Freethought 101

Free thought, n. opinions about questions of religion formed independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.

Presented at the February 2nd 2003 monthly service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

From its inception, the NTCOF has distributed a brochure that gives this dictionary definition of Freethought:

Free thought, n. opinions about questions of religion formed independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.

Now let me hasten to add that we Freethinkers don't necessarily accept even the authority of a dictionary. For example, if it is asserted that "Webster's says it," then we can consult Webster's as an authority as to whether Webster's really does say it. But a Freethinker will not accept a claim that, "Webster's says it, I believe it, and that's that!"

In large part this is also because dictionaries are not and were never intended to be authorities on usage, at least not by anyone with the authority to intend it. Rather, they are guides to usage, and often not very comprehensive ones at that.

For the same reason, the pictures in a birding field guide do not correspond exactly to what real birds look like. And they have the advantage of each being "worth a thousand words!"

Now when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists - IUPAC - rules on matters of chemical nomenclature, it is authoritative in the sense that chemists the world over have agreed to abide by its decisions and no scientific journal will publish papers that depart from its standards.

Phosphocholine

But then, no one gets worked up over IUPAC's edict that it's OK to use choline O-(dihydrogen phosphate) and O-phosphonocholine interchangeably, or even contract the latter to phosphocholine, but not to refer to this molecule as phosphorylcholine. But this sort of terminological precision can't be applied in much of everyday life.

End of digression.

Free thought, n. opinions about questions of religion formed independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.

Now notice that this dictionary definition of Freethought is "negative." It doesn't tell you what Freethought is. It only tells you what Freethought isn't. It's not that a "negative" is so bad. It's not such a bad thing, for example, to be anti-slavery or anti-crime, or to be against bigotry or drunk driving. Likewise, such things as antifreeze, antibiotics and antihistamines are very useful things.

But if you form your opinions "about questions of religion" without regard to tradition, authority, and established belief, then what are you relying on to form those opinions? A coin toss? Whim? The oracular words of someone sufficiently eccentric as to be arguably, not "an authority" - Noam Chomsky, for example, or Ayn Rand? Molly Ivins? Rush Limbaugh? How about personal revelation? Dreams? Or perhaps just whatever is convenient at the moment?

There doubtless are those who form their opinions and even live their lives by such standards. But they are not Freethinkers, because Freethought is not thinking - much less believing - in anything at all or in whatever you want so long as it is free from compulsion.

Thought - real thought, not the perverse and pernicious misrepresentations of thought that often go by the same name - is subject to the rules of thought. Those rules are called reason. When we play by those rules we are being rational, which is why Freethought is more or less synonomous with Rationalism.

Now we could spend a lifetime studying formal logic and its technical language of p's and q's and other things:

P's and Q's

But the important thing to remember is that reason reduces to two principles. The first is consistency. Put simply, ideas have to be related to the facts under consideration in a nonarbitrary, noncontradictory and dependable way. And although I think many people are fairly good at spotting inconsistency and hypocrisy, here is the sort of thing that Freethinkers often see that believers don't with respect to consistency:

Harris Cartoon

Second, given two ways of explaining such facts, the simpler way of doing so is to be preferred. The latter principle often goes by the name of "The Parsimony Principle" or "Occam's Razor," after the heretical 14th Century monk who asserted that:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem

That is, "entities should not be multiplied without necessity." Sometimes people today say, simply: "Keep It Simple, Stupid!"

It is worth noting that consistency and simplicity are, in essence, the same thing. For to turn a body of facts into an explanation is to bring order or simplicity to what is often, to begin with, a mass of confusion. Our species has literally created what we know and understand about the world from a chaos of perceptions. When we discover inconsistencies in what we suppose we know or understand, we must either ignore them or come up with better explanations, but no more than are necessary to make sense of the facts.

So Freethought is rooted in a devotion to facts and reason. Indeed, the "free" in Freethought is redundant and connotes not some different kind of thought. It is not thought that is free from the strictures of facts and reason. It is simply thought that is free to consider any kind of facts and, especially, those that have been embarrassing theologians for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the main focus of Freethinkers has all too often had to be the business of embarrassing theologians simply to get to the point of freeing the mind for thought. So the "free" in Freethought is a legacy of that unfortunate past which we have with us in some measure (as Andrew pointed out last month) today even in such an enlightened nation as ours. What is needed now - and what we are doing now - is to go beyond criticism to creation, to develop the outlines of rational religion: Freethought for Freethinkers.

Now reason demands that in thinking about facts we should distinguish between different kinds of facts. There is a world of objective facts and there are worlds of subjective facts. The sound of a voice that we all hear, for example, means something different than the sound of a voice that only one person hears, though theologians and psychiatrists disagree on what the latter means.

