The MWS Podcast 58: Philip Kitcher on Life after Faith: The case for Secular Humanism

Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at the University of Columbia. He’s the first recipient of the American Philosophical Association’s Prometheus Prize for his work to expand the frontiers of science and philosophy. He’s written many books including ‘Philosophy of Science: A new introduction’, ‘Preludes to Pragmatism’ and ‘The Ethical Project’. His latest book is ‘Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism’ and that will be the topic of the conversation today.


MWS Podcast 58: Philip Kitcher as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_58_Philip_Kitcher

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

One thought on “The MWS Podcast 58: Philip Kitcher on Life after Faith: The case for Secular Humanism

  1. A very interesting conversation, and encouraging in terms of how much common ground was found. I have various comments and questions, but they’re largely about details rather than major structural issues.

    Probably my biggest question about the position Philip outlined is why he calls it ‘secular humanism’. The term ‘secular’ is usually interpreted to mean either non-religious or anti-religious: but if, as Philip said, he has no problem with 5 of Smart’s 6 dimensions of religion, surely this would be misleading? I suspect that there will be many people who self-identify as religious, even of a sophisticate type, who will not listen to the podcast because they see it as being about secular humanism – and they think that means a position like Dawkins. ‘Humanism’ is a broader term, and can mean anything from Erasmus’s scholarly interest in the human world onwards – but again, for most people today it seems to mean a Dawkinsian position. I can see the pragmatic case for trying to shift terms and use them in more profitable ways, but in this case it seems to me far more important to challenge the terms of the religious v secular dualism (otherwise known as the US culture wars) and to provide a hospitable environment for religious agnostics.

    A small query, also, is to ask Philip what he means when he says that mathematicians might make a reasonable claim to experience the infinite? Surely mathematicians only ‘experience’ the infinite as a concept?

    I also wonder if Philip has read Mark Johnson’s new book on ethics (that I have recently reviewed on this site) ‘Morality for Humans’. My guess is that he and Mark Johnson must be in close touch and have a lot in common – both draw a lot on Dewey for one thing. I was far more convinced by Johnson’s account of ethics though, than what I heard of Philip’s here – though I haven’t read any of Philip’s books so in some ways this is an unfair basis of comparison. I wonder if Philip agrees with the Johnson/ Dewey use of ‘wide reflective equilibrium’ as a standard for better moral (or other) judgements? That seems to me a far more adequate way of defining it than the ‘reaching agreement’ (which one could easily mistake for mere compromise) Philip talks about here, or the ‘impartial spectator’, which seems very open to idealisation.

    Finally, I wanted to add something that seemed to have been missed on the discussion of meaningful lives. Philip’s account of how someone on their deathbed might be mistaken about how meaningful their life had been seems right in some sense – but the reason one could be mistaken in such a way I’d suggest is due to a lack of integration over time. The person on their deathbed may have forgotten or repressed their awareness of how meaningful their lives had previously been. It’s thus not that their meaning isn’t limited to experience, but that our ‘experience’ isn’t intrinsically limited to one moment and doesn’t exclude the unconscious, which can still be massively informing our physical and emotional states. As Barry suggested, a more integrated perspective is one that is more meaningful – but to gain that integration one links together experiences that would otherwise be isolated over time.

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