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Posted by on Jan 17, 2008 in Ibrahim Lawson, secular society | 29 comments

Question re secularism

Here is a question for you relating to the dialogue we are having with Ibrahim.

Justification always has to come to an end somewhere. So, there will be basic beliefs or principles for which no further justification can be given. Why make these foundational principles secular rather than religious?


  1. I think the idea that we should find “foundational” beliefs to “start with” is a complete red herring, and a misunderstanding of how we think and understand things. And a misunderstanding of logic.If you adopt “foundational” beliefs that lead you to secondary beliefs (i.e. any other beliefs) then you might argue that your secondary beliefs are at least as likely to be true as your foundational beliefs. But people don’t tend to claim this, because it isn’t the sort of think they want their thinking to deliver.We simply do not work out any interesting truths by picking the right axioms and making deductions. The usefulness of deduction lies in testing our assumptions by comparing their logical consequences to what we might know by other means.Without such testing, without any critical examination, assumptions and foundations have no quality control at all and are a hazard not an asset.Is Popper unfashionable these days?

  2. That depends on how you are defining ‘religious’.Roy Clouser in ‘The Myth of Religious Neutrality’ says of religion:(1) it is the belief in something as divine per se no matter how that is further described, or(2) it is a belief about how the non-divine depends upon the divine per se or(3) it is a belief about how humans come to stand in proper relation to the divine per se(4) where the essential core of divinity per se is to have the status of unconditional non-dependent realityIn his definition, there is no such thing as religious neutrality and therefore, all of you foundational beliefs will be religious.I’m not claiming he is right. I am, however, claiming that you have to define religious before we can answer that question.

  3. I think there’s a fault in the logic there. In religion justification has to end somewhere because it all ends in the same place – god(s). In science we just keep going as one proof often leads to more questions. So although justification theoretically would end somewhere – when everything that can be known is known and proven – it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get there.

  4. Why make these foundational principles secular rather than religious?Universality. Secular principles are precisely those immediately justifiable to everyone with ordinary human reason an perception. Religious principles can be accepted only on the authority of another person.

  5. It might be worth consideration that secular foundational beliefs are as justifiable as we can manage, in the sense that they are intuitavely obvious or at the very least intuatively highly probable. Religious foundational beliefs are completely unjustifiable. They involve founding your beliefs in something arbitrarly invented and no more probable than the flying spagetti monster.

  6. “In religion justification has to end somewhere because it all ends in the same place – god(s).”I don’t see it stopping there. It all goes through gods at some point, but beyond that there are justifications for the gods. Subservience to a deity creates an authority structure which can assure many practices. For example, the holiness code from Leviticus, though outdated today, contains many instructions clearly intended to keep the people healthy and prolific by the best known methods of the time.One can look back upon the timeline of the big three and watch the various twists and turns as God/YHWH/Allah rewrites itself to better suit the situations of the time. Social engineering is the core of religion, and faith is an excellent tool to absolve followers of the consequences of authorized practices.(and now I realise why the schools are such a poor idea.)

  7. Religion makes Reason the handmaiden of Faith and subservient to it. But if there is a God, Reason is His gift to humanity. Failure to take it to its limits, and then to decide on the basis of reasonable probability whether or not a ‘leap of Faith’ is justified, is a misuse of the gift of Reason which distinguishes humankind from other species.

  8. In my religion, God is Reason (also Love, etc., different names for the same non-thing), and my religious practice consists of taking reason to its limits. This is best done by facing mysteries without secular presuppositions (e.g., that reason is an emergent property). This seems to me to be more faithful to reason than any secular foundational principles I know of.

  9. I think Tom Paine got it right when he said “I am a citizen of the world, and my religion is to do good”.

  10. hmmmm,and not to forget Kurt Vonnegut’s:”God Allmighty the Utmost Indifferent”If my memory serves me; he had only one commandment:(something along these lines)”People, please be good to each other, then God Allmighty the Utmost Indifferent will take care of himself”When I observe the material univere I inhabit, GAUI seems to be among the few probable candiates presented so far. CassandersIn Cod we trust

  11. “It might be worth consideration that secular foundational beliefs are as justifiable as we can manage, in the sense that they are intuitavely obvious or at the very least intuatively highly probable. Religious foundational beliefs are completely unjustifiable.”The theist can always respond that it is intuitively obvious (or intuitively highly probable) that god exists (to them). Even if (even if) god-type beliefs could be legitimized as being properly foundational, that would in no way give us some particular religion as true through them. There is a vast world of difference between belief in god, and belief in Allah (with all his theological baggage).What in any case could be the specific function of a belief in god as foundational? We can reason about the world without requiring a belief in god, surely (I find Plantinga’s argument related to this quite unpersuasive). The point about other foundational beliefs is that we can’t without them. The whole project of reason is staked upon them.

