After having spent some posts examining Paul Feyerabend’s Philosophy of Nature, it’s time to tackle the second entry in Footnotes to Plato’s book club: Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Julian is a founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, and has written a number of acclaimed books in popular philosophy before. The Edge of Reason attempts to strike a, well, reasonable balance between fashionable postmodernist-inspired rejection of rationality (which, arguably, gave us the dreadful age of “post-truth”) and the older and equally unsupportable rationalist-positivist faith in reason’s essentially unlimited powers.
The book is divided into four sections: “My positive case for rationality requires taking us through four key myths of rationality, all of which can be traced back to Plato. These myths are: that reason is purely objective and requires no subjective judgement; that it can and should take the role of our chief guide, the charioteer of the soul; that it can furnish us with the fundamental reasons for action; and that we can build society on perfectly rational principles.”
I initially thought of devoting one post to each section, covering three chapters each for the first three sections, and two chapters for the fourth one. But it looks like I will actually have to write an essay per chapter, so this is going to take a whopping 11 posts. I hope you’ll bear with me (and Julian), it is worth it. While my commentary is meant as a series of stand alone essays, it would, of course, be helpful if the reader actually got the book and followed along. Who knows, hopefully Julian himself will drop by from time to time to add his thoughts to the ongoing discussion.
So let’s begin with chapter 1, entitled “The eternal God argument.” Julian opens the chapter echoing my own thoughts on participating to “debates” about the existence of God. Like him, I initially was enthusiastic about engaging theologians like William Lane Craig, but have become weary of the exercise. Though these events are presented to the public as intellectual contests, in reality they are more akin to sports events where few people change their mind, the audience simply cheers for one “team” or the other, and the outcome hinges more on self presentation, rhetoric and a good sense of humor than on actual philosophy.
Interestingly, Julian argues that the same atmosphere permeates the academic world of philosophy of religion, were very smart people argue over very fine points, with no inkling of ever changing their mind about their fundamental position, religious or atheist that it may be.
As he puts it, “when, for instance, an atheist comes across a clever new version of an argument for the existence of God which she cannot refute, she does not say ‘Ah! So now I must believe in God!’ Rather, she says, ‘That’s clever. There must be something wrong with it. Give me time and I’ll find out what that is.'” And the exact same approach characterizes clever theologians, like Richard Swinburne or Alvin Plantinga.
Julian suggests — and I wholly agree — that the reason for this situation has nothing to do with people’s hypocrisy or bad faith, but rather with the fact that people’s beliefs are largely impervious to minutiae and depend instead on the broad strokes characterizing a given issue. Take, as a completely different example, climate change. I “believe” in it, and I have no patience for “skeptics” who spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find small holes in the major argument. That’s not because I don’t care about other people’s opinions, or because one cannot, in fact, identify gaps in our understanding of the issue. It is because I have been convinced, long ago, by the big picture, the major reasons and pieces of evidence that point to the reality of global warming. For me to change my mind it would require the equivalent of an epistemic earthquake which, though possible, is extremely unlikely. And Julian’s point is that my attitude isn’t that of an entrenched and close minded bigot, but rather very, very reasonable. The problem is that the same can be said of people on the other side of the debate. They are also convinced by their understanding of the big picture, and no amount of detail put forth by me in the course of an argument is going to make a dent into their general view.
So, if you want to understand why people hold to certain opinions and worldviews you should apply the “end of the day” test: ask them what, at the end of the day, are the pillars on which their convictions stand. Ignore the details, go big.
Julian hastens to say that this is not a post-modernist position at all: “That is not to say there can be no rational argument at all between people for whom what seems obvious is very different. I would argue for the superior obviousness of belief that religion is a human construct. This obviousness does not rely on subjective feeling alone, but on the mass of evidence which is available to all.” The problem is that “to the naturalist it seems obvious which type of obviousness carries most weight. … But as we shall shortly see, this is not at all obvious to everyone.”
Julian is critical of what he sees as the academic pretense that the fine details of arguments put forth by professional philosophers actually matter. They don’t, and an honest academic — regardless of whether he is a theist or an atheist — would admit that. But admitting it would also undermine the very meaning of these people’s life work, an obviously psychologically unpalatable thing to do. Baggini comments: “After all, the more nuanced the argument, the more scope for sophistry.” Indeed.
The next important, and oft-neglected, point is that both believers and non-believers are committed to the use of reason. Very few people go around priding themselves on being irrational. But this doesn’t provide a lot of common ground, because the two sides begin their reasoning with radically different, and mutually incompatible, assumptions and premises.
Take, for instance, Plantinga’s famous assertion that belief in God is “properly basic,” meaning that it is a perfectly legitimate starting point for constructing one’s own worldview.
“Plantinga’s argument is that everyone has to accept that some beliefs are basic in order to believe anything at all. However, not just any belief can be considered basic, or there would be no way of distinguishing sense from nonsense. I cannot just assert, for example, that I take the existence of Santa Claus to be basic. So which beliefs can be accepted as properly basic?”
That question is much harder to address, and one’s preferred answer much harder to defend and justify, than it may appear at first glance. Still, once we accept that people do assume a certain number of “properly” basic beliefs (whether they do or don’t seem “proper” to us) it becomes immediately obvious why it is the broad picture, not the fine details, that matter. As Julian says, “where the conflict really lies is right down at the very bases of why people believe what they do, yet the war is fought over the beliefs that flow from them.”
