Simon Nightingale’s Talk on Humanism

This lecture was given to the Shrewsbury U3A

Following Simon’s lecture to the Ludlow and Marches Humanists which covers much the same ground as in this video, I sent an open letter in response. Here it is;

Open letter to Dr Simon Nightingale;


Dear Simon,


Many thanks for your excellent talk to the Ludlow Humanist group last Tuesday.


There are two matters that I would like to raise and would welcome your response.


The first is that of ‘naturalism’, i.e. the view that the world can only  be known in terms of propositions that can be evidenced by reference to its natural properties and causes.  If the world consists of natural properties and causes then a view that the world can only be known by reference to these is tautologous.  But does the world only consist of these and is this the only possible way in which the world is to be understood ?   The empirical sciences make natural properties and causes the basis for their subject matter but to hold that this is sufficient to account for the world is not an empirical question itself but rather, perhaps, a matter of faith.  Why should the world  be only  known empirically in terms of natural properties and causes?


This is not, in any way to imply that there are supernatural or spiritual forces of a pseudo scientific nature whose properties and causes are not available to explanation in naturalist terms. To claim that there is what Tony Akkermans refers to as a sentient omni God, scient, potent or present, would be to undermine the whole framework and coherence of our scientific understanding.  A God of this nature is simply scientifically unbelievable and to say that we do not believe in the scientifically unbelievable is another tautology.  We cannot even say that there may be such a God, or that he probably does not exist without violating the whole conceptual framework of our scientific understanding.  


If we believe that the only things objectively knowable (or worth knowing) are those established by the empirical sciences (scientism or positivism) then we may become like the man with a hammer, to whom every problem is seen as a nail. I doubt that this is your position and I am sure that you will agree that our understanding of reality is only partially explained by naturalist science.  There are many forms of non- empirical knowledge, in the humanities, philosophy, literary and artistic aesthetics, ethics, and theology and in the formal sciences, maths and theoretical physics, etc.  The justification for propositions in these fields is achieved through the logic of interrelating understandings. Truths hang on how the network hangs together in a coherent whole, whether propositions ‘work’ in relation to each other.  These fields or forms of knowledge may be more forgiving, more venturesome, than those of the empirical sciences which can be nipped in the bud anything that is not susceptible to naturalist explanation.  


Of course, I am sure that you will admit that the empirical sciences themselves are shaped by the explanatory paradigms that we use in our investigations.  We are not simply blank sheets when it comes to properties and causes but selective in our viewing of them. We may even engineer them in a laboratory.  The theories that fall under these paradigms are a product of human imagination combined with human needs and interests.  Our theories stand and fall by virtue of their pragmatic value to the broader paradigm within which they are investigated.  To paraphrase Protagoras we might ask how far our understanding is shaped by natural reality or how far natural reality is shaped by our understanding, – whether nature is the measure of man or man the measure of nature.


In the case of what we might understand as ‘spiritual explanation’ these are not in competition with naturalist ones. They fall under a different non-naturalist forms of knowledge e.g. theoretical psychology, philosophy or theology.  


This brings us to the second issue, that is the conception of a ‘naturalistic’ God, a sentient being of properties and causes who to some extent controls human events.  In an episode of ‘Yes Prime Minister’ Sir Humphrey is advising the P.M. on the appointment of a new archbishop. He says;


‘There are two kinds of bishop in the Church of England Prime Minister, those who believe in God and those who don’t’. 

Sir Humphrey’s God is the naturalistic one that some humanists take delight in knocking down. Those bishops (most I would think) who do not believe in this God may have a more nuanced and sophisticated concept, one that sees God as in the ‘hearts and mouths’ of humankind. He may be something to do with our nature as human beings, perhaps a construction but if so, more like a mathematical formula or a work of art. Once constructed, these products of human effort exist independently and objectively in the world for people to take as they will. These constructions may be understood as reaching back into the past and forward into the future, seeking to articulate universal truths about what it means to be human.  To adopt a belief in this God is to become party to a network of interlinked theological understandings, a coherent body of discourse that is governed by reason and imagination. In this sense one cannot say that God does not exist only that you do not share or perhaps do not understand theological discourse within which he occurs.  I do not think that many theologians would claim that God exists in the  supernatural sense that you implied in your talk, but rather that God is implicit in the truths that are uncovered within their discourse.  This view is not by any means new.


In an ancient story a group of rabbis in first century Judaism are arguing about the meaning of a particular passage in the Torah.  The rule is that when the argument is played out they take a vote and the majority vote rules as the truth.  On one occasion a Rabbi Eleazar found himself running against the arguments of the majority but instead of deferring to them he insisted that he was right.  The debate became heated and Eleazar said that if what he said was true the Carob tree growing in the courtyard would uproot itself and move several yards away from them. That would be evidence of divine sanction for his position. The Carob tree did indeed move itself but the assembled Rabbis would not agree that this was evidence, after all what has a Carob tree got to do with the teachings of the Torah.  Eleazar then sought to offer more evidence, this time in the reverse flow of the stream so that the water flowed uphill. Again this was achieved but still the assembled Rabbis were not impressed. Eleazar decided to offer something more threatening and said that he would make the walls of the building in which they were meeting, shake. This he did and the walls began to shake in a precarious manner. Then Rabbi Judah got up and commanded the walls to stay still and they did. Exhausted with trying to impress the group with his divine support Rabbi Eleazar called on God himself. God came into the meeting and stated that Rabbi Eleazar was correct in his interpretation of the Torah and they were all wrong.  The Rabbis confronted God;


‘You gave us the ability to reason with our heads and feel with our hearts. You gave us the means and responsibility to decide the truth of interpretation. You cannot come to our meeting and now deny us that right. We decide how the Torah should be interpreted according to our rights and customs’. 

God was impressed and put into a good humour by this show of spirit. He permitted the meeting to proceed in its traditional custom and took no more part himself.   


This story illustrates the early evolution of the view that truth is a human construct and that whether there is a God or not, this is irrelevant to the ways in which we come to understand the world. For the Jews it is important that God is amongst them but his presence is felt, not as a separate identifiable being but as part of the context of discussion and careful analysis within which arguments are constructed.  


With kind regards,


Mike Radford

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  3. Leave susan alone shes great!
    Good for her if she still gets the bus!
    The wannabes that drive the sporty cars can’t afford them half the time its all debt!!
    GO SUSAN!!!

    By Celia.. Posted April 25 2010 at 11:59 AM.

    Im sure anyone who lives in Susans home town of whitburn which is a tiny wee village in west lothian wouoldnt let any harm come to her as for the break in it was probably a local bairn who was curious as to see if susan had changed her house into a palace inside after her fame! not that it gives him the right to break into her house because it doesnt! but the chances of something happening to Susan in Whtburn is like 99-1 nothing will happen to her and there is nothing wrong in her taking a bus why get a taxi thats gonni cost u more than 1.30 when she has a bus stop outside her door!!! anorexic and looking at the bus it was empty anyway! good on Susan for not letting fame go to her head as Scottish people hate nothing more than that!

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