Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dennett on Rational Inquiry into Religion

I posted a comment based on the following on the OPR blog in response to some claims of, "truth is subjective, and you cannot rationally inquire into religion without psychological coloring," which somehow is being used to defend religion. In any case, the following is my regular response to that sort of thing. It is a quote from Dan Dennett responding to a slightly different charge that warrants the same response:
One reader of an early draft of this chapter complained at this point, saying that by treating the hypothesis of God as just one more scientific hypothesis, to be evaluated by the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general, Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quite beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies. It is not just unsympathetic, he claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of truth.

Very well, let's consider the objection. I doubt that the defender of religion will find it attractive, once we explore it carefully.

The philosopher Ronaldo de Souza once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgement was up. But we can lower it if you really want to.

It's your serve.

Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil. That's not much of a God to worship!". If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves?

Either way the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down."

The point is straightforward. If truth were entirely subjective and rationality were impossible on this topic, we could not be engaging in discussion where I am supposed to answer rationally. In many cases, though, the very fact that someone proffers reasons for their beliefs (and tries to convince you of them!) belies their claim that we cannot engage in rational discussion or inquiry. If it were true, all bets would be off, and there would be no connection between a claim they make, their reasons for making it, and what I infer from it.

Edit: To clarify, the point is not simply that if rationality is out the window you may as well believe anything about God. The point is that if rules of rationality are out, we cannot have a discussion at all--and the believer wants me to follow those rules while he does not. As I write in the comments, the example could have read:

"What you say implies that you hate children! What kind of an argument is that?"

Or: "What you say implies that muffins have consciousness! Isn't that a little farfetched?"

It's a crazy inference by any standard of rationality, but that has been tossed out rather asymmetrically by the believer.

8 comments:

Shilton HaSechel said...

Nu maybe God is a ham sandwich wrapped up in foil. In Jewish theology God is usually completely unknowable so we can't rule out that he's a ham sandwhich(except that it's not kosher!)

Why can't the believer merely respond "yes maybe God is a ham sandwich, how should I know?"? (presumably a rather powerful one)

Maybe at that point it would become a free for all but whatever.

I think religion is only legitimate if you say to each his own and admit that you're just worshiping his haminess not out of rational deliberation but rather because you feel his haminess watches over you and it makes you feel better. You must admit that you have no idea whether his haminess is more than just a figment of your imagination but hey if you're "SURE" he's there I think its fairly legitimate to roll with that idea as a Romanticist approach to life.

Of course making statements about empirical reality based on your feelings is a non-starter so goodbye most revealed religions but in theory I could be okay with it. (my only problem is I happen to NOT have a deep emotional feeling of God's existence so too bad for me)

JewishGadfly said...

>Why can't the believer merely respond "yes maybe God is a ham sandwich, how should I know?"? (presumably a rather powerful one)

Well, to clarify, the point is not that the believer's argument leaves this possibility open. The point is that it leaves open the inference of anything at all, because the rules of logic have been thrown out the window. In other words, the example could just as easily read:

"What you say implies that you hate children! What kind of an argument is that?"

Or: "What you say implies that muffins have consciousness! Isn't that a little farfetched?"

The point is, if rationality is out the window as they claim, I can make up any logical inference I want to, and there are no rules to the game. In contrast, the believer is clearly playing by the rules of rationality in his or her own arguments: giving reasons for the claim, assuming there is a logical connection between a premise and a conclusion, etc.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>The point is, if rationality is out the window as they claim, I can make up any logical inference I want to, and there are no rules to the game.

No because the religious believer is not just making stuff up he/she is just following their emotions while conversely I assume you don't have very emotional feelings towards the statement that muffins have consciousness. The rules are you follow your emotions (to a certain extent) and not just random ideas.

The believer really shouldn't even bother trying to discuss his feelings with other people because of the limited communicability of such feelings but that's a different issue.

Also I don't see why one can't sometimes use logic and sometimes irrational emotions. For example I can irrationally have a major fear of muffins and THEN logically conclude that I should probably stay away from them. Our actions often are dictated by a blend of irrational emotions and rational logic. I don't think that just because you've suspended logic ONCE that you necessarily have to continue suspending it forever in every instance.

Where you draw the line is a different question.

JewishGadfly said...

No, I would be fine with the claim, "I emotionally believe in God, and I'm following that." But I'm responding to things like:

"It is, in my opinion, absurd that you (and most people) think that “truth” is accessible to anyone... it is all so subjective...the search for “truth” is really colored by so many elements within our psychological makeup."

These statements and others like it are meant to suggest that our reasoning abilities--if they exist at all-- count for nothing when evaluating religion (OJ in particular). Well if our reasoning abilities are useless, why do you expect that I should even be able to process the logical connection between one idea and another? It's not an accusation of belief in random ideas; it's about rationality as the core of understanding a flow of ideas.

>The rules are you follow your emotions (to a certain extent) and not just random ideas.

But any discussion must be grounded in a mutual assumption of rationality as well. Without that, you ARE left with randomness. Look, if they say, "my belief in God is justified because XYZ," they are assuming I can understand the concept of a causal relationship. If you tell me rationality doesn't apply, I can deny obvious causal relationships, or make up spurious ones. So it's not about emotion; it's about proclaiming that rationality does not exist, which inevitably backfires on the religious person, since two can play that game.

JewishGadfly said...

Perhaps it will make more sense if I actually defend it. So I hereby defend it:

The commenter I quoted above believes God is a ham sandwich. How do I know? A simple deduction:

Premise 1: The commenter believes truth is subjective.
Premise 2: Ham is part of the known universe.
Conclusion: The commenter believes God is a ham sandwich.

But--you will say--that conclusion does not follow from those premises! But come now--you forget that truth is subjective, and that rationality is irrelevant to any discussion of God. Your reason is flawed, so wouldn't it be arrogant of you to think the conclusion isn't true just because you don't see how the logic works? According to Heavenly logic, which is far more perfect than the Earthly kind, those premises irrefutably lead to that conclusion, and you just can't see why.

And so on.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Now I get it. I didn't know who you were referring aiming at.

Basically this commenter is using the old "well rationality is bunk so I'm going believe in God".

Obviously I agree THAT is ridiculous as per Dennet.

I would say "my belief in God is justified because I've decided, like many people do, to follow my emotions, however I realize that that does not necessarily make God any more real"

But the problem with THESE types of people (POMO intellifundies) is they are trying to only deal with religion rationally and since the two are for the most part incompatible, these people are reduced to shoving one or the other aside.

JewishGadfly said...

Exactly. It's sort of self-defeating to make a rational argument against rationality, at the end of the day.

MKR said...

Of course God could be a ham sandwich. That would debar us Jews from eating him, but we don't eat God anyway: that's a Christian thing, and Christians don't consider themselves subject to the laws of kashrut. ;)

I couldn't really understand the post until I went to look at the comments on the other blog. That Min HaMeitzar has a way of thinking that is something appalling. He seems to think that he can kick up just enough dust to render all criticism of his beliefs moot while holding on to a kind of perverted rationale for those beliefs.