The Secular is Parasitic and Must Borrow

This short essay here deals with a further essay by philosopher Stanley Fish and a book by Steven Smith. All three bring up great points. The issues discussed go to much of the conversation swirling around this blog post by Eric Reitan.

In the context of Eric’s post and ensuing conversation, what the writer and these others note in the link provided is that secular discourse (including scientific discourse as thought of by the materialist) is impossible without philosophy/theology or as noted the “counter-constructed worlds of metaphysics and religion.” To suggest that there is science (or something called the “secular”) apart from metaphysics is absurd and…impossible.

Secular discourse (including scientism) is entirely parasitic and must borrow from metaphysics that which it cannot produce itself. A perfect example is when we hear someone rant on and on about how existence is intrinsically meaningless, purposeless, and entirely consisting of the material only to then tell us that life is a “gift.” Really? From whom? How? It is not a “gift”- it just is. But no one can live that way. So they must smuggle into their conversation the word “gift” with all its metaphysical/theological content.

What the philosophical naturalist cannot bear is that he must live in a world constructed by those holding completely contrary views. He must use their language, he must use their history, their science, and their works of literature, art, and music. All around he is surrounded by a world and imagination created by those he thinks are completely wrong about everything fundamental. And yet, no one wants to live in the world he imagines. I can see how this would be very frustrating.

If we were to draw a circle symbolizing that which would encompass the universe we could note such as our meta-narrative and “science” or any other compartmentalized area of specialized knowledge would be like a planet contained within the universe of the meta-narrative.

Fish sums it up nicely:

Smith does not claim to be saying something wholly new. He cites *David Hume’s declaration that by itself “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question,” and Alasdair MacIntyre’s description in “After Virtue” of modern secular discourse as consisting “of the now incoherent fragments of a kind of reasoning that made sense on older metaphysical assumptions.” … (In “The Trouble With Principle” I myself argue that “there are no neutral principles, only principles that are already informed by the substantive content to which they are rhetorically opposed.”)

But no matter who delivers the lesson, its implication is clear. Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

* Speaking of David Hume, this looks like a good book.

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10 Responses to The Secular is Parasitic and Must Borrow

  1. Burk Braun says:


    To be charitable, one can dredge meaning out of what Fish says by taking “metaphysical” to mean emotional /sentimental, which is to say that reason doesn't tell us what to value- we do that spontaneously out of our sentiments. Calling all this by high-dollar terms like metaphysics only exposes your metaphysics to be a substantially less high-flown affair, indeed, it is your prejudices, opinions, and desires. Those are what pre-exists and is fundamental, though that doesn't make them right or pretty, on maturer consideration.

    And clothing those metaphysics with imagined totems wearing gray beards, etc. (or celestial spheres, as the case may be), is of no use either- reality doesn't change. It only expresses your projections and desires in another way.


  2. Darrell says:


    “To be charitable, one can dredge meaning out of what Fish says by taking “metaphysical” to mean emotional /sentimental…”

    Unfortunately the literature, years of usage, and the dictionary all prevent one from taking the word to mean such. Sorry.

    The rest is all question begging assertion on your part and all from a metaphysical viewpoint to boot, which on the one hand you dismiss (which would dismiss your own viewpoint or reduce it to sentiment), but on the other only proves the point of the post. Anything else?


  3. Burk Braun says:


    I guess I would like to ask what you mean by metaphysics, from your perspective, and in an epistemological sense. My sense is that it is a big word to veil your predispositions, meant to hide them from view and especially from investigation. Do they make sense? Do mine make sense?

    It is supposed to be about the fundamental nature of being and reality, which comes dangerously close to whatever the hell one wants it to be. There are no criteria that you can point out, being the “totality” of how you feel, have been trained, and are committed to. Nothing more as far as far as I can tell, really. But it would be great if you could explain what it is in more organized and explicit terms.


