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Meaning and Value in a Secular Age
Why Eupraxsophy Matters
By PAUL KURTZ
Copyright © 2012 Nathan Bupp
All right reserved.
Introduction UP FROM ATHEISM
The main thrust of humanism is not to simply espouse the negative—what we do not believe in—but what we do. We should not begin with atheism or anti-supernaturalism but with humanism. I am a secular humanist because I am not religious. I draw my inspiration not from religion or spirituality but from science, ethics, philosophy, and the arts. I call it eupraxsophy. —Paul Kurtz, "The Convictions of a Secular Humanist," in Multi-Secularism: A New Agenda (2010)
The volume you hold in your hands is intended for the general reader. It conveniently gathers together many of Paul Kurtz's key writings about the theory and practice of eupraxsophy with a special concentration on secular ethics. The concept of eupraxsophy was first introduced by Paul Kurtz in 1988 to characterize a nonreligious (that is, humanistic and naturalistic) approach to life. Derived from three Greek roots, eu ("good," "well"), praxis ("practice," "conduct"), and sophia ("wisdom"), eupraxsophy (yoo-PRAX-so-fee) literally means "good practice and wisdom." It is an authentic, comprehensive, secular outlook able to provide illumination, meaning, and direction to the art of living. Historically, the concept of eupraxsophy owes much to Aristotle's notion of phronesis (practical deliberation and wisdom). Later, Schopenhauer would write about the importance of eudæmonology, an "art of ordering our lives so as to obtain the greatest amount of pleasure and success ... teach[ing] us how to live a happy existence." Eupraxsophy hearkens back to these precursors but, as we will see, moves beyond them in important ways. It draws out the implications of the scientific worldview—and specifically the scientific temper—for the individual and society. Its aim is distinctly moral; it addresses a paramount issue for those who have outgrown, or perhaps never had, belief in the supernatural. Namely, it asks, how do we set about the task of carving out for ourselves a meaningful and rich life in a natural world where, in the last analysis, each of us has only one chance to get it right?
The publication of this volume is especially timely. The influential Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written a much-discussed tome about our "secular age." A group of authors known as "the new atheists" (most notably, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens) have each published provocative and commercially successful books proffering an uncompromising critique of religion. 2 In September of 2010, physicist Stephen Hawking made international headlines when an excerpt from his new book The Grand Design (coauthored with Leonard Miodinow) appeared in the Times of London. In the excerpt, Hawking announced with aplomb that "the Big Bang was the result of the inevitable laws of physics and did not need God to spark the creation of the Universe," adding, "it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going." It seems, as was recently reported by Religion News Service, that a significant number of women and men are expressing a "growing interest in secularism—the rejection of religion in public, and sometimes private, life—both in the U.S. and around the world." This trend seems to be growing.
Secularization, however, presents new challenges, for certain questions remain as absorbing and fundamental as ever. Individuals will continue to hunger for narratives of meaning, value, and purpose; they will continue to yearn for an overall sense of how things hang together—a broad interpretation of existence by which they can orient themselves in the world. These large-scale, existential issues demand a response. Being intrinsically human issues, they remain long after the God of theism has been dispatched by science and reason. Called "the things that matter most" by poets, theologians, and moralists since the foundation of human culture, these issues have been seen by many to be the exclusive domain of religion or a "higher" spirituality, yet, as we shall see, this need not be the case.
Philosopher of science Philip Kitcher (author of Living with Darwin) has written with great perspicacity:
Each of us needs an account of ourselves and what is valuable, something towards which we can steer and by which we can live.... Secular thought shies away from the tradition question, raised by the Greeks at the dawn of philosophy, of what makes human lives, finite though they are, significant and worthwhile.... No advocacy of disbelief, however eloquent, will work the secular revolution until [certain] facts are acknowledged. The temporary eradication of superstition, unaccompanied by attention to the functions religion serves, creates a vacuum into which the crudest forms of literalist mythology can easily intrude themselves.... Secular humanism needs not only to be secular, but also to be humane.... To achieve this, we must go beyond disbelief.
