Philip Kitcher on Secular Humanism

kitcher_jkt.inddOne criticism of ‘New Atheist’ books has been that they lack sophistication, that they attack only the most extreme forms of theistic belief without touching its more nuanced, liberal forms. So it comes as a welcome development to read Philip Kitcher’s new book, which takes a more nuanced look at religious belief and practice. As well as being an eminent philosopher of science, Kitcher is an atheist and secular humanist, and his book is a defense of those beliefs as against liberal religion.

Liberal, or as Kitcher terms it, “refined” religion takes it that the stories found in sacred texts should be taken as metaphor or “true myth”, not as literal descriptions of reality. However what makes them ‘religious’ in Kitcher’s view is that they hold a central place for “the transcendent”. This “transcendent” is never quite defined, and perhaps is the sort of thing which resists strict definition, but at least it “is radically different in kind from mundane reality, and (perhaps) not accessible via the methods people use to investigate other aspects of nature.” (p. 24. My page numbering is from the iBook edition).

As for secularism, Kitcher essentially defines it in contradistinction to “transcendence”. He says, “The core of secularist doubt is skepticism about anything “transcendent.”” (p. 27).

Kitcher’s Approach

Kitcher’s book outlines a form of secular humanism that claims to capture all that is captured by refined religion, but without any notion of transcendence. The question, of course, is whether in losing transcendence Kitcher’s secular humanism has thereby lost something of real importance. Kitcher’s argument will be that it does not.

Perhaps the most central role for “transcendence” in religion involves some form of justification or ground for ethics. In response, Kitcher develops a pragmatic form of ethics, whereby ethical truths arise through ongoing dialogue, in response to the concerns of communal life.

Refined believers claim their religions are based on a form of “true myth”. In response many secular realists have thrown up their hands in consternation: there is no sense to be made of a “true myth”, they say. Kitcher disagrees, arguing that truth itself may come in various forms: so for example we can talk about whether or not it’s true that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street. He argues for a pragmatic, constructivist notion of truth, along the lines of his earlier pragmatism about ethics. In this way he believes he is able to capture and make sense of the refined religious claim that their belief is based upon “true myths”:

[A] concept of religious truth can now be developed. A statement counts as a religious truth just in case there is a community practice that would make religious progress through affirming the statement, and the affirmation would be preserved in any indefinite sequence of religiously progressive transitions. (p. 144).

A significant lacuna in Kitcher’s presentation is any real attempt to cash out what a notion of “religious progress” would entail, especially given how fissile religions have proven. There may be something to be made of universal human dialogue about ethics, grounded upon a natural tendency to agree on key issues such as murder, lying, and stealing, and upon global institutions like the UN, for example. No similar commonality exists when it comes to religion. Can Wahhabism, Mormonism, Christian Evangelicalism, Unitarian Universalism, or the Chabad-Lubavitch movement be said to constitute progress over what went before? “Progress” of the evolutionary sort that resembles a bush more than a ladder is not really progress at all.

In any event, for the refined believer the transcendent plays a central role not simply in grounding ethics and mythology, but also in giving our lives depth and meaning. Kitcher argues in similar fashion that one can gain depth and meaning in one’s life through completely secular means, and that relation to some vague transcendent adds nothing essential.

Although in the main Kitcher’s project has to be counted promising, there are various points of his analysis that would stand scrutiny. In particular it is not obvious that pragmatic constructivism about ethics, not to mention truth, is the proper secular approach to these thorny topics. These are issues perhaps better left between professional philosophers to hammer out, so I will leave them to one side.

There are several other issues with Kitcher’s presentation that I think do deserve extended treatment here, either because they make points salient to a Secular Buddhist enterprise, or because a Secular Buddhist enterprise brings options to light that Kitcher appears not to have considered.

I should perhaps point out in what follows that I take Secular Buddhism to be a version of Secular Humanism.

