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Reason Not On Display There

Posted on Mar 1, 2012 by Tom Gilson

AronRa, the speaker on the first video I quoted in my “Reasoning with Unreason” blog post the other day, has responded to me on Richard Dawkins’ website. In so doing he has provided yet one more illustration of the point I was making in that article: that the New Atheists’ claim to superior reasoning is hollow and false.

What Is Good Reasoning, Anyway?

1. Dependence on Empirical Methods?
Generally speaking, the New Atheists’ definition of “reason” seems to be focused primarily on this: “It is unreasonable/unreasoning to believe what cannot be known to be true by empirical methods.” Therefore, they say, religion is by definition a specimen of un-reasoning.

I think that’s a wrong definition in identifiable ways, chiefly that it is self-defeating. It is a dictum that cannot be known to be true by empirical methods. But that’s a matter for another time, and besides, it’s based on a general observation of New Atheists. I do not know if AronRa considers that his definition of reason or not. For my purposes here, it’s not necessary to adjudicate this point anyway.

2. Believing True Facts?
It seems to me that AronRa leans heavily on, “But I don’t believe in fairy tales, Easter bunnies, or God like you do. That makes you the incompetent one, not me!” To save him the embarrassment of one more non sequitur, I’ll head off that error in advance. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that disbelief in God is required for any person to be considered competent in reasoning. Call it a necessary condition of a reasoning person. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition, for a reasoning person must also be able to reason. Competence is not defined by just one thing. It’s not enough for a baseball player (an outfielder, say) to be able to hit; he must also be able to field.

Believing the truth is not even the best test of rationality, as it turns out. Believing the truth is often, indeed typically, associated with rationality, but not necessarily. Suppose George believes the earth is round. That’s true. Is George rational? Not if his reasoning process goes like this: “I like baseball, baseballs are round, therefore the earth is round.”

In fact it is possible to be very rational and believe falsehoods anyway. James Clerk Maxwell was as rationally competent a physicist as you could ever want, but he thought light probably propagated through the luminiferous ether. We see then that “believing the right conclusion” is a messy and inadequate test of rationality. Sure, it’s an important consideration; it’s in the mix; but it cannot be the whole thing.

3. Competence In Rational Discourse
A full and complete definition of reason must also refer to skill or competence in reasoned discourse. That skill involves the ability to draw valid deductions from premises in deductive arguments, valid generalizations from evidences in inductive situations, and properly credible explanations in abductive situations.

A reasoning person will recognize when an argument fails to support his conclusion, and will give up that argument in support of his conclusion. If there is no other argument, a reasoning person will give up the conclusion. A sure sign of un-reason would be the failure to do this, which in turn might be signified by frequent employment of formal and informal fallacies, and persistence in holding to unsupported conclusions.

4. Discerning Competence and Incompetence
To define the “reasoning person” with an adequately general definition, useful in all circumstances, would be a difficult task. But that is not my project here. My purpose is met if we can agree that a person whose arguments are riddled with fallacies is incompetent in reasoning, and that he or she is not really a reasoning person; for my purpose is to show (again) that since AronRa demonstrates this particular form of incompetence, he is therefore incompetent (or at least insufficiently competent) in reasoning.

An Unavoidable Digression
I need to address one thing quickly, even though it has nothing to do with competence in reasoning. AronRa wrote,

Therein is a reference to one of my videos, although they made sure not to include a link to it.

Actually I did not omit the link. It was there. Since he and one commenter have complained that it wasn’t there, though, I have now done two things: I have expanded the linked phrase to include more than one word, and I have globally changed the color of links so they will be more visible throughout the website. AronRa’s conclusion that I omitted his link for some intentional reason is false, though his error might be partly the fault of the design before I made these changes.

On to the real topic now.

Demonstrated Incompetence

1. Irrelevant Argument
AronRa quoted me quoting him, and then he responded:

AronRa: Here’s what I want. I want to see religious leaders held accountable for their bs. If you state as fact that which is not evidently true, you should be called out as a liar, just like the rest of us would be.”

Me: Hmmm… is that good logic, good reasoning? Let’s apply his test somewhere else: someone who states as fact that there is no God. Is that evidently true? No.

AronRa: Yes. Not only is the positive alternative not evidently true –because there is no evidence to support that assertion. But having no reason to believe something is the same as having at least one good reason not to believe it.

Here and throughout much of his piece he seeks to defend the rationality of his claim, “If you state as fact that which is not evidently true, you should be called out as a liar,” and he does it by seeking to show that religion is false. But the truth or falsehood of religion has no bearing on the much more general claim he made here.

Note that the illogic of which I accused him was not in believing false things about religion or atheism, or even believing false things about religious-persons-as-liars. His illogic was in the general falsehood of his claim, ” If you state as fact that which is not evidently true, you should be called out as a liar.” It is a specimen of identifiably poor reasoning. Now he has multiplied his demonstrated incompetence by offering a defense that is irrelevant to the charge.