Eupraxsophy matters because it responds to these pressing challenges in a compelling way that resonates both with the findings of the sciences and the distinctly human aspiration to live with a sense of meaning and value. It offers a conceptual framework for thinking comprehensively about our lives in a secular, naturalistic way. Drawing from philosophy, science, and ethics, eupraxsophy provides a coherent picture of the world and the place of the human species within it. It represents a living, breathing set of convictions about the cosmos, the acquisition of reliable knowledge, and the construction (and maintenance) of human values in a natural world. In presenting a cohesive moral vision, it provides an indispensable resource—a North Star, if you will—by which we can steer as we live, act, and work. Hence, the function of eupraxsophy is essentially liberative and life-enhancing.
Written with eloquence and scope, the incisive essays in this book show how Kurtz's brand of eupraxsophic humanism moves above and beyond the new atheism by articulating a genuine and constructive ethical alternative to religion—one that is able to deal effectively with the complexities inherent in our increasingly fragmented secular age.
Chapter 1, "Humanism as a Eupraxsophy," provides an overview of the four essential components of eupraxsophy. These correspond with the traditional branches of philosophy; namely, epistemology (method of inquiry), metaphysics (cosmic worldview), ethics (life stance), and political theory (social polity). This chapter begins with its foundational commitment to scientific inquiry (or what Kurtz calls more generically "critical intelligence") as the preeminent technology that humans have to not only generate knowledge but to aid in practical problem solving, as well. This method of inquiry is the backbone of Kurtz's eupraxsophy. It serves as a practical starting point, as it supplies the conceptual tool with which we investigate and interrogate nature with the aim of developing a systematic understanding of the fundamental structures of reality. Second, the systematic organization and unification of scientific knowledge across disciplines yields an ever-expanding, ever-evolving cosmic worldview. Third, the application of this stock of knowledge—along with the accumulated wisdom of long and edifying experience—informs the development of the humanist life stance, or set of principles and values, by which life may be guided. This leads to the fourth component of eupraxsophy, its social polity, or set of social values. This entails a stalwart commitment to the principal ideals of modernity—freedom, democracy, and social justice. Like a progressive series of steps, each component of eupraxsophy springs forth from, and builds on, the previous one. Hence, our cosmic worldview is a product of the most reliable knowledge drawn from previous scientific inquiries into the nature of nature—physical and human. This scientific wisdom is then consciously combined with the best philosophical wisdom in order to formulate concrete recommendations concerning the good life and the good society (our life stance and social polity). The cord binding all these components together is known as naturalism. This synergistic relationship between eupraxsophy and naturalism is examined in chapter 2. Chapter 3 is a meditation on a question of perennial significance: Can scientific naturalism, insofar as it undermines theism, provide an alternative dramatic, poetic rendering of the human condition, offering hope and promise? This is answered (and demonstrated) affirmatively in chapter 4, "Conviction and Commitment."
Chapters 5 through 7 constitute the centerpiece of Kurtz's normative ethical vision. Central to Kurtz's form of ethical know-how is the practice of reflective ethical inquiry (chapter 5). Here we utilize reason and critical intelligence, in a way analogous to those methods found in the sciences, to negotiate the complexities inherent in life, while remaining especially sensitive to the consequences of our choices. This requires an educated and finely tuned moral imagination. While rejecting ethical systems based on religious absolutism, it is important to note that Kurtz has consistently been equally as critical of ethical nihilism, the idea that in the final analysis ethical choices are nothing more than the expression of subjective whim or taste. Accordingly, Kurtz has delineated a valuational base, a body of certain objective standards and principles that, in many ways, constitute the very bedrock on which civilization is built. These are the common moral decencies (chapter 6) and ethical excellencies (chapter 7), and they have been tested and vindicated in the crucible of human experience. Indeed, these touchstones may be called the fruits of refined and chastened experience. Now, these are not absolute; they are always open to revision and modification in the light of actual experience or circumstance. Still, they anchor ethical inquiry and fortify practical effort, equipping us with map and compass as we traverse the often rugged terrain of the moral life.
The discussion turns next in chapters 8 and 9 to the importance of an altruistic regard for others. This is achieved principally through love and friendship and caring and compassion.