Religious Experience of the Transcendent

One common argument in favor transcendence is that it is amenable to direct experience. The problem with this claim is that people with vastly differing religions will use such claims to support their own substantive religious views. As Kitcher says,

… cultures are typically sensitive to the possibility that those who report religious experiences have been deceived or even seduced into wickedness, and they introduce special procedures for validating claims to encounter the transcendent, requiring that the messages allegedly delivered should conform to the orthodoxy handed down across the generations — as, for example, in the medieval certification of anchorites. Instead of serving as an independent source of justification for religious doctrine, religious experience is thus parasitic on the deliverances of tradition. (p. 37)

This is good to keep in mind as regards the deliverances of meditative insight. One would not want to deny that there is something gained by just looking. It’s not the case that experience is nothing but tales we tell ourselves based on various forms of acculturation. Experience does count for something. But when it comes to fine distinctions and abstruse claims such as whether an experience qualifies as “non-dual”, as “pure mind”, as a “ground of being”, as “being, consciousness, bliss” (satcitānanda), or just as “the second jhāna”, this becomes something of a matter of interpretation, more than meditation teachers would perhaps like to allow. Indeed, even within the contemporary Buddhist community there are disagreements over what really counts as jhāna. (See for example contemporary meditation teacher Leigh Brasington’s distinction between “Visuddhimagga-style jhānas” and “sutta style jhānas).

One can imagine how this ramifies when, for example, a Buddhist might say that the Christian who claims to see God in the bliss of prayer is actually only seeing the first jhāna.

In these cases what is needed is some sort of more or less external, objective manner of determining reasonableness. What is more likely? That (e.g.) training oneself to focus on the breath would be a window to the all-powerful creator of the universe, or some kind of permanent ground of being? Or that such training would reliably induce a state of bliss based upon certain biochemical occurrences in the brain? These need not be mutually exclusive, however the more extravagant the claim, the more one has to do work to justify one’s interpretation. And note that this is work done outside the context of meditation or direct experience, so called.

What Is the Transcendent?

More importantly, we need to know how really to define “the transcendent”. As we have seen, Kitcher only says it “is radically different in kind from mundane reality, and (perhaps) not accessible via the methods people use to investigate other aspects of nature.” This is thin beer. For example, altered states of mind readily available through meditation or pharmaceuticals bring about experiences that are different, and sometimes radically different in kind from “mundane reality”. On this topic, see for example Sam Harris’s recent book.

Further, undertaking long periods of meditation, or taking LSD, are arguably not “methods people use to investigate other aspects of nature”. So if this is all that Kitcher means by “the transcendent”, then it can quite unproblematically be shown to exist. “The transcendent” may simply be an unusual state of conscious awareness of some kind. But if “the transcendent” can be shown to exist unproblematically by scientific lights, then the rest of Kitcher’s arguments kind of go off the rails. At the very least they require reworking.

I don’t know what Kitcher would make of this claim, but my assumption is that he does not consider it because when considering religions his view tends more to the orthodox core of the West. Perhaps by “the transcendent” Kitcher does not really mean to countenance a kind of unusual or transformative first person experience which may reliably be induced under certain conditions, but rather a kind of conceptual place-holder in a refined theological argument. That is, “the transcendent” is another name for God or some form of deistic entity. But of course this is too narrow, since for one thing it leaves Buddhism out.

One general problem with Kitcher’s treatment of refined religion — or even traditional religion for that matter — is that although he pays lip-service to Buddhism by mentioning the Buddha in his list of great religious thinkers, none of his arguments appear to take account of the fact that there are some religions which are non-theistic, some which are not ‘Of the Book’. This is not to say that Buddhism lacks a notion of something like “the transcendent”, merely that its conceptualization of transcendency is different from that found in the Judaeo-Christian West.

Buddhist Transcendency

One key to Kitcher’s view of transcendency is that he implicitly links it to ethics. For example when discussing the putative origins of ethical thinking among early humans, he says that they would

invoke some instrument of detection, a transcendent policeman, a deity in the sky who observes all and is intent on punishing those who deviate. (p. 72).

This feeds into Kitcher’s eventual argument that transcendency is supposed among refined religious believers to underly ethical truths, and then into his argument that ethics can be got at without recourse to the transcendent.

