Paul Kurtz – Science and Planetary Ethics

May 11, 2006

Paul Kurtz, considered the father of the secular humanist movement and a founder of the worldwide skeptic movement, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books, and as editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine, he has advanced a critical, skeptical inquiry into many of the most cherished beliefs of society for the last forty years. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has been featured very widely in the media, on topics as diverse as reincarnation, UFO abduction, secular versus religious ethics, communication with the dead, and the historicity of Jesus.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Paul discusses planetary ethics and the implications for science and technology for the future of humanity.

Also in this episode Thomas Donnelly discusses this summer’s Student Leadership Conference, celebrating the 10th anniversary of CFI’s campus outreach program.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 12th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and 11 cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we examine some of the fundamental assumptions, the basic beliefs of our culture, and we mostly focus on three research areas. First, we look at pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, we examine the relationship between secularism and democracy. Church state separation. The role of religion in the public square. We look at these three research areas by drawing on CFI as relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Paul Kurtz about science and planetary ethics. But first, Thomas Donnelly wants to tell you something. 

Hello, I’m Thomas Donnelly, producer of Point of Inquiry. I love Point of inquiry, but my primary role is CFI is campus community organizing. I’ve only been involved with the center for about a year now. Shockingly enough, I went to colleges SUNY Buffalo right across the street and never knew CFI existed. Had I known, I would have gotten involved a hell of a lot sooner. The mission of CFI is what the mission of every university should be promoting the critical examination of every idea, even controversial ones. Since I started at CFI, my mission has been to spread word about our campus outreach in every way possible. That’s one reason I propose we start this podcast, which I’m happy to say is one of the most successful science podcasts in the Eighteens music store. It consistently ranks in the top 15 or 20 out of about 6500 science podcasts. But this is just one way we are getting the word out about the work we do with our campus outreach program. We send out thousands of brochures, videos, books and educational materials to students and faculty, supporters each academic year, all free for the asking. We also underwrite and help organize dozens of events on campuses every semester, each with the goal to promote critical examination of the big questions. We do debates and sponsor panel discussions on ethics, the paranormal, science and society, the role of religion in education and our culture, and even hot button issues like debates on the existence of God and whether intelligent design is a good idea or not. This summer marks the 10 year anniversary of CFI Campus Outreach, and we’re celebrating by putting together our largest summer conference ever. This July 14th, 15th and 16th, the Center for Inquiry will be hosting students from across North America for our annual Student Leadership Conference here in Amherst, New York. This year’s program will feature speakers such as Paul Kurtz, Lauren Becker, Joe Nicol, Sara Jordan, Edyta Bosh and Richard Dawkins, who will be delivering a special keynote address remotely from Oxford University. Topics will include things like current threats to academic freedom, the role of free thought and skeptic groups and university life, and one that I really like advancing science and reason without being cranky about it. We are going to have workshops to train students in activism, event planning and public relations. We even have some fantastic entertainment lined up. The noted skeptic and world renowned magician Jamy Ian Swiss, will be performing his new show, Heavy Mental, at CFI that Saturday night. We really want any interested student to be able to attend. And so we are keeping the costs very low. Registration, food and lodging for the entire three day event costs only 35 dollars. And we are even offering a limited number of travel grants so that anyone who wants to attend but lacks the funds to get to Amara’s can still come. More information, including the full program registration form and a grant application can be found at w. W w. That campus inquired dot org. Now, I don’t want to sound melodramatic about it, but I think it’s obvious that there are a lot of forces in our society that are actively working against science and reason. There are groups like the Campus Crusade for Christ, which mobilize, quote, Christian foot soldiers on college campuses to fight against the teaching of evolution, among other things. By the way, campus crusade, they have an annual operating budget of over 400 million dollars. But that’s why CFI is around to offer a counterbalance. That’s why I think this student leadership conference is so important. We want to step up our work to equip students with the tools and knowledge to promote science and reason on their campuses. If you are a student, I invite you to get involved. Sign up on our Web site and maybe even attend our student leadership conference, even if you are not a student. You can still join as an off campus supporter and maybe even sponsor a student or two to get them up here this July. Again, the website is w w-w dot campus. Inquired Dot org. Maybe I’ll see you this summer. If so, you’ll recognize me. I’ll be the one running around frantic, doing all of the avy. 

