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arguing the inarguable

Arguing the inarguable

By George A. Ricker

There is an argument that gets made with maddening regularity by religious believers. What they do not seem to understand is that in making the argument, they remove themselves from any possibility of rational discourse and the benefits associated with such discourse. The argument goes something like this.

“Since my religious beliefs are based on faith,” the religionist states, “I cannot be expected to provide evidence for their veracity. Moreover, these beliefs are grounded in a supernatural realm that cannot be accessed through the normal biological senses or the various technical devices used to augment those senses. However, I believe those things to be true, just as surely as the scientist in his or her laboratory accepts the factual information confirmed by an experiment.”

Once a person retreats into this mode of thinking, there is no line of argument left open to us. It is an unassailable position that may not be attacked by the use of reason, since rationality is specifically disallowed as a valid basis for the claims in question. It is as if the believer had climbed to a high mountain peak and, having secured that lofty position, dynamited all possible approaches to it.

It should be noted that I use the mountain metaphor to suggest a position which is unapproachable, not one that is superior. In fact, the retreat to this position has a number of disadvantages.

The first, and most obvious, is the inability of the climber to come back down. Destroying the approaches also destroys the avenues by which one may leave the mountain. By the same token, retreating into a supernatural realm, one which may not be apprehended by the senses or any reasonable sensory augmentation, necessarily removes one’s ability to make any rational argument from such a position.

One may claim belief, based on such an argument, but that is all one may claim. Arguing a belief is consistent with one’s internal narrative about the nature of things is not the same thing as arguing a belief has any validity for anyone who does not share the narrative. Indeed, since similar claims are made for wildly divergent beliefs in various gods and various religions, it can be fairly argued that such a narrative should be regarded as inherently suspect as the means used to confer legitimacy on any belief system.

A second disadvantage for anyone adopting this position is the closure of any basis for criticism of any other belief system. If one accepts as legitimate the claim that critical beliefs may be anchored solely on a supernatural narrative that is not supported by any evidence in the natural world—the one most of us accept as the external reality we perceive, however imperfectly, with our senses, then there is no basis from which one may attack any other set of beliefs about anything. If all that is required to confer legitimacy on a belief system is concurrence with an internal narrative, then anyone may believe anything to be true and no one else should have any basis for criticism. Such a stance is the solipsist's delight. You believe in a triune god. I believe god is an invisible genie living in a magic lamp orbiting an unknown planet in an unknown solar system in an unknown galaxy. Neither belief can be asserted to be true or false in any rational scheme of things because neither belief rests on any testable evidence.

By eliminating the grounds for rational analysis, this position also removes any basis for claims of legitimacy beyond the internal narrative of the one making the claim. While claims based on external data, testable evidence and so on may be reviewed and evaluated by a variety of people who accept the same standards for measurement and the same evidentiary requirements, no such standards can be applied to a supernatural realm for which there is no factual evidence.

This does not mean the claim for the existence of a supernatural realm is necessarily false. It does mean, however, there is not, and cannot be, any basis for declaring it true, except, as already noted, within the personal narrative of the individual who makes the claim. Many religionists counter that the sort of evidence-based, rational approach used to evaluate most claims is biased against supernatural explanations.

However, what is at work here is not bias but reason. Irrational argument is no argument at all. Theists who wish to make claims about the nature of reality and the facts of existence must be prepared to stand their ground with the aid of rational argument. That means, they must present the evidence in support of their claims and defend the conclusions they base on that evidence. While it is certainly true that human beings indulge in a considerable amount of mental activity that is not directly related to rational thought processes, it is also true that emotional states, intuitions, dreams, etc. are inherently irrational and, consequently of no use in constructing a rational argument.

We humans seem to have a curious ambivalence about our cognitive abilities. On the one hand, most of us recognize the utility of reason in problem solving, various forms of analysis and all sorts of other productive activities. On the other, we sometimes downplay reason’s importance to us or act as though it is a poor sister to things like emotion and so on. Reason is portrayed as cold and unfeeling. The classic archetype used to illustrate this myth is the scientist working in a lab, oblivious to the very human consequences of the experiments being conducted there. So we view reason with suspicion. At least, some of us do. And we view those who rely on reason as manipulative and calculating people who have lost touch with what it really means to be human.