Secondly, Freethought is distinguished by its concern with "questions of religion." That is, it concerns those aspects of the human condition that have to do with meaning, morality and purpose and the personal and conscientious intellectual/emotional motivations - "spiritual" motivations in this sense -for such ideas as divinity, eternity, origins and ends, worth, duty, rewards and punishments in this world or some other, and so on. This is why we take the position - and the Church of Freethought is really predicated on the claim - that "Freethought is religion."

Let me map it out:

Freethought 101 Map I doubt any of you have seen this before and I'm not sure if anyone has ever drawn it before. But what I mean to convey by it is that there are some more or less natural boundaries between different ways of assessing the human experience that arise from dealing with more or less different kinds of problems and ideas and with different kinds of perceptions relating to those problems and ideas.

The up and down Y-axis shows that the character of our perceptions differ with respect to whether they are subjective or objective: whether it matters who is doing the observing. Then, on the X-axis we have the kinds of problems or ideas with which we are concerned: secular, on the right, which has to do with the "real" world that we share and the practical problems we jointly encounter in that world. On the left is the "spiritual" world of our personal expectations, ambitions, and feelings, which is to say, our sense of ourselves.

This map might be compared to the idea, advocated by the late Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion operate or preside over different "magisteria." Gould called in "NOMA" for "non-overlapping magisteria." But I mean to be much more explicit about the sort of territory we are talking about and on what basis we can suppose that there can be such different "magisteria." Unlike Gould, after all, Freethinkers do not suppose that there can be a world of the natural and a world of the "supernatural." And if a "supernatural" realm exists even though there are no persuasive facts or reasons for supposing that it does, why not two of them, or three, or a hundred thousand billion of them? With Occam's Razor we must carve all such claims aside.

So, according to this schematic I have drawn, we have science on the top right, which concerns itself with objective phenomena in a way that tries as far as possible - in large part successfully, I think - to avoid all the thorny "religious" questions of meaning and morality and so on. At the top left we have philosophy and psychology that do concern themselves with these matters but in a way that tries to incorporate the objectivity of science.

On the lower right are law and politics, which necessarily depend on people's subjective sense of meaning and morality. But the trend of history has been to confine these as much as possible to practical matters of maintaining a just and cohesive society under conditions in which it is possible for anyone to form a reasonable opinion as to how successful we have been in the task.

Finally, at the lower left, is the province of religion that deals both with questions and problems that go "beyond" the objective world - "beyond" in the sense that they are locked away in our own heads - and that primarily concern all the formidable difficulties of individual conscience and identity. The dark bar, by the way, is the wall of separation between church and state!

Now there is a lot to think about in this schematic, and I invite you to draw it out and consider it at your leisure. But notice that nowhere is there an axis of reason-unreason. In fact, it is possible to apply reason in all these areas. It's just that below the x-axis there is a lot more potential for disagreement. And when you get over into the religion quadrant it's not even always possible to tell whether someone is being reasonable or not. This is because the relevant facts may be confined inside that single person's individual subjective experience. In fact, even they may later change their mind as to how reasonable they had been.

For example, there are apparently individuals who consider themselves and live as homosexuals and then later claim that they have "reformed" or "recovered" and become well-adjusted heterosexuals. As we know, there are religious groups that insist that this "proves" that all homosexuals are sick or sinful. Others respond that the claim is false, that the individuals were never homosexuals in the first place, or still are. Yet the whole argument is pointless since just because one person comes to regret something doesn't mean that other people should. What matters is what is in the individuals' own heads and how they perceive and make sense of their experience. And people simply differ with respect to this, both from person and person and over time. There is no need - and considerable hazard - to pretend otherwise.

It is possible, though, to appreciate that when someone says that the world began 6,000 years ago they are either woefully ignorant of science or venturing far outside of religion's realm, or both. The same is really true of those who assert that there are entities and forces and dimensions and so on that exist "out there." Even though they are not denying the truth of established facts, they are claiming to know what are essentially objective facts not yet in evidence. Besides running afoul of the Principle of Parsimony, that game can be played endlessly by anyone with an active imagination, which of course is the preoccupation of theologians and science fiction writers. The chief difference is that the science fiction writers have more imagination.

Using this schematic, we can see that errors of thinking and belief arise not just when people fail to rely on facts and reason but when they attempt to deal with spiritual problems as if they were secular - or vice-versa - or when they try to rely on subjective perceptions when what are needed are objective facts. Thus, not only supernatural religious claims, but also other forms of pseudoscience, as well as "scientific" attempts to address spiritual concerns or to completely understand consciousness and all the forces of social change- as Marx tried to do - must be considered suspect if not erroneous by their very nature.

