Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What's the use of arguing?

Like many other atheists I am quite fond of sometimes picking on some of the idiotic things that theists believe and showing the problems with what they are saying. I’ve certainly done so in many things that I have mentioned in this blog. It very nicely refreshes one’s inflated sense of superiority and usually without hurting anyone in the process. Still, such intellectual therapy has its limitations. Such as that invariably, if one actually goes and looks, the theists have thought of the objection about fifteen hundred years ago and have been designing every newer responses to it. Not that the responses are necessarily great but very often they are definitely such as to turn aside the blade of the simple objection. This is pretty much what the scholastic philosophers cut their teeth on and the Catholic Church has been running an on-going, well-funded ‘research project’ on this ever since. By the time they finish theological college, the more competent of the Church’s apologists have a whole battery of replies ready for most of the things I or anyone else who only does this as a hobby will ever come up with. Sure, some priests say really silly things but this has more to do with their lack of intellectual competence (a most ecumenical of traits) than with the lack of developed Christian apologist doctrine. So, when we talk of the problem of evil or anything else, the Vatican’s elite battalions are more than capable of either dazzling our with their defence’s brilliance or, failing that, of baffling us with their BS – making us feel incapable of responding adequately unless we’ve read everyone from Saint Paul through Saint Thomas and ending with the various modern schools of theological thoughts.
The basic problem is that, no matter the competence of an objection, it is always possible to largely save the position objected to by inventing some work around to avoid the problem. Free will and God’s foreknowledge incompatible? – give us a few years and we’ll think of the idea that God exists outside of time so this (supposedly) is no longer a difficulty. Charles Sanders Peirce called this kind of thinking ‘sham reasoning’ because, rather than looking for the truth, it assumes that the truth has already been obtained and all that needs to be done is protect it against all possible objections. Susan Haack wrote a good article ten years for Sceptical Inquirer in which she distinguishes real inquiry from the sham and the fake:
A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. This is a tautology (Webster's: "inquiry: search for truth . . ."). A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.

The problem is that the distinction lies at the level of the motivation of the reasoners. At the level of the arguments one can not simply say – that’s sham reasoning – and, therefore, ignore it. Either the argument is good or it is not, whatever the motivation of those who put it forward. Knowing how to deal with that is difficult. Normally, when arguing with someone, the assumption is that everyone is interested in getting at the truth, but what about when that is self-evidently not the case?
A few months ago at a conference I ran into a couple guys who were constructivists/post-modernists/whatever whose defence against many objections that were raised against their views was that they were simply presenting a viewpoint and that we were free to accept it or reject it. When they found that I had these strange notions about the truth of statements being in some way dependent upon how the world is they decided to try and argue with me. They were mightily surprised when I straight out refused to argue with them and instead preferred to talk about good books they’d read or good wine they’d drunk. My reason was that I did not see any point in engaging in an activity that I am very serious about when they freely denied being serious about it. I do not argue to show how clever I am but to get at the truth or, at least, that is what I believe and if I did not believe that I would feel that I was a fake. It made about as much sense as trusting a self-avowed sociopath.
Religious apologists are, of course, very serious but, as Haack points out, the seriousness is of a different sort – with sham reasoning truth becomes eclipsed by The Truth. Dennett says that he ignores the arguments of theologians for the simple reason that everyone else does as well. And, at most times, that is pretty much what I do myself. However, the reason why everyone else does it isn’t due to some properly worked out justification – they just see the argumentations as irrelevant (in so far as they are even aware of their existence). Once one becomes even slightly more concerned with the area it becomes necessary to consciously decide upon the right attitude to take. The key to me seems to be the lack of any empirical check upon the ontologies built up by theologians. The only limitation is that the story as a whole makes sense to those who tell it. This difference is the difference Peirce put in terms of two of his four ways of fixing belief. The first two were tenacity and authority. The ones in question here were a priori reasoning and the scientific method. In the case of a priori reasoning all that was required is that the resultant view-point fits with our preconceptions. In the case of the scientific method, the aim is to get the views to fit our experience – and that is far less well behaved and pliable than our preconceptions. Unfortunately, when you turn to the sorts of questions that apologists deal with, it is somewhat impossible to get solid empirical data. This, to me, undermines much of the possibility for having properly reasoned discussions of the topic, i.e. discussions in which the reasoning goes hand in hand with actual evidence. Which leads to what has been my effective stance – to avoid having to deal with such things in anything more than a dilettante way, not believing that anything more is actually really possible given the sham intellectual attitude of most of the discussants and the lack of hard data. This also explains why I found Dennett’s call to look at religion, as a phenomenon, from a scientific point of view so refreshing. Here he was offering a new approach that may actually lead to results where all we’ve had is the construction of ever great numbers of epicycles.
Now, I’m not altogether happy with everything I’ve said here but it is a start to thinking about it.

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