  12. “Justification always has to come to an end somewhere.” But this does not mean that it always has to come to the same “end” at the same “somewhere”. As long as those “basic principles” are open to revision based on new information, I have no objection to the principle. (I’m less enthusiastic about the practice, however, since it is implausible that people will agree on the best “end” achievable with current information.)The reason to eschew religious “basic principles” is because in almost all(?) cases they are presented as final and non-revisable.

  13. Here’s an answer I came up with:Sometimes a belief is justified because we can just see it is true – ordinarily, we all agree we are justified in believing there is a pen on the table if we can just see it there and have no reason to suppose there’s something funny going on (with mirrors, etc.) We all ordinarily accept this whether we are religious or not.But then such “foundational” observational beliefs can be used to justify secularism. For example, we can all observe that society is made up of many religions, that people are often prepared to kill and die for their religion, and that, as a result, where there is no independent method of resolving such disputes, they often turn violent, and we can immediately build a case for having a religiously tolerant, open society in which the state is religiously neutral.We should all be able to recognize the strength of this argument – that it might well be in all our interests to have such a society – whether we are religious or not.

  14. “Foundational observational beliefs” – good grief, this is supposed to be the blog of a professional philosopher. A foundational belief is, for example, that observation is a certain basis for knowledge (a naive view, but common among people who haven’t thought much about it). Beliefs gained through observation would then rest on (rely on) this foundational belief. Foundational beliefs are unquestionable, and are not the result of deduction. There are, as Joe Otten points out, huge problems with foundationalist accounts of knowledge, but a professional philosopher ought to at least have an understanding of what foundationalism is before attempting to use an argument based on it.

  15. Kosh3I think you misunderstand what I mean by intuitively obvious or at the very least intuitively highly probable.I am talking about physical reality as experienced though our FIVE senses. I don’t really think the questions’Does gravity exist?’ and ‘Does God exist?’can really be both argued to be intuitively obvious. Gravity is, God is not. As you say a religious person might try to argue that they are both intuitively obvious but that would be an asinine argument not even worthy of response. I am of course assuming here that most people believe in gravity. If they don’t there is a good chance they will fall from something tall at some point and rid the world of their idiocy.

  16. @newatthis:I would say that a religious person might say that a god is intuitively obvious to them because they’re using the word intuition as it relates to psychology (a far more colloquial usage of the word), rather than Kant’s assignment of conscious perception to the term.It is not asanine for a religious person to describe their knowledge of a god as a certainty not necessarily supported by reason or sensory witness.

  17. Further, it is not uncommon for secular persons in theoretical fields to use that same sort of intuition to attempt to advance our knowledge. Physicists, in particular, will devise theories to explain phenomena phenomena… theories which, at the time, have no empirical evidence to support them. If the theory cannot be accurately tested, some may hold that belief until the theory is disproven.The difference is in the mutability of the situation. In science, evidence is constantly being presented which changes the generally accepted understanding of the subject. In religion, there is no more hard evidence for or against the existence of divine beings than there was when they were devised, so one cannot expect their beliefs to change based on indirect arguments coming from persons obviously trying to convert them.

  18. “But if there is a God, Reason is His gift to humanity.”As an aside, I have seen this argument made by both the religious and the non-religious alike, yet never actually seen anybody provide any argument that this is in fact the case. Why should “reason” be God’s gift to humanity, especially in light of how irrational human beings in fact are?

  19. My “foundational belief, if I have them, are neither supernaturalism (religious) nor naturalistic (secular). Foundational beliefs should be far more fundamental than that—things like “2+2=4” (self-evident mathematical truths), simple principles of logic, and the like—truly basic things.My nonbelief in supernaturalism is not foundational but an inference to the best explanation for the experience I have concerning the way the world works.

  20. Steve Chester,I think the Physicist and Believer comparison is not really comparing two similar things. Firstly, Physicists invent theories to explain observations. Belivers believe an arbitrary fairy tale which explains nothing. I doubt most Physicists would claim their theories were a certainty when unsupported by evidence. No serious scientist presents a theory as though it were a fact. It is presented as a possible explanation, a theory must fit the facts. There are no facts in religion.As to whether or not it is asanine for a religious person to describe their knowledge of a god as a certainty not necessarily supported by reason or sensory witness. This is not what I said. I said it would be asanine for a believer to claim that Gravity and God were both intuitively obvious. The point being, you don’t have to work too hard to convince most people of the existance of gravity. It being obvious. If the same were true of God we would all be believers. By the by, I think it is assinine for anyone to claim outrageous things are true if they cannot provide ANY evidence what so ever in support. I think we have being far too curteous to the faith minded. Beliveing that you are actually eating the flesh and blood of a two thousand year old demi-god is just plain stupid. I always feel a little intellectually dirty for even engauging in the debate. I occasionally visit the Answersingenesis site. I suppose it has a kind of freakshow type of attraction for me. I realise these loons are the bottom of the barrel but I couldn’t help sending a comment once. After that I went through an intellectual equivalent of the shower scene from ‘The Crying Game’