2. Confusion Regarding the Point; Non Sequitur; Failure to Respond to Logical Reasoning

Me: So if you state as fact that which is not evidently true, that alone is insufficient to mark you as a liar. What this speaker has done has been to confuse the location of his negatives. To state as fact that which is not evidently true is not equivalent to stating as fact what is evidently not true.

Wrong again. Either way, it is still a lie.

What was “wrong again” here? Was AronRa saying he wasn’t guilty of confusing the location of his negatives? That would be a seriously irrational thing for him to say. Was he saying that to state as fact that which is evidently not true is the same as stating as fact what is evidently true? If so, then he is logically wrong again. My point that he quoted here is not wrong, in other words.

But he still wants to make the point that “it is still a lie,” meaning religious utterances in general, I think. Suppose for the sake of argument he is correct about that. Still that conclusion does not follow from what he quoted here. It is a non sequitur. Nor does he respond to logic by adjusting his beliefs accordingly. The rational thing to say, given his beliefs concerning religion, would have been, “I’ll grant Tom’s point here. Two non-identical things cannot be the same as each other, as he said. Still I think religion is a lie, for these reasons…”

He said the irrational thing instead, when he said “wrong” to my point there. It was irrational even if religion is all a lie.

3. Non sequitur again

Me: Christianity was responsible for the abolition of slavery everywhere it has been abolished; [and] its influence has been responsible for the freeing of women from oppression in countries around the world for many centuries;

AronRa…despite the fact that the Bible both establishes and enforces misogyny, and despite the fact that slavery is wholly endorsed in both the old and new testaments.

I don’t think I’m the one with embarrassingly poor reasoning or rotten logic. Neither do I have to make up excuses like this in an attempt to conceal lies. I am free to be completely honest.

By his language of “making up excuses like this,” I take that he thinks what I wrote was false. Let’s put this in context. My point was a general one in response to this claim of his:

[7:24] I see religion as dangerous on every level. It is a political tool of mass manipulation and a social retardant opposed to progress in any form, except of course in marketing and propaganda. It is perpetuated by prejudice and paranoia, and wherever religion has had rule over law, the result has been an automatic violation of human rights. It is time for reason to rule. That’s why I’m inviting all you like-minded activists to join me in Washington, D.C. in March…

Now in order for that claim to be true, it would need to be generally true down through history that Christianity has been “opposed to progress in any form….” In order for me to rebut that, I would need to show that down through history Christianity has not been so universally opposed to progress. Note that his claim was of a general, even universal form. Claims of such a form can be rebutted by finding even a small number of exceptions. I don’t need to prove that Christianity has always been socially progressive, but just that it has not always been a “social retardant opposed to progress in any form.” That’s standard logical reasoning there.

In fact I pointed out several areas in history for which Christianity has not been opposed to progress. At the risk of being repetitive, he made a claim about history, and I rebutted it with a counter-claim about history. He in turn rebutted that with an irrelevant reference to a 2,000-year-old document.

But wait! you say. How could the Bible be irrelevant to Christianity? I’m not saying that. Rather I’m saying that Christianity has an historical record of being in concord with social progress through the ages (not instant or blink-of-the-eye progress, by the way—that would be inhumanly unrealistic—but progress nevertheless). And I’m saying that this is true regardless of what AronRa or anyone else thinks the Bible says.

AronRa thinks he can rebut my statements about the historical record by reference to “the fact that the Bible both establishes and enforces misogyny, and despite the fact that slavery is wholly endorsed in both the old and new testaments.” It is simply not true that such a reference could rebut an historical claim, however; it does not follow; it is a non sequitur.

Incompetent for Atheism as Well as for Theism
The reader may have noticed that nowhere in this article do my negative conclusions regarding AronRa’s rational competence depend on Christianity being true or atheism being false. I have not even depended on, for example, the truth of Christianity’s connection to social progress through history. (Again: suppose Christianity had always been a retardant to social progress. The way to rebut me my historical counter-claim would have been by pointing to Christianity’s alleged braking effect on social progress in history, not by reference to the Bible.)

So we see that if I were an atheist with a commitment to sound reason, perhaps motivated by a desire to keep other atheists from embarrassing me through their illogic, I could have written this article in precisely the same manner, except that my references to some “Thinking Christian” would have had to be in the third person rather than the first.

Reason Not On Display There
In other words, regardless of the truth of atheism or theism, AronRa has (again) committed multiple failures of logic. I see it all the time among the New Atheists. I have just now seen it again. With a track record like this, I wonder what it is they’re going to celebrate at the Reason Rally. If it’s just that they’re right and religious people are wrong, they had better buttress that with better logic than this. Otherwise it would be more honest to re-name it. Maybe they could call it the “We’re Right and You’re Wrong. So There! Rally.”

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10 Responses to “ Reason Not On Display There ”

  1. Holopupenko says:

    Reasoning with Atheists? That’s a non-starter by definition: the damage atheism does to one’s soul is, apart from Grace, irreparable… and the capacity for reason is the first thing to go.