It’s a real pleasure for me to have back in the point of inquiry studio. Paul Kurtz, who is founder and chair of the Center for Inquiry and a number of other organizations, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is professor emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal that Cyclopes the Council for Secular Humanism and Prometheus Books. He’s Editor in Chief of Free Inquiry Magazine and the author or editor of over 45 books, including the recent title Affirmations Joyful and Creative Exuberance. Throughout the last 40 years, he’s been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society. He’s been profiled in The New York Times and dozens of other magazines and newspapers and has been interviewed widely in the media on subjects ranging from alternative medicine and communication with the dead to the historicity of Jesus. Paul, thanks for joining us again on point of inquiry. 

I’m delighted to be here. D.J., I think you do yeoman’s service in pursuing the role of science and reason in human culture. 

While the podcast is really taking off, we’re excited to be exploring these kinds of issues in this new medium well, because it’s very rare that there are people defending reason in science today. 

You hear about everything else but that, right, Paul? 

Today we’re going to talk about science and planetary ethics. One criticism that is often leveled against our modern our contemporary consumer culture is that it’s hedonistic. People are self-centered. It’s all about me. But for 35, 40 years, you’ve been advancing a secular and a humanist ethic that recently has taken a different turn. 

Yes, well, although it focuses on the realization of human happiness and human talents to achieve the good life, I think we’ve reached a point in the world today in which planetary ethics needs to be enunciated and defended. The ancient religious, racial, national ethnic rivalries are still with us. How do we transcend that? And so it seems to me a secular, humanistic movement forward to enunciate and defend planetary ethics is crucial. 

And you’ve defended this new planetary ethic, Paul, really focusing on some challenges that face the world community. What are some of those challenges? 

Well, I think it’s very clear that the new technologies give us enormous powers to improve the human condition, but dangerous byproducts such as nuclear warfare and other such things. And it seems that we have to develop a kind of new ethic in order to to control technology, but to overcome abrasive nationalistic and racial and religious rivalries. 

So some critics of the consumer culture I just mentioned are also critical of the scientific technological culture as well because of the dangers, the problems inherent in new technologies. You just mentioned you are not one of those critics. 

No, I think we need to appreciate and defend science and reason. It is a great boon to humankind. It can extend life, get rid of suffering and pain, solve diseases and advance the cause of human happiness. So we cannot abandon that. However, we need to relate that to ethics. And I think there is a disparity between the great scientific advance and the cultural lag that we face. Our values often go back 2000 years or more. And so we have to move into the 21st century and beyond. And where we stand is the need to defend an ethics of the individual. Yes. But also an ethics of the planetary community. And that becomes crucial today. 

You say that science and reason offer the best responses, the best solutions to the problems facing the 21st century. But you go beyond that. You say it’s not just science and reason, but this planetary ethics, planetary ethics based upon critical moral intelligence. 

We cannot derive our ethical principles and values from ancient civilizations, important as they are as part of our history. We have to move beyond them to a new morality for the 21st century and beyond that. And so what is that new morality? I think what it does, drawing upon the sciences, it shows clearly that we all have the same DNA, that we have the same origins in Africa, that the human homo sapiens began to migrate from Africa approximately a hundred thousand years ago to Europe and Asia over the Bering Strait. 15 to twenty thousand years ago, the North and South America also to Australia and that were part of the same human species. And we share this planet. 

So it’s no longer in theory, we now have scientific evidence for that claim. 

Yes, you can confirm that claim. I mean, many people have talked about the brotherhood of humans. I talk about human kydd and the fact that we share of the same planetary habitat with other species at. So need to be preserved. So the question is, what are the moral implications of this recognition that we’re interdependent and that we’re part of a common human heritage and a new planetary civilization is emerging? 

And you’re getting this ethical data. You’re getting these reasons for behaving thus. And so you’re drawing from the science as you use to phrase a morality, drawing upon the science as your answers and reason at the same time. You’re not going to ancient texts for this. 

Well, I think you can go to ancient texts for inspiration and some some cultural insight. But we have to go beyond that. I mean, that applies to nomadic and agricultural societies, say the Koran or the Bible or the great books of Asia. But we’re a human kind has learned much since then. And incidentally, today, the unity of the planet is so apparent. It’s a truism to say it, but it’s true. We can communicate instantaneously. We never were able to do that before the Second World War. So with the Internet, with radio and television, culture is truly universal. It’s no longer a Western or Eastern Asian or American, European or African. It’s something that we all share. 

We’re part of a new planetary civilization and we are totally interdependent on each other. And so what’s the first principle? We have to be concerned with humankind as a whole. We can’t think of ourselves as American or Frenchmen or Egypt, schnozz or or Japanese or anything else. We can’t divide the world. And America is truly the universal culture because every every ethnic, racial, religious group has come here. I think the same thing is true partially North and South America, Australia, where there are new frontiers. So now immigration and emigration continue into change on the cultural commercial level continues. And science is truly universal. But we’ve not been able to develop a new morality over beyond that. And so my second principle, every person on the planet ought to be considered equal in dignity and value, no matter where he or she lives. We’re all part of the same heritage. 

Let me play devil’s advocate, though. Look, if if you’ve been for 30 years advancing a secular ethic that focuses on self-fulfillment, on living the best life, now, why should we care about someone across the planet? Why should I as an American, care about what’s happening to some fella I’ll never meet in China or India? 

Well, as a matter of fact, we do meet him a whole time, instant communications today. We know about them and they know about us. 

And here at the Center for Inquiry especially, we’re having international visitors all the time. I’m saying in general, though, as an American, why should I care about the rest of the world? 

No person is an island unto himself. I think John Donne said that so eloquently. And whatever happens to anyone, anywhere, it happens to everyone, everywhere. The point is that the individual shares values. And when we are empathetic, we do need others. We live in communities today. The community is not the small face to face village. It is the planetary community. And that’s the point. So therefore, then we do have an obligation and duty, a responsibility. Now, obviously, we can be concerned about everyone, Tutsi or anyone in Sri Lanka. Everywhere in the world. And we are concerned with what’s closest to us. But we are also concerned about every part of the world, too. So and we can affect that. For example, the tsunami disaster resonated in the hearts and minds of everybody on the planet and everyone poured forth with help. And I think that’s illustrative of the fact that human beings are potentially moral, that we have intrinsic within us an appreciation of the needs of others. That has to be further cultivated. 

And you think that’s part of human nature? That’s not given to us by some supernatural. 

While many people think that you need religion to be moral and the moralities claim to be based on that. 

But I would argue that morality is intrinsic to what it means to be human, that we’re born potentially capable of moral actions. Now we can behave good or bad. We become a beneficent or evil depending on social conditions. But we need to and culture rate and cultivate and educate and nourish these moral tendencies. Even the planetary ethic then is ghostly. The planetary ethic, I mean, for example, today disease is planetary. We’re worrying about the Asian flu or AIDS. We cannot isolate ourselves from anyone anywhere. And so we have to be concerned. With health on the planetary scale, that’s very crucial. That’s a key point. Second, we’ve reached the point in the human condition where poverty is intolerable. We have the resources as a species to contribute to those who are in need or to at least help them to help themselves. So in other words, I would say disease and poverty are a common problem for everyone on the planet. 

And do you see science as solving some of these problems like poverty? 

Well, I think of the remarkable consequences of science. For example, it’s extended life, great sections of the world as reduce infant mortality. So it’s enabled us to keep alive children who normally would die, who would starve to death or die in childbirth. But the other point, fifty years ago, people were talking about the great famines which will strike China and India and look at the changes that have occurred. They’ve learned science. They’ve applied technology. And they’re growing and expanding. So growth is not the monopoly of Europe or America. It’s now worldwide economic growth and development. 

