Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Further argumentation on rationality and belief

My question is an inductive one: now that we are here (as a sentient species) and claim to be rational beings, how do we explain and justify rationality which seems to require some ability to "rise above" purely physical processes of bioelectrochemical activity in the brain?

Obviously, the atheist could be right - perhaps we are not rational at all, but merely highly developed pattern-recognition, stimulus-response machines programmed not by reason or logic, but by purely chemical processes.

I'm open to that as a possibility - except that I believe I reached that conclusion based on rational processes, not causal chemical activity. But this belief (and it is an a priori tacit belief - just as the belief that starts the causal chain to any epistemology) undermines the atheistic assumption itself - along with undermining any common (beyond the self) understanding of morality, justice, truth or beauty - things that I tacitly know are real. This goes to the issues of "properly basic beliefs" and "tacit knowledge" being discussed in other threads.

I guess I'm simply asking if we believe our thoughts and arguments are arrived at through rational noetic processes or through purely physical processes. And, if the latter, why are we not consigned to believe that every thought, belief, perception, understanding can make no claims whatsoever to reality, truth or "rightness", but simply to our programming - which is itself random and undirected according to the atheist (at least those of the ontological monist sect).

Again, the atheist may then claim that, "Well, perhaps I cannot establish that my thinking and beliefs are true or real, but they are effective in that they correspond to the natural world". For example, the atheist may reply, "I "see" and apple on the table; when I reach out to it, I "receive" sensory data that correlates to what I'd expect if an apple were "really" there, therefore I am justified in basing my decisions on my sensory data, though I agree that I cannot claim with any certainty that there "really is" an apple, whatever that means".

Fair enough.

But if our knowledge and beliefs are to be chosen (which is a nonsensical word in the vernacular of the atheist - since ideas like "choice" and "free will" are self-delusional concepts) not based on any claim of "reality" in an absolute sense, but, rather, to their practical effect, it would seem the atheist has to answer another question (and I'm just having a little fun here): Why don't you then ascribe to religious belief? Study after study demonstrates that religious people live longer, are healthier, have better marriages, are happier, contribute more to society, etc. So religious belief is quite legitimately an effective position with regard to my environment - when I practice it, I am given positive feedback from my environment.
"But, wait,", the atheist says, "religion doesn't correspond to the facts and it clearly isn't reasonable and it just isn't true - any honest person can see that!"

Nevermind the counter arguments to these specific contentions, but why is the atheist concerned about abstract, meaningless concepts such as "fact", "correspondence", "reason", "honesty" and "truth" - and, even more importantly, though only implied in the question, the "rationality" that must be used to make such value judgments?

It seems that each of these characteristics requires ascribing to some "higher" measure of correlation between our beliefs and our environment than our environment can, of itself, provide. They require something more than a sense-response, pattern-recognition process that can be explained by purely physical elements in mental activity. They require an extrapolation of sensory data into the abstract world of ideas, equations, numbers, language and on and on that correlate to something more than "effectiveness". They require establishing something more than the "practical" correlation of our sensory data to our environment.

I have no problem with the atheist who says, "We think what we think because we have to, not because it's "right" or "wrong", "true" or "false". We think what we think because that's how the chemicals in our brain reacted at the moment." This atheist makes no claims about argumentation, "proof" or "reality". Everything is subjective experience based on the physical properties of our brain and environments over time.

Truth, reality, justice, beauty, if such things exist at all, are beyond the capabilities of my primate brain to ascertain beyond my own subjective feelings (which are just the result of chemical response to stimuli). This atheist has no interest in (other than, perhaps, as a hobby or a method to derive pleasure) convincing others of their beliefs (since they know their beliefs are purely derivative of chemistry and are unalterable by oneself, since, there is no "self") or being a part of any kind of "honest debate", since that is a silly and self-deluded concept.

The one I struggle to understand is the atheist who tries to convince me of his/her view of reality using rational processes that their own presuppositions render nonsensical and untenable.

Note, again, that at the end of this, I'm here making no claims to revelation, a particular religion or any sacred text. Just attempting to think about an epistemology that is at least internally consistent and coherent.

If I'm correct, all that it means is that our consciousness owes it rationality to something more then merely physical processes. This is still a long way from any specific supernatural or metaphysical construct.

It does, however, require opening the door to some connection to reality- that our noetic equipment somehow does more than just responsd raw stimuli; it tells us things that are "real" or proximately "real" and that this information can be processed "rationally". It opens the door to an intelligible universe (do not confuse that with ID - I only mean a universe that can be understood in terms of laws, rules, etc.) - an understanding that can be improved through study, discovery, and, yes, rational thought processes, debate, discussion, etc.

At least this would be true in general of humanity (though, obviously, particular individuals or even cultures may depart from this for various reasons).

See the full thread here.


JD Mays said...

I read this thread originally on EO and all I can say is Wow! In a strictly metaphorical sense, you kicked DS' butt. I enjoyed reading your arguments and I'll have to make your blog a regular stop.

CJR said...

JD -

Thx. I first came across the argument of the irrationality of human reason in a naturalistic/atheistic system in C. S. Lewis's writings. But a lengthies, more technical development can be found in Alvin Plantinga's writings. See this paper.

I've not heard a reasonable response to this position other than "our thinking seems to work" - which is just the "pragmatist" position. But on that point, the pragmatist is back to answering why he/she doesn't immediately adopt religious belief, since it clearly works so much better than atheism.

See a lengthy debate on this topic I had over at Slate some years ago.

Anonymous said...

In defense of the foolish atheist, why does "we are made of chemicals" entail "we can't have true beliefs" or "we aren't subject to norms of justification"? Why does it matter what we're made out of?

I'd think that even a computer was subject to the rules of logic, and could make true or false pronouncements, and could reason well or poorly. Of course, humans are a lot more sophisticated than computers, and have a lot more standards to live up to. But you haven't really given much evidence that the atheist should give up on the idea of truth in the first place.

In other words, why can't human beings be both rational and animal?

-Creeping Jenny