Are There Secular Reasons?

Stanley_fishStanley Fish in the NYT (via Andrew Sullivan):

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. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.

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) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, 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?”

Smith is not in the business of denigrating science and rationalism or minimizing their great achievements. Secular reason — reason cut off from any a priori stipulations of what is good and valuable — can take us a long way. We’ll do fine as long as we only want to find out how many X’s or Y’s there are or investigate their internal structure or discover what happens when they are combined, and so forth.

But the next step, the step of going from observation to evaluation and judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible, says Smith, for the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand. 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.”

Russell Blackford and Norman Geras respond.