In defense of reason

I think we may have to start by a definition that we can all agree on

Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information

It has never occurred to me that it would be necessary to defend it until I met IB and Malcolm G.  He writes in a comment on IB’s post, I will quote him entirely, that

IB, it’s so interesting that we often agree with each other even though I’m an atheist and an anarchist to boot. There are so many important areas of our life where reason is unable to help us. Reason for example, and I think you will agree with this, cannot help us choose between fundamental values just as reason cannot help us decide which is the best play writer, Shakespeare or Sophocles. We simply have no way to objectively compare a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount to a life lived according to the Bushido code of the Samurai.

Furthermore, we live in a society run by moral rules and traditions which have evolved over time, with those groups surviving which had the most successful rules and traditions. For example, some groups accidentally developed a favorable tradition which we now call private property. These groups were very successful but the groups themselves have long since forgotten why they were successful, if they ever knew it in the first place. So we owe much of what we have achieved to a moral tradition which was never rationally designed nor indeed, intentionally created. Maybe faith in moral traditions is nature’s way of putting obstacles in the way of naive rationalists bent on replacing successful rules they have not designed with unsuccessful rules which they have?

In the first instance, the only thing, if anything differentiates us from the brutes is reason. Anyone who thinks that we can dispense with reason should go live with the brutes.

If reason can’t help us in choosing between fundamental values, whatever these are, what can?

I know he and many others will be quick to respond reason cannot help us on matter of taste. If reason is a way of making sense of things, then it is a guide in matters of taste.

And why would reason not help us arbitrate on who is the best playwright? where we expect each one to give a reason for their preference?

Isn’t all experience subjective? So that the only way we can compare lives is subjectively?

Why do we follow the tradition? Is it not because it comports with our reason? We have stopped, generally, from burning people at the stake for heresy because we have reasoned it was a stupid thing to do? Haven’t we generally stopped burning witches because we have reasoned it was really backward and inhuman and that there never were any witches to begin with?

I find people who disparage reason while also claiming maintaining they are reasonable and rational strange and bordering on the insane. I can excuse IB. Her username is insanity- that is, in her case the ship has sailed and their no help. For others, not so fast.

Advertisements

Five challenges for the atheist

In the conversation between the atheist and theist, there seem to be a communication breakdown of some sort. I would’t want to be in the christian’s shoes, who feels she must be on the defensive, to defend a belief fostered by several years of indoctrination with little or no thought. It is at such times am glad that I became free. Why am I boring you with such verbiage? Some theist blogger feels the time has come to put the atheist on the defensive and has a list of questions/ challenges meant to do just that. When I stated, in the beginning, about one side not doing it’s work, I meant the theist. From where I sit, it appears to me, they do very little, if any, reading and whatever they read must be what bolsters faith but not what challenges it and this will be evident in the post we are going to spend some time on today.

The author’s opening salvo is outlandish and unsubstantiated. He writes

[..]Though it has been persistently marketed to us as a worldview that stands for reason and science, the truth is that the atheistic worldview is riddled with contradictions and outlandish claims.

I hope these claims will be made known to us in a moment.

And because most secular people haven’t studied why atheism is true, an excellent evangelistic strategy for you and your church is to understand these five challenges for atheism.

Isn’t this just awesome! Think about it. You are an atheist and you haven’t studied why it is true. There could be such atheists, that am not denying, but this is not true of the many atheists I have interacted with both online and face to face. Perhaps this author would have cared to name just a few. But lets forget all that. Let us be intrigued by the five challenges to atheism.

He tells his Christians the first matter is to settle definitions, and yours truly agrees. But it is here where he fails. Atheism is lack of belief in god[s] or stated differently a lack of belief in the existence of gods. Nothing more, nothing less. Naturalism is a philosophical position about the world. Therefore in quoting Richard Dawkins et al as having said about their shared viewpoint as:

The view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings

betrays the author’s ignorance of what atheism is. It would not be asking too much that a person looks up the meaning of atheism in a dictionary or a philosophy paper.

The problem statement

The atheist, as defined above, must deal with a logical inconsistency between their commitment to the “impersonal and inviolable” laws of the universe and their inevitable recognition that there exists “intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.”

Granting that most atheist may ascribe to naturalism, let us see what are the unique five areas where the author thinks he has us at a corner. He identifies the following areas;

  • Consciousness
  • Free will
  • Purpose
  • Reason, including mathematics and science
  • Objective moral facts, including universal human rights and the reality of evil

The problem of consciousness, if we can call it that, has been divided into two: the easy question and the hard question.

