Whereof we can speak

One reason I’m insisting on this idea that rational inquiry and discussion and argument are continuous rather than discontinuous with ‘the scientific method’ and empiricism is that non-rational, evidence-free truth claims are not arguable or discussable, which means that they’re authoritarian and coercive. That’s all obvious enough, but I think it needs spelling out. So people who try to argue that humanist truth-claims are radically discontinuous with scientific ones (apart from giving the game away by arguing themselves) are giving hostages to fortune. They risk handing us all over to people who make ‘faith-based’ arguments and expect the rest of us to accept them. You know, the ‘homosexuality is a sin and that’s all that needs to be said’ crowd. The ‘because god said so’ crowd. The ‘it’s in the Bible/Koran/Vedas/Talmud’ crowd. The crowd that free people don’t want to take orders from.

What would such claims look like, anyway? The commenter at Inside HE who offered the ‘material gain’ proverb as an example of an unscientific claim followed it up with ‘If you read a few serious novels you’ll find many such statements and they’ll be expressed much better this one.’ But is that what one finds in serious novels? Can we sum them up that way? ‘From my protracted reading of novels I have learned that’ – what? What paraphrasable nuggets do we take away from our reading of serious novels that we couldn’t get anywhere else? Compassion is good? Life is complicated? There’s nowt so queer as folk? What? What special walled-off non-researchable evidence-free uninvestigatable unverifiable claim emerges? I would really be curious to know.

It’s not that we don’t learn or get anything – but that to the extent that it can be put as a truth-claim, it’s not ineffable, it’s not special. Literature itself perhaps is (I think, although that’s a highly contested claim, and I actually get very skeptical of it myself at times), but the truth claims one can derive from reading it? I don’t believe it.

What special ineffable opposite-of-empirical but still validly persuasive truth claim can one derive from Emma, for example? Or Wuthering Heights? Or King Lear? Apart from anything else, any paraphrasable truth claim one can think of (at least any I can think of) instantly reduces the novel or play in question to a boring heap of dust. That’s not why we read them. They’re not homilies. And if they were, those homilies could still be derived in other ways. No, they say themselves, and that’s enough, that’s what they’re for.

You can say that serious novels and literature in general do all sorts of things: deepen our understanding of human nature; teach us empathy; provide experience; and so on; but none of those is radically alien to and different from and cut off from empirical rational inquiry. Literature is different in other ways. Maybe that’s where the confusion comes in. Reading literature is a different kind of experience from doing science – different, and as special as you like. But that doesn’t mean it throws up any miraculously weird different arational truth claims.

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