William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

New Term For “Brights” Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins

A New Name

The “brights” are at it again. What is a “bright”? It is not, as is by now well known to contemporary thinkers, the opposite of a “dim”, a “dark”, or a “slavish, easily led idiot.”

No. A “bright” is a “is a person who has a naturalistic worldview [one which] is free of supernatural and mystical elements.” Further, the “ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.”

In plain words: an “atheist,” a label brights reject, for the same reason some feminists despise the term “history”—their enemies form part of the words.

When this merry band of illuminators, these light-bringers to the world first formed, many objected to their appellation, finding it insulting, demeaning, and just too damn cocksure. I cannot agree with these complaints.

Words are not static, their definitions shift with time, mood, culture. Any fully educated person should be able to track the subtle shifts in meanings of simple words. So when brights tell us that they are not to be thought of as “smart-asses who rub their self-awarded superiority in our faces”, it is our duty, not theirs, to understand exactly what they do mean.

But if anything, the relabeling efforts of the brights to distinguish their uniqueness does not go far enough. For one, there is no shade of science in “bright”, a connotation I am anxious to restore. I believe I have found a way.

Now, everybody knows what an “ass” is: an obstinate, stubborn but strong, high-endurance animal. Well, how about let’s define a “hole” as an impenetrable abyss, a place of secrets just waiting to be illuminated by a “bright.”

If we were to concatenate these two words together, we’d have a new creature which is generously defined as “a stubborn seeker, a stalwart investigator, an uncoverer of knowledge.” I think this appellation can be affixed to philosopher and bright Daniel Dennett, a man who has called religious instruction in the young “child abuse.”

The term surely also applies to Dennett’s frère d’armes Richard Dawkins, at least for his insistence that memes are real and not merely metaphorical devices. Dawkins also “shudders” when thinking of how we still allow parents to raise their own children how the best think fit.

Remember! Whenever you hear this concatenation, you are charged with keeping its new meaning firmly in mind. You must not let any prior definition or connotation distract you from its definition. This is now a positive word, to be used as a compliment, and in no other way.

Positive Assistance

My new word is also meant to boost the self-esteem of brights, to help heal the schizophrenia from which they suffer, a malady no doubt caused by the constant, exhausting explanations in which these fine folks must engage with the less bright.

This two-mindedness has grown to possibly dangerous proportions. For example, in a recent email to me, the lead brights, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, said,

Belief/nonbelief is NOT the focus of the Brights community. Ours is a constituency of individuals. There is no intent to have an identifiable common core of beliefs that “all Brights” have to share. There is no manifesto to which the Brights of many stripes must give heed. There is only a (type of) individual worldview broadly shared. Simply put – No supernatural or mystical elements are present in anyone’s (any Bright’s) worldview.

If that wasn’t self-contradictory enough—brights all share but simultaneously deny the common-core belief that supernatural elements are improper guides to life—they go on to lament:

Texas Ratifies Conservative Curriculum (USA)

The Texas state school board gave final approval to controversial social studies standards that minimize the separation of church and state. The changes could have reverberations far beyond the Lone Star State’s schools and its 4.7 million students.

The state’s large textbook market has traditionally led the way for others; at minimum, Texas students will get very different history lessons than does the rest of the country, as early as next year. Many teachers, academics and politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned the standards.

See what I mean? What else but mental disease would explain a group which anxiously tells us that they have no “identifiable common core of beliefs”, while also warning us about which bits of history a Texas school board chose to emphasize? And why would they label such choices “conservative”?

I have to tell you, my bright friends, that the average reader will come away from your writings convinced that atheism and “progressivism” go hand in hand, that it is impossible to avoid religion and also vote Republican.

This is a marketing—or “branding”—problem, one which is solved easily by adopting my new moniker.