The problem with this orientation, as anyone familiar with Indian religion can tell, is that Indian notions of ethics do not require a “transcendent policeman”. Kamma may not be naturalizable, but that’s not because it requires some form of transcendency to function. On the standard Buddhist picture, kamma functions by means which are simply causal. Those means may legitimately be criticized for being obscure and implausible, but that is quite a different argument from saying that they originate from a transcendent somebody in the sky.

Transcendency plays an entirely different role in Buddhism that it does in the Western religions ‘Of the Book’. Buddhist transcendency has nothing to do with policemen or sky gods. Instead it functions around nibbāna.

The Pāli word often translated as “transcendent” is “lokuttara”, also translated “supramundane”. I have dealt with this concept in my “Crossed Paths in the Dhamma?” and “On Supramundane Freedom”.

Two important things to note: first, I don’t believe this term ever appears in the Nikāyas; it is generally associated with the abhidhamma and later exegetical period. Second, it’s not clear that this word is correctly translated “transcendent”, except in the banal sense that what’s at issue is “above the range of normal human experience” (New Oxford American Dictionary). In this sense, any superior human ability would count, such as sharp eyesight or throwing a fastball over 100 miles per hour. “Supramundane”, by which we mean something more than simply mundane, is a more accurate translation of the term.

In any event, Buddhist transcendency in this sense is a matter of destroying the three taints (āsavas). The taints are deep tendencies to react to the world through greed and aversion (kāmāsava), the wish to continue existing or to cease existing (bhavāsava), and the tendency to confusion or ignorance (avijjāsava). (Viz., Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay on Transcendental Dependent Arising). Nibbāna is the eradication of these three taints.

Now, as I have outlined in “Two Issues With Nibbāna”, there are indeed concerns that secular humanists should have with some aspects of nibbāna, at least as traditionally understood. It is, if inconsistently, claimed to be beyond conceptualization, in a way vaguely reminiscent of claims about a transcendent God, or in apophatic theology. It is also claimed to be permanent in a way that is not consistent with how we understand imperfect and fallible brains to function. Not to mention, traditionally nibbāna is understood as the end of the beginningless cycle of rebirths. Ajahn Brahmali, a traditional Theravādin monk, says that the idea of complete awakening, the complete ending of suffering as promised in the Third Noble Truth, is “a beautiful idea … a bringer of hope, bringer of light.”

If on the other hand we simply understand nibbāna to be the state, achievable in principle but perhaps not in practice, of eradicating greed, hatred, and ignorance with regard to the Four Noble Truths, there is nothing in this form of “transcendency” that need concern a secular humanist, any more than should the perfect sage of Stoicism. The idea of perfect awakening, like the idea of perfect governance, may bring hope without it ever being fully realized or even realizable.

The awakened state is “transcendent” in being a state without clinging or attachment to worldly things: in this sense it “transcends” the world, and is also “supramundane” in the sense of being unusual. It is “above the range of normal human experience” to live in a state of non-attachment, at least for any extended period of time. While a secularist may talk of degrees along a continuum rather than a river with a reachable far bank, otherwise the issue is tractable. If so, Secular Buddhism can recover a form of transcendence which is compatible with a naturalistic, secular outlook.

Perhaps Kitcher overlooked this possibility because he understood transcendency in theistic terms, as would be expected given that his principal aim is to counter refined theism rather than refined religion.

For example, here is part of his picture of “refined religion”:

First, and most obviously, it adopts the picture of a two-tier universe. … The worth of human lives and the moral status of human deeds are measured not by any relations that prevail within the physical, organic, human domain, the lower level, but through their relation to the transcendent, the higher tier. (pp. 110-111).

Again, this is a cogent description of refined theism. Whether it does justice to any version of Buddhism, refined or traditional, is another matter. While a traditional Buddhist may say that the ability to attain nibbāna gives life meaning, this ability is something achievable within saṃsāra itself, within the physical, human domain, even on a traditional understanding. The moral status of human deeds is measured by kamma, which is a feature of the “mundane” (lokiya), not the transcendent (lokuttara). And nibbāna, while transcendent in its way, is expressly not to be understood as some kind of “higher tier” to which we relate or to which the Buddha would have gone following his parinibbāna. What exactly nibbāna is is something of a mystery, except as understood in the manner I outlined above: the extinction of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

It is for these reasons that, for example, traditional Theravādin monks like Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Brahmali say that Buddhism is a religion only for tax purposes: there is no place for faith in a deity in many forms of traditional Buddhism, no matter how construed, even if construed as some form of transcendental ultimate. Of course, traditional Buddhism does countenance the existence of supernatural beings like devas, hungry ghosts, and so on, however they are not understood as playing any essential dhammic role. They are part of the furniture of banal reality.

