Howard L. Parsons on Naturalism & Religion: Conclusion

Man's fulfillment is not a final, finished state but a movement and a becoming, an integrative interaction with persons and things, an evolution with a whole system of persons and things in evolution, and with a mutualizing and creative process. [62] This process depends on man, as reciprocally, man depends on it. Formerly man relied excessively on powers external to his thought and action to produce his fulfillment. The result was massive impoverishment and misery, with exploitive earthly tyrants in fact ruling men—a function reserved theologically for a divine and omnipotent ruler. (Theology has never been the queen of the sciences; it has usually been the handmaiden of politics.)

Although the masses of the world are still unfulfilled and miserable, the balance of thought has shifted: many men, and certainly most intellectuals, political leaders, and educated persons, believe that the principal way to man's fulfillment is not dependency but understanding and control. The hazard here, however, is that we shall swing excessively in the other direction, not only repudiating the age‑old vices of religion (superstition, dogmatism, intolerance, fanaticism, cruelty, narrowness, arrogance) but also forgetting the religious virtues: faith, zest, compassion, charity, humility, reverence, gratitude, wonder, praise, responsibility, and a sense of depth, mystery, and dependency.

Is it possible to combine the best of the religious perspective with the power of scientific knowledge and control now in our hands? It is not only possible; it is necessary, if we are to be saved from a science determined by men who do not understand or appreciate the evolutionary role of man in nature and his responsibility toward it, and from religions that do not understand and even repudiate science. The first would give us man divorced from nature and from values grounded in nature; the second, values divorced from man and nature. In both cases, values become arbitrary and, in the event of conflict, subject to settlement by capricious preference and arbitrary power.

The tragedy of traditional religion is that it expressed important and universal truths about man's relation to man and nature but at the same time held man in captive to the blindest dogmas and blackest despotisms. Precisely because religion reflected man's condition, both his social and natural dependence on the sources of his being and his enslavement, it held and kept man in its grip. It suppressed the true situation of man; the divine was conceived of as the supernatural power, independent, impervious, and unpredictable, mediated by his priests and secular rulers with their "divine right"—not as the immanent relation of interdependence binding all men together as equals. It was the lay prophets who, representing the people, periodically protested against this first idea as idolatrous—and who were stoned to death and crucified. The idea of deity as alone and unreachable by the individual is an alienated idea because it reflects the actual social alienation of man. Since the divine can be found only in the relations between man and man, to seek it beyond such relations—in the mystic soul, in heaven, in the Unconditional above nature—means that man has already lost it because he has lost himself and others.

Someone may object that this account of man, nature, value, and religion is in expression of value and a proposal that certain values he chosen and adopted by others. That is so. But every proposition, whether in predominantly designative or syntactic form, involves a judgment and an implicit discrimination as to value and action. The proposition, "this is a table," or "the universe is material," selects out certain features of the environment, organizes them in a selected perceptual and conceptual fashion, and directs the active attention in a certain way with respect to certain purposes, proximate and remote. The purposes of "objective description" and "syntactic analysis" are derivative and abstract purposes that arise in the concrete context of solving problems and satisfying needs. They ordinarily subserve the more imperative and directly felt needs of survival and the pursuit of fulfillment. But even if they are isolated from such needs and such pursuit they are still value‑enterprises. Description and analysis become valued and implicit standards of value begin to operate.

Nor does the assertion of the value‑factor in our description of the world lead to an acceptance of an opposite objection, namely, that all views are ultimately a matter of faith and nothing more than faith. To be sure, faith as a form of value‑commitment is there. But shall we then say that life must be at best a dialogue of faiths and at worst a war of faiths? The modern view, which sees need as the originator and determiner of value, is true; but to insist that this is the whole truth is an error that is of a piece with the ancient dogma that the faith that triumphed in a religious war must be by definition the highest. We must take account of the function of need in the context of a practical organism's action. In the first place, the environment is there before we ever come on the scene. It generates us. It sustains us. We then perceive, structure, anticipate, and act upon our environments as we are driven by our shaped needs to find there fulfillment of such needs. Existent things and persons have characters and resistive power of their own. They set limits to what we can and cannot do to them and extract from them in the way of fulfillment for ourselves. Accordingly, if we persist in our need‑dispositions, we may revise the structure and direction of our needful activity and accommodate it to the external world. This mutual definition of need and environment, of subject and object, of valuation and fact, is called learning. It is, in fact, the way in which "instincts" are formed. [63] Of course, this definition of the need‑environment relation is itself determined by need—whereas persons with other needs would define it differently (e.g., positivists, existentialists, ascetics, etc.). Are things then so arbitrary? Comparative anthropology makes it plain that cultures vary widely and that as individuals are acculturated they acquire the need‑systems and value-systems of such cultures. The Zuñi Indians see the world as orderly and peaceful, the Dobuans as cruel and malignant, the Kwakiutl Indians as insecure and competitive. [64] But three considerations prevent us from asserting complete cultural or individual relativity: (1) people do appear in the psycho‑social sciences to have a certain structure of common needs the world over; (2) a selected and effective technique (science) shows that the world has the same structure everywhere; and (3) for the purposes of living and living well, the methods of the sciences as employed by men throughout their history seem to be the most effective thus far discovered.