But here’s a paradox. 

It doesn’t seem that, let’s say Islamic fundamentalism or religious extremism is incompatible with science, but it seems like it’s incompatible with the values of this planetary ethic that you’re talking about. Muslim extremists use science to enact their agenda. Evangelical extremist Christians use technology to get their message out. They’re using science, but they’re being steeped in science doesn’t really change their world view. Why that disconnect? 

Well, using science and using technology to achieve her AIDS is very common. The Nazis built the gas chambers using the best technology, and the communists advance science as well. So you can do that. But there is a moral dimension to the human condition on the planet. And you cannot say that morality is immune to science or reason. 

We have to modify our moral values in the light of reason, in light of the consequences of certain kinds of action. So we need a new morality. And it has emerged it has its roots in human culture and history. But as pertinent to what is happening today. Paul, what are some components of this new planetary ethic? Well, clearly, and I’m very happy that this is now being widely understood. We have a commitment to the planetary habitat of which we are all a part. Planetary environmentalism is crucial. We cannot despoil the environment. We cannot pollute the oceans. And we should not use up natural resources for future generations yet unborn. So we have a planetary moral obligation to do what we can to preserve our habitat. And this means also for other species, not only the human species. 

It’s no longer fringe or far left and and dismissed out of hand to be an environmentalist. Now it’s consensus. 

Yes, but many people still don’t accept it. I mean, global warming seems to be a fact and we seem to be a factor in that. A good deal of evidence for that. So we have an obligation to do what we can to limit what we do to destroy the environment. We need to love the environment and love this planet in which we all live. 

What are some other facets of this new planetary effort? 

Well, I think that if humankind is to progress than education and knowledge becomes crucial and every person on the planet is entitled to a cultural enrichment, every child and I mean not only the child in the United States, we want to extend whatever we do in the United States elsewhere, not only the child in England or Sweden or any of the affluent nations, but every child so that parents should not and states and societies should not limit the experiences and knowledge of their children. Now, some religious or political or ideological traditions would do that. And I say, no, the child should be opened up to the best knowledge and wisdom that we have. This becomes crucial. In other words, education is as worldwide and it should be universal. So environmentalism, education, other facets. Well, as it is, every we ought to consider every person equal in dignity of value, even if he had been or she had been an enemy or a strange culture. We have to appreciate the needs of others to reach out. Now, it’s interesting that in many cultures there is great intermarriage and that the previously isolated ethnic or religious or racial racial blocs are breaking down. And that becomes important. It’s important to. Realize that you can love another person or appreciate another person, no matter what their background. And that’s vital. 

And you’re saying there’s a scientific reason for doing this because we’re genetically the same with genetically the same. 

We may have different cultures. We have to move beyond multiculturalism. Now, I realize that that is a sensitive issue. We have to appreciate the diverse cultures on the planet. But that should not be used as an obstacle to developing a new culture. And that is the point. There is a new culture developing. It’s a shared culture. It incorporates the best of western and eastern of Asian and African culture. And it is part of the new planetary civilization of the future. 

It appears looking at the landscape, the cultural landscape that we’re talking about, that there are forces arrayed against this planetary ethic. What are some of those challenges? Cultural? 

Well, I think the first is hatred. The second is chauvinism, nationalism, religious bias. People say, well, unless you come from the same kind of genetic stock that I do, unless you accept my creed, then I will not accept you. And I think a person’s beliefs are values should be independent of the fact that a person is a person. I think we have to develop a new pledge of allegiance. Now, every nation state has a pledge of allegiance. And so I would say I pledge allegiance to the planetary community of which we are all apart, one planet, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I recognize that all persons are equal in dignity and value. I defend human rights and cherish human freedom. I vow to honor and protect the global ecology for ourselves and generations yet unborn. This is not a substitute for your national pledge of Allegiance, but it it goes beyond that because you are a citoyen du monde as citizens of the world. That and that is crucial. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of that Pledge of Allegiance. This new Planetary Pledge of Allegiance on our Web site, point of inquiry, dot org. Also on our Web site, you’ll find copies of Paul Curtsies books on the subject of planetary ethics and the global community. So check out Point of inquiry dot org. Paul Center for Inquiry, as a leading defender of science and reason in the world, invests considerable capital annually in international outreach. It’s not something we talk about a lot, but we are seeing all over the world. 

