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.
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.”