The easy problem is

to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

and the hard problem

is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience.

It is however not clear to me how it is a problem for naturalism. The naturalist says that he believes that Nature is capable of producing sentient beings. Providing a supernatural answer every moment we are unable to provide a naturalistic one is a lazy way to explain reality.

The theist says we have freewill because his priest has told him so. The naturalist says, as far as we can tell, we observe for every effect a cause. Man being part of nature doesn’t seem exempt from the cause-effect continuum. How then is this a problem for the naturalist? Where is there a contradiction? I have written in several places that I believe free will is an illusion and as such many of the reasons, if not all, given for punishment should be looked at afresh with a view of changing our justice systems. A person can be an atheist and believe there is free will. This has nothing, or if it has, very little, to the question that atheism answers to.

The next challenge on purpose is framed thus

Can your secular friends consistently live within such a meaningless framework?

and why wouldn’t they? I plead guilty to the charge of nihilism. At the same time, I believe to live, as Camus says in the Rebel is to rebel against this meaninglessness. It is to find meaning in a meaningless existence, in short, to find meaning in an absurd world. Maybe am blinded by my position, but how is this position outlandish and/or contradictory?

Reason, including mathematics and science

The author first quotes C.S Lewis [someone please tell me if I should waste valuable time reading this guy?] on mind

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.[bold mine]

Now, the operative word here is he couldn’t understand, and there is nothing wrong with that. To assert there is a problem because one christian apologist couldn’t understand something is to be ridiculous and to make a joke of our collective efforts in understanding reality and ourselves as part of that reality.

Questions such as

 Further, normative rules govern the reasoning process: 2+2 does not equal elephant. Where do these rules come from? And why do they apply to our brains?

are absurd. The rules, if we can call them that, are things we have extracted from nature by studying her. Every time we have added 2+2 we have got 4. There is no space for the supernatural. To understand nature, one must study her and you can’t do this if every instance you encounter a difficulty, you resort to saying the supernatural did it. No. That has not worked for the entire period the priest was in charge of education and it is not going to work if we allow the priest to sit at the head of education panels. Only those who look to nature, who try to unravel her mysterious can understand her. And these people, my friends include several unnamed people currently living and dead who spent time studying nature.

Objective moral facts, including universal human rights and the reality of evil

We are presented with a problem

In Uganda, Joseph Kony requires his child soldiers to kill escaping child soldiers by biting them to death. Think about it. What horror! Are there any moral facts which we can be right and wrong about, or is this just a difference of opinion? Is same-sex marriage a moral imperative or a completely arbitrary convention, no better and no worse than any other laws?

and then a question

Ask your friend: do you have more evidence that atheism is true or that raping children is wrong? Be sure you ask them to defend their answer with clear and convincing reasons.

As I have said before,, if one needs a god to be moral, this person is a danger to himself and the society in which he is a member. Who in his right frame of mind would not be disgusted and disturbed at the thought of children being asked to kill their agemates by biting them? Seriously tell me, do you need a god to find this thought revolting? Haven’t we developed some level of empathy and sense of good to find such demands abhorrent? Christians shock me, but these follow shocks me the most.

The reasons why atheism is true is has nothing to do with raping children. If that were the measure, then we would simply say Catholicism is true because of pedophilia. It is a case of a weak mind to compare these two things.

The question of what is good or bad, isn’t as easy as the theist thinks he will dispense with by calling on gods. When the theist talks about objective moral values, I would be interested in hearing what he thinks these are and why naturalism cannot arrive at the same conclusion, if at all, such things as objective moral values exist.

From a naturalist point of view, we describe as evil anything that is not amenable to us. The existence or reality of evil is not a problem to the atheist and is in no way contradictory to naturalism. The theist who argues that a benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient god exist has the difficulty of explaining away evil.

On human rights, the atheist and naturalist say we share a common humanity. We shouldn’t be inhumane in our dealings with each other. We should be kind to one another. How naturalism contradicts universal human rights has not been justified just as the above challenges have only been asserted without demonstration.

He at the end asks

So Wait: Why Is Atheism True?

Well, because there are no gods. All the other questions he asked after this question are irrelevant to atheism.

