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Postmodern anti-foundationalism examined.

I wasn't very far into Thomas Clark's crisply written, nicely reasoned, and quite pernicious article, "Humanism and Post, modernism: A Reconciliation" (The Humanist, January/February 1993), before I began muttering to myself, "Somebody's got to respond to this."

Clark alleges that postmodern anti-foundationalism is a significant and convincing new position in philosophy that effecttively cuts the underpinnings from humanists' endeavors to base their world view on anything more substantial than the impulses or inclinations they may individually feel to prefer "a democratic, tolerant, and caring society." These preferences, Clark says, are all the foundation we could ever have or need.

This allegation is, in my view, a dubious and destructive one. Postmodern anti-foundationalism is little more than a disinterment and illegitimate extension of some eighteenth, century reformulations by Berkeley and Hume of the famous anthropometric admonition by Protagoras of Abdera: "Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not"

"Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin," Clark solemnly warns humanists. He has weighed our reason and found it wanting as an adequate instrument with which to build a foundation for humanist beliefs. Moreover, he says, we don't need or want any such foundation. Strong stuff. Let's take a closer look.

Humanists increasingly have been aware of the limitations of reason since the writings of Berkeley and Hume gained wide dissemination. Apologists for postmodern anti-foundationalism like Clark and Richard Rorty, to whom Clark looks as a preceptor, have elevated these limitations to a dogmatic denial of the power of our reason to establish bases for our beliefs. It is a superficially clever extrapolation, and it does appeal to the sophomore iconoclast in many of us--but it just ain't solid, as a neighbor orchardist likes to say.

To justify the relevance of their siren song, "Don't Trust Reason," Clark and Rorty must exaggerate the claims serious humanists make for reason's proper domain and for its power. The "quest for certainty" Clark ridicules has few adherents among humanists, who generally incorporate a healthy tentativeness in their belief system and who don't look fondly on the equating of a true believer's unshakable beliefs with their own firmly held convictions, which are always open to amendment by the experience of science.

"Final philosophical foundations for beliefs are unattainable ... {land} superfluous," according to Clark's revelatory announcement. But we humanists knew that. A healthy skepticism about the finality of philosophical foundations does not necessarily--nor should it--carry in its train a denial of rationality's power to employ science to give us indisputably the best substantiation for a belief system that human history has provided thus far. Thus far. That's not finality.

It seems to me that Clark and Rorty are attacking a relatively primitive version of science and a faith in the search for certainty that accompanied scientific enterprise long before scientists had developed the diffidence about certainty that followed in the wake of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the uncomfortable notion that bears Heisenberg's name.

We all, humanists and religious fundamentalists alike, are driven initially toward our beliefs by emotive engines--by emotors, to neologize--but humanism's beliefs are corrigible by experience precisely because they are based in science, whose always,tentative conclusions await the next test that may force revision or abandonment upon them. Without their foundation in science, humanism's beliefs would have no better claim on our credulity than, to use Clark's own example, "crazy {and} counterintuitive ... Christian Science" The emotors of both humanists and Christian Scientists drive them similarly toward the embrace of sets of beliefs. But the former's somewhat melancholy tentativeness distinguishes them radically from the latter's enthusiastic certainty. And the distinction owes its existence almost exclusively to the fact that humanists base their beliefs in science, while the Christian Scientists base theirs in a suspension of science --that is, in anti-scientific dogma.

Lacking these disparate and qualitatively different underpinnings, the beliefs of humanist and Christian Scientist, wherever they diverge, might command equal credence. Can this be an outcome Clark would not abjure? In the absence of sufficient substantiation for any view that strikes us as odd, we are justifiably inclined to look into its emotors. Yo, Clark!

If we were to agree with Clark that, "as humanists, we don't need to invoke reason or science to justify our preferences for a democratic, tolerant, and caring society," we'd find ourselves no better grounded than others whose imperatives are rooted in whim, ignorant fear, and dogma. This, in turn, would vitiate the uniqueness of our claim to attention and the justification for our impulse to prevail. And many of us do entertain a tender hope that some day, in a sunnier world, our gentler views might prevail.

Clark expressly denies that he is "setting up a straw man in contending that ... humanists often resort to simplistic appeals to reason, science, and human nature to buttress their case against religion." I believe, to the contrary, that the bulk of his article does just that, proceeding thence to thrash the stuffing out of the poor dummy.