  21. Last comment by annonymous. Was me. Sorry, a little bit of a IE fit on my pc.

  22. Hi anonymous. You said: “Foundational beliefs are unquestionable, and are not the result of deduction.”Well, perceptual beliefs are arguably often not deduced. Yet they are reasonable, according to e.g. Plantinga, despite their also being fallible and indeed not supported by evidence. This is a sort of “foundationalism”, though not the traditional sort with which you are obviously familiar.I was just borrowing that sort of account of how justification can come to end without our having to embrace scepticism. But it was just one suggestion. There are other ways of doing it…We can drop any reference to “foundationalism” and just say: we all (religious or not) ordinarily consider perception to be a source of knowledge, and perception then confirms the preferability of secularism over alternatives. To avoid the conclusion, the ant-secularist must deny the empirical evidence supports the conclusion (very difficult), or take the more radical option of denying the senses as a source of knowledge, period.I.e., the only way for them to avoid admitting that this is a good argument for secularism may be to embrace scepticism about the external world (or about reason – which seems to be Ibrahim’s strategy).

  23. Hi Stephen,I’m a bit confused about what you mean when you say secularism in this post. You start off by asking whether we should have secular or religious foundations. You then seem to describe secular foundations as something along the lines of ‘we should be nice and respectful to one another’. Is that all you mean by it? and if so, why are you opposing it to religious foundations? Are you suggesting that religious foundations would be opposed to this sort of thing?To anonymous:The sort of foundationalism you seem to be describing is often refered to as classical or strong foundationalism. The alternative is weak foundationalism, as Stephen has already pointed out, which has been defended by the likes of Plantinga. On this understanding beliefs can be foundational if they are produced by a reliable faculty. So, for example, preception is a reliable source of knowledge, so perceptual beliefs can be foundational.Plantinga describes various sources of foundational belief: Perception, memory, testimony, a priori knowledge (this includes mathematics and the like), and even the sensus divinitatis, among others.His claim is that it is acceptable to hold that God exists as a foundational belief in the same way that we hold other beliefs as foundational through other sources of knowledge. To ask for a proof of God’s existence is to presuppose that such a faculty does not exist.

  24. Plantinga describes various sources of foundational belief: Perception, memory, testimony, a priori knowledge (this includes mathematics and the like), and even the sensus divinitatis, among others.Incidentally, whether testimony is appropriately thought of as basic or foundational is quite debatable.

  25. Kosh3 said:Incidentally, whether testimony is appropriately thought of as basic or foundational is quite debatable.Kyle says:Why is that an interesting comment? Very few things said in philosophy are not debatable, and in fact, are not debated.

  26. Why is that an interesting comment? Very few things said in philosophy are not debatable, and in fact, are not debated.Well, I said ‘incidentally’, not ‘interestingly’, and some things are more debatable (and debated) than others. My comment served to clarify the matter on that specific point, least anyone here be led to think that testimony is indeed as a good or classic example of a foundational belief.You object to this for what reason(s)?

  27. Sorry, I didn’t intend for my last comment to sound as aggressive as it did. I just find it frustrating when I post something, and then people pick up on things that aren’t even central to what I was saying.

  28. A traditional proof of God has been along the following lines. We accept cause and effect. Each effect then in turn becomes a cause to other effects. This a butterfly flaps its wings and eventually a hurricane starts. The argument is that we can reverse this order. we can deduce that each effect has a cause and trace the causes back. Either we reach an original or ultimate cause or the causes go on ad infinitum. The second is a logical absurdity, ergo we have an ultimate cause and this is called God.[The cosmological argument]It seems to me that Ibrahims argument is along these lines.There are several responses but I want to draw attention to just one. Even if we accept the existence of the ultimate cause and accept that it is God, it is patently not the rich God of the Bible or the Koran with multiple earthly interventions, a creation story or a moral code. It is a very poor God about whom we can deduce very little. By extension, I note that the field of Mathematics is said to be a consistent body of work based upon deductions which all derive from a handful of unproven (or perhaps unprovable) axioms. Such axioms are all simple concepts and include such statements as “parallel lines will meet only at infinity”. In contrast the “axioms” Ibrahim wishes us to acknowledge are vastly more complex and numerous. Logic allows us to invoke Occam’s razor to say “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. In a comparison, we might note that the reliance of math on “mystical” foundations is trivial, whereas the reliance of all religion on such foundation is overwhelming with the obvious implications.

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