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Secular humanism is toast too? Atheist philosopher John Gray thinks so.

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Last week, I noted that a reviewer trashing a book by C.S. Lewis observed that naturalism is toast now.

Apparently, philosopher John Gray, author of The Silence of Animals, thinks secular humanism is toast too, according to Merry’s review in The National Interest:

“The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”

Though for decades his reputation was confined largely to intellectual circles, Gray’s public profile rose significantly with the 2002 publication of Straw Dogs, which sold impressively and brought him much wider acclaim than he had known before. The book was a concerted and extensive assault on the idea of progress and its philosophical offspring, secular humanism. The Silence of Animals is in many ways a sequel, plowing much the same philosophical ground but expanding the cultivation into contiguous territory mostly related to how mankind—and individual humans—might successfully grapple with the loss of both metaphysical religion of yesteryear and today’s secular humanism. The fundamentals of Gray’s critique of progress are firmly established in both books and can be enumerated in summary.


First, the idea of progress is merely a secular religion, and not a particularly meaningful one at that. “Today,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, “liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.”

Something tells me that this Gray guy, though an atheist, is not in the running for Atheist of the Year.

See also: Darwin deserts philosopher John Gray

12 Replies to “Secular humanism is toast too? Atheist philosopher John Gray thinks so.

  1. 1
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    That’s the downside of being an intellectual — it doesn’t take much before you’ve thought your way beyond whatever ideology or doctrine under which you’ve classified yourself or into which others try to classify you.

    (Incidentally, that’s the main reason why I don’t regard myself as an atheist or naturalist, either — not that I’ve found God, or whatever, but a deep aversion to “-isms,” especially the popular ones.)

  2. 2
    keiths says:

    Last week, I noted that a reviewer trashing a book by C.S. Lewis observed that naturalism is toast now.

    The rumors of naturalism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

  3. 3
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    That’s true, Keiths. Here’s the passage by Kenny:

    There remains the argument that naturalism is self-refuting. Despite the rough handling that Lewis’s version of it received from Anscombe, versions of this argument remain popular among philosophers. And indeed there are signs that naturalism is collapsing under its own weight. Even self-proclaimed naturalists seem unable to give a clear account of it. Of course, the natural is contrasted with the supernatural; but that contrast by itself will not give us a non-circular account of nature.

    At one time it seemed as if a robust and substantive naturalism could be easily stated. This was a conception that thought of the world as being made up of solid, inert, impenetrable and conserved matter – a matter that interacts deterministically and through contact. But twentieth-century physics posited entities and interactions that did not fit the materialist characterization of reality, and which took science far away from a world of solid, inert, massy material atoms.

    Shall we identify naturalism, then, not by its ontology, but by its method? Methodological naturalism would be a commitment to employing in inquiry only the methods of the empirical sciences and mathematics. But this would surely be an unjustifiably dogmatic stance. In recent years, it seems, the armoury once deployed so confidently by atheists to demolish belief has been gradually decommissioned: verificationism, materialism, reductionism, physicalism. One is left wondering what is left of naturalism after all these weapons of mass deconstruction have been laid aside.

    The following may be noted:

    (1) the “naturalism is self-refuting” argument has been made much of by Alvin Plantinga, though it remains contentious. It’s a good argument, in the sense that it’s not easy to see what’s wrong with it — although, having spent a fair amount of time with it, I think it’s mistaken.

    (2) The content problem of physicalism, or “Hempel’s dilemma,” is pretty serious — just what does “physicalism” mean, if physics itself is incomplete and with metaphysical interpretations of physics still up in the air?

    (3) “methodological naturalism” seems to me to collapse, upon inspection, into just good old-fashioned empiricism (plus math and logic, of course). But Kenny is surely right to insist that it would be unjustifiably dogmatic to insist that quantifiable, empirically-guided inquiry is the only route into Reality — for how could that be known to be the case?

    That said, I do think that when it comes to causal explanations, quantification and experimentation (“methodological naturalism,” if you like) are the gold standard. But causal explanations are not the only kind of knowledge that we ought to concern ourselves with.

  4. 4
    keiths says:


    …although, having spent a fair amount of time with it [Plantinga’s evolutionary argtument against naturalism], I think it’s mistaken.

    I agree. Perhaps someone here will do a post on it.

