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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.

This entry continues a fourth chapter, begun here. I highly recommend reading at least as far back as this, first.]

If my brother, Spencer, thinks he has good grounds for believing that my belief of a snake in the hole has been fostered purely from a cocaine-fit, then he would not (or at least should not) be embarrassed to discover there was, after all, a snake in the hole. He had no good reason to believe the snake was there.

Furthermore, my argument that he (and I) should stay away from the hole was ultimately untrustworthy. The form of the argument that we should stay away from the hole was not itself invalid; but without the anchor of rationality at the beginning, there was no good reason to pay attention either to my initial belief ("a snake is in the hole") or to my consequent inferred belief ("we should stay away from the hole")--despite the fact that my second belief was, as far as it went, rational!

In other words, there would be no good reason for Spencer to pay attention to my idea with respect to what it claimed to be--or more precisely, what I claimed for it. There would be no good reason for Spencer to pay attention to me.

Spencer certainly could pay attention to, and draw useful inferences from, the real character of my belief, insofar as he perceived it. For instance, he might conclude: "I'd better not let Jason drive the golf-cart! He's whacked out of his gourd!"

But this is a refusal to take my belief seriously. The form of my subsidiary belief ("We shouldn't go near the hole!") would admittedly 'hold water'; but there would be no 'water' to hold, because the original cornerstone belief was not rationally produced. The framework or structure would stand, but it has nothing to properly 'stand' on. [see first comment below for an extended footnote]

What sort of 'water' would be needed for my inference ("We shouldn't go near the hole!") to be even potentially trustworthy? (It might still be mistaken, of course.) What kind of foundation would give the valid framework something to 'stand' on?

The answer can be found with only a little introspection on how we ourselves evaluate such claims every day: the foundational belief must itself be rational. It must be initiated--or, alternately, it must be judged by another initiator to be worthwhile despite its non-rational causation. [see second comment below for a footnote here]

If Spencer asks me why I think there is a snake in the hole, and I tell him I witnessed a group of old ladies in front of us run screaming "Snake! Snake!" off the green after one of them tried to retrieve a ball from the hole, and that as far as I could tell they didn't know we were there (and so probably weren't trying to play a trick on us); then not only would I have a rational belief (even if mistaken), but Spencer (as an initiator himself) can judge my 'reasons' and make his own decisions as to their potential trustworthiness. Now a subsidiary or consequent belief--that we should not get near the hole--may potentially be worth accepting. [Footnote: notice that although such judgments may happen so quickly that the ‘form’ of the judgment is not perceptible to the thinker, in principle they are not automatic despite their speed--they still involve an action by the judger.]

On the other hand, let us say Spencer finds me lying on the green near the hole. I am all swollen up, shaking and sweating. I am muttering "Snake... in hole..."

My claim that a snake is in the hole might be produced entirely by the interaction of a fever or other delirium-inducing physical effect with my brain, combined with neurophysical associations brought about by 'golf course' sensory input. [Footnote: once, while in a flu-fever, the sound of a woodpecker outside my window mis-associated itself, with the result that I saw a rattlesnake jump at me from the ceiling-fan over my bed! I probably said something loudly, too...]

However, Spencer could still put this bit of data together with other bits of data (perhaps including a rattling sound in the hole) to conclude that there is a snake in the hole, it bit me, and that has caused my delirium.

In this case, my foundational 'belief' (if it can be properly called 'a belief' in the end--see below! [later in the chapter, to be given in future journal entry]) was, per this example, a non-rationally produced effect and thus an irrational belief; but my brother, being a rational agent, found it to have an accuracy that happened (due to the characteristics of the situation) to correspond with my claim--despite the nominally irrational quality of my belief. My belief was irrational; Spencer's was not. But the rationality of his belief depended on his ability to act in judgment of the data, not merely to react and counterreact automatically to stimulus. (And notice that we could both still be incorrect.)

Yet there is at least one more variation for this situation. I have been building on the cocaine-induced delusion as my example, and contrasting it with some other options, because it was a relatively easy and colorfully humorous way to illustrate certain principles. However, let us now suppose that my first belief ('a snake is in the hole') was produced in me through the following process.

As I walk over to the hole, on the golf course, and bend down to look in, photons ricocheting back from something within the hole careen through my eyes, strike my optic nerves, and send impulses back into my brain. These impulses react and counterreact with other electrochemical potentialities in my brain, which happen (however they got there) to be linked associatively with certain external facts of reality: the existence of golf courses, and of entities often found on golf courses. The result of this set of electrochemical reactions, is the establishment of a new psychophysical state within my brain: a state that corresponds (in whatever fashion) to the belief 'a snake is in the hole'.

