Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ah, reason-- let's talk

Sbowe—thanks for clarifying what you meant in your response. Sometimes I can get pretty defensive if I feel like I’m attacked—‘twas my bad there.

Anyhow, if you’d indulge me, I’d like to try and respond to the points you brought up in your last comment, beginning with “my reason.” I had wondered if we were going to get to this, and it would seem that we’ve now finally entered the argument about what counts as reason. Please forgive me if I go on at a bit of length here, because I think it’s important (see my comments here).


Ishmael said...

First, I’d like to make the claim that there is no objective definition of what reason is and what counts as reasonable. Please note that I’m not trying to make the claim that there is no universal reason, but rather simply that no definition is universally accepted (the mere fact that we are having this conversation is a demonstration of that fact).

Second, I’d like to make the claim that while I may operate under my “own contrived definition of reason” (to use your words), it is impossible for anyone to have a definition of reason that is NOT contrived. This comes to a head when someone maintains that ideally reason is objective, unbiased, free from personal views, etc (ala the Enlightenment). The problem is that as soon as one makes that claim, one has already projected one’s personal view of reason ONTO reason. What is reasonable is then (in the worst cases) simply reduced to whatever the person trying to define reason believes. If one is a strict empiricist, then (surprise surprise) only empirical evidence is reasonable (of course, people of faith are in no way free of this cycle either). This is not an act of seeing or knowing what reason really is; rather, it’s an act of simply applying the name “reason” to the biases one already holds.

Now I do of course realize that in making this argument, I am as subject to it as anyone. This is I think where the Post-Modern critique (what little I understand of it) makes a good point: we all carry with us views (even biases) born out of our experience, so let’s not assume that what we view as reason or reasonable actually IS in some absolute, objective sense. Rather, let’s be honest about and recognize our biases as just that, and then we can talk.


Ishmael said...

Alright, if it’s ok, I’d like to finally respond to your comments, Sbowe, about things such as the virgin birth, etc.

Strange as it may seem (please forgive the jest), I’m aware that things like the virgin birth, the resurrection, miracles, and all that fun stuff are not part of daily human experience. In fact, as you pointed out, they are not consistent with natural laws, and I agree with you there. However, underlying your rejection of them on that basis seems to be the assumption that natural laws exhaust reality. This is not a testable criterion, so working from empirical evidence, one cannot make this claim. It is true that natural laws govern the grossly vast majority of all we see and experience, but from that fact it does not necessarily follow that they govern in the same way every event for all time. That would be making a claim that goes beyond evidence, and beyond reason (and here I am not using my “own contrived definition of reason,” but YOUR definition of reason as “facts and logic”).

Ironically, it seems to me that in this case the one who does not reject outright the possibility of things like the virgin birth, the resurrection, and miracles is more faithful to empirical evidence (for it cannot exhaustively obliterate the possibility of such events), than the one who does reject them outright, for he/she does so more out of personal experience and gut feeling (because it has never been scientifically verified that such things happen, my gut tells me they never could have or can). I know this assertion will not be popular with some of you, and I also know I put it more harshly than is probably necessary, but you’ve got to realize that this is how many theologians see outright rejection of miracles and the like.

Now, there are probably many other good reasons for dismissing miracles—I do not deny that, since many very smart people have done so. However, thus far I’ve not been convinced by the arguments I’ve encountered.

P.S. Woah—rereading these two comments, I think I got a bit prickly… I didn’t mean anything personal to anyone; I guess just as some of our atheist/agnostic partners have had a rough time because of fundy Christians, I carry a bit of a chip on my shoulder resulting from some rather unpleasant experiences with some more arrogant strands of atheism (which of course I don’t think anyone here is a part of).


sbowe said...


You got me. I have been abusing the word reason ever since we met. I loved it and embraced it squeezed the life out of it until it fit my very perfect (in my mind only of course) personal definition. I think my definition of reason comes directly from the context in which it is used in science. So, on this point, I will have to concede.

However, I think the reason discussion can continue. I will admit from the beginning that I am putting words into your mouth, so please let me know where they don’t fit.

I think the point that I did not articulate well enough in my previous post, partly due to my inability to articulate well, partly due to the Tylenol 3 that I'm taking for my back, and not at all related to the wine I used to wash them down, would be that you seem to have two versions of reason that you use when you see fit.

One version I would bet is a skeptical sort that looks for empirical evidence when people make extraordinary claims. I would assume that you do not call an astrologer or a psychic to find out what's going to happen to you in your future because, and this detail is important, because they cannot prove their extraordinary claims. You don't jump on board with psychics simply because you can't disprove their claims. The onus is on them to provide proof.

The second version is the one related to your faith. It seems to me that there is a disconnect here. All of a sudden your reason is backward. It’s no longer the responsibility of those making extraordinary claims to provide the evidence. It’s now the non-believer’s duty to prove those things couldn’t have happened. I think we both know that without the ability to travel through time that’s not going to happen. If I’m incorrect in my analysis (very possible) let me know, but if not please explain.

Finally, for the record I do not absolutely reject the possibility that something supernatural can or did occur. I do not, however, believe that they occurred. I believe that this is primarily due to the fact that my definition of reason does not change to fit the situation.