If we use the term "sciences" narrowly to mean the rational and empirical studies of early Egyptian astronomers in the fifth millennium B. C. or even of the Greeks almost 4000 years later, then within the span of human culture the career of science occupies a relatively short time. However, most of urban science built upon and refined the knowledge and techniques painfully acquired and carefully accumulated by primitive man during his million or more years of existence prior to the Agricultural Revolution about 8,000 years ago. While much of this existence was guided by supernaturalistic myth and reinforced by ritual, ceremony, and the instruments of magic and superstition, nevertheless the day‑by‑day practices of securing food, clothing, shelter, defense, and other necessities for survival required an attention, perception, thought, experiment, observation, and practice which resulted in a growing body of naturalistic beliefs and skills advantageous to the satisfying of men's needs both biological and spiritual. Primitive men accumulated intimate knowledge of local habitats, resources, plants, animals, birds, fish, and insects. They studied the stars, constellations, solar and lunar cycles, and seasonal changes. They invented virtually every kind of tool and the basic weapons and utensils. They created techniques of making pottery, buckskin, textiles, boats, and houses. In chemistry they developed paints, antidotes, the use of poisons, and ways of processing food. They domesticated plants and animals; modern civilization has domesticated no new plant or animal, nor has it discovered any new kind of food. Primitive men were skilled in the preparation and preservation of food, medical diagnosis and surgery, and the making of medicines, beverages, musical instruments, and means of ocean travel. [65]

These techniques and knowledge were quite specific, directed to the satisfaction of specific needs and the overcoming of specific obstacles in specific situations. At the same time such knowledge was interwoven with more general sorts of knowledge, answering such questions as: What are the nature and origin of man, his society, and nature? What is the relation between man and the world of nature, and between man and the world of the spirit (consciousness, values, the alleged afterlife)? What are the different roles of men in society? What ought man to do in relation to other men and to nature? What methods should man follow to secure reliable knowledge? Such knowledge, like the knowledge pertaining to specific things and techniques, was usually a mixture of the naturalistic and supernaturalistic outlooks. But this general orientation was not separated from specific and practical knowledge. As a framework of orientation for the individual to self, society, and nature, it provided a philosophy or more accurately a mythology for eliciting, sustaining, inspiring, directing, and organizing his energies. Both primitive man and civilized man seem to need a framework of orientation informing man about himself and his world, appraising the significance of man and his world, and promoting action toward the world and the values cherished and sought by man.

The answers to these general and basic questions—What is man? What is the nature of things? How do we know? What is value?—are ordinarily carried in the linguistic habits—grammatical, technical, economic, political, religious, esthetic, etc.—of the culture shaping the mind and personality of child and adult. As cultural artifacts and as structures of basic belief essential to the cohesion and continuity of cultures, mythologies have been accepted unconsciously, have been maintained by specialists (shamans, artists, musicians, priests), and have been slow to change. Yet, as structures themselves dependent on the underlying technology of their cultures, they have always shifted and responded to changes in the technological base. Thus, for example, when the Greek city‑states were (relatively) freed from domestic and foreign tyranny by emperor and priest, thinkers went to work on these general questions, heretofore answered mythologically and supernaturalistically, focussed conscious attention and analysis on them, and sought to come up with antisupernaturalistic and naturalistic answers. "Philosophy" in the Greek and Western sense was born. But even in Greek philosophy we can sense the struggle between the Neolithic tradition, which emphasized the older, subjective, idealistic, religious way of explaining things, and the newer, objective, naturalistic, scientific way. For philosophy, the solution to its general questions is not so easy as the solutions in the sciences, which deal with either natural or human questions; for philosophy strives to deal with both the objective and subjective, the physical and spiritual, in an integrated way. It must find a method and a reality which, in unitary and dialectical fashion, combines an understanding of each. Accordingly, philosophies have veered either to mechanical materialism or to idealism. They either have gone backward to primitive spiritualism, subordinating science, or have idolized science and subordinated human concerns.