So: is this belief of mine rational, or irrational?

Now I have reached a crucial distinction between philosophies, in relation to human mental behavior. I could, here, skip on to the beginning of Section Two, where I will discuss issues of this sort with an eye toward deductive conclusions (if any). My goal for this chapter (and this Section) is considerably less extensive, however; and so I will content myself, for now, with the following observations.

So long as we are merely discussing my own behavior as an individual entity, I think this example falls clearly enough into the same category as the cocaine-induced delusion. The chief distinction between that prior example and this new situation, is that the environmental linkages in that prior example were secondary causes of the belief ('a snake is in the hole') rather than primary causes as in this new example. Yet the prior example of a belief did specifically depend, for its shape, on those secondary causes--the cocaine would not have produced that particular paranoia in me without relevant sensory data for the chemicals to 'work' with.

What I am effectively proposing, in this new example, is the cocaine-induced delusion--except without the cocaine. The sensory impressions themselves are proposed to be the primary cause of my belief.

And I think we should be very cautious about considering such a subsequent belief in me, caused in this fashion, to be 'rational'. These sensory impressions are as non-rational in causation as the cocaine reactions. That they happen to correspond accurately to an external fact (barring, for this example, the possibility of an illusion or other mistake), is no proper ground for calling the subsequent belief 'rational'--any more than it was a proper ground when the cocaine-induced belief happened to correspond to the existence of an actual snake in the hole.

If we say that such a correspondence was accidental, but that this new correspondence is true to the fact from which it directly results; then I reply that when I was rolling on the ground in a delirium thanks to having been snakebit, my delirium was proposed (at the time) to have been a pure reaction to environmental stimulus, not a rational judgment on my part--and yet in that case, the environmental stimulus to which I was reacting was also entirely “true” in relation to its mental result. I was on a golf course; and there was a snake in the hole; and those facts caused, in one fashion, my reactive state of 'belief'. Now in my new example, the environmental stimulus once again has caused my reactive 'belief', and once again the correspondence is proposed to be entirely true. Yet this type of situation had resulted in an irrational belief on my part before. What is the qualitative difference in this new case?

I think it is obvious that there is no qualitative difference; which has implications about the 'rationality' of my belief.

It might be very tempting for you, my reader, to claim 'rationality' of my belief despite the fully non-rational causation of my new proposed example. It would be easy, for instance, to slide from a rational judgment on your part, into ascribing the quality of 'rationality' to my belief. But this would be the externalistic fallacy. Spencer, in my previous example, might be able to verify the accuracy of my belief for me; but his rational verification is not my rational belief.

Consequently, even in the case of this new descriptive explanation for the existence of a 'belief' in my mind, I do not think it would be proper to claim this belief to be 'rational'.

But of course, this type of descriptive explanation for the existence of a belief in my mind, is not restrained merely to my own individual behaviors as an entity. Rather, this type of process--non-rational in characteristic (even if more complex in actuality)--is often proposed and defended as being the basic process explanation of all human reasoning (yours and mine included); and the explanation is proposed in direct relation to characteristic properties of fundamental reality.

However, I am not interested (yet) in discussing this far-reaching proposition, or any alternatives. My goal for this chapter is much simpler; and I think I have demonstrated it sufficiently for my current purposes.

What I have demonstrated (which most of my readers wouldn't have disagreed with anyway, but this is how a systematic argument proceeds), is that a belief, far from being necessarily mutually exclusive to reason, can depend upon reasoning--the action (or at least the event) of drawing inferences.

This already directly parries the contention that faith and reason must, by some type of psychological or philosophical necessity, be mutually exclusive (even if not directly opposed). A faith always is a type of belief (the two terms are sometimes completely equivalent), and a belief can be the result of reasoning. Unless the sceptic wishes to merely flatly assert that religious beliefs must be mutually exclusive to reason (whereupon I have no reason to believe him, and thus no reason not to continue), then for all we know a particular person's religious faith might be based upon (and not be mutually exclusive to) reasoning.

The faith may not be based on very accurate reasoning; I might still be mistaken either in the facts or the principles I think I know; and/or in the methods by which I attempt to reach my conclusion. That doesn't stop it being a belief (a 'faith') based on reasoning.