    The content problem of physicalism, or “Hempel’s dilemma,” is pretty serious…

    I think it’s an important philosophical problem, but I don’t think it should dissuade anyone from physicalism.

    It’s analogous to the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem hasn’t been decisively solved, but that doesn’t stop me from embracing most of science. Likewise with Hempel’s dilemma and physicalism.

    The exact boundaries of nature aren’t an issue in most debates between naturalists and their opponents. The crux of the disagreement is usually quite simple: naturalists don’t believe in gods, angels, demons, immaterial souls, Greater Powers, and so on, while their opponents generally believe in at least some of these.

    “methodological naturalism” seems to me to collapse, upon inspection, into just good old-fashioned empiricism (plus math and logic, of course).

    I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that empiricism can deal with the supernatural, provided that the entity in question interacts with the physical world and leaves some traces.

    Although I’m a naturalist, I think that methodological naturalism is unnecessarily restrictive. I’ve consistently argued against it.

  5. 5
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    I agree. Perhaps someone here will do a post on it.

    I’ll write up a post at TSZ in the next few days.

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: In answer to such strawman games, let me clip (please read there for onward links and a key audio) from the IOSE summary on the self referential incoherence of evolutionary materialism, for record, for those who are more than merely ideologues:


    >> 13 –> Some materialists go further and suggest that mind is more or less a delusion. For instance, Sir Francis Crick is on record, in his 1994 The Astonishing Hypothesis:

    . . . that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.

    14 –> Philip Johnson has replied that Sir Francis should have therefore been willing to preface his works thusly: “I, Francis Crick, my opinions and my science, and even the thoughts expressed in this book, consist of nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Johnson then acidly commented: “[[t]he plausibility of materialistic determinism requires that an implicit exception be made for the theorist.” [[Reason in the Balance, 1995.]

    15 –> In short, it is at least arguable that self-referential absurdity is the dagger pointing to the heart of evolutionary materialistic models of mind and its origin. An audio clip by William Lane Craig that summarises Plantinga’s argument on this in a nutshell, is useful:


    . . . This issue can be addressed at a more sophisticated level [[cf. Hasker in The Emergent Self (Cornell University Press, 2001), from p 64 on, e.g. here as well as Reppert here and Plantinga here (briefer) & here (noting updates in the 2011 book, The Nature of Nature)], but without losing its general force, it can also be drawn out a bit in a fairly simple way:

    a: Evolutionary materialism argues that the cosmos is the product of chance interactions of matter and energy, within the constraint of the laws of nature; from hydrogen to humans by undirected chance and necessity.

    b: Therefore, all phenomena in the universe, without residue, are determined by the working of purposeless laws of chance and/or mechanical necessity acting on material objects, under the direct or indirect control of happenstance initial circumstances.

    (This is physicalism. This view covers both the forms where (a) the mind and the brain are seen as one and the same thing, and those where (b) somehow mind emerges from and/or “supervenes” on brain, perhaps as a result of sophisticated and complex software looping. The key point, though is as already noted: physical causal closure — the phenomena that play out across time, without residue, are in principle deducible or at least explainable up to various random statistical distributions and/or mechanical laws, from prior physical states. Such physical causal closure, clearly, implicitly discounts or even dismisses the causal effect of concept formation and reasoning then responsibly deciding, in favour of specifically physical interactions in the brain-body control loop; indeed, some mock the idea of — in their view — an “obviously” imaginary “ghost” in the meat-machine. [[There is also some evidence from simulation exercises, that accuracy of even sensory perceptions may lose out to utilitarian but inaccurate ones in an evolutionary competition. “It works” does not warrant the inference to “it is true.”] )

    c: But human thought, clearly a phenomenon in the universe, must now fit into this meat-machine picture. So, we rapidly arrive at Crick’s claim in his The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994): what we subjectively experience as “thoughts,” “reasoning” and “conclusions” can only be understood materialistically as the unintended by-products of the blind natural forces which cause and control the electro-chemical events going on in neural networks in our brains that (as the Smith Model illustrates) serve as cybernetic controllers for our bodies.

    d: These underlying driving forces are viewed as being ultimately physical, but are taken to be partly mediated through a complex pattern of genetic inheritance shaped by forces of selection [[“nature”] and psycho-social conditioning [[“nurture”], within the framework of human culture [[i.e. socio-cultural conditioning and resulting/associated relativism]. And, remember, the focal issue to such minds — notice, this is a conceptual analysis made and believed by the materialists! — is the physical causal chains in a control loop, not the internalised “mouth-noises” that may somehow sit on them and come along for the ride.

