Reasoning the Unreasonable

Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 7 comments

Today an opinion piece appears in The Age’s Society and Culture section titled “Faith in the infallibility of the mind is the atheist’s delusion” by one Simon Smart, a director of the Centre for Public Christianity. (Given the title of the article, and that he’s from the Centre of Public Christianity, I think we can already guess what angle he’s going to take.) He throws in his 2 cents worth about reason, rationality and belief in the context of the Global Atheist Convention, due to start tomorrow evening at the Melbourne Convention Centre.

The article, while admitting that “A Celebration Of Reason” is in itself “reasonable” goes on to say that the atheist position is a troublesome one, one that without faith falls into unreason. I’m not sure I follow his “reasoning”.

He opens his critique by paraphrasing Nobel Lauteate Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and author of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow saying that the studies that Kahneman and his associate, the late Amos Tversky, found that the human brain is highly unreliable at making rational decisions. But Smart’s “gotcha” moment in this all is, because part of the process of their experiments “… was that they would study no specific example of human ‘idiocy or irrationality’ unless they first detected it in themselves. [from the article]” From this, Smart draws the conclusion:

“In other words, even experts suffer the same quirks of human unreason as anyone else.”

Well I’m of the opinion that we don’t need a scientist to tell us that. All people are human, just that some of us will realise and recognise the “idiocy and irrationality” that we all suffer from, and this is the first step to understanding why it exists. (Of course if we were unaware of it, we would be unaware of it. That goes without saying.)

The article spirals downhill from here into pseudo-intellectualism and assumptions about the nature of rationalism, materialism and neurological processes. It feels like he’s trying to baffle the reader with bullshit, and dressing it up with the words of “Renowned American philosopher Alvin Plantinga”. Platinga is not only a philosopher, but a theologist concerned with proving that God exists as a part of the natural order, and a proponent of the “Free Will Defence“. As we know, the idea of “free will” is that it is given to us by God as a way to sort the chaff from the grain of society. It works as a buffer of blame, whereby we can say that any action taken by a person is arrived at by their own choices, and that therefore they can be judged by God. Of course, Sam Harris sees free will as literally non-existent, as he discusses in his latest short book “Free Will“. According to Smart’s article, Platinga tells us that if a person see all of life’s processes, including those in the brain, as having a naturalistic cause, then using the fact that evolution is an uncaring process, then your rational brain is somehow rendered unreliable.

“… evolution couldn’t give a toss about what you believe. It cares about rewarding adaptive behaviour and punishing maladaptive behaviour. So evolution will gradually modify those neuro-physiological properties in the direction of greater adaptiveness, but it doesn’t follow that it modifies belief in the direction of truth. Evolution doesn’t care about true belief.”

The words “true belief” in this sentence are key, making the assertion that “truth” and “belief” are somehow the same thing. He also is stating that evolution is geared toward greater adaptiveness, and this is simply not true. Evolution is the process, not a force that moves toward an end. As he said “Evolution doesn’t care…” because by its very nature it can’t care. There is a very distinct difference in seeing evolution as a force with intent (which it isn’t) and a process of arriving at a certain state by natural forces (which it is) is a big one here. This simple misrepresentation of evolution is what Smart’s article hinges on, and it’s disingenuous to say the least.

He goes on:

“If, however, you believe in God and don’t accept naturalism and materialism, then that particular problem doesn’t apply. You will assume there is a being who is separate from creation but speaks truth into the fibre of the universe. Sure, you’ll have other challenges to your faith, but you’ll have a reason to trust your faculties in a way that the naturalist does not. Believing in human rationality is quite rational within a theistic world view, but not so in an atheistic framework.”

So in the irrational world of faith, which is to say “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”, belief in human rationality is rational? Well Obviously if you pull the wool over your eyes, only believe what you see with your own faculties, never dig below the surface, and come from a preexisting faith statement that “there is a God”, then of course you;ll think that human rationality is infallible. This point was made by Smart already in his section coming from Kahneman, and to suddenly swap human fallibility with the infallible “reason” stemming from belief makes no sense at all.

In the words of Lawrence Krauss “The universe is the way it is whether we like it or not.” This means that whatever we discover about the universe, it is the way it is, and no amount of post-hoc reasoning to the contrary can change this. We have discovered that the universe is huge, uncaring and impartial to our existences. We have discovered that we are made from infinitesimally small particles, most of which is empty space. We have discovered that all intentions of the brain arrive before we consciously make the decision to do anything. The universe is stranger than we could possibly imagine, but “faith” removes this strangeness and puts it all in the intentions of an all powerful mind, which is conveniently impossible to describe or know.

