Shopping Cart Epistemology
Ilya Somin writes about Ireland’s recently enacted law banning “blasphemy,” and asks why secular worldviews are not on par with religious ones. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, I don’t see why it is more objectionable to criticize Christianity or Judaism as opposed to conservatism or Kantianism.”
While being careful to note my objections to the law, it is important to note that “secular” worldviews are not on par with many established, systematized religions, particularly the big three—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Systematized religions posit universal metaphysical and ethical building blocks of their worldviews. Being open about the foundations of their worldviews allow for meaningful hermeneutics and exegesis of Scriptures and other relevant texts, discussions about teleology and eschatology, and systematic ways to discuss ethical issues and other aspects of our social and cultural institutions.
So-called secular worldviews, by contrast, do not set forth these essential tools for positing a coherent worldview. Instead, they tend to “borrow” from some other underlying religious and/or cultural framework. They tend to focus on one particular ethical or epistemological puzzle and, while they might provide an interesting and even satisfying approach to it, it leaves other questions unanswered. Scienceists chastise all extra-empirical knowledge, following David Hume’s call to cast such things into the flames. And yet they provide no response to Hume’s unanswered questions as to how causation and induction—absolutely vital to conducting any science—can be established, since these things are themselves extra-empirical. Instead, they simply posit certain extra-empirical truths, as one might place items from the market shelves into a shopping cart, in order to make science work. The existence of causal relationships and that nature never behaves arbitrarily cannot be justified in any purely empirical epistemology.
One needs a way to make sense of the world in order to ever do science or design laws and political policies and social institutions in the first place. When you take on this project piecemeal, we call it “secular.” But once you start to flesh out the contours and nuances of how an system of human thought and knowledge and social institutions might work, it will start to look a lot like religion.
Of course, I don’t suggest that Ireland was concerned with any of this when it enacted its anti-blasphemy law. Ilya is much closer to the likely concerns when he discusses how religious talk evoke visceral and sometimes violent reactions from their adherents, for a variety of reasons. I only wish to point out that, even were religious views not stored so closely to the emotional centers of the brain, there are principled intellectual reasons to distinguish religious from “secular” worldviews—in short, because any “secular” worldview that could go toe-to-toe with a religious one will have become a religion in its own right. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is a nice example.