Let’s do quibble about epistemology!

I recently had the chance to introduce to a group of very sharp undergraduates the famed work of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Hobbes wrote during the Scientific Revolution, the fruits of which took us straight to (inter alia) the idea of knowledge that Greg cleverly quotes from The Matrix’s Morpheus: “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Hobbes wrote during an era in which everything but knowledge that ultimately derived from empirical/sensory data seemed uncertain and scientific knowledge certain, a legacy the Scientific Revolution has handed us.

What does this have to do with political life? The import is captured by these two common expressions: “It’s just an idea” versus “This is scientific fact.” To many or most people, that which is certain is certain because science tells us so, and everything else is ideational, which comes to be synonymous with “opinion.” But there’s more to knowledge than a dichotomy of indisputable fact and mere opinion. Kyle talks of a debate between an atheist and a Christian in which he ‘knew’ that the Christian was right yet the atheist had made a better case. But the positivist and empiricist assumptions underlying not just the atheist’s but our own culture’s conception of knowledge tends to stack the deck in front of someone who can argue with “scientific fact” instead of relying on the ultimately unfalsifiable claims of religious knowledge. “Public reason”, in democratic theory, is often synonymous with “secular reasons”, because as Hobbes observed, religious knowledge doesn’t fit as well into the scientific paradigm of knowledge that has governed since his own era. Importantly, he also observed, it tends to be divisive in a way that is not easily settled (and often becomes violent).

Does this mean that we should give up on religious reason? Of course not. But in my view, we should probably do better than we’ve been doing. With apologies for the overt grad school theme of what follows, I attended a really excellent event yesterday at Georgetown’s Berkley Center in which Professor Robert Audi gave a succinct – and persuasive, I think – view of how to go about this challenge for Christians (and religious people more generally) in a democracy that embraces some form of separation of church and state. (Side note: after Professor Audi presented, Professor Ferrari gave his own presentation. I’m not making this up. I sort of wonder why Professor Ford wasn’t invited.) Audi advances the “principle of secular rationale,” which states that “one has a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless one has, and is willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support.” He unpacks this principle by explaining, first, that the term “secular” need not preclude religious reasons, because the important criterion for Audi is that a reason is knowable by secular means. “A secular reason for an action (or a belief) is roughly one whose status as a justifier of action (or belief) does not evidentially depend on (but also does not deny) the existence of God; nor does it depend on theological considerations, or on the pronouncements of a person or institution as a religious authority.”

Secondly, the term “adequate” means that the reason is “is one that, in rough terms, evidentially justifies the belief, act, or other element it supports” – again, an epistemological, not ontological, criterion. Furthermore, “adequate” need not imply that the reasons are shared by everyone; rather, they must “only be in a certain way accessible to rational adults.” To help determine what constitutes such a reason, we have the category of “natural reason,” by which Audi intends “a general human capacity for apprehending and responding to grounds for belief and for action.” Reasons arrived at through the exercise of natural reason “do not preclude religious concepts from figuring in their content; they are epistemically, not contentually, independent of religion and theology.”

As I see it, Professor Audi’s proposal is helpful for enlarging the idea of what counts as knowledge and reason in democratic discourse such that religiously-based reasons, and not just those based on the unsatisfying options of science or opinion, are admitted in serious public discourse. But I’d be really interested in others’ takes on it. Is there a burden on religious believers to answer to a secular rationale, even in the qualified way Audi suggests?

2 Thoughts.

  1. The difficulty with this solution is that “secular” reasons are never truly secular all the way down. All reasons for human action presuppose (often unconsciously) ideas about the universe that transcend the limits of the secular and take us into the realm of metaphysics and hence into “religion” broadly defined. All attempts to articulate a strictly secular scheme of purposes/values have failed. (Hobbes’ Leviathan is probably the most impressive such attempt ever undertaken.) As plausible as these ideologies may seem, lurking under the surface there are always some intellectual “stolen bases.” In academic conversation it can be very hard to get people to see this, but real-world implementation of the ideas always brings the conflict to the surface very quickly (just open your newspaper). This is what Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is really all about.

    The path to a solution, in my view, lies in turning away from the aspiration to lay out a universally applicable scheme for resolving these tensions, and instead adopt a frankly parochial approach. What will work for early 21st century America? Then we’ll find we have more solid intellectual materials to work with.

  2. I agree with Greg in that a purely ‘secular’ answer is almost impossible. However, an answer that is “true” secularly will also be true religiously in most cases (I’m sure there are exceptions. Truth is based in the character of God who created and ordered our universe. Generally, then, we can infer that the way God directs us is the ‘best’ way to go about a particular segment of our secular culture. Marriage and family would be one example. I think it would be possible for us as religious persons to engage secularly without having to appeal purely to religious reason but instead use secular reason, knowing we have such secular reason because of our underlying religious reason. Abortion is bad for culture. I know this partly because God says don’t kill. However, if it is true that God said don’t kill, I should be able to come up with ‘secular’ reasons why this is true because God’s created the secular world. Within an ordered secular world, one should be able to use the minds God gave Christians and non-Christians to see why God gave particular religious moral commands.

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