What’s it means to be a “Bright”?

May 14, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

I recently received the following, with regard to my endorsement of Brights (see the link at the bottom of the right column):

“[I’m] not sure about being a Bright though…its not healthy to believe there’s a clear answer to everything, or isn’t one at all.”

Because this not the first time a person has sincerely responded with concern at the term “Bright,” I decided to respond. 

The following characteristics of Brights are set forth at http://www.the-brights.net/ :

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview.
  • A bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.

1) None of these principles requires that I have “a clear answer to everything.”  I really don’t have a clear answer to most deep questions.  Part of the reason I established this blog is therapeutic–it gives me a chance to bat things around with this blogging community, with the hope that we will get closer to the truth.  What is truth?  I see truth as a process, not a destination.  I also see it a matter of working through many perspectives (though some seem more useful and functional than others).

2) None of these Brights principles requires me to believe that there “isn’t [a clear answer] at all.”  I’m truly not a nihilist.  I do think that we have some good solid knowledge about many things. It’s no small feat to develop a knowledge base that allows us to design planes that fly and buildings that stay up.  On the big deep questions, though, I am also a big believer that we should have the courage to say “I don’t know” whenever there is insufficient evidence to carry us further.  I’m not totally opposed to speculation, though.  I love to speculate, but I try to label it as such whenever I engage in it.  I’ve recently set forth some additional ideas regarding the limits of science, however.

Brightness is a big tent.  This worldview would include many atheists and agnostics to be sure, but it would also accommodate the beliefs of many people who would characterize themselves as spiritual or religious. 

According to the Brights site, Brights include “a gamut of folks (Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Episcopalians) who maintain their religion’s cultural aspects but not its supernaturalism.”

The question, in my mind, is whether a person is willing to boldly step outside of the mainstream naturalistic worldview to assert supernatural beliefs to be literal truths.  To the extent one does this, one would not qualify as a Bright.

In sum, I don’t claim clear answers to everything, nor do I claim that there are not any clear answers in life.  My endorsement of the Brights is not meant to imply either of these things.

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Category: Meaning of Life, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. rebecca says:

    Okay, I understand your point and do agree with you to an extent…however you appear to have raised another issue from this:

    "This worldview would include … the beliefs of many people who would characterize themselves as spiritual or religious … who maintain their religion’s cultural aspects but not its supernaturalism.”

    Although I am agnostic, I believe very much in the Buddhist/Taoist philosophies, and the way of life these encourage. Would I qualify as a Bright? To be a Bright means my world view would have to "be free of mystical elements" …what about meditation? When I am meditating, I don't think I am free of mystical elements: I believe I'm full of them (then again, what do you mean by 'mystical'?). I'm on the edge of a whole other plane or sensation. However I would say that these sensations when meditating come from within and not some external, controlling force.

    When you move on to "assert[ing] supernatural beliefts to be literal truths", do you mean if I had unshakeable faith and belief in the many Buddhas' as being real 'people' who exist on this earth in many different images – or if I still believed in what they represent and their myths/stories but didn't believe that they actually existed – would this be the deciding factor? Clear me up on this one!

  2. Jake says:

    i am suspicious of naturalism. is not naturalism the position that everything can be explained by reducing it to some explanation that is (in principle at least) in accord with the laws of science and part of the physical world?

    if so, how do we explain number, morality and a feeling like love? these are not 'natural' things.

    sure, we can say that love is just the chemical reaction of things buzzing through our brain, but that is not satisfactory because it misses out the most important part: what it FEELS like to feel love. for example, we may be able to explain the process of seeing the colour red, but this brings us no closer to understanding the "redness" of red…. such entities called "qualia" in philosophy of mind, and they are a pain in the ass for philosophers who wish to reduce the mind to a purely physical/scientific level.

    morality, similar. as Hume said, there is nothing that we can actively point to which is "immoral". the moral element supervenes upon physical things and IS NOT directly caused by them.

    number. we can count 2, 3, 10 objects in the real world. we can group them together by putting them close to each other, or drawing a ring of chalk around them…. but the actual number itself. that is not identified just by group of objects…. the only way out is to claim that "number" as a "thing in itself" does not really exist…. but this poses problems of its own!!!

    finally, a general point: how you distinguish what is natural from what is supernatural? if what is supernatural is what is unexplained by science, then science can merely be silent upon it…. there is not such thing as what is scientifically unexplainable because what we know about science can always change and advance to the point where something can be explained scientifically.

    also, it is a dangerous approach because it encourages intellectual conservatism. it encourages us to embrace what we already know and be mistrustful of methods and theories that are currently untestable…. if this were the standard then electricity would still be considered to be supernatural, and Einstein's general relativity would have never have been proved!!

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    To Rebecca:

    Like I suggested, the Brights have a big tent. I'd suggest that you take a look at their FAQ's. Is it always crystal clear what qualifies as supernatural? No, there are gray areas. Is such a dividing line (between natural and supernatural) still helpful? Yes, because there are many clear cases. Jerry Falwell would not qualify as a Bright.