Philosophy that has maximum value for man begins with the prime fact of the unity and interaction of man and his world. As man's living is a dialectic of his needs with other persons and the things of nature, so philosophy ought to be an interweaving of subjective and objective strands, of evaluation and fact. Such philosophy is a proposal for action, for relating human purposes and actual conditions, so as to remake man and the world in the direction of new value. Such philosophy must be social, insofar as all human needs are social in their origins and require social action for their fulfillment. The "private" belongs to subjective fantasizing, a diversionary blind alley of the social process. In principle philosophy must work alongside science. It must appeal to public fact—common need‑dispositions, common perceptions, common actions, a common source and terminus of perception and action. Questions of value, as we have suggested, can be resolved in this way. "Normative value" is a description of general human fulfillment, and can be developed as knowledge develops concerning man—knowledge from all fields of inquiry, since man is a human being set in a biological, social, and ecological context.

Still there are elements in the value‑enterprise that are not now subject to description or inter‑subjective agreement. We cannot now describe all the elements that go into individuality, creation, disagreement, and destruction. And even if we were able to do so, men would still diverge in their needs (individually different and culturally different) and in their ways of satisfying those needs. So we find ourselves in the midst of proposal and counter-proposal, of action and counteraction, of this faith and that faith. The most dramatic and dangerous exhibition of this is the clash between nations, divergent in their ideologies concerning class, each possessing thermonuclear bombs and the power to wipe out the whole enterprise of civilization. That is why the principle of peaceful coexistence among states of different social systems as a way of accommodating opposition is imperative for survival, and why the method of scientific inquiry, i.e., analysis and practice, is the most promising and productive way of preserving and even enhancing values in the midst of men's differences.

The method of domination or extermination of one group by another has been common to past religious mentalities in the West. It has been taken up by the virulent nationalisms of the West in the last 300 years. Under present conditions, it is self‑defeating. We live in radically new times, and that is why we need a radically new commitment to value. Traditional religious thinkers argue that the pattern of values is already given objectively in the structure of the universe, of history, or of God beyond history. Essentially conservative, they want to return men to that—by coercion, in some cases. Modern existential and humanistic thinkers, having exposed the illusion and folly in that course, claim that all values are created out of man's internal freedom, and undertake to persuade others of this fact. The efforts of Christian orthodoxy to save itself, such as those summarized in John A. T. Robinson's book Honest to God, cannot fully succeed, I think, so long as they ignore or set aside the findings of the sciences and reinstate in a new form the old self‑evident position of revelation. Humanism in the narrow sense will also fail so long as it makes man the center of things—either individual man or man as race—and forgets his relations social, historical, and natural. The concept of "love" comes close to the latter, but the fact that thinkers like Tillich and Robinson repudiate naturalism suggests either that they are making war on an outmoded naturalism or that they really intend to oppose all efforts to ground faith on empirical evidence about man and nature, so far as they are possible. Such "grounding" of faith does not mean that man entirely makes and controls the ground of his faith; we have indeed argued all along that man is born into it. It means the testing and improving of faith by turning the tools of observation and analysis upon that prior ground of creation and thus putting man more fully in touch with it.

Both positions, modern scientific humanism (with existentialism) and religious orthodoxy, contain partial truths, I believe. The fuller truth—at least a more viable proposal—is a dialectic that extracts and synthesizes the truths and values in each. The evidence from evolution and ecology indicates an environment fit and favorable for man and his values. On the other side, it is plain that man, impelled by the dynamic of his own needs, does make his values and impose them on the environment. But each side here sets limits to the other, evokes the other, and helps to create, sustain, and transform the other. The method of such a dialectic is inherent in science and art, and when it becomes the method of man, as an overriding commitment for the fulfillment of man, we might soon approach those human values and human relations of which the great religions have dreamed. As for those who disbelieve that such a dialectic is the way by which to reach those goals let us enter into the dialectic of discussion and common labor in behalf of man, and let the resolution of theoretical conflicts come, if it will, through that paramount practice. Short of total destruction, the method from now on must be man with man with the world.


58. "The Child as a Moral Philosopher," in Readings in Educational Psychology. Del Mar: CRM, 1967, pp. 37‑43.

59. Op. cit.

60. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950, ch. 7.

61. Reference is made to research on the visual preference of new‑born infants in Adolf Portmann, "The Seeing Eye," Landscape, vol. 9, no. 1 (Autumn, 1959), pp. 14‑21.

62. C. Judson Herrick, The Evolution of Human Nature. Dallas: University of Texas, 1956.

63. T. C. Schneirla, "Psychology, Comparative," Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: William Benton, 1959, vol. 18, p. 697.

64. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1953.

65. Leslie A. White, The Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw‑Hill, 1959, pp. 266‑272.

SOURCE: Parsons, Howard L. Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1975. xi, 211 pp. (Philosophical Currents; v. 8) This excerpt, pp. 193-199. (Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. These are the concluding pages of the book, except for the index.)

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