Would a “refined” version of traditional Buddhism accept that nibbāna ended the beginningless cycle of births and deaths? Would it accept active kamma? For Kitcher, a “refined” believer takes traditional, supernaturalist stories as metaphors. If we are to take rebirth and kamma as metaphors, in the same manner as a refined theist is to take Biblical stories of heaven and hell for example, then refined Buddhism simply collapses into a version of Secular Buddhism. Or if it does not, it’s not clear precisely what the distinction would amount to.

Transcendence just doesn’t seem to play the same role in Buddhism that it does in forms of theism.

The Meaningful Life?

Perhaps the deepest problem with Kitcher’s account of secular humanism surrounds his picture of the meaningful life. As we noted in the quote above, the refined theist adopts a picture where the worth, the meaning, of human lives is understood to reside in their relation to some higher tier of being. As he puts it, “No link to the transcendent, no meaning” (p. 176).

Since the secular humanism that Kitcher proposes is skeptical of this transcendent, he takes it upon himself to sketch an alternate view of what gives human lives meaning. One problem is that it isn’t quite clear what he proposes as substitute. Instead he sketches out several related views, which are either banal or implausible.

Let’s begin with one that seems relatively unproblematic, if banal:

For a life to be meaningful, the person must have some conception of who she is and what aspirations are most important, and this conception must not be imposed from without. In Mill’s classic formulation, the highest form of freedom is to “pursue one’s own good in one’s own way.”

… Each meaningful life is distinguished by a theme, a conception of the self and a concomitant identification of the goals it is most important to pursue. That theme should be autonomously chosen by the person whose life it is. (p. 172).

So one chooses the meaning for one’s own life through what one takes as one’s most important aspirations, in full autonomy. This ‘autonomous’ view of meaning is reasonable, but can’t be said to amount to very much: it seems that anyone’s life has meaning under virtually any circumstances, so long as one chooses a “goal”.

However this formulation follows a prior one, with a decidedly different bent: “Mattering to others is what counts in conferring meaning.” (p. 164). Kitcher later goes on to elaborate this, we might say ‘anti-autonomous’ view of meaning:

Many projects posing no threat to the life patterns and the lives of others would be insignificant and worthless. Imagine, for example, an asocial solitary, retreating to some remote place and passing his days in counting the blades of grass growing in the vicinity. Lives like that are wasted. So too, as I’ll contend later, are others, all too common in the affluent world, in which people center their lives on the pursuit of wealth and material possessions, their self-conception summed up in a bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Lives matter when they touch others. (pp. 173-4).

These paragraphs are odd in several ways. First, whatever one might say about the ills of consumerism and greed, they do end up touching others: they matter. One assumes Kitcher means to say that a meaningful life must touch others in beneficial ways, but firstly why should this be the case? Didn’t Al Capone lead a meaningful life? Didn’t Stalin? Their lives had clear narratives, clear themes, and achieved goals.

And secondly, even if we grant Kitcher something he doesn’t explicitly ask for, that meaning has an ethical component to it, the greedy industrialist does give benefit to his tailor and cobbler, not to say his architect and art buyer. Once again, where do we draw the lines about what counts as touching others? We don’t get much of a clue.

Third, why denigrate solitary pursuits? Again, we may agree that there is something apparently foolish about counting blades of grass, but then don’t forget Thich Nhat Hanh:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. (The Miracle of Mindfulness, pp. 3-4).

As Nhat Hanh further explains, this trains for calm and mindful presence. Couldn’t one train in such a way by counting blades of grass? Why couldn’t the aspiration towards calm mindfulness give meaning to a life? Admittedly, it might not be your life, it wouldn’t be Philip Kitcher’s life, but then that’s true of any two of us.