    (Save, insofar as such “mouth noises” somehow associate with or become embedded as physically instantiated signals or maybe codes in such a loop. [[How signals, languages and codes originate and function in systems in our observation of such origin — i.e by design — tends to be pushed to the back-burner and conveniently forgotten. So does the point that a signal or code takes its significance precisely from being an intelligently focused on, observed or chosen and significant alternative from a range of possibilities that then can guide decisive action.])

    e: For instance, Marxists commonly derided opponents for their “bourgeois class conditioning” — but what of the effect of their own class origins? Freudians frequently dismissed qualms about their loosening of moral restraints by alluding to the impact of strict potty training on their “up-tight” critics — but doesn’t this cut both ways? Should we not ask a Behaviourist whether s/he is little more than yet another operantly conditioned rat trapped in the cosmic maze? And — as we saw above — would the writings of a Crick be any more than the firing of neurons in networks in his own brain?

    f: For further instance, we may take the favourite whipping-boy of materialists: religion. Notoriously, they often hold that belief in God is not merely cognitive, conceptual error, but delusion. Borderline lunacy, in short. But, if such a patent “delusion” is so utterly widespread, even among the highly educated, then it “must” — by the principles of evolution — somehow be adaptive to survival, whether in nature or in society. And so, this would be a major illustration of the unreliability of our conceptual reasoning ability, on the assumption of evolutionary materialism.

    g: Turning the materialist dismissal of theism around, evolutionary materialism itself would be in the same leaky boat. For, the sauce for the goose is notoriously just as good a sauce for the gander, too.

    h: That is, on its own premises [[and following Dawkins in A Devil’s Chaplain, 2004, p. 46], the cause of the belief system of evolutionary materialism, “must” also be reducible to forces of blind chance and mechanical necessity that are sufficiently adaptive to spread this “meme” in populations of jumped- up apes from the savannahs of East Africa scrambling for survival in a Malthusian world of struggle for existence. Reppert brings the underlying point sharply home, in commenting on the “internalised mouth-noise signals riding on the physical cause-effect chain in a cybernetic loop” view:

    . . . let us suppose that brain state A, which is token identical to the thought that all men are mortal, and brain state B, which is token identical to the thought that Socrates is a man, together cause the belief that Socrates is mortal. It isn’t enough for rational inference that these events be those beliefs, it is also necessary that the causal transaction be in virtue of the content of those thoughts . . . [[But] if naturalism is true, then the propositional content is irrelevant to the causal transaction that produces the conclusion, and [[so] we do not have a case of rational inference. In rational inference, as Lewis puts it, one thought causes another thought not by being, but by being seen to be, the ground for it. But causal transactions in the brain occur in virtue of the brain’s being in a particular type of state that is relevant to physical causal transactions. [[Emphases added. Also cf. Reppert’s summary of Barefoot’s argument here.]

    i: The famous geneticist and evolutionary biologist (as well as Socialist) J. B. S. Haldane made much the same point in a famous 1932 remark:

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter.” [[“When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209. (Highlight and emphases added.)]

    j: Therefore, though materialists will often try to pointedly ignore or angrily brush aside the issue, we may freely argue: if such evolutionary materialism is true, then (i) our consciousness, (ii) the “thoughts” we have, (iii) the conceptualised beliefs we hold, (iv) the reasonings we attempt based on such and (v) the “conclusions” and “choices” (a.k.a. “decisions”) we reach — without residue — must be produced and controlled by blind forces of chance happenstance and mechanical necessity that are irrelevant to “mere” ill-defined abstractions such as: purpose or truth, or even logical validity.