    Meditation? I don't know . . . Many centuries ago, we had lots of possessed and demonized people running around who are now evaluated more completely (and more humanely) in terms of chemical imbalances. You seem to be assuming that your meditation experiences are beyond the reach of all possible naturalistic explanations. I won't be around 100 years from now, but science might have a few things to offer you that will convince you that those meditation experiences are of the same explanatory fabric as the other things science has successfully explored and explained.

    I'm not sure that "supernatural" things (literally, things that are beyond nature) can, by definition, be explained at all. Perhaps you'd rather that science left such things like meditation alone. That's certainly a perspective, though it's not MY perspective.

    Jake:

    Brights don't necessarily limit themselves to seeking reductionist explanations (though maybe some Brights might be thoroughly reductionistic).

    I happen to be a believer in the mechanistic model of explanation, which combines at least two approaches to studying the world. The mechanistic approach is also entirely consistent with the Bright's outlook. The first approach to the mechanistic approach is reductionism, boiling down larger phenomena into their interrelating smaller parts. The second approach is that of complexity, where higher level phenomena can be seen to be constituted of numerous smaller parts that don't appear to bear much resemblance to the macroscopic end-products they constitute. On the one end of the mechanistic tool kit, you'll find things broken down into smaller parts and on the other you'll find emergence and self-organization. For more on the mechanistic approach, check the writings of William Bechtel.

    In sum, "naturalism" is not synonymous with reductionism, although reductionism is certainly consistent with naturalism. Love and morality are proper targets for science to explore, in my view. If science deals with these things properly, they won't simply be swept under the rug by those who want to deny their existence. For science to be successful, these things must first be seen in new richer inter-connected ways, as well as in traditional ways. You'll still be able to fall in love and act morally, though you might also see these things in new lights too. You'll both have red and you'll better understand the qualia of red. That is what I understand by naturalism.

    Nor do I have any need to diss grandmas and ice cream cones in favor of the molecules that comprise such things. Maybe someday we'll be able to more fully understand lot of things on a variety of levels. My main point, though is that being a Bright does not carry a commitment to being a rampant reductionist.

    I can't come up with a clear line dividing ALL natural things from all supernatural things. Again, though, many of Jerry Falwell's favorite things would be of the latter type, making him NOT a Bright.

    I don't embrace any conservative version of science, nor do I see the Bright approach to harboring any commitment to stodgy science. In my vision (a vision that is entirely consistent with being a Bright), science is committed to constantly moving back the veil of ignorance, always bringing new mysterious-seeming things into the fold of things that can be seen/correlated/explained in terms of those things that are already known.

  4. Erika Price says:

    I need help with this whole "Bright" thing. I know another self-identified "Bright", and I've seen the website, but I fail to grasp what such a labeling system achieves. It seems to me like just another term synonymous with "free thinker". Why label oneself with a term that you have to explain, that means the same thing as words you already might have used to describe yourself? As far as I can tell, calling oneself a "Bright" changes nothing, since the group of people that call themselves "Brights" don't have any formal organization or real initiatives put into place. Sure, the "Brights" have goals, but it sounds to me no different from the idealistic hopes of any well-meaning free thinker, secular humanist, or any other similar term. I would really like someone to explain to me the purpose of becoming a Bright, instead of just explaining what Brights stand for and what the term means.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika:

    I see it as this. To call one's self an atheist or agnostic comes with lots of baggage. The conservatives have successfully hijacked our language so that calling youself either of these things brings along a strong connotation that you are immoral or degenerate. The conservatives have successfully convinced many people that people CAN'T be moral unless they do nice things only because they fear going to hell. I don't agree that being nice to other because you'll otherwise go to hell is a higher version of morality. See http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=42 .

    I also think that the Brights movement is an attempt to state a worldview as a positive. Rather than saying I don't believe X or there is insufficient evidence to believe Y, Brights come out of the gate embracing a naturalistic world view; that is what they DO believe.

    You're right, that nothing magic flows from this. There is no specific political agenda, for instance. Just a request to be noticed as people who embrace a naturalist world order. I find it easier to say with head held high than to say that "I'm intellectually an agnostic yet I live my life as an atheist." Instead, I now say that I embrace a naturalistic worldview (complete with it's limitations, of course).

    I hope this answer your question. Other "Brights" might see it differently.

  6. Erika Price says:

    Sorry for the late response to this, but I wanted to let you know, Erich, that I read it and appreciate the response. The concept of having a 'positive statement" makes a lot of sense, as does the regrettable baggage associated with athiesm/agnosticism. However, I don't think any label that you use will make the conservatives appreciate your view any more than they already do, so they really don't deserve that kind of consideration. At least the connotation associated with "athiest" still comes pretty close to what the term actually means, unlike "feminist", for example.

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