On being skeptical of skeptics, cont’d.

There must be something in the air.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Stanley Fish writes that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, former defender of Enlightenment rationality, has turned around and joined those criticizing it; his latest project, a dialogue with Jesuit academics entitled An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age, is an attempt to “rescue” secular reason by borrowing a useful sense of purpose and motivation from religion, without accepting its “teleological and eschatological underpinnings.” Fish thinks this isn’t good enough:

Why would secular reason, asked only to acknowledge a genealogical kinship with a form of thought it still compartmentalizes and condescends to, pay serious attention to what that form of thought has to offer? By Habermas’s own account the two great worldviews still remain far apart. Religions resist becoming happy participants in a companionable pluralism and insist on the rightness, for everyone, of their doctrines. Liberal rationality is committed to pluralism and cannot affirm the absolute rightness of anything except its own (empty) proceduralism.

The borrowings and one-way concessions Habermas urges seem insufficient to effect a true and fruitful rapprochment. Nothing he proposes would remove the deficiency he acknowledges when he says that the “humanist self-confidence of a philosophical reason which thinks that it is capable of determining what is true and false” has been “shaken” by “the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” The edifice is not going to be propped up and made strong by something so weak as a reminder [of reason’s shared roots with religion], and it is not clear at the end of a volume chock-full of rigorous and impassioned deliberations that secular reason can be saved. There is still something missing.

Except that we do not need an “absolute rightness” to be moral — not the baseless secular dogmas of communism or fascism, and certainly not the unverifiable absolutes proposed by institutional religion, as millions of good, kind, and decent nonbelievers demonstrate everyday. And “the catastrophes of the twentieth century” were caused not by upholding true reason (i.e. arising out of liberalism and science), much less by upholding humanism, but by abandoning those principles. And liberalism — as Tim Ferris has written — is not merely pluralism but a commitment to free expression and conversation, which is necessary in order to evaluate which values and ideas are better. How do we know which ones are better? By seeing what their effects are when they’re implemented in the real world. By observing how people act, and the consequences of those actions (Do people flourish? Do people suffer?). In other words: by experiment, by evidence, by science. Far from suffering from an “empty proceduralism,” liberalism and secular reason are buttressed by science, a point which Fish downplays or misses entirely.

The comments section is worth reading, and it’s interesting to see a lot of pushback from readers; I haven’t gone through all of them, but I tend to agree with this one, from the blogger Ehkzu:

Fish’s entire (and rather prolix) argument rests on the unspoken assumption that there’s no such thing as human nature. We’re a blank slate, wandering purposely over the landscape until we fall over a cliff and expire meaninglessly — unless Religion writes Purpose on that blank slate.

Um, there is such a thing as human nature, however. And it give us purpose aplenty, built right into our DNA, there for the taking. Fish should spend more time observing people and less time wandering about in his philosophical cloud.

This is just one more example of the patronizing condescension of religious intellectuals towards those they define as “secular humanists” — a term crafted to describe the religion we lack instead of the life we have.

I personally don’t have anything against the term “secular humanist,” but point taken.

Here is part of a more detailed response from the blogger stillnotking at The Forvm:

Fish continues by averring that “science goes its merry way endlessly inventing and proliferating technological marvels without having the slightest idea of why” — this is quite typical Fish, an attempted sound bite that is ninety-nine percent content-free and one percent wrong. “Science” is not an entity possessing ideas or plans, and scientists have the same motives as anyone else. Dr. Salk might be surprised to hear Fish’s evaluation of his work, and so might the patients whose lives he saved. Moving on, Fish broadens his nonsensical criticism to the “counterpart of science in the modern world”, the “Liberal state”, which, he alleges, views the moral actions of its citizens with “indifference”. This gobsmacker might be taken as some kind of bizarre thought experiment, if not for the fact that Fish claims in the very next paragraph that its consequences “can be seen all around us”. Indifference? Tell the two and a half million Americans in prison that the state views their actions with indifference! What can Fish possibly mean here? Well, the only context in which Fish’s claim makes any sense at all is the context of moral transgressions which are recognized by Fish’s religion but generally not recognized by liberal states, such as blasphemy and sodomy. And now we are another step closer to illuminating the true underlying argument: Fish is decrying not an absence of moral strictures (no human society ever has had or will have such an absence), but a mismatch between how the typical inhabitant of a liberal state sees morality and how Stanley Fish believes he should see it.

The solution? Unsurprisingly, Fish and Habermas argue that modern societies need to embrace their religious roots. […] Here Habermas, clearly saner than those who cite him, begins to get cold feet: he says he is not advocating a return to theocracy, but a sort of reciprocal disarmament in which the forces of religion acknowledge reason’s material contributions and the forces of reason acknowledge religion’s moral primacy. […] The trouble with this, of course, is that the acknowledgment of moral primacy is the whole ball of wax. Arguments over proper social order are moral arguments, not material ones; laws are not written by scientists but by kings and politicians who justify themselves through various forms of moral appeal. To say that we should be ruled by a religious sensibility is to say that we should be ruled by religious experts.

So: what are Habermas and Fish trying to “rescue”? Simply put, they are trying to revive a social order in which moral authority is the exclusive province of religious professionals, and the reasons for this authority are deemed off-limits to questioning. More accurately, they are trying to rescue a particular aspiration (and what is morality but aspiration?) to a social order, heretofore unrecorded by history, in which this arrangement works as advertised — works better than the tolerant, democratic, individualistic, rational aspirations of the modern liberal societies they deplore. I would like to emphasize, and I hope Habermas, at least, would agree, that this would represent a type of society heretofore unrecorded by history. What actually happens when you invest a priestly class with this degree of influence is that its power is horrifically abused: we see this writ large in the Dark Ages, and writ small in the current sexual-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church.

That Fish and Habermas consider such an authoritarian moral order to be an essential feature of the human race is merely a grandiose assumption which they do not, and cannot, justify. For my part, I doubt that “the substance of the human” is in any peril, and I am very glad that the door of secular reason, once opened, is not easily shut.

As am I.

As I’ve written before: We may never discover absolute truths, but that doesn’t mean every idea is valid; some ways of being in the universe are better than others. The more I read and think on this, the more I’m convinced that liberalism, skepticism, and science are the best tools we have to show us what those ways are.


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