Paul Kurtz – John Dewey and the Real Point of Inquiry

March 26, 2010

Paul Kurtz is founder and chair emeritus of the Center for Inquiry and founder of 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 Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books. He is the author or editor of almost fifty books, including his new title Exuberant Skepticism. Throughout the last four decades, Kurtz has been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society, and has been interviewed widely in the media on a wide range of subjects, including alternative medicine and communication with the dead, to the historicity of Jesus and parapsychology.

In this, the third of three special-edition episodes featuring D.J. Grothe, Paul Kurtz discusses American philosopher John Dewey, and explains how his views undergird much of what the Center for Inquiry stands for. He talks about the American school of philosophy called pragmatism, and its central value of testing ideas by their consequences. He explains how active inquiry, even into controversial claims, is key for the educated mind, and why learning how to think is more important than being instructed what to think. He explores Dewey’s humanism, and how nature and science should be servants of the human good. He talks about Dewey’s optimism and his faith in democracy, in the common person, and in social progress. He explores how for Dewey moral values are objective, but are not absolute, static and unchanging, but that they should be modified in the light of new evidence and situations. And he explains the real value of inquiry and how it may enrich people’s lives.

This is the third of three special edition episodes of Point of Inquiry featuring DJ Grothe v.. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots. My guest this week is Paul Kurtz. He’s founder and chair emeritus of the Center for Inquiry and a number of other organizations. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He’s professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was involved in the founding of Saikat, now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism. Founder of Prometheus Books, the largest publisher of its kind in the United States. He’s editor in chief of Free Inquiry magazine and the author of some 55 books, including the new book published The Spring by transaction publishers called Multis Secularism A New Agenda. Throughout the last 30 years, he’s been a leading defender of science and reason against the prevailing cults of irrationality in our society. He’s been in the media widely. He joins me on the show to talk about John Dewey and the real point of inquiry. Welcome back to the show. 

Paul Kurtz, DJ Grothe. I am delighted to be back in your wonderful program. I want to congratulate you on joining the James Randi Educational Foundation. Are the new president right now? 

Randi, four years. And I’m sure that you will make major contributions to his foundation as you have indeed to the center for inquiry. So I regret the fact that you’re leaving the Center for Inquiry, but our laws as R&D game. 

Well, Paul, thanks for saying that. And I want to take this opportunity on the show to thank you for the opportunity you’ve given me. What we’ve worked a little over 10 years together, advancing these things. We really believe in working together and all the other great staff at the Center for Inquiry. That was really the the thing that made the decision hardest is leaving, you know, working with my colleagues at CFI. We’ve done, I think, some great work over the over the years. And it’s been great fun. So thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. And you’re right. Now I’m off to the Jay Raff. 

Yes. Well, I appreciate your comments and we do really regret your leaving the center, but I’m sure that the opportunities will be even greater. And I look forward to your contributions to critical intelligence understanding. Working with Ron Lindsay will be a delight. I’m sure you will find that as I have as I I’ve known them for so many years. It’s a very, very good new opportunity for you. 

Well, thank you, Paul. We’ve been doing this show for four years now. It’s hard to imagine four years. We started back in December 2005. And since we’re finishing up December 2009, I figured it was fitting to have you back on the show to help mark the milestone. I mean, since you were the very first guest on the show, it’s good that you’re the last guest in 2009. So thank you for coming back on the show. We’re taking time out of your trip. What, you’re in France now, right? 

Yes, I’m on the Cote, the Zorah, the French Riviera. I come here. He got me twice a year to do some writing, among other things. But I wanted to say that the point of inquiry has been a wonderful contribution to our knowledge. And I hear rave reviews from people wherever I go. So you’ve done a great job as moderator and I’m delighted to be again on this show. 

Well, thank you for saying that, Paul. OK. So now to our topic. I invited you on the show, Paul, to talk about John Dewey. The Center for Inquiry recently did a conference focusing on Dewey and for the Center for Inquiry Dewey. And what he stands for kind of undergirds everything we do at CFI. 

Yes, indeed. John Dewey was born in October of 1859, and we celebrated the 150 year anniversary of his work and we brought leading people from all over the world to do so. I think he was you can say arguably he was the leading American philosopher of the 20th century. And Shirley is an impact not only in philosophy, but on public life is outstanding. 

Yeah. Had impact not just in philosophy, but in education, in journalism. You could actually draw a line from Dewey or from his what philosophical tradition? American philosophical pragmatism and the whole work of the Center for Inquiry. What I’m getting at is a direct line from Persse, William James, John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and then write to you and your founding of CFI and all its work. 

Well, I. I don’t come anywhere near close to the founders, but they were they were American pragmatists. And pragmatism was the most original philosophical school that came out of America. So as you pointed out, it was Charles person, John Dewey. And indeed, the Senate for inquiry has taken the name inquiry from Dewey and passed. They want to focus on investigation, on inquired. On research, and so the center was committed by using reason and science. And Dewey was the philosopher of science. He heralded scientific inquiry. 

I want to get to inquiry the point of inquiry. And in kind of talking about what do we have to say about all that? But let’s get very basic first. Define for me pragmatism. 

Well, pragmatism is a skill that developed in the late 19th century, continued in the 20th, and still continues today. It says ideas should be tested by their consequences. If you do not want to know what an idea means. See how it works out in practice. Now, that may be an extreme states enough of it, but it’s far more subtle than that. But definitions of ideas should be operational or instrumental. And Dewey was an instrumentalist. He thought that ideas were tools or instruments that we can use in life to improve, to understand nature and to improve upon it. 

So let’s connect that to inquiry for do we really for all the pragmatist inquiry was the ideal. It wasn’t a kind of memorized rote learning of received truths from the past. More of it’s like an active thing that we did an active inquiry into topics, students, learners. I mean, we’re all supposed to be open minded, looking into topics, kind of learning based on our own research, our own looking into questions. 

Well, Dewey wrote a famous book, How to Think he was the father of what was called progressive education. And he wanted the schools to teach children how to think. That was very important. And he said that thinking is natural to humans. It grows out of out several. We face a problem. We have a conflict. We initiate inquiry in order to resolve it. So thinking is an instrument of experience. And as part of a process of living, and I should add, since this is a hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Darwin’s great work, The Origin of Species, that the Dhuey was influenced by Darwin. So in other words, thinking cognition is the method that the human species has for solving problems, coping with difficulties in nature. 

And it’s how to think. It’s not what to think. 

Yes, I want to think it’s a process of learning, of discovery and then testing ideas in the real world. So it has a pragmatic or practical applications. 

Pull all of this in my head really connects to the values of humanism as well. Dewey was central in advancing humanism. He was one of the original signers of what, the first humanist manifesto? 

Yes, a humanist manifesto, one which was drafted in 1933. He did. He did endorse it. That is true. And he was a humanist in the positive sense of the term, mainly. Human beings are a part of nature. They interact with nature. They are. There’s no dualism between mind and body. And so that thinking is a process which is bio and social and character. And it is an expression of the highest powers of which were capable. 

I love his definition of humanism. And it kind of ties into when you were talking about do we being an instrumentalist earlier. And using the tools of science and reason and applying them to nature. His definition of humanism is something like that. Humanism is basically an expansion of human life where both nature and what he called the science of nature are made to be the servants of the human good. 

Yes. Well, he emphasized reflection, thinking, cognition, but always at the service of experience. So he appreciated experiencing human life. And it is of various kinds of experiences that we have problems that emerge. And so thinking is an instrument to enable us to experience more fully and to develop our highest potentialities in living Jim Underdown. 

And I’m tying that to the humanism where he says, you know, it’s not just getting at the truth that matters, but it’s getting it the truth because all of that serves the human good. 

Yes. As it works out in practice. Now, you do want to find out about nature, whatever you can. And the sciences are powerful instruments for unlocking the secrets of nature. But we can only find out about nature by transacting or interacting with the natural world. And so it’s the application of our ideas. The world that is important and is an important test of them. 

So back to inquiry, Paul. For Duey, inquiry was so important because education wasn’t about content, but more about methods like you were discussing how to think, not what to think. It’s not a body of knowledge only, but it’s really the tool set that we get knowledge for ourselves. It’s not about experts or old books and other. 

Yes. Well, do we talked about the method of intelligence. And he said that we need to use the method of intelligence and coping with the problems of life. Now, connected to this was his great faith in democracy. He wrote in one of his most influential books was Democracy in Education. He thought education is crucial in a society because you teach students and adults how to think and they contribute to the democratic society where we solve our problems in a democratic way. And saying that he was really a great liberal thinker. Probably the most influential liberal thinker in America in the first half of the 20th century. 

He had a number of critics, though, Walter Lippmann, other social critics, other thinkers. Did you ever buy any of the criticism? It basically said what? That he had too much faith in human reason. What was the criticism? 

A pig? Well, you know, with a human being, they’re not super beings and their limitations are. Well, we can do. But do we would say that reason is probably the best method. We have to try to work out problems experimentally by understanding nature and seeing things. Have they have they apply? So many of the conservatives did criticize him. But, you know, in the last analysis, I think that he was conservative because he wanted to emphasize the powers of human beings, their capacities for improving life. And he didn’t accept easy, easy nostrums. 

Well, how is that conservative flesh that out for me? 

Well, he had great, great confidence in democracy and sense that the United States is a democratic society. And it certainly has been influential worldwide. So democracy and education are the great tools for improving life. He he was not a radical in that sense, but he tried to untap our potentialities as best we can. And I think this is attempting to conserve, if you will, the best capabilities that we have in that sense. Yes. Now, he was known as a progressive educator. True. And he was criticized for that. 

He’s kind of enemy number one in the Christian homeschool movement. 

I’m very sorry to hear that, because what he wanted teach children is to realize their potentialities, to enable them to grow. Actually, his basic value was growth, maturation, the ability to realize your capacities and to allow the child or the person to flower in a false sense. So he was attempting to untap the best capacity that we have. And that is continuous with Greek, with all history of Western culture, with Renaissance down through the founding fathers in the US. And in that sense, it’s conserving one of the most important values of Western civilization. 

I see what you mean by calling him a conservative. I get that. If inquiry is a method and it’s not just about a body of knowledge you receive from your experts, where you kind of go and memorize stuff you’re told is the truth. But instead, you learn this method of inquiry. How’s that play out? When you’re educating a youngster, you basically, you know, it’s everything’s project based, right? You say, hey, here are some tools. Here’s a question we’re looking into. What do you guys find out as opposed to saying, here’s the theory, memorize it. The test is Tomago. 

Never, never. He would never do that. You deal with problems and conflicts and you try to overcome them and you have confidence in the ability of reason. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best that we have. And I think that those societies, which are democratic, tend to have more freedom, more creativity, higher standards of living that those which do not. And Dewey was a great defender of democracy and democracy, education and legislation. We need to be willing to change society in order to improve it. 

That’s one of the reasons why he gets such a bad rap among some stripes of conservatives today, because he really imagined that, you know, the smart people would reimagine your society, you know, change society according to their lights. Right. 

Dewey would never say that. He says he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. And he had confidence in the ordinary person. He was speaking to every person, every woman and man to realize the highest potentialities. And and that that is very conservative. It is part of the great tradition of learning. It’s not experts. It’s every person who counts. 

So changing society came from the bottom up, not from the top down. 

Oh, yes, indeed. I mean, it’s great. He had great faith. The great faith was in a democracy. Mm hmm. And when America was a land of immigrants and people from all over the world came, he said the best way to make sure that they function is to teach them how to think and how to improve life. And in that sense, he had a profound influence. Edit He has an impact worldwide at this hundred and fifty years anniversary to his birth. People. For all of the world participated, and I’m pleased that in Italy and Germany and France and India, many other countries do, he has been red. And his impact is being felt. 

I want to get back to this method of inquiry. Not that. Do we focused it in this way. But his push about this method of inquiry. It really has real implications for the basic beliefs of society. Since if it’s not about memorizing the truths people tell you or the things they think are the truth. But instead, it’s about looking at evidence for stuff, even widely held beliefs necessarily, Paul. Many of those beliefs are going to be overturned. And that’s your major point in your book, The Transcendental Temptation? 

Yes, very much so. He says we ought to be prepared to question anything from the past. His great book, The Quest for Certainty. He said, we have to learn to live with uncertainty because life has always new problems and there are always new challenges. So his attitude is experimental. How do you deal with the world, which is changing a precarious world? And he thought we could do it by relying on intelligence and also reconstructing our values. He was an ethical philosopher. He thought the ethics that we inherited from the past was insufficient and that we ought to be prepared to change our values in the light of the evidence. Yes. You emphasized evidence Jim Underdown. 

So, Paul, before we get to values, we’ll finish up with that, you know, kind of his humanistic, ethical point of view. Let’s get back to this theory of knowledge of Duey, which had implications for these received, in quotes, truths from our past, you know, beliefs in, say, mind, body dualism or God or superstitious claims. He was a skeptic of all of that, even if that wasn’t his main focus. 

Well, he was a skeptic. Yes, indeed. And he won. He wanted us to be open to the new discoveries and to advance the cause of human progress. And they could do so through knowledge and through education. He wanted every child to go on to college, if possible. 

But what I’m getting at is that DeWees kind of inquiry, the point of that kind of inquiry kind of played out in your own career as a philosopher and as an activist in looking at its implications for belief in God and ghosts and that sort of stuff, because that actually impacts the way people live in the world. And do we said no, if you adopt this method of inquiry, it’s going to overturn beliefs in that sort of stuff as well? 

Well, you know, the world is changing so rapidly that we ought to be willing to modify our beliefs in the light of new situations. I haven’t have been a student at Columbia University where a job do we taught for many years. I attended his 90th birthday, which is a memorable occasion back in nineteen forty nine. But he had great optimism and the capacity of humans to solve their problem. He was an internationalist. He was not a pessimist. He was an optimist. And he thought that if we apply our power as we do the best we can to solve solve problems. 

And that’s I guess that’s where the values, the humanistic values that are inherent in his push for his unique kind of inquiry come in. It wasn’t enough to rip the rug out from under people to tell them they’re wrong about their superstitions. They’re untested claims. But instead, you want to give give people something they could sink their teeth in to not just pull the rug out from under them, but put something else there. And that’s the the really fleshed out ethics that he pushed. 

Yes. I think Selamat for Dewey, the major problem that we face in the 20s, 20th century and now the 21st is the disparity between science and ethics. Our moral beliefs often are inherited by the past are scientific progress keeps leaping forward. So we need to apply science and reason to the modification of our values. Now, some of our values serve us and we need to say, yes, they’ve been justified, but we need to create new values open to new opportunities. And so he distinguishes E.J. between uprising’s and appraises the values you have you prize you cherish. But you need to reappraise them in the light of the situation, in the light of the world that we face and to modify them. 

So for Dewey, values weren’t some static thing that you got. From, say, Mount Sinai, you know, a list of things you should do for duty. You were constantly reevaluating what was important to you in a moral sense. 

Yes, that’s that state said very well. We have to be willing to reappraise and re evaluate our values and be prepared to change them. I mean, if you looked at the great progress in women’s rights, for example, and minority rights in the liberation of so many people in the world against traditional standards so that the ethics becomes experimental. There are ethical values that we live by, but we need always to modify them in the latest situations. 

The ethics aren’t absolute because they’re not unchanging and they’re not received from on high, but they are objective and that you’re looking at real world situations to come to conclusions about them. You’re looking at things in the real world. It’s not just all in our heads. 

Yes, they’re not absolutes that are transcendent, that have inherited from the past. So many values of the past are worthwhile, but they need to be tested in the crucible of living. And that is why you ought to be prepared to change your moral values in the light of new situations which we face in the 21st century. The world is changing so rapidly is duly relevant to the 21st century and beyond. 150 of anniversary. Congress said yes, he is because he has a method of coping with the new problems that emerge. The method of intelligence, the Democratic method, the reliance upon education that is, do his great contribution to philosophy. 

And that’s one way of describing the work of the Center for Inquiry as well. 

