Subject: Philosophy

Social Darwinism

This lecture will be the fourth in my series on secular thought in Gilded Age America, from approximately the 1870’s to the end of World War I in 1918. I shall be extending the lecture into the 1970’s and into the present day due to the nature of the subject matter. My three previous lectures have glanced at Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought, Atheism, Anarchism and Emma Goldman, and the Sex Radicals, Birth Control Advocates and their Enemy, Anthony Comstock.  The lectures can all be found at atheistscholar.org, with a link to the YouTube presentations.  We have looked at unbelief in its various manifestations among many sectors of United States society.  Now I am going to turn to Social Darwinism, a sociological theory which claimed to be based on Charles Darwin’s work, Origin of Species, 1859, and his Descent of Man, 1871.  Darwin’s theory, however, was a relatively neutral scientific one, while

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Determinism and Free Will

One of the most compelling debates of the present day is the one between determinism and free will.  Questions of this issue reach back for centuries. But the current controversy has been sparked by new theories in physics and science that question whether or not the universe is determined and what freedoms humans have as part of that natural system. There have been many advances in learning how the human brain functions that have put the concept of free will into question. Atheists remain divided on the question of free will. Many secular thinkers do not find the idea of human free will a robust one. Others are convinced of the will’s free agency.  Many atheists now maintain a compatibilist stance that intention and choice are possible within a determinist system.  The issue is complicated for atheists by their mistrust of theistic concepts, particularly the notion of an immortal soul,

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Why Call It Evil?

An interesting fact about evil, according to experts, is that it wasn’t so bad when it was young.  In fact, the root of ‘evil’, the Indo-European “upelo,” merely meant “exceeding proper bounds.”  Even in Old English, ‘evil’ was used as a fairly bland, general-purpose negative word, encompassing very nasty things or behavior, but also applied where today, we would probably use “bad”, “defective”, or “unpleasant.” The use of ‘evil’ to mean exclusively “extreme moral depravity or wickedness” only arose in the 19th Century.  Word Detective. From the Online Etymology Dictionary-Old English “yfel” – “bad vicious, ill, wicked, (coming from Proto-Germanic words, like ubilaz). The sense of the word today, extreme moral wickedness became common in the 18th Century. This lecture will consider the concept of evil and how it is defined. We shall interrogate what evil is and if contemporary people should even use the word.  Evil is a contested word in

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Postmodernism

There have been requests from atheists for a lecture on Postmodernism, and it is a relevant topic for several reasons. Postmodernism dominated much of the theoretical discourse in both academe and intellectual circles from the mid 1970’s until about the mid 1990’s. From that fact alone, anyone with an interest in the humanities, especially philosophy, will find it important to learn something about the school of thought which once commanded such attention and hegemony in many of the most consequential universities, particularly in France and the United States. It is also important for non-believers to understand why, since Postmodernism’s thought process involved rejecting Meta narratives, there was still a small crack in its stance that allowed for the acceptance of religion, even perhaps the acceptance of a transcendent other. The flexible attitude toward religion was not matched by Postmodernism’s attack on what some of its practitioners called the meta-narrative of

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Feuerbach and Schopenhauer

Here is a brief mention of two important atheist philosophers, Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer. They did not belong to a particular school and stand on their own, although their influence on other philosophers was significant.  Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) The Essence of Christianity. (1837) n.p.: CreateSpace, 2011. The Essence of Religion. (1848)  Trans. Alexander Loss. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Press, 2004. Feuerbach was infamous in his time for his attack on Christianity in The Essence of Christianity (1837) and his Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1848.) In Essence of Christianity he argued that the beliefs of the Christian faith are anthropology turned into religion.  He maintained that unconscious processes try to overcome contradictory elements within the self by projection.  All the unrealized projection of ourselves into an imaginary, non-human god resolves our difficulty without the daunting task of improving ourselves and other human beings.  Essence of Religion took a slightly new direction.  Feuerbach added to his original theory by

