The Myth of “Secular Reasoning”

The Myth of “Secular Reasoning” April 13, 2018

The Myth of “Secular Reasoning”


I might as well make it clear and let the chips fall where they may; I know some regular visitors to this blog will not appreciate what I am about to say. (I only ask that they observe my governing rules for this blog.)

What do I mean by “secular reasoning” and why do I consider it a myth?

Although I realize there may be different definitions of “secular reasoning,” here is what I mean by it in this instance: “Secular reasoning” would be, if it existed, reasoning without unprovable metaphysical presuppositions. This has been a major aspect of the whole modern, Western project of philosophy and the sciences—to strip away from “knowledge” all metaphysical and unprovable presuppositions and count as “knowledge” only what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt beginning with only universal truths of reason and experience that need no justification and are not infected with bias, perspective or prejudice. This is, of course, also known as “foundationalism.” It is the belief in the possibility of having a “view from nowhere.”

Foundationalism, launched especially by Descartes but moved forward with an empiricist bent by Locke and others, was and is the search for truths of reason alone stripped of dependence on religion, cultural traditions, individual or group biases, narratives, metaphysical beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality behind the appearances.

Of course, foundationalism, secular reasoning, has had its ups and downs and ins and outs; Kant’s was not the same as Hegel’s was not the same as Mill’s was not the same as Dewey’s, etc., etc. There are many spins on it, but they all have in common the attempt to restrict “knowledge” to what can be proven inter-subjectively without anything like faith (whether religious or not).

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end. If you post something here that violates those rules you will be wasting your time because your comment will not be approved in moderation; it will be discarded.*

Postmodernity is all about rejecting foundationalism even if not “secular reasoning.” And yet the two seem to go together. The point being that there is no “view from nowhere;” all knowing involves some degree of something like faith or at least personal perspective. (By “personal” I don’t mean idiocyncratic or individualistic; I mean “view from somewhere” influenced by social location and worldview.) What counts as reason and evidence is somewhat determined by personal perspective.

If you can get it, watch the final episode of the series “The Day the Universe Changed”—a British-made documentary series about philosophy, religion, culture and science. The last episode (10. “Worlds Without End: Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality”) begins in Tibet (or Nepal) and demonstrates how what counts as “knowledge” depends a great deal on culture and there is no one culture that has hegemony over all. A very postmodern perspective and quite convincing.

None of this is meant to undermine truth; “truth is out there.” It is what is real, actual. But no individual or group has a monopoly on it or at least no individual or group can demonstrate convincingly to all reasonable people (whatever that means!) that they do.

When did this turn from foundationalism, the monopoly of Western, secular reasoning, occur? With Ludwig Wittgenstein who famously disagreed with Bertrand Russell and other British foundationalists. According to Wittgenstein and other postmodern post- or anti-foundationalists there is no one over-arching perspective. All seeing is “seeing-as.” Or as Wittgensteinian philosopher R. M. Hare put it, all knowing occurs within a “blik”—perspective on reality that is presuppositional and unprovable. ALL knowing, no exceptions.

A secular humanist cannot explain why human life is more valuable than other life; he/she cannot explain why life is more than “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” And yet all secular humanists believe human life is special, of greater dignity, value and worth than other life. Where is “secular reasoning” in that? That belief cannot be proved even if almost everyone believes it. It is intuitive, presuppositional, perspectival, unprovable. And yet it is promoted by secularists in numerous ways including the ever-popular mantra “the indomitable human spirit.” What is that, pray tell? And what inter-subjective proof is there of it? One secular thinker and writer called humanity a “disease on the skin of the earth.” He was just as correct (in terms of what can be proven or not proven) as those optimistic secularists who speak about the dignity, value and worth of the human species.

Paul Tillich correctly called secular humanism a “quasi-religion.” But isn’t every metaphysical view of reality (and such is inescapable) a quasi-religion in that it includes some unprovable elements of belief—a “view from somewhere”—a perspective?

For those of you interested in pursuing this line of thought further, please read The Myth of Religious Neutrality by Roy A. Clouser (University of Notre Dame Press). Real pluralism, such as even most secular thinkers claim is ideal, necessarily includes every voice having its “say” in public spaces and none excluded. That is not to say, in fact it is to deny, that any voice should have the authority and power to exclude others.

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