposed to universal — values, and as alien to Africa and to the African mindset. An African who thinks critically or seeks evidence and demands proofs for extraordinary claims is accused of taking a “white” or Western approach. An African questioning local superstitions and traditions is portrayed as having abandoned or betrayed the essence of African identity. Skepticism and rationalism are regarded as Western, un-African, philosophies. Although there is a risk of overgeneralizing, there are clear indicators that the continent is still socially, politically and culturally trapped by undue credulity.
Many irrational beliefs exist and hold sway across the region. These are beliefs informed by fear and ignorance, misrepresentations of nature and how nature works. These misconceptions are often instrumental in causing many absurd incidents, harmful traditional practices and atrocious acts. For instance, not too long ago, the police in Nigeria arrested a ‘robber’ goatwhich they said was a thief who suddenly turned to a goat. A Nigerian woman was reported to have given birth to a horse. In Zambia, a local school closed temporarily due to fears of witchcraft. In Uganda, there are
claims of demonic attacks in schools across the country. Persecution and murder of alleged witches continue in many parts of the continent. Many Africans still believe that their suffering and misfortune are caused by witchcraft and magic. In Malawi, belief in witchcraft is widespread. Ritual killing and sacrifice of albinos and other persons with disabilities take place in many communities, and are motivated by paranormal belief. Across Africa people still believe in the potency and efficacy of juju and magic charms. Faith-based abuses are perpetrated with impunity. Jihadists, witch-hunters and other militants are killing, maiming and destroying lives and property. Other-worldly visions and dogmatic attitudes about the supernatural continue to corrupt and hamper attempts by Africans to improve their lives. Even with the continent’s ubiquitous religiosity, many African states are to be found at the bottom of the Human Development Index and on the top of the poverty, mortality and morbidity indices. Recently Africa was polled as the most devout region in the world, and this includes deep devotion to the continent’s various harmful superstitions. Devoutness and underdevelopment,
Strengthening Efforts to Eradicate Violence against Women
Diverse Human Rights agreements and declarations affirm the rights and freedoms of all individuals, including rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. However, they also affirm the right to a life free of violence, and the duty of States, notwithstanding diverse cultures, religions and traditions, to fulfill their obligations.
All over the world, diverse anti-rights groups (including States and non-state actors) are increasingly using arguments based on religion, culture and tradition to justify violence and discrimination. This violence is particularly targeted against women, girls, ethnic and religious minorities, people who dissent from or challenge (or are deemed to be challenging) fundamentalist movements, and people expressing (or perceived to be expressing) non-normative gender identities and sexualities.
Jack Van Pelt
Toni Van Pelt
UN General Assembly
Sandra Dughman Manzur