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Monday, April 25, 2005

The end of faith, part two

Last week I posted an excerpt from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith – an excerpt that I rather like.  Harris’s aggressive secularism had a curious effect on me: I am so very sick and tired of Christians in the United States complaining that they are discriminated against, that their professions of faith are not permitted in the public sphere, that liberal “elites” do not give them their proper respect, et cetera, et cetera, that I felt a kind of guilty pleasure at Harris’s sweeping dismissals of most of the world’s religions. 

And then I came to Harris’s chapter on philosophy, and his sweeping dismissal of American pragmatism:

The pragmatist’s basic premise is that, try as we might, the currency of our ideas cannot be placed on the gold standard of correspondence with reality as it is.  To call a statement “true” is merely to praise it for how it functions in some area of discourse; it is not to say anything about how it relates to the universe at large.  From the point of view of pragmatism, the notion that our beliefs might “correspond with reality” is absurd. . . .

If all of this seems rather academic, it might be interesting to note that Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden’s favorite philosopher, felt that pragmatism would spell the death of American civilization.  He thought that it would, in [Paul] Berman’s phrase, “undermine America’s ability to fend off its enemies.” There may be some truth to this assertion.  Pragmatism, when civilizations come clashing, does not appear likely to be very pragmatic.  To lose the conviction that you can actually be right – about anything – seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I believe that relativism and pragmatism have already done much to muddle our thinking on a variety of subjects, many of which have more than a passing relevance to the survival of civilization.

In philosophical terms, then, pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism.  For the realist, our statements about the world will be “true” or “false” not merely in virtue of how they function amid the welter of our other beliefs, or with reference to any culture-bound criteria, but because reality simply is a certain way, independent of our thoughts.  Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know about them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view.  To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered – and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them.

This, folks, is a simply stupefying passage.  It would be one thing to come across it in a book that called for a return to the Eternal Verities and the restoration of respect for figures of authority; it is quite another to read it in a book that demands that we should have no beliefs of any kind for which we do not have empirical evidence.  Look at that last sentence again: moral philosophy is to be construed as analogous to physics, and philosophers are the people who discover the objectively true principles of the moral universe (where “objectively true” means “existing independently of human perception and understanding”).  In effect, Harris’s book demands that we get rid of all religious beliefs . . . and hand ultimate interpretive authority in moral matters over to the philosopher-kings who will “discover” the way morality “really” operates out there in the universe.

Especially fulsome is Harris’s suggestion that we should abandon the philosophical tradition that runs from John Dewey to Richard Rorty because Sayyid Qutb may have been right to consider it degenerate.  I simply don’t see how this counts as a legitimate form of argument; after all, Islamists have disdain for any number of features of contemporary American life, and one does not see secularists of Harris’s stripe rushing to condemn homosexuality, clean-shaven men, and women wearing tank tops.  It seems very strange that Harris would find “some truth” in Qutb’s understanding of American culture in this one respect, especially since pragmatism – in the words of its proponents, not the words of its enemies – represents nothing more or less than an attempt to secularize philosophy, to insist that moral principles are artifacts of our own invention, and not “discoveries” of previously unuttered statements floating around in the ether or buried deep within the Earth’s crust.

Once again, pragmatism is not relativism, and pragmatists are not barred from claiming that they are right about “anything.” Pragmatists simply insist that there is no antecedent, final goal toward which our moral principles are moving, and no moral principles that exist independently of all human perception.  For some reason, many professional philosophers like to believe that we must consider philosophy as analogous to physics, and that we ordinary folk must agree with them that they are searching not merely for moral propositions that might prove to be both persuasive and beneficial to humankind – injunctions against slavery or torture, perhaps, both of which strike me as good ideas – but in fact for Platonic Ideas that are lying out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.  I can understand why many professional philosophers would want to believe this, but I cannot understand why any one of them would propose this conception of Truth as an antidote to, of all things, religious fundamentalism.

And what happens to the person who believes that he has not merely invented a potentially persuasive and beneficial proposition, but, rather, discovered an objectively true fact about the moral universe?  How does he deal with people who disagree with his interpretation of what is “really” true in the world?  Does he understand them as people with competing plausible interpretations of what is really true, people who must be persuaded otherwise by means of discourse, or as people who are simply possessed by Error and who cannot be considered moral agents at all?

It’s worth remembering that one of the reasons Richard Rorty espouses Deweyan pragmatism is that he thinks of it as a check against precisely the kind of philosophical hubris Harris displays here in The End of Faith.  As Rorty writes in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”:

Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books.  For I learned something that still seems very important: to distrust the intellectual snobbery that originally led me to read them.  If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls “a full presence beyond the reach of play,” for a luminous synoptic vision.

By now I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and a vision is a bad idea.  The main trouble is that you might succeed, and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on that the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings.  The democratic community of Dewey’s dreams is a community in which nobody imagines that.  It is a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters.  The actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species.

Nothing in Rorty’s conception of pragmatism prevents one from condemning slavery or criticizing religious fundamentalism.  And everything about this conception of pragmatism allows one to suggest that Harris’s espousal of “realism” is a recipe for moral intolerance and philosophical arrogance.

OK, I’m off to Washington, D.C. for a couple of days.  Might blog, might not.  If I happen to discover any universally true moral principles along the way, I’ll be sure to let you know.

UPDATE:  For those of you who might be interested in such things, I published a pragmatist defense of disability rights/ citizenship rights a couple of years ago in Dissent, and it looks something like this.

Posted by Michael on 04/25 at 09:49 AM
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