Some Links & Thoughts-What Am I Missing?: Skeptical Humanist Criticism & Loyal Opposition

Roger Scruton from a few years ago, here:

‘That noble form of humanism has its roots in the Enlightenment, in Kant’s defense of the moral law, and in the progressivism of well-meaning Victorian sages. And the memory of it leads me to take an interest in something that calls itself “humanism,” and is now beginning to announce itself in Britain. This humanism is self-consciously “new,” like New Labour; it has its own journal, the New Humanist, and its own sages, the most prominent of whom is Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and vice-president of the British Humanist Association. It runs advertising campaigns and letter-writing campaigns and is militant in asserting the truth of its vision and its right to make converts. But the vision is not that of my parents. The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal. It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity; is scathing about patriotism; and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents. Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness. My parents too thought belief in God to be a weakness. But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.’

Well, some humanists didn’t care much for the article.

This blog has been gathering thoughts over the years, something of a curio shelf of skeptical criticism and loyal opposition to much old and new humanism.  Admittedly, I have at least one foot in the water, so to speak.

Scruton on scientism in arts and the humanities:

‘It is true that the theory of the meme does not deny the role of culture, nor does it undermine the nineteenth-century view that culture properly understood is as much an activity of the rational mind as is science. But the concept of the meme belongs with other subversive concepts — Marx’s “ideology,” Freud’s unconscious, Foucault’s “discourse” — in being aimed at discrediting common prejudice. It seeks to expose illusions and to explain away our dreams. But the meme is itself a dream, a piece of ideology, accepted not for its truth but for the illusory power that it confers on the one who conjures with it. It has produced some striking arguments, not least those given by Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell, in which he explains away religion as a particularly successful but dangerous meme.’

There seem many uses for the terms scientism and rationalism should individuals accept a generally humanist, secularly liberal worldview.  There are many people untrained in the sciences, committed to some concept of (S)cience according to their moral lights.

Some of these folks might just as easily turn against the sciences and return to modern myth, Romantic primitivism and anti-science sentiment depending upon current political winds and changing ideological commitments.

It seems many profoundly thinking Atheists, scientific naturalists, critical and careful thinkers, for their part, in seeking truth, as well as ideas which can possibly scale and unite human beings together, also have their blind spots.

In helping to expose much folly and institutional rot on the political right, or within the Catholic Church or Islam (courage, people), for example, there tends to be more reluctant focus on what can happen beneath the banners of the ‘-Isms’ (feminism, environmentalism, anti-humanism).

It’s a rather strange game to seek capture of the institutions whose legitimacy one rejects according to one’s moral lights, believing in a totalizing ‘Patriarchy’ while unsurprisingly, finding totalitarianism around every corner:

Charles Murray lecture here.

‘Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticu-ously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government.And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their “child-friendly” policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish. And they, with only a few exceptions, are countries where work is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.’

-Pg. 15 of 29

There is belief-level stuff going on here, but still with a kind of messianic self-regard and childish melodrama.  In such a state of mind, reasons don’t matter much.

How much do Swedes feel obligated to listen and act according to the wishes of such actors?

At least there has been more critical and courageous reaction on the Left and from within sciences and social sciences against the authoritarian and totalitarian roots of the radical Left; positive visions leading to monstrous ideological dead-ends and the constant hunt for ‘evil.’  Beware these agitiated minds and frenzied zeal.  Out of such personal dramas and collectivist, identity movements emerge many of the latest moral ideas, eventually absorbed into coventional and institutional wisdom.

Democratic institutions are rather fragile, alas, easily manipulable, and open to corruption and ‘tyranny of the majority’ scenarios in a Constitutional Republic such as ours.

‘The pedigree of every political ideology shows it to be the creature, not of premeditation in advance of political activity, but meditation upon a manner of politics. In short, politics comes first and a political ideology follows after;…’

Oakeshott, Michael.  Political Education. Bowes & Bowes, 1951. Print.

Maybe we’re not headed for endless Peace, here:

‘Their [realists’] concern is that utopian aspirations towards a new peaceful world order will simply absolutize conflicts and make them more intractable. National interests are in some degree negotiable; rights, in principle, are not. International organizations such as the United Nations have not been conspicuously successful in bringing peace, and it is likely that the states of the world would become extremely nervous of any move to give the UN the overwhelming power needed to do this.