In another passage Kitcher seems to agree that little is required for the meaningful life:

What matters is the fact that this life has a continuing connection to a world that endures beyond it. Like a stone cast into a pool, it leaves a series of ripples behind, sometimes more, sometimes less, and it doesn’t matter that the ripples eventually fade away. (p. 179).

We could call this the ‘connection’ view of meaning. But even the solitary up on his mountaintop counting blades of grass is connected to the world around him. Kitcher’s criterion of connection includes any and every one of us, we are all connected to a world that endures beyond us, and no matter how banal or solitary our lives are, we will (despite our best efforts) necessarily leave ripples. The solitary will disturb the grass, breathe the air, eat, defecate, and eventually surrender his body to the worms. If he manages not to hurt anyone while doing so, he will be better than many of us on that count.

I think Kitcher is after bigger ripples. He discusses the poet Keats, who died young:

If [Keats’s] writings had failed to move or illuminate others, or if he had been resolved that his verse should be confined to his “teeming brain,” his choice of theme could not have conferred meaning on his brief life. (p. 175).

By Keats’s own lights? Perhaps. But what if he saw them as a form of solitary meditation, “pursuing his own good in his own way”? One assumes Kitcher would consider that as “insignificant and worthless” an end as the solitary counting his blades of grass.

This suggests a kind of hierarchy of meaning, where those whose lives produce the most “ripples” of one kind or another, who effect the most people around them, lead the most meaningful lives. Those who work in relative solitude or whose efforts effect few will lead relatively meaningless lives, by Kitcher’s estimation.

The question I think for secular Buddhists, or secular humanists for that matter, is why they should care about such a concept of the meaningful life. It seems closely allied to fame, after all, which is not a desirable end. Or, to put it another way, fame may be desirable, but if so it is only desirable in the way that the acquisition of wealth and material possessions is desirable: it provides temporary, unstable happiness. Its pursuit also tends to be accompanied by various forms of greed and egoism. Granting such lives the imprimatur of “meaningfulness” only seems to gild a gaudy lily.

More promising is to define meaning in explicitly ethical terms: to have a meaningful life is to touch others in beneficial ways, with kindness, compassion, and generosity for example. But this gains on one hand only to lose with the other: Stalin may not have touched others with compassion, nevertheless it’s hard to argue that he didn’t lead a meaningful life, in a very good sense of the term.

The search for meaning in life just is the search to see one’s life in semantic terms: to interpret one’s life, as it were from the outside. This is, once again, a perspective suggested by theism, where God is the outside observer, judging a life by its theme, and regarding it as adequate or inadequate by reference to some measure, be it the number of lives touched, or the amount of good done.

The solitary gardener may work on himself by counting blades of grass, the solitary plutocrat by dying with the most toys. These are to Kitcher worthless pursuits that mean nothing. The problem lies in figuring out precisely why. Perhaps, we may respond, it’s because one may work on oneself in ways that are not really good, either for oneself or others. But then the question is one of discovering the difference between good and bad, skillful and unskillful. This, I think, takes us outside the scope of the “meaningful life”.

Towards Eudaimonia and Spiritual Progress

Perhaps the main question is why “touching others”, a species of fame, should concern us. Fame is hard and fleeting, fortune turns, many who have touched the most lead lives of torment, greed, and hatred. Clearly Kitcher does not intend us to follow paths such as these.

He seems aware of the problem and points to a possible way out, when the subject turns to secular notions of joy and depth of life:

A dour human existence, in which worthy goals were set, pursued with perseverance, and often achieved, without any sense of happy fulfillment or exhilaration, would be lacking an important dimension. (p. 204).

By focusing on “meaning”, an external, semantic measure, Kitcher has perhaps left to one side a more adequate aim, which involves something we might term (for lack of a better phrase) “spiritual progress”. This is hardly the place to outline a theory of spiritual progress, though I have elsewhere aimed at doing so, along the lines of the Eightfold Path: ethics, meditative practice, insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self typify this approach. It is roughly speaking a Buddhist version of a search for eudaimonia or the good life, the best life we can manage in our halting ways, and as such it may encompass many of the virtues that Kitcher finds in “meaning”, although without the implicit semantic component. Done right it will work to improve ourselves and our relations to others by increasing generosity and compassion through lessening greed and hatred, for example.