Yet, if there is a single attribute that defines what it means to be human, it is reason. Rationality, the cognitive toolbox that is part of our nature and has evolved as we have evolved, defines and differentiates our species from all the rest. It is part and parcel of our ability to use symbols, the development of language, our capacity for abstraction and the many other cognitive good tricks we have learned. While art and literature often appeal to our emotions, the construction of such works is mostly a rational process.

One of the most common fallacies in the way we think about all this is the creation of a false dichotomy that asserts reason and emotion are inimical to one another, that somehow if we understand phenomena we are no longer able to experience those phenomena with the same emotional intensity. Yet, rational pursuits involve emotional intensity just as surely as those of a more artistic nature. We argue for our ideas with passion, sometimes strong passion, and our intellectual understanding may lead to increased, rather than diminished, emotion. Emotions feed and are fed by rational understanding.

Those who retreat to unreality to make their case often insist emotions and feelings are their guides rather than reason, and that may well be true. Such a claim, however, does nothing to strengthen their case. While emotions do provide us with information sometimes, it is information that is inherently unreliable. The “fight or flee” reaction triggered by a perceived threat is the same whether the threat is real or imaginary. The stirrings and torments of romantic love do not lead us to choose our partners wisely and may be just as turbulent, at times even more so, when the object of one’s affections does not respond in kind. Absent any sort of rational context or discernment, emotions are terrible guides to human action and may as easily lead us into destructive behavior as not.

So that metaphorical mountain top appears to have little to recommend it. It may be an unassailable position, but that is only because it is a retreat from reason and from reality itself. As the last refuge for those who can find no genuine evidence for their notions about gods and the supernatural realm they occupy, that lofty peak becomes not a perch from which to survey lesser pursuits but a prison constantly guarded against intersection with the real world.

All of which brings us to the last attempted defense of this intellectual dead end.

As we have studied human sensory abilities, modern science has come to the realization—disquieting for some—that we do not directly experience the world outside. It is accepted as a given by most of us that there is a real world that exists independently of our senses. Science has shown that our perceptions of that world are shaped and molded by our own intellectual hardware and that the data we collect through our senses is interpreted and translated by various routines and subroutines. In effect, what is created is a virtual reality that corresponds to the objective world outside. However, the correspondence is never exact. Thus, individual perceptions may vary and the variations have nothing to do with either intentions or personal agendas on the part of the people who sometimes find themselves at cross-purposes because of those variations.

“See” the religionist proclaims, “you can’t know with certainty what’s out there. You can’t even prove with any finality that reality exists at all. So how can you declare that my supernatural reality is any less real than your supposedly ‘objective’ reality?”

This is an intellectual shell game, one which uses the findings of science to undermine science itself. The truth is that science recognizes the lack of reliability of individual perceptions. Consequently, scientists demand evidence-based conclusions involving testing, experiment and confirmation by divergent sources. Only when conclusions have been confirmed independently by a large number of scientists and evaluated and accepted by still more do they begin to be adopted. Certainly, there is always room here for the inspired guess, but such speculations still must run the gamut of validation and verification before they are accepted.

By the same token, in our day-to-day lives, we can confirm our understanding of reality by comparing and contrasting our own perceptions with those of others. Knowing that our own minds may play tricks on us, we can also validate and verify our conclusions before we act on them. Clearly it is not possible to have perfect knowledge of the objective world we think exists independently of our perceptions, but we can come close enough most of the time to be able to function in it. I like to use the phrase “rational confidence” to describe this state.

While we may recognize the provisional nature of our understanding of reality, we can see that it rests on much more solid footing than speculations about supernatural realms and supernatural entities. The former rests on evidence that is testable and verifiable. The latter does not.

Paradoxically, it is the reality-based, rational approach that is most able to change when confronted by new information that requires a modification of the accepted model. The airy speculations so characteristic of those who take refuge in the ineffable have a dreary sameness about them that offers little of genuine substance to anyone seeking honest answers to honest questions.

Arguing the inarguable is a pointless effort. Those who want to retreat to that unreal mountain peak are certainly free to do so. However, they ought to have the good sense to be quiet about it. It really is not a superior position at all. Just an intellectual cop-out.

© 2008 by George A. Ricker

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