Clarifying the Relationship between Naturalism and Secular Humanism

Civitas Humana is a website dedicated to exploring and advocating secular philosophy, metaphysical naturalism, and secular humanism. However, I would like to make a point of clarification about the interrelation between these terms.

Naturalism is the metaphysical/ontological view that the natural world is a closed system, in that nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it. In other words, “nature” is all that exists and nothing supernatural or non-natural either exists or affects the natural world (for further elaboration about the definition of naturalism, see here). Often times the naturalist metaphysical view is paired with the secular humanist ethical view, as is the case on this blog.

In Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, philosopher Stephen Law defines the core beliefs of secular humanists as follows:

  1. Secular humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.
  1. Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.
  1. Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.
  1. Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.
  1. Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.
  1. Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favour an open, democratic society and believe the State should take neutral stance on religion.
  1. Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.

Notably, naturalism is not included in the beliefs of secular humanists outlined above. As Law explains in his recent blog post, “Secular Humanism: DON’T Define It as Requiring Naturalism,” one does not have to sign up to metaphysical naturalism to still be a secular humanist. In fact, Law himself is a secular humanist who does not identify as a naturalist (although Law does state that he “leans towards” naturalism).

Law lists two reasons why secular humanism should not be defined as requiring naturalism:

  1. Because it unnecessarily excludes many from the secular humanist club who could and should be invited in.
    • In other words, atheists who are not naturalists will seem excluded from secular humanism, if it is defined as requiring naturalism. If it is not defined as such, then more atheists can be welcomed into the secular humanist movement.
  1. Because it creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune.
    • Law explains that, if secular humanism is defined as requiring naturalism, then all a critic of secular humanism has to do is attack naturalism in order to refute secular humanism. This should not be the case, since there are many plausible forms of secular humanism that do not necessarily require naturalism.

I would like to state, as one of the editors and contributors to Civitas Humana, that I fully agree with Law’s argument. Secular humanism should NOT be defined as requiring naturalism, even if many secular humanists subscribe to a naturalist version of secular humanism. There are other non-naturalist versions of secular humanism that are held by atheists, and they are welcomed here on Civitas Humana!

Why then does Civitas Humana advocate BOTH naturalism AND secular humanism? The reason why is that the version of secular humanism promoted on this blog is a naturalist secular humanism. As Law notes, naturalism can be paired with secular humanism, and this is not in the least an awkward combination. Naturalism is a secular metaphysical view and secular humanism is a secular ethical view, both of which nicely go together. But the two do not necessarily have to go together.

As such, when naturalism and secular humanism are associated on this blog (as is the case in my metaphysics series), please understand that this is only the version of secular humanism promoted on this blog. This blog acknowledges that there are also non-naturalist forms of secular humanism, and we also welcome ideas and feedback from non-naturalist secular humanists.

I hope this clarifies the positions discussed here on Civitas Humana! If you have any further questions or comments about the relation between naturalism and secular humanism, let us know in the comments below!

-Matthew Ferguson

Κέλσος and Civitas Humana Plans for Academic Year 2014-2015

This week the Fall 2014 academic quarter starts up in the UC system, meaning that I am heading back to grad school. As I discussed in a previous post, this year will be especially important for my graduate career, since I will be taking the last 3 (out of 7) of my Ph.D. qualifying exams (Latin translation, Greek translation, and ancient literature). If I can pass those, then I will advance to candidacy and be cleared for starting my dissertation.

I am fortunate to have a 6-year fellowship at UC Irvine, so that, if I can pass my qualifying exams this year, I will have 3 years after that to work on my dissertation. I also plan to finish my book project during that time. All of this will hopefully take place during academic years 2015-2018.

So now I want to discuss my plans for academic year 2014-2015. Κέλσος is nearing its two year anniversary on October 1st. I’ve blogged consistently for the first two years of my Ph.D. program and worked to share a lot of what I have learned from my graduate work about ancient history and the Greco-Roman world. I am also glad that during that time Κέλσος was ranked 75th Bible blog on the web in Peter Kirby’s (Early Christian Writings) 2014 Summer Report.

This year will be the most challenging yet of my graduate career. Since I have to pass both a Latin and Greek translation exam (3 hours each), based on a list of ancient authors spanning a thousand year period (8th century BCE – 2nd century CE), with no dictionary of course, I will need to be devoting my full energy and attention to preparing my Latin and Greek language skills. Also, in Spring 2015, I plan to commute up to UC Santa Barbara to take New Testament and ancient religion seminars in their Religious Studies department, which will be another major time commitment.

So, where does blogging fit into this year? I have thought about it, and, while I think that it would be possible for me to still keep up blogging, while studying for my Ph.D. exams, I have decided that it is probably not the best use of my time year. This year I need to not only pass my Latin and Greek exams, but also to hone my skills as a philologist and professional. After all, you only get your graduate years once, and when you are a Classicist, a substantial part of that time needs to be spent, not only learning Latin and Greek, but perfecting and mastering your skills in those languages. You will need to master these languages before you can be a professor in academia.

