Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The argument from reason...?

The 'argument from reason' has cropped up a few times on the Unbelievable show, and reared its head on last week's show again. The argument is basically this: Reason cannot emerge from non-reason. In a naturalistic worldview, reason (i.e. our cognitive ability to reason) is the end result of a non-rational process (i.e. evolution by natural selection). We know we are reasonable. Therefore, the naturalistic worldview is false. Of course, there's more nuance to it than that, but that's the gist.

There are two thoughts I have on this.

The first is to question the first premise of the argument. Why can't reason emerge from non-reason? Evolution theory has shown, quite convincingly, that complexity can arise from simple systems. The ability to infer from evidence gives us a huge evolutionary advantage over instinct-driven creatures. Why shouldn't this ability have evolved?

The other is to point out that, whichever side you take in the belief/non-belief debate, there would seem to be a vast number of people in the world who do not exhibit total rationality. If there is a God, and there is evidence of his existence, then all non-believers are non-rational. If there is no God, and the evidence is nothing of the sort, then all believers are non-rational. Either way, non-rationality is rampant in the world. The apparent existence of rationality in the small subset of people who happen to infer the same things about reality as me should not be taken to imply that people are generally rational. Quite the opposite. People are generally irrational. Is this design or is this the end result of an evolutionary process?

Inferring the existence of God on the basis of a characteristic which might be found in a small subset of people (and might be found in nobody; I can't prove that anyone is rational) is a very shaky argument. Maybe we're all non-rational?


VainSaints said...

"Evolution theory has shown, quite convincingly, that complexity can arise from simple systems."

You again, have huge double-standard for what constitutes "showing" and "convincing".

Evolutionary theory has not "shown" that evolution can produce semiotic content *at all* in any intelligible sense of the term.

You are confusing what "evolutionary theory has shown" with what evolutionary theorists have asserted, *with no basis in evidence*. They are as devoid of evidence as the most literalist of fundamentalists. They have literally nothing.

The evolution of meaning from matter remains a huge philosophical stumbling block for atheists. Basically, if someone claims that meaning consists of arrangements of charge and matter, then the onus is on them to demonstrate how arrangement X can "mean" Pass the salt while arrangement Y can "mean" 'Off with your head!'.

The attempt to reduce human communication to physical stimulus-response mechanisms has yielded nothing in the way of fruitful discovery and remains incoherent. No one has put up any convincing account of how force and matter can generate *belief*.

It really does no good to pretend that the problems in atheism don't exist while blowing up Christian problematics. It is not particularly convincing to magnify the most farfetched scenarios of historical skeptics and then pretend that this contention, which is beyond farfetched, has been 'demonstrated quite convincingly'. All that this sort of egregious special pleading does is demonstrate 'quite convincingly' what the author prefers to believe.

Ricky Carvel said...

Hello. Haven't heard from you in a while. Welcome back.

OK. Maybe I've overstated my case slightly.

The theory of evolution by natural selection was postulated based on external observations of the animal kingdom, long before things like DNA were even dreamed about. But all the things we have discovered about DNA and human/animal ancestry in the past 60 years have absolutely confirmed (beyond reasonable doubt) the claim of evolutionary theory that current animals of distinct species have common ancestry. We can map this back and show (yes show) that current complex animals evolved from earlier simpler lifeforms. This is as close to scientific fact as it is possible to go.

Humans evolved from simpler life forms.

If humans are rational and the earlier life forms were not, