The Politics of Metaphysical Naturalism

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 10, 2010 in Politics,Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.)

Last time, we finished Carrier’s discussion of beauty. Now, we turn to politics, what Carrier calls “the most personal and speculative” part of his book, “for it is in politics that we find the greatest ignorance and uncertainty, and thus should permit the greatest scope for honest disagreement.”

Nevertheless, he maintains that “every reasonable, informed person should agree with” him.

Carrier’s political theory follows from his moral theory, and has the same goal: human happiness. But as a matter of definitions, “morality” for him concerns how individuals should decide and act, whereas political science and philosophy is the study of power on a larger scale. “Ethics is the science of living, but politics is the science of governing.”

Liberals vs. conservatives

Carrier does not like the usual divide between liberals and conservatives:

…it is perhaps inevitable that there should be extremes of division, since the conservative and the liberal are actually very much the same sort of person: both see the world in naive, black-and-white terms; both are easily offended, becoming outraged beyond reason; both are paranoid, and exaggerate every imagined threat; and both abandon empirical objectivity, aligning their beliefs instead with their ideology…

By contrast, the moderate is the most rational political animal in any society.

Well. Carrier sure knows how to provoke. Here, he defines liberals and conservatives not in terms of their positions, but in terms of their unthinking allegiance to differing ideologies. Then, he defines moderates as those who encourage disagreements, avoid extreme allegiances, and appeal to evidence in making political decisions. One might ask: But what about all the conservatives and liberals who encourage disagreements, avoid extreme allegiances, and appeal to evidence in making political decisions?

Carrier’s summary says that “the moderate seeks the best harmony between liberty and restraint, in both the private and public spheres.” But of course this is exactly what liberals and conservatives do, too: they just see that harmony in a different balance than the moderate does.

But what about naturalism?

Naturalism and Politics

Carrier writes:

The most distinctive aspect of politics from a Metaphysical Naturalist perspective is dependence on evidence… The best ground on which to base any decision regarding proper public policy is science.

And what is the best kind of government? There are three questions, here:

  1. How can we best design a system for making and revising laws?
  2. How can we best design a system for enforcing those laws?
  3. What are the best laws?
  4. Who are the best leaders?

On (1), Carrier says the evidence shows that democracy is best political system for promoting human happiness we know of yet.

On (2), Carrier shares some thoughts on social and executive reform that I won’t go into here.

On (3), Carrier says little, except to emphasize a commitment to secularism.

On (4), Carrier says a good candidate is honest,  competent, moderate, and charismatic.

The Secular Humanist’s Heaven

What, then, does an ideal society for someone like Richard Carrier look like?

…human rights and freedoms are universally respected, and everything is free except human labor. All our needs will be satisfied by safe machines that can create anything, drawing on self-sustaining power sources like clean fusion or orbital solar. There will be no poverty. The mentally and physically ill will be cared for. The ignorant will be educated.

Everyone will be taught and encouraged to dedicate time and effort to some social good of their choosing: as teachers, builders, explorers, researchers, artists. Their week will be short, and their work fulfilling. All menial, dangerous, and unpleasant labor will be handled by machines…

This world will not be free of evil. There will still be criminals and loafers and attempts to abuse power or cause harm, there will still be accidents and mistakes and disasters. But the elimination of poverty and the reduction of illness and a… humanistic education in reason and sense will make this much rarer than in any present society, as will our constant advance in knowledge and technology. And the government will have been honed… by applying to its reform the scientific… findings of many centuries, until we have the most effective system for protecting human rights and managing the automated economy – and above all, for maintaining checks and balances, and providing quick remedies and effective preventative measures against the natural human impulses toward incompetence, negligence, corruption, and crime…

We will certainly have terraformed and colonized other worlds, at least in our own solar system, with fabricated worlds to live in as well in the very reaches of space… Fertility will be so well managed that all men and women can turn it on or off without difficulty or side effects…

We might even make immortality possible. It may even happen that… we will be able to transfer our minds… into computer-simulated worlds that are in even more perfect regulation than the physical world, a true paradise.

This is all science fiction, surely. But I hope one day to make it science fact. If it sounds like your dream of heaven, this is no accident. This is the society I want to work toward…

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacopo August 10, 2010 at 4:21 am

Nevertheless, he maintains that “every reasonable, informed person should agree with” him.

I really want to read the exact context surrounding that, because by itself I baulk at that statement (which seems, as presented here, to contradict his earlier statement on reasonable disagreement outright). I tend to think the reason why controversies go on for a very long time between smart people is usually because there is no compulsion for reasonable , well-informed people to come to the same conclusions in whatever area the controversy is.

Without a very good reason to think that the controversy really doesn’t represent a worthwhile intellectual disagreement (e.g. ID, global warming denalists etc.) I would be very sceptical of anyone who claims to be offering more than ‘the best case that s/he can make given the evidence and reasons available to him/her’.


