Do you or do you not support reason?

I found myself quite amused about the so-called Reason Rally that’s coming up this weekend, mostly because it claims to be supporting reason … or secularism … or atheism, depending on who you believe. This, to me, simply carries on the rather odd and amusingly invalid claim by the New Gnu Horsemen of the Apocalypse New Atheists that they are “rationalists”, defenders and respecters of reason despite the fact that the most prominent and well-known advocate of reason — Descartes, whose work philosophical rationalism was pretty much based on — would make them all wanna trow up. And now they’re fighting amongst themselves over what it really means to support rationalism … or skepticism … or atheism … or whatever as Adam Lee talks about with copious links to major players. The short version is that there are some people that are saying things at the Reason Rally who some of these paragons of reason think are irrational, and so they shouldn’t be there. The other side is basically answering that everyone has their own irrationalities and so saying that someone should be excluded from the Reason Rally for some irrational beliefs is going too far. The reply is that these people are irrational in really bad ways, which in my view translates to “They are irrational about things that I really, really care about!”, which to me sounds emotional, which with apologies to Hume, Damasio and Prinz seems pretty irrational to me. But it’s more than a dog’s breakfast; these paragons of reason can’t act reasonably enough long enough to get what they all considered a landmark, showcase event off the ground.

What’s most amusing about all of this, though, is that it nicely illustrates the problem with those that I’ll call the New Rationalists (to distinguish them from people like Descartes):

1) They are co-opting what it means to be reasonable, and so defining themselves as rational and therefore their opponents as necessarily irrational.
2) Their definition of rational seems to be “You agree with me”.

For the first, they tend to consider things like atheism in some sense more rational than theism, ranging from the idea that atheism is always rational to the more measured argument that based on the evidence atheism is the more rational despite while acknowledging that some atheists might be atheistic irrationally. The problem, of course, is that using the old definition of rational it’s hard to say that, say, someone who uses the Ontological or Cosmological argument to justify a belief in God is irrational since those are arguments based, in fact, on pure reason. The main criticism against them is that those arguments aren’t empirical, but of course being empirical doesn’t mean that you’re rational. So what do they mean by reason, then? It seems that it’s loosely based on critical thinking, but critical thinking itself can be a bit shady when it comes to what it means to be rational; the evidence doesn’t always line up nicely. So without engaging the specific arguments and reasons someone holds, you can’t say that they’re irrational. No, you can only do that in general if …

… you define the rational position on a topic as being the one that you hold. And this seems to be what’s happening here. The biggest objections to Senator Tom Harkin speaking are:

1) He’s Catholic.
2) He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which can only be voted for for religious reasons, and so he doesn’t support the separation of Church and State.

Considering the massive amounts of theology that the Catholic Church engages in, that it reveres rationality is hard to argue. While faith is important, reason has certainly played a key role in that religion for ages, and the main reason that it gets considered heartless in cases like abortion is because it follows an exceptionally strongly reason-based morality, that puts aside things like empathy and emotion and forces people to act on the basis of strict reason. They are, in fact, very similar to the Stoics, and if anyone wants to claim the Stoics didn’t support reason, well … you’ll have to excuse me laughing hysterically for a while, along with everyone who knows anything about Stoic philosophy. As for DOMA, the assumption is that he could only have voted for it for religious reasons, without bothering to ask, as far as I have seen, actually why he voted for it. Maybe he thought that his job was to represent his constituency, and he noted that most of the people in his constituency wanted that passed. Maybe he thought that there were secular reasons for it. Maybe his definition of secular isn’t theirs. But the presumption is on both counts “We’re right; he’s wrong; we’re rational; he’s irrational”.

But the most irrational thing one can do is conflate being wrong with being irrational. One can be rationally wrong and irrationally right. It’s the on-board resources one has and the reasoning that one uses that determines rationality, not correctness. To ignore this defines reason by its product and not by its process, which defeats the whole purpose of reason which is about process primarily. We strive to be rational because its process is desirable, not because it always leads to correct results. Sure, it leads to correct answers more often than not, at least in this world, but it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

Co-opting reason to describe those who are on your side leads to exactly the sort of problems we are seeing with the Reason Rally. As they discover that some of the people that they thought were on the same side and agreed with them aren’t on the same side, then you have to count them as irrational as well, and then you splinter into all sides screaming that the other side is irrational. For my part, I always prefer to simply call them wrong; it’s more accurate and leads to discussions of the arguments, not the qualities of my opponents. Thus, my opponents are wrong … all of them [grin].

As for me, I’m always right. Unless, of course, I’m wrong. Then I’m not right. But any other time, I’m right.[grin]

6 Responses to “Do you or do you not support reason?”

  1. mrventriloquist Says:

    I agree. Calling something “reason rally” is just a load of rhetoric to support one’s agenda. An equivalent example would be a religious retreat titled with words similar to “truth” or something. Isn’t that the same kind of rhetoric?

    Whenever a congregation gathers, aren’t they doing so while assuming that everyone else is wrong? Aren’t they doing the same thing? Wouldn’t you defend it by just proclaiming that you are practicing your beliefs? And if so, why then do you criticize others for doing the same thing (practicing beliefs that they hold to be true).

    By going to Church or “Truth” retreats, you are:
    1) Assuming that your position is true and therefore that other positions are false.
    2) Your definition of “right” seems to be “you agree with me”

    You might say something like, “Well that is an activity which is celebrated internally by the members of our group. We are celebrating what we consider the truth because we have arrived at the conclusion that this is the truth.” Well, to stick with the analogies, you opponents can reply with the same thing. “We are celebrating what we believe to be reasonable because we have arrived at the conclusion that it is reasonable.”
    Is it really so different?

  2. Faith and Reason « Says:

    […] Do you or do you not support reason? ( […]

  3. verbosestoic Says:


    If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you mixed myself and Edward Feser up, since he’s the one opposed to the rally in general and I’m just opposed to the underlying philosophy that both made them think that they could call it a Reason Rally and yet claim that it’s about secularism or atheism or whatever AND that’s leading to the kerfuffle over the invited speakers. Which is that they started by claiming that reason was on their side and then at the end of it all proved that their definition of rational was “You agree with me”.

    I will point out that I was careful to make a distinction between thinking that your opponent is wrong and thinking that your opponent is irrational. If I believe X, then I think that I am right to think that X is true. If you do not believe X, then you agree with the position that I think is wrong. Therefore, I clearly am logically mandated to think that I am right and you are wrong. But I am not, in fact, logically mandated or even justified in moving from that fact alone to the claim that therefore you are irrational; you may be using a perfectly rational process that due to many factors happens to come up with the wrong answer at this time. My objection is to defining rational and irrational by agreement, since that precludes any notion of rational disagreement, which is both absurd and problematic.

    Also, the services I’ve attended weren’t anything like you suggest; little time is spent discussing those who do not believe, and instead it’s all about learning about how to apply why we believe and forming a shared community.

  4. spicnspancleaners Says:

    Every secular thing that I’ve attended was about science and what we hold to be true based on the merits of science (and nothing to do about who we believe to be wrong). That’s the same thing.

  5. verbosestoic Says:

    I’m surprised you got through the spam filter with that name …

    Anyway, if I think that some of the things that we hold or ought to hold are not based on science, does that make me irrational? Remember, again, my complaint was about thinking irrational because you disagree, not about thinking wrong … and surely at those conferences and events you definitely think people wrong. And from what I’ve heard from some of those events, also irrational.

  6. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Very enlightening.

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