So let me summarize things so far: Freethought is simply thought, with all the strictures of facts and reason that that entails, applied to "religious" questions of personal identity, values, and conscience. As such, it is everything that any other religion is but without the over-reaching of superstition or any kind of supernaturalism that recognizes something "beyond" nature. For a Freethinker, the only thing "beyond" objective reality is not heaven and hell and so on. It is no more and no less than the subjective world of one's own inner experience.

For a Freethinker, all knowledge is simply the elementary bits of experience called facts that are organized and simplified. Like other people, we believe what we suppose we know, but we do so knowing that beliefs are static and passive, while the process of getting to those beliefs is an active process. Beliefs are "parking spaces" for thought, which we are free to take up again and examine at any time to see if they fit with new facts or new ways of organizing and making sense of facts. This is why Freethought preaches no dogma or doctrines as such. Freethought is not about what we believe so much as how we believe.

Finally, Freethinkers make an effort to respect the natural boundaries of subjective and objective human experience and secular and "spiritual" - in a non-supernatural sense - kinds of problems and concerns.

As a consequence of all this, there are characteristic and in some sense defining ideas of Freethought, beliefs that arise from the enormous amount of human experience accumulated and analyzed to date. They are these:

Atheism

Let's begin with the fact that Atheism simply means a lack of belief in god(s). If you believe, you are a theist. If you don't believe - whether you are in doubt, don't know, don't care, or are quite certain that no entity anywhere or at any time could be considered a deity - then you are an atheist.

Just as believers hold that Zeus, Jupiter, Odin, Marduk, Osiris and Quetzalcoatl are fictional, so Freethinkers recognize Yahweh and all such characters as products of the human imagination fired by its own hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations, both base and noble. Unless one of these characters is produced or shows up and persuades us not only of their existence but of their various exploits and the need for humans to bow down to them or whatever, Freethinkers are atheists.

Now there was a time when many Freethinkers were Deists, or supposed that some kind of spiritual or otherworldly existence was "out there." But even Thomas Jefferson, who professed to be a Deist (and also a Christian in that he professed to follow those teachings of Jesus that he considered reasonable!), had difficulties with the entire concept of the supernatural and said that:

"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise." [letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820

What kept Deism going was the inexplicable divide between living and nonliving things. People had no better explanation for what made things alive then that of a supernatural soul, and even then they had no idea how something immaterial could effect a change on something material. It was the gradual realization that nothing beyond the laws of chemistry and physics was needed to objectively explain the phenomena of life. It is only 50 years this April 2nd since Watson and Crick's famous paper elucidating the structure of DNA was published in the British journal Nature.

Still, it may very well be that some kind of beings exist that would qualify as "god(s)." The problem is that no one has ever offered even a noncontradictory notion of what kind of being this would be, with what sort of attributes and so on. Even the ancients knew that, given reality as we know it, being all-powerful is inconsistent with being all-good. And anyone's being all-knowing is inconsistent with the notion of free will, even their own.

Although there are no Freethought "Bibles" with respect to this subject, there are some very good explanations of them in a variety of books such as George Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses, Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, and others.



Agnosticism

Those who do not understand Freethought may be puzzled by the fact that Freethinkers are philosophical agnostics. This is because Agnosticism is not some kind of "in between" status with respect to belief or disbelief in God. As I said earlier, either you believe or you don't. If you're not sure, then you're not believing.

Agnosticism is a word that was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley who intended it as a philosophical stance with respect to the nature of knowledge that I have already described. That is, it is idea that what knowledge we have comes from our experience and, because of our continually encountering new facts and new ways to organize those facts, all knowledge is subject to refutation or revision. In our program on Karl Popper last summer we talked about the fact that assertions that are claimed not to be subject to refutation or revision are not and cannot be knowledge about the world of our experience.

Huxley himself, in his essay "Agnosticism," cited the work of Scottish philosopher David Hume who showed that many things that people take for granted are not logically necessary. Huxley also cited the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's (foreshadowing Karl Popper):

The greatest and perhaps sole use of all philosophy of pure reason is, after all, merely negative, since it serves not as an organon for the enlargement [of knowledge], but as a discipline for its delimitation; and, instead of discovering truth, has only the modest merit of preventing error.

[Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Edit. Hartenstein, p. 256.]

When Huxley joined the British Metaphysical Society he found that:

Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented ... most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rage of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and ... with Hume and Kant on my side ... invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic."

Realism/Materialism

It naturally follows that those who do not believe in the objective existence of anything for which there is no objective evidence are materialists or philosophical realists. The objection of idealists and supernaturalists is usually that materialists cannot possibly explain every fact or anticipate that facts will not eventually be uncovered that will show that reality consists of more than what we presently perceive.