23 Comments

  1. This, from Daniel Dennett who proposed in “Consciousness Explained” how a sort of “survival of the fittest” operates on the thoughts that occur in our heads and how the “fittest” finds expression in our consciousness while the others “die”. And this was, somehow, in fact, “consciousness” itself. It doesn’t need to be supernatural to be nonsense.

  2. From a fan of yours: this article is disappointing and beneath you.

    Normal services to be restored soon I hope.

  3. Two quotes directly relevent to this item come to mind:

    1) “brights” as called/suggested here are clearly a class of intellectual, and Eric Hoffer observed regarding this breed:

    “One of the surprising privileges of intellectuals is that they are free to be scandalously asinine without harming their reputation.”

    2) H. L. Menchen had some observations on “skeptics,” which the “brights” noted here tend to also align themselves both directly & by association — Menchen’s observations seem as relevant now, in much the same way, as back then (1920s):

    “This has been the main effect of skepticism in the world, working over long ages: that it has become gauche and embarassing to admit certain indubitable facts. Their unpopularity is due not to their destruction or abandonment but simply to the forensic talent of the skeptics, a bombastic and tyrannical sect of men, with a great deal of cruelty concealed in their so-called love of truth. It is not altruism that moves them to their assaults upon what other men hold to be precious; it is something no more than a yearning to make those other men leap.

    “The skeptics, pursuing this immemorial sport, have driven certain congenital beliefs of the human race under cover, and made them furtive and apologetic. When they tackled the belief in witches, two or three hundred years ago, it was as respectable as going to church; now it is so dubious that those who continue to cherish it keep the fact to themselves. In the course of time, perhaps, they will reduce the belief in democracy to the same disrepute, but I don’t think they will ever obliterate it.

    “However, there is no call to deplore this essential failure of skepticism, for so long as it succeeds on the surface it succeeds for all practical intents and purposes. Human progress is never complete, but only partial: the upper level moves much faster than any below it. We see before us, even in this year of the enlightenment, how vigorously the larger masses of mankind resist accepting the veriest commonplace of scientific knowledge. What every schoolboy is supposed to know, as he knows that the world is round and that the sun rises in the east, is actually forbidden by law in two American states.

    “What is too often overlooked is that even Christianity, after two millenniums of ostensible acceptance by all the more civilized nations of the west, is still but imperfectly assimilated by nine Christians out of ten. Certainly no one would argue seriously that its ethical principles are anywhere put into practice in the world today; even its chief spokesmen abandon them at the first temptation, as in time of public war or when they are themselves engaged in controversy with other spokesmen. The old pagan ethics have been driven under cover by an assault comparable to that made by the skeptics, but they are still there, and they crop up whenever the band begins to play, or there is a dollar to be made. So on the theological side. The lofty and somewhat tenuous mysticism of Christianity is nowhere converted into an actual way of life, save by small groups of odd persons; on the lower levels, though it is official, it has little reality. When the test comes it always turns out that the majority of men actually believe in something far more elemental. The hell they fear goes back to Pleistocene times, and so do the demons. And the God they profess to venerate is hard to distinguish from the Grand Juju worshipped in the swamps of the Congo.”

    FROM: Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 157-160.) “On Human Progress” by H. L. Mencken (from the Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1927); http://www.mencken.org/text/txt001/elliott.leo.1998.mencken-01.htm

  4. Rich,

    Not so much nonsensical as unuseful. Try substituting “most probable” for “fittest” may help you get what he meant. What ever is in the forefront of our thoughts pretty much makes up what we call “conciousness” so his statement amounts to a recitation of definition thus not particularly explanatory of anything.

  5. Re: brights and progressivism.

    At the conclusion of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,Mr. Dennett ends up suggesting that the task of preserving traditional religions in the modern world may be comparable to the task of preserving otherwise-inviable species of animals in zoos, and claims that he has articulated a more sophisticated pantheism that is the rational alternative to irrational religion. [pp. 519-20]

    So: In the ‘natural’ course of things, religion will disappear, and we’ll generously keep a few remnants of it in zoos. But also, apparently, those pesky unbright parents are refusing to make religion inviable rapidly enough.

