My Philosophy – A Rough Sketch

This brief (though not as brief as I had hoped!) outline of my general philosophical commitments was spurred by this challenge from fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco. It is a snapshot of my philosophical views at this time and subject to continuing revision for clarity, as well as for content if arguments arise which demonstrate my views to be seriously inadequate. I invite and welcome critical comments.

Edit 1: I took out the jargony, potentially confusing headings for each section. Thanks to Vlad Chituc and Eric Steinhart for the criticism.

Edit 2: I made a small change of language in the section about my “relativism” to make it clear that this is not an “anything goes” relativism but one in which serious judgments come into play regarding which “worlds” to accept or reject. Anything absolutely does not go. Many “worlds” are uninhabitable because they make no sense, while others are less preferable because they make less sense, and these judgments are reasoned and open to critique. Thanks to Eric Steinhart for this one.

Edit 3: I’ve tightened up the language regarding the arts so it doesn’t read like I’m making such a strong claim regarding the equivalent sense-making powers of science and art. I am not shifting my position, just clarifying the language. Thanks to Eric Steinhart for spurring this.

Edit 4: I replaced some references to materialism with references to monism because, depending on how materialism is construed, my initial language could be misleading. “Monism” seems to fit better as it expresses my anti-idealism while holding more clearly to my view that there can be great explanatory value in positing non-material phenomena. Thanks to Vlad Chituc for helping me see the lack of clarity here.

Edit 5: I added a tiny bit to the first paragraph to clarify that it is my view of philosophy I am expounding, not a general view. Thanks again to Vlad Chituc.

General Philosophical View

My philosophical outlook is heavily informed by Pragmatists like Dewey and Peirce, as well as their intellectual descendants Quine and Goodman. In keeping with them I hold that philosophy is a creative, collective human enterprise and that the purpose of philosophy is to solve human problems. Broadly speaking, we should judge the quality of our philosophy by asking whether it satisfactorily resolves or clarifies the problems with which we are faced. Philosophy, in my understanding, does not aim at “truth” (I argue traditional conceptions of truth are untenable or less useful than might be imagined) but a weaker yet more practical goal, “understanding”. Ultimately the question we should ask of our philosophical ruminations is “Does this make sense?” Pragmatism does not hold that all ideas need be “useful” in a limited sense, meaning directly practical. If an idea is “useful” in that it clarifies other ideas in the process of inquiry that’s good too, so there’s a broad understanding of “pragmatic” in play here. Furthermore, fallibilism is central to my philosophical thinking: I am committed to the idea that my ideas might be wrong (indeed, probably are wrong). The following sketch of my philosophical position is therefore to be seen as a work-in-progress, the result of one mind, striving with others, to make better sense.

Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Aesthetics

This is where my Humanist and Atheist buddies go crazy, because here I out myself as a “radical relativist”! Well, it’s true – but it’s not as bad as you think. In my epistemology and metaphysics I’m heavily influenced by Nelson Goodman (Harvard philosopher, collaborator and colleague of Quine, art-lover and all-round philosopher-king) and Catherine Elgin (my dissertation adviser, student of and coauthor with Goodman, and totally awesome person). Goodman was a “constructivist”, which meant that he held that human beings  construct our reality. We do not “apprehend” reality. We do not “discover” it. We construct it out of our experience and thoughts. Goodman observed that there is no “a priori” knowledge, no intuitive truths, and no unmediated experience. Everything we experience and think comes shaped in some way by our cognitive mechanisms and our structures of thought. Furthermore, he observed that we do not have access to something called “reality” – we simply never experience it. So the naive view of knowledge-construction, in which we compare our ideas to “reality” and then see if they fit, cannot be correct: we have no experience of “reality” with which to do the necessary comparison. What we do, rather, is compare some construct with another construct and decide which construct more fully satisfies whatever need we have. Therefore, it simply makes no sense to ask of a given construct “Is x real?” Rather, we must ask “If we view x in this way, does it make sense?”

An example: is Pluto a planet? This question exercised many in 2006 when Pluto was “downgraded” from planet status when a formal definition of “planet” was adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The answer, of course, depends on what we choose to consider as a “planet”. And the answer to that depends on what use we wish to make of the concept of “planet” – what sort of sense we want to make.  The IAU felt the standard definition of “planet” no longer made sense, and so they changed it, and suddenly, Pluto was not a planet. While it might seem intuitive to say that Pluto hasn’t changed, and that our ideas about it have changed, Goodman would reply instead that we have changed Pluto. We made it a planet (constructed it as such within our representational schema) and now, like Gods, we have unmade it – and the world in which Pluto is a planet and the world in which Pluto is not a planet are different “worlds” we can create.

While counter-intuitive, this makes sense as a way of looking at things because, if you think about it, at every stage of the definitions game it is we who have created the terms. There simply is no ultimate answer to the question “Is Pluto a planet?” which I can demonstrate is binding on everyone else: there are merely different constructions which make more or less sense. Indeed, there may be worlds in which Pluto is a planet and worlds in which it is not, and they can both make equal sense! And, thus, I am a relativist (and something of a Skeptic when it comes to truth) – my framework does not commit itself to definite answers to ontological and metaphysical questions (it is non-committal in these areas), and admits of varying equally-valuable attempts at sense-making.

But this is a strictly bounded relativism. Constructions, if they are to make sense (and therefore be useful to us in advancing understanding), must fulfill certain stringent criteria, both internal and external: they must be coherent (non-contradictory), and have a decent scope of application, for instance (a tiny”world” which only explains some fraction of phenomena is of little use). Goodman refers to his criteria of judgment here as that of “reflective equilibrium”. And we have good reason to prune out “worlds” which are not as valuable as others – why live in a world which makes less sense than another?