The idea of an "absolute and invincible rationality," as he puts it, is one treated more amicably by dogmatists than by the humanists he accuses of cherishing it. "If such a rationality existed," Clark goes on, we'd pin our fundamentalist opposition to the wall by exercising it, and then there wouldn't be any of them left to deal with. But isn't this disingenuous? Our opponents' error doesn't persist because of inadequacies in our arguments using reason and science; their error persists because it is taboo in our society--indeed, in most places of the world--to promulgate the arguments of reason and science in refutation of most religious beliefs. Readers might ask themselves when they last encountered a rousing refutation of any of the thousands of preposterous religious dogmas on prime-time television or in the daily newspaper.

We must agree with Clark's statement that "we can't claim ... that the humanist commitment to science gets things ultimately 'right "' What we do claim, and emphatically, is more right, more accurate, more evidence-based--in short, better.

But we must with equal assurance disagree with Clark's advice that we understand and accept religious dogmatists as "belonging to a different culture ... as living out a different version of the accommodation between knower and the known"--a version in which they should forever be permitted to wallow undisturbed by our importuning arguments and our attempts to urge upon them a more reality-based belief system and basis for rational action and moral choice. How sweetly tolerant Clark's admonition is, how live-and-let-live, how debilitating to any motive to progress toward a humanist society, and how accommodating to the survival of the beliefs and practices of Christian Science, Nazism, purdah, and every other unreason-based ideology.

There may not be any "Archimedean vantage point" from which we can compare our views of the world with the world itself, as Clark warns, but science privileges us to check our perceptions of the world--limited as they are by our physical and biological particularities--against views provided by our historical predecessors and our nonhuman instruments and perceptors and recorders. The knowledge of "how things really are in themselves," insofar as such a pre-scientific notion retains any validity today, we accept as inaccessible to us, but we should adamantly insist on the superiority of scientific knowledge to all "knowledge" claiming other bases. We have the facts, the data, and the practical successes to incontrovertibly support that insistence. The reality of that superiority Clark conveniently chooses to overlook.

Clark waxes poetic--to what end readers may only guess--when he says, "The human dialect of science is an attempt, through us, that nature makes at introspection" Very pretty, but can he really be attributing to "nature" a volitional psychology, and an anthropomorphic one at that?

What also strikes me as an odd view surfaces when Clark writes approvingly of Rorty's contention that "all philosophy should do is compare and contrast cultural traditions" Since we already have the well-established disciplines of sociology and anthropology to attend to these tasks, we must be forgiven for concluding that Rorty and Clark are arguing for a higher unemployment rate among philosophers (and for wondering at the implied animus).

We should, Clark commends Rorty for urging, abandon "the notion of discovering the truth which is common to theology and science'" But theology never impartially seeks to "discover truth" There is no religion-neutral theology. Theology always seeks to build a coherent and plausible ideological structure upon a foundation of givens--of particular dogma. Here theology and science are fundamentally different, and the commonality alleged by Rorty and supported by Clark is simply not there.

Bereft of any foundation in universal rationality or objective science, Clark reassures us, humanism will discover its agendum to be unchanged: "to create the best solution to the human predicament" that humanists can devise. But "best" by what criteria? Any attempt to answer this question returns us inexorably to standards--foundations--that are more or less objective, and thereby better or worse.

No appeals to the "in" status of trendy neopragmatism or cool postmodernism can evade this question and, unfortunately, this evasion lurks at the core of Clark's article like a fat codling, moth worm in the core of one of my orchard's shiny Granny Smiths.

"When and if agreement is reached about ends and means" between humanists and anti-humanists, Clark concludes dreamer!), ideological differences between humanists and religious fundamentalists "can safely remain unresolved." Does any humanist draw breath who fails to realize that these differences would be bound to resurface again and again in endless future attempts to destroy humanism? There can be no real safety in pretending that an armed truce is a just peace.

Clark and like-minded postmodernists would be well advised, I think, to acknowledge that the future of the world's humanist movement is threatened--not made more secure or better able to meet its formidable competition for humankind's allegiance--by relinquishing humanism's unique, distinguishing, and perfectly sound claim to a foundation in science. That's what we have that the others don't. Jettison reason and science as our connectors to the best available truth and reality, and we're at the mercy of every irrationality that glistens prettily in a succession of momentary spotlights.
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Title Annotation:includes response to January, 1993 'Humanist' article and the author's rebuttal
Author:Clark, Thomas W.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Malpractice: a homily.
Next Article:Criticism and creation.

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