Statement of Principles

If you've found this site for the first time and want to understand where I'm coming from, I offer this statement of principles as a guide to visitors. Here you'll find, in reasonably concise form, a summary of my beliefs on a range of philosophical topics, in descending order from the most fundamental to the most derived.

None of these principles are articles of dogma for me. Rather, they are conclusions that I've come to based on my observations about the way the world works. Any of them may change in the future, if I come across new evidence; but for now, these are the best descriptions of where I stand.

Ontology: Materialist

As Carl Sagan said, "The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever shall be." The Greek philosopher Democritus put it differently, but just as poetically: "By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void."

Both these statements express the same truth: at its most fundamental, reality consists of matter and energy which interact in the arena of space and time in accordance with overarching principles which we call natural laws. The sum total of these five components - space, time, matter, energy, and their interactions - forms the grand system that we call the universe.

Nothing exists outside the universe, and everything that exists inside it is reducible to an assemblage of matter and energy. The only exception to this is in the arena of abstract concepts, things like mathematics, emotions and ideas. Concepts have no location, so are neither inside nor outside the universe. Nevertheless, even they exist only insofar as they are recorded in patterns of matter and energy, and are meaningful only to the extent that they describe particular patterns that are or could be instantiated in the real world.

Epistemology: Rationalist

Objective reality exists and is knowable. Through empirical observation and the exercise of reason, we can form hypotheses about how the world works. If those hypotheses survive repeated rounds of testing, they should be considered true statements, and our confidence in them should be in proportion to the number and quality of tests they have passed. Although all knowledge gained through this process of induction is provisional and tentative, and could in principle be overturned at any time by new observations, it is right to speak of long-established observations as facts, and thoroughly tested and reliable generalizations as laws.

When practiced formally and rigorously by a community of experts, the process of induction is referred to as the scientific method. This is the only reliable means of gaining knowledge about the external world, and all beliefs not arrived at through this method should be considered suspect. In particular, we should be skeptical of beliefs that are justified by "oracles" - claims of revelatory knowledge arrived at without testing or effort. Such claims have an unbroken record of failure, while science, though it is fallible and its practitioners often err, is by far the most powerful and successful method we have ever devised for understanding the world. As Albert Einstein put it, "All our science, when measured against reality, is primitive and childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have."

Metaphysics: Atheist

As a consequence of my beliefs about ontology and epistemology, I am an atheist. Since I believe that matter and energy are the only fundamental aspects of reality, I reject any belief system which claims that mind or consciousness is an irreducible reality. Thus, I do not believe in souls, in spirits, in Platonic forms, or in any gods or other supernatural beings. Since I believe that the laws of nature are supreme and immutable, I do not believe in miracles or magic. And since I believe that reason is the only reliable source of knowledge about the world, I reject any belief system which asks us to take its claims on faith. While I do not dogmatically reject religious claims, I consider that the likelihood of their being true is vanishingly small, enough so that they need not be taken seriously for any practical purpose.

Atheism is not a position to be ashamed of, but one we should defend fearlessly and uphold with pride. I don't think much of those who urge us to be silent because we are too "angry" or too "controversial", or who claim that outspoken atheism is an intrinsically "disrespectful" position to hold. All these claims arise only because religion has historically been protected by an abnormally thick wall of unearned respect, and people who dissent are judged more harshly than people who disagree with other societal norms. As atheists, we should make it our mission to tear down that wall: to show that religious ideas can and should be examined, questioned and debated with the same freedom and openness with which we debate all other kinds of ideas.

Moral Philosophy: Secular Humanist

Although atheism per se is compatible with a wide range of worldviews, the one that I've chosen to adopt is secular humanism. This is a philosophy that values human well-being and happiness as the highest good, promotes liberty, justice and compassion in our relations with each other, and puts human needs and aspirations ahead of obedience to religious dogmas or creeds. Secular humanism rejects supernaturalism and all other forms of superstition which stand in the way of our leading meaningful lives or doing good for one another. As the Humanist Manifesto puts it, "The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone."

I also believe that morality is neither arbitrary nor subjective, but is objective and universal. The moral system I've proposed that exemplifies these values is universal utilitarianism, which teaches that we should always act so as to minimize actual and potential suffering and to maximize actual and potential happiness. By following this principle, we can derive a consistent, empirically-based set of guidelines for right action in any situation. Robert Ingersoll summed up this secular humanist's creed when he wrote, "The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so."

Politics: Classical Liberal

On the level of society and how best to organize it, I consider myself a classical liberal in the Enlightenment tradition. In the matter of human self-government, the only fair and feasible choice is representative democracy, which gives all adult members of a society an equal say in how that society should be governed. To safeguard the rights of minorities, however, every society should agree to bind itself by a constitution which guarantees fundamental human rights and puts them beyond the shifting dictates of popular will. All groups should rationally agree to such a bargain, in recognition of the Rawlsian argument that today's majority may be tomorrow's minority.

Among the fundamental rights guaranteed by such a constitution should include freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience. As part of this, I oppose "hate speech" laws, however well-intentioned, or any other law that restricts speech based on the content of the ideas it expresses. There should also be guarantees of due process and equal protection, ensuring that all people are treated fairly by the law - a simple and obvious truth which leads me to proudly call myself a feminist and to give unequivocal support to marriage equality for same-sex couples.

When it comes to economics, I'm neither a communist nor a libertarian (and I'm especially not a fan of Ayn Rand's Objectivism). I recognize the power of free markets to generate economic growth and spur innovation, yet when unchecked, they lead to greed, corruption, and inequality that's impossible to justify by any rational accounting and corrosive to society as a whole. To ensure that markets serve the needs of society, rather than vice versa, I advocate strong regulations and a system of progressive taxation that reinvests the bounty of the market in ways that benefit all members of society. There's no reason not to do this, anyway, since wealth doesn't buy happiness.

The Future: Skeptical Optimist

Unlike many people, both religious and non-, I'm optimistic about the future. Although there are many reversions and local disasters, there is a slow but definite trend of moral progress visible throughout human history. Simply put, the average life has been getting better for centuries, and barring some unforeseen catastrophe, we can expect that it will continue to do so.

But aside from that general prediction, the only thing we can know about the exact shape of the future is that it's unknown. For that reason, I tend to doubt any specific claims about what will or won't happen. In particular, I'm skeptical of most of the predictions of transhumanism. I doubt that we'll ever create godlike artificial intelligences, nor that we'll ever routinely preserve human beings through cryonics, and while I think that biological immortality is possible, our species is nowhere near ready. I do think that the mind is a material phenomenon that could be recreated in another medium, but I also think most people who anticipate this have greatly underestimated how difficult it will turn out to be.

Also see: About the Author, An Atheist's Creed.

November 27, 2009, 5:39 pm • Permalink

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