Naturalism and the “Testimonial Imperative”


Introduction: the Challenge of Philosophy

Years ago, a creationist challenged me to justify the assertion that people evolved from apes when we share lots of characteristics with raccoons. Now I know that we have many more characteristics in common with apes than any other animal, but rather than quibble about details I realized that I did not know the basis of evolutionary theory. My philosophical studies had focused on the history of astrophysics and cosmology, and I realized that I could not generalize my philosophy of science to explain the Darwinian revolution. I admitted to him that I could not justify it other than out of respect for scientific authorities.

For the next few years, I read the relevant books to understand evolution. First the “Origin of Species” itself, which easily refutes all the haters, but I kept on going for years, because evolution and its related disciplines are so vast; they overlap with mathematics, economics, and computer science quite a bit.

Realizing your ignorance is the beginning of a wonderful new stage in the search for truth. I know what it is like to reply to an objection using empty nonsense without really understanding the argument in its strongest sense. Of course I understand that evolution has not fitted the human race to be composed of freethinkers; we will always be the exception. It’s a law of nature. So I am very compassionate when I see people replying to me with empty nonsense. However, I will never ever willingly waste a day of my life believing in empty nonsense, for reasons explained below.

The Practical Basis of Naturalism – the “Testimonial Imperative”

The “Testimonial Imperative” simply means calling a spade a spade; or more precisely for the subject of ethical theory, every “ought” must be cashed out in terms of an “is”, and every “is” is only that which can be referred to without ambiguity, is defined operationally, and is known to exist with some specific level of certainty and evidence.

One may reasonably challenge me to cash out the Testimonial Imperative (TI) itself in terms of the “is” as a test of its completeness. After all the TI is itself and ethical standard like any other. So let us test it by applying it to itself and translate it from “ought” to “is” thusly: My strategy is to clearly define everything so that people know what I am saying and can better judge my words, and to clearly show how my words relate to higher principles which unite other areas of accepted knowledge. I cannot do this on my own, but require others to follow the same rule. Therefore, if you will not speak naturalistically, I will ignore you. I will ignore you because ultimately you are using vague terms which refuse to give up their meanings under scrutiny. Why should I put up with your nonsense ? You can’t possibly have any reply worthy of my time without accepting the Testimonial Imperative and its corollary, Methodological Naturalism.

If you decide to provisionally accept for the time being my demands of discourse, you could say that “How do you know that your Imperative is actually an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS)? If it is not, then within Selection Theory your whole position is as unfounded as any theocracy.” I accept that caveat, since it applies to any ethical stance whatsoever concerning anything from scientific honesty to  the prohibition of murder to abortion rights. This is exactly what our moral basis is: I am taking a stance with my life on a certain definition of an adaptive strategy. Mine is “Philosophy”; which includes science, secular politics and freethinking in general. I am simply phrasing my definition of this strategy in the same way that any other moral principle is *actually * defined (iif it is ever defined at all!). When I oppose murder or aggressive warfare, I am taking a stance by pledging allegiance to an adaptive strategy that excludes these practices. Prohibiting murder and aggressive warfare have proven effective stratgies over many thousands of years, not only for humans but almost all other animals, so I am safe in this respect. Few will object on the point of theory, perhaps only quibbling over how this rule applies to specific cases. The number of ethical rules that are supported with this level of certainty are rather large; lying, stealing, gluttony, greed, envy, and lust are good examples.

So far so good. But when I take an ethical stance concerning the Search for Truth, I am on far shakier ground than with murder. However, the form of justification in both cases is the same because intellectual honesty is just as much an ethical virtue as other forms of honesty. I like to think it’s the most important, but perhaps it’s not. The main thing is that for Selection Theory, I am clearly defining all my terms, including “ought”, and I am clearly explaining how my oughts are binding. While you are clearly free to refuse to accept my ought, this only means that you are declaring yourself as one who does not care for the Truth, because you are not at all willing to accept the first principles of discourse, Aristotle’s “Three Laws of Thought”.

The Testimonial Imperative, like every other imperative (ethical or otherwise), is part of an adaptive strategy, which for humans means the regulation of cooperation. This strategy is a new thing; it seems weird to people because our ancestors did not search for the Truth in the way that some modern people do; i.e. by practicing Philosophy. (NOTE: When I capitalize “Philosophy”, it includes “science”.) Part of following the strategy of Philosophy is to define things clearly (Aristotle’s “Three Laws”) and to look for ultimate principles (the “arkhe”). Ignoring the arkhe means to take an unprincipled position. Truths are either axioms, or they are derived from axioms. Even contingent empirical truths have an axiom: For example, “I saw it happen.” is based on the axiom, “If you see it, it happened.”

While in my personal life, I like and cooperate all kinds of people, in my Work I will not respect anyone who tries to avoid the duty of defining what they mean or of relating what they say to the Arkhe. The desire to avoid this is a way to avoid the Truth. I agree that there are many well-founded fields where certain things are left vague because they are not ‘interesting’. These vague terms could be seized on by others unfairly. Creationists do this with certain aspects of legitimate biology, and I very much hope that I do not commit this error. However, it is very clear that almost every evolutionary concept is more clearly defined than almost every creationist concept. And this clarity is not merely in theory but also in practice. Likewise, when I do metaethics, I will define the broad range of my concepts more clearly and with firmer basis than is possible with any other competing theory. Also, my ethical concepts will be defined and explained using higher principles. It may be handy to simply define a principle out of nowhere, such as when Newton created “Gravity” and a name for some unknown force that affected matter. However, this cannot be the final result of science; gravity must eventually be explained in its relation to other phenomena. This is exactly what Selection Theory does with ethics. Just as gravity must eventually be cashed out in terms of other natural forces, ethics must be brought into theroretical relation with the rest of Nature. Perhaps Selection Theory has some fatal flaw unseen by me, but something like it must be the case. The nice thing about a naturalistic theory like mine is that even if it is wrong, it’s still a better use of your time than non-naturalism. This is because a naturalistic theory refutes itself, while non-naturalism never hazards any meaningful assertions about anything and merely maintains the deceptive appearance of knowledge.


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