    Mr. Dennett is impatient for the ‘natural’ turn of events. So, ‘naturally’, Something Must Be Done so that Natural Progress can proceed apace. Those parents must be labeled — how about, “child abusers”?

    Then we can put in zoos everybody who interferes with Natural Progress.

    And then Mr. Dennett can be right all along. See! Religion is inviable!

  6. World views become religions. Holders of misbegotten world views have been known to initiate holocausts, war, and universal health care. Out of world views, agendas grow. Now, we can get to the moral equivalency stuff. How bright is bright?

  7. John, why is this article “beneath” Mr. Briggs?

    I found it to be bright. Those like Dawkins need to be pointed out for the vacuous, self-absorbed, walking shadows that they are.

  8. DAV, I don’t have his book to hand just now but I’m pretty sure he proposed that ideas might be thrown up simultaneously by different areas of the brain in response to a given circumstance which would then “compete” with one another to be the thought that was thought and by a process like natural selection the “fittest” would become what we thought we thought. It wasn’t a matter of probabilities as I recall. I thought at the time that what he was doing was putting evolution’s cloak on a crap idea and hoping its borrowed authority would get him by. Not the first person to find evolution in all the wrong places.

  9. I object to Briggs using the first half of that suggested name to identify “brights” because the organ described by the word’s secondary meaning performs a useful human function. To use that term as he suggests is to imply “brights” might also be useful in some manner, a concept with which I struggle.

  10. For myself, I cannot accept religion. I’ve turned away from it, and nothing could drag me back to it. I believe it to be utterly false. That said, I’m very uncomfortable to find myself in the camp of Dawkins, et al.

    Dawkins believes in abortion at will, under any circumstance. James Randi, a wonderful man, has totally succumbed to Dawkins’ talk of “brights,” as if it were really true. Randi tried to mention (cringingly) on his website, that there was another side to the CAGW debate. His own readers excoriated him.

    They label themselves “brights” and “skeptics.” However, you’ll find that they’re not very skeptical of proggie / lib / socialist / commie-style politicians. Most of them lean way left, with the rare exception being Penn Jillette.

    Dawkins is brilliant, of that I have no doubt. Why, then, must he forgo even the pretense of serious ethical debate on important issues such as abortion, CAGW, etc.?

  11. Are brights allowed these days? I only ask because here in the EUSSR incandescents are banned and we can only get those dim but expensive whirly things.

  12. Rich,

    I suppose you could interpret it that way but I’m pretty sure he was referring to the model of various subsystems competing for attention. For example, hunger is a signal that you need food and pain is a signal that something is wrong somewhere but if either occurs while being chased by a tiger, they may be quite secondary to other thoughts which are more directly concerned survival such as the methods of fight or flight. Assume a gradation of this in every situation. I’m fairly sure this is what Dennet had in mind. After a fashion then, thoughts are prioritized which is a form of competition resolution. Note that people even have specialized language for this such as something being in the back of one’s mind, having a nagging suspicion/feeling, etc.

  13. Leonard Weinstein

    1 June 2010 at 2:00 pm

    I find this essay insulting and ignorant. I am basically conservative in most of my views and basically Republican, but I do object to strong emphasis on religion, sex, and moral issues pushed by some conservatives and republicans. Personal belief is non of the business of any government, or any group to be imposed on others. By the way, by the definition given here, I am personally a bright. Please note, I am also a strong skeptic on CAGW.

  14. Briggs,

    Did you intend
    ¨how theY best think fit,¨
    when you offered
    ¨…to raise their own children how the best think fit¨?

    Leonard,
    What is ¨…and basically Republican¨?

    Great explication; thanks.

