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Paul Kurtz author, philosophy professor and professional skeptic, takes time out of a round-the-world lecture tour to talk to our man in Toronto, Colin Hunter.
Professor Kurtz, are you still teaching philosophy in Buffalo?
No, I’m a professor emeritus, so I’m not actively teaching. But I’m busier than ever. They say that if you want something done, ask a busy man.
What are you up to?
You name it. I founded Prometheus Books in 1969, which is the largest free thought skeptical press in the world now, publishing about 100 books every year. I founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), who publish the Skeptical Inquirer, the leading skeptical magazine in the world. Out of that have come 100 skeptical groups in 40 countries and 75 magazines. I’m editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism.
What is meant by the term ‘secular humanism’?
A secular humanist believes that one’s main focus should be in the here and now. We try to realize the best potentialities of which we’re capable and achieve human happiness for as many people in society as possible. We’re very much committed to democracy and the separation of church and state. The religious right in America considers us to be the most dangerous group in the world.
Because we defend freedom of inquiry, and we’re basically unbelievers.
Is a humanist, then, necessarily an atheist?
No, atheism and humanism are not the same. Nor are atheism and skepticism the same. Atheism is a limited outlook restricted to the claim of whether God exists – that is, theism. The atheist doesn’t think that belief in God can be justified inductively, deductively or pragmatically. Secular humanism is far more than just atheism. Secular humanists can be agnostics – they need not be atheists. But they are very skeptical of the claims of traditional theism that God-the-person created the universe.
So humanism and skepticism are, in a sense, inseparable?
Well, they can be separate, and indeed they are. They are two different programs that share certain common ground. The skeptics today are concerned primarily with examining anti-science, pseudo-science and the paranormal, including some of the claims of religions. The humanists are concerned with science also, but they want to find alternative ethical principles based upon reason and science, and an alternative to religion.
Does this mean that that skepticism is a destructive pursuit, whereas humanism is its constructive counterpart?
Destructive is the wrong term, I think. Skepticism is a big part of the process of science. In any kind of scientific inquiry you need skeptical doubt. The method of science is a powerful tool for understanding nature and ourselves, and also for developing technology to cope with nature. So skepticism is not negative. Modern day skeptics are positive and affirmative, and use this method in selective areas.
But is there the concern that by exposing the logical holes in religion skeptics may be doing more damage than good?
Is religious faith too personal and emotionally charged to be tampered with? That’s a very controversial issue today, but it shouldn’t be. Classically, the skeptics would apply their skepticism to any field – science, philosophy, ethics, politics, and religion. The great philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant had read and been influenced by skepticism. Skepticism was essential in the growth of the modern outlook. Now, CSICOP focuses primarily on the paranormal because we have expertise there, but clearly skeptical inquiry can and should be applied to any field. Any intelligent person should use critical thinking to understand what’s happening in the world.
Do you agree with Stephen Jay Gould, who said that science and religion govern different, mutually exclusive aspects of our lives, and therefore don’t threaten each other?
No, I disagree with Gould. Gould, of course, was an atheist – no doubt about it. He wanted to defend science as I do, but he left morality in the domain of religion. I think there is great folly in tying religion to morality. Morality is too important to be left to the theologians. I do think science and religion can exist side by side, providing that religion doesn’t try to censor science; providing it doesn’t interfere in the political world and undermine democracy; providing it doesn’t impose the archaic moral principles of a celibate class – by which I mean Catholicism – or impose command theory on moral choice.
So do you believe that issues of morality should be removed entirely from the hands of theologians?
Some theologians have reflected deeply on morality. Certainly priests and theologians are people too and we ought to hear what they have to say about moral issues. In the big moral dilemmas of today, we need all the insight we can get. What I object to is the idea that from God the Father you can deduce morality. The question is, whose morality? Generally, the Muslim believes in polygamy and capital punishment. The Roman Catholic believes in monogamy and is against capital punishment, according to the Pope. The Protestant fundamentalist is for capital punishment. So in moralizing from God you can develop a whole number of contradictory moral principles.
Do you envision a future in which moral laws are based on critical thought and logic?
I think the reason that religions consider morality sacred is because we all share certain common moral values. Everyone knows that we should be sincere, honest, kind, considerate, and so on. We share these ideas because we have a common human nature. We’ve been on this planet for a few million years, and the scientific method is still a new way for the human species. Tremendous progress has been made, and I think that, long range, the ratio-nalistic view will prevail because the problems we face – like population growth and despoliation of the environment – are so severe that only critical intelligence can solve them.
How can we get to that point?
I think education is the basic principle. I think what we need is what I call a new enlightenment. In this enlightenment people must think critically, applying their thinking to ethics, religion, and politics. We have to negotiate our differences, reason and compromise, and try to work out common values and beliefs. What bothers me greatly is that democracy is being undermined in many countries by the corporate state and by a lack of dissent. The democratic method means that you need an educated citizenry, and that’s why the democratic method is the best method.
Thank you, Professor Kurtz.
[Colin Hunter is a student at Ryerson University School of Journalism in Toronto and a keen fan of professional wrestling.]
Skepticism in the Ancient World
After the death of Plato in 347BC, the Academy he had founded in Athens continued to operate. Two of Plato’s successors there, Arcesilaus (268-241BC) and Carneades (213-129BC),argued that certain knowledge of anything was impossible. They were inspired by Socrates’ remark that “All I know is that I know nothing.” They and their followers became known as the ‘Academic Skeptics’. The word sceptic or skeptic comes from the Greek skeptomai, meaning ‘consider’. They considered that any claim to knowledge always contained some element going beyond immediate experience. They thought that the best we could hope for was probable information, so we should always be ready to change our views in the light of new evidence.
Another, even earlier, skeptic was Pyrrho of Elis (360-275BC). Less a theoretician and more of a practical doubter, he pointed out the unreliability of our senses. Putting his money where his mouth was, Pyrrho consistently refused to act on what his eyes and ears told him. Apparently his students often had to pull him out of the way of oncoming wagons, or save him from wandering off the edges of cliffs. His main interest was in ethics; he said that if a moral theory was anything less than certain (and he thought they all were) then acting on it would cause needless mental torment. His followers over the next five centuries are known, unsurprisingly, as the Pyrrhonian Skeptics.
The Academic skeptics said that we can have no certain knowledge. The Pyrrhonian skeptics regarded this as far too dogmatic. They said that they didn’t know whether or not we could have certain knowledge. They produced numerous formal arguments (or ‘tropes’) to demonstrate this, but wouldn’t even commit themselves to the correctness of those arguments. They opposed dogmatism wherever they found it in religion, philosophy or politics but remained perpetual seekers of the truth.