Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Religion, Value, The Decline of The Humanities

I can't help but notice that as the west has become less and less religious, we've also seen a decline in the value of the humanities. I don't think the two are completely disconnected. It seems to me that there is a worship in intellectual circles of the measurable. Only what can be empirically measured is considered real, and only what produces is empirically measurable results is considered valuable.

I recently got into a rather fruitless discussion with someone about a tweet from Daniel Dennet where Dennet made the claim that every human life is precious, but not because of God. I don't understand how Dennet, who is an ardent supporter of scientism, can make this claim on any kind of grounds. I went on to point out to my interlocutor that values in a completely scientistic worldview are ultimately groundless, in that they cannot be rationally defended one way or another. I used a simple line of logic to show this to be true. But the other person basically just insisted that their own values are obviously the right ones and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply blind or stupid.

I find that approach terribly dangerous. One of values of philosophy is in its ability to bring about self-criticism. Even when I agree with your values, that doesn't mean that one shouldn't seek grounds for them. The abandonment of philosophy seems to me to be leading to a kind of embrace of intellectual arrogance that is terribly dangerous.

I see something similar with religion. Interestingly enough, the worship of the proof paradigm in secular culture has led to a worship of certainty in religious culture. The end result is that God no longer functions as an Ultimate Goodness, before which all human moral achievement is but filthy rags, but as a kind of final justifier of one's particular moral beliefs. God no longer stands as some kind of ultimate judge which shines a light of ultimate criticism on all we do and believe, but is rather a repository of one group's particular value system.

Now I'm not denying that one can have relative certainty about SOME moral truths, like the evil of rape or murder. What I'm denying is that one can consistently hold these things to be true and not accept that truth includes realities beyond the observable and measurable. Philosophy, art, and yes in my view theology and religion too, these all are ways in which we learn more about the world as it actually is. That the humanities do not lend themselves to easy measurement should not disallow that they give us access to truth as substantive if less certain than the truths science gives us access to.

I agree with Dennet that human life is precious (I'll put aside the question of whether ALL human life is precious, for now), and I do NOT think that belief in God is necessary to make sense of that statement (though I think it does, in fact, play a role in why that is true). But what seems obvious to me is that the statement is groundless unless one accepts epistemological outputs other than science, and particularly those found in the humanities, as reliable. The preciousness of human life is neither measurable nor observable. That doesn't mean it isn't true, nor that we shouldn't search for grounds for believing that truth. I cannot see where such grounds could come from except from the realm of philosophy, art, literature, and of course religion.

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