Supernaturalism and threats to reason

Note: While a few paragraphs towards the end of this are verbatim repeats (or slight edits) of content from a previous post, I considered the repetition justifiable as this post attempts to make a broader point, using the same example.

One way to divide nature – at least human nature – at its joints is to observe that the ordinary person’s approach to epistemology is that of either naturalism or supernaturalism.

Naturalism, in broad summary, holds that epistemology is closely connected to natural science. There is an increasing tendency amongst naturalists to hold that social sciences which do not verify their findings through results in the natural sciences are at best placeholders for an eventual, more mature, position which does incorporate the findings of the natural sciences, or, at worst, are epistemologically useless.

Cognitive science, as well as more general research in the fields of decision-science and heuristics of decision-making, allows us to understand far more about what people believe, and why, than we could previously understand. Despite this, much activity in social science proceeds as if these scientific revolutions are not occurring around them, and that that we are still somehow adding value by theorising about culture, literature or individual psychology.

It’s easy to dismiss this activity as being one of merely nest-feathering – in other words to consider it a way of justifying the existence of the countless departments of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and media-studies, as well as the employ of countless researchers working within those departments. That is not the claim I wish to make here, and in fact that extreme claim is not one that I wish to support. It is entirely possible for these departments and fields of study to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, and in fact it’s likely that some of them currently do.

However, many such fields of research can be said to be broadly supernaturalist in their epistemology. In other words, many in the social sciences believe – or at least work in ways compatible with – the belief that there is more to this species than what the physical sciences can explain, or show evidence of being capable of explaining in the future. Here I am thinking primarily of assumptions related to agency and free will, where it is assumed that we have more control over our destinies than we may actually have, as well as the general sense that we are somehow important, or deserving of the sorts of investments that are required to make general statements about our lives and the social phenomena they can be summarised under.

The fundamental issue can perhaps be explained best as a political one. My contention here is that supernaturalism creates a climate of unreason, where we are allowed to hold unchallenged beliefs that may not prove advantageous to our survival or flourishing. It does so by allowing individuals to believe propositions that are not supported by evidence, or ones that are supported only by “evidence” provided by theoretical paradigms that are themselves supernaturalistic.

Allowing ourselves these epistemological liberties can be cast as part of a general dumbing-down of the species. Any beliefs that fall outside of the scope of rational interrogation, and which are not subject to falsification as the propositions of naturalism are, encourage us to adopt lazy habits and patterns of thought. Mundane examples of this include the delegation of much of our decision-making to self-professed authorities, or authorities who are presented as such by the media, such as celebrity chefs, or reports of scientific findings in the popular media. One has only to read books like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to discover the extent to which we place not only our intellects, but sometimes our lives, at risk by not bothering – or being capable of – establishing whether claims are supported by available evidence. Supernaturalism provides support for these patterns of thought, in that, so long as social discourse takes it for granted that there are unknowables, outside of the domain of the natural sciences, it remains permissible for people to be less than strictly pragmatic about what they believe, and why they choose to believe those propositions.

The thick end of the wedge, provided by metaphysics in the form of things like religion, therefore encourages us to believe that there are things we can “know” independently of available evidence, and therefore perhaps allows us to develop lax habits in terms of not being rigorous regarding our beliefs about things in the natural world, such as our relations with each other, and the expression of those relations in social structures, speech-acts, and our reactions to the speech-acts of others.

Religion and ideology

Our tolerance of the theoretical standpoint of supernaturalism has allowed for religion to become ideological. Claims made by religious systems of thought, for example in morality, are not subject to scrutiny in the manner of claims in the natural sciences, and are generally treated as self-verifying. When disagreements occur, they are regarded as intractable, and we are encouraged to adopt a relativistic point of view with regard to such disagreements. This does nothing for social harmony, and impedes any progress we could make with regard to consensus on matters relating to social and political interaction between persons and nations.

Now that nations and economies are globalised, these differences of opinion have serious implications for all of us – what would previously have been regional skirmishes become well-funded acts of terror, or acts of war which involve most nations on the planet. On a far smaller scale, they can cause an institution of higher learning such as ours to ignore the dictates of reason to satisfy political expediency. The pressure to do so is tolerated – even endorsed – by the vast majority of the population, because they themselves are sympathetic to the supernaturalist point of view.

