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Ben Stein a humanist spokesperson?

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In the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Ben Stein's message isn't about Creationism, it's about censorship, early reports say. Ben accuses the scientific establishment of censoring all opposition to one particular scientific theory. If true, that would be shameful--unless, of course, that theory is natural selection.

We all know the story. The Christian Church has for centuries worked to suppress any scientific theory that threatened its supremacy. Darwin, by coming up with an alternative explanation for the Creation of life, brought upon his head the full fury of the established Church from which only his loyal friends, Darwin's "bulldogs," saved him. It's the duty of humanists and atheists, sharing the same ideals, to prevent further encroachment by the theocrats on our hard-won secular freedoms.

Humanists and atheists, sharing the same ideals? Wait a moment, who's putting a number over on whom? Let's run that back and see what ideas we're talking about.

One in seven evolutionary scientists surveyed replied that humans don't have free will, according to a report in the midsummer 2007 issue of American Scientist. 78% said they believed in physicalism: only physical things can make a difference in the physical world, as opposed to such non-physical things as the conscious self. So although only one in seven was prepared to say straight out that you and I have no free will, four out of five believe what amounts to the same thing: consciousness is a one-way street; information from the brain goes in, but nothing can come back out. According to physicalism, consciousness is no more able to communicate back to the brain than that little picture on the back of your digital camera is able to take a picture. We've no free will, that's what evolutionary scientists believe, and what presumably seeps into the school science teaching materials they write, and what science teachers teach. In other words, they're teaching scientific materialism.

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At least a quarter of the members of my local humanist society accept this. The world is so completely subject to physical laws there's no possibility consciousness could perturb it. Our sense of free will is an illusion. We have no free will.

At a meeting where I spoke about this recently, the leader of our group said he believed he was determined, that he didn't have conscious control over his actions. I said this seemed to contradict traditional humanist beliefs. Didn't humanists believe the conscious self was capable of carrying out its convictions in the world, didn't humanists accept personal responsiblility for their actions? He replied, and others present agreed, in modern humanism scientism had taken over from that kind of traditional thinking. We are all, he implied, scientific determinists now.

And sure enough, in talking to other humanists and atheists, I find the issue of whether we do or do not have a conscious self with free will excites little interest.

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Ben Stein and Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed are going to change that, I think. He's going to provide each of us with an opportunity to figure out where we stand. Do we want children in the school science classroom to be taught that consciousness has no impact on the physical world, hence it can't be selected for, therefore it can't have evolved, therefore it can't exist, only brain chemistry evolves, only brain chemistry can drive our behavior, so we, our conscious self, needn't feel responsible for our actions?

This is a scientific argument, and it's not surprising if scientists believe it. And I think it has become the defining belief of modern atheism. But for those of us who are humanists before we're scientists, where do we stand? Have we arrived at a historic split between humanism and atheism? Is it possible to mount a coherent defense of the conscious self and free will? In my experience that's a difficult argument to make, but it's one I explore in Save our Selves from Science Gone Wrong. There's more information at www.evolvedself.com.

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Studied biochemistry at University College London, writer and designer in book publishing, professional medical writer for 5 years, now publisher ("Evolved Self Publishing") exploring the impact of evolutionary theory on human nature through fiction (more...)

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Ben Stein a humanist spokesperson?