Saturday, January 11, 2014

Who isn't a free thinker?

From the wikipedia entry on Freethought: Freethought or free thought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logicreason, and empiricism, rather than authoritytradition, or other dogmas.[1][2][3] The cognitive application of freethought is known as "freethinking", and practitioners of freethought are known as "freethinkers".

Interesting definition. Logic, reason and empiricism? Then it turns out everyone from Thomas Aquinas to William Lane Craig was a freethinker after all. 'Ah,' may come the reply. 'But at least on some subjects those men submitted to authority!' Alright... but if authority is verboten, then it looks like almost none of the people who are commonly held up as free thinkers really are, since every one of them bows to various authorities - particularly 'scientific consensus.' If someone argues that scientists qualify as acceptable authorities because they presumably have knowledge to back up their statements, then we're right back to accepting Aquinas and company as free thinkers too - since God certainly has the knowledge to back up HIS statements. Better yet, at least in the case of God there are metaphysical arguments for His knowledge, His omniscience. For any particular scientist or group of scientists? It gets a lot trickier.

I think the very idea of 'free thought' originated in a time and place that is so unlike our own that the concept, as it was originally presented, really died a long time ago - and it wasn't a very good idea even in its original form. Part of the problem seems to be the tendency to think of favored and individuals in a 'we' sense instead of a 'they' sense. How many times do you run into people who say "We used to think geocentrism is true, but now we know that heliocentrism is true!", only to find out that "We know" means "This is what I heard that scientists say", and if you ask them to explain how - do this when they're not near a computer or aren't allowed to check the internet - they come up short? 'We know', meaning 'Someone out there knows, I hear'. 'We discovered geocentrism is false' meaning 'Didn't someone do, like, an experiment?'

If freethought allows other people to do our thinking for us, then the entire edifice collapses and everyone is a free thinker. If other people are not allowed to do our thinking for us, then the price is a level of agnosticism that modern free thinkers would find downright worrisome. The only route left is to head off into the fog and argue that it's all very complicated and therefore necessary to consider that some levels of dogma or authority may well be acceptable after all, at which point Thomas Aquinas the Freethinker is, at the very least, a live option - and Richard Dawkins, the anti-skeptic, is as well.


Mr. Green said...

Well, you get what you pay for. Basic theism is actually in a much better position to do without authority — any reasonably intelligent adult can (or could, if he knew about it) master the metaphysical basics of God's existence as per something like Feser's TLS. It's simpler and sounder than science, which requires all sorts of assumptions and simplifications even to get off the ground. And that's just the theory: it's impossible for anyone to get beyond very primitive "science" without authority and tradition because not only do you have to be able to explain all the reasoning behind it, you have to do all the experiments yourselfall the major experiments in the history of science ever (and who knows how many minor ones). And that includes making all your own instruments. (Sorry, you so much as used a ruler you got from someone else? That's bowing to authority on how long an inch is!) God is pretty much the only thing "pure freethought" could handle. (Maybe you could try pushing common sense... which is gonna get you even more God, given what is common to the vast majority of mankind across all cultures and all times.)

It's on a par with "sceptics". In a given context, one person might be sympathetic to a particular proposition and another one sceptical. But it's just silly to go around calling yourself a sceptic as though it somehow defined one's view on life. Everyone is sceptical of some things, and everyone is not sceptical at all of other things. If you need to categorise yourself (and why do you?), there has to be something better.

Crude said...

God is pretty much the only thing "pure freethought" could handle.

The basic possibility of which, it seems, most free thinkers aren't capable of handling even as a live option. How do you know who a real free thinker is? Well, they come to this and only this set of conclusions on these particular topics, etc.

I agree about the skeptics as well. What amazes me is that these points seem to be missed by all sides, atheist and theist alike, at least most of the time. I think the blindness to the point about science sometimes happens because a lot of theists are afraid of ever being seen as critical of science - I've ran into more than one Christian who has talked about how their big deal is 'showing that science and Christianity are compatible', which very often cashed out to 'Showing scientists that Christians can be loyal vassals who accept the consensus views, even non-scientific consensus views of scientists, without flinching or hesitating.'

lotharlorraine said...

I think that there is no true free thinker in the whole earth, we all have presuppositions and biases.

Wisdom consists of recognizing that very fact instead of denying it.

Syllabus said...

At this point, I think "freethinker" doesn't really indicate a cluster of beliefs. It's a vacuous term. It's more of a label which people use when they want to feel a little thrill up the leg at being "rational" or what have you.

Samwell Barnes said...

Here's an additional bit of irony:

Most of these "FreeThinkers" are metaphysical naturalists, meaning that, on their worldview, all mental states are completely determined by a neuro-molecular choreography over which human beings have no control. We're at bottom just a bag of interacting particles.

Point is, on their worldview, they're no more "free" to alter aspects of their thinking than a billiard ball is "free" to change its course after being struck.

That said, I feel that most of the motivation for such people labeling themselves in such a manner is not so much due to a concern for accurate self-description as it is to a concern for childishly smearing the opposing side. Through not-so-subtle implication, they want to brand theists, especially religious theists, as "slaves." Same idea with that whole dumbass effort to start a "Bright" movement.

Crude said...

I agree that 'freethinking', especially as it typically manifests, tends to be bunk - and loaded with a whole lot of baggage.

But I think the core idea here is still a popular one. Really, the wiki quote alone sums up a real common quip: "You shouldn't believe things based on authority or dogma! You should believe things you can empirically demonstrate! Experiments, research, science science science!"

And when you ask them to apply this to their belief in one scientific fact or another, a whole lot of them freeze.

Marc Fischer said...

Hello Crude, I want to call your attention to a related post I have just written:

It will probably foster a heated discussion you might be interested to participate in.

Lovely greeting.

P.S: could you perhaps send me an email address where you can be frequently reached? My current one is

Crude said...


I posted a comment there. The email you have is the one I often use - I just am not an email guy typically, when you get right down to it. But I do always check it eventually, and respond promptly when I do.

BenYachov said...

Off Topic.

I called Codg anti-Catholic stand I stand by it.

Marc Fischer said...

Many thanks for your response!

At last, the first atheist has answered me there :-)

Otherwise I would certainly like to more often participate in your blog, but the problem is that I have to log in from scratch every time.


Crude said...


I'd like there to be an easier way for people to comment. On the flipside, I really like to moderate comments so things stay on-topic and bullshit is minimized. Maybe when I move to the new site.