A couple of nights ago I started an argument in which I proposed that the success of American academia, and the failure of continental European academia (just look at the league tables), might be the result of Europe's banishment and eventual murder of its Jewish talent. The Jewish intellectual tradition took new root in the States, to the eternal impoverishment of us on this side of the Atlantic.
My argument inevitably boiled down to the claim that Jews are by and large smarter than other people. I'm happy enough with this as a philo-Semite, though the others seemed to find it somewhat offensive and off-colour, which gratified me greatly.
Later, after I had dried out a bit, I carried on the debate with my girlfriend Kate (who blogs here). After a few twists and turns, the issue became this: how could we defend a belief as morally necessary if we also knew it to be factually untrue?
(Incidentally the original racial argument is irrelevant to this - any area of human science that encroaches upon a moral question would do. But it was a recent topic of conversation, and I had earlier been set to thinking about it by a BBC article about the most controversial pages on Wikipedia, one of which is on 'race and intelligence').
Ok, to rewind. I'll assume we agree that belief in equality between races is morally necessary - i.e. it is not necessarily a proven truth, but we know since the Holocaust that unless a society adopts it as a basic principle it probably cannot be a decent or civil one.
I'll also assume we believe that scientific method, done well, is able to get at the truth of things.
Here's the test. Let's say some hypothetical scientist - a geneticist, whatever - discovered cast-iron proof that race A is 'better' than race B in ways that threaten our commitment to equality (better at doing certain tasks, more intelligent, stronger, better inter-personal skills, whatever fits the bill). How would we maintain our belief in equality as morally necessary when we knew it to be ungrounded in fact?
The religionist would be able to maintain her belief in the necessity of equality, because God says that equality is good. That makes it a revealed truth that can withstand any challenge from empirical truth. She has premises, and they remain unshaken foundations in this instance.
I, as a secularist, would reject this approach - 'God says so' is not good enough as a reason. But I'm not sure I have any way to maintain my belief in human equality without falling into the errors of the religionist. I still hold that society can only be decent and civil if it is structured, in its laws e.g., as if all humans are equal, but I now know I am making myself believe in a fiction. And then, how can I make myself believe in a fiction without resorting to some sort of arbitrary say-so (a God, perhaps) that overrules my misgivings about its falseness or even makes it magically true?
One solution would be to censor the work of scientists, but then we would end up with a secular version of the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Moreover, who is the moral elite who gets to decide what we can see and what we can't - wouldn't this have to be based on their having an absolute notion of what is good for us, i.e. would they not basically be a priesthood?
Another solution would be to say that scientific research can go whatever it likes, but must avoid certain areas - i.e. taboos. But then this isn't this prejudice? We are saying that we know in advance what answers we want from science, have already decided what we want the truth to look like before it has been discovered - which is exactly what the religionist says.
Or we could just allow the scientists to keep on working unmolested, but shout them down or put our fingers in our ears whenever they tell us that our laws, policies, and morals are based on a fundamental misapprehension of how the world is. But then again, we would be just like the religionist, complacently cocooning ourselves from the harshness of reality by living a conscious, cynical lie.
So what would we do? How can we find grounds for moral necessities that are strong enough to sustain them even as counterfactuals? How can we find reasons that are, in a sense, purely moral reasons such that they could sustain our moral beliefs no matter what is factually true of ourselves or the world? Would we even want our morals to be like this, or should they be contingent, to be abandoned in a trice if proved false, like scientific theories?
I don't know have an answer to any of the above. It is likely that a moral philosopher does (likely too, unfortunately, that no moral philosopher does because it was an ill-founded question in the first place that didn't need an answer).
The problem is this - at least with religion we had grounds from which to hazard an answer, and argue for our moral beliefs in situations like this. They weren't good grounds, but surely better than none, which is what we have now. Isn't it bad that most educated, reasonably intelligent people would have no way of reasoning themselves towards a viable answer to this question? We have ditched religion, good, but not put in its place anything that will allow us to test if our moral beliefs are sound and well-grounded.
We should not assume that science, and the human sciences especially, will only ever give the good news about humanity. Someone once described Freud's theories as 'kakangelic' - delivering the bad news about human nature. We survived that assault, because the theories were proven unsound - by scientists. But what happens when the scientists are the ones we need to defend our moral beliefs against, when they don't disprove their own theories for us? What will we do with the bad news then?
Richard Dawkins - a clever sixth former who has just worked out not only that God doesn't exist, but that mater, pater, and his housemaster are frightfully thick for believing that He does - won't be much help. Scientism, the naive inability to see that the death of religion left a huge gaping hole - is part of the problem.
The only solution I can see, and one I am increasingly convinced of: teach philosophy to all schoolchildren.