Stanley Fish is at it again. He’s found an author, Steven D. Smith, who has written a book that appeals to his inner cenobite and has written another dismissal of secular reason. And once again, his problem is that his view of the universe is a millimeter deep and most marked by dumb incomprehension.
I’m not going to mess around with his lengthy apologetics, because where Fish flops is in his premises. Apparently, Smith is arguing that there are no legitimate secular arguments for anything of significance; they all work by smuggling in non-secular presuppositions, without admitting it. It’s not that secular reason doesn’t work, it’s that it fails to provide a framework for making decisions, which rely on a moral or religious disposition.
The game fails at the onset.
Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”
There is nothing we are supposed to do, and there’s no one we have to obey. We’re free!
What Smith and Fish are doing is asking a stupid question — where are the Orders of the Cosmic Dictator? — and failing to note that there seems to be no evidence of a cosmic dictator, and his orders are merely pretenses put up by institutionalized frauds. And then they run about in circles, flailing their arms and screaming at the people who point out that there are no orders. The problem, they think, is secularists who explain the nonexistence of supernatural agents, not the multitude of religionists who all tell us different things we’re supposed to do and name different entities behind our instructions.
There’s a very Darwinian view of the universe that these two have failed to recognize. There is no destination. There are only local, short-term responses to the environment, and the idea of a direction is an illusion that can only be seen retroactively. There is no “ought”. There is no “should”. There is no overmind with a plan for you. Trying to ask where the rules are just tells everyone that you don’t understand the game, and worse, deciding that there must be rules and inventing them and demanding that we all follow them or we betray our cosmic purpose means that you’ve completely lost it.
No rules. No purpose. Got it?
However, that doesn’t mean that patterns won’t emerge. A Darwinian world “rewards” stable replicators with greater representation in future generations. It’s still not a purpose, it’s a consequence of a lack of overarching purpose. Procreators find their genes propagated into the next generation; it’s not because God wants it so, or because Nature says you’re supposed to do it, it’s because the process itself happens to yield more possessors of the property than individuals who lack the property.
Likewise for other complicated or abstract institutions. The cultures that will exist a century from now will be the cultures that avoid melting down or blowing up. That’s not destiny or the product of divine guidance, it’s simply a self-evident truism. There is no “should” that even says you should be a member of a culture that will persist into the next century: you are free to run off to a California commune, grow sinsemilla, and have gay or prophylactically controlled orgies until your tribe grays and dies out. Or you can join the Shakers and excel in craftsmanship and celibacy and quiet worship of a deity until your tribe grays and dies out. The universe does not freaking care.
I’ve chosen my particular lifestyle, not because I’m supposed to do what I do or because I’m obeying orders from on high, but because it makes me feel good now. My biological needs are met, I’m entertained and stimulated, and I see the people I care about being likewise fulfilled. I want to see my views propagated into the next generation because they work well for me, and I have an emotional attachment to my children and other human beings, and want to see them given the same (and better!) opportunities that I’ve had. And of course, the reason I have those feelings for other people is that I’m the product of many generations of successful procreators who have also been well-integrated into their culture. I do what I do not because I should or because I’m told to, but because it works, in the sense of producing a stable and productive line of human beings.
That’s godless thinking. It’s too bad Fish and Smith are completely incapable of grasping it.