This is really two objections, though. The Freethought response is that just because all facts cannot be now explained does not justify inventing explanations for them that can neither be confirmed nor refuted. Again, to draw on Jefferson (who was not the first to offer the idea):

"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong." [Notes on Virginia, 1782]

So, as with atheism, Freethinkers are realists and materialists by default, as it were, not because we have such confidence that we can explain every fact. In addition, many so-called facts, as we know from dealing with psychics, faith healers, creationists, and others, are not facts at all.

The second objection, that realists, materialists (and, by extension, atheists) cannot have knowledge about all of existence including facts yet to be discovered, is not a real objection at all. This is because, as we have discussed, Freethinkers take knowledge as a term referring to how we organize and make reasonable sense of the facts available. How possible facts not yet in evidence - and that may never be in evidence - might alter our understanding of reality is completely irrelevant to what it is now reasonable to think and believe.

The term a priori is often used to refer to armchair speculations as to the way things could be or might be, which is essentially what idealism and supernaturalism boil down to. But, as Hume pointed out:

If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits. It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another.

[An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)]

Morality

Freethought and Freethinkers reject tradition, authority and established belief as justification for judgements about right and wrong. Even if there is an all-powerful extraterrestrial or other-dimensional being that created us, this is still no justification for abandoning our responsibility to know what is right, to do what is right, and to avoid wrong. Or would we, if we could create intelligent life of some kind, or artificial intelligence, suppose that our role would entitle us to insist on an arbitrary system of morality that our "offspring" are bound to obey?

There is a great deal that can be said and that has been said about morality, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers long before anyone had heard of Paul or Christ or Mohammed. We have in the past devoted a good deal of time to the subject during NTCOF services and there is some material posted on our website having to do with this.

But to put it very simply, Freethinkers take it that authentic morality is both the cause and the consequence of our devotion to reason. For morality is, essentially by definition, the only idea that is self-justifying, that is "good for goodness sake." We choose to apply this as our justification for our devotion to reason. Having "used it up" in this way, like a single wish granted by a magic genie, we cannot again say that something that is without a foundation in reason is morally acceptable. Indeed, every departure from reason is an immorality.

But, again, like magic, the power of this moral choice shows us what is right and wrong. Even the ancients grasped the idea of the Golden Rule, because it is the most consistent and simple way of making sense of the question of what our responsibilities towards others are. Here are a variety of ways - which by no means exhausts the possibilities - that the idea has been stated:

"Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence. [Confucianism. Mencius VII.A.4 ]
"Do not do unto others what angers you if done to you by others." [Isocrates 436-338 BCE]
"What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary." [The Talmud ]
"Hurt not others with that which pains yourself." [Buddhist Udana-Varga]
"Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." [Bible, Matthew 7.12]

Immanuel Kant came to the same conclusion through his "pure reason," arriving at his "Categorical Imperative:"

"Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." [Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals]

The history of human progress in morality has largely been one of enlarging the idea of who "others" and our "fellow men" are or ought to be - or what we mean or ought to mean by "universal."

Additional facts and reason show us such things as that, for example, shooting a photon at another person - which will not harm them - is morally acceptable while shooting a bullet at others - which will harm them - is not morally acceptable. If we were all invulnerable, like the comic-book Superman, then shooting bullets at other people would probably not be considered a crime. Those who complain about "moral relativity" fail to understand that morality must be relative to the facts.

Likewise, racism is immoral because there is no good evidence that race does or should make a difference with respect to how we treat others. This isn't how it has always been seen, but it is, thankfully, how it is seen now.

On the other hand, a non-human animal's obvious inability either to claim a right or to responsibly understand - let along respect - the rights of others shows us that we need not treat animals as we would other human beings. Yet on the other other hand, how we treat animals and even dead human bodies, because of "slippery slope" issues, could affect our moral sensibility and integrity, which is a question to be decided by looking at the facts of such effects.

Likewise, pick up any of many books on the subject of being free from worry, being happy, getting along with people, getting through difficult times, and so on. Most of what you find contains recommendations that are based on facts and reason. And we have devoted NTCOF services to these topics that have taken the same approach:

Clearly, facts and reason are sufficient to show us the way to what is right and good and warn us away from what is wrong and evil, both with respect to decisions that affect others and those that only affect ourselves.

In summary, Freethought is simply thought which is free to consider any subject whatever. But it is not free to ignore, and, indeed, it is utterly constrained by facts and reason, including the differing character of facts, As a point on the spectrum of religion, it is primarily devoted to "religious questions," spiritual concerns and, especially, those problems that arise out of the subjective experience of the human condition. Though not the sum total of Freethought, Atheism, Agnosticism, Realism, and Materialism all flow from this. But the idea of moral principle, the crown jewel of any serious claim to religious truth, is both the cause and the consequence of a Freethinker's commitment to Freethought.

I know this is quite a lot to consider. But, please, think about it.

© 2003 by Dr. Tim Gorski