Call Me A Freethinker

Call Me A Freethinker August 8, 2011

All week, Eric and I have been volleying back and forth about the proper places of skepticism, on the one hand, and metaphysics, on the other, in an atheist worldview and self-presentation. I have argued that placing an emphasis on an evolutionary metaphysics as the primary identifier of an atheist worldview would be perceived as a faith-based gesture and could risk turning atheism into an actual faith. I think these dangers are there even if Eric is proved right that evolutionary metaphysics provides the most plausible and intellectually satisfying account of where our universe comes from.

In this post, I am going to explain why I don’t think we should model our primary identification on any positive metaphysical position, but rather should stake our ground on epistemology and methodology instead.

Christians identify themselves based on an allegiance to Jesus Christ. First and foremost they communicate “I am a follower of Jesus Christ”. When pressed for explanation of what this means the traditional response is to identify with the sorts of doctrines one finds in the Apostle’s Creed.

For many devout Christians these beliefs are primary and no other beliefs can be accepted which undermine these ones. And while many Christians will try their best to reconcile apparently contradicting scientific, logical, philosophical, historical and common sense truths with their Creed, there are infamous problems that they have doing so. And this leads to the numerous embarrassments Christianity has suffered from Christians who cannot cope with science or its metaphysical implications.

My concern is that, given the nature of the human mind, putting any particular belief as one’s intellectual bedrock and key identifier of one’s position in the conflict of ideas and practices risks this same problem. If people begin identifying themselves as first and foremost “evolvers” or “evolutionists” (rather than just as skeptics or atheists, etc.), then this positive position becomes paramount to them and an attack on it risks being taken as an attack on their very identity, just the way attacks on many religious people’s belief in God is wrongly taken by them as offenses against them themselves as persons.

This is the danger of tagging yourself with a specific idea—especially in the arena of religion. And when you start saying things like that evolution can do a better job of solving every problem God has previously been thought to solve, then you set up your evolutionary metaphysics as a competitor religion. Already atheism, which is, strictly speaking just the negation of theism, is tagged by many lazy dualistic taxonomers as a religion simply because it addresses the question of gods and the question of gods is treated as primarily a religious (and not a philosophical) question in the public mind.

The crude classifiers think “well everyone must have a religion” or “something fulfills religious functions for everyone” or “everyone has a god, even if it’s only their own reason”, etc. and on such grounds just insist on exposing atheists as having a religion after all no matter what we do or say. Do we have prominent figures in our movement? They must be the atheists’ priests! Do we have any firm epistemological, metaphysical, or moral commitments? Those must be the atheists’ dogmas! This is even the case while atheists are typically a group suspicious of, and hostile to, metaphysics and all broad, speculative claims that do not have scientific backing. Were atheists to call themselves “evolvers” and back a robust speculative metaphysics, there is no doubt in my mind that the lazy would immediately tag this as being just like faith-based reasoning no matter how much we protested to the contrary.

And, worse, if we saw ourselves and defined ourselves by our belief in metaphysical evolution first and foremost, we would be more likely to start to treat it as rigid dogma as the religious tend to do. We would be more likely to have implicit faith, the unwillingness to reconsider and explore new evidence against our current metaphysics.

In a way, this is a potential danger even with atheism itself–that identifying with disbelief in gods could become so important that we become hostile to any legitimate evidence for gods. This is a potential hazard of any believing or disbelieving.

So, given all of this, I think the best ground to stand on is epistemology. When asked “what are you?” our answer should be along the lines of “freethinker”. This has an unfortunately presumptuous sounding connotation of course, in that it can sound self-congratulatory, like you’re saying you are freer thinking than others. You had might as well go the whole arrogant nine yards and call yourself “The Correct Ones”.

But that’s not what “Freethinker” really means. It does not mean the presumption of superiority, but it means the acknowledgment of no arbitrary authorities in thought. Freethinkers, in principle, stand for free thought and against the right of anyone to demand assent to propositions by faith alone. The key contrast with the faith-based is that they acknowledge a legitimacy to surrendering one’s belief to priests, prophets, institutions, dogmas, and holy books even when no appeal to common sense or rigorous philosophy or science is given.

Self-professed “Freethinkers” should not be heard as congratulating themselves on thinking better than anyone else, but rather as those committed to the principle that everyone is entitled to, and responsible to demand, sufficient reasons for believing anything they are asked to assent to.

Allegiance to this principle of free thought is what should mark us as distinct from the faith-based as our key, anti-faith, anti-authoritarian principle. And free thought can stand for thought free of all prejudicial encumberances that stand in the way of true knowledge. It is an embrace of the scientific method, of philosophical rigor, of logical rigor, and of all that we have learned in the past several hundred years about how to identify and overcome bad forms of reasoning and replace them with more truth-conducive ones.

This should be our rallying point because today’s best metaphysics might tomorrow be refuted. Even today’s best science could see an earth shattering paradigm shift. People’s identities should not be bound up with any doctrine since that makes it harder for them to change their minds and abandon it when such a cataclysmic change happens. They should think of themselves first and foremost as those who oppose prejudice and willful belief of what is unsupported or undermined by evidence. The more obedience to this principle is the only thing they anchor themselves by, the more likely they are to be properly flexible when understanding progresses.

Plato and Aristotle were wonderful metaphysicians and the Catholic Church was to be commended for learning a great deal from them. But the Church’s dogmatic elevation of ideas from their metaphysics into non-negotiable absolutes has a once vibrant and progressive intellectual tradition lumbering stagnantly and regressively into the 21st Century.

Eric is right that atheists should give much much more rigorous and open-minded accounts of metaphysics than at present. But we should only believe them with as much conviction as their rational strength warrants. And before we bring up our metaphysics, we should be wary of giving the impression that we are saying, “oh I have heard your faith-based gobbledygook which I’m free to ignore and now here’s my faith-based gobbledygook which you are free to ignore too” (which is what too many people hear when metaphysics, especially related to religion, is raised).

So, instead we should stress our epistemic standards, stress their proven viability in practice, and then, when pushed for how we might answer metaphysical answers say (in so many words), “Well, these are the best alternatives there are and here is why they are better than theistic alternatives, and here is me stressing that I am only going to assent to the best alternative to the extent to which it is likely to be true.”

Finally, this prioritizing of free (and rigorously critical and skeptical) thinking is not another kind of faith as might be ironically charged. Placing skepticism as the priority is not some overestimation of the mind’s ability to refute every false doctrine or to know that every metaphysical doctrine is false, or anything like that. Cautious skepticism and slow willingness to assent to propositions until their evidence has been adequately established is not a statement that everything not assented to is false. Rather it is a recognition of the limits of the human mind to know and a painstaking curb on the temptations of the human mind to presume too much too impetuously and to believe by faith.

Skepticism is the antidote to the poison of faith, not itself another faith.

Lastly, why do I identify primarily as an atheist, despite having made the passionate case for “freethinker”. Well, it is factually true I am an atheist and it is in accepted parlance the scandalous word that signifies rejection of submission to all faith-based authorities more boldly and defiantly than any other and draws the line in the sand against theists in particular, in a way “freethinker” does not quite manage.

And given the current state of things, that confrontational stance is where the action is. It’s where the principled stand I want to make against faith is best understood.

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