    (NB: The conclusions of such “arguments” may still happen to be true, by astonishingly lucky coincidence — but we have no rational grounds for relying on the “reasoning” that has led us to feel that we have “proved” or “warranted” them. It seems that rationality itself has thus been undermined fatally on evolutionary materialistic premises. Including that of Crick et al. Through, self-reference leading to incoherence and utter inability to provide a cogent explanation of our commonplace, first-person experience of reasoning and rational warrant for beliefs, conclusions and chosen paths of action. Reduction to absurdity and explanatory failure in short.)

    k: And, if materialists then object: “But, we can always apply scientific tests, through observation, experiment and measurement,” then we must immediately note that — as the fate of Newtonian Dynamics between 1880 and 1930 shows — empirical support is not equivalent to establishing the truth of a scientific theory. For, at any time, one newly discovered countering fact can in principle overturn the hitherto most reliable of theories. (And as well, we must not lose sight of this: in science, one is relying on the legitimacy of the reasoning process to make the case that scientific evidence provides reasonable albeit provisional warrant for one’s beliefs etc. Scientific reasoning is not independent of reasoning.)

    l: Worse, in the case of origins science theories, we simply were not there to directly observe the facts of the remote past, so origins sciences are even more strongly controlled by assumptions and inferences than are operational scientific theories. So, we contrast the way that direct observations of falling apples and orbiting planets allow us to test our theories of gravity.

    m: Moreover, as Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin reminds us all in his infamous January 29, 1997 New York Review of Books article, “Billions and billions of demons,” it is now notorious that:

    . . . It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel [[materialistic scientists] to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. [[And if you have been led to imagine that the immediately following words justify the above, kindly cf. the more complete clip and notes here.]

    n: Such a priori assumptions of materialism are patently question-begging, mind-closing and fallacious.

    o: More important, to demonstrate that empirical tests provide empirical support to the materialists’ theories would require the use of the very process of reasoning and inference which they have discredited.

    p: Thus, evolutionary materialism arguably reduces reason itself to the status of illusion. But, as we have seen: immediately, that must include “Materialism.”

    q: In the end, it is thus quite hard to escape the conclusion that materialism is based on self-defeating, question-begging logic.

    r: So, while materialists — just like the rest of us — in practice routinely rely on the credibility of reasoning and despite all the confidence they may project, they at best struggle to warrant such a tacitly accepted credibility of mind and of concepts and reasoned out conclusions relative to the core claims of their worldview. (And, sadly: too often, they tend to pointedly ignore or rhetorically brush aside the issue.) >>

    In short, never mind the fancy lab coat, evo mat is seriously defective and in fact self refuting as a worldview. Anything built on its foundations, is inherently without good warrant.

    For balance.


  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N 2: 2350 years ago now, Plato in The Laws, Bk X, warned on where this ends up in light of Alcibiades and co:


    >> Ath. . . . [[The avant garde philosophers and poets, c. 360 BC] say that fire and water, and earth and air [[i.e the classical “material” elements of the cosmos], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only. [[In short, evolutionary materialism premised on chance plus necessity acting without intelligent guidance on primordial matter is hardly a new or a primarily “scientific” view! Notice also, the trichotomy of causal factors: (a) chance/accident, (b) mechanical necessity of nature, (c) art or intelligent design and direction.] . . . .

    [[Thus, they hold that t]he Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.– [[Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT. (Cf. here for Locke’s views and sources on a very different base for grounding liberty as opposed to license and resulting anarchistic “every man does what is right in his own eyes” chaos leading to tyranny. )] These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might [[ Evolutionary materialism leads to the promotion of amorality], and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [[Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality “naturally” leads to continual contentions and power struggles; cf. dramatisation here], these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others [[such amoral factions, if they gain power, “naturally” tend towards ruthless tyranny], and not in legal subjection to them. >>

    This too, evo mat advocates don’t want us thinking about too much.

    But in light of the above, think through what the following from Provine’s 1998 Darwin Day address in Tennessee really implies:

    Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent . . . .

    The first 4 implications are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists that I will spend little time defending them. Human free will, however, is another matter. Even evolutionists have trouble swallowing that implication. I will argue that humans are locally determined systems that make choices. They have, however, no free will . . .

    Time to stop being easily manipulated sheeple, folks!

    Every time the sort of assumptions and arguments presented by those whose view boils down to evo mat or some fellow traveller thereof, gets up to declaim with confident manner, ask the Crick question and the like,t hen ask, why shoul;d we trust your alleged reasoning based on your particular wiring, and whatever outputs it was determined to give without reference to truth, right, validity etc? Only, survival of the fittest or the like?

    Be polite, but insist on a coherent answer that grounds the credibility of reasoning and knowledge from first principles on up, and also morality and justice, one of its most important applicaitons from first principles on up.

