My Secularism, Unraveling

Though a regular churchgoer and on most days a religious believer, I subscribe to the secularist principle that church and state ought to be kept separate. I don’t want government dictating religious belief and practice to people of faith, and I oppose using civil law and public policy to enforce religious teaching.

Up until, well, a few days ago, I firmly held that we believers who would see our religion-informed beliefs enshrined in law have a responsibility to argue for those beliefs in terms that can appeal to those who share our religious faith, those who espouse a different faith, and those with no religious faith at all. In other words, our basis for a law or policy shouldn’t be divine disclosure specifically or religious belief in general, but rather principles accessible to universal reason.

I regret to say that I no longer hold this.

If postmodernism has taught us anything, it’s that the foundations of reason differ from person to person because people—being situated in time and place, language and culture—reason from different starting points, with differing presuppositions, and in different directions. Rational thought begins not from perceived indubitable universal axioms, but largely from first principles accepted as matters of belief. I must believe in order to understand. Credo ut intelligam, Descartes!

These differences are not absolute, obviously. Public reason is made possible in part by there being a community of believers who share certain assumptions. For example, many of us hold to beliefs that people ought as a rule to be free, that society ought to be ordered toward justice, that human life has special value, and that all human beings possess equal dignity. We vote based on these beliefs of ours, and we expect legislators and policy-makers to share these foundational assumptions and to act according to them.  We don’t show any hesitation to impose these beliefs on others.

So why is it acceptable to impose these beliefs, which aren’t necessarily religious, but not okay to impose beliefs that allegedly originate from the say-so of God?

A modernist answer is that what I here call beliefs are actually truths accessible to reason because they’re self-evident, able to be intuited, or made apparent through rational inquiry. I don’t buy this theoretically, and in practice it’s irrelevant. Ask a politician why you shouldn’t go around killing and feasting on your neighbors, and chances are you’ll get a profession of faith along the lines of what the young John Conner said to the Terminator: “You just can’t; trust me on this.” Nobody waits until they’ve found Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s categorical imperative or some other original rational foundation before they debate and exercise power in the political sphere. So even if you can philosophize to first principles, no one does this as a prerequisite for political participation. Secularism may succeed at separating church and state, but there’s no divorcing reason and belief. These latter two are bound insolubly.

So the question remains: what’s so problematic about appealing to divine disclosure?

The problem, I submit, is this: “God says so” doesn’t start a discussion; it ends it. There’s not much to say to “God said so!” other than “Oh no he didn’t!” or “There is no God.” Nevertheless, what God is said to have said can be assessed and judged on grounds other than the professed event of revelation. Religious belief about morality includes more than divine command ethics. See the natural law tradition, for instance.

At this stage, I fail to see why religious beliefs are any less legitimate than “secular” beliefs as a basis for action in the political sphere. Some people’s experiences suggest to them that human life has value and that it ought to be respected, and they form a belief accordingly. Some religions teach that human life is sacred and therefore worthy of respect. These teachings call for belief, and the faithful follow suit. The origin of a belief—whether experience, religious teaching, or something else—doesn’t seem to dictate believability, which depends more on 1) the belief itself and 2) the context in which the belief is professed. Credibility is relative. Belief in human equality, for example, won’t play well in a misogynistic or racist society. The likelihood that a belief is true depends greatly on where one is situated and what other beliefs one holds.

Where does this put me? Can I still accurately call myself a secularist? If by this label we mean one who supports formal church and state separation, then yes; but if we mean one who desires law and public policy to be based in reason alone, then no. Pure reason, free of any foundational beliefs, is a pipe dream. I see no sense in wanting those who write, interpret, and enforce laws to put their beliefs aside when doing their jobs. I’d prefer they be open about what they really believe and why so I can judge and respond to them according to my beliefs and reasons.

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222 thoughts on “My Secularism, Unraveling

    • For some time now, I’ve been mulling over objections to my previous defenses of secularism–namely the objection that it doesn’t work because democracy doesn’t require that you or I have non-religious reasons for what we do in the political sphere. This coupled with a recent return of mine to reading pomo philosophers has convinced me that my previous claim that political action should have a purely rational foundation doesn’t hold water because every rational foundation includes a degree of belief. At present, I don’t see why it necessarily matters much if the belief is or is not religious. Believability doesn’t line up that way.

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      • I submit that the difference is one of framing.

        If the state is *preventing* you from acting in the way you believe you ought, you have plenty of grounds to remove that barrier.

        Once you move to using the state to prevent other people from acting the way you believe they ought, you need some additional justification -> if you’re operating under a principle that religious freedom is important, anyway.

        I mean, if you think X is wrong, and you can protest X, and boycott people who support X, and organize support groups for people who are affected by X… you can still work to stop X, reduce X, get other people to see that X is wrong.

        I don’t know that asking religious people to work outside the framework of the legal system is a substantial burden. At least, not if we’re going to agree that religious freedom is itself a good thing.

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  1. I think you stated the reason outright — “God says so” is irrefutable, or meaningless, or heretical depending on the listener.

    God Says Thou Shalt Not Sell Beer on Sundays, perhaps. To a fellow traveller of the Christian Sect of Beerless Sundays, this is irrefutable. To the schimsatic Christian Sect of Worshipping God through Divine Ale on Sundays, you are directly attacking his beliefs! To the poor Lutheran down the hallway, it’s just weird and now he can’t buy beer if he had the urge.

    There’s no room for debate. The minute “God Says So” enters into the rationale, you’ve locked out some people from the discussion, alienated others, and basically moved the entire conversation to a different realm whose accessibility varies — as does it’s applicability.

    Whereas with, oh, “Abortion should be illegal because it is the same as murder” — you might believe that because God says so, but you can ALSO make a purely secular case, one way or the other.

    Which is a conversation everyone can be involved in.

    Religious views as foundational to law simply don’t work, because that conversation can only be held inside your church. Secular rationals, even if the agree with religious ones, are accessible and applicable to all — it is a conversation anyone can take part in, religious or not.

    I’m all for religious motivations inspiring you to be involved, to shape your worldview — it’s just religious motivations are insufficient to rule. Because I don’t belong to your church. Whether it’s because I’m an atheist, a Wiccan, a Muslim, or just a different flavor of Christianity.

    In the end, the Lemon test continues to work — be as religiously motivated as you want, as long as you have a compelling non-religious reason to make something the law of the land.

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    • Religious views as foundational to law simply don’t work, because that conversation can only be held inside your church. Secular rationals, even if the agree with religious ones, are accessible and applicable to all — it is a conversation anyone can take part in, religious or not.

      I disagree. Secular rationals can be just as tribal as religious ones. Besides, “accessibility and applicability” arise when there are shared assumptions, but there’s nothing special about secular rationals that make them necessarily more universally shared or shareable. Yes, religious assumptions limit room for debate. All assumptions do!

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      • There is a difference between subjective beliefs and faith ( which we all have to some degree) and objective data. Yeah data driven processes do limit debate in a way, but they are more (allthough not perfectly) objective. It seems like the argument is between subjective and objective.

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      • What prevents you from concoting a secular reason to promote your religious concept? Nothing, really. Either you can, in which case your reason is applicable to all — religious or not…

        Or you can’t, in which case your reason only carries weight with your church.

        What prevents me from defending against your religious motivations? Well, I’m not a member of your Church. I lack standing, I lack background, and I lack any of the assumptions of your church.

        Secular ‘tribalism’ in law, at least here in the US, is nothing more than a rule stating “You cant’ say ‘Because God said so'”.

        You seem to believe that ‘secular’ means something like ‘anti-religious’ — rather than “not prioritizing religion”. The Pope can participate in a secular debate — he’s got all the tools of every other human at his disposal.

        I cannot participate in a Catholic debate — I’m not one.

        Call it something OTHER than secularism if you want, but basically if you let religious motivations become the primary drivers of government choices, you’ve created an in-group and an out-group. ‘Secular’ in this case means trying to create the largest possible pool of involved folks — and since it means both me and the Pope can have a conversation about law, and we can bring in an Ayatollah and a Scientologist to boot, that’s a pretty sizeable grouping.

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        • ‘Secular’ in this case means trying to create the largest possible pool of involved folks

          If that’s the case, then “secular” in a society that’s say, 98% one religion, would mean appealing to that religion.

          What prevents you from concoting a secular reason to promote your religious concept? Nothing, really. Either you can, in which case your reason is applicable to all — religious or not…

          But reason isn’t applicable to all, even in a non-religious field, because we don’t all reason the same way. Everyone has assumptions that affect the way they reason.

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          • Indeed we do. But again — I’m not part of your Church. But you ARE part of the non-Church world.

            Ergo, anything involving that non-Church world and some sort of attempt at consensus government should, you know, be based in that non-Church world.

