So What?

I have been kicking a dead horse of late in the form of the movement that started in the 14th century and which has been called “humanism.” This movement went head-to-head with Christianity for many years — especially in the form of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, which, for all intents and purposes humanism defeated. But humanism also died. Following John Carroll’s lead I made some pithy comments about the death of humanism which he and I both lay at the feet of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx — both of whom played pivotal roles in the scientific revolution and in the growth of capitalism which in many ways define our shallow “commodified culture” and certainly lay to rest any notion anyone might have about the possibility that humanism still lives. It does not.

But a comment by a reader of the last of three posts on that topic said, in effect, “so what?” The reader feels that the humanities in the colleges and universities. for example, are dead because there is no longer any call for them; students don’t want to study esoteric subjects that will not lead them directly to jobs, etc. To be honest, I wasn’t writing about the death of the humanities as academic disciplines in the colleges and universities which have been dying for many years. I will simply say that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, were designed to help young people think, to help them gain possession of their own minds, regardless of what job they undertake. What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools. Let’s leave it at that.

I would rather turn to the larger question of the humanistic movement. So what if this movement has also died out?

The problem lies not so much with humanism itself but with what humanism brought to the table, historically speaking. Let’s focus exclusively on the fact that humanism generated the Enlightenment and at the height of the eighteenth century, when humanism was in its glory the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental works defending the role of human reason in ethics. One of his books, in fact, was titled Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. He defended the place of reason in determining right and wrong which he thought were no longer capable of being defended by the Roman Church or its Reformers. Christianity may have died out as a cultural force, thought Kant, but we no longer need it to do the right thing. With reason alone, following the categorical imperative, human beings were capable, Kant insisted, in determining in any given case which course of action was “in accordance with duty” and therefore morally right. The Kantian ethic, together with remnants of the Christian ethics combined to create in the Western world a moral high ground from which it was possible for anyone who made the attempt to determine in a given case what he or she should do.

With the death of humanism — and anything like the Kantian ethics — the notion of the moral high ground was leveled. Virtues such as courage, wisdom, justice, human rights, all notions that the humanists regarded as self-evident, were replaced by “values,” which were regarded as relative if not subjective. No longer universal in their appeal, values come and go with the winds of change and the level moral high ground provided no one a place to stand in order to see clearly what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, right and wrong have disappeared along with the moral high ground. And with it such virtues as courage, civility, honor, and chivalry, the virtues that Don Quixote fought to defend, have been lost — perhaps forever. Thus, even before Kant took up his pen the hero of Cervantes’ novel was made to look ridiculous, even mad, in his attempt to defend the virtues that were already beginning to disappear.

Today there are no more Don Quixotes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last man to defend the moral high ground. All around us lie the dead husks of that humanism that gave those virtues and indeed morality itself breath. What we have today is pragmatism, a careful calculation as to which course of action will turn out best for me in the short run. Reason simply calculates and for growing numbers of people compassion for our fellows has been lost along with  those virtues that were predicated on helping others, or as Quixote would see it, helping those who cannot help themselves.

There are remnants left of the Kantian and the Christian ethics, to be sure. But they pale in comparison with the virtues that Quixote defended. Humanism died and along with humanism the commitment to human reason that can lead us, along with centuries of tradition and various religions, to universal truths about right and wrong also died. So when we ask “so what?” we ask “why be moral?” The two questions amount to the same thing.

 

Advertisements

Stupid!

One of the very few sit-coms I watch on the telly is “Young Sheldon,” the spin-off from “The Big Bang Theory.” It stars the truly remarkable child actor Iain Armitage and is in many ways more delightful (and funny) than its predecessor.

Young Sheldon is a nine-year old Sheldon Cooper who likes to brag (even in Church with his Fundamentalist mother) that he doesn’t believe in God: he believes in science. This is amusing when it comes from the mouth of a small boy sitting next to an adult, but it is also a bit stupid. As Pastor Jeff tells Sheldon in an exchange they have in Church, even some of the most brilliant scientists believed in God — to wit, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. In another episode, Sheldon comes across Pascal’s wager in which the brilliant mathematician explains that it is smarter to believe in God than to disbelieve in God because those who believe will be rewarded while those who do not cannot be. And even if God doesn’t in fact exist, those who believe will have lived better lives. This is a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea.

In any event, young Sheldon, for all his intelligence, has committed the fallacy of bifurcation: either God or science, not both. But why not both (ask Einstein and Darwin)? Indeed, it is a bit stupid to insist, as so many intellectuals do, that there is only one way to know anything and that is the way of science. This, of course, is what has been called “scientism,” and I have written about it before; it commits the fallacy of poisoning the well. That is to say, it rules out the possibility that there are other ways of knowing and it ignores the uncomfortable fact that there may be things we simply cannot know — mysteries, if you will. This, too, is stupid. We have already encountered two fallacies in the minds of those who, like young Sheldon, insist there is only one way to know.

But it is equally stupid to ignore the findings of science, including medical science — such things as evolution and climate change, for example. Science can deliver us a great many truths that simply cannot be denied without being completely stupid. And it is perhaps the fact that many people who identify themselves with religion insist that science is the work of the devil that intellectuals don’t want to acknowledge that there could be any semblance of truth in religion. This is guilt by association. Those people conflate the differences among religion, organized religion, and faith. This, too, is stupid — as Pascal would attest. But the fact is that a great many people who insist that faith is the only road to the Truth are as stupid as those who think science is that road. Either road requires a form of denial and an assumption that our way is the only way. There may, in fact, be many roads.

In a word, there are, as Hamlet tells us, a great many things in heaven and earth which we cannot explain with science. There are limits to human truth. But there is truth and it is available to those who are willing to search for it; while a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, the unexamined life is not worth living.  And the start of that search begins with the acknowledgement that we do not know everything and may never know everything. Not in this life, anyway.

It may well be the case that we will only know the truth after we die. Heaven may consist of a world in which the Truth is revealed to us. And Hell, of course, may be a place where truth is denied and everyone tells lies, a world in which everyone makes everything up as they go along and in which there is nothing whatever that is solid and we are surrounded by incessant confusion and uncertainty — a world of Donald Trumps, if you can imagine.

In any event, I have no problem whatever accepting the very real possibility that I do not know everything and that there are things which I simply must accept on faith. But I also believe that there are things that are true, things that stand on a solid base of empirical evidence and intuitive truths that simply cannot be denied. In the end, though, there is only one certainty and that is that there is no absolute certainty. That much I do know.