As such, I have decided that I will not be posting continuously this academic year on Κέλσος and Civitas Humana. For the past two years I have worked to put up multiple posts each month (usually 3 on Κέλσος and 1 on Civitas Humana). My posts are often long and take a long time to write. For 2014-2015, I will not be posting on a consistent month-to-month basis. I need to be fully freed from all other commitments, so that I can devote all of my energy to my Ph.D. graduate work this year.

Does that mean I will not be posting anything? NO. I still plan to post on this blog over the next academic year, I only do not promise to post anything consistently. I am right in the middle of my metaphysics series on Civitas Humana, and I have only written the first part of my ancient biography series on Κέλσος. I will come back and finish these series whenever I find the time. I also plan to announce future publications here, and to post papers from conferences.

The main difference for 2014-2015 is that I will only be posting more sporadically rather than on a consistent month-to-month basis.

I do plan to return in 2015-2018 to continue blogging more on counter-apologetics, especially as I work on my book project and dissertation.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading the blog! I’ve written a lot over the past two years and I appreciate everyone who has been consistent readers. Already, both Κέλσος and Civitas Humana provide great databases on ancient history, counter-apologetics, naturalism, and secular humanism. It’s great to already have this information out there, even if I write less this year.

Feel free to still post comments during 2014-2015. I’ll still be around and will still be studying ancient history, the New Testament, and philosophy. I also look forward to this being a refreshing year to study the Latin and Greek languages at my most rigorous level yet!

-Matthew Ferguson

Agency and Freewill in Metaphysical Naturalism

In the last two parts of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” there was an aspect in each discussion that suggests we live in a deterministic universe.

A vs. B Theory of TimeIn my article about cosmology and time, I discussed the B-Thoery of time, which holds that all time is equally real, so that the past exists in the same moment as our present, and our present exists in the same moment as the future. This theory of time explains how our universe did not “begin” ex nihilo, but has always existed in four permanent dimensions, with time simply being the fourth dimension of space. This approach to time is useful for countering the apologetic cosmological argument, but it also leads to the conclusion that our universe is fully determined. After all, if the future already exists in the same moment as our present, then the future must already be determined.

brain-leftIn my article about human origins, I also discussed Mind-Body Physicalism, which holds that our minds are purely physical objects. As such, mental states are either identical to physical states or are supervenient upon physical states. Today we can map the human brain and even locate the very parts of the brain that control our thoughts and actions. In fact, we can even identify activity in the brain that takes place before we ourselves are aware of it. When we see a face, our brains show activity a fraction of a second before we recognize seeing a face at all. The physicality of our brains thus leads to the conclusion that they are causally determined, just like any other arrangement of matter in our universe.

If we do live in a deterministic universe, as the discussion above suggests, then it should be a slam dunk case that no Freewill exists. Right? Well, not exactly…

Although in popular culture the idea of Freewill has been inseparably associated with Indeterminism, professional philosophers do not see it that way. In fact, 55.7% of professional philosophers adhere to a view known as Compatibilism, which maintains that causal determinism is fully compatible with Freewill. In contrast, only 16.7% of philosophers agree with Incompatibilist Freewill, which maintains that Freewill must require an indetermined universe. 14.7% of philosophers identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 12.9% argue that there is no Freewill.

The numbers do not change drastically among philosophers who specialize in Philosophy of Cognitive Science, except that the view of Incompatibilist Freewill is even less commonly held! 52.5% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science hold to Compatibilist Freewill (about the same percentage as the professional philosophical community as a whole), and a substantially smaller proportion — 7.4% — agrees with Incompatibilist Freewill. 14.8% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 25.4% argue that there is no Freewill.

Since Compatibilism is, by a large margin, the dominant view of agency and Freewill among the professional philosophical community, anyone interested in metaphysics, theism, or naturalism should take it very seriously. Compatibilism will be the view of agency and Freewill that I will defend in this metaphysics series.

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Human Origins in Metaphysical Naturalism: Abiogenesis, Unguided Evolution, and Mind-Body Physicalism

In the last part of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I discussed cosmology and the origins of our universe from a naturalist and atheistic perspective. In this next part of the series I will be focusing more particularly on the origin of life in our universe (at least on the only planet currently known to host life, i.e. Earth), and the evolution of lifeforms from simple states to the intelligent minds of human beings today. This journey will require discussing: 1) the abiogenesis of life from non-living matter, 2) the evolution of biological diversity from common descent, 3) and the mind-body physicalism of human minds in a naturalist universe.

solar_system_formationThe planet Earth has been around for about 4.6 billion years, when a cloud of interstellar gas — filled with particles of ice, dust, rock, and other particles — collapsed to a point of concentrated mass, causing rising heat and the formation of our Sun. Most of the matter in this collapsing nebula fell into our Sun, but other material formed into a planetary disc in orbit around the Sun, causing particles to collide and eventually planets to take shape from cumulative bombardments with solid objects. The third planet from our Sun, Earth, happened to be in the Habitable Zone, which is the region in a solar system where a planet is neither too close nor too far from its star to form liquid water. Earth eventually formed liquid oceans on its surface and also an atmosphere with just the right greenhouse balance for the planet to be neither too hot nor too cold for complex life. The first surviving fossils of life date to about 3.5 billion years ago (about a billion years into our planet’s history) and scientists estimate that life on Earth could have began anywhere from 3.9-3.5 billion years ago.

