Thursday, March 4, 2010

On secular and religious reasoning - what's the difference?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Stanley Fish asks, by way of a book review (Steven Smith's "The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse"), whether there are 'secular reasons' that can stand on their own, independently of any ungrounded presupposition. He writes:

"[T]here are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another...

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it...

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle)... there is no way... to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like 'What are we supposed to do?' and 'At the behest of who or what are we to do it?'

This is the cul-de-sac Enlightenment philosophy traps itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the 'pure' investigation of 'observable facts.' It must somehow bootstrap or engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources that would enable it do so."

Quoting Smith, Fish describes the process of 'smuggling' by which secular reasoning establishes its principles:

"...the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway — but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to."

Fish (and Smith) claim that secular concepts like freedom or justice are, in fact, 'empty abstractions' that mean nothing until we ask to what they are referring. And, the values that guide our notions of equality, freedom, etc. will always be contested. So, it is finally a matter of establishing one guiding set of presuppositions over another, while recognizing that neither set is purely objective or free from bias.

Now, this is not a new argument, and supporters of secularism - often atheists and naturalists - quickly point out that it is a straw man argument: secularists (often synonymous with 'scientists') never claim to be completely objective when it comes to making decisions about how people ought to live. But what they do claim is that scientific research provides the best source of clearly repeatable evidence, and that evidence should be the primary guide for determining our decisions, since it's the best source of common sense we have.

In other words, secular values are supposed to be based on as straightforward a presupposition as possible, and scientific evidence provides a pretty straightforward answer. For example, we know that human beings are sentient and have emotions. Common sense would say that treating other human beings with dignity is a moral good, since it provides for a more stable coexistence between humans, and the possibility of a more productive shared future.

This all seems fairly clear and correct, as far as it goes. And most religious values actually cohere fairly well to secular values, as long as we stay within the realm of shared dignity. (For example, it is a well-known fact that all the major religions include some variation on the teaching, "Treat others as you would like to be treated.")

But now we get to the tricky question: Why do we assume that what is best for the survival of the human species is actually the highest good? To a secularist, such a question would probably sound ludicrous - after all, all we can do is make decisions as human beings, and all beings want to survive, so doing what is best for our species will ensure our continued survival. Pretty simple, right?

But, religion asks the question anyway: Why should we accept the secular presupposition? Why assume that the pragmatic decisions we make as human beings, on behalf of the species, using scientific evidence, are the best way to determine values? Of course, this opens up a Pandora's box of value possibilities that secularists are wont to shred with Occam's razor. But that only seems to beg the question. Does the simplest explanation really work when it comes to decision making? The correct answer would seem to be: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

This much is clear... If man is not the measure of all things, we have to look for another way to measure. And that is - to say the least - a very contested topic. And this, I suggest, is the true source of all the contention between the secular and the religious, between 'reason/science' and 'faith/belief.' The secularist wants to limit the realm of action to that which is testable and objectively true across the human spectrum. The religious wants to limit the realm of action to that which results from their particular value system. Clearly, this will always result in conflict.

Perhaps the best way to resolve this impasse is to move beyond the limitations found in any attempt to systematize values based upon presuppositions, and simply restrict ourselves to the realm of shared dignity. But this undoubtedly would feel dishonest to many believers. There is one other option: each person or group might start to take their values seriously, and then let the clash begin. Would all-out battle lead to an outcome more conducive to all parties? Or would one view simply be killed off by another? Which would be more valuable to our species, in the long run?

Addendum: For Christians, who believe that the highest value is self-sacrificial love, does it matter? Aren't we supposed to 'lose our lives,' regardless? Perhaps part of the problem is that we have forgotten what our faith is really about, or we don't really believe it. I think most of us don't fully believe what we claim. After all, in a clash of values, Christians will always be the 'losers', since we are supposed to love our enemies. And that means they will probably gain the upper hand, humanly speaking. But the fact that Christianity is so dead-set against ceding any ground in the 'culture wars' shows that we are far less concerned with loving our enemies than with protecting our status and comfort.

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CrisisMaven said...
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