As a computer programmer in the northwest corner of Missouri who rarely leaves his house, who has trouble writing, and who is a workaholic, I find it hard to consider myself part of any movement, much less the “freethought” movement. I promote equality and respect at my day job as a manager, by doing things as mundane as telling men to change their screensavers of bikini clad women, telling people to not use use words like “Bitch” as the name of a programming module, and by always, always offering to call people by their native non-American name. The last might seem like a small or silly thing, but I find it important to respect people’s names, and I never want someone I work with to feel uncomfortable having a non-American name.
I donate to the “freethought” related causes by donating to podcasts, websites, or by buying books. I try to let people know how much I enjoy their work because it seems that no matter what the topic is, most people only hear negative feedback.
My background includes a lot of reading of science books, a lot of programming, and almost no humanities other than fictional writing. I have a skill at writing prose and poetry, but writing a clear concise email is a challenge for me. Forget philosophy classes. I would take extra classes on math (my minor was practically math) before I’d ever take a philosophy class. So that brings us up to date on where I am coming from when I sincerely ask the question: What is “Freethought”?
The Wikipedia entry on “freethought” states “Freethought holds that individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas. “
The cynical part of me would posit that “freethought” therefore is aspirational rather than a description of any particular movement. Humans are bias machines. We love being part of groups and groupthink is almost inevitable. Even someone like myself, who can sometimes be called an misanthrope, feels the pull of being involved in a group. Once that happens, you’re “tainted” from true “freethought”.
Even as a computer programmer writing code, I cannot escape bias and groupthink. I am a student of computer science, I’ve learned of methods from reading what other people do, and often times, programming is simply recognizing a problem and using the large toolbox of pre-existing algorithms that exist. Occasionally, I’ll develop something new like when I developed a new style of singleton class for Java, or where I developed my own random distribution method. Those are few and far between.
As a self-described skeptic, I’m loosely part of the “freethought” movement, but it doesn’t mean everyone practices true “freethought.” Atheists, a group related to skeptics, often are both great examples of “freethought” and terrible examples of “freethought.” As an atheist myself, I know I’m highly biased against religion, not to the point where I would discriminate against religious people, but that intellectually, I find it hard to take any religion’s philosophy serious.
With the rise of blogs, the “freethought” movement has been able to marshall forces and create “freethought” blog networks, and some even take the name. However, they all have multiple flaws, where they clearly have not reached anywhere close to being a real “freethought” space. Smugness and righteousness are just as likely to be found in a “freethought” blog as a creationist blog.
The real poison to “freethought” spaces though, is politics. Politics in the United States is so toxic that I see skeptics get sucked into political chicanery all the time. Skeptics might feel they are too smart to get sucked into a political phrase, but perhaps that makes them all the more vulnerable. Let me bring up some examples. My own political biases will be easy to spot, but I still feel that my points are valid.
In early 2009, a lot of skeptics were happy to promote Obama’s stimulus package because a small, very small, part of it would go to science funding. Almost no skepticism was show about the wisdom of the entire stimulus package, nor was there much discussion if the package would actually fund science efficiently.
Another thing I see skeptics mention a lot is how investing in NASA is a 10, 15, sometimes 30 multiple in ROI. This is said on many skeptical blogs as fact, but as far as I can tell, it’s far from a “fact”, and it apparently hasn’t been updated in years, since the figure’s history started in the 1970’s right after Apollo.
When it comes to global warming, I side with the scientists who say it’s happening and it’s man made. Almost no one in the skeptical community spends time investigating the political solutions being offered by their preferred party. If you accept climate change as I have, it’s very frustrating to see almost no discussion about what to actually do. One prominent person out there who is doing this, Bjorn Lomborg is routinely pilloried by the skeptical community for the sin of accepting climage change and trying to examine the economic impact of different kinds of mediation. I don’t support everything Lomborg says, but, it’s not like he’s not trying to help people now and in the future. However, his perceived politics makes him unwelcome in many skeptical circles.
The word “progressive” gets thrown in a lot with a connection to the “freethought” movement, but I fail to see how you have to be a “progressive” to be considered a member of the “freethought” movement. I’m a libertarian, and I truly care not a bit about whether someone is a women, gay, transgender, intersexual, etc. I find most of these “divisions” superficial and long for the day when no one cares because everyone is accepted as is. I’m a supporter of equal rights/treatment of everyone under the law, support a woman’s right to choose to do whatever she wants, a supporter of the right of gays to marry, or people to marry more than one person. I really don’t care what people do.
But I don’t support federal programs to promote paid child care, I’m leery of government run health care, I think Social Security is a scam, and I think most attempts by the government to close the income gap are often nothing more than political parlor tricks. For these views, many “freethought” blogs would cast me out as someone who “doesn’t get it”. Never mind that I believe in helping the poor, or allowing the poor to close the wage gap, it’s not enough to believe the same things, it’s a matter of believing the “correct” way to do it.
In a true “freethought” movement, I could discuss my ideas on how to help the poor, or to insure the poor without government intervention, and be treated with respect, as long as I was basing my arguments on logic and reason. That is not the case on many “freethought” blogs. Mention that Steve Jobs was heavily influenced by “Atlas Shrugged” and you will be called all sorts of nasty names.
The way I approach every day is through a contradictory process of believing that what I know, I do every well, but on the other hand, I’m probably an idiot and all wrong. I can be as blustery as the next programmer, but fully able to admit when code I wrote was garbage. I endeavor to write perfect code, because though I’ve been doing this for twenty years, I can do better. I can always learn.
I approach my politics, skepticism, veganism often the same way. Sure, I’m a “good” skeptic for not believing in homepathy, UFO’s, or sasquatch. I’m a “good” skeptic because I understand cognitive bias and how awful people are as observers. However, I’m a “bad” skeptic because I know very little of the philosophical underpinning of skepticism. I haven’t read all the classic skepticism books, and I’ve probably not read enough books on skepticism in general.
So, I’m both a “good” skeptic, and a “bad” skeptic, and that is what keeps me as humble as possible, even though I know I can get better at being humble. My opinion is that the “freethought” movement, at least the louder voices, could use some more humility and maybe even sometimes blog “I was wrong.” or “I’m sorry”. From my layperson perspective, being able to say you’re wrong or sorry, is big part of the process of aspiring to reach true “freethought.”