Friday, October 12, 2012

Alternatives - Part 2: Absolute "Freethought"


In my previous post in this series, I presented some of the stronger criticisms of theism as an absolute world view or heuristic.  Classical “supernaturalistic theism” was found to face difficulties with scientific naturalism (a redundancy used here for emphasis), to cultivate the problems of theodicy, and to hold the potential to turn into abuse of ethical priorities and human rights.  It should be noted that the criticisms so far developed related to theism as an heuristic, that is, as an interpretive lens through which one attempts to make sense of the world and to align reality.  These criticisms do not necessarily mean that theism is incorrect or somehow unsalvageable; however, as I will show later in this series, there are alternatives to both the absolutes of theism and atheism.

In speaking of theism and atheism as absolutes, I am hearkening to the useful spectrum of theistic-atheistic possibilities developed by Richard Dawkins.  This spectrum holds a polarity between a Level-1 Theist who holds unquestionably to the proposition that there is a personal God and the opposite end Level-7 Atheist who asserts unquestionably that there isn't a God.  In this spectrum, Level -2 Theists and Level-6 Atheists maintain the “de-facto” stance that, though an absolute conclusion on theism and atheism is beyond verification or final proof, each respective platform is held as true beyond reasonable doubt.  Within this spectrum, it should be noted, Dawkins himself identifies as a Level-6 or “de-facto” atheist (Dawkins).

Freethinkers – Platonic Disciples of the Enlightenment

Freethought can be defined as the proposition that:
…individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason.  Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas (Wikipedia, “Freethought” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freethought, accessed October 12, 2012)
In my criticisms that follow, I want to emphasize that I identify largely as a freethinker, and thus I speak as a self-critical and thus self-aware practitioner.  There are some profoundly important methodological aspects to freethought that are, unfortunately, more often than not asserted in a profoundly naïve manner.  I hope to point this out in the process of this post. 

Plato maintained that ideas are prior to matter and knowledge transcends situation.  For Plato conceptual knowledge trumped the limits of the physical world.  Knowledge, real knowledge, is absolute and transcends without necessarily excluding the situations in which a knowledge is expressed.  Any philosophy which asserts that knowledge is extrinsic thus expresses a fundamental agreement with platonic thought.  

Freethought seeks to escape the shackles of subjectivity, culture, convention, tradition, and prejudice – it seeks to lay hold of that “true knowledge” which is thus extrinsic to these presumably inferior limits.  The freethinker thus relies on “objective fact” and not “subjective emotions” or convention.  In these regards, freethought is platonic.

British-Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, the author of the “duck-rabbit”illustration asserted:
The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt…It belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted (1969, p. 342)
If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The practice of doubt itself presupposes certainty (1969, p. 115).

Wittgenstein thus maintains that it is impossible to question, to doubt, or to practice skepticism without having a foundation upon which to stand.  Tilley (2000) proposes:
To attempt to analyze, inquire, doubt, or question a given item in a tradition requires participating in some tradition (perhaps not the tradition under inquiry).  …the Enlightenment thinker’s commitment to rationality arises within a tradition.  Numerous contemporary philosophers have even argued that such a commitment is a faith commitment, in the sense that it is not founded on an argument but is grounded in hope and sustained and supported by fellow practitioners (pgs 20-21). 

What is the tradition that the freethinker aligns with?  The freethinker is aligned with the Enlightenment trajectory that crystallizes into modernism.  The practice of modernism is heuristically, at its best, worked out in positivism (or verificationism) and methodological naturalism.  Positivism is the position that the only questions worth asking or answering are those which can be answered empirically, that is, through science, and science relies by definition on the use of methodological naturalism.

Uncritical Practitioners

Unfortunately, many freethinkers are not practicing a self-critical skepticism, and rather than realizing the limits of our own methodologies, we elevate them all too often to the level of metaphysical absolutes.  Clayton and Knapp note, “...the presumption of naturalism is methodological not metaphysical, because otherwise the presumption would be arbitrary, a matter of (nonreligious) faith or dogma" (2012).  A self-critical skepticism turns its lenses back onto itself, recognizes the historical-cultural location of its own methods, and is aware of the point at which a methodology becomes a metaphysic.

 Caputo and Gianna (2007) assert the following propositions about human knowledge:
…there is no experience of truth that is not interpretive.  I do not know anything that does not interest me.  If it does interest me, it is evident that I do not look at it in a noninterested way (Loc 285).
…knowledge is not the pure, uninterested reflection of the real, but the interested approach to the world, which is itself historically mutable and culturally conditioned (Loc 316).

When the situatedness of human knowledge is forgotten, the practitioner is at risk of elevating her perspective to the level of a “God’s eye” perspective.  And this is the irony of absolute atheism: it practices the dogmatism of asserting a “God’s eye perspective,” that is, it falls into the temptation of the mythical Adam and Eve who seek to know, who seek to grasp what is not possible and so to leave behind the ultimate situatedness of human knowledge.

Abusive Absolutes in Freethought and Atheism

As touched on in the last post, absolute theism presents the ever-present risk of “masking social oppression and grant[ing] legitimacy to the status quo” (Ellison, p. 24), we also need to exercise caution about science masked as “objective” or “God’s eye” truth.   Ellison observes, “Science reflects ideological interests and helps to promote them as legitimate.  …science has the power to constitute and not merely observe difference.”   Ellison then observes how biology was used to legitimate status quo gender differences to make them appear natural rather than political in origin (p. 36). 

We hence see that freethought and science (which are not synonymous) can be abused when they are used to legitimate power interests.  In fact, calling skepticism by the epithet “freethought” can be a source of abuse because the implication explicit in this term is the “freedom” of the practice from situatedness in tradition, culture, politics, and power interests. 

There are other options to the absolutes thus far critiqued, and they do not require the dissolute.  That is, the only alternative to absolute is not dissolute relativism.  In the next most I will introduce one alternative.


Works Cited:
Caputo, John D. & Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God – Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture. New York: Colombia University Press, 2007.
Clayton, Philip and Knapp, Steven. The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1996).
Tilley, Terrence W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. New York: Orbis, 2000.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Ansombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1969; as quoted in Tilley, Terrance W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. New York: Orbis, 2000.

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