            To provide an example: American Catholics are both Catholic and American. American Protestants are both Protestants and American.

            When it comes to American government, shouldn’t the rationale behind it be based on that “American” part that all Americans share, and not the Catholic or Protestant sort?

            Because let’s face it — if you can’t come up with a solid, non-religious justification for something, why on EARTH would you wish to use government to handle it — rather than your Church?

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  2. My gut response is that this is simply a recognition of the idea that rationality (or objectivity) free from experience (or background) is an impossibility. It is an artifice we create to feel better about our systems, even though it plainly isn’t true.

    However, maybe that doesn’t describe what you’re doing here. I don’t want to capture it incorrectly.

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  3. The problem, I submit, is this: “God says so” doesn’t start a discussion; it ends it. There’s not much to say to “God said so!” other than “Oh no he didn’t!” or “There is no God.” […] At this stage, I fail to see why religious beliefs are any less legitimate than “secular” beliefs as a basis for action in the political sphere.

    There’s always the ‘why’ question, which I find devastating, myself. “Why did God command that?” Did God make commandment C because it’s right (correct, true, justified, etc whatever) or is it right because God commanded it (even if it appears prima facie wrong). That’s why I don’t think invoking “God says” is conversation ender in any legitimate sense at all.

    Or look at it this way: even a post modernist needs to rationally i>justify their beliefs, and invoking God amounts to asserting “it’s just what I believe”. Which is no justification at all.

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  4. Credo ut, indeed.

    Diogenes said :

    When I look upon seamen, men of science and philosophers,
    man is the wisest of all beings;
    When I look upon priests and prophets
    nothing is as contemptible as man.

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  5. As an outspoken atheist and firm proponent of secularism, I still have no issue at all if someone says “I want to pursue this because my religion tells me so.” That’s totally ok with me, and many, if not most religions have very fine things to say on how humans should interact.

    But: If you want me to agree to a law that your religion proposes, you have to keep in mind that there will most probably be religions that suffer from that law, or at least people who simply don’t belong to that religion. So please argue for that law in terms that keep any god out of the discussion.

    Being inspired to something by religion is a great thing. But not bothering to find a secular reason to convince others with isn’t.

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    • This makes perfect sense in practice. You have to find common ground to build support for what you want to do. I’m not sure it matters here, however, whether or not religion is what initially pushes for a course of action. If you want to convince me to support a policy of yours that some group should have the right to marry, but I dismiss the whole notion of a right to marry, then you’ve got to make a case in terms that keep the “right to marry” out of the discussion. Or convince me that such a right exists.

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  6. I’m not grasping the distinction you’re making. What causes would you new champion that you would have avoided a few days ago because your belief in them is religious?

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          • If it’s good rhetoric, why isn’t it a good governmental idea?

            Can you think of ANY laws, regulations, or governmental goals you feel should be promoted by American government that have only a religious backing?

            If not — what’s the problem? If so, why should government do it and not your Church?

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                  • So? I mean really: SO?

                    What does it matter whether your rationale flows from your Church, your years of philosophical study, or your buddy Rob’s drunken musings last Friday night?

                    We only care, when it comes time to turn that thought into “government stuff” that affects EVERYONE that you come up with a rationale that is equally applicable to EVERYONE.

                    They don’t have to agree — you just need to do better than “God says so” or “Rob says so”.

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                    • Good lord — did you think I thought there was?

                      Secularism is more useful as a governmental philosophy than religion because everyone is part of the secular world, whereas not everyone is part of the religious world. (Or more specifically, whomever’s tiny slice of it).

                      Not “perfect”. Just “more useful”. Because it deals solely with the secular world, rather than secular world + your religious world. (Which varies. If it even exists).

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                    • To further add: Your religious reasoning might even be superior as a reasoning system to secularism.

                      But since I’m not a member of your church, it doesn’t matter. Superior, but totally inapplicable.

                      You can’t apply “God says in Genesis” to me, because I have no actual relationship with the God, the Book, or the faith. But I can say unto you “Don’t pee in the drinking water, it’s unhealthy” because you do know what “pee”, “drinking water” and “unhealthy” means.

                      You might disagree and do it anyways, I might be wrong and it might be totally healthy, but we can have a conversation about it — agree or not.

                      Not the same with religion.

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            • The US allows religions charity status and relief from taxation without the need to provide professionally audited accounts.

              I suggest this state of affairs was wholly religiously motivated. No secular reason exists for treating religions differently to other charities.

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  7. I’m not sure I understand what the change was supposed to be here. When you write

    “what God is said to have said can be assessed and judged on grounds other than the professed event of revelation. Religious belief about morality includes more than divine command ethics. See the natural law tradition, for instance”

    –that just is a bog-standard commitment to secularism. Divine authority can’t be appealed to in public discourse. But things that you may believe in large part due to such authority, can of course be put forward and defended in the public realm (so long, again, as divine authority isn’t appealed to.)

    This is just the view of public reason that you’ll find defended in its canonical proponents like Rawls, Gaus, etc.

    Maybe your secularism hasn’t unraveled; it has simply arrived.

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  8. As a secularist, I have to say I am not convinced that the dividing line is really between religious vs. secular reasons; rather, it seems to me to be between what allows pluralism and what doesn’t.

    I know many religious people, for example, that believe that the taking of a life is against God’s will. Mind you, almost none of them believes this in an absolute sense; they all draw the line about which kinds of lives God really means in different places. But regardless of where that line is, this religious conviction steers their thinking, and thus their desire for certain public policies. There is disagreement – both across the aisle and in-tent – about where the line should drawn, but I am unaware of any non-fringe arguments that using religious motivations as a factor in what lives we allow society or the government to extinguish make that argument void.

    Where I do see there being a parting of the ways is when religious convictions begin to force public policy that demands adherence to religious dogma, where dogma is itself the goal.

    For example, if your creed says that wine made from grape is sinful but hard cider made from apples is acceptable, you might well push for the government shutting down all of Oregon’s vineyards. (BTW, for a lot of our country’s earlier history, this was an actual battle that led to actual anti-wine laws.) Whether I drink alcohol made from grapes or apples is something that – outside of a very narrow interpretation of scripture – is very arbitrary, and laws that demand one over the other do not in fact have a real purpose in social betterment outside of adherence to a particular dogma. You will see secularists casually dismiss an argument to shut down Oregon’s vineyards in a way they won’t an argument to repeal the death penalty.

    In other words, religious underpinnings in policies designed to create a better functioning and more moral pluralistic society have always been acceptable to just about everybody, even most secularists. Secularism tends to have problems when that purpose is abandoned, and religion is used as a reason for dismantling pluralism in favor of a single dogma.

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  9. My only question, Kyle, is how you decide which of your religious beliefs deserve to be laws, and which of them can be maintained as personal codes of conduct? For example, if your religion prohibits the eating of pork, or prohibits drinking alcohol, or prohibits pre-marital sex, should you then work to enact these beliefs in law simply because your religion teaches them? Or is there some other guiding principle, either from within the religion or exterior to it, that helps you to undersand which of your religious teachings should be law, universally adhered to under the threat of force, and which you should just follow yourself and perhaps tell others that they should follow them as well?

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        • What I find interesting is that Kyle admits he goes outside of religion to determine which specific policies to support (independent justification), yet that seems to undermine the basic argument of the post, which is that religious beliefs not only can be, but actually are, foundational in the sense of justifying in and of themselves policy positions.

          Kyle, where am I going wrong here?

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          • My argument, such as it is, is that both secular beliefs and religious beliefs can be legitimate starting points of reasoning about law and public policy. You should, I think, move beyond mere belief. And if reason contradicts belief, be willing to reconsider the belief.

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            • Ahhh. Good. Then my earlier interpretation might be right after all: that what you’re talking about here is the distinction between a person’s psychological commitment to a belief and the justification of that belief. In particular, that the intensity of emotional commitment to the truth of a belief gives us no insight into whether that belief is true or not, even tho the person committed to that belief would disagree. Yes?

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            • Religious beliefs are absolutist. They aren’t starting points, they’re conclusions. It’s the difference between Astrology whereon the stars in secret influence comment; and Astronomy, which gives us far richer and stranger things to consider.

              Religious beliefs tell us we ought to behave in accordance with God’s command. Secular beliefs tell us we ought to behave in accordance with the rule of law, made by mortal men in legislatures, enforced by judges in accordance with our rights in law.

              Religion has done nothing but contradict belief in anything but its own precepts. Religion, where it held sway in the lives of men, never reconsidered any of its doctrines except at the point of a spear or gun or threat of losing its tax-exempt status. Religions remain the greatest threat to civil society and will continue to be so while each would tell us of its exclusive franchise on truth delivered straight from heaven on high.

