Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

North American Science, Skepticism, and Secular Humanism 4 — A Firmament, a Universe, Firmly Not for Us: Non-Teleological, Technical, and Natural Existence

James A. Haught was born on Feb. 20, 1932, in a small West Virginia farm town that had no electricity or paved streets. He graduated from a rural high school with 13 students in the senior class. He came to Charleston, worked as a delivery boy, then became a teen-age apprentice printer at the Charleston Daily Mail in 1951. Developing a yen to be a reporter, he volunteered to work without pay in the Daily Mail newsroom on his days off to learn the trade. This arrangement continued several months, until The Charleston Gazette offered a full-time news job in 1953. He has been at the Gazette ever since — except for a few months in 1959 when he was press aide to Sen. Robert Byrd.

During his six decades in newspaper life, he has been police reporter, religion columnist, feature writer and night city editor; then he was investigative reporter for 13 years, and his work led to several corruption convictions. In 1983 he was named associate editor, and in 1992 he became editor. In 2015, as The Gazette combined with the Daily Mail, he assumed the title of editor emeritus, but still works full-time. He writes nearly 400 Gazette editorials a year, plus personal columns and news articles. Haught has won two dozen national newswriting awards, and is author of 11 books and 120 magazine essays. About 50 of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. He has four children, 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. For years, Jim has enjoyed hiking with Kanawha Trail Club, participating in a philosophy group, and taking grandchildren swimming off his old sailboat. He is a longtime member of Charleston’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Haught continues working full-time in his 80s.

Here we talk about the nature of Scientific Skepticism as a capitalized abstraction, in definition more precisely, and in concrete terms.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Scientific Skepticism, as an epistemology deriving certain facts of reality, a particular ontology, rejects — not at the outset of the practice of the empirical disciplines, but as time progressed into the present with further repeated experimentation on predictions — the supernatural.

To some, a firm, definitive conclusion, and to others, a soft, mostly determinate conclusion on the state of the world, reality exists as natural. Nonetheless, a conclusion, magic holds no place except in lore or individuals ignorant of the technical operations of the world.

Many believers, in the adherence to a supernaturalistic lifestance and philosophy (theology), assert purpose and meaning from outside of themselves, not self-generated inasmuch as downloaded from on High through the Cosmic Architect Bill Gates, Divine Constructor Steve Jobs, or Transcendental Artificer Steve Wozniak.

An informed and discerning scientific skeptic, almost always, discovers a natural, regular world filled with crooks and crazies asserting a supermaterial realm rather than a real superphysical dimension permitting magic.

A true believer would, often, consider this asserted other-world as one in which an omnipotent or plural-potent object acts through and into the ordinary life of the believer, i.e., to answer prayers, to deliver cures, to provide consolation and comfort, to help cure their syphilis caught from cheating on their spouse with a male/female hooker, to get a good deal on the house’s mortgage, or to give their child a tad extra vocabulary talent to come in first place in the local Spelling Bee, and so on.

This, to me, seems like wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and simply wishing-it-were-so. These answers or the assertions, as we both know, cannot be maintained by an intelligent, informed, and integrated personality and intellect in the early 21st century.

Science advanced, the scientific skeptic’s process of investigation into the world comes to reject the claims with evidence, not before the evidence. This appears the same with a teleological perspective on the nature of reality.

All supernatural claims at the outset, to the scientific skeptic, acquire more appropriate strong doubt with the continual pounding of the mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, and social sciences on their now-obviously-incoherent and wrong assumptions of reality because of the further wealth of worldly knowledge. The strong doubt, therefore, about teleology or magic, or supernaturalism, is not a priori, but based on the empirical findings in the past, richly repeatedly discovered.

So, this leads to teleology and science, skepticism, and secular humanism. How does one operate in a community in which science is scorned by the nature of the ideological fundamentalism in the community?

Jim Haught: In her wonderful book, Sleeping with Extraterrestrials, Wendy Kaminer outlined many goofy, irrational beliefs held by fantasy-prone people. I’m baffled by belief in nutty things — including virgin births, resurrections, heavens, hells, purgatories and virgins in paradise. We scientific-minded skeptics simply cannot swallow such absurdities.

Jacobsen: How does the teleology provide purpose and meaning to the lives of individual believers in America? What is a scientific skeptic answer to the idea of a “world not for you”?

Haught: I know the top psychiatrist at West Virginia University’s medical school (who’s an atheist like me), but I doubt if he can explain what satisfaction believers get from such fantasies.

Jacobsen: Following from the previous question, if the “world [is] not for you,” how does this tend to feel threatening to some within the religious community in the United States through the removal of the sense of externally (imposed) meaning and purpose?

Haught: For many years, I wrote news about Appalachian serpent-handlers — and actually became friends with a few of them. They felt isolated from mainstream society (and probably considered themselves superior, because they were God’s chosen). Because of my writing, a sociology professor visited the snake-handler repeatedly and gave them a mental stability exam (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). For a control group, he also gave the MMPI to a nearby Methodist congregation. The serpent-handlers came out mentally healthier.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jim.

Haught: Keep the faith, baby.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen supports science and human rights. Website: www.in-sightpublishing.com