Once again, I readily admit that I am putting words in your mouth so please feel free to remove them. :)

Ishmael said...


Well, just as you made a concession, now it’s my turn. You also got me—I have thus far been using different discerning methods as I evaluate my beliefs and those against which I argue. In fact, I’ve done that all my life (though I’ve never put it in those specific words). Be that as it may, I do have a reason for evaluating arguments in this way, and right, wrong, or otherwise, it’s probably the way I’ll go about things till someone convinces me that it’s not the right thing to do.

I don’t think I’d say that I use two different versions of reason when I weigh beliefs I hold against beliefs that I don’t, but I certainly do not evaluate them in the same way. I consistently place the burden of proof on beliefs which are contrary to what I already believe. This means that if I hold to an extraordinary claim, and an ordinary claim wants to replace it, the burden of truth is on the ordinary claim. Likewise if I hold to an ordinary claim, and an extraordinary one wants to replace it, the burden of proof is on the extraordinary one. Is this the sort of switching that you object to? Please don’t let me put words in your mouth either.

Anyway, I do this because I grew up in this world holding certain beliefs, and in order to be a solid, thinking person, I think those beliefs should be allowed to stand if they maintain consistency and coherence when weighed against beliefs conflicting with them (of course untried beliefs are of little use to anyone—they are not much more than assumptions). This means that when I encounter a belief that is contrary to what I believe, the burden of proof is always on the belief that wants to change what I already hold. If I didn’t obey this rule, I’d simply subscribe to any new belief that comes along. I would imagine (though I do not know) that this is similar to what some of you/our partners here have experienced on the road to atheism/agnosticism—when presented with views contrary to Christianity, you weighed both sides, and decided (as your reason dictated to you?) that atheism/agnosticism was a better fit to your reality than Christianity was. Again, I’m making a huge assumption here, and I don’t want to project anything onto any of my conversation partners. Please forgive me and correct me if I have.

At any rate, I still hold to Christianity because, though it does have some extraordinary claims, I have not found the claims that threaten to replace those of my faith (atheism, agnosticism, other religions, etc) any more attractive or sound than the ones I already have.

But I’ve blabbed an incredible amount so far. I’ll shut up and let some other people get their ideas in (God knows mine are not always the best…).


sbowe said...


I think you have fairly characterized my reasons for turning away from christianity. I’d like to add that I don’t consider it so much a rejection of religion as an acceptance of science and logic into all aspects of my life. I, like you, used to separate the ways in which I evaluated day to day interactions and aspects of faith. Once I started to apply the same logic that I used to navigate through life daily to religion, the story of the bible simply broke down. Once a single story didn’t fit, it was easy to begin picking apart the rest. Admittedly, there are some points in christianity that simply can’t be proven right or wrong but when all the stories that I could analyze with logic turned out to be more likely to be untrue than true, why would I believe the remaining ten percent?

With respect to held beliefs. I think it’s unfair to give a belief the same standing as others simply because you already happen to hold that belief first. First, I think it’s important to evaluate where a belief such as christianity came from. In your case you say you grew up holding this belief. What if you had grown up in another culture? What if you had been born in China, Israel, or Iran? Do you think that you would have the same feelings about jesus? You may not consider that concrete evidence against your faith but it’s got to make you stop and think a bit no?

Second, it seems that you’ve chosen to believe in the aspects of christianity that are irrefutable. How do you feel about stories such as that of Noah (vs. geological evidence), Adam and Eve (vs. evolution), the age of the earth (vs. geological and physical evidence)? If you believe in these things, I am obligated to argue that your reason (your version or mine) is flawed. If you don’t (and I think that is the case) then why doesn’t this cause you to question the rest of the christian story? If you only choose to believe the particular aspects of christianity that cannot be disproven to your satisfaction then I feel that you’ve chosen a dead end. I don’t hold a single belief that isn’t open to change in light of new evidence. I’d really like to hear a specific example of something that could change your mind.

I feel like I’m hogging the blog now, so I’ll just shut my mouth and read for a couple of days. There are people here that haven’t had a single post or comment. Thanks Ishmael. This has been fun and I hope to continue it.

John Kamman said...

Ishmael & Shane,
First, I like the way you dance. Well-played on both sides.

Second, I’m mostly reiterating what Shane posted in saying that it is a shame that upbringing plays such a pivotal role in religious alignment, as it has with most religious people (Ishmael included, from the sounds of it. No?). Geographic patterns in concentrations of religion are a testament to the extent to which upbringing plays a role. I think it’s safe to say, however, that “truth”, “fact” “reality” (whatever you want to call it…sorry if I’m butchering terminology) do not vary along geographic gradients or arbitrary political borders. Some people (or all people) are simply wrong. (Again, I have issues with the “all religions are ‘right’ and are all a channel to the same god” argument) This leads me to conclude, as stated earlier, that one should abandon indoctrination and start from a secular viewpoint to assess the situation from the outside. Easier said than done, I know.