    (Much of what is going on in our civilisation now pivots on the implication of evo mat that might and manipulation make ‘right.’ Remember, to the sort of cold hearted dark triad manipulators we will increasingly be dealing with, sheeple are sheep to be shorn and slaughtered at will for their profit and pleasure. Beware, says the old shepherd dog.)


  8. 8
    jerry says:

    What is progress? Certainly we seem to be under its spell and I am not sure that science is the only area where the world has progressed. We may have regressed in others but there are some other way we have progressed.

    Hegel still is probably the philosopher that influenced the modern world more than anyone. While I am not a philosopher in any sense it is hard not to see Hegel’s hand in our world today, for good or for bad. Hegel certainly influenced Darwin and the acceptance of his ideas as a lot of philosophers call the 19th century the Century of Hegel.

  9. 9
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Jerry, I agree with you in some respects and not in others.

    It’s probably right that the prevalence of Hegelianism in 19th-century German prepared the cultural ground for the acceptance of Darwinism in Germany. But that led to a lot of difficulties as well — for example, German Darwinists were enthusiastic teleologists, in contrast to, say, French Darwinists, who took up a more mechanistic Darwinism. (In the 20th-century, one can see this tension in the differences between Hans Jonas’ The Phenomenon of Life and Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity.)

    And Nietzsche, who took aim against Darwinism, was really taking aim against the ideology of progress, which for him included the metaphysical faith in teleology — but how teleological Darwin himself was remains a complicated question, and whether contemporary evolutionary theory explains teleology or merely explains it away is still really complicated — at least, I myself am not really sure. (Nietzsche took aim against the modern ideology of progress, it’s worth noting, because he saw it — as John Gray does — as just secularized eschatology.)

    The main problem with ‘progress’ is that it seems to require some standard against which change is to be conceptualized as progress, and then the question is not just ‘what’s the relevant standard?’ but also ‘how do we account for our cognitive access to that standard?’ In the case of ‘scientific progress’, I actually think that those questions can be answered, even in light of Thomas Kuhn. But I’m not so sure that we can answer those questions when it comes to ‘moral progress’ (or ‘regress’).

    To put this thought in a nutshell, with apologies to those who aren’t familiar with the relevant names and texts: we may be able to save Peirce from Kuhn, but not Hegel from Foucault.

  10. 10
    jerry says:

    Kantian Naturalist,

    Again I am certainly not one who claims to understand philosophy or one who studied it but have been introduced to a lot of ideas in recent years which when I was younger would have fried my mind. One is Hegel and it took lectures from about 7 different people before I understood anything about him. But then it became obvious, that as I said above, for good or bad a lot of the modern world is the result of Hegel’s ideas.

    The whole concept of progress itself owes its emphasis to Hegel and Darwin grew up as Hegel’s ideas were permeating Europe. Hegel’s Geist was in a sense, a form of evolution, one that was on a path to a higher end. So the orderly progression of life forms, seemingly upward, was another form of progress, not necessarily to a specific end, that was obvious in mid 19th century Western Society. It was thus in sync with Hegel’s Geist.

    As far as progress itself, there has been several areas of progress that we can measure objectively besides science and technology; for example, economics, management, education, political rights and other areas. If one just looks at the term innovation and what qualifies as innovation, there will be a lot more than science and technology. For example the Mcguffey Reader, division of labor, secret ballot, container ship and the super highway are not science or technology but definitely innovative? The acceptance of the entrepreneur is not science or technology but certainly a cause for a lot of wealth which then facilitated science and technology.

    I agree that there is definitely no good measure of moral progress and I personally do not believe we have achieved much moral progress in the last 200 years in a lot of areas. In some yes but in others, definitely no. I was just commenting on the simplified understanding of the concept of progress and that it misses a lot besides science and morals.

  11. 11
    Andre says:

    I think Kant and Hume messed it up more than anyone else. Everything in modern society can be traced back to the babbling of those two incoherent souls!

  12. 12
    shabidoo says:

    While some secular humanists strive for an open society, more rationality and a certain brand of progress this is most certainly not an essential part of secular humanism nor stated goal of secular humanism. To be a secular humanist is to attempt to put reason above all else, state one’s desire for full separation of church and state and more likely than not show compassion for man and man kind (though the latter is not an essential tenant either).

    There are secular humanists who are also realists and there are those who agree that progress is a myth. Some even state that it’s irrational to fully expect that open society will dissappear. But again, progress is not a stated cause of rational humanism.

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