Smart wraps up his article with these two short paragraphs:

“Plantinga is quick to point out that none of this is intended to prove belief. There remain serious questions for those who believe in an all-powerful, good God who creates and sustains the universe, and believers need to face these.

“But Plantinga’s thesis might prompt those in the ”all religion is delusional” camp to approach vital questions of human existence with measured consideration of the alternatives – something beyond naked contempt. That, surely, is a reasonable request.”

What gets me here is that the theists attacking the position of atheism think that the atheist position is already defined in stone, and by science. The fact is, at least in my case, that atheism and naturalism is the position of continual questioning. It is my stance that if we think we have arrived at a final conclusion about the nature of the universe, then we aren’t looking hard enough or asking the right questions, at least at this stage in the game.

Of course naked contempt is not the way forward, and yes it is reasonable to request that from atheists. But the contempt comes from frustration at articles like this, one that makes spurious claims about the nature of faith, twists ideas and misrepresents theories to make their own, unreasoned point.

UPDATE: Platinga has written a piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, refuting Dawkins’ naturalism. Read it here. It seems the readers and commenters are similarly unimpressed by Platinga’s arguments and his conclusion.

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  1. Nice!

    One quibble: “We have discovered that all intentions of the brain arrive before we consciously make the decision to do anything”

    It’s perhaps better to say, “We have discovered that all intentions of the brain arrive before we are conscious of making the decision to do anything” We still make a decision, even if unconsciously. We are our brain.


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  2. >>even experts suffer the same quirks of human unreason as anyone else
    Mr Smart’s rhetoric is very believable but very wrong. Social science is telling a different story.
    Academic experts suffer the same quirks of human unreason to a LESSER EXTENT than non-experts. Because of their psychology, thinking style, liberal tendencies, etc. Moreover their professional contributions suffer less too.
    The expert is working within an academic institution (1) that knows those brain quirks exist, and (2) systematically weeds out unreason by subjecting new ideas to other recognised experts.
    Constrast that to the non-expert who’s been taught to have faith in their own mental faculties to get to the truth about the contents of their own thoughts, feelings, world, holybook, and god. They can’t accept academic opinion.

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  3. >>…the assertion that “truth” and “belief” are somehow the same thing
    By “true belief” he’s meaning a belief that just happens to be a fact. Leaving aside his anthropomorphism of evolution (theists think many abstract things are beings), he claims evolution doesn’t discriminate between beliefs that are fact and fiction. He’s wrong, halucinations can kill. Evolution cares. Even though mistaken beliefs aren’t necessarily a matter of life or death.

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  4. >>you’ll have a reason to trust your faculties in a way that the naturalist does not
    The existence of (at least) one god isn’t a reason to start trusting your faculties.
    The existence of the One God of the Bible isn’t a reason to take that “leap of faith” to trust your faculties. That leads to profound disagreements about what miracles that Yahweh character has performed in this world since its genesis.
    If the theist is correct, then this universe we modern humans perceive and imagine we occupy (as discovered by academia) is profoundly different to the real world of occasional historical miracles including prophets who have put into words the thoughts and feelings of a miraculous creator being.

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  5. >>Plantinga’s thesis might prompt those in the ”all religion is delusional” camp to approach vital questions of human existence with measured consideration of the alternatives – something beyond naked contempt
    Yeah atheists call that bit “humanism”. Why don’t theists know this. Case closed, Mr Smart. You’ve been Pribblized.

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  6. “Sure, you’ll have other challenges to your faith, but you’ll have a reason to trust your faculties in a way that the naturalist does not.”
    I’d far rather be certain of ignorance than certain IN ignorance.

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  7. I haven’t seen the article you critique but if I was sitting around with a drink  I would argue a couple of things just in the way you interpret them.  I couldn’t much care what the authors intent was to equate some level of religious belief or even religious observance with stupidity is a kind of contempt that wins no points with anyone except “new atheists”. My observance has been that practically all articles on religion I see are polemic. The recent Q&A a perfect example. People on both sides of the fence then feel that contempt that …”comes from the frustration of articles like this”
    I have been around churches all my life and met a few loonies. I’ve met some who were not religious too. But mostly the rest are not that much bothered by these issues. All the things I’ve heard mad preachers say about what atheists believe and atheists say about what Christians believe is seriously laughable.
    Keep up the good work.

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