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Criticism of a humanist approach

How might a humanist approach to knowledge be criticised? Is relying on reason just another leap of faith? Read about how a humanist might respond.

We have learned that humanists are wary of claims made on the basis of faith alone. However, some critics accuse humanists of adopting a faith position of their own, a kind of ‘faith’ in our senses. Don’t we humanists have faith that the external world exists, filled with real objects that cause our sensations, and that our senses can give us accurate knowledge of this world? ‘How can we justify our belief that our senses are fairly reliable?’, critics may ask. Only with further evidence from our senses! But this justification is circular and therefore hopeless – a bit like me justifying my belief that a second-hand car dealer is trustworthy by pointing out he tells me he is trustworthy. I might think I know there is a pen in my hand. I think I can see it and feel it. But what if my senses are mistaken? I might respond that others tell me they can see it and feel it too. But, again, here I am relying on my senses to justify my belief that these other people are real and trustworthy. Perhaps, for example, the world is in reality merely a Matrix-style computer simulation, the world an illusion, and my senses offer no guide to reality. Arguably, no non-circular justification of our senses, and thus no justification of our senses, is possible (however, maybe we could use Ockham’s razor to argue that the real-world hypothesis is simpler than the virtual world hypothesis, and so more reasonable?).

A similar circularity problem plagues attempts to justify reason. Any attempt to justify reason will employ reason. So reason will be used to justify itself – and that is no justification. So, isn’t the humanist’s trust in reason also a ‘faith position’, just like the religious person’s trust in God? It’s faith positions all round!

These challenges raise interesting questions for the humanist claim that reason and our senses provide us with reliable tools for arriving at true beliefs.

Note that sometimes this sort of scepticism about reason is used by the religious in response to humanist arguments against religious belief. Suppose the humanist uses reason to show that belief in the existence of a god is unlikely to be true. In response, the religious person says ‘Ah, you are using reason. But reason is itself just another “faith position”’.

Stephen Law describes this strategy of dismissing reason as just another ‘faith position’ as ‘Going Nuclear’.

‘Those employing it aim to achieve what during the Cold War was called ‘mutually assured destruction’. Kaboom! By exploding this sceptical device they aim to bring all beliefs down to the same level of (ir)rationality.
‘The key point to notice about this popular ruse is that the person who employs it almost certainly doesn’t believe what they say about reason. If they really believed all beliefs are equally unreasonable, then they would suppose, say, that it’s as reasonable to believe milk will make you fly as that it won’t. But of course they don’t believe that. They constantly place their trust in reason. Indeed they regularly trust their lives to reason whenever, say, they trust that the brakes on their car will bring them safely to a halt.’
‘In fact your opponent was almost certainly happy to employ reason up until the point where they started to lose the argument. Only then did it occur to them to get sceptical…
‘In short, your opponent’s scepticism about reason is inconsistent. It’s.. intellectually dishonest.’
Stephen Law, Handbook of Humanism

Humanists may accept that no non-circular justification of reason is possible, in which case trust in reason is a kind of ‘faith position’. We do, then, make a ‘leap of faith’ in relying on reason. However, notice that some leaps of faith are bigger than others. Note, in particular, that the application of reason does not give us grounds for distrusting reason – for supposing that logical reasoning is actually unreliable.

Theists often say that, unlike humanists, they are justified in trusting reason and their senses because their belief in a good god justifies them in believing that god is no deceiver and that he will give us reliable senses. However, if their reason and their senses then provide them with good grounds for thinking there is no such good god (and isn’t the appalling suffering we observe in the world very good evidence that if there is some all-powerful intelligence behind the universe, it is not entirely benign?), then their faith in that god ends up undermining itself in a way that the humanist’s faith in the reliability of reason and their senses does not.

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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