Ken Minogue, found here, passed along by a reader.

As posted: Fred Siegel, at The New Criterion, takes a look at the influence of German thought on American politics and populism, from Nietzsche via H.L Mencken, to the Frankfurt School, to Richard Hofstader via Paul Krugman:

Populism, IV: The German victory over American populism

He puts forth the idea that the German influence has eroded something significant about American popular thought, leading to his analysis of our current politics:

Obama was ‘post-Constitutional,’ and Trump is the post Tea-Party, post Anglo-egalitarian populist response:

‘The Germans have won: Mencken and the Frankfurt School each in their own way have displaced civic egalitarianism. Their disdain has become commonplace among upper-middle- class liberals. This might not have produced the current nausea if the pretensions of our professionals were matched by their managerial competence. It isn’t, and the German victory is moving us towards a soft civil war.’

Nein!

Fred Siegel On The German Influence And Kelley Ross On Some Of Roger Scruton’s Thinking

Roger Scruton At The New Atlantis: ‘Scientism In The Arts & Humanities’

Full piece here (link may not last).

Scruton:

‘It is true that the theory of the meme does not deny the role of culture, nor does it undermine the nineteenth-century view that culture properly understood is as much an activity of the rational mind as is science. But the concept of the meme belongs with other subversive concepts — Marx’s “ideology,” Freud’s unconscious, Foucault’s “discourse” — in being aimed at discrediting common prejudice. It seeks to expose illusions and to explain away our dreams. But the meme is itself a dream, a piece of ideology, accepted not for its truth but for the illusory power that it confers on the one who conjures with it. It has produced some striking arguments, not least those given by Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell, in which he explains away religion as a particularly successful but dangerous meme.’

Those concepts according to Scruton, are not science, but rather scientism.

And he focuses back-in on judgment, or the capacity for judgment attached to ‘I,’ and an ‘I’ which looks towards transcendence:

‘Surely human beings can do better than this — by the pursuit of genuine scientific explanation on the one hand, and by the study of high culture on the other. A culture does not comprise works of art only, nor is it directed solely to aesthetic interests. It is the sphere of intrinsically interesting artifacts, linked by the faculty of judgment to our aspirations and ideals. We appreciate works of art, arguments, works of history and literature, manners, dress, jokes, and forms of behavior. And all these things are shaped through judgment. But what kind of judgment, and to what does that judgment lead?

Interesting quote by Scruton in a debate about Islam, at min 6:35 of video 4/4:

‘Universal values only make sense in a very specific context…the attempt to universalize them, or project or impose them…just leads to their appropriation by sinister forces.”

Worth a read.

-Steven Pinker, Harvard experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist wrote a piece in the New Republic, entitled: ‘Science Is Not Your Enemy

-Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic since the 60′s, responded at The New Republic:  ‘No, Science Doesn’t Have All The Answers.

-Ross Douthat, conservative Catholic columnist at the Times jumped in the fray: ‘The Scientism Of Steve Pinker’ 

-Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist, responded to Douthat.

-Wieseltier jumped back in with: ‘Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the humanities.  Don’t let it happen.

-Now Daniel Dennett, philosopher, cognitive scientist, one of the New Atheists and Boston-based secularist responds to Wieseltier:

‘Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds.’

So, how do you teach the arts and tilt the culture? Camille Paglia has some ideas, including the idea that George Lucas has taken root in more 20th-century minds than anyone else with his space opera:

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Related On This Site: Repost-Adam Kirsch At The New Republic: ‘Art Over Biology’…From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’

Evolutionary psychology and moral thinking: Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’From The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy: Charles Sanders Peirce

Larry Arnhart At Darwinian Conservatism Reviews E.O. Wilson’s ‘The Social Conquest Of Earth’Heather McDonald At The WSJ: ‘ The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity’

From Nigel Warburton’s Site: A Definition of Humanism?…A Debate: Would We Better Off Without Religion?…Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?From YouTube: Roger Scruton On Religious Freedom, Islam & Atheism

Roger Scruton At The WSJ: ‘Memo To Hawking: There’s Still Room For God’

Is Religion Really The Greatest Threat To Civil Society?-Brendan O’Neill At Spiked-‘New Atheism: Worshipping Nothing’

Short piece here (video discussion included)

(approx 33.oo minutes long)

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Link sent in by a reader.  A British affair, but interesting:

‘For those who don’t believe in God, but do believe in humanity, how should we view religion? O’Neill argues for tolerance. That means we should be free to express our beliefs as we see fit, and others should be to criticise and even ridicule those beliefs’

It’s nice to see some pushback against the zeal of ‘activist’ and New Atheism, as well as eliminative materialism. Humanism can become anti-humanist after all, especially among environmentalists (some secular doomsday groups know how many people is enough).