  4. Darrell says:


    I mean what the literature, history, and dictionary mean. I mean Philosophy 101. I mean what every other person (like the people noted in the post) mean. You act as if I have made up a term or as if it were a novel or obscure term. What do people mean by history, science, sociology, or any other term used to define an area of knowledge/philosophy?

    My sense is that it’s a word that reveals one is willing to admit and talk about his presuppositions while others wish to think they “rest[s] on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment.”

    And those that do don’t “have a leg to stand on.” I think that is why the word bothers you.


  5. Burk Braun says:

    Very well. You might enjoy a CBC series on “after atheism”, which so far in part 1 is unmitigated theo-BS.


  6. Burk Braun says:


    Let me try an analogy on you. We live in a constructed reality, whatever the nature of our interpretations and philosophies. You probably live in a house. Suppose, however, you believed you live in a palace. While dealing with the so-called realities of the kitchen, living room, etc, you also firmly believe that an extra addition is out back, and a secret cellar down below.

    So while each person lives in a constructed reality, some are more confected than others. Is that OK? Is it philosophically sound? Are all interpretations equal, and equally OK? Suppose you were blind and otherwise disabled, so you couldn't actually see the full extent of the house you were in. What would be the proper criteria for inference? What little you know of it is wonderful, so do you follow your intuition that it is palatial? How do you epistemologically limit yourself from making confections of imagination? What keeps you humble in making inferences, and generally in a philosophical sense?


  7. Darrell says:


    Here is the problem and this is also applicable to Bernard and JP on Eric’s blog. Whenever you are called out on trying to pass off your assertions as just going by the facts and empirical evaluation (while everyone else is asserting faith positions or metaphysical nonsense—you claim) you immediately switch gears and want to talk about how we can tell or know whether one meta-narrative is more true than another. It’s sort of funny in the sense you always end up conceding the point (that you too are speaking from and out of a meta-narrative) but instead of reflecting upon what that might mean for your position and the way you argue, you always want to then say, “Yes, but what about…or then how do we know who is right?…” and on and on it goes. Wait, back up a minute.

    When you guys are called on this stuff- instead of engaging the actual critique you suddenly want to move on. Why is that? Why don’t you first address the issues raised in the post?


  8. Burk Braun says:


    You may not realize this, but I am trying rather desperately to figure out what the heck you are talking about. The you-are-rubber-I-am-glue routine gets very old. So suppose you deal with the question as if this were a normal conversation and engage?

    The issue I am laying out is that, yes, we have a constructed sense of reality and contents, but you seem to agree from time to time that there are better and worse ways to construct it. With moon-is-green-cheese questions, you call upon empirical modes of reasoning, and recognize a better way to construct our reality, however constructed that still ends up being.

    On the other hand, you refer to popularity as your favorite criterion on other issues, which also deal with how reality works, like much of theology. This is truly puzzling, and deserves an explanation.


  9. Darrell says:


    Read the post. Tell me what you think the three (the writer, Fish, and Smith)are trying to get across.


  10. Darrell says:


    If you go to Eric's blog and pull up his posts (there are 3) under the title “Interpretive Worldviews” you will see that much of this has been hashed over as far the questions you want to move on to. I will try and post something in the future regarding evaluating meta-narratives but Eric has actually written quite a bit about it and I certainly don’t have the space or time to go over it again here.

    So it is still not clear why you want to skip over and not engage the actual points under discussion here—in this post. Especially, if I hear you correctly, you basically agree. Do you agree with the writer, Fish, and Smith? Why or why not? Your reflections and answers may answer some of your other questions.

    By the way, as an aside, I noticed you recently refer to yourself as a positivist or someone with those leanings. Didn’t you get the memo?

    “Contemporary status within philosophy

    Most philosophers consider logical positivism to be, as John Passmore expressed it, “dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes.” [17] By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective that one of its own main proponents, A. J. Ayer, could say in an interview: “I suppose the most important [defect]…was that nearly all of it was false.”[17]” –Wikipedia


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