Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Faith vs Rationality

I agree with Barefoot Bum (Larry) on this one. Faith is simply not the proper word to use when discussing and contrasting rational secularism with religion.

I also agree with him that it is possible to have entirely rational beliefs. This doesn't mean that one can't be mistaken or wrong or even that one might be influenced somewhat by things such as emotion. All it entails is giving rational consideration to the evidence when considering an issue. And where there is not enough information to make a definitive conclusion, all that is required is uttering the magic words: "I don't know." I think I come to my own set of conclusions about the world through only rational means. I'm open to being wrong. I'm quite comfortable with saying "I don't know" when I don't have the answer to something. This doesn't prevent me from speculating, perhaps making several assumptions along the way (which I'd try to enumerate). But speculation based on assumptions isn't irrational - not where you make those assumptions apparent and also are open to changing your conclusion when it turns out your assumptions are wrong. (Though the assumptions themselves should be rational - I should not assume that there is a sky-god as my starting assumption, unless it is merely an exercise in showing how some religious belief is internally inconsistent, something I occasionally do for kicks, but seldom see much real point in, because those who are lost in the throes of religion often won't let anything change their mind -- then again, maybe someone on the fence would be convinced).

In thinking about this subject, reading Larry's posts, I started to wonder - is it possible for everyone to be rational in the sense that Larry is rational - not just compartmentalized, but in total? Or is there always going to be some significant portion of the population that simply can't function (or won't function) without clinging to an array of irrational beliefs (and I'm leaving out people with actual, diagnosable brain disfunctions)? One might assume that this is the case because of the vast numbers of people with religion. But maybe that is just because they are all taught from such a young age it gets ingrained into their brains and so gets hard to get out. Maybe the only way to tell would be to take a large group of babies and teach them rationality (and the tools to deal with avoiding irrationality) from birth and see how they respond then when let loose on their own into the world at age 18. Do some of them "find religion" (by adopting it - I'd assume their education will already have included religion and all of its irrationality as part of their education on rationality)? Without having done the experiment, it is impossible to say for sure, but one would expect at least more atheists in that group than in the general population.

I'd like to think that irrationality isn't inevitable, that with proper education from an early age, we could limit it. Probably it would be very helpful if the culture as a whole embraced rationality - think on it - if for instance the news was uniformly rational, if the irrational was quickly dissected and exposed by rational analysis from all of the media, that would certainly help alot. You'd have a lot to lose in that environment if you were irrational, because you would be immediately exposed (and probably ridiculed). It would force people to use rational arguments. Of course, they could still be wrong, but at least they'd have a better chance at finding the truth than they would with irrational arguments.

I worry about the education aspect of this with my own children. But that is a subject for another post.

Any billionaires out there want to finance my experiment?


The Barefoot Bum said...

Thanks for the endorsement. I have a tiny quibble. You say, "assumptions themselves should be rational."

This is not precisely correct. All assumptions, beyond the bare minimum of metaphysics necessary to get off the ground, should be treated as candidate hypotheses and subject to logical and evidentiary analysis.

It's not that assumptions should themselves be rational, but rather that assumptions, like everything else, should be treated rationally.

DBB said...

Much better put.

I think I had in the back of my mind the notion that some assumptions are so wacko that they are almost per se irrational. "Let's assume radioactive spiders can give you superpowers..."

BadTux said...

It's not just religion that people cling to, though. It's a wide set of irrational beliefs -- lies -- that people cling to. Just look at who we elect to office. Any office-holder who would dare tell the truth would never get within a mile of holding any political office of more importance than "dog catcher".

The problem is that truth is cold and harsh and merciless, while lies are warm and comforting and give our lives meaning. Without lies, we are jumped up monkeys with bad fur and delusions of grandeur who end up feeding the worms in the end -- a very chilling truth that most people do not wish to face. And so we embrace our lies, we cherish our lies, we tell ourselves that we believe, we embrace the lies of nation and patriotism and flags and school spirit and all manner of lies. Because truth... most people, if forced to face truth, would have a difficult time avoiding going out to the garage with a handgun and putting a bullet through their head. It takes real courage to embrace truth -- courage that most people simply do not have.

- Badtux the Lie Penguin

Tammy said...

Radioactive spiders can't give you super powers?