This sequence of events has left us with a vexing question: what started life on Earth so long ago and how did it get to the point of us humans beings here today?

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Three Problems that the United States Must Address by the Mid-21st Century

One of the upshots of secular humanism is that it encourages us to look towards the future and the needs of our descendants when shaping our values, goals, and policies—instead of living selfishly and only in the demands of the present. As such, one of the major topics that secular humanists need to begin seriously discussing is how we are to take care of our homelands, both in a national sense and in a global sense, in the 21st century and beyond. As we move into a new era of progress and change, having abandoned so many decrepit past systems of practice and belief, we must continue to root out those systems still in place that are antiquated, no longer serving us most effectively or justly. Where these systems have decayed, we must replace them; where they have become destructive, we must reformat them entirely. It is only by this self-evaluative process that citizens of advancing nations—and especially of the United States—can truly hold themselves as good custodians of their country and protectors of their people.

The following list contains three of the most pressing issues from a secular humanist standpoint that currently weigh on the United States:

  1. Economic Inequality
  2. Domestic Issues of Social Justice
  3. Climate Change/Renewable Energy

This list is by no means extant, and in the course of its arguments will present some uncommon or uncomfortable evidences; however, the astute reader will notice the common themes of systemic injustice and political inefficacy that underlie each point. Ultimately, although solutions have been hinted at where possible, only through the increasing discussion, awareness, and action of (or on behalf of) those currently most affected by these budding challenges will the United States be duly prepared to set sail into the latter half of the century.

 1. Economic Inequality

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In Favor of Losing Your Faith: A Letter to the Lukewarm

This message is not intended for the very assuredly religious. If your religion—be it Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam, or some other iteration—is central to your daily life and/or to your self-identity, then perhaps check back another time. I can no more convince you away from your beliefs than you can coax me towards them. Let us part here, then.

Neither is this message especially meant for those already settled into stable secular worldviews. Much of what is presented here will likely seem superfluous to you, and perhaps redundant in light of your own thoughts. If you do choose to continue reading, just know that it is not to you that I address these words.

Rather, this is a message for the nominally religious, for those who claim religious affiliation by proxy of something or someone else, and, especially for those who claim it out of some uncertainty or fear. To all the half-observant, prayer-dozing, “my parent(s) follow X religion and therefore I too follow X religion” theists, and, again, especially to the confused, afraid, or newly-questioning, this is for you.

Dearest lukewarm believers,

The time has come to reconsider your faith.

As harsh as it is, there is no way to sugarcoat this statement without it losing its urgency. It is urgent. Those of you who claim a religious affiliation out of tradition, conformity, or fear have the potential to be immensely powerful agents of change, if only you will choose to be. Our world and its future depend, in part, on the thoughts and actions of those nominal theists brave enough to critically consider their worldviews.

Hear me out. Here’s how:

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Cosmology and Time in Metaphysical Naturalism

For the next part of my series about the ‘metaphysics’ in metaphysical naturalism I will be analyzing how modern scientific theories about cosmology fit in to the naturalist worldview. Since I am not a professional scientist, I will be quoting authorities for all critical information. The purpose of this article is more philosophical than scientific, in that it does not seek to advance a particular scientific theory, but rather to demonstrate how modern cosmological theories align with the definition of metaphysical naturalism discussed earlier in this series. Feedback is welcome from professionals, if any of the scientific discussion below has factual errors or is unclear. I have worked to quote scientific authorities in their own words as much as possible, in order that their theories be represented as close as possible to their own views.

The study of cosmology has a long history (see here), but since around the end of the 20th century scientists have reached a generally cohesive view of what our universe looks like. The observable universe that we live in is a sphere with a radius of about 46 billion lightyears. Beyond that the unobservable universe is much larger, and is still inflating rapidly. Within this observable part of the universe alone there are at least 100 billion galaxies (and possibly 500 billion galaxies in the whole universe), and, if modern observational estimates among astronomers are correct about there being 17 billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy, then the rest of the universe no doubt contains many, many more.

For a musical description of the vast scale of our galaxy and universe, I recommend the Galaxy Song in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

In the 1920’s American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble discovered that our universe is not static. Instead, space is expanding rapidly. Current estimates calculate the rate of expansion at 74.3 (plus or minus 2.1) kilometers per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years). Since, looking towards the future, the universe is expanding out of control, looking towards the past, we would expect the universe to have emerged from a much smaller point. 

The modern theory of the Big Bang answers this question. Scientists have traced the expansion of our universe to a very small initial state about 13.82 billion years ago. Before the expansion, our universe, including its Big Bang Expansionmatter and radiation, was compressed into a very hot and very dense point of mass just a few millimeters across. This state is theorized to have existed for a fraction of the first second of time, before a massive blast caused the universe’s matter and energy, and even space and time, to expand rapidly. In the trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded at an unfathomable rate from merely the size of a pebble to being of astronomical scale.

This sequence of events has left us with a vexing question: what caused the Big Bang?

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