It also need not require any sort of transcendence, at least of the implicitly supernatural kind, so long as we engage in a path of refined belief and practice: one where supernatural claims are either left to one side or treated as suitable metaphors.

The knock on this approach will be that it’s not for everyone. I doubt there is any substantive formulation of eudaimonia that could possibly be for everyone, so the question then is why go to the trouble to outline one. Kitcher’s point in constructing a secular formulation of the meaningful life was to show refined religious believers that secularists could make just as good a sense as the religious of this concept. Indeed we can.

But to go further, “meaning” isn’t all that meaningful. Secularists can make just as good a sense of spiritual progress, of gaining the good life, as the religious, whether they follow one of the paths outlined in classical Greece such as in neo-Stoicism, in India such as in Secular Buddhism, or perhaps others, none of which require a supernatural sort of transcendence.


Kitcher’s book is not really intended for a popular audience. Although it derives from a series of lectures, and as such is significantly more readable than a typical volume of contemporary philosophy, it is nonetheless dense and erudite enough to be of limited reach.

This is, however, also its strength. For what it lacks in comparison to the readability of many New Atheist volumes, it makes up for in nuance and charity. In particular, it takes the position of the “refined religious” believer very seriously: that is, one who accepts traditional religious stories as myth and metaphor yet remains committed to religious faith. Kitcher picks out this approach as one that accepts a notion of the “transcendental”. While he does not adequately define this term, roughly it seems to mean acceptance of some kind of supernatural feature of reality that goes beyond ordinary forms of investigation, and that grounds ethics and lived meaning.

As a defense of Secular Humanism against forms of liberal theism or deism Kitcher’s arguments are promising, though they do rely on substantive theories about ethics and truth which may not be to the taste of all secularists. However Kitcher’s approach contains several important lacunae.

The first and perhaps largest lacuna is his apparent unfamiliarity with many forms of traditional or contemporary Buddhism. These have a very different understanding of transcendency, one by which it (or its closest traditional analogue) may actually be naturalizable, by following the spiritual path itself: one transcends the world through ethical behavior, through wisdom gained through calm, mindful reflection on the relevant aspects of reality. This leads to a cooling of anger and to loosening around greed.

Insofar as we apply Kitcher’s formula of “refinement” to traditional Buddhism, taking its supernatural stories as metaphor, it seems we end up not with refined religion but with a form of Secular Humanism, that is, Secular Buddhism. There thus appears to be no solid middle ground between traditional religion and secularism in this context.

Lastly, we saw weaknesses and inconsistencies in Kitcher’s notion of the meaningful life. Kitcher presents at least three different versions of the meaningful life, which I have termed the “autonomous”, “anti-autonomous” and “connection” views. The three do not hang together particularly well. It may be that Kitcher intends these apparent inconsistencies of presentation more to provide a path to discover the meaningful life than to constitute anything like an adequate set of criteria. But either way, the question is whether such a concept is useful, or frankly meaningful. Insofar as lives have meaning, perhaps Mill was right: they do insofar as one pursues one’s good in one’s own way, and there’s an end to it. But although this may tick the right box in rebutting a version of refined religion, I don’t think it quite goes far enough, nor does it do justice to the Secular Humanist vision. Paul Kurtz, one of the fathers of contemporary secular humanism, saw eudaimonia in “eupraxsophy” or the practice of wisdom.

In a similar way Secular Buddhism looks to the good life in assuaging our basic unease or feeling of unsatisfactoriness with life. It’s not that life is necessarily painful or depressing, though it may be so for some, but rather that as we grow in wisdom we become aware that all acquisitions, all pleasant experiences, all fame and fortune are fleeting. And we become aware that there are methods and practices we can use to come to terms with this basic feature of reality, that can increase generosity, compassion, and friendliness and weaken greed and hatred, even from within an entirely secular tradition.