Thus, the question of whether my reasoning is worthwhile should be deferred until I actually explain my reasoning about the topic; yet it does clear the way for me to continue without being excluded from contention before-the-fact merely because I have a faith in God.

But I can go even further with this, although now I enter a more speculative vein.

[Next week: so, a belief (including a religious faith) can be a result of reasoning; but can I have a belief (including a religious faith) without reasoning?]


.......[first extended footnote here]

My sceptical reader should be able to see an application of principle in his favor, here. If the sceptic believes that belief-in-God is always non-rationally produced, then I think he would agree with me that he should not put weight on such a belief: he should not accept it for himself. No one accepts the contention 'The God Module of my brain produced my belief in God' as proper grounds for accepting that God exists, for instance. (Certainly no sceptic I've ever heard of accepts this contention...!) Furthermore, if God happened to exist after all, I do not see why such a sceptic should be held liable for disbelief: if the sceptic was only given irrational grounds for the proposition that God exists.

I encourage the sceptic to keep this principle in mind, and even to accept and defend it as vigorously as possible. For, I will be returning to it later...

.......[second extended footnote here]

In this case, the properly foundational belief would belong to the external judger who is rationally validating the impression produced non-rationally in the subject. This would not be the externalistic fallacy; unless the rational judger went on to claim that therefore the entity he was judging was rational. A valid inference from entity A about an entity B, is not the same as the rational capability of the entity B.

Debate challenge over at:

Resolved: Christian theism is certainly false.

I will argue the affirmative. Suggested format:

1. Standard format.
2. I will open first.
3. Three rounds.
4. Max word limit: 3,000
5. Time limit: 10 days.

I want to debate an opponent who believes that: (i) Christian theism is true, (ii) it is irrational to not accept Jesus's divinity, and (iii) God is perfectly justified in sending non-believers to hell for all eternity.

Did you actually read the entry here? My usage of "irrational" is very focused, and would not be applicable to (ii). (Moreover, I actually acknowledge that non-Christians have a lot of leeway on this.)

Consequently, you're asking the wrong opponent for a debate, if what you're after is someone who believes (ii). (And probably (iii), too; I'm an orthodox universalist, who considers the position represented by (iii) to be a variant of gnosticism.)

As for (i), while I believe that to be true, and in principle wouldn't mind a debate on that, in practice the topic is far too wide. There are easily a couple dozen debatable points within that claim. However, if the topic is merely on whether Christian theism is certainly false or not... eh, that might be debatable within the format constraints. It depends on whether you topic spam or not. If you keep to one or maybe two elements of orthodox Christian theism, and argue for that one or those two elements to be certainly false, the debate might not be only some rhetorical pickle-toss. (My brother and his fraternity buddies used to go to Krystal at midnight to throw pickles up on the window and see how many would stick and for how long... {wry g})

Do you have one or maybe two elements of orthodox Christian theism in mind to focus on as being certainly false? (You do realize, I hope, that insofar as the topic goes, I wouldn't even have to argue that those elements are true; only that they are not certainly false.)

Or, someone else here may be more to your preference, perhaps. {shrug}


(ii) can be stated another way: not accepting Jesus' divinity is not rationally justifiable.

Since you're a universalist, that means you don't think that non-believers spend enternity in hell if they don't accept Jesus, right? I want to debate an opponent who holds the more popular view--that Christian theism entails the claim that non-believers go to hell for all eternity.

And, yes, I do realize that my opponent only has to show that I haven't proven Christianity false.

I'll be more explicit. I want to debate a Christian who believes that Christian theism necessarily entails: (i) not accepting Jesus' divinity is irrational (from an intellectual/rational pov), and (ii) God is perfectly justified in sending non-believers to hell for all eternity.

You've got some more work to do before you've got anything more than a straw man to debate against. Does Christian theism entail that not accepting Jesus' divinity is irrational? Maybe, but from what stance? From a supposedly 'neutral', 'objective' point of view, from the point of view of a committed skeptic, or of someone who already accepts some sort of general theism? That 'intellectual/rational' gets you nowhere unless you're a bit more sophisticated in exactly what you mean by those terms, and in what context they apply.

I often hear apologists like William Lane Craig say how there aren't any real intellectual challenges against Christian theism. If this is right, then it could never be possible for a non-theist to look at the evidence for Christianity and rationally conclude: 'there isn't enough evidence to believe' or 'the evidence is weak.'