Yes, that’s Senate inquiries committed to inquire expansively. This question of religion emerges. Do we published a book in the 30s called A Common Faith. And he said he believed deeply in moral ideals and moral values. And he was willing to use the term God as a metaphor for that. He did not believe in the traditional God, but he believed that the ideals that we developed within you, human society and that inspire us are very important to have a moral dimension. And using the best intelligence, we can improve life and enhance our moral values. And that is a common faith that we share, particularly if we believe in a democratic society that moves us deeply. And so that is a positive, optimistic view of human potentialities. 

And you’ve always shared that kind of optimism that do we had. In other words, you think that all it will take is to talk to reason with people in society and and they will easily be nudged from their fundamentalist creeds, whether they’re religious or paranormal or ideological, political, whatever, that we can share a common faith based on, you know, what’s best for all of us and a faith kind of inhuman reason and not in a kind of ancient, outmoded religious beliefs. You share that optimism of doing. 

I do. Maybe I’m sometimes considered naive, but what other method do we have to work out as best we can? The problems we have and have some confidence that in the inquiry, in negotiation, we can work out compromises that that are relevant to the world situation. So we need a common faith in the world today. The world is changing. Global warming is a real fact. There are problems on a planetary level. And so do we really speak to our planetary situation? Because here is a method that people in India and China and France and England and South America and everywhere that work with and people have studied, do we do find him relevant and are excited by this experimental, pragmatic approach to knowledge? 

Okay, I’m going to as we finish up, I’m going to have to touch on one thing you just mentioned, which is this focus on a common faith. The word faith is going to stick in the craw of some of our call them knee jerk skeptics who listen to the show. They’ll say, oh, faith means blind faith. It means believing something for which there’s no evidence. That’s not the sense in which you’re using that term. 

No. And that’s do we use the term faith to mean our confidence to certain ideals that move us powerful principles and values that sustain us. And we do need ideals to live by. These ideals should be intelligent and we should work for them. 

In other words, it’s not enough just to be naysaying to talk about what you don’t believe, but the ideals we do hold, the things we do believe in. That’s worth pushing. That’s worth being inspired by. 

Yes, of course, Dori was affirmative and constructive and he made contributions, positive contributions. And he said we should always be prepared to work out new new methods of living. And he had great confidence that we would do so. He was the American philosopher because American life is experimental, that grows and develops. It’s willing to innovate. And people throughout the world share that that notion of an open universe and the possibilities for improving it. So that was an optimistic affirm, that philosopher. He was not as naysayer, not a pessimist. 

So, Paul, last question. Do you think that John Dewey’s emphasis on inquiry really the point of inquiry, which is that it adds value to our lives, even if we jettison some outmoded beliefs, we get from it more substantial views of our place in the universe that kind of flesh out our meaning. Yeah. Help us Faren the world better. Do you think that that message you talked about it being relevant, do you think that that message can actually continue to catch on with the everyday work at work a day world person? 

Well, I think it is. It’s a powerful ideal by which we can live some confidence in our powers of solving our problems and willingness to use thought and cognition, reason and science to do so. Some kind of faith that other people is taught how to think or who they can develop, how to think that they can solve our problems. What is the alternative? Surely not absolutes from the past, but new experimental ideas inveighs that service in the future. 

As you say in the Humanist Manifesto, to know God will save us. We must save ourselves. That’s a duey in concept. 

Well, he doesn’t state that. I did state that in that manifesto, but that no one will save us. We must save ourselves. We can only succeed in life and solve our problems if we resolve to do so. Not looking backward absolutes, but looking forward to new new directions to take. And so pragmatism is the philosophy of new directions. And we always need new directions drawing on the best in the past. But looking ahead to new experimental conclusions and solutions to our problems. And in that sense, Dhuey really speaks to the 21st century. 

Paul, thank you very much for this discussion about John Dewey and the real point of inquiry that he talked about. I, I think we would have been well served to have this discussion four years ago to frame all of the discussions we’ve had on point of acquire. I really appreciate being able to have it now with you. 

And I appreciate your great role as a moderator, making it possible for so many people, a couple of hundred or more to engage in a point of inquiry. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for nineteen ninety five. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, dawg. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week. Find me on Facebook and on Twitter to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join the discussion at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Work. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. 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.