Then he assures his readers

If nothing else, you should have a very interesting conversation! Based on seven years of ministry experience at Harvard, I can assure you that our God can use these five challenges to lead many of our secular friends away from the contradictions of atheism and into the coherence, truth, and love of Jesus.

In response to which I say, those have been 7 wasted years. If in 7 years of fraud, you still cannot tell what atheism is, then what have you been telling those who listen to you. My advice to any theist who intends to use these challenges, is don’t use them. They are not challenges. They will take you nowhere. The same questions could be asked of you and I am in doubt whether you will give an answer beyond god-did-it which would require an explanation. And while at it, the atheist will ask you to describe what you mean by god, what evidence you have of such a thing existing and you will be asked to provide the evidence you have for your Jesus. Am not sure you will like how the conversation will end. Am not saying this as a threat, rather as an encouragement to the theist to think deeply about his faith, then about this questions and what answer or response he can come up with.

In the end, I think, this author has failed in his attempt to provide challenges to naturalism or atheism for that matter.

I end my case :-]

The only prayer you should be saying, if you must

I here below, teach you how to pray, if you must pray

O Nature: sovereign of all beings! and ye her adorable daughters, VIRTUE, REASON and TRUTH remain for ever our revered protectors: it is to you that belong the praises of the human race, to you appertains the homage of the earth. Shew, us, then, O Nature, that which man ought to do, in order to obtain the happiness which thou makest him desire. Virtue, animate him with they beneficent fire. Reason, conduct his uncertain steps through the paths of life. Truth, let they torch illumine his intellect, dissipate the darkness of his road. Unite, O assisting deities! your powers, in order to submit the hearts of mankind to your dominion. Banish error from our mind, wickedness from our hearts, confusion from our footsteps; cause knowledge to extend its salubrious reign, goodness to occupy our souls, serenity to dwell in our bosoms. Let imposture, confounded, never again dare to shew its head. Let our eyes, so long, either dazzled or blindfolded, be at length fixed upon those objects we ought to seek. Dispel for ever those mists of ignorance, those hideous phantoms, together with those seducing chimeras, which only serve to lead us astray, Extricate us from that dark abyss into which we are plunged by superstition, overthrow the fatal empire of delusion, crumble the throne of falsehood, wrest from their polluted hands the power they have usurped.

Command men, without sharing your authority with mortals, break the chains that bind them down in slavery, tear away the bandeau by which they are hoodwinked, allay the fury that intoxicates them, break in the hands of sanguinary, lawless tyrants, that iron sceptre with which they are crushed to exile, the imaginary regions, from whence fear has imported them, those theories by which they are afflicted.

Inspire the intelligent being with courage, infuse energy into his system, that, at length he may feel his own dignity, that he may dare to love himself, to esteem his own actions when they are worthy, that a slave only to your eternal laws, he may no longer fear to enfranchise himself from all other trammels, that blest with freedom, he may have the wisdom to cherish his fellow creature, and become happy by learning to perfection his own condition, instruct him in the great lesson, that the high road to felicity, is to prudently partake himself, and also cause others to enjoy, the rich banquet which thou, O Nature, has so bountifully set before him.

Console thy children from those sorrows to which their destiny submits them, by those pleasures which wisdom allows them to partake, teach them to be contended with their condition, to banish envy from their mind, to yield silently to necessity. Conduct them without alarm to that period which all beings must find, let them learn that time changes all things, that consequently, they are made neither to avoid it’s scythe nor to fear its arrival.

D’Holdbach in the System of Nature

Faith vs Reason

Allow me to introduce our new apologist, J R Dickens, who I will be looking at some of his posts and offer a response.

In this post, our friend tries to show through torturous reasoning that faith and reason are synonyms and that reason starts with faith. Allow me first to define our terms; the Merriam Webster dictionary defines faith as

1a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty

 (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
(1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
 (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust
: something that is believed especially with strong conviction;especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

while reason is defined as

1a: a statement offered in explanation or justification
b: a rational ground or motive