A secular university, such as UCT, has a primary commitment to defending reason. Our research and teaching needs to be free of the impediments suggested by political and social pressures, in order that it can have the best possible chance of telling us something true about ourselves and our world. This is why academic freedom is a value that is cherished by institutions such as ours, and why most staff at UCT would endorse the position so clearly articulated by John Stuart Mill in his description of the marketplace of ideas, where open competition between competing viewpoints gives us not only the best chance of discovering what is true, but perhaps more importantly, the best chance of discovering what is false, and why.

It is for these reasons that we should be concerned by the recent response offered by senior representatives of the University to the Sax Appeal blasphemy case. As a starting point, it is worth reminding ourselves that any apology for the offense caused by the contents of Sax Appeal is immediately rendered redundant by the fact that disclaimers and apologies were offered in advance of any offense – our Vice-Chancellor in fact introduced the magazine with a public disavowal of responsibility for the contents. Subsequent apologies therefore concede ground to those offended, by concurring that they have a right to be offended.

This was not a case in which our commitment to free speech and academic freedom encountered a justifiable limitation. These limitations are justified – and even this is arguable – in cases of hate-speech and defamation. To apologise outside of those contexts sends a clear signal that UCT is prepared to sacrifice or compromise its commitment to free speech in cases where enough pressure is applied. Notice, though, that the pressure needs to be of the right sort: it’s difficult to imagine the University apologising to government if a researcher discovers some embarrassing statistics about service-delivery or HIV/AIDS rates, no matter how much these findings may offend those with vested interests.

This is because findings of the latter sort fall in the domain of naturalism, and can be debated and contested with empirical data. Someone – or both parties – will be wrong in their interpretation of the data, or clear heads can agree that the data are inconclusive. Disagreements premised on supernaturalism do not share this feature: if a supernaturalist viewpoint is mocked or derided, then mere offense is enough to make the case, and the case appears to become stronger in direct proportion to the severity of the claimed offense.

It is unsatisfactory to argue, as Dr. Price’s recent letter did, that the offending sections of Sax Appeal were not “made in the course of a satirical article, or a political argument, in the pursuit of ‘truth’ or for the benefit of advancing a view on religion in general or a particular belief system”. He goes on to say that “if they are simply the stuff of a joke at another’s expense through ridiculing the other, making a whole group of people out to be stupid, I think it communicates intolerance of diversity, a lack of respect for every individual’s innate dignity which is the foundation of our whole system of equal human rights.”

There are numerous problems here. First, it would appear that while Dr. Price finds an authority legislating on which views are acceptable to society offensive, that offense does not extend to granting an authority the right to conclude that the Sax Appeal content in question attempted none of the goals described in his letter, particularly that of “advancing a view on religion in general or a particular belief system”. Perhaps it was advancing the view that religion, and religious belief, is an irrational and dangerous force in society, and one that is so unfounded in common sense that it deserves to be mocked whenever possible? This surely qualifies as a “view on religion in general”.

Second, Dr. Price’s letter suggests that the offending sections, in “making a whole group of people out to be stupid, … communicates intolerance of diversity, a lack of respect for every individual’s innate dignity which is the foundation of our whole system of equal human rights”. This analysis is poor: if Sax Appeal was offering any analysis of religion, it would perhaps be indicating that believers believe stupid things. This does not necessarily make them stupid as people, rather perhaps confused in the same manner that people who believe in homeopathy or astrology are. Asserting that Sax Appeal treated believers as “stupid” qua individuals – and then tying that claim to a human rights argument – could be said to serve the same rhetorical function as that South African staple of “playing the race card”. Once it’s been claimed that Sax Appeal does not respect (Christian) rights, we now all surely agree that they are misguided and simply wrong?

Lastly, and in conclusion, pointing out confusions where people are victims of such confusions (even if those offering the lesson are themselves confused) in no way indicates a lack of respect for diversity and every individual’s innate dignity. It could in fact be said to be in furtherance of those noble ideals that confusions be addressed, and that faulty world-views are corrected or debated. In the absence of such corrective forces, it’s difficult to imagine that people will ever have the chance to be dignified and equal, or that diversity will be something that emerges out of informed choice, rather than simply being a matter of an accident of geography.

Our best strategy for achieving these goals of equality and dignity is to not afford special protection to viewpoints simply because they are held with conviction. The naturalistic approach asks us to compete on a level playing-field – one on which all claims are treated equally, and evaluated according to available evidence. This may cause many or most of us to encounter deep disappointment – even anger – at some point on our epistemological journeys. It is also, however, our best chance of avoiding false beliefs and the irrationality and sub-optimal choices that typically accompany such beliefs.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.