Secularity, objectivity, and reason

Razib Khan, a.k.a. “David Hume,” responds to my comments on the mission statement of the weblog Secular Right. His basic rejoinder is that a “morality grounded in the reality of God” may indeed have more consistency and power than one based wholly on this-worldly human inclinations, but only if it’s already admitted that God exists and has the right qualities.

I don’t think that response deals adequately with the issues presented. The point of my argument was to account for the existence and authority of morality, not to construct it. Before we start discussing anything at all we already recognize that actions can be justified or not justified. If that were not so discussion would be impossible, since no assertion could be justified. (An assertion is an action.) To the extent God helps explain the possibility of justification, it becomes rational to accept God.

The authors at Secular Right apparently believe that their choice of godless conservatism is justified, and that they’re avoiding errors made by John Rawls, radical Islamists, and Sarah Palin. For them to say their beliefs reflect their natural human desire to survive and stay on good terms with their fellows may be true, but it doesn’t explain their grounds for saying they’re right and others are wrong. The beliefs of those other people reflect such things as well. Also, it seems that whichever groups, arguments and goals actually win best represent the natural tendencies of man and the world. Is actual success then the standard for rationality, justification, the summum bonum and all the rest of it?

In fact, of course, the Secular Right slogan is “Reality & Reason” and not “Hail Victory.” It doesn’t do though for them to claim their views are better because in addition to following natural human tendencies they are in accord with reality and reason. Is the claim of truth and rational superiority just an expression of inborn drives and social conditioning, or does it have to do with reality and reason in a sense that transcends naturalistic behavioral explanations and makes their views truly the more worthy choice?

The question our situation forces on us is how rationality, justification, better, worse, and other such obvious nonmaterial features of our world are possible. How, for example, can it be true that human flourishing (however secular cons understand it) is a better overall goal of action than the worldwide triumph of Maoism? In what does such superiority consist?

It seems that neither empiricism nor a pure physicist’s understanding of reality speak to that issue. Empiricism, like all methods of justification, requires standards of good and bad, so it can’t be their source. And particles or wave functions in space aren’t good or bad and can’t be about other particles and wave functions in space. They simply are whatever they are. So a purely physical view of things can’t explain the existence and justification of propositions. Instead, such a view leads to the irrationalism evident in many of the comments on Razib’s entry.

In what kind of world, then, do morality, justification, rationality and so on, as we actually experience and rely on them—that is, as objective requirements to which we are subject and that precede what we think, want, and do—have a home? It seems they could exist quite naturally in a world implicitly ordered by reason and purpose. To speak of God is to speak of such a world. It’s not at all clear how to make sense of them in the sort of world Secular Right proposes. So to all appearances it’s non-secular ways of thinking that make more sense and thus stand for devotion to Reality & Reason.