This, in practice, ends up pruning out the vast majority of potential constructions – and the constructions which remain, I argue, are the very ones familiar to freethinkers everywhere: they will tend to be naturalistic, monistic, empiricist, and materialistic. Therefore, I will tend to sound like a standard rationalist, naturalist, monist when I speak for a general audience or write for this blog. But - and here’s where I differ, I think, from people like my fellow Patheos blogger Adam Lee, whose general philosophical commitments you can see here – I see myself as choosing naturalism,  monism, and empiricism as ways of constructing the world, not as “the way the world is”. I say to myself “In my judgment, we make more sense if we use the tools of empirical inquiry within a naturalistic, monistic, framework” rather than “The real world exists and it really is all made up of just matter and what stems from matter.” In principle, if a “world” could be constructed which made more sense than the world I have constructed, I am committed to living in the more sensical world - but the proposer must demonstrate that the new “world” actually makes more sense than the one I currently inhabit.

Why is aesthetics put here too? Because I agree with Goodman and Elgin that art plays a role in helping us make sense, and can make sense in ways which the sciences cannot (for solid reasons, not because they are magic). Therefore, the arts, like the sciences and humanities, are a way of making worlds – we construct reality with film and music in ways not so dissimilar to the ways we do so with scientific test and theory.

Ethics

My ethical view is intimately bound up with my other views (if you can’t see how that can be read Rawls – he took the idea of reflective equilibrium from Goodman, by whom he was influenced strongly, and used that to construct his ethics, which he called “political constructivism”). Remember, I think the tools of inquiry we call “naturalism”, “monism”, and “empiricism” the best ones we have available because they make the most sense. Within that framework I then construct an ethics which works with what we understand about human beings from our investigations: we are biological organisms with experiences to which we attach valence (desires, hopes, sufferings, joys). We observe there are other creatures too which, as far as we can tell, also have valence-infused experiences. The philosophy of ethics is the process of working out how we can ameliorate the predicaments that arise when different agents with different valence-infused experiences interact with each other (i.e. ethics is just as Pragmatic, for me, as everything else). The question “What is good?” has no answer in the abstract. Nor can we appeal to an independent realm of moral truth for answers to ethical questions. It is only in the context of valence-giving agents with a diversity of desires and goals that the question makes any sense – and ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with tackling such questions (technically this view is a “stance-dependent” view of ethics).

Very little is required to get a basic working ethical theory out of a naturalistic worldview: very briefly, if I value the experiences which for me have positive valence (which I must by definition), then I am bound, in the name of consistency, to value the experiences of other similar agents which have positive valence for them (for I observe they are like me). To not care about another’s good while I care about my own, when there is good evidence to demonstrate that others are like me in relevant ways, is to be inconsistent (and that doesn’t make sense). And thus the fundamental Humanist ethical commitment – to the basic dignity of all persons – is simply an outgrowth of the sort of organisms we seem to be and the sort of experiences we find ourselves being able to have, plus a commitment to making sense (not being contradictory).

The oft-repeated challenges to this ethical view are seen, under this view, as the result of questionable assumptions: “What makes killing wrong?”, someone might ask, seeking for some uber-rule which superimposes itself on the situation. To which I reply “Ethics emerges from predicaments – it is not imposed from above.” A critic might ask, too, “What gives your ethical view force over others, so that you can expect others to abide by it?” To which I reply “Don’t you remember why we started discussing this in the first place? We have problems to solve! I am offering this as a solution to a shared problem in which you are implicated. You cannot now say you are uninterested in my solution and remain a sensical agent.”

More fully worked out ethical philosophies like preference utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism (and even specific metaethical theories), by my view, are (like scientific theories or artworks) attempts to make sense of our ethical experience. The question “Which one is true?” is not one my philosophical framework understands – only “which one helps us ameliorate the ethical predicament in which we find ourselves?” Any ethical theory is to be judged by comparison to other ethical theories and their outcomes for agents-with-values, and cannot be judged  “on their own”. This opens me up to a constrained form of moral relativism, in which there may well be equally sensical moral constructions which are mutually incompatible. That’s OK. In fact, that’s valuable: that seems to me to help us understand why many ethical questions are profoundly difficult: there may well be literally no “absolutely right” ethical answers, only “righter” and “wronger” ones.

But, just as with my views on epistemology, any relativism here is strongly bounded by the nature of our moral experience, and any ethical view which does not adequately account for those facts will be found seriously deficient. In other words, for me, ethical experience is primary, and ethical theorizing is what we do to make sense of our ethical experience. What we simply cannot do (and what my view directly opposes) is willfully ignore ethical experience and act as if things like desires, pains, psychological sufferings etc. simply do not have the characteristics they seem to have (I consider it instructive that many of the worst atrocities committed by people against others began by denying elements of ethical experience or questioning well-founded judgments regarding the status of other agents – people are de-humanized (i.e. erroneously constructed as different to ourselves) as a prelude to justifying immoral acts against them). The theory that we are biological organisms living together in society, and that this produces certain conflicts and questions as to how to act, is so sense-making that to give it up would be to our great detriment – and so it is from that basis which I begin the ethical endeavor.

Conclusion: How is this “Humanist”?

The obvious question arises “If these are your ethical commitments, why call yourself a Humanist?” The simple answer is that these commitments cash out into a set of values which are consistent with the values captured by the umbrella term “Humanism”: a respect for persons, methodological naturalism, atheism (worlds with God in make less sense), a clear-eyed meliorism, and fallibilism above all. While my philosophy (particularly my epistemology and metaphysics) may seem really, really weird to some other Humanists, I think it defensible and rigorous. Furthermore, it is fundamentally centered on human beings and our concerns, placing us at the creative center of all our intellectual enterprises. To me, little could be more Humanist than that.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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