Secular reason is an empty shell, says Fish

Stanley (“There Is No Truth”) Fish

In an article at the New York Times blog, the thoroughly evil Stanley Fish makes an argument in which I do not immediately detect anything evil. Drawing on the work of law professor Steven Smith, Fish says that secular reason is completely incapable of providing us with any reason to do anything—any “ought” or “should,” any normative standards whatsoever. Therefore policy decisions cannot be based on secular reason alone. (Heather Mac Donald, call your office.) To make a policy decision, there must be an idea of what is desirable and good; and secular facts by themselves cannot provide such an idea.

But since secular men reject any source of knowledge apart from secular reason, and since they need normative notions in order to reach any policy decision, where do they get them? Says Smith:

… the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway—but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

Fish continues:

The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction—to even get started—“we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations—to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.”

This, of course, is something I have said a thousand times. For example, I have pointed out (e.g., here, here, and here) how Darwinists constantly employ notions of teleology and purpose which Darwinism itself strictly prohibits. It’s not just that teleology is needed to supply moral norms. Without teleology, it is impossible even to give an intelligible account of a biological phenomenon, because the human mind is so constituted that it cannot make sense of any phenomenon without the belief in an end toward which that phenomenon tends. That’s why Darwinists constantly utter such things as, “The species adapted itself to its environment,” or, “Male lions seek to spread their genes by killing the children of other male lions,” when, according to Darwinism itself, all species including lions are nothing but machines controlled by their inherited genetic programs and cannot have any purpose whatsoever, whether to adapt themselves to their environment or to spread their genes or to do anything at all.

See also my writings on the unprincipled exception, in which I show how liberalism cannot supply the normative understandings that are needed for the conduct of life, and therefore people are constantly availing themselves of non-liberal sources of value without explicitly admitting that they are doing so. The reason they cannot admit that they are doing so is that liberalism, being a comprehensive ideology, prohibits any appeal to non-liberal principles. The amazing upshot is that, outside of matters of simple necessity, such as, “I ate because I was hungry,” liberals are incapable of clearly stating the reasons why they do anything.

But now the question arises, how does Fish’s article, which on the surface contains nothing evil but seems quite sound and entirely in keeping with traditional moral reasoning, serve Fish’s evil agenda?

Fish says that since secular reason cannot provide any norms, the norms need to come from some other source, for example, religion. But Fish, as we know (though he doesn’t mention it in this article), believes that the moral systems provided by religions or other cultural traditions have no truth value and are merely the function of some race, class, nationality, culture, demographic group, generation, or ideological fashion. There is no truth, there is only what is emergent and dominant in a given time and place. So when Fish says that human beings follow a source of norms beyond secular reason, he is not saying anything he hasn’t been saying all along. As Fish sees it, the norms people follow are themselves nothing but the product of whatever happens to be dominant and powerful in their society. There is no neutral, objective reason. All people, whether they admit it or not, have some prior metaphysical commitment. But that prior metaphysical commitment is, according to Fish (though he doesn’t say so in this piece) entirely contingent. In Fish World, everything comes down to the assertion of will. Whichever group has the most force behind it, in terms of numbers, fashion, immigration-altered demographics, or whatever, will impose its “truth” on the society. For example, Fish believes in liberal norms; he thinks that to restrict immigration on cultural or ethnic grounds is evil. On what basis does he believe this? On no basis at all. He believes it purely as an assertion of his own will, which, happily for him, happens to be backed up by the prevailing demographic and ideological forces which have been moving America in a more liberal direction, in the process providing Professor Fish with professional prominence, a very handsome living, and endless amounts of self-regard as he continues his life-long campaign to destroy the belief in truth.

So, while Fish’s critique of secular reason for its inability to supply moral norms is useful, we should never mistake Fish for an ally of traditionalism.

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Ben W., who sent me the article, writes:

Stanley Fish discusses in today’s New York Times that secular reasoning doesn’t have a leg to stand on, because it cannot supply any value to validate its own statements. He doesn’t say that secular reasoning is possible; he states that it is impossible.

In other words take Darwin, Marx, Jefferson, Obama, all liberals, all socialists, all secular conservatives (like George Will) and throw them in the garbage can. That’s what it essentially comes down to.

But we knew that all along since we’ve been saying that all and any concepts that have value are parasitic—dependent on religious values.

According to Fish, you cannot make a single statement of value from a secular viewpoint. Absolutely impossible. What supreme irony coming from a postmodernist. But then postmodernists detest liberals anyway.

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Sage McLaughlin writes:

Only Lawrence Auster could have written this line:

“In an article at the New York Times blog, the thoroughly evil Stanley Fish makes an argument in which I do not immediately detect anything evil.”

Thanks for that, Larry. I needed it this morning.

