by S. Matthew D’Agostino
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 18, Number 1.
Many humanists, perhaps without being fully aware of the
trend, seem to be increasingly
slipping into an anti-intellectual posture.
To be sure, they routinely proclaim our standard commitment to reason
but, oddly, show a distaste and even revulsion for actual reasoning. That is,
too many of us are showing a marked discomfort with verbal arguments, with the
spoken form of reasoning-from-evidence. It’s as though an individual’s
arguing in public for or against a point of view has somehow become tactless,
At meetings and other social gatherings, once an argument
breaks out—which with curious, knowledgeable individuals can happen
frequently—most spectators immediately try to suppress the controversy. My
impression is that the suppressors are motivated by one or a combination of
ideas: (1) they believe that it’s rude or offensive to openly disagree with
another person’s views; (2) that to accept one point of view is to deny the
validity of competing views—and we should be open to all views; (3) that
it’s always better to have agreement and consensus rather than arguments.
These reservations are certainly understandable, but are
probably misguided. (1) As long as the adversaries do not openly insult each
other, or hurl pure ad hominem attacks, there’s nothing inherently
wrong or dangerous about open disagreements. Bystanders should be encouraging
the participants to more calmly and fully articulate their reasoning rather than
trying to shut them up. (2) Accepting a proposition as true does, in fact,
entail the denial of contrary points
of view. And, in logic, it cannot be otherwise. I am not sure where this notion
of being open to any and all points of view originated, but it’s not in any
sense the hallmark of intellectualism. Quite the opposite. It’s literally a
recipe for lunacy. Rather, we need to remain open to views that can be
supported by evidence, and the best way for most of us to get at the relevant
evidence is to listen to people actually state their cases, i.e., to argue. (3)
Consensus, when it has emerged from individuals carefully sifting through
diverse views and batches of evidence, can be wonderful and can lead to
coherent, common action that gets results. But when it’s forced by an inflated
ideal of consensus, it tends to result in watered-down,
lowest-common-denominator views and, ultimately, tiresome trivialities.
I genuinely believe that humanists would do better to
encourage calm, careful, systematic arguments rather than trying to suppress
them in favor of the ideals of civility and consensus.1 Civility and consensus,
valuable though they may be, cannot yield truth—only evidence and, yes,
sometimes, hard argument can accomplish that. As the distinguished American
philosopher Brand Blanshard once defined it, “Thought is that activity of mind
which aims directly at truth.” 2 Seeking may, indeed, be a grand ideal,
but Finding is even better.
Humanists who disagree with the views expressed here are,
of course, encouraged to argue their points.
1. The “standards of controversy” within our public and
political cultures have so
deteriorated over the past several decades—the endless shouting, name-calling,
mudslinging, and outright deceptions, etc.—that,
just perhaps, we humanists, if we act in a more accepting and encouraging
manner toward arguments, can help to set a better, very clearly needed public
example. Would it be such a terrible reputation to develop? “Oh, you know,
those secular humanists are the guys who are forever going on and on about
let’s try to get at the evidence and the underlying facts.”
2. Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, vol. 1
(New York: The Humanities Press, 1964), p.51.
S. Matthew D’Agostino is a filmmaker, educator, and
former program director of the Capital District Humanist Society in Albany,
N.Y., and former executive director of The Institute for Humanist Studies.
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