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          • The only question I have, then, is with what do you reevaluate your beliefs? Reason? If we’re now at a point where reasoning either leads to the beliefs you have (and if it doesn’t, may cause you to reevaluate your reasoning until it does), or leads you to reevaluate your beliefs, then why not just stick with reason? It seems you can be a perfectly good secularist and just use your religious beliefs when they happen to be in agreement with your secular reasoning, because either through reevaluation of that reasoning, or through reevaluation of the beliefs, they will always line up.

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            • I’m not sure that reason should have a monopoly on truth. Seems to me that non-rational exercises of the mind, such as myth and metaphor, can convey truths that cannot be expressed in a philosophical formula. I value both Logos and Mythos. To take an image Erik Kain once used in a different context, I value the dance of faith and reason. Each has something to say to the other, and they’re always on the move. Which means I’m always on the move, striving to get closer to what is true.

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              • I agree, actually. Though I tend to think in terms of symbols and symbolism rather than faith, I suppose they amount to the same thing. I was pointing in this direction with my comments, particularly since the moment I hear the word “reason,” I start thinking about the absurd, which is the large space that reason doesn’t penetrate.

                Anyway, I enjoyed the post. I like seeing people work things out like this publicly. Thank you for it.

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              • Joseph Campbell once said Myth was the armour Truth must wear to survive the long centuries. But there are many sorts of truth, all of them provisional. What cannot be falsified cannot be said to be true.

                Somewhere at the core of science is a balancing act between two contradictory viewpoints. New ideas must always be given a fair hearing, no matter how strange. But we must always be on our guard, the scalpel of skepticism at the ready, to prune away even our dearest and most-beloved theories and conclusions when new evidence arises to refute them. Truth doesn’t always triumph over nonsense, but that’s how we can distinguish the two from each other.

                Faith always improves with an inoculation of skepticism. Far too much of what passes for truth really is nothing but wishful thinking. Reason, too, benefits from that inoculation, for truth is not a settled matter.

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  10. On an intellectual level your position is an interesting one though I think it’s been pretty well addressed by the preceding comments.

    On an emotional level, as a person who has occasionally stood at the mild receiving end of “God says so, end of discussion” and as one who knows some of my kind who have stood at the burning intense end of “God says so, freak, END OF DISCUSSION” I feel compelled to express that if you want to unravel the separation of Church and State and enshrine arguments from dogma and faith alongside arguments from secular reason I’ll see you on the barricades.

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    • if you want to unravel the separation of Church and State and enshrine arguments from dogma and faith alongside arguments from secular reason I’ll see you on the barricades.

      Lucky for me, I don’t. I still want a separation of church and state, and I abhor dogmatism of any kind in politics. I’m not arguing for the exclusivity of religious belief in the political sphere, but rather for its inclusion along with secular beliefs and rational argument.

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      • Inclusion HOW?

        Do you mean “as a motivating factor for people’s opinions?” Because if so, welcome to America. That’s how we role.

        As a method of making law? Determing legal from illegal? Why exactly are we gonna privilage one church over another? You say no booze on Sundays because God says — why should the rest of us go along? Because your God says? John over there? Is God don’t care. Why you and not him?

        Your problem is you see “secular” as the same as “religious” when, in THIS context, it means “without religion”. Secular justifications are justifications that DO NOT have it’s sole basis in someone’s religious texts.

        You can’t place “religion” alongside “secularism” when it comes to lawmaking because not everyone is a member of your church — but EVERYONE is capable of reasoning without bringing religion into it. And does so, day in and day out.

        That’s the fundamental difference — secular is not anti-religious. It is not anti-Catholic or anti-Muslim or atheist. It merely means, in this context, “Aside from your religious views” — because everyone’s religious views are different and often contradictory and based on membership in selective groups.

        Not to menion it’s a heck of a lot more peaceful. The Catholics and Protestants haven’t gotten into a nasty shooting war here in ages.

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        • EVERYONE is capable of reasoning without bringing religion into it.

          True, but this doesn’t make reason one uniform thing. Reason-based views are also “different and often contradictory and based on membership in selective groups.”

          Inclusion HOW?

          Along with secular beliefs, as a basis for political reasoning.

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          • True, but this doesn’t make reason one uniform thing.

            You’ve mentioned this a few times in comments and the OP. In all seriousness, I don’t know what this means. Reason – as in “reasoning”- is the application of certain tools to arrive at justified conclusions (which then justify certain actions and beliefs). As I see it, we all – all of us! – invoke the same type of reasoning when we try to justify our beliefs: we use modus ponens, logical particles, entailment, inferrence, etc etc. I think that’s just what reasoning is.

            But it seems to me you’re using the word to include the wildly varying unargued premises which different people hold as part of their reasoning. I would make a distinction there, myself. The reasoning people employ is the same, but the initial premises they hold differ. I think noticing this is an important part of debate, for sure. But I also think it’s only an interesting psychological fact about people and isn’t an interesting philosophical issue. I mean, it’s only because people make psychological commitments to unargued, unjustified premises and conclusions that the philosophical exercise of challenging the justification of “first beliefs” is useful – because it determines (to the best of our abilities anyway) whether those “foundational beliefs” can be rationally justified or not.

            But again, maybe I’m just not getting the argument you’re making.

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                • Rational thought also involves perception and interpretation; therefore, you can have two or more people thinking rationally (including logically) about a concept or an event who each come to a different conclusion. Take, for example, the basic debate between the Left and the Right in U.S. national politics. Their basic premises differ, of course, but so do their values and their manners of interpreting U.S. history. They don’t differ because one side uses logical reason and the other uses fallacious reasoning. Each thinks about the world in a different way.

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                  • Rational thought is almost always a contradiction in terms. Einstein had all these interesting Thought Experiments. He wasn’t a particularly good mathematician and he always had some help along the way, getting his thoughts translated into equations. He wasn’t a particularly good physicist, either. None of this takes anything away from his genius: even when he was just stubbing in some variable to make his equations work he was a great thinker, case in point, the gravitational constant, which he thought was a huge error at the time.

                    Rational thought is the application of abstractions. Reason explains. Reason doesn’t care about your conclusion: it cares about the facts behind your thought process. Facts don’t take sides. That’s how you know it’s a fact. It’s not subject to interpretation. It’s just there, like a rock on the ground or a star in the sky. We can ask how that rock got there, — oh, that’s an erratic, how interesting, to think that the glaciers pushed that rock for a thousand miles, only to end up in this field. But that’s an explanation. The fact behind it is a massive granite boulder in a field where no granite is found in the local geology.

                    The Left and the Right

                    If the Left and the Right reach different conclusions, they’re taking different facts into account. Both sides suffer from terribly sloppy thinking. Oh, they think they’re rational. They’re not. They reach different conclusions because most thought isn’t rational. People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found by others. That’s Blaise Pascal. A direct quote.

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          • So? No one’s arguing for a perfect philosophical basis.

            I’m just flatly saying that achieveing consensus using religious reasoning is a non-starter, because not everyone belongs to your Church. (And even those who do disagree about what God says).

            So “God sayeth” is pointless.

            But we all live in the world, we all do stuff that ISN’T inside a Church or about religion, and we all manage to muddle through the day without God telling is what to eat for dinner or whether the oil should be changed or, frankly, whether it’s a good idea to dump poison in the drinking supply.

            Whether we AGREE on what to do about dinner, or the oil, or the poison in the water supply is immaterial — unlike “religion” we all share a non-religious part of the world and deal with it in a non-religious way. Why is government different?

            Religious doctrine is pointless to government, unless you’re running a theocracy. It might inform your votes, or your idealogy, but again — why should it inform the law?

            We’re all Americans, but we’re not all Catholics or Mormons or Jews.

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              • Let me state this again: We ALL use secular reasoning, every day of our lives, for practically everything.

                We do NOT all use religious reasoning, much less the SAME religious reasoning.

                So which one should we base a government on?

                “Secular” here means merely “without reference to your religion”. I mean, that’s pretty binary, isn’t it? Either we make governmental choices based ON religion or WITHOUT religion. Both lead to lots of arguing, confusion and lack of consensus at times.

                Why pick secular over religion? Because religion is an added complexity that does not reduce the problem, but compound it. Because in addition to the issue before us (water rights, the penalty for murder, whether to allow fracking, whether to regular barbers) we now have to deal with everyone’s beliefs on what God thinks of the issue.

                What have we gained? Nothing. It’s another layer of argument.

                The difference between religious and secular is simple: Religion makes it MORE complicated without making the issue any LESS complicated (unless the issue is, itself, religious. That might be an exception).