I like your “burden of proof” argument, Ishmael. I can’t honestly say that I don’t approach many of my beliefs in the same way, but why should we approach it this way? Why give the status quo a leg up on the competition?

The example of virgin birth was brought up. Christians are raised to believe that Jesus (and Jesus alone, I think) was born of “immaculate conception”. However, throughout history, people have adamantly believed that the following were also virgin-births: Buddha, Jesus, Perseus, Ghenghis Khan, Krishna, Mercury, Romulus…probably others. Those raised in the Christian tradition would acknowledge only one from that list as “fitting their reality”. All on this list are exempt of “provability” but should we accept only the one name on this list with which we were raised to believe? Or should we reject all? Or should we say we can’t be sure?

(I realize that I am oversimplifying, but I hope my point is clear.)
(This blog has also made me realize that I like parentheses)

Ishmael said...

Wow, looks like I miss a day and I miss a lot. Thanks to everyone again for fostering this open and respectful communication—I am very much enjoying it. If it’s ok with everyone though, I’d like to try and answer the objections raised by Sbowe and John (we’ll see how well that works…).

So, held beliefs—let’s see if I can be a bit more articulate this time. I think I wouldn’t be out of line by claiming that all of us, at any given point in our life, hold some set of beliefs as true. We do this, I think (ideally), as a result of having weighed those beliefs against contrary ones, and subscribing to those that are most consistent with our view of reality (i.e. most reasonable, acknowledging here that even our view of reality is open to change). I think we might be on the same page up till that point?

So, the question becomes how we weigh one belief against another. Now, if I’m hearing my conversation partners correctly (and I very well may not be), the ideal way to weigh contradictory claims would be to set them up on an equal playing field, and let them speak for themselves neutrally (and listen to them without an initial inkling toward one or the other—ala Sbowe’s comment—and without the presuppositions consequent upon our upbringing—ala John’s comment).

I think my argument against this method would be the same as my argument against a universal concept of reason. It wouldn’t be a bad method perhaps, but it is ultimately untenable. In any judgment we make (and this is especially true for judgments of belief), there inevitably speaks in our evaluation and decision the effects of presuppositions resulting from any number of life experiences, necessarily including (but by no means limited to) experiences of our upbringing, and even prior decisions we have made, and loyalties we hold. So when I say I place the burden of proof on beliefs which contradict those I already hold (which may notably even include methodologies of judgment—reason), I am not in some way GIVING an unfair advantage to my personal beliefs. I am simply being honest that I have them, and giving a name to that which already takes place in every human decision of belief. There is no reason to suspect that subscribing to the scientific model somehow frees one of presuppositions.

I suspect that last line might not be popular, but I could be wrong. At any rate, I’m prepared to do some examples if need be (I won’t try at the moment for want of space). As far as the specifics of the comments, I’d like to try and address the problems with the Christian story (Sbowe’s comment) in my next comment, but the issue about being raised in other religions, or seeing truth in other religions (as it came up in both Sbowe and John) I think is a bigger issue, and may warrant another post.

More specifics in my next comment, and Peace!

Ishmael said...

Ok, specifics. Sbowe, if I read your question right, it’s along the lines of “why do I still subscribe to the big Christian story when so many of the supporting stories are so obviously scientifically suspect?” That’s a really good question, and one that I think ultimately any thinking Christian has to reckon with. I’ll give it my best shot here (please keep in mind that this is my belief, and while it IS orthodox, I cannot speak for any other Christian).

Let’s start at the base. I think that this is the place where (sorry John) the difference between truth and fact becomes most important, though it is also important elsewhere. You’re right Sbowe, that I perhaps don’t believe that Noah’s flood, Adam and Eve, or the biblical age of Earth, are facts in the strict scientific sense. The reason I disbelieve their factuality is not because they are inconvenient as a result of scientific inquiry (please don’t mistake me for a reactionary Christian in that sense), but because I believe that to project into them scientific factuality is to force one’s post-Enlightenment self into scripture, rather than to let scripture speak. In a horribly accurate way I think, to do this is to rape scripture.

So how can I disbelieve the factuality of events like these, believe in the factuality of the Resurrection, and maintain belief in the TRUTH of both? I think the answer lies in what I alluded to earlier; I need to let the scripture speak. Now, I have no illusions here—I can in no way look at the text objectively and hear its words neutrally. However, I can (by means of whatever tools of scholarship are at my disposal) study the text with the goal of finding out exactly what it (through its historical author) was and is trying to say. THAT is the truth I am after, and this is one of the main thrusts of the historical-critical method of scripture studies.

Now, I can’t really take you point-by-point through to my conclusions here without getting into some serious scripture scholarship, but suffice it to say that many of the modern authorities on the Bible see the factuality of stories such as Adam and Eve and the Noah story as ambiguous at best, and usually they say that the author of the stories was telling a myth (in the good sense of the word) to portray a truth. The Resurrection however, is consistently held by New Testament authors to be a FACT—it actually happened, and it changed stuff (which is its truth).

Anyhow, I’ll shut up a bit, but that’s basically my answer (I know it was long, but it was still pretty abbreviated). Thanks for your time and patience everyone, and I look forward to your thoughts!