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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dawkins and Dennett did NOT invent the term "bright"

I'm sure most of my regular readers already know this, but Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett did not invent the term "bright" - used as a noun to mean "person with a naturalistic worldview". I'm sick of seeing this claim, made explicitly or insinuated by other wording that links them to the term. The fact of the matter is that, yes, they gave the term some support in articles that they published in 2003 (in The Guardian and Wired magazine in Dawkins' case and in The New York Times (available along with Dawkins' Guardian piece at the Edge) in Dennett's case). But they did not coin it.

The term "bright" was first employed by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell when they launched the “Brights movement” early in 2003. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, it was actually thought up by Geisert the previous year. Be that as it may, the idea was to find a positive-sounding word for people who have a naturalistic worldview, analogous to the word “gay” for homosexuals. It is supposed to be a word with uplifting connotations, as with cheerfulness and bright colors ... and thus much like "gay". 

Hence the word is supposed to be a positive label for a class of people whom Geisert and Myngell saw as despised. Geisert and Futrell have maintained that the main basis for selecting the word is its association of philosophical naturalism with the Enlightenment.

This coinage may or may not have been the, um, brightest idea, considering how it has been used ever since as a stick to beat atheists and philosophical naturalists. But it was not coined by the high-profile atheists it's so often associated with. And a fair reading shows that they gave it some support not as an arrogant boast of intellectual superiority - something that they explicitly address and disclaim in the articles I've linked to - but in the hope that the word would operate much like the word "gay" if it got a bit of a help along.

That may or may not have been a misjudgment on their part. Maybe coining this new noun accomplished some good. But anyway I'm sick of reading inaccurate - and I suspect often downright dishonest - claims about it.

As for whether philosophical naturalists really are more intelligent, on average, than the general population, there's some circumstantial basis to think they are, at least in populations where the opposite view is held by default (and usually arrived at through indoctrination/socialisation). In any such population, there's more chance that a person with a naturalistic worldview will have arrived at her position through intellectual inquiry rather than some non-rational process. But this is, as I said,  circumstantial, and in any event it does not suggest that theists and others with supernatural beliefs are stupid or that none of them arrived at their positions by intellectual inquiry. Doubtless some did.

In some populations, the situation may even be reversed for various reasons (it certainly seemed that way when I was at high school, where most of the smartest kids happened to be Christians, partly because of socialisation but partly because it was the most readily available set of answers for inquiring minds in a social milieu that was godless, and even anti-religious, by default).

But the take home message here, regardless of whether philosophical naturalists are, on average, smarter than the general population, is that that was not the primary meaning of the coinage "bright" - and the coinage came from Geisert and Futrell. Give the credit or the blame where it's due.


Bruce said...

Agreed. Very much agreed.

latsot said...

Yeah, I see this a lot too, alongside much wilful misrepresentation of what the Brights movement is all about. It's such a silly, spiteful attack that I find it more disappointing than annoying.

My guess is that the movement has had some positive influence in bringing people together and helping people to realise there are others like them. Like many people, I've never felt very comfortable with the name simply because of it's connotations. For one thing, it just seems to take so much explaining. But I always liked the idea and I couldn't think of a better word either.

The situation with the word "gay" was different to that of "bright". When it shifted from its original to its sexualised meaning, it acquired negative connotations: carefree in the sense of having undesirably loose morals. It kept this connotation when it shifted again to become more exclusively applied to homosexuals. A success of the gay rights movement was to adopt the word in the spirit of its original meaning, brilliantly subverting it back again.

Perhaps a term has to go through this kind of subversion before it can be credibly used in this way.

Even 10 years ago, the skeptical movement - and even the concept of a skeptical movement - was nowhere near as coherent as it is now. As many people as ever were sceptical about a wide range of things, but fewer would call themselves Skeptics with a capital Sk. There were relatively few places to go and talk about rational thinking, fewer conferences where it was promoted and even many ardent skeptics were less well-equipped with the mental toolkit we need to identify and fight nonsense.

The term 'skeptic' is certainly often used in a pejorative sense and now we're more of a community than ever, perhaps the term is undergoing a subversion from skeptic as joyless baby-eating cynic to skeptic as rational thinker.

So who knows: perhaps "Skeptic" will one day become the positive term to describe rationalists in the way "Bright" never quite managed.

Until then, I'm proud to consider myself a Bright, even though I don't really use the term and get weary of explaining it.

Tom Clark said...

The noun "naturalist" seems the logical choice to designate someone who holds a naturalistic worldview. It's descriptive, long been used in exactly that sense by the philo-scientific community (since at least the late 1800s), and is easily disambiguated from other senses of naturalist, either by the context in which it's used, or one can say "as opposed to supernaturalist" or say as you do here "philosophical naturalist."

Myron said...

According to the official definition, a Bright is someone whose worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements. This is certainly true of all naturalists, who believe that there isn't anything supernatural. But it is true of agnostic or indifferent neutralists as well, and naturalism is not a neutral position; so not all Brights are naturalists: they are either naturalists or neutralists. But both naturalistic and neutralistic Brights are nonsupernaturalists. But, again, even though all naturalists are nonsupernaturalists, not all nonsupernaturalists are naturalists.

Myron said...

Actually, there are two official definitions:

* A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview.
* A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.

According to the first definition, agnostic or apathetic neutralists aren't brights, whereas, according to the second definition, they are. Unfortunately, Brights Central, i.e. Futrell&Geisert, don't care about this incoherence.

Myron said...

Note to my comment above:
If "a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview" is replaced with "a bright is a person who has a nonsupernaturalistic worldview", then the incoherence disappears; and then both naturalistic and neutralistic (agnostic) nonsupernaturalists count as brights.

Wonderist said...

@Tom Clark: When pressed--which is quite rare, actually--I use the term 'natural' as a replacement for 'bright' and/or 'naturalist'. And then I offer Dennett's 'super' as a term for supernaturalists. This way, they get to be the 'supers' and we're just the 'naturals', so it's pretty hard for them to find that offensive unless they are hell bent to be offended.

@Myron: If someone is a non-supernaturalist, how can they be anything other than a naturalist? This is like theist and atheist. Those who don't 'believe in gods' are simply those who 'don't believe in gods'.

The only way to be a non-super and non-natural at the same time is if you are an epistemological/ontological nihilist. "I don't believe in the supernatural and I don't believe in the natural either." My question would be: "Why are you talking?"

c'est ma said...

Isn't it great when the self-styled rationalists are themselves spreading hearsay? Thanks for this apparently much-needed setting straight of the record.