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                • This is where we disagree. I don’t see that religion has to complicate matters more than secular ideology. I agree that sound reasoning should order the decisions of government, as I believe government should fuction as rationally as possible, but any such reasoning will involve beliefs of some kind or another.

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                  • Really? You don’t?

                    I don’t belong to your Church. I didn’t when I was religious. In fact, aren’t you Catholic? If so, my former Church and yours kicked off a multi-century war and basically left Prussia a dog’s breakfast for generations.

                    You want to add that mess on TOP of whatever the actual issue is? “Well, we’re here to discuss water rights. In addition to economic analysis and usage statistics, Bob’s going to explain how God says he can use all the water he wants per Genesis 6.1, Timmy’s going to call him a heretical jerkward, and Sam over there is going to bring up the fact that they’re both worshiping invisible Sky Daddy’s and morons because of it. After we break up the fistfight, we’ll go back to discussions on usage and refill rates”

                    Please, give me an example of where adding religion in makes a governmental problem easier to solve.

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                    • Secular actors find themselves in irresolvable conflicts, just as religious actors do. Secular states also fight wars. Secularists disagree about fundamentals. None of these irresolvable conflicts are exclusive to the religious realm.

                      Your framing of religious contribution also misses much of what religion offers society. Religion isn’t simply a shouting contest about what God really said–it includes that, as secular society includes superficial debates that distract from the issue at hand–it often functions as a comprehensive doctrine about human life, including political life. For example, a lot of religions have teachings on what ultimately brings human happiness and peace among peoples. These are ideas, based in religious teaching, that may (or may not) be insightful for those charged with ordering society. They may be notions worth considering, especially if they can be translated in language that appeals more to the wider public.

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                    • Yes they do — but again, you are taking purely secular problems and then saying “To solve this, let us take secular reasoning and then add in religion!”. To what end?

                      Again, I ask you: Give me an example of where adding religion in makes a governmental problem easier to solve.

                      You seem to read so much into my words that isn’t there. Religion exists. People are religious. Scientology exists. People are Scientologists. So what?

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                    • I reject your premise that “easiest to solve” is always and everywhere (within the field of the State) the standard we should aim for. Discussion and debate can lead to better results. Bringing in religion can be a distraction, sure. So can bringing in secular ideology.

                      I’m not saying that bringing in religion is always a good idea, but it can be, if what’s entertained extends beyond mere authoritative say-so and has intelligible relevance to the political issues at hand.

                      Take, for example, the religious notions that the society, including the State, has a moral responsibility to care for the poor and to see that the goods of the world, which are meant for the benefit of all, are justly distributed. These are arguably ideas worth entertaining. That they originated from papal encyclicals or from other religious texts/traditions doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be on the table.

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                    • You think that religion — that Papal statements — are the only reason anyone cares about the poor?

                      Do you think the poor would lie starving on the streets if the Bible was silent about moral duty towards them?

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          • The missing word here is “values.” The Religious Left gets its communitarian “social Gospel” politics from its religious values. What’s wrong with that?

            America dumped soteriology—the business of salvation–from the first. As Locke elegantly pointed out, if you can’t make a guy clean his yard, you can’t make him care for his soul. Neither can your government get you into heaven.

            Jurgen Habermas has done a lot of work in this area. Certainly if you want to convince the other fellow, you need to speak his language, not yours. But religious values also give a vitality to a society, and Onward Kantian Soldiers just doesn’t have that swing.

            “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

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          • The missing word here is “values.” The Religious Left gets its communitarian “social Gospel” politics from its religious values. What’s wrong with that?

            “I hear politicians talking about values in an election year. I hear a lot about that. Let me tell you about values. Hard work, personal responsibility–those are values. But looking out for one another. That’s a value. The idea that we’re all in this together. I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper. That’s a value.”—B. Obama

            Now, America dumped soteriology—the business of salvation–from the first. As Locke elegantly pointed out, if you can’t make a guy clean his yard, you can’t make him care for his soul. Neither can your government get you into heaven. So that stuff isn’t a factor here.

            Jurgen Habermas has done a lot of work in this area. Certainly if you want to convince the other fellow, you need to speak his language, not yours. But religious values also give a vitality to a society, and Onward Kantian Soldiers just doesn’t have that swing.

            “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

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      • Very lucky for us both! I am terrible with guns but I imagine I could throw a mean brick and some scathing language.

        I just don’t see how it works in practice.
        “Medical science tells us that blood transfusions and organ transplants are a vital part of saving the lives of people who’ve been in accidents suffering blood loss and organ damage.”
        “Christian Sect A knows that putting one person’s blood in other person’s body is an anathema to God!”
        “Muslim Sect B knows that cutting open an organ donor’s body to extract organs for transplants is a desecration of the dead and God hates that!”
        “The preponderance of evidence is against these acts. The ban on blood transfusions and organ transplants passes!”
        And don’t even get me started on what happens when the various religious directly contradict each other. Europe rolled back centuries of war by relegating religious doctrine further away from state policy. I just don’t see any area today where the absence of blatantly religiously based positions is impoverishing the debate.

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          • I think there’s already an excellent rule: Use religious reasoning to handle religious issues, use secular reasoning to handle secular issues, and use whatever floats your boat to handle personal ones.

            Let’s face it — government? If you can’t up with even a vaugely convincing secular reason, why are you doing it? And how are you going to convince everyone anyways? So what’s the point.

            Religion? What other basis BUT religion would you use to make calls here?

            Personal? Your life, your call!

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            • It’s precisely your neat division of religious and secular that I question. Even in the most secular democratic state imaginable, religious beliefs will inform law and policy, indirectly if not directly. There’s no way to avoid this. A pure secularism is impossible so long as those participating in the political sphere make decisions in ways somewhat informed by their religious beliefs. I don’t see this as a big deal since even without religious beliefs affecting law and policy, you’d have beliefs of some sort at play.

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              • You’ve got the part about religions inherently making political claims or demanding a share in politics. The part you’re leaving out is the extent to which the so-called secular state is itself a source of transcendent meaning in the modern world. The problem isn’t just relating your belief system to politics, but negotiating the encounter between belief systems, one called religious but with political aspects, and the other called political but with religious aspects.

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              • So the real world is messy? that’s your objection? “Abandon ship, real world not black and white!”.

                Yeah, it gets fuzzy around the edges. So what? That’s life.

                The Lemon Test is a pretty accurate test for such fuzziness, and where to draw the line — a better test might exist, but it does well enough.

                Do you NEED a better guiding line than that? Is there some test case it has failed?

                Honestly, I think you’ve lost yourself in a fog of your own making — tossing aside rather solid concepts because the edges aren’t as clear-cut as you wish.

                Again: Leave the religious doctrine to the realm of the religious, the secular to the secular, the personal to the personal — and when they meet, well…do your best. Just remember that everyone is American, but they’re not all members of your Church, and that telling another man what he can and cannot do might place the same shoe on your foot.

                And low and behold – -it’s worked out okay so far.

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                • And hey, if you have religious reasons to support secular things — like welfare programs for the poor, does it matter? Your support might be more fervent, but those programs wouldn’t exist if there was only a religious call for it.

                  Nobody cares — least of all me — if you have an underlying religious motivation for anything you do. If you want to do something out here in the secular world that impacts me, that’s a different matter. And if you want me to vote for it, to accept it as law…

                  “God said so” won’t cut it. Cold, rational reason — the sort of pragmatic stuff that goes into your day as “Should I change the oil in my car” — might.

                  I’m not Catholic. Secular reasoning is the only language we share. Why would you speak to me in a tongue I don’t understand?

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  11. I think it is impossible to prevent someone from holding political beliefs or positions based on their religious views or lack thereof.

    People are always going to be pro and con things based on their religious views.

    That being said in a nation of 300 plus million people and a multitude of religions, it is probably best to come up with non-religious justifications if you want to convince a majority. There is also the fact that we have a no-Establishment clause in the First Amendment.

    I am pretty sure that my ambivalent feelings on tattoos can be traced to my Judaism. I am also sure that my Jewish feelings on tattoos should not inhibit non-Jews from getting them. Nor should my Judaism apply to other Jews. Though I would probably be more likely to argue with other Jews about whether Jews should refrain from being tattooed.

    Likewise, my Sabbath is not on Sunday. I should not be compelled into Blue Laws enforced by Protestants and their interpretation of their religion.

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      • I’d have to go back to Hume’s original and GE Moore’s “the naturalistic fallacy.” Didn’t they argue the “complete separation.” Wasn’t Hume’s point that the gap couldn’t be bridged? Now, I agree with you that they may be wrong; but I think that’s where it comes from.

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        • Hume argues that is relations cannot be used to argue for ought relations, which is what many rationalists used to do. His overarching point is that different kinds of relations can’t be used to argue for each other. In the end, though, Hume has no problem with is-ought reasoning if we’re not doing it like the rationalists do.

