Cautionary Notes

Total Posts:  2890
Joined  02-12-2004
10 July 2005 13:02

Dear Mr. Harris:

Your excellent little volume eloquently expresses many articles of faith (pardon the figure of speech) near and dear to the hearts of us secular humanists. Now some cautionary observations.

1)  It may be helpful to note that the ingenious pragmatism articulated by Richard Rorty begins (I think) with the premise, “we are [only] very intelligent animals” which have evolved along with all other organisms over 3.5 billion years on this planet in a purely physical universe. It would seem logical, reasoning from this premise, that our beliefs concerning “the way the world really is” correspond no more closely than those non-linguistic mental states of a rabbit or a fox to a metaphysical entity called “TRUTH.” However far our larger brains accurately imbue our beliefs concerning the objects of our world with sophisticated linguistic descriptions or narratives we can only reference practices which we find useful or not useful for our human species-specific purposes. Of course Rorty has a larger agenda to rid philosophy of metaphysics, transcendentalism and essentialism. He shows convincingly that the “problems” of traditional analytic philosophy are mostly linguistic illusions. Adhering to his physicalist holistic concept of the cosmos, he effectively eliminates mind-body dualism by correctly identifying beliefs and all mental content as objects which can stand in relation to each other as well as to “other” objects on an equal footing. In the field of ethics/morality, Rorty may offer us a more constructive attitude than the conventional notion that we must be vessels of Truth (what we deplore about religious dogma) waging war against the forces of Evil; and instead ask ourselves which moral practices better advantage what we humans want from and for ourselves and what we want from and for others in terms of practices which advantage human rights and welfare.

2)  Whatever the immediate gratification and relief from our frustration, it would be self-destructive to declare “war” on Islam. It may be prudent to consider what moderate Muslim nations like Turkey and Indonesia, along with millions of Muslims in the Arab/Persian world inclined to tolerance, dialogue and modernization would make of this vile threat. Nor is it easy or nice to seize by the lapels a billion people with a birthrate two to four times greater than our own and spit in their faces. Although we must proactively affirm and practice our right to self-defense up to and including limited war, we must assure Muslim populations that we are targeting only the proximate perpetrators or planners of lethal attacks against us while keeping collateral damage to a minimum. Flirting with projects of torture is also counter-productive and unethical. Dershowitz’s “ticking time bomb” scenario evokes the Law of Just Necessity applied to a single, contingent and urgent case whereas your musings invite a broader systematic government- implemented policy of torture which would not only transform us into the ethical equivalent of our inhumane enemies but also render us the victims of justified blood-feud reprisals. Our only hope for peaceful resolution must be to guide the march of historical events toward “defanging” then humanizing Islam just as the march of historical events defanged and humanized Christianity (to a point). I take on board your point that the Koran contains many vicious, intolerant and even murderous directives to Muslims to persecute or dispatch infidels. Perhaps you have ignored some verses which command love, mercy and charity in a headlong tumble into “essentialism” which confuses the current terrorist manifestations of Islam with some conception of an immutable “evil essence” of Islam itself.

3)  Finally for our pragmatic purposes here I can commend the generalization that western civilization is currently rationally and ethically superior to Islamic civilization. Of all the proposals for containment, foreign assistance, and humanist transformation of Islamic nations, the most important of these would fall into the category of women’s rights. The intuitive starting point would be the declaration of full human and civil rights for women on an equal basis with men; followed swiftly with equal access to educational and occupational opportunities; freedom from all forms of (mostly male) oppression and violence; complete freedom of association and mobility; and of course freedom from absurdly uncomfortable dress codes. But I must speak more plainly. Reproductive rights for women must take the form of universal cost-free access to modern contraception and the taboo of voluntary abortion. Unless Islamic nations can stabilize or reduce population numbers in the coming decades to environmentally sustainable levels the battle will be lost. Arab Muslims following the example of their Israeli counterparts must take to heart the ominous consequences of overpopulating a region where limited land and water have already escalated the stakes in a mortal conflict.

Congratulations and Best Regards, Jim Valentine