by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018
The first flaw in the current argument about grand narratives and common values, discussed in my article in the July issue of Signs of the Times, concerned confusion over values.
Lesser values such as freedom of speech, which depend upon particular situations for validity, have taken precedence over foundational values such as concern for truth.
However, lack of nurture or education in values has a deeper cause. Values are regarded as subjective and therefore it is up to people to decide for themselves. Of course, the needs of society and political enthusiasm for various beliefs mean that values are still instilled, especially through the law. But values themselves are not seen as being amenable to reasoning. This constitutes the second flaw which needs addressing for a renewed Grand Narrative for the West.
Since the Enlightenment, reliance on reason has been regarded as the mainstay for policing society and promoting virtue. Yet reason alone cannot determine values; it cannot even provide reliable starting-points for the reasoning process. Its primary function is as a tool with which to analyse and check what is already assumed on other grounds.
The problem has especially been the narrow concept of reason with which the West has tended to operate. Seen predominantly in terms of logic and scientific / empirical investigation leading to factual information, this has mostly discouraged the application of reason to what by its very nature lies outside such a remit. This has promoted a powerful divide between fact and opinion. On the one side there is demonstrable objective knowledge; on the other side, vague, subjective notions that cannot be shown to anyone else to be conclusively correct. Values clearly belong to this side of the divide.
A recent book by Julian Baggini on The Edge of Reason (Yale University Press 2016) argues strongly for the use of reason but insists on the importance of acknowledging its limitations. He discusses four unrealistic myths concerning reason with which people have been taken in. He writes:
‘The roots of this misguided way of thinking are found deep in assumptions about the very nature of reason and knowledge...These assumptions create a simplistic dichotomy between facts which can be firmly established, either empirically or through pure reason, and everything else, which is mere opinion or prejudice’.
Many others have noted this fact/opinion divide. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age speaks of:
‘the division within us which disengaged reason has created, setting thinking in opposition to feeling or instinct or intuition.’
The rift between emotional and cognitive capacities is serious. It has entered theological discourse. A clear example is Perry Schmidt-Leukel's fascinating article on ‘Religious Pluralism in Thirteen Theses’ in Modern Believing (57:1). In arguing a strongly rational position, he relied heavily on what is logically possible, and the
‘need to retain the central conception of theology as a rational enquiry into the truth of faith employing the best scientific standards.’
Having just discussed Aristotle’s use of the term scientific he failed to distinguish it clearly from its usual modern understanding.
An impossible search for certainty continues to feed the fact/opinion divide. We want to be sure; we want personal insight to be publicly demonstrated. Yet outside the arena of straightforward and obvious practicalities, and rigorous scientific enquiry on the purely physical aspect of the world, no-one can be absolutely sure they are right. One of the most signal and costly failures in all history, including religious history, is when so many people feel completely sure.
If we can accept that our tiny minds and limited experience cannot hope to get beyond the role of searching for truth, and if we can acknowledge the partial and provisional nature of certainty, we can leave behind the fact/opinion divide. As Baggini writes, it is
‘a false dichotomy... We do not have to choose between objective, indisputable fact and mere opinion. Outlooks, values and beliefs can be more or less reasonable, more or less objective…The fact that moral principles do not have the same status as scientific ones does not mean that they are no more subject to rational scrutiny than a preference for strawberries over peaches’.
Shorn of arrogant narrowness, reason can and must include what is personal and holistic. The term discursive could be used to describe such reasoning, whereby common sense, imagination, experience and intuition all play their part in the search for truth; reason’s role is to enable stupidities and logical fallacies of all kinds to be shown up and discarded.
The result of such shared thinking in discussion and debate will not be certainty, but a moving nearer towards knowledge and understanding. The benefits at both personal and communal level could be enormous. Spectres of false thinking could be put to flight as, for example, the faulty line of reasoning, common today even on university campuses, whereby respect for others requires that reasons with which the other might disagree should not be put forward. On the contrary, as Jeremy Stout holds:
‘The respect for each other that civility requires is most fully displayed in the kind of exchange where each person's deepest commitments can be recognised for what they are and analysed accordingly.’