Lydia McGrew writes:

I thought you might be mildly interested in this post of mine about Stanley Fish when he was ranting against anti-abortion conscience clauses. It’s funny how some people want to rehabilitate him somehow as not being so bad or as being on our side or something. I can’t understand why they do this.

LA writes:

Here is the section on Fish in Lydia’s 4W entry, which is from last April:

Contra the implication of one of our commentators here less than three months ago, and with all due respect to that commentator, Stanley Fish is not some sort of deep-respect-deserving “pilgrim” gradually moving in a pro-life direction. About as far from it as possible. On the contrary, Stanley Fish is so pro-abortion that he doesn’t like the Bush rule because, heaven forbid, it provides some measure of protection to doctors who refuse to be involved in the taking of human life, and Fish thinks they should be forced to be thus involved as a matter of “professionalism.” In other words, Fish is a pro-death ideologue for whom “choice” means only the choice to kill.

How bad is it? Well, you can read the post, if you can stomach it. It’s so bad that Fish says that if doctors bring conscientious considerations into play they are violating the entire premise of Western civilization according to which “religion” must be “sequestered” in a “private sphere.” Such doctors are also violating the “rules that define the profession [they’ve] signed up for.” So, let’s get this clear: 1) Any conscientious objections to performing or referring for abortions, for example, are ipso facto religious. Strike one. 2) It’s essential to the continuation of our civilization that considerations of conscience be completely “sequestered” from all public transactions. Well, heck, so much for professional ethics. Strike two. 3) The requirement that one be willing to be involved in killing innocent people is, and is presumed by Fish to have been for some time, one of the “rules” of the medical profession. Strike three. He goes so far as to say that doctors who dare to refuse to be involved in such actions are being “sectarians” rather than “citizens.”

Timothy D. writes from Canada:

That article expresses why I agree with you fundamentally. Reason argues from interests according to one’s premises. Pick your premises and voila! your “reasonable” results ensue. Choosing your premises—or as I would prefer to say—accepting your particular revelation—is the basis of value and of what becomes valued in consequence of that acceptance.

One can argue about the relative merits of revelations, and one can compare and contrast revelations by their social results. But truth stands outside and informs reason. You cannot get value from reason. Some other process of the soul is required.|I think Eric Voegelin said a lot of true, illuminating and useful things in this regard.

If I do not express myself well, be generous towards my intentions in this matter.

Gintas writes:

“In Fish World, everything comes down to the assertion of will.”

You never mentioned it, so maybe you were fishing for it from us, but that sounds like run-of-the-mill nihilism. As soon as I saw the caption Stanley (“There Is No Truth”) Fish I knew it would come down to Fish revealing his truth to us. What he really wants to do is to alienate us from our traditional source of truth and move us into the orbit of his source of “truth.” So devilishly typical that it’s in the New York Times. In this case, NYT also means Not Your Truth.

Ingemar writes:

Isn’t it interesting how whenever a modern liberal reasons through his premises he always ends up with this very Nietzschean “ethic?”

But that’s what VFR has been saying all along. The main reason I reject liberalism is that either of its bases—moral democracy or the will to power—have historically been shown to be flawed and/or thwartable. Truth, if it exists, exists apart from ourselves.

Timothy D.’s observation is very apt.

Paul K. writes:

The picture of Stanley Fish you have at the top of the page is my concept of what Orwell’s Big Brother should look like. On book covers and in the movies, Big Brother always has a stern, Stalinesque visage. I think the smarmy, cold-but-smiling, “Leave it to me, I know what’s best” face of Stanley Fish is more appropriate.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

I have been following the Stanley Fish thread, and it reminds me of a story that Peter Kreeft (the Catholic popularizer of philosophy) likes to recount in his speeches on moral relativism. He once was arguing with two young women his class about abortion, saying that abortion is not distinguishable in any meaningful way from infanticide. After class, they approached him, saying that he had convinced them. “Oh, so you’re pro-life now?” he asked excitedly. They answered, “No, we’re pro-infanticide now.” Stanley Fish has undergone something like that. Seeing secular humanism for the total facade that it is, and seeing that epistemological relativism must lead to moral nihilism, he does not reject these things. Rather, he embraces both their premises and their consequences, and becomes a nihilist himself. He is not saying, “See, secular humanism cannot justify moral truth, therefore there is something wrong with it.” He is saying, “See, secular humanism cannot justify moral truth, therefore there is something wrong with the notion of moral truth.” This is why I think you are justified in thinking Fish is not merely mistaken. He is culpable because he sees and experiences moral truth just like the rest of us, but he knowingly rejects it in favor of his own unbridled will. This is knowing disfigurement of the soul. This is evil.

N. writes:

Because I avoid reading Stanley Fish and the newspapers he appears in, there is much I do not know. From the tiny sample provided, it appears that he is rather Nietzchean in outlook, with all that emphasis on “will”. Does this make him a gnostic as well, given his apparent desire to remake the world as he sees fit?

