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Ethical Culture - reply to Dean

From: Don W.
Sent on: Thursday, November 19, 2009 5:41 PM
This is a reply to Dean in regard to his question on Ethical Culture.  

Let me start by saying that ethical culture is probably the ���church��� environment that a freethinker would find most to his or her liking.  My guess is that if I went back to WES for a meeting I would be surrounded by a dozen old friends and it will be a joy renewing my contact with them.  None of my following comments should reduce in the slightest the very real human positives that can be found in an ethical culture community.  I very much want to include finding interesting information in areas of science.  These people in general will be better informed and have more thoughtful and progressive values than the average in the population.

My problem with ethical culture rests with a more detailed examination of the structure of intelligent conversation and the nature of civil discourse.  We need to examine culture and the constraints that are imposed on our abilities to think and communicate.

I think I want to start with a more stark example to illustrate my point.  Barbara Forrest in the AHA panel discussion I attended, asserted that academia was so open that it was becoming closed.  That seems like an oxymoron.  How can this be? 

One of the witnesses for the opposition in Kitzmiller v. Dover was a postmodern philosopher who with a straight face asserted that the creationist nonsense from the Discovery Institute deserved equal standing with the biologists who were working hard to understand biological science.  They had to dismantle the various arguments presented by this witness.  Science in general cannot survive if fictional accounts are given equal standing.  It is much easier to write fiction and if the writers of fiction are given equal standing, the fewer voices of reason will be overwhelmed.  Since the issue in that case was what was to be taught in science classes, what was at stake was the ability of our society to teach science in science classes.

For any given scientific proposition to be true, the negation of that proposition must be false.  Scientific validity has no meaning if that which is false cannot be publicly asserted to be false.  There is a problem that arrizes when people presume that a false understanding of the world is part of their identity.  If in that case someone states that the specific false understanding can be demonstrated to be false, there can be a perception of emotional pain.  The hurt comes from the perceived insult to their personal identity.

I explicitly and knowing assert that all my knowledge about the world rests only on the empirical evidence for it and in no case is that knowledge part of my identity.  If I have placed undue confidence in a given source of knowledge and others around me have countervailing evidence, in almost all cases I can hear that evidence with no problem.  I am usually delighted with the opportunity kick a piece of rubbish out of my cognitive space.

Obviously neither I nor anyone in our community wants to create emotional injury to anyone anywhere.  This last sentence may not be empirically true, but a presumption of such positive ethical character is an essential assumption needed to enable intelligent discussion of anything whatsoever.

Let us return to the comments that prompted Dean to pose his question:

���Even rather innocuous forms of religion such as ethical culture now have effects that are obvious evils to me.  This includes the demonizing of atheists as 'just another form of fundamentalism.'���

For most people on our list a charge of ���fundamentalism���­ would be a personal attack.  It implies a blind faith in something in spite of any countervailing evidence.  It implies that the person is ignorant and stupid in important ways.  Such personal attacks are often labeled with the Latin term ���ad hominem.���  Empirically the use of such attacks tends to diminish or eliminate communication.

What I experienced while I was with ethical culture was a gradual increase in ���religiosity��� an an increasing acceptance of acupuncture, homeopathy and varieties of new age nonsense.  I also noticed that I was increasingly the only person with the courage to be skeptical of such nonsense.  The general culture in accepting the ad hominem attacks on ���atheists��� resulted in no one with the courage to talk about scientific realism and the implication that some views might actually be false.  The ���niceness police��� had their way and varieties of nonsense flowered with no limits.

A corollary of the proposition that atheism is just another form of fundamentalism is that there are numerous sources of knowledge other than scientific empiricism.  Obviously we have meditation, poetry, art, humor, and direct experience which which our lives are enriched.  However, all of these are, if examined closely, theory intensive.  My thesis is that in no case do we have a valid claim concerning the nature of the world unless we examine the underlying theories implicit in a given claim.

I know of people who claim to be allergic to electrical radiation in any form.  I have heard stories of people who fall down on the floors of elevators because of the supposed influence of such radiation.  There are whole communities of people who who minimize any exposure to electricity in order to avoid their supposed EMF allergy.  The claim is one of direct experience.  However, they cannot tell the presence of EMF in a double blind laboratory condition.  (This is from Dr. Robert Park, the speaker I got for the WASH February meeting.  I need to get his reference on this.)  Is then ���direct experience��� in and of itself a reliable source of knowledge?  Perhaps we need the tools and framework of science to validate all claims about the reality of our experience.

Don Wharton

PS: I need to get out of the trap of needing to post a philosophical essay in response to modest queries.  However, my goal is to create a social space where acts of intelligent communication are possible and appreciated.  I will keep doing this until the wisdom in our community starts flowing like water.

--- On Thu, 11/19/09, Dean <[address removed]> wrote:

> From: Dean <[address removed]>
> Subject: Re: [atheists-27] New Meetup: Meet the Organizer
> To: [address removed]
> Date: Thursday, November 19, 2009, 12:11 AM
> Mr. Wharton,
> Please kindly elaborate on how ethical culture has effects
> that are obvious evils to you. I am looking forward to
> meeting you.
> Best,
> �� �� �� �� Dean

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