5 dic. 2007

On the insufficiency of "atheism"

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
- Douglas Adams.
Sam Harris recently addressed what he called "The problem with atheism" at a conference in Washington: since we do not call astronomers "non-astrologers" or chemists "non-alchemists", then why do we secularists and naturalists keep using "non-theist" or "a-theists" negative denominations?
Harris was -at least partially- right. "Atheism" is neither a "science", as in the Marxist "scientific atheism" tradition, nor even a systematic philosophy. A-theism is not a worldview. Naturalism (or materialism or positivism) is.

Naturalism is a philosophy based upon the assumption "that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally non-mental things, and is entirely dependent on non-mental things for its existence." But I would suggest naturalism is rather methodology or soft ontology than pure metaphysics. Even though we can't establish what consciousness really is -given the actual neuroscience research and neurophilosopher's interpretations-, we do know what is about. All we have is some bad and some good (mainly naturalists) hypothesis concerning the "hard problem" of how is it that some organisms are subjects of experience . Neither do we know all the neuro-hormonal connections between brain and culture that enable human singularity. But I think we're in the way to consilience.

Along with the neopositivist tradition of the 20th century, I reject any kind of substantial conception of philopsophy or metaphysics. Since I don't hold philosophers capable of establishing the ultimate nature or ἀρχή of life and matter, neither I consider "naturalism" a dogmatic philosophy in that sense. Instead, I suggest the term "skeptical materialism" to describe naturalist view as both a methodology and a soft ontology. "Sensible positivism" (positivismo sensato), as the spanish philosopher Javier Muguerza call it, would also be an accurate term.

We should positively redefine "Metaphysics" as well. Metaphyics refers to a set of non empirically proved and not directly verifiable broad assumptions concerning the nature of reality. Following Imre Lakatos, we should not reject metaphyscs as a whole. Instead, we should try to separate good from bad metaphysics. Good metaphysics is basically progressive metaphysics, a set of theoretical, cultural and even mythical assumptions that "fuel" research programs, along with the discovery of novel facts. On the contrary, bad metaphysics does not lead us to a progressive research program, but to a degenerative one marked by lack of empirical growth and disconnection with reality.

In my view, many atheists today tend to overemphasize the causal link between religion and ignorance (Harris: "All we need are words like "reason" and "evidence" and "common sense" and "bullshit" to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion."), or between religion and bigotry and fanaticism (Weinberg: "The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief"). No doubt there is a strong connection between some forms of religion and some forms of violence. But neither religion nor atheism are "the root of all evil", and there is a danger in adopting "Harris interpretation" as atheist conventional wisdom. We skeptical materialists should be able to clearly distinguish between advance and primitive religious creeds, and between religious bigotry and "customary orders" that really reinforce human morality and human cooperation. Of course, supernatural beliefs are not absolutely required to support our moral purposes (because moral capacity rests on the natural order embodied in the evolutionary architecture of the human brain), and atheist activists are right arguing against those who still found morality exclusively in God's sanction.

Atheist activism has nothing to do with "imposing" disbelief but with secularism and freedom of thought within an open society. According to the Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 18) "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion", and this right "includes freedom to change his religion or belief". Similarly, the 2004 Human Development Report defended "cultural liberty" as a "vital part of human development". So, if we are free to choose a religion, we should be free not to choose any. We may speak today about the "right to atheism" or the "non-religious affiliation right" as lex ferenda for the 21st century.

Nota bene: This is a presentation post for my fellow (blogger) atheists.