Baggini points out that this idea of properly basic belief is known in epistemology as foundationalism, and it is deeply problematic. He explains the problem by way of an analogy with heath studies. Suppose you have always believed, on the basis of what you read, that drinking a glass of wine a day is actually good for your blood circulation. Now a new study appears to contradict that finding, and you have to evaluate what to do: do you throw away your previously held belief and accept the logical consequences of the new study? Or do you ignore the new findings because they go against the bedrock you have used to guide your behavior so far? But if so, on what grounds?
The answer isn’t simple. It is possible that the new study is so much better, based on a far wider number of subjects and more rigorous protocols, that the rational thing to do would indeed be to overturn your previous belief about health and drinking wine. But it is also reasonable to suspend judgment over the most recent findings precisely because they appear to contradict a well established notion. Perhaps the best approach is to open your mind to some skepticism about the health benefits of wine drinking, and yet await confirmation (or not!) of the new study before actually changing your behavior. That is, our positions ought to be examined within the broader context of our assumptions and of many other positions we hold, what Quine called the “web” of our belief. While some thread of the web appear more secure, and it is therefore rational not to question them on the basis of the latest news, at some point additional discoveries may become weighty enough to justify the replacement and removal of even the thickest threads of our epistemological web.
The point is that “to understand why arguments rarely lead people to change their minds in many intellectual disputes we have to understand the holistic nature of reasoning. We believe what we do because of a number of overlapping and mutually reinforcing reasons and arguments, rarely because one settles the issue either way.”
While Julian considers himself a “coherentist,” as opposed to a foundationalist, he also agrees that some beliefs within the overall web are, in a sense, more fundamental, i.e., much harder to replace, than others. He cites Bertrand Russell on this: “[C]oherence presupposes the truth of the laws of logic. Two propositions are coherent when both may be true and are incoherent when one at least must be false. Now in order to know whether two propositions can both be true, we must know such truths as the law of contradiction. But if the law of contradiction itself were subjected to the test of coherence, we should find that, if we choose to suppose it false, nothing will any longer be incoherent with anything else. Thus the laws of logic supply the skeleton or framework within which the test of coherence applies, and they themselves cannot be established by this test.”
The difference, then, between foundationalism and coherentism isn’t that only foundationalists accept the notion of properly basic beliefs, but rather than they cannot ever question such beliefs, on penalty of the whole edifice collapsing, while coherentists can, from time to time, and when the evidence is overwhelming, go back and contemplate the refinement, or even replacement, of one of their formerly secure beliefs.
Baggini has a nice way to put it: “The principle of non-contradiction, for example, is not upheld because we can know it to be self-evidently true in isolation, but because we can see that without it, no web of belief can hold together. [Such beliefs] are indispensable rather than indisputable.”
The last section of the chapter deals with yet another reason why people may engage in honest debate about fundamental disagreements and never concede their opponents’ point: much public discourse is framed as an exercise in apologetics, not as an open, Socratic, inquiry. Apologetics is in the business of finding rational arguments to defend a position held a priori, while Socratic inquiry, at its best (and regardless of whether Socrates himself actually practiced it) is about exploring the issues with a truly open mind.
One example of apologetics is the defense of the Christian concept of the Trinity, which is “a somewhat paradoxical doctrine, since it asserts that each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is God, but the Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit, the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son.” Baggini continues: “This would appear to defy the most basic principles of logic. According to standard logic, if (A = B) and (B = C) then (A = C). So, for example, if Bill Clinton is the 42nd President of the United States of America and the 42nd President of the United States of America is the father of Chelsea Clinton, then Bill Clinton must be the father of Chelsea. The doctrine of the Trinity defies this apparently inexorable logic. The Father is God and God is the Son but the Father is not the Son. The work of apologetics is therefore to show how this circle can be squared.” And there is a lot of this work to be found in the literature, even though my own web of beliefs very clearly rejects it as nonsense on stilts (but carried out by very, very clever people).
Or take the famous problem of evil insofar the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, God who is present everywhere. Plenty of philosophers and atheists have pointed out that this is a serious, even fatal problem for the Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of God, particularly when talking about “natural” as opposed to human evil (since the latter, but not the former, can be accounted for by way of the free will defense). The theologian’s response boils down to the fact that this is indeed a mystery, which is something that positively enrages the atheist.
But as Baggini points out, there is nothing at all scandalous in admitting that one’s worldview has holes. Science itself has plenty of holes, some of which are gaping (for instance in current debates in fundamental physics). And yet scientists think — reasonably — that they have plenty of excellent reasons to still hold to the near-truth of quantum mechanics and general relativity, even while being conscious of the fact that the two theories are incompatible. Christians adopt a similar position, insofar as their own conception of the world is concerned.
The chapter concludes with this gem: “the fact that we know reason will not convince everyone is beside the point. Whether an argument is sound or whether it is persuasive are two different questions. It should come as no surprise that good rational arguments often fail to persuade people. The case for reason is not that it is always psychologically efficacious but that it genuinely helps us towards the truth. However, just as you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink, so you can lead a mind to reason but you cannot make it think.” Indeed.