          Moore’s is a bit more appropriate, but it doesn’t rule out reasoning from is to ought. It merely says that when we attribute a property to something, like pleasure, and we also say that what is pleasurable is good, then if we conclude that pleasure is the same thing as the good, we’re committing the naturalistic fallacy. In essence, this says that you can’t reduce “good” to a natural property, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reason from a natural property to “the good.”

          Neither, then, suggests that we can’t reason from is to ought. And it’s fairly easy to show that any claim that we can’t is nonsensical, because I can turn any ought statement into an is statement very easily (e.g., “It is the case that I should not kill my neighbor”). More seriously, though, it’s often the case that what is tells us precisely what we ought to do. For example, if it is the case that it is raining, and it is the case that I don’t want to get wet, then I ought to use an umbrella. This isn’t a moral ought, of course, but you can see how you could change a few values of the variables there and get a moral ought statement from is statements.

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          • No, Chris, not actually – you don’t get a “moral ought statement” just by switching variables. Or, if you can, you should show us how.

            Your is-analysis (causal, scientific) tells you only that “no umbrella -> wet.” It doesn’t tell you whether you ought to avoid wetness. You could then say, if I get wet, I’ll get sick, and if I get sick, I might die, therefore I should avoid getting wet, but none of that tells you whether you should prefer to live rather than to die. That it’s instinctual to want to live is just another descriptive analysis. “I should do what’s instinctual” is a possible fundamental norm, but will quickly, unless you’re an unusual kind of guy, get you into difficulties.

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  12. When you were acting in the political sphere two days ago were you acting without your religious beliefs? Does anyone with religious beliefs act in the political sphere deliberately contrary to those beliefs? Do they worship rather than renounce Satan? Covet their neighbors wife? Serve Mammon?

    Alright, maybe they do. But you will never convince me its because they are secular. I suspect that the founders went all secular because they could recall Great Britain’s religious struggles throughout our colonial incubation and learned from their errors. But now that we’ve forgotten them, lets power up the pogroms, continue the Crusades, and inGloriously Revolute! I have a bone to pick with the Papists and the Roundheads and a couple Southern Baptists really piss me off.

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  13. I think in this case what’s more important isn’t so much whether or not it’s a secular or theological argument, but whether or not your argument rests upon a foundation of reasoning period. That is, your faith will always inform your reasoning, that’s fine, everyone does this and your belief system is firmly embedded into your reasoning process.

    Rather the question is whether or not your theological belief is arrived from an appeal to authority from those within your church, or by an examination of what you feel God says. This may seem like it’s a bit pedantical in its distinction, but there’s a difference between “because I read xyz to see that God says so” versus “because my pastor says God says so.”

    That is to say, so long as you’re not suggesting an imposition of magesterium into secular policy debates, you’re not really unraveling your secularism.

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  14. If religion will pretend to guide reason, then it ought to be quite aware of the potential of getting it’s toes stepped on. There’s a good reason religion is generally held as separate from the secular sphere — judging someone’s religion is generally considered a great deal more offensive than judging his reasonable arguments.

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  15. Sorry to backtrack, but why do we pretend like the philosophical basis of an idea matters, at least in democracy? What matters is getting a majority of voting population to either endorse the idea or look the other way.

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      • Doesn’t everybody eventually “arrive” at philosophies that happen to align perfectly with their own preferences? Are there many people advocating for political systems – no matter the reasoning behind them – that they wouldn’t personally tolerate and/or benefit from?

        My issue is with the entire tradition that we’re engaged in. It seems like we’ve got people acting as though secular and religious reasoning is somehow different; isn’t all just an expression of personal preference and thus fundamentally alike, even if the outcomes are different?

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  16. I think what is being searched for is a theory of secularism within which religion plays a meaningful role, not a theory in which divine revelation is a sufficient rationale for policy, as it seems like the OP is thinking. It’s completely acceptable for religion to inform the values of participants; in this sense religion is as valid a source of underlying values for political action as any other life experience, even if the basic reason for a specific value is “God says x is good.”
    However, I believe that in a secular democracy the separation of church and state is to be interpreted as a prohibition on proselytizing via law, and that this specific prohibition derives from a more general principle that it is correct to try to mold citizens’ behaviors through law, but not to mold their values. Hence the proximity to the freedoms of speech, press, and association – I think that this is a bedrock liberal ideal in the sense that society is envisaged as a collection of individuals with differing conceptions of the good, and to use the state (ie, the threat of force) to change others’ perceptions of the good violates the rules of the game in a fundamental way.
    Making basic values accessible to the entire polity is, I think, a noble goal, but by no means required: we think that dog-whistle politics is reprehensible but we are powerless to ban it. Individuals are free to cite their religious beliefs as the sources of their specific values – and they do! They may propose policies that promote those values, and indeed the purpose of a liberal government is to promote shared values (without violating rights, of course). But they may not use policy to propagate those values.

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      • I don’t think so – if the government is constructed by agreement to act as a value-neutral referee, save for the imposition of basic rights which are agreed to be essential to its continued functioning (such as this one), then it’s not essentially identified with any particular ‘good life’ (although it will imply specific conceptions of the not-good: but this is probably covered by the rights angle). For lack of precise words, it’s a meta-good-life; a good government; a good society, which I think is the goal of secular liberalism.

        Also, and @north: ??

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          • With the exception of liberty, those are statutory, not constitutional – they are part of *a* liberal government but not *all* liberal government, which is exactly where values ought to arrive in the liberal model. And liberty itself, along with the exclusion of religion, fits into the ‘basic rights’ category – that is, it is an essential component of an (otherwise? that’s not exactly correct…) value-neutral government.

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              • To put what I’d say to Mr Feser on that very shortly, “you’re damn right it ain’t neutral between those“.

                He seems to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with a philosophy that frowns on the idea of forced salvation. I’m inclined to think there’s something wrong with one that doesn’t. Even for those that’d seek to save others from what they may freely choose, how the hell is dialog/guidance on an equal footing with “do this or people in uniforms may assault you” (which is what the state is)? How is that not cheating?

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              • The money quote from Feser is this: “Rawls claimed only that his own brand of liberalism is neutral between what he called ‘reasonable’ comprehensive doctrines, and Barnett also acknowledges that his position is bound to rule out any vision of the good that is incompatible with the possibility of ‘the pursuit of happiness of each person living in society with others.’”

                This is what I’m saying, so I guess I don’t understand what you’re arguing at all. I’m not saying that the government winds up being value-free, but instead that the constitutional framework is designed to be value-free so that competing conceptions of the good can have equal footing in the ensuing political – and value-loaded – debate. ‘Reasonableness’ as per Rawls there is ensured by the basic rights approach – but again, these are not values, they are rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion; liberty, equality, and fraternity; what have you.

                Perhaps it is confusing because these rights also have virtue forms – that is there are people who believe that they are worth pursuing as ends in themselves. But this is not the form of rights that liberal constitutions implement; they take these as technical conditions needed to guarantee that no faction has an unfair advantage in government. In particular, the governing party may not use the government to directly consolidate support for itself or suppress dissent; it may not advance its religion, nor torture lawbreakers or civil disobedients, nor pass laws that apply unequally, nor pass retroactive laws, nor restrict voting rights.

                Now, there may be disagreement about rights, and rights may change with time. But this is viewed as progress in our understanding of those conditions needed to ensure a value-neutral polity, not any change in the values informing them – since values don’t inform liberal rights.

                Everything else – everything ‘substantial’ – is statutory. And at that point values are totally acceptable.

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  17. Ask a politician why you shouldn’t go around killing and feasting on your neighbors, and chances are you’ll get a profession of faith along the lines of what the young John Conner said to the Terminator: “You just can’t; trust me on this.” Nobody waits until they’ve found Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s categorical imperative or some other original rational foundation before they debate and exercise power in the political sphere.

    It doesn’t take augering down to first principles to realize that the kind of society where killing and feasting upon one’s neighbors is tolerated is not the sort of society that can sustain existence for very long. Nor does it take a class in Rawls to realize “that could be me, so perhaps that’s not the rule I want.”

    Pure reason, free of any foundational beliefs, is a pipe dream. I see no sense in wanting those who write, interpret, and enforce laws to put their beliefs aside when doing their jobs. I’d prefer they be open about what they really believe and why so I can judge and respond to them according to my beliefs and reasons.

    So long as people are culturally pluralistic in addition to being informed by their beliefs, that’s a fine attitude. In practice, a large number of people are tribalistic. They will write, interpret, and enforce laws in a manner consistent with tribal rather than pluralistic beliefs, with the result that out-groups will be unfairly disadvantaged.