Chapters 13 and 14, "Meaning and Transcendence" and "The Human Condition," take a distinctly existential turn as Kurtz grapples boldly, yet calmly, with those questions of great gravity and enduring significance that, for many, prompt the beginnings of the spiritual impulse, leading them to the altar of religion in search of satisfactory answers. This is Kurtz at his eupraxsophic best, elucidating a penetrating assessment of the human situation. Here we come face-to-face with those topics of profound import that concern what the philosopher George Santayana has called the chief issue; namely, "the relation of man and of his spirit to the universe." The term "spirit" is taken here in its naturalistic sense to mean a moral stance toward life in the world that emanates from the innermost core of our being. Kurtz's reflections in "The Human Condition" are especially kaleidoscopic, as he manages a vantage point from both inside and outside the sphere of human values, opening up shifting, yet equally valid, points of reference between the foreground and background of existence while plumbing the contradictions and uncertainties that confront us all in the game of life.
This volume's afterword, "From Philosophy to Eupraxsophy," is published here for a general audience for the first time. This special autobiographical essay is a summing up of Kurtz's own intellectual development as he considers the consequential ideas and events that have animated his lengthy career as a philosopher, public intellectual, and builder of humanist institutions. Beginning with an intense interest in metaethics (the concern with how to state ethical questions), Kurtz soon became disenchanted with the sterility and narrowness with which professional philosophy was being practiced in the academy, due largely to the hegemonic influence of analytic philosophy. For Kurtz, these trends ignored—and were often irrelevant to—the genuine intellectual problems pertaining to meaning and human practice. (Indeed, one can extend this criticism to atheism in the abstract, as it is being promulgated by some today.) Undeterred, Kurtz turned to the project of developing and enunciating normative ethical principles that could be applied artfully and wisely to live as lived. One must descend from the ivory tower and be prepared to defend normative propositions in the public square. Kurtz writes: "I was convinced that it was important to move from philosophy (the love of wisdom) to eupraxsophy (the practice of wisdom). ... I have maintained that we can bring the best philosophical and ethical wisdom and scientific knowledge to deal with the problems of practice." Here, the influence of Kurtz's mentor Sidney Hook is especially felt. And like Hook, Kurtz has been a fierce defender of humanist values, institutionalizing ideas in a world where the winds of doctrine are constantly changing and one never knows when the forces of unreason will assert themselves anew, leading us to re-enter battles we thought had been won long ago. Kurtz's elegant conception of his role as a eupraxsopher in this afterword exemplifies the central thrust of his passionate commitments: "We need to 'minister to the soul.' ... As an alternative to the medicine men of the past, gurus and spiritualists, soothsayers, rabbis, mullahs, and priests, we need to demonstrate that life can be lived and lived well without the illusions of religiosity, that it can be rich with significance and overflowing with joy, and that concrete choices can be made wisely and satisfactorily." Those of us fortunate enough to have worked side by side with Kurtz on this task can attest to his indefatigable spirit and drive. For Kurtz, ideas have consequences; but for him, more important is what you do in the service of those ideas.
Now in his eighth decade, Kurtz remains intellectually vital. In 2010, he drafted the Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values, a blueprint for "a way forward in the study and application of human values at a global level." At around this same time, Kurtz founded the Institute for Science and Human Values, an organization committed to advancing (and preserving!) the vision articulated not only in the Neo-Humanist Statement but in this volume as well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "the office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them the facts amid appearances." The Sage of Concord's epigrammatic brilliance is most appropriate here, as it captures the essential force and spirit of Kurtz's singular contribution to our ongoing need for wisdom in contingent life. For in articulating a vision that fuses head and heart, Kurtz has illuminated a path whereby we can summon our powers of critical and creative intelligence and, over time, aided by the appropriation of the best scientific and philosophical knowledge, come to carve out a personal destiny marked by the care, shape, and significance associated with a work of art. The writings of Paul Kurtz are a welcome companion in this quest.
Excerpted from Meaning and Value in a Secular Age by PAUL KURTZ Copyright © 2012 by Nathan Bupp. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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