Reply to Haughness

Published in The Humanist (July/August 1993) in response to Norman Haughness, "Postmodern Anti-foundationalism Examined: A Reconciliation Refused."

Although Haughness claims that I was attacking a straw man in "Humanism and Postmodernism," his response to it is a good example of the foundationalist sentiment within humanism that I wanted to critique. As much as he accepts the basic points of anti-foundationalism – that there are limits to reason, that there exists no Archimedean vantage point, that there are no final philosophical underpinnings for beliefs, and that a commitment to science doesn't get things ultimately right – he nevertheless clings to science as the guarantor of humanism, as something which might give it a privileged status in the marketplace of belief.

No one disputes the intimate connection between secular humanism and science, but whether that connection is at all foundational is questionable. Secular humanism and science arose conjointly, both part of an Enlightenment culture which freed itself from theological presuppositions. They each express the same impulses towards discovery, individualism, and agreement by consensus, and they are both naturalistic. But precisely because they represent different aspects of a single cultural revolution, one can't serve as the basis for the other.

Haughness says, "we should adamantly insist on the superiority of scientific knowledge to all 'knowledge' claiming other bases." For purposes of prediction and control of the world around us, hardly anyone would contest this superiority, but how can science serve the additional purpose of lending credibility to humanism? If we define humanism narrowly, as simply that set of beliefs about the external world which science warrants, then the support of science for humanism is clear but tautological. But if, more realistically, we define humanism as a broad, and not necessarily atheistic, commitment to tolerance, democracy, diversity, free inquiry, individualism, and human rights, then it's apparent that good science is only possible as a result of this commitment. Therefore science can hardly serve as humanism's conceptual foundation or justification.

Why does humanism have, as Haughness puts it, "a claim on our credulity?" Not because science backs it up, but because humanism champions some of our most basic drives and desires, those which constitute the quest for human flourishing and discovery, both personal and collective. Science is just one part of this quest, and its language and method are not terribly well suited to the rhetorical defense of humanism. True, science best teaches us the lessons of fallibility and corrigibility, but we won't win many converts preaching those lessons, important though they be. The appeal of humanism has to be to the gut: "There is a big, bright, strange, and wonderful universe both within us and outside us to explore. Cast off your limiting preconceptions and follow us, or lead if you dare!"

The challenge to explore is not just in science, but in the arts and humanities as well, where there are no quantifiable standards of evidence or correctness. Proper conduct in these disciplines can't be prescribed by science, nor can science dictate the shape of democratic or parliamentary institutions, much less the goals of a culture as it faces the 21st century. Yet humanism is involved, or should be involved, in all these domains. The guides to humanistic action here cannot be scientific, but must flow from the somewhat nebulous but vital notions that consensus should be achieved non-coercively and that individual differences and the freedom to express them matter greatly. It is only within a culture which incorporates such notions that science can establish itself as the paradigm of non-partisan inquiry.

Although Haughness cites reason and rationality as another source of credibility for humanism, these cannot lend any special authority to our agenda. I believe (following Hume) that reason is the servant of desire, and (following Peter Strawson, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others) that rationality operates within a context of prerational assumptions and values. Rational agents can – and unfortunately often do – pursue values quite antithetical to those we cherish, so it's clear that an allegiance to rationality per se doesn't necessarily predispose anyone to humanism. (For supporting arguments see my "Relativism and the Limits of Rationality" in the Humanist, January/February '92.)

Haughness is also wrong to suggest that I have evaded the question of standards. I have only tried to show that the standards that guide humanism are internal to us as biological and cultural beings, not conveniently written anywhere in science, philosophy, or religion. This doesn't render the standards any less compelling, since as I said, quoting Stanley Fish, they constitute us. If it were suddenly discovered that the whole edifice of science was fraudulent or misguided, would that significantly change what we want in life? Would we cease being humanistic in our approach to the problems that currently beset us? I strongly doubt it.

Haughness makes the charge that anti-foundationalism is debilitating, and that it passively accommodates "the practices of Christian Science, Nazism, purdah, and every other unreason-based ideology." Anti-foundationalism could only debilitate us if it could pry us loose from our fundamental convictions, and this is quite impossible. Why? Because these convictions are not ideological, they are not arrived at by the consideration of evidence, or by consulting authoritative texts. Rather they are the expressions of some basic, prerational aspects of our humanity, aspects which are not about to wither away in the face of postmodern skepticism about foundations. Nor will anti-foundationalism lead humanists to passively accept practices they find abhorrent. After all, it is the intrinsic horror of the practices that motivates our opposition to them, not our ideological security in science or philosophy.

Haughness is worried about the fate of humanism, should we deny its purported basis in science. But why suppose that only those wedded to naturalism, Occam's razor, and experimental falsifiability can carry the torch of the humanistic enterprise? We can only suppose this if we identify humanism with science and naturalism, but humanism is far larger in scope than either of these, broad though they be as a methodology and as a world view. Humanists are of many stripes, and the majority, perhaps, are not strictly naturalistic or scientific in their convictions. What identifies them and unites them is not an ideology or a philosophical foundation, but a shared set of values concerning freedom, diversity, inquiry, and how consensus is best achieved. To adamantly insist that humanists toe the scientific line mistakes one version of humanism for its essence, and will only alienate those we need as allies for the fight against intolerance.

Finally, in response to Haugness's suggestion that my position is "trendy", I would simply reiterate what I made explicit in the original article: that anti-foundationalism and pragmatism are deeply rooted in our philosophical tradition and so are not about to disappear overnight. Of course it's true that the ill-defined melange of attitudes, theories, and cultural criticism called postmodernism will eventually be superseded by some other equally ill-defined melange. After all, we in the West like to think there's progress, which means that there's got to be some new, and better, thing on the intellectual horizon to latch onto. But the anti-foundationalist insight will not cease to be relevant as the changes come and go, since it can best explain these changes. It reminds us that our convictions and desires don't reflect a final truth, philosophical, religious or scientific; nor do they need validation by such a chimera. Rather they are a function of our biological and cultural situation as it develops, destiny unknown.

©   Thomas W. Clark 1993