c: a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense;especially: something (as a principle or law) that supports a conclusion or explains a fact
d: the thing that makes some fact intelligible
(1): the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways :intelligence(2): proper exercise of the mind (3):sanity
b : the sum of the intellectual powers
archaic : treatment that affords satisfaction
With the matter of definitions behind us, now I want us to consider what our friend is talking about in the usage of these two words and see whether we can agree with him or not.
According to the popular view of philosophy, faith and reason are mutually exclusive and consequently incompatible. But this is only true when “faith” is defined to mean a belief that contradicts the known evidence—i.e., that you choose to believe something in spite of the evidence.
From his blog, in his about he says he is keen on apologetics. In this case therefore I think when he talks about faith he must be referring to the faith [trust in things not seen even against contrary evidence]. In this case the only way a believer can test the truth of this claim is after they are no more- especially since I don’t think there is an afterlife. The believer thus cannot revise this belief. Whereas, where one believes something for which he has evidence then we are talking about justified true belief. To mix these two meanings is misleading and that is what he does in his post. I need not add that no one chooses to believe, you believe as you can and not differently.
Since there is no evidence for Abe neither for a god, to consider the story of Abe sacrificing his son to be a measure of faith to me seems to be to see the biggest problem with particular verse. How could anyone consider it a thing of grandeur to want to kill your child because you had a voice in your dreams? This aside though, to argue that Abe had unflinching faith in god is also to cherry pick the good book. Why for instance does Abe sleep with Hagar if he believes god is going to give him a child in his old age? Therefore this belief can’t qualify as 1, talking about fidelity!
Another way of describing faith is simply trusting in the future fulfillment of what has already been promised. If someone borrows $20 and promises to return the money in a week, we are trusting that they have both the means and the desire to pay us back.
Whereas from the surface this statement looks correct, it would be insane to lend a jobless person without the ability to pay and have a belief that your money shall be paid at the end of the week. The reason we are lending money here is because we have evaluated the ability of the borrower to repay us and have confidence that she will pay but we can adjust this belief if our money is not paid back. The same can’t be said of any religious belief.
Notice that we have to use our powers of reason in order to exercise faith.
What reasons do you have for believing that god loves you, that he died for your sins, that there is heaven and hell[that is if you believe they exist], for believing your god exists and that yours is the one true religion?
In order to exercise the powers of reason, we have to start with an assumption that reason is possible and that it depends upon the laws of logic and inference. In other words, I cannot “reason” unless I adhere to a set of rules that guide the reasoning process. But those rules must exist beforehand and apart from reason itself. These are the assumptions I must place my faith in before reason can be exercised. In the absence of logic, my thoughts are incoherent and useless for drawing inferences or conclusions.
You don’t need faith to reason. It would only be absurd for you to try to be skeptical on every subject. The process of argument will not even leave the ground. In the Problems of Philosophy, we notice, we must start from some belief to acquire knowledge of the world around us. We can take it that I exist as the starting point and evaluate every proposition after that to see whether it can be considered as true belief or not. Faith therefore is not a prerequisite for reason.
In the end, we see that faith and reason are inseparable allies. Everyone has faith. The only question is, “faith in what?”
No! That is not the only question.  The question most important question is why? Faith and reason are separable. One only need to see the definition of reason and faith to see where the two can be separated and while at it, it is important also to distinguish what one means when they say I have faith in something or else we commit fallacy of equivocation.

Every rational system is not made for the multitude

We may be asked if atheism can suit the multitude? I reply, that every system which demands discussion is not for the multitude. What use is there, then, in preaching atheism? It can at least make those who reason, feel that nothing is more extravagant than to make ourselves uneasy, and nothing more unjust than to cause anxiety to others on account of conjectures, destitute of all foundation. As to the common man, who never reasons, the arguments of an atheist are no better suited to him than a philosopher’s hypothesis, an astronomer’s observations, a chemist’s experiments, a geometer’s calculations, a physician’s examinations, an architect’s designs, or a lawyer’s pleadings, who all labor for the people without their knowledge.

The metaphysical arguments of theology, and the religious disputes which have occupied for so long many profound visionists, are they made any more for the common man than the arguments of an atheist? More than this, the principles of atheism, founded upon common sense, are they not more intelligible than those of a theology which we see bristling with insolvable difficulties, even for the most active minds? The people in every country have a religion which they do not understand, which they do not examine, and which they follow but by routine; their priests alone occupy themselves with the theology which is too sublime for them. If, by accident, the people should lose this unknown theology, they could console them selves for the loss of a thing which is not only entirely useless, but which produces among them very dangerous ebullitions.

It would be very foolish to write for the common man or to attempt to cure his prejudices all at once. We write but for those who read and reason; the people read but little, and reason less. Sensible and peaceable people enlighten themselves; their light spreads itself gradually, and in time reaches the people. On the other hand, those who deceive men, do they not often take the trouble themselves of undeceiving them?

Jean Meslier