Re: Are deists really "freethinkers?"
Chris OConnor: A deist isn't a freethinker in MY opinion, because I cannot fathom how reason could lead anyone to a belief in a deity.
I suspect that it can't -- at least, not on its own. Depending on what premises you begin with, it may become necessary to posit a deity in order to uphold the entirity of your reasoning. We see that sort of operation take place all the time, in all sorts of contexts. Sometimes the posited notion is something other than deity, value-oriented concepts like liberty
. Even Reason itself, as posited by the Enlightenment, is an assertion more than a discovery, an ideal more than an artifact found in nature.
Me: I've said so elsewhere, but I think the Deistic movement ultimately consigns itself to absurdity.
Chris: How so? Because of what I just said above?
I believe I spelled this out in the "Age of Reason" thread, so for a fuller explanation, go there. The gist is that Desitic conclusion of a supernatural deity is not
, as Paine and others have claimed, founded on pure reason alone, and could not be. It must be founded on premises that are ultimately arational. For example, Paine argues that the observation of Nature rationally leads to the belief in a divine Creator (making Paine a forerunner of the modern Intelligent Design debate -- I wonder why they haven't made use of Paine to any but a limited extent). But that cosomological argument must be premised on the implicit assertion that something in the character of Nature implies something outside itself, an idea founded not on rational argument but on experience and sentiment.
At a certain point, you (as a hypothetical deist) have to ask what is more central to the philosophy -- belief in God, or the methodology of Reason. If it is belief in God, then you are, within the context of your own philosophy, justified in weakening the constraints of pure reason here and there. If the methodology of Reason, and the obligation to believe only in what may be demonstrated by reason, is more central then you consign yourself to whatever fate or range of fates is set down for the purely rational person. I'd say it leads to a reductio ad absurdum, as I've argued elsewhere.How can you be skeptical about thinking for oneself? A freethinker is someone who thinks for him or herself.
I don't know that it's possible to really think without some form of authority -- language, for instance, is a pervasive authority, and we may ask ourselves how broadly our thoughts are permitted to range without the raw material provided by language. Freethinkers are also constrained, as are all people, to the historical development of the concepts which they manipulate -- that's one of the lines of research I've recently taken up for myself: the development of the Enlightenment notion of Reason in contrast to the classical notion of reason, and the effect those developments have had on society. Much the same may be said for a great number of the ideas that secular society takes for granted, as though the language referred to something that were indisputably observable in nature: freedom, order, peace, humanity, equality. These are all concepts with a history rooted in authority, and I think that the idea that you can simply liberate those terms from their roots without killing the plant, so to speak, is a bit naive.
I would even go so far as to say that much of what passes for "freethinking" these days is actually better described as thinking in opposition, as though it were thinking from reason alone to repudiate the credo of a given institution and set yourself against it. In that way, you may observe some people trumpeting their own liberation from authority, when actually their beliefs are defined in an inverse, but still contingent, relationship to the very authority they've repudiated.
I should add that these are not complaints or criticisms that I'm making against anyone here. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who takes upon themselves the task of examining what they might otherwise take for granted. But I think there's some reason for caution when dealing with any sort of label, whether applied or adopted, that makes claims as radical and far-reaching as "freethinker". I hope you'll take these comments in that spirit.So you're skeptical about using reason?
As a matter of fact, I am. Or, to qualify, I am skeptical about blind faith in the power of reason. Nor am I entirely convinced that we can continue to treat the idea of reason as something simple and self-evident. If we are going to assert reason as the modus operandi of our society as a whole, then we need to be more explicit about what we mean by the term, how broadly it can be applied, what we must reject in order to work from reason alone. The Enlightenment was, on the whole, entirely too optimistic about Reason to treat it skeptically, and their conclusions were, in some part, influenced by political and cultural agendas.How is reason not the best tool for figuring out how things work?
For the most part, it is. And if all you ever ask of learning is an understanding of the mechanical operation of a given thing, the reason is just about all you'll need. But knowing "how things work" is only one kind of knowledge among many.