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    • It doesn’t take augering down to first principles to realize that the kind of society where killing and feasting upon one’s neighbors is tolerated is not the sort of society that can sustain existence for very long.

      True. Although some actors on the international stage have yet to learn this lesson.

      This is more of a pragmatic approach to the ethics of murder, which has value, but it doesn’t really tell us whether murdering one’s neighbor is inherently wrong.

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      • And thats exactly how it should be.

        Murdering isnt inherently wrong.

        It is just that if you are able to murder anyone you come across, then suddenly you will be murdered by someone you come across. It is just to the best benefit of everyone that murdering is frowned upon. It is one of the few things that can actually be argued about being to the benefit of everyone.

        And even then, there is argument of where murdering might actually be the best solution. We wouldnt have death penalty anywhere otherwise.

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      • This is more of a pragmatic approach to the ethics of murder, which has value, but it doesn’t really tell us whether murdering one’s neighbor is inherently wrong.

        That could be because murdering one’s neighbor isn’t inherently wrong (or at least isn’t wrong in the way you’re presuming it is). It could be (and I think this is the case) that the grounding of the murder prohibition is pragmatically justified, and if so, there are no first principles being appealed to. But that conflicts with your earlier claim (in comments) that all prohibitions in law derive from either unprovable assumptions or self-evident first principles. I would submit that that isn’t the case.

        I think this goes back to some of your previous posts on the topic. It seems you were creating a bit of a false dilemma. You were in effect (I think anyway) arguing that our justification for certain laws terminates in either self-evident a priori derivable necessary truths or assumptions based on faith. And as you argued thru those posts, you seems to conclude that since there are no self-evident propositions our first principles must be assumed and derive their justification from faith.

        But I think there’s a third option which you aren’t considering: that our justification for certain principles is pragmatic. That invoking those principles leads to better outcomes, but not because of any apriori necessity or out of an assumed and unprovable value scheme based on faith. It could be that they’re justified pragmatically by practice. Along those lines, prohibiting murder within a society allows people – as a matter of fact! – to express their interests and fulfill their desires to a higher degree than one which permits it. (Notice that there are no normative claims in that sentence!)

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        • If you’re going to discuss whether something is inherently wrong you shouldn’t call it murder. Murder is defined as a crime, something which is against the law and therefore, by implication, against the prevailing moral code of conduct.

          For this atheist nothing is “inherently wrong”. Things either conform to society’s moral code of conduct or they don’t.

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  18. I’m Christian, and this post is basically in line with how I’ve always felt about politics. I support separation of church and state, but not separation of religion and politics.

    Everyone has a worldview, everyone has their own philosophy or beliefs, that informs their political ideals and preferred policies. Why should it be legitimate for one person to say “I believe we have a duty to provide housing for the homeless due to the principles of secular humanism,” but not for another person to say, “I believe we have a duty to provide housing for the homeless because we are all God’s children and love for one’s neighbour and providing for their needs is at the core of morality”? Why shouldn’t it be legitimate to oppose the death penalty based on the belief that even the most vile person can be redeemed, and it is not for us to choose to take that chance away? Why are moral values and moral views based in faith any less legitimate than moral values based in anything else?

    I prefer politicians who speak out about and act out their Christian beliefs in public life, provided that their Christian beliefs are something I recognize as consistent with the Bible (it is a source of endless frustration and anger that most politicians who talk about being Christian have policies that are as anti-Christian as anything I can imagine). It’s the reason for my enduring liking for Jimmy Carter, the last president to combine sincere discussion of faith with actual Christian policies, evident in his pursuit of peace and human rights.

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  19. I think that the problem with imposing laws based on religion is that it leaves no room for arguments. Like you said, the moment ‘God says so’ there is no chance of arguing or questioning anything.

    Laws imposed by secularism can usually be more discussed because there is no ‘end point argument’. There is no argument that is irrefutable and the absolute truth.

    So, if we have a group of people we are more free to argue over some topic back and forth until we find common grounds where the law can be settled, or we find that we dont have the common ground to settle it.

    If we have a argument about what should be a law, and someone points ‘God says so’, then suddenly the opinion of the people who will live under that law is meaningless. You rob people of the chance to decide what they want for themselves.

    Keep in mind that this also happens a lot in a Democracy. Its just more disguised. But if you have two wolves and a sheep voting what they will have for dinner, you give the sheep the impression that his opinion will count when the reality is much different. Both a religious law imposition and a democratic law imposition have the same basic problem – you have a group that can effectively veto everyone else’s opinion. With religion, it is a small group of people who can speak the word of God, with a democracy it is the biggest group of people that agree on something, but both are tyrannies in the sense that their will is imposed over everyone else.

    I think the ideal would be for people to be able to decide what they want for themselves withouth having someone else’s beliefs imposed onto them, religious or otherwise, as long as what they want for themselves doesnt harm someone else. I also do not think that something like that is possible to achieve with any form of government that we have.

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    • It seems like your core disagreement with religious-based policy making is that it’s based on a belief system that other people may not share.

      But that’s true of a lot of policymaking. To give one example, economic policy is based on the belief that increasing the net ability of Americans to consume things (i.e., growing the economy) is the best way to improve people’s lives. This is treated as indisputable, obvious truth. Some people may not agree with that, they may vote against it, but they will still always have a government that operates under that belief. And on that assumption every economic decision is built. “The market says so” is the secular version of “God says so”.

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      • Yes, and you can see i pointed it out too – it is my core disagreement with most government types.

        It is also one i do not have a solution to. Different people dont agree on most things, and many times its very difficult to find common ground anywhere.

        Even on the reasonably simple issue of where something starts affecting you.

        Suppose you dont like seeing two guys kissing each other. What is a reasonable ruling of those case? We cannot say that it doesnt affect you, because clearly it does. However, interfering with their own love also would affect them. What is a fair solution? Two different people will have two different viewpoints of what is fair in a case like this. They will have to find a compromisse somewhere, and that will definitely affect either the person who doesnt like looking at the guys kissing, the guys kissing, or all of them.

        But, like i said, at least if you do have a talk and a the possibility of a argument you might be able to reach a law that is ‘more fair’ to everyone involved than if someone have the power to veto the discussion. It doesnt matter if the veto comes from God, the Market, a roll of dice or the little white bunny. If anyone has the power to veto a discussion then the chance to get a law that is somewhat fair is dead from the beggining.

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  20. While I accept that some secular philosophies are founded of beliefs for which there is little evidence I think it’s probably possible to found secular government on premises for which there is good evidence. I don’t think this is true of religious premises in general. Therefore I think Kyle’s new view that religious dogma is potentially as valid as good secular reasoning is not consistent with reality.

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  21. Kyle is right here. Beliefs do not appear ex nihilo. They derive from a worldview that claims, at least, to render reality intelligible so that we can talk about “facts” in the first place. Religion helps form the basis of such a worldview. Secularism, it may be argued, does something similar. But secularism does something odd in that it asserts, arbitrarily, that certain transcendent claims are out of bounds, even while it makes transcendent claims of its own.

    Secularism vs. religion isn’t actually where this discussion begins. It begins, as always, with the natural law. All Kyle’s interlocutors here have, simply by joining the debate about theories of knowledge, acceded to the existence of the natural law. https://ordinary-times.com/timkowal/2012/08/if-you-have-an-opinion-on-this-post-congratulations-youre-doing-natural-law/

    The debate thus becomes one about worldviews. And that’s where I’m with Kyle: It would be arbitrary to impugn a worldview simply by labeling it “religious.” Again, it may be said that secularism is “religious” and thus rises or falls with all other religions as a source of truth. But I think that’s giving secularism too much credit as a worldview.

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      • Very well. But that’s foothold enough. Once irreducible principles are ceded, it must next be ceded that they are rooted in our very nature as rational, moral beings. If not, then those principles are revealed as having been arbitrarily asserted. By the terms of the debate, arbitrary assertions are disallowed, so it’s either accede to the natural law or game over.

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          • Why can’t we from the same logic conclude that arbitrary assertions are absolutely required,

            Because arbitrary assertions aren’t justified. That’s pretty clear, right? It might be descriptively accurate to say that any one person holds unjustified, irrational, amoral beliefs, but that presupposes a definition of “justified”, “rational”, and “moral” by which to make sense of those terms, yes? Or is that wrong?

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            • “Required” is not the same thing, initially, as “justified,” but, if arbitrariness (the sovereign decision that emerges in a critical sense from nothing, as per Schmitt) is in fact required, then submitting to its facticity may be justifiable, may and must be the only justifiable thing. In that sense, as in others or from other perspectives, the revolutionary/founding moment is self-validating (is the self-validating, re-validating, all-validating moment). The polity thus founded is bound to draw content from elsewhere, as promiscuously as it needs to. The modern liberal (arguably: liberalist) state’s official ideology of reason can be seen as enabling its deeper irrationality, but, if so, in a parallel manner as in the theory of the founding, it accedes to the necessity of unreason rationally.