But radical humanism, or renewed faith in humanism, must still ground itself in claims to knowledge and truth, in rationality, or in some thinking which can maintain civil society and mediate other competing claims according to its lights.  Why and how should humanists manage the public square?

Here in America, we’re arguably witnessing the decline of organized religion in public life and in many of our institutions, and perhaps the rise of greater numbers of unaffiliated individuals exercising their freedoms and arranging their lives in other ways.

It’s become quite easy to mock the religious and religious figures (Christian, mostly) as representatives of a defunct/backwards way of thinking, thus marginalizing them from public debate.  Of course, in my opinion, there remain good reasons to be skeptical of many claims to knowledge and truth made by the Church, to satirize the ignorance and abuses of earthly power, as well as the zeal of religious belief, but I’m generally content to leave it up to the individual should they choose turning inward to a relationship with God, to religious texts, or a church.

Perhaps the flip-side to liberal secular humanist faith is a lack of faith.  Surely some deep, liberal thinker out there has become thoroughly convinced that people are no good, after all, and can’t be trusted with their freedoms apart from his/her thinking or ideological commitments. Perhaps there’s a secular humanist political leader somewhere thoroughly sick of humanity for the time being, simply accruing more political power and influence because they can.

As far as satire or mockery goes, they would be just as worthy, no?

Recently, British popular thinker Alain De Botton floated the idea of building an ‘atheist temple’ in the heart of London.  He recommends combing through religious practices for useful organizing principles in response to the New Atheists.  You can read more about it here, which includes a radio interview/podcast.

Did the Unitarian Universalists get there first, with a mishmash of faith and secular humanism?

Towards a theme: Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Rothko chapel, in Houston, Texas:

‘The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.’

There’s even a suite of music by Morton Feldman, entitled ‘Rothko Chapel’

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RelatedA definition of humanism:

“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”

Roger Scruton At The WSJ: ‘Memo To Hawking: There’s Still Room For God’

Related On This SiteFrom Darwinian Conservatism: ‘The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel’

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’

John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Steven Pinker somewhat focused on the idea of freedom from violence, which tends to be libertarian. Yet, he’s also skeptical of the more liberal human rights and also religious natural rights. What about a World Leviathan?: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

Evolutionary psychology and moral thinking: Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Timothy Snyder Responds To Steven Pinker’s New Book At Foreign Policy: ‘War No More: Why The World Has Become More Peaceful’

Charles Murray At The New Criterion: ‘Belmont & Fishtown’

Christopher Hitchens At Slate: ‘Reflections on Political Violence’

Full piece here.

On the murderer of Salman Taseer in Pakistan:

“As “a slave of the Prophet,” he had the natural right to murder Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, not even for committing “blasphemy” but for criticizing a law that forbade it for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And this sweeping new extension of the divine right to murder not only was not condemned by the country’s spiritual authorities; it was largely approved by them.”

At least Hitchens has the courage to stand up for his ideals where they conflict with the Muslim world, and try and define them.  This fault-line will be at work for some time.

Also On This Site:  …Alvaro Vargas Llosa At Real Clear Politics: “Pakistan’s Crooked Roots”From Foreign Policy: ‘Taseer’s Murder Another Sign Of The Dysfunctional Pakistani State’

From Beautiful Horizons: ‘Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan at the 92nd Street Y’Repost-Ayan Hirsi Ali At The CSM: ‘Swiss Ban On Minarets Was A Vote For Tolerance And Inclusion’… Via YouTube: ‘Christopher Hitchens Vs. Ahmed Younis On CNN (2005)’

A former Marxist materialist and still quite anti-religious:  Via Youtube: “UC Television-Conversations With History: Christopher Hitchens”

A British Muslim tells his story, suggesting that classical liberalism wouldn’t be a bad idea: From Kenanmalik.com: ‘Introduction: How Salman Rushdie Changed My Life’ From Foreign Policy: ‘Germany’s Age Of Anxiety’