[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, beginning chapter 17, can be found here.]
[This entry continues chapter 17, part 2 of 4.]
The previous entry ended with: "I will illustrate this formal problem underlying the connection between atheism and human justification attempts, by presenting an imaginary dialogue between Chase (whom I will arbitrarily assign to the atheist role) and Reed (whom I will assign as the theist, using a variation of the theistic Argument from Reason)."
(As with all my dialogues, unless I have specifically said otherwise, this one is fictional--I am arguing against myself, in both directions, as an illustration of the application of the principles I have been discussing. I will add parenthetical notes like this on occasion however.)
Reed: So, you claim that reality is, at bottom, non-rational.
Chase: Yes, I do; in the sense of being "non-sentient".
(Note: Chase is not using 'non-rational' to mean invalid. It would be silly for him to claim that reality is at bottom 'invalid'!)
R: Is your claim itself non-rational, or is it rational?
C: My claim is rational; if it was non-rational, it would not be worthy of potential trust.
(Note: Similarly, Chase is not using ‘rational’ to mean valid; so he is not instantly introducing a category error here by jumping between concepts. I will return next chapter to the question of trustworthiness in a world with only non-rational behaviors.)
R: I agree; although of course an honest mistake or a dishonest cheating is also rational.
C: I agree; those are rational behaviors. The dishonest man, such as the Christian who fudges on his history to mislead the simple and gain power over them, is still engaging in a rational action. That is why I consider such a person wicked, not merely misguided. On the other hand, if I have added up my logic incorrectly due to human error, that mistake also does not negate the rationality of my action.
(Note: Chase is committed to avoiding the externalistic fallacy: his rationality is not merely the formal validity of his thinking, and he does not claim the rationality of other people on that ground either. (His ethical judgment against this hypothetical Christian would not necessarily extend to all Christians, of course; he would think the other ones, like Reed, are making an honest mistake somewhere.))
R: I agree with your judgment of both those examples. Very well. Non-rational causes can have non-rational effects, yes?
C: Yes, that is elementary.
R: You say your mental behavior, corresponding to what you claim is a "belief" about atheism, is rational. Also, you say that this belief ultimately was produced by non-rational causation.
C: It may have its origin partly from other rational humans, like myself; we don't need God to explain it.
R: Are these rational humans the ultimate foundation of all reality?
C: No, of course not; they were produced by non-rational Nature.
(Note: Chase, like most atheists, is also a philosophical naturalist. He could be a supernaturalistic atheist, but the basic principles of this dispute would remain the same.)
R: So bringing them in only puts the question one stage further back for no gain. I grant that your rationality might be partly derived from their rationality in some fashion, but you claim that their rationality is ultimately derived from non-rationality; so whether we go the long road or the short, we're still talking about your rationality being ultimately produced by non-rational Nature.
C: I concede the point. And I see where you are going with this: if non-rational causation at least sometimes produces non-rational effects, why should I be considered correct in claiming that my own belief concerning atheism is itself rational instead of non-rational?
R: It seems to me that it is nonsensical, to claim that rationality is totally produced by non-rationality. A Christian may have a "belief" in God, but if you happened to know that her "belief" was utterly produced by her automatic reactions to her environment, you would claim her belief was non-rational.
C: This is true. But my beliefs are not utterly caused by my automatic response to my environment. I am different from her case.
R: How was your belief produced, then?
C: I drew inferences from principles, and drew further inferences from experimental data using those principles. I am a free thinker; I think for myself, and am not in thrall to the millennia of cultural pressures that promote such superstitions.
R: I think that this is entirely proper. This means you did not automatically respond to your environment, then?
C: Correct. When I was a child, I unthinkingly, automatically accepted what my family and friends in the Church told me, but not anymore.
R: So your current opinion about God was not, in fact, utterly produced by non-rational causation after all.
C: Exactly; as I already said, not thirty seconds ago, my beliefs are not utterly caused by my automatic response to my environment. Unlike the theist of your example, or when I was a child; I am now a free thinker who thinks for myself, and I reject theism as a result of my own competent, responsible and rational inference that theism is either certainly or most probably not true.
R: For what it is worth, I suspect that as a child you in fact drew quite a few inferences, to reach your belief in God. Specifically, you inferred that certain people could be considered trustworthy; and you inferred that if they told you something (God exists and has certain characteristics, the Bible has such-n-such level of reliability), you could therefore trust what they told you on that subject as on others. You may have decided later that they were honestly mistaken after all; or you may have decided later that they were being dishonest after all, either on this topic or generally on other topics, and so could not be relied on to provide you truthful answers to such important questions. These things happen; but I seriously doubt that you unthinkingly automatically accepted what they told you across the board. You do yourself, and children in general, a great disservice by describing such a reactive behavior as being distinctively childlike. Meanwhile, have you decided whether your rationality, including your rational belief in favor of atheism, comes from ultimately non-rational causes, or not? Because it seems like you are saying they do, when you want to claim atheism to be true; and also like you are saying they don't, when you want me to take your beliefs about atheism seriously.
C: Just because my inferential ability was produced by an ultimately non-rational cause, doesn't mean my arguments are thereby non-rational.
R: In the same vein, just because your arms were produced by non-rational causes, does not mean every behavior they exhibit is non-rational.
C: Quite so.
R: Similarly, just because your mouth and vocal cords were produced by non-rational causes, does not mean every sound you utter is non-rational.
R: Do you understand that I have altered your proposal slightly to avoid a nonsense statement on your part? Your arms and your mouth are not your ability to move your arms and to speak. This ability to 'infer', which you mention, is really an abstract way of describing the behavior of actual materials in your body, brain-matter presumably being chief among them.
C: So what?
R: Are your arguments actually produced by your inferential ability?
C: Yes, of course.
R: So are you claiming an abstract description produces an actual event?
R: Then what is your "inferential ability", if it is not an abstract description of an actual behavior set?
C: Okay, fine; but what it describes is what produces my arguments.
R: What does it describe?
C: The movement of certain electrical impulses across certain neural structures in my brain.
R: So would you say that this explanation, in principle, effectively and sufficiently describes your thinking behavior without having to bring in anything other than non-purposive Nature?
C: Correct. There is no need to bring a purposeful God into it, supernatural or otherwise.
R: So these movements in your brain, corresponding to your beliefs about atheism, are completely non-purposive?
C: No, I am causing them.
R: They aren't merely an automatic, non-purposive knee-jerk reaction to your environment, then?
C: No, not hardly! I have said this already.
R: So they are something other than non-purposive Nature. I thought you said we didn't have to bring in anything other than non-purposive Nature. Here it is!
C: I didn't "bring it in"; non-purposive Nature produced it.
R: I see. Is this a usual result of the effects of non-purposive Nature?
C: It is, under the type of conditions inside my head.
R: What makes these effects of non-purposive Nature something other than merely more non-purposive behaviors?
C: We don't know yet.
R: So you are simply sheerly asserting that these particular results of non-purposive, non-rational Nature are rational and purposive?
C: No--I am only saying that we haven't exactly figured out why it should be different this time.
R: But you apparently already have some clue as to the principles involved. If you didn't, there would be nothing to distinguish your proposition from a sheer ungrounded assertion--essentially a flat wish.
C: It is not a mere ungrounded assertion! We have some clues here and there; enough that we can be sufficiently confident that we are on the right track.
R: Why should I agree that your evaluation of those clues is rational?
C: What?! That's rather rude!
Next up: the teeth of the sceptical threat
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[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, beginning chapter 17, can be found here.]