Monday, October 15, 2007

More Unconvincing Arguments for God: "Reason is just another kind of faith"

Many of the entries in my “More Unconvincing Arguments for God” series, while certainly inspired by the list at Friendly Atheist, are partly based upon email correspondence with Trey, a commenter at Unorthodox Atheism. (And I do wish to emphasise that not all of the arguments I am critiquing are those which Trey would necessarily endorse.)

I find that many of Trey’s arguments are based upon appeals to ignorance/incredulity--“I can’t explain how x happened, therefore God caused x (therefore God exists)” or “I find it very hard to believe that x can be explained naturally, therefore God caused x (therefore God exists)—-and I think I’ve pointed this out to him on several occasions, along with other logical fallacies in his argument. In response, Trey has sought to undermine the very notion of rational critique by defining reason as another kind of “faith”:

You use reason, correct? How do you know reason works? A circular argument would be that reason tells you reason works, which is insufficient. So how do you know? Could it be that you have faith in reason? In logic? How much of your own sentiments do you see mirrored in those of the scientists that “detest” the idea of God? Doesn’t that give you pause and make you at least think that you stance is not as founded on reason and logic as you would like to think?

Trey replied thus after I had endeavoured to explain to him the grounds of my atheism: “I'm an atheist because, there being no evidence of the existence of deities, there is no reason to believe in them.” Elsewhere, he has argued to the effect that I only demand evidence of God’s existence because I have naturalist “presuppositions”, and therefore I have no grounds to critique his presuppositionalism. (This, by the way, is an example of a tu quoque fallacy—but then fallacies are part of the vocabulary of reason and reason is just another kind of faith. Rinse. Repeat.) But let me respond to some of his comments above.

First, how do I know reason works? Well, it depends upon what I think reason is capable of. Can reason prove or disprove the existence of God? No. Reason is a method, not a doctrine or dogma—which is why it has routinely been used by theists and non-theists alike. Its purpose is not to prove the capital T Truth of a given claim, but to evaluate the arguments advanced in support of or against the claim. And if we posit the scientific method as reason/critical thinking par excellence, the history of modern science demonstrates that reason works very well, thankyou. Every Christian who opts to consult a physician, as opposed to a faith healer or shaman, when he or she is feeling unwell, is affirming the reliability of reason. (Whether or not he or she realizes it.)

Second, by attempting to undermine reason, Trey is shooting himself in the foot. He claims that reason doesn’t work because “a circular argument would be that reason tells you reason works, which is insufficient.” But if reason is unreliable as Trey is trying to show, then so too is the notion of a circular argument, non? In other words, he’s trying to demonstrate the unreasonableness of reason . . . using reason! So even Trey believes that reason works. Moreover, argument itself depends upon the idea that reason works—that reason is a reliable method for separating (in this case, theological/philosophical) wheat from chaff—and elsewhere Trey has cited some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence (very poor arguments though they may be) in support of his own beliefs. The point is this. If you enter into the kind of debate Trey and I are having, you make a tacit agreement to submit your arguments to rational critique. Some bloggers I have encountered take this kind of critique as a personal attack, but Trey, to his credit, has not. But I do think his attack on reason is little more than an attempt to avoid addressing some of the flaws/fallacies in his arguments.

(Trey might respond as many an apologist has done: he can use logic and reason because God invented logic and reason. But if such is the case, then square circles are possible. Why? Because if God invented logic, then he is not bound by its rules, and therefore has the ability to make square circles, which are logically impossible. Other apologists have argued that God’s omnipotence means only that he can do all that it is logically possible to do; and since square circles are not logically possible, God can’t make them. But on this view, God is bound by the rules of logic, and therefore cannot have invented logic. Quite the conundrum.)