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Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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Creationism and Evolution; An Open Letter to a Misleadingly Quote-mining Minister

[E-mailed and snail-mailed to Tron Church; no reply received as of 4 weeks later. If I ever get one, I’ll give it its own post and publicise] Dear Dr Philip; You are misleading your congregation on a matter of fact. I address you both publicly and privately, and promise to publicise your reply.

In a recent web post, entitled “The Inhumanity of Humanism,” you say [a reader points out that these words and the others I cite below are not the Rev’s own, but his father’s, embedded and quoted at length with approval] I am not human because I have not been saved by Jesus[1]. You are entitled to that opinion. But you are not entitled to the manipulative misrepresentation of a distinguished evolutionary scientist, on which you base your completely unwarranted claim that the science of evolution is based on a decision to exclude God. You seem unaware of the long array of distinguished evolutionary scientists who have believed in God, including Charles Darwin at the time when he wrote On The Origin Of Species, but let that pass.

You write:


It [humanism] does not start with scientific evidence; it starts with an objection to God, and by a process of rationalisation transfers the antipathy towards God to so-called scientific arguments against his existence. This is what I meant earlier by saying that as an argument this is not very scientific, any more than another noted scientist, Professor D.M.S. Watson, is, when he says: “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur, or….can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible”. Well, well! So this is science. This is keeping God out with a vengeance! It scarcely commends “the scientific attitude” however, to thinking people, and it gives us leave to question whether the “assured results” of modern science are always as assured as they might be.

Here you have moved from an attack on Humanism to one on the science of evolution. In order to do so, you are putting into Watson’s mouth the claim that evolution is accepted without evidence merely because special creation is ruled out in advance as incredible. You then use his alleged position to launch a broad attack on those who claim to be embracing “the scientific attitude,” whatever you imagine that to be (in my experience, there are as many attitudes as there are scientists), and specifically to call into question the assured results of evolutionary science. I do not know why you do this, since I see nothing in evolutionary science that conflicts with your own Church’s statement of faith.

I will be charitable, and assume that you are unaware of the fact that you are echoing a well-known misrepresentation of Watson’s position. Indeed it is so well known that it has its own Wikipedia link. I have checked, as you evidently have not, the actual quotation, publicly accessible here (p. 95, halfway down), and find that it does indeed speak of “the Theory of Evolution itself, a theory universally accepted, not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” However, this is a partial recapitulation of the fuller statement on p. 88, which reads:

Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of Taxonomy, of Palaeontology, and of Geographical Distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.

But whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable.

Watson, remember, was writing in 1929, when the evidence available was far scantier, the interrelationship between genetics and evolution still being worked out, the nature of the genetic material unknown, and the very existence of the gene as a material entity the subject of controversy. What he is doing is stating the inadequacy, in 1929, of biologists’ understanding of the mode and mechanism of evolution. He refers correctly to evolution as a fact even then established by the evidence, and rejects alternatives because they give no credible explanation of the data. In the rest of his article, he goes on to ask good questions about the process by which evolution occurs, questions that have received good answers aplenty in the intervening 85 years (some of them ably expounded by Dennis Venema, himself an evangelical Christian, here). D. M. S. Watson most emphatically does not do what you accuse him of doing, namely ruling out creationism because he wishes to exclude God. I have no idea what his views were on the existence of God, nor do I see how they are relevant once his words are honestly examined in their actual context.

I hope you will disabuse your congregation of the error that you have, no doubt I unknowingly, helped propagate, and I undertake to publicise any reply you make as extensively as I am publicising this letter.


Prof Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc.

[1] The actual words are: “It is not possible to be human (or humanist, rightly understood) without being saved into humanity by the God Who gave Himself for us in Jesus Christ.”  It has occurred to me, since sending this piece to the Reverend, that he may be a Universalist who believes I have been saved despite my lack of belief, but I do not think this likely.

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