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              • But arbitrary as not-required doesn’t mean arbitrary without merit. There must be some criterion by which degrees epistemological arbitrariness is distinguished into types such that ridiculous arbitrary beliefs (eg., martians are controlling my autonomic functions) can be differentiated from useful/justified/correct/instrumental/maybe even necessary ones, yes?

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                • Well, certainly they can be differentiated. You just differentiated them. Whether that kind of differentiation can be performed in every situation to good enough effect in order to qualify the entire operation as completely reasoned and reasonable is another question.

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              • If we’re talking about Carl Schmitt, we really ought to consider him as a product of his times. Schmitt never really understood the parliamentary system or the constant process of reification: Take the sentence: “Blair’s government has fallen”

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                  • I’m responding to this bit:

                    In that sense, as in others or from other perspectives, the revolutionary/founding moment is self-validating (is the self-validating, re-validating, all-validating moment). The polity thus founded is bound to draw content from elsewhere, as promiscuously as it needs to. The modern liberal (arguably: liberalist) state’s official ideology of reason can be seen as enabling its deeper irrationality, but, if so, in a parallel manner as in the theory of the founding, it accedes to the necessity of unreason rationally.

                    A polity derives mandate from the governed but can only enforce an Official Ideology based on some triumph in idealised conflict, such as the stylised rhetorical tussles in parliament substituting for open warfare in the hedgerows. Thus “Blair’s government has fallen.”

                    Schmitt seemed disgusted with this Idealised Conflict. He knew politics had little to do with rhetorical powers of persuasion and everything to do with the inertial momentum of the partisan political scrum. Reason and politics are thus set in perpetual opposition to each other. Chivalrous rhetoric was only a polite fiction, a modest and decorous accommodation, a fig leaf over the nakedness of the power seeker.

                    Nicht durch Reden und Majoritätsbeschlüsse werden die großen Fragen der Zeit entschieden — das ist der große Fehler von 1848 und 1849 gewesen — sondern durch Eisen und Blut.

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                    • Right – live by the Blut und Eisen, die by the Blut und Eisen. Too bad for the German’s side that the other guys had a lot more Blut and a lot more Eisen.

                      Don’t see how this all exposes some weakness in the paradigm – that is, Schmitt’s theories seem rather more verified by the long course of events than contradicted by them. He had tried to make the Weimar government see that a dab of Blut a bit of Eisen in time saves neun. In that sense he understood the actual circumstances of parliamentary government better than the parliamentarians did, to the extent that he was much more comfortable with its foundational contradictions.

                      The more effective criticisms of Schmitt have less to do with his analysis of liberal democracy, a body of work which some of his worst enemies and harshest critics acknowledge as essential, than with other matters, especially any successful linkage of his lifelong antisemitism with his dangerous and deforming attraction to the extreme case. As Strauss indicated, it wasn’t that Strauss was wrong about “the exception” and “the decision,” but that he seemed to yearn for the situation that produces their purest, most exceptionally decisive expression, regardless of the cost.

                      Not getting the Blair reference.

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          • Why can’t we from the same logic conclude that arbitrary assertions are absolutely required, not disallowed, and rooted in our very nature as irrational, amoral beings – with the added benefit that the observations conform to life as we know it?

            If we are irrational, amoral beings, we would not be having this conversation, so we can rule that out. Since we are rational, moral beings, arbitrary assertions go against our nature, so they’re out, too.

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            • If we were simply rational, moral beings, we would not need to have this conversation, or any conversation at all. The words rational and moral would have no meaning to us at all: There would simply be invariably rational and moral conduct. If we didn’t have a tendency to, say, to covet our neighbor’s wives and hold false gods before us, we’d have no need of Commandments.

              To say that we are, or that we can be seen as at bottom irrational and amoral would not be to say that we are wholly incapable of rationality or morality, it would simply be to say that rationality and morality need to be learned, that they may prove useful to a basically irrational and possibly even more basically amoral being, a being entirely capable of making and embracing arbitrary assertions, and often unable to distinguish between arbitrary assertions and rational or moral ones. Those differing inclinations or capacities to act entirely irrationally or non-rationally and without reference to morality may even be good and useful things, since many rational assertions have no moral value at all or may conflict with morality, and since many moral assertions may appear irrational from different perspectives. In short, the notion that we are moral and rational beings is at best an incomplete description of who and what we are.

              The logically more primary problem is that the decision to disallow arbitrary assertions was entirely arbitrary. It’s true – it’s an argument that I also frequently make in one way or another – that the postulate of fundamental arbitrariness is itself a postulate of fundamental necessity, or that the postulate of non-universality is also a postulate of universality. It’s a necessary retort against skepticism and its contemporary expression as post-modernism, but an incipient or recovered fundamentally natural assertion based in the last resort on the status of the anti-natural assertion inherently being the assertion of a naturalism does not necessarily lead either to modern or to classical natural law. It isolates a contradiction in skepticism that can perhaps eventually be shown to re-produce certain indissoluble antinomies known in different forms for thousands of years, antinomies whose universality or inescapability suggest that they have at least as much a claim to the mantle of “natural” as innate rationality or morality. It does not actually dissolve those antinomies.

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        • But that doesn’t get you anywhere close to a justification for religion Tim. On one view, the “rationalist” priniples are abstractions that have no relevance to empirical matters. They’re “relations of idea”, or conceptual entailments, or the incoherence resulting from denying a limited set of logical particles.

          I think where you go astray is thinking that the self-evidentness of a logical relation like identity is equivalent to the self-evidentness of a relation between an individual and property. It seems to me that there is no self-evidentness about the individual/property relation at all.

          On the other hand, I agree with Patrick that once you’re committed to an epistemological theory you’re committed to irreducible principles. My own view is that need not be a priori derivable in order to be considered irreducible.

          What that means for natural law theory is an open debate, in my mind, given the varying conceptions of natural law.

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          • It does begin the intellectual journey in which the next step is to construct a metaphysic. Huxley: “It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic.” Perhaps religion is subsumed within metaphysics, such that not every metaphysic is a religion. There’s a deeper debate there. But as Hume showed, a purely empirical worldview cannot account for causation or induction, which leaves us with an unintelligible world. We must grant the existence of transcendent principles to have an intelligible worldview. The collecting and organizing of those principles is what we call a metaphysic, and what many call their religion.

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            • But as Hume showed, a purely empirical worldview cannot account for causation or induction, which leaves us with an unintelligible world.

              I disagree. What Hume showed is that causation can’t be analyzed as a “necessary connection”, ala the rationalists. He also showed that rejecting a necessary connection doesn’t render the concept of causation unintelligible. It’s analyzed as a “constant conjunction”, but not necessary, and not a priori determinable.

              There’s lots to talk about here, I think, since both you and TVD seem to misunderstand Hume at a pretty foundational level. And I’m not sure where that confusion arises. Certainly not from a fair reading of Hume.

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        • Btw, I find this odd. You say “Once irreducible principles are ceded, it must next be ceded that they are rooted in our very nature as rational, moral beings” as if humans are intrinsically moral beings. But as I understand it, the conservative view of human nature is that we aren’t moral beings and we need incentives to get us to act as if we were. I dunno if that’s a problem, or a misunderstanding on my part.

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          • My question is, how does one decide that a principle is irreducible? It seems that it can only be done through assertion, which must also be an irreducible principle, or ultimately based on one, which then must be asserted or irreducible, which must be either asserted or irreducible, and so on so that we’re either going to end up talking in circles or in an infinite regress of irreducible principles and assertions, which will be very tiring after a while.

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            • “Very tiring” is actually quite right – as another expression of decisionism or the accession to necessity, eventually to life and death. Whether through fatigue or fear, eventually the open-ended deliberation stops, not because the deliberation has necessarily reached an end on its own terms, but because the decision must be made – or, if it isn’t made, we “pass out,” “lose,” “suffer,” “fall apart,” “are enslaved,” “die.” So maybe it works out this way: If things turn out well enough, we will then likely proceed to explain why what was done because something had to be done was done because it was the right thing to do, and in so explaining we will identify ourselves as part of the “we” – and that’s not the same as saying that what was done was the wrong thing to do or that we’re wrong to want to be who we are or really have a choice.