Silas August 10, 2010 at 4:22 am

I think the pre-industrial and pre-agricultural way of living is the best for human well-being. So, I believe civilization will never be able to produce the best environment for the ideal “society”. Actually, I think Carrier’s ideal society would be horrible. Once you have all that luxury, you aren’t really human anymore, in a way.


jojo jacob August 10, 2010 at 5:39 am

No one likes Plato’s communism


Reginald Selkirk August 10, 2010 at 5:54 am

“for it is in politics that we find the greatest ignorance and uncertainty, and thus should permit the greatest scope for honest disagreement.”

While people are entitled to their own opinions, problems arise when they think they are entitled to their own facts. This has arisen again and again from the conservative side in the last decade. They make up fake “facts” to support their positions and attempt to muddy what should be objective views of what is, and what consequences might arise from certain actions. Examples: Anti-abortionists still make claims about a link between abortions and breast cancer, long after that idea was debunked. Conservatives still point to erroneous arguments about global warming long after the scientific community has answered those lies.


ShaneSteinhauser August 10, 2010 at 7:47 am

There is a fallacy associated with assuming that the moderate position is the correct one. Carrier makes that mistake, and then condemns those that hold views outside the mainstream, all the while convienently forgetting that he holds a view that is just as extreme as being a creationist.


lukeprog August 10, 2010 at 7:51 am


Yeah, I don’t think the middle position is always the right one.


G'DIsraeli August 10, 2010 at 8:39 am

A naive Hegelian middle?
I think a middle position has nothing to do with the rationality of the position itself.
A moderate to me is someone with no camp, no label which simply tries to make sense of things in the best possible way of things and find a fair workable solution.

It’s not a fallacy if Carrier defines and justifies his position.


ShaneSteinhauser August 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm


Your definition of moderate does not fit my own.


TaiChi August 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

..a universal education in humanistic education in reason and sense..

Typo? On the post itself, Carrier’s ideal society sounds remarkably like Russell’s in ‘In Praise of Idleness‘ – just a little updated.


Márcio August 10, 2010 at 3:04 pm

“The Secular Humanist’s Heaven”

No one will work, everthing will be free, no poverty, immortality, transfer our mind to computers, live in other words ?????

This guy needs to leave hollywood and start to see the world for what it really is.


Márcio August 10, 2010 at 3:07 pm


Worlds!!! not words.


Hermes August 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Márcio: This guy needs to leave hollywood and start to see the world for what it really is.

The irony of your words does not escape me.


Cyril August 10, 2010 at 5:00 pm

“Everything is free except human labor”? How would that work? Obviously we pay for goods and services all the time in the real world, but we pay for services because that’s human labor, and in the case of goods, we’re paying for the service of those who harvested the resource, those who refined it, and those who are presenting it to us. So how exactly would anything change if “everything is free except human labor”?

Oh, and “all menial… work being handled by machines”? Ugh. The most menial work I can think of is when said machines break down and we have to fix them.


lukeprog August 10, 2010 at 5:22 pm


Carrier was not describing the world as it is. He was describing it as he would like it to be.


Márcio August 10, 2010 at 7:20 pm


I know that. I think that it would be a good world too.


I don’t get the irony, but if it is about the problem of evil and suffering in the world, i don’t think it is a problem for the christian worldview. At least not for me.


Hermes August 10, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Márcio, I’ve covered the POE in multiple areas already. We agree, but likely for vastly different reasons.

As for irony, you ding Carrier for something that he doesn’t say is real while holding ideas as if they are real that simply are not. Then again, maybe you don’t do that and I’m mistaken to say such things? That all your ideas are demonstratively based in reality, and when not are not claimed to be anything but private beliefs and as firmly held as any opinion? If I am mistaken, I blame a faulty memory. There are many characters running around here and it’s hard to keep them organized with proper attribution.


Tige Gibson August 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm

This book sounds great.


cd August 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Carrier’s ideal world will take the effort of moral/ideological demand for change for the better and the discarding of inadequate ideas- liberalism or progressivism- to be realized.

He also seems to be only limitedly aware of how greatly genetic technology will change human life.


mojo.rhythm April 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Richard elaborates his political philosophy in more depth here. He lays the smack-down on an anarcho-capitalist by the name of Benjamin.

It seems this right-wing ideology is polluting the earth. I can’t comment on any politics-related videos anymore without encountering a die-hard Ron Paul supporter, a Friedmanite or any other extreme right-wing free-market anarchist declaring government to be the enemy of all that is bright, hopeful and prosperous. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with anarchism (it is healthy skepticism to place a strong burden of justification on authority which permeates out lives), just this mutant hybrid between anti-statism and capitalism. Some of them are so corrupted by extreme individualism and laissez-faire rhetoric they rival creationists in fact-denying ignorance. For a good article addressing the internal contradictions within anarcho-capitalism, see here.


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