  15. Briggs

    1 June 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Leonard,

    Oh, it’s a joke. Plus which, I do not believe you are a “bright” as they define the term. I’d bet—correct me if you have to—that you would not class raising a child in one’s religion “child abuse.” My attempt at humor might have missed the mark, but Dennett’s oft-made comments aren’t even close to funny.

    I’d also bet that if you spent some time trolling around on their site, you’d come to the conclusion that you were not a “bright” at all. Despite what their motto is, they practically—i.e., by actions—define “bright” as “progressive”, or at the least, “left wing.”

    Last bet: you, being a sweetheart, would not dare walk into a conversation and announce, “Say, fellows, I’m a Bright and you’re not.”

  16. Thanks for the link. I’m amazed that the term ‘The Brights’ has been resurrected, or perhaps continued. When first floated some years ago it was greeted so derisively I assumed that it had been abandoned forever.

  17. Eric Anderson

    2 June 2010 at 1:03 am

    Ah, yes, the “Brights” silliness. What a hoot. Dennett and cohorts would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragically serious.

    Regarding the related analogy you made, it seems a key reason some individuals object to the word “history” is because they haven’t a clue about its origin. I recall back in my law school days reading a diatribe by a self-proclaimed enlightened feminist against the word “history” as an example of the male-dominated, female-repressed culture. I was, and remain, astounded that anyone could be so clueless as to latch onto the existence of that word as an affront to women, particularly since the letters “his” in the word have nothing whatever to do with the English masculine possessive pronoun. By the same failure of logic I can easily come up with a bunch of similarly “offensive” words right now off the top of my head:

    this
    mandate
    manifold
    demand
    manifest
    mantra
    etc., etc.

    It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

  18. Eric Anderson

    2 June 2010 at 1:07 am

    HumanPersonJr wrote:

    “Dawkins is brilliant, of that I have no doubt. Why, then, must he forgo even the pretense of serious ethical debate on important issues such as abortion, CAGW, etc.?”

    Repeat this sentence to yourself several times and then perhaps a hint of cognitive dissonance will become visible. More specifically, on what basis do you think Dawkins is brilliant? Based on anything substantive he has offered, or based on his literary skill? Should we still consider him brilliant if he cannot or will not address serious issues?

    No response needed, just askin’ . . .

  19. Leonard Weinstein

    2 June 2010 at 7:33 am

    John R T,
    Basically a Republican means that when I consider all issues of the two parties, I find the Republican position closer to my position. By the way, when there are other choices, I may select them. I voted for Ross P. when he ran.

    Briggs,
    I do not fit exactly in any one narrow position, so you are right I am not exactly what you defined as a bright. I am married to a Christian, and my family has their preferred beliefs. I would not object to bringing up a child in a religion. However, you must admit that many of the worlds problems through history come from religious positions of different groups. Much of the good that comes from religion could be taught in a non religious way as it is philosophy and does not require belief in the supernatural.

  20. DAV, OK, I’ll read the book again. You just had to go and make him sound reasonable, didn’t you.

  21. I’ve taken to telling people that identify themselves as Brights that I am a “good”. They seem not to like that much.

  22. David Alan Evans

    4 June 2010 at 7:00 am

    I STILL don’t know what a bloody bright is

    However, theologically, I am an agnostic.

    When my stepson was disparaging about Christianity, I told him he can’t criticise that which he knows nothing of. To my dismay, he became a Christian. Ce la vie.

    DaveE.

  23. Nice, mr Briggs….

    I actually agree with all the contempt displayed there… I have little sympathy for such hypocrisy, specially in the midst of fellow heretics :).

    I always hated the word, bright, and no single amount of any reasoning you will ever write will bring me to accept such a terrible “cocksure”, I’d say arrogant, labeling of a “type” of human folly… for I also accept your other theory that all mankind is insane, and if atheism is a human thought, then it must also be insane.

    Well. It’s an insanity that I share with some people, and I sure won’t be calling it a “bright” state of affairs… ever.

    My compliments to everyone :).

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