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          • It’s odd because it’s a paradox passed over by a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. See prior comments, or consider this:

            This revolutionary community has a kind of transtemporal existence: all individuals—present and future—are participants as members of the popular sovereign. For this reason, the actions of the founders can continue to bind future generations: all are part of a single We. The atemporality of Christ has moved from church to sovereign monarch to the popular sovereign. Such a nation cannot be conceived on the model of reason or interest. It is the product of a revolutionary act of will that has become a self-validating source of revelation. It is the nation-state become a church in which all citizens are part of the body—the mystical corpus—of the state.

            https://kindle.amazon.com/work/putting-liberalism-its-place-ebook/B00115U8NC/B002WJM5PA

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            • It is a paradox, but it might be better, or at least more accurate, to say that it is passed over by a rhetorical self-deception. Implied in Kowal’s comment is the unspoken, because wholly unquestioned belief what we can recognize when we’ve reached the irreducible foundation upon which our beliefs are based. It is a sort of lie we tell ourselves in order to not only continue to believe that there is a foundation, but that the foundation is precisely where we wanted it to be all along.

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          • @Stillwater:
            “But as I understand it, the conservative view of human nature is that we aren’t moral beings and we need incentives to get us to act as if we were.”

            I think for a tenet to become part of the accepted moral code of conduct it has no have some utility. Therefore there is always some incentive to act morally.

            And then there’s the argument that morality arose in the world to facilitate co-operation between individuals, (on the principle that c0-0perating individuals are more effective at propagating their genes) The mechanism by which this tendency to co-operate arose is through the basic social instincts and emotions. The tendency to co-operate amongst our animal ancestors must have been more effective than any tendency to act selfishly or we would not have descended from social animals and we probably wouldn’t be here to talk about it.

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        • > Once irreducible principles are ceded, it must next
          > be ceded that they are rooted in our very nature as
          > rational, moral beings.

          I disagree. I certainly *can* be, but that doesn’t mean that it *must* be.

          > If not, then those principles are revealed as having
          > been arbitrarily asserted.

          I submit that you’re missing the excluded middle.

          Here’s a related example.

          The axioms (irreducible principles) of Euclidean geometry are not arbitrarily asserted. They are *asserted*, certainly, but they are not asserted *arbitrarily*. They are asserted because their existence allows the derivation of the rest of the theorems of geometry, that happen to coincide with our observable reality, which made them useful for making predictions about the objects which are described therein.

          Later on, of course, we got to the point where we realized we could change some of those irreducible propositions and derive other geometries. Some of them even turned out… to also be useful, just for describing other things. Spherical geometries, etc.

          Now, one can argue that our own reality doesn’t give us any useful measures when it comes to moral theorems… essentially, you’d be saying that the irreducible principles are arbitrary… because even after we’ve established them, and constructed frameworks of theorems based upon them, we have no criteria upon which to evaluate the final product as “useful”, in comparison to some other final product.

          I suppose in one sense you could argue that (yay nihilism!)… but this seems to be an odd assertion for a natural law thinker to assert, since they claim that the evidence that natural law is useful is reflected in the actual world, right?

          If we agree on the principle that we can look outside the framework of moral assertions and principles (axioms and theorems) to establish their value, then we can look outside them to establish their value. If we can’t, we can’t. You can’t say that we *can*, and then turn around and say that because we *can*, we must do it a particular way.

          Well, not at least without doing some other heavy lifting.

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          • They are asserted because their existence allows the derivation of the rest of the theorems of geometry, that happen to coincide with our observable reality, which made them useful for making predictions about the objects which are described therein.

            By assuming we can “mak[e] predictions,” you are assuming a certain degree of orderliness about the world. Without a metaphysic, this is an arbitrary assertion, as we have no data about the future on which to base it. Instead, we must make certain assumptions about the world and our place in it before we can make “predictions.”

            We get nowhere without a metaphysic. One cannot even debate the point without ceding it:

            To say that someone has a “theory” of natural law is to suggest that an observer, looking on, can see played out before him people seized with “theories” – that he may stand there, in a wholesome detachment, seeing theories of various sorts whizzing past. From that vantage point we are encouraged to make judgments about the theories, or fragments of theories, that are plausible or implausible, right or wrong, true or false. I said then: Just tell me the ground on which you are making those judgments about the theories that are plausible or implausible, true or false, and you would have been led back to the ground of what I understand as the natural law.

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            • On the contrary, axiomatic systems make no assertions regarding orderliness. They merely state that if consistency exists, then (blah) follows, given the other axioms.

              Consistency, or lack thereof, can be assumed or not.

              This is a problem for natural law thinkers as well… consistency has to be assumed, or not.

              The problem I have with natural law is not that they have assumptions and axioms, everybody has those. The problem I have is that natural law thinkers claim that their assertions are different from everyone else’s… because of… something else that is asserted.

              Copping it to God is just shortcutting the turtles.

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              • Natural law is NOT Divine Command Theory. See rothbard:

                http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2009/04/primer-on-natural-law.html

                AMONG INTELLECTUALS WHO CONSIDER themselves “scientific,” the phrase “the nature of man” apt to have the effect of a red flag on a bull. “Man has no nature!” is the modern rallying cry; and typical of the sentiment of political philosophers today was the assertion of a distinguished political theorist some years ago before a meeting of the American Political Science Association that “man’s nature” is a purely theological concept that must be dismissed from any scientific discussion.

                In the controversy over man’s nature, and over the broader and more controversial concept of “natural law,” both sides have repeatedly proclaimed that natural law and theology are inextricably intertwined. As a result, many champions of natural law, in scientific or philosophic circles, have gravely weakened their case by implying that rational, philosophical methods alone cannot establish such law: that theological faith is necessary to maintain the concept. On the other hand, the opponents of natural law have gleefully agreed; since faith in the supernatural is deemed necessary to belief in natural law, the latter concept must be tossed out of scientific, secular discourse, and be consigned to the arcane sphere of the divine studies. In consequence, the idea of a natural law founded on reason and rational inquiry has been virtually lost.

                &c.

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              • Axiomatic systems aren’t debating anyone and don’t care about theories of knowledge one way or the other. Only people do that. And people can’t pretend to neutrality over whether “consistency exists.” It must exist. The task is accounting for it.

                As a natural lawyer, I don’t claim my assertions are different from others’. Just the contrary, in fact.

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                • > Axiomatic systems aren’t debating
                  > anyone and don’t care about theories
                  > of knowledge one way or the other.

                  Certainly. However, theories of knowledge would be well served to understand axiomatic systems, since they typically are attempting to construct one. Given these irreducible principles (whatever they are), and reason, I come to the conclusion that these courses of action are moral and those aren’t.

                  > And people can’t pretend to neutrality
                  > over whether “consistency exists.” It
                  > must exist. The task is accounting for it.

                  On the contrary, consistency must not exist. It certainly makes things nicer if it does, but… well, consistency, completeness, and correctness. Pick two (and don’t cheat by claiming you get the third by ineffability).

                  If you are going to assume consistency, you have to give up either completeness or correctness. Either you can’t know everything or some of what you know is incorrect.

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    • There seem to be a few missing steps in the solution. Let’s suppose beliefs don’t appear ex nihilo, that they arise as some explanation of the natural world. Thunder happens, Jove is the explanation given.

      Secularism isn’t as arbitrary as all that. If secularism says the Jove Explanation is out of bounds, it’s only saying there’s a scientific explanation for thunder. What is this about transcendent claims made by secularism? Please name a few, I wouldn’t want to misread you here.

      I have a theory about natural law, which goes like this: every rational person can recognise other rational beings like himself. Case in point: even if we don’t share a language, a smile, a bow and a small gift imply “I am not a threat to you.”

      Religion is hard to square with Natural Law. Any worldview which attributes the natural world to supernatural causes can be said to be “religious”. What’s wrong with observing that the natural world can be explained without supernatural causes?

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      • Secularism isn’t as arbitrary as all that. If secularism says the Jove Explanation is out of bounds, it’s only saying there’s a scientific explanation for thunder. What is this about transcendent claims made by secularism? Please name a few, I wouldn’t want to misread you here.

        Secularism must make certain claims about the interrelation of empirical phenomena (i.e., causation), future contingencies, that future events will resemble past ones, political obligations, names, grammar, numbers, categories, causation, induction, or even love or beauty. I’m not trying to jump ahead to suggest that these all require religion, but they do require a metaphysic. Once we’re there, we can compare worldviews. In my experience, we rarely get to that point. We just go round and round discussing the well-documented limits of empiricism, as if our intellectual history in this area is forever stuck at David Hume.

        I would begin to answer your last question by again pointing out how very little we can know about the world until we recognize the existence of transcendent principles. For many, whom we call the religious, collecting and organizing those transcendent principles leads them to believe the world can and is best explained by transcendent causes. For others, perhaps not. But again, that is the next chapter in the discussion, if ever it gets there.

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