So, obviously, I was referring to a 'neutral, 'objective pov:' it could never be the case, according to people like Craig, that not accepting Jesus' divinity is acceptable on rational grounds.


{{Since you're a universalist, that means you don't think that non-believers spend enternity in hell if they don't accept Jesus, right?}}

Close enough for your purposes. It would take me a while to go through the nuances involved. (I do believe in hell, for instance.)

{{(ii) can be stated another way: not accepting Jesus' divinity is not rationally justifiable.}}

I still wouldn't agree with that; given the acceptance of various premises (whether mistaken or accurate in their factuality is irrelevant to the question of validity), not accepting Jesus' divinity would be rationally justifiable. Or, alternately, accepting some non-orthodox belief of Jesus' divinity would be rationally justifiable, given the acceptance of such-n-such premises.

JD was saying something similar to this, too.


Are people like Michael Martain, George Smith, Richard Carrier, Evan Fales, and other well known atheists rationally justified in not accepting Jesus' divinity? If not, why not?

Is it because when they looked that the evidence for Christian theism they made an error in reasoning?

{{Are people like Michael Martain, George Smith, Richard Carrier, Evan Fales, and other well known atheists rationally justified in not accepting Jesus' divinity?}}

Well obviously if atheism is true, then then God does not exist (though gods of the Mormon or classical polytheistic types could still exist in various fashions). By logical corollary, then Jesus could not be divine in several fashions, including orthodox Christian theism. There would be no error in reasoning (per se) on this; but if the premise is false, then the conclusion is false, too. Which would not be the same as immediately concluding, by exclusive dichotomy, that Jesus is divine (in an orthodox or any other sense)--the argument, as given, isn’t set up that way.

In an argument of that sort, the next question would be to ask why believe atheism to be true; where is that premise coming from? Ideally it needs to be either a necessary presumption, or else it needs to be a conclusion itself (being imported into the new argument as a given premise.) If it is merely an assertion, then it won’t work for a deductive argument, although it could be asserted for purposes of abductive reasoning (a special form of inductive reasoning).

Perhaps you could try reading the series to which you’ve posted? {s!} You seem to have chosen it semi-arbitrarily, simply because it was the top-listed article (clearly you haven't even read this entry, or didn't understand what you were reading); but (perhaps providentially?) I am in a long process of discussing just the sort of questions you’re asking here.

I do believe orthodox Christian theism to be true; consequently I would be expecting (though my expectations could be false if I’ve made a mistake myself) that non-affirmers either lack enough data, or else they’ve misunderstood the data (by accident or on purpose), or else they’ve incorporated faulty data (by accident or on purpose), or else they’re making logical errors with the data (by accident or on purpose--and I always defer in favor of accident.) I happen to know Richard Carrier, for example; we used to debate each other all the time, several years ago. He is not a very good reasoner sometimes. But, sometimes he is--including against Christians. For instance, I think his prime critique of J. P. Moreland’s chapter on ethics in Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City is spot-on (even though Richard’s secondary attempts in that critique often fail.) Not everyone here would agree with that assessment of Richard’s prime critique, though. (Bill wouldn’t and doesn’t, and wrote a series of entries on it a couple of years ago, for instance.)

Faulty data, though, barring fudging, does not affect rational justification of the conclusion by the thinker. And even where an error of reasoning (per se) is being made, that does not in itself affect the rational status of the thinker.

I could of course be tooting that horn in my own self-defense; but that would be hypocritical (or at best still logically mistaken) if I didn’t recognize the same to hold true for my opponents in principle as well. This is why I almost always phrase the matter in favor of my opponents, if I can.

{{I often hear apologists like William Lane Craig say how there aren't any real intellectual challenges against Christian theism.}}

They’re speaking from an achieved standpoint; and don’t always keep in mind that other people are not where they are. {s} (It’s a subtle version of the externalistic fallacy.)

{{If this is right, then it could never be possible for a non-theist to look at the evidence for Christianity and rationally conclude: 'there isn't enough evidence to believe' or 'the evidence is weak.'}}

There are some apologists who try to go that route, too; but I am not one of them. Not everything in Christianity is a deductive conclusion; there are inductive conclusions, too, and those are not really calculable by mathematic ratios (despite the fondness of apologists, pro and con, for trying to do so). My estimate of the intrinsic likelihoods may not be the same as someone else’s. That’s just how it is.


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