A Worldview

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 1, 2009 in Reviews

For someone who just discovered his religion is a lie and wonders how and what he should think about the universe, Richard Carrier‘s Sense and Goodness Without God is a handy worldview-in-a-box. It covers every conceivable topic from a rationalist, naturalist point of view: the meaning of words, methods of knowing, cosmic origins, determinism and free will, metaphysics, physics, abstract objects, mind, the meaning of life, evolution, faith and reason, emotions, the paranormal, atheism, morality, secular humanism, beauty, art, and politics.

Because I enjoyed the book so much, and because it covers so many topics, I’d like to blog my way through the book, sharing my thoughts on each section. (See the post index for all sections.)

Today, I’ll blog about section I.1 What This Is.

Carrier and I share a passion for bringing philosophy to the masses. After all, philosophy seeks to answer the most fundamental questions we have! What is good? Who are we? What exists? How do we know things? It is absurd that philosophers struggle to make their work on these questions accessible to the common man.

Yet they do. As Carrier writes, philosophers “have reduced their craft to the very thing it should not be: a jargonized verbal dance around largely useless minutiae… They have retreated behind ivory walls, talking over the heads of the uninitiated, and doing nothing useful for the everyman. So it is no surprise that the general population has lost interest.”

Let me pause and say that the highly technical work of philosophers is very important. The rigorous development of various logics, for example, has been very productive, but is genuinely impossible to communicate in plain language.

However, a great deal of philosophy need not be so technical. Metaphysics, ethical philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of religion – these are all fields in which most published philosophy is highly technical and jargon-filled, but need not be! This is why I praise as much as possible philosophers like Alonzo Fyfe who are both rigorously logical and precise, but also speak in plain talk as much as possible. We need more philosophy like that.

All people ask – and answer – the fundamental questions of life. The problem is, almost everyone on the planet gets the answers very, very wrong. Why? Because they don’t have the tools to get it right! Imagine asking someone off the street to figure out what ratio of particles is produced by smashing two protons together. It would be ludicrous to expect them to come to the right answer without having the right tools: the scientific method, the proper computer algorithms and sensors, a particle accelerator, etc.

Likewise, it is silly to expect people to come to the right answers about philosophical questions if they don’t have the right tools: critical thinking, logic, science, historical method, etc.

And yet people do answer the fundamental questions of life without these tools, and thus come to very wrong or incoherent answers that can be damaging in many ways. This is, partly, because the tools have not been presented to them in a way that is inviting and accessible.

Perhaps one appeal of religion is that it presents a ready-made worldview, recommended by supposedly smart and educated people. You can pluck one off the shelf that looks nice, plug it into your life, and viola! – you have answers to all your questions! Of course, very few religious people have any idea if the worldview they’ve just chosen is well-constructed or true. They don’t have the tools to discern that. They’re just trusting the elders.

At first glance, it looks like Carrier is trying to offer an alternative worldview for you to pick off the shelf. He certainly gives answers to all major philosophical questions in Sense & Goodness. But, Carrier says:

I have taken a different approach, and wish to recommend it to everyone. My religion is Philosophy Itself. Every hour that devout believers spend praying, reading scriptures, attending sermons and masses, I spend reading, thinking, honing my skill at getting at the truth and rooting out error… I have spent over an hour every day of my life, since I began my teen years, on this serious task of inquiry and reflection.

I am no guru. But I have gotten pretty far. Now, nearing middle-age, I have found myself with that coherent, sensible, complete, evidentially well-supported philosophy of life that I have been looking for… I might not be right. I might be only partly on target. But at least I gave it as good a try as anyone could.

Next time, I’ll review section I.2 How I Got Here, Carrier’s personal story.

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