So we have new centers for inquiry. We call our moumin transnational, not international, because nation states in one sense are a thing of the past. We have to transcend them. You know, we have to implement planetary ethics. I think the first principle is to teach our children and to cultivate ourselves. The fact that we’re all part of the same species and that we’re as citizens of the same planet. But obviously we have to build institutions. We have to build transnational institutions, co-operative institutions like the Center for Inquiry. Well, the Center for Inquiry. Yes. And we have centers now on every every part of the globe. Yes. And Europe and Asia. Latin America and Africa. North and South America. 

Paul, what are some things that listeners can do if they’re persuaded by argument about the planetary ethic? What what can they do to advance this new planetary ethic? 

I think that one has to leap beyond the ancient dogmas of the past and one has to think in entirely new terms. True, remembers members of a race. We have an ethical or religious background. True were members of a country. But I think we ought to take it as a first principles that we’re members of the same species living on those beautiful blue green dot as seen from afar, the planet Earth. And so we have to develop a planetary sense and we have to be concerned about what happens. So that’s a new attitude that we have to develop. It’s a rational attitude, but it needs passionate commitment at the same time. But we also need, I think, in a transnational movement to further these goals. Now we have the United Nations and the United Nations is a great achievement, but we have to go beyond that and we have to develop new institutions to achieve this. 

You’ve talked about and others of your writings promoting the new enlightenment, Philo, softs of the old enlightenment, as it were, talked about being members of the party of humanity. Yeah. And so you’re advancing that notion that we are that there is not just a metaphorical brotherhood of man, but a literal fellowship of humankind. 

Well, the Enlightenment was the great ideal was developed in the 18th century and it said if we can use science and reason to extend human progress, it had great confidence in democracy and human rights and education for the. Future of the of the human species. But it was European and it was Western, and it’s clear now that we need a new enlightenment. We need it. Re enchantment with that enlightenment. We have to, again, have confidence that the human species is capable of solving its problems. We need a new progressive enlightment, which is truly global in dimensioned and not restricted to one part of the globe. 

You just mentioned confidence and human reason as part of this commitment to a planetary ethic. You are such an optimist. You have that confidence in the faculties of reason and passionate commitment to these ideals. In fact, I’ve heard you described once as loving science more than most scientists do. You’re optimistic. You’re committed to these ideals. 

Well, I don’t simply love science. I love the methods of inquiry in which you can test claims and scientists the best illustration of that. But I think we need a new form of re enchantment. And this re enchantment must be an rean Chambon with the potentialities of achieving a better life. I’m an optimist, hopefully a realistic optimist. We have to look beyond the current difficulties of our age, and every age has difficulties given goodwill and the use of reason and some humanistic concern. 

For others, it’s possible to solve problems and to move on to a better life. Everyone. And I think that better life is a life in a planetary context of the new planetary civilization is emerging. Yes. Let’s look ahead. Let’s have our our vision on the future potentialities of improving life on the planet. It has been improving ups and downs, granted, but it has been improving. And I think it will continue to prove and I think we need some confidence in human intelligence and human goodwill to achieve these ends. 

Thank you, Paul, for being on point of inquiry. You’re welcome. Thank you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with Matthew Nisbet, a professor at American University, for an examination of the right way that he says science should be framed in the public mind to get involved with an online conversation on the topic in today’s show, Science and Planetary Ethics. Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry or its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded here at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed for us by Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Thomas Donnelly, Sarah Jordan and Lauren Becker. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.