    Consider the following from the Journal of Medical Ethics, published on February 23, 2012 as 10.1136/medethics-2011-100411; downloadedable from jme.bmj.com, published by group.bmj.com. We now appear to be arguing beyond even the repugnance of Peter Singer’s sanction to murder children born with disabilities:

    ABSTRACT
    Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in ALL the cases where abortion is, INCLUDING CASES WHERE THE NEWBORN IS NOT DISABLED. (emphasis added)

    It gets worse, because the journal then defends itself:

    “Many people will and have disagreed with these arguments. However, the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some-one moral view. It is to present a well-reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises.” (emphasis added)

    See more at http://blogs.bmj.com/medical-ethics/2012/02/28/liberals-are-disgusting-in-defence-of-the-publication-of-after-birth-abortion/

    If there are any situations where killing a child (disabled or not) falls under a “well-reasoned argument,” I’m interested in having that explained to me.

  2. Melissa says:

    Holo,

    That has been the talk of mainstream news round here because the two authors are Melbournians. They have actually produced a valid argument, too bad they started from false premises. What this does do is highlight how evil the premises are if the pro-choice arguments. I’m sure though the rest of the pro-choice lobby will continue with their arbitrary distinctions of who counts as human.

    At this stage it almost seems preferable that they don’t wise up to their inconsistencies, considering Victoria already has some of the most obscene abortion laws in the world, they would be more likely to decide killing babies is OK than recognise the unborn babies right to life.

  3. Victoria says:

    @Melissa
    I do not :)

  4. BillT says:

    AronRa posts on Richard Dawkins website. Doesn’t that say enough.

  5. Victoria says:

    @Tom

    In fact it is possible to be very rational and believe falsehoods anyway. James Clerk Maxwell was as rationally competent a physicist as you could ever want, but he thought light probably propagated through the luminiferous ether. We see then that “believing the right conclusion” is a messy and inadequate test of rationality. Sure, it’s an important consideration; it’s in the mix; but it cannot be the whole thing.

    Sorry, I hate to pick at nits, but being a physicist and all…

    Maxwell’s equations (a set of coupled first order time-dependent partial differential equations – coupled because they mix the E and B fields – see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxwell's_equations) naturally lead to two independent 2nd order partial differential equations for E and B separately – the electromagnetic wave equations (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_wave_equation). I don’t mind using Wiki for this one :)

    Wave equations and wave propagation were already well-studied problems in mathematical physics, so when physicists discovered that there are (2) wave equations for the electromagnetic field, and that the propagation speed in vacuum was equal to the known speed of light, they came to realize that light, which they already knew could be described by a wave model, turned out to be electromagnetic in nature. The question of the medium was a natural one – it was the inference to the best explanation at the time. Of course, this ultimately paved the way for Special Relativity and the Lorentz transformation (the EM wave equation is invariant under that transformation and the assumption that the speed of light is the same for all (inertial) reference frames).

    My nit is that this was the inference to the best explanation at the time. Ironically, for all of classical electrodynamics’ success as an elegant physical theory, it didn’t take long to discover that it was not a final theory at all.

    If you want to pick on 19th century physics and physicists, then I’d go with the over-confident attitude that they had physics all nicely wrapped up. Little did they know what was coming in the 20th century.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m not sure that I was saying anything different than your “nit.” I wasn’t trying to, any rate. I was trying to say that Maxwell was wrong–but that this was not indicative of any flaw in his reasoning processes whatsoever. (If he was, well, the world could use a lot more similarly “flawed” people!) Thus I conclude that being wrong does not necessarily mean that one is irrational.

  7. BillT says:

    It isn’t just their arguments that lack reason. Their basic premise lacks reason. As to the existence of God they believe that;

    “It is unreasonable/unreasoning to believe what cannot be known to be true by empirical methods.”

    Atheists believe God doesn’t exist and they don’t know the truth of that by empirical methods. And please don’t start with the “you can’t prove a negative” stuff. That is an affirmative belief about the nature of the universe. And that’s not to mention that for this and many other beliefs that empirical methods aren’t the appropriate evidentiary standard. That’s why the call them beliefs. It’s nonesense piled on top of nonesense.

  8. Victoria says:

    @Tom
    Yeah, I saw where you were going with that thought. I wonder if we can formulate a more profound conclusion, though?

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m sure there are more profound conclusions to be drawn from this, but I only mentioned Maxwell to illustrate the one point, that being wrong does not necessarily mean being irrational. I hope that comes through clearly enough in the post.

  10. Victoria says:

    @Tom
    Well, being a physicist, I knew exactly what you meant and why the example illustrated the point (EM theory was one of my favourite subjects both as a student and as a teacher). For someone less familiar with the subject, they might not see why your example was relevant, so hopefully my contribution will shed some light (ha, pun intended) on it :)

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