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Existentialism

Existentialism is a study of being. This philosophy struggles with the meaning and purpose of life.  It deals with choice and the ambiguity of the circumstances man must deal with when making a choice. It states that the decision is important in itself, because that is what defines us as human beings. Each time we choose, we choose for all mankind, because in that act of decision we create what it means to be human. Existentialism had its first stirrings with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist of the 19th century.  His Notes from the Underground (1864) is a seminal work of alienation.  The philosophy became more fully developed with Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century.  Martin Heidegger contributed to its beginnings with Being and Time (1927).  Existentialism reached its completion as a philosophy in the 20th century with the outstanding contributions of the French philosophers, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de

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Objectivism

Objectivism, the philosophy created by Ayn Rand in the 1950’s United States, is a neo-Aristotelian virtue theory, or as Rand and her followers would maintain, a correction of Aristotle.  Rand was an atheist who believed religion had begun as an attempt to answer men’s needs, but had failed by positing irrational explanations and practices. Rand believed that nature was made up of entities which operate under causality and natural law.  She maintained that reason was the only means of acquiring knowledge, even knowledge of values. She believed that the capacity to think must be exercised by choice.[1] Rand thought that by exercising reason, people could build a value system based on natural laws.  She believed that philosophic truths should be supported by factual evidence.  Rand maintained that animals do the correct thing for survival through instinct, but humans choose through reason.  A flaw in Rand’s reasoning concerning the external world is

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Skepticism

Not all skeptics are atheists, but skepticism is a life stance so common to secular thinkers that a glance at skeptic philosophy will be of interest to people in the secular community.  Skepticism in the Western world began with the ancient Greeks.  There were two forms at that time: assertive and non-assertive.  Plato’s Academy (387 B.C.E. – 83 B.C.E.) originated assertive skepticism. Socrates (5th Century B.C.E.) claimed that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.  Arcesilaus also asserted that nothing was known.  After him came Carneades who maintained the stance that no knowledge was possible.  These Academy philosophers took an assertive, argumentative approach to skepticism. Non-assertive skepticism began in the 4th century B.C.E. and is called pyrrhonism.  Pyrrho of Elis is considered the founder of skepticism by many scholars.  His works have been lost and all we know of his philosophy is from the texts of Sextus Empiricus (2nd century

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Logical Positivism

Logical positivism is a school of philosophy concerned with empiricism in combination with rationalism.  It is no longer considered a robust theory since W.V. Quine, the 20th Century philosopher, took a fine scalpel to the Logical positivist’s sharp-edged theory and disproved its principles so deftly that it never fully recovered.  However, logical positivism is of interest to atheists for its statements that linguistic concepts of god and belief in god were meaningless.  The positivists were also ruthless critics of the propaganda put out by the Nazi Third Reich prior to World War II.  They ridiculed and savaged the hate riddled statements issuing from the German Nazi Party.  Their anti-Nazi activity is important to many secular humanists. The group was called the Vienna Circle originally, and the positivists gathered at the Café Central in Vienna before the war.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Otto Neurath’s efforts made the group more widely known.[1] 

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Humanism

Secular humanism is a school of thought that incorporates Metaphysical Naturalism, the scientific method, rationalism and unbelief.  But a major goal of secular humanism is committed to forming a positive view toward life, one that can be transmitted to the formation of pragmatic ethics and behavior in human culture.  It attempts to create the terms for a fulfilling life in the naturalist universe we inhabit. Secular humanism is a worldview that embraces joy, ethics and courage. The history of secular humanism closely parallels that of naturalism (see Naturalism).  This preface will glance at the story of humanism, stopping at the high spots.  It will take up its more specific history in the 20th Century, which saw the rapid rise and spread of secular humanism. Some of the first stirrings of secular humanism in the West were in ancient Greece.  Many of the thinkers of that period were most concerned with rationalism

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Naturalism

Many atheists identify themselves as naturalists, as Metaphysical Naturalism is the world view that states there are nothing but natural forces and causes in the Universe. (There are many forms of naturalism, but for the purposes of atheist philosophy our emphasis will be on Metaphysical Naturalism and a few segues into Scientific Naturalism, or Methodological Naturalism.)  Naturalism rejects any explanation or transcendental belief in objects that are considered supernatural by theists.  It is a belief that nature and only nature can exist and that explanations for observable events in nature can be explained by resort to examining observable causes.[1] Most naturalists reject the concept that humans are sinful and depend on god.  They reject the idea that people can only make sense of their lives if they live them according to some supernatural command.  On the contrary, naturalists believe that people can control their lives without believing in god or

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