If I’ve wandered into a semantic minefield, please give me a break.

LA replies:

As I mentioned in the initial entry, Fish does not state in this column the objectionable view which he has frequently stated elsewhere and for which I call him evil. That view is implied, however.

V. writes:

Longtime reader and atheist here. Working on becoming a believer in Truth, but alas one cannot will faith into being. It will come with time.

I worked my way to a similar conclusion to Fish’s while reading your work. Without transcendence there is no logical or rational basis for morality. End of story.

I believe that the “evolution” of Fish might very well be heartfelt. After all, it is logical. It follows from Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose’s powerful four stage model of nihilism as applied to morality. Once one advances past Liberalism and Realism (the first two stages), strict adherence to standards of truth are no longer necessary, other than as practically required. Then why not believe? In essence, Vitalism (the third stage) and Pascal´s wager combine to render atheism moot. After all, if morality is necessary to your well-being (it is) and belief in Truth is necessary for morality (it is), then what is the reason to not believe in truth (there isn´t one). The alternative to “Pascal´s U-turn” as we might term it is plain: The Nihilism of Destruction (the fourth stage). [LA replies: could you briefly explain the terms Pascal’s wager and Pacal’s U-turn?]

It does not matter that there is structure to the mind (as the EvPsych people will correctly point out)—within that structure the diversity of outcomes is huge. It does not matter that atheists are generally well-adapted people, as they cannot rationalize their well-adaptedness without creating the parallel gnostic dream world that align their Christian-derived morality at least somewhat with reality. And even the Gnostic dream worlds are hollow—denial of uncomfortable truths only go so far.

This is why atheism should not be seen as a problem by traditionalists. Atheism is part of the path back to faith. Treat atheists with patience and respect and help them choose the correct fork on the road as they transition out of realism.

Rose put it well himself:

Atheism, true “existential” atheism burning with hatred of a seemingly unjust or unmerciful God, is a spiritual state; it is a real attempt to grapple with the true God Whose ways are so inexplicable even to the most believing of men, and it has more than once been known to end in a blinding vision of Him Whom the real atheist truly seeks. It is Christ Who works in these souls. The Antichrist is not to be found primarily in the great deniers, but in the small affirmers, whose Christ is only on the lips. Nietzsche, in calling himself Antichrist, proved thereby his intense hunger for Christ….

Finally: Thank you for helping me find my way back to the truth.

Kristor writes:

You say:

Without teleology, it is impossible even to give an intelligible account of a biological phenomenon, because the human mind is so constituted that it cannot make sense of any phenomenon without the belief in an end toward which that phenomenon tends.

And this is true. But it must also be emphasized that the justification of the possibility of giving an intelligible account of the world must go deeper than the admitted fact that our minds are so made as not to be able to interpret nature in any other way than in terms of final causation. [LA replies: Uh-oh, I see what’s coming, I sounded like a Kantian, mea culpa.] If it were just a matter of how our minds are constituted, that would suffice to compel us to admit finality to our theory of things. But it is not. The central question is about the nature of reality, not about the nature of our minds. If we stop at the nature of our minds, our argument has the whiff of a Kantian abstention [LA replies: ah ha!] from any assertion about the absolute, objective character of reality, quite apart from how our minds happen to be built. It is only a little better to say, as indeed we also should, that our minds are fitted to reality—whether by evolutionary adaptation or Divine Providence, if there be any difference—this being the only way they could be useful to us in making our way through the world; so that the structure of our minds is a good indication of the structure of reality. For while this too is true, it argues only that the structure of our minds is an indication of the structure of reality. It leaves open the possibility that other minds, differently built, might be able to make good sense of reality without recourse to finality; in which case, how would we decide which sort of mind gave us the most accurate index of the structure of the world?

To lay all our doubts about whether nature is teleological finally to rest, we need a stronger argument, that does not depend upon the structure of our minds. So far as the materialist is concerned, the argument from the structure of our minds begs the question, which is: is there any thing to understand? Is there a truth out there to be discovered, an inherent rationality to things that may be comprehended by by us? Stanley Fish and all his ilk say, “no.”

V. replies to LA:

Of course—I hope you will excuse me cribbing from Wikipedia:

Pascal’s Wager (or Pascal’s Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

… and hence “Pascal’s U-turn” becomes the process by which Pascal’s Wager causes the Vitalist, freed of his devotion to materialistic truth, to seek out faith once again. After all, why not? [LA replies: Interesting. That’s clever. Is “Pascal’s U-turn” your idea?]

Again, thank you for an excellent blog that has been very important to my thinking. To me, as a godless European living in a society where religion has been thoroughly destroyed, every ray of light is crucially needed.

V. replies:

You wrote:

Is “Pascal’s U-turn” your idea?

As far as I know. No hits on Google at least. ;)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 23, 2010 07:32 AM | Send

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