Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why are irrationality charges and psychological explanations necessary?

This is a response I put up on Debunking Christianity: 

It could be, though, that two people who are pursuing the truth as best they can, being as reasonable as it is possible for a human being to be, come to different answers without there by any irrationality on anyone's part. It is only that different life-experiences, different intellectual contacts, etc. etc., lead to different results. One side has to be mistaken, but neither side has to be irrational. One of them is correct, the other is in error, but neither is irrational. That is the presumption that I like to use in discussion with opponents. Of course, there's all sorts of crap going on in our minds when we try to think, but all we can ask of one another is that we do our best. But then, the title of my site isn't Debunking Atheism.

Do people who believed in the oxygen theory have to explain away all the people who believed in phlogiston?

Explaining the other side psychologically doesn't do anything. Both sides can do it, all day long, to one another. If I think you didn't discover the truth, then I can explain why you didn't. If I didn't discover the truth, then you can explain me away, too.

What you try to do in response to believers is to get them to grant that you may have seen something that they have overlooked. Why can't you accept the possibility that some Christian has seen something that you have overlooked?


Tom Gilson said...

That is so astonishingly reasonable. Thank you!

I'll be interested to see how others respond.

Ilíon said...

"… What you try to do in response to believers is to get them to grant that you may have seen something that they have overlooked. Why can't you accept the possibility that some Christian has seen something that you have overlooked?"

Because they are both irrational and intellectually dishonest.

Look, you're simply declining to use the phrase 'intellectual dishonesty.' But, you are seeing it, and you are pointing it out (while trying not), and you are faulting them for it (while trying not).

At the same time -- and because you refuse to identify the problem you face with such folk -- you're attempting the impossible task of *reasoning* intellectually dishonest persons out their intellectual dishonesty.

Anonymous said...

Hi Vic, and Tom. You will want your readers to see my responses beginning right here.


Anonymous said...

Exactly how many times, Victor, does it need to be made clear to you that some of the people you argue with really do not care about whether or not the accusations they lodge are necessary, or even accurate? It isn't about reason, or reasonableness, or logic, or evidence, or any of these things.

It is about results, period. And if they think they will win more people to their side by questioning people's rationality, by mockery, or by any other means - *even if the accusations they lodge are baseless or dishonest and they know it* - they will do it.

Is this really a surprise to you? Do you think this is somehow uncommon, some rarity, particularly in a situation where people have explicit social or political aims in mind?

That's what amazes me time and again. Do you honestly think most, even many of the people you argue with care about reason or rationality? And if you do, why? Because they say they do? Even that can't be accurate, because in this case you're dealing with someone who's made it abundantly clear that he'll say whatever or do whatever he thinks will do the most to advance his goals, reasonableness, fairness, rationality and otherwise be damned.

BBB said...

Two things,

First, some of us background readers do notice the difference in style and substance. And I greatly appreciate the effort you put into fair, substantial dialogue with others. I don't merely say that because you're Christian either; I think Luke's "Common Sense Atheism" often has good food for thought as well (with some occasional mockery thrown in now and then).

Second, one of my own biggest difficulties with Christianity is that I don't see how it allows such an attitude. If Christianity is true, doesn't that mean there MUST be some moral deficiency with those who knowingly reject Christianity? Someone already brought up Paul's attitude in Romans 1 in a previous post, and there are also the various passages that call unbelievers "fools". It seems to me that Christianity requires such an assessment, even though we see many reasonable, moral, happy, and healthy unbelievers all around us.

I'm not sure how to resolve this tension. How do you?

Unknown said...


"Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about" (Screwtape letter 1)


"Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (Colossians 4:5-7)

Anonymous said...

I'm in complete agreement with Ilion and the other Anon. These people don't in fact care about rationality and civil discourse. They are existentially self-satisfied in their atheism, and they want to see the large-scale, sociopolitical manifestations of that dogmatic atheism as soon as possible.

All we can do at this point is to articulate a competing theistic vision/metanarrative of reality and invite them to partake in it. If they refuse it, they refuse it, and they do so on emotional grounds rather than rational ones. The 1 Peter 3:15 act of "giving a reason" works only for those in an existential gray area - genuine Socratic truth-seekers and agnostics, not for self-satisfied, dogmatic individuals of the Dawkins, Myers, and Loftus variety.

Rasmus Møller said...


regarding moral deficiency, mainstream Xtianity will teach that all people have it - believers or not.

Most denominations, Catholics included, will say that though it is possible for anyone to come to knowledge about God and His existence, one must by supernatural grace receive the gift of faith.

There is a mystery as to who will believe and who will not, leaving endless discussions about universalism vs. election.

Anyway, it is impossible for any Xtian to boast of his faith or salvation.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm just splitting hairs here (but that's rather appropriate for a theological discussion, isn't it?), but I take the "fool" passages to be aimed, not at "intellectual" atheists, but rather squarely at people who think thay can get away with injustice, without there being a Day of Reckoning - in this world or the next.

Look at the classic text from Psalm 53, which begins: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God". Sounds simple enough, until you continue on to the rest of the poem. the Psalmist is speaking of "workers of iniquity", and not of anyone guilty of a thought crime.

The Psalm appropriately ends, not with a wish that the whole world be converted to a True Faith, but rather in a prayer for, and prediction of, Divine Justice.

brenda said...

"Why are irrationality charges and psychological explanations necessary?"

I remember an article in the Smithsonian I read a long time ago about an early 20th century flat Earther and the scientist who made great efforts to convince him he was wrong. He tried many intellectual arguments, none of which were successful. Finally he found a place where by looking through a telescope on could see pylons in the water in the far distance curve with the curvature of the Earth. The flat Earther looked and denied he could see any such thing.

True believers will deny their own senses in order to maintain their belief system. I would called such a person irrational. I would call a community that has a culture of questioning and criticizing dogmatic belief and that holds reason as a value a rational culture. I think that the scientific community comes closest to that ideal.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Believers often ask for psychological explanations. "How could so many people believe in God yet be wrong?" is asked all the time.

BBB said...

matt ghg, Rasmus, and Bob

Fair enough. I think you're right that Christians are called to be gracious in conversation, that my use of the "fools" verses in psalms was incorrect, and that Christianity claims that all are morally deficient, not just atheists.

But I still think there are difficulties, especially in Romans 1. It still seems that the biblical view is that, while believers come to their view thanks to the grace and Spirit of God Himself, unbelievers know God but refuse to worship Him, suppress the truth, and are "without excuse".

I guess Christians can believe the above while still being gracious in conversation. It's a hard teaching to accept.

Victor Reppert said...

Or, they might think Paul was wrong about that, if they are anti-inerrantists. I have to pick and choose what to believe based on what's plausible.

Or, they might say that perhaps, from a position sub specie aeternitatis this might be true, but that this is not something that Christians philosophers, with the skills they have, can prove.

I see plenty of what looks to me like intellectual dishonesty on the side of nonbelievers. I don't buy their claims to intellectual sainthood. But I prefer to provide as much psychological analysis of unbelief as is required to sweep all the ad hominems off the table, because I believe that this sort of stuff causes unproductiveness in dialogue.