I haven’t written a post in a long time, but a couple things have been gnawing at my mind as of late, and I really feel the need to express my thoughts on the matter.
It seems that contemporary man is very adept at spotting fallacies spoken by his religious debating partners. However, the strands of irrationalism that exists in secular circles go largely unnoticed. I believe this occurs because secularism and rationality are virtually conflated with each other, so as to be treated as co-extensive.
But of course, they are not co-extensive. Every belief (so it seems), including the beliefs dear to secularists, tag along with affective, emotive phenomena.
One of the common errors of irrational people is to attribute substantive and rational significance to what is purely affective. I want to suggest that secularists, far from being immune to this sort of difficulty, are perhaps especially prone to it. The reason for this, of course, is precisely because they are not on the watch out: the affective phenomena that arise in their minds when thinking in a secular way are treated as integral to secularism (and therefore, just as “rational”), no less than the thoughts themselves.
Allow me to clarify. Take a hypothetical secularists, “Joe.” Joe is studying astronomy, and in so doing he obtains an ever more profound grasp of his physically miniscule stature, relative to the universe. He is learning facts that are true and have been arrived at by highly reliable means. He is, in fact, engaging in a rational activity. However, certain feelings arise in him (quite distinct from any empirical facts he may be imbibing) in the meantime: first and foremost, there is the feeling that he, and the history of humanity itself, is ultimately insignificant; it makes no real difference what happens on earth.
Now, Joe may be fine at astronomy. But, being a typical pop-secularist, his philosophical training is nil, and he is not accustomed to sorting out such affective activity from his actual thoughts. His affectivity, in his own mind, receives the honorific badge of rationality. The feelings that arise during his study of astronomy are treated as just as worthy of our assent as are the empirical facts he learns. Anyone who disputes with him is irrational and a Pollyanna.
Now, how can we address Joe? I believe we could start by pointing out that any philosopher who gives a high place to human dignity (whether he or she is an Aristotelian, Kantian, Lockean, or whatever), does not do so on the basis of physical size, or physical size relative to anything else. The bases for human dignity that have been proposed include such things as: the capacity for contemplation, for happiness, for virtuous living, for possessing a good will, for enjoying eternal life, etc. At the moment, my point is not to defend any of these conceptions. My only point is that, regardless of philosophical tradition, any thinker who believes in human dignity would rightly regard the physical size of human beings as irrelevant to his thesis. Simply put, Joe has not provided a rebutting defeater for any actual thesis in favor of human dignity.
A more general point we could make is this: there is a simple test that all persons, secular and religious, can and should carry out if they are unsure whether a given sentiment is rational. First, simply take the affective phenomena and express it in propositional form. So, returning to Joe, he should formulate his feeling as a sentence that makes an assertion, such as “Human life is meaningless.” Second, make that proposition the conclusion of an argument. Third, take the observation or activity that prompted the feeling and express that in propositional form, such as “Human beings are physically miniscule in proportion to the universe.” Now, make that proposition one of the premises. So far, the argument looks like this:
1) Human beings are physically miniscule in proportion to the universe
Therefore, human life is meaningless.
Now, how can we complete this syllogism to make a valid argument? The only way is to assert a correlation between physical size and meaning. The proposition would have to be something equivalent to: “The life of anything physically miniscule in proportion to the universe is meaningless.”
But why believe such a thing? Certainly, science itself (the exemplar of wisdom for the secularist) cannot provide an answer: there is no empirical test for worth or meaning. Also, the assertion strikes one as rather arbitrary. If the universe were cut down in size, perhaps by half, would the meaning of my life grow, perhaps by a smidgen? And why? Wouldn’t that be rather mysterious? And isn’t the whole point of the secular perspective to exorcise mystery?
I think it should be clear now, that the feelings which arise when engaged in a secular activity do not deserve extra points, and certainly do not deserve a free pass, compared to the feelings prompted by non-secular acts. We need to be vigilant in spotting affectivity and distinguishing it from actual thought, secular or religious.
There is another species of irrationalism I want to touch on: it occurs when a person places a disproportionate importance upon some belief or another, and thus, is committed to irrationally explaining away any evidence that seems contrary to it. Of course, this is a common error that we all commit, at least from time to time. In fact, it is an exaggerated form of a rational behavior: it is only rational to filter raw data through one’s current “working theory” and likewise to demand higher standards of evidence for giving up those beliefs that are closer to the core of one’s noetic structure (the sum of propositions that one believes in, and their relations to each other), and even to place some items beyond the possibility of being debunked (to give a non-controversial example, the laws of logic).
Scientists do this as a matter of course, particularly during periods of “normal science,” as Thomas Kuhn famously points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thus, when new astronomical phenomena are discovered, the data is not used to test the theory of gravity. Rather, it is interpreted in light of the theory of gravity- in effect, it is made to fit the theory. Likewise, new fossil discoveries do not prompt an attempt to disprove evolution. Instead, the fossils are given their place within the theory. There is nothing wrong with this. It is exactly how rational thought proceeds. Of course, if the new data creates intractable problems for the theory, and if an alternative presents itself, all of this tranquility is thrown out the window (a crisis, possibly prompting a revolution in the field, takes place eventually).
Now, it seems clear to me that secular thinkers are willing to pay very, very heavy prices in order to preserve secular theses: particularly the idea that there is no God, or at least not a personal one, and that there is no soul. Even beliefs which are highly intuitive and central to virtually any noetic structure may be bulldozed in the attempt to protect these materialist theses.
To provide just one example (though several come to mind), it has long been noted that whether there is free will in some traditional sense really depends upon the ontology of man: whether he has an immaterial component (that is, what is normally referred to as the soul). After all, if man is just atoms all the way down, then his decisions and acts are simply a function of prior physical conditions and relevant physical laws. Freedom would be an illusion. This is why most philosophers (who are materialists) either disbelieve in free will or redefine free will so that it does not include the possibility of initiating choice or choosing things other than one does (instead, free will becomes a function of whether one is physically restrained, as in a jail cell, for example. An unrestrained person is free, even though, according to them, he cannot step outside the physical causal chain and choose other than he does).
Does anyone doubt that more traditional, strong views of free will would be more commonplace, if only they did not impinge on the demands of materialism? Of course they would be. But this brings us to ask, is materialism- the thesis that everything is material (there is no spiritual or otherwise immaterial stuff)- really more obvious than the existence of free will in the strong, traditional sense? I fail to see how that is even possible.
To put it another way, each of us has a very strong perception of the personal origin and efficacy of our decisions. So much so, that belief in free will is clearly the default position among us. In fact, even those who disbelieve in free will immediately revert to believing in it, the moment they cease philosophizing.
It seems to me that this is powerful evidence in favor of free will: the sort of evidence that comes to us from ongoing, intractable intuition is just about the strongest we have in such intimate matters. But the materialist, at least typically, does not treat this as evidence to be explained, but rather, to be explained away. Nothing, not even incorrigible beliefs, may stand in the way of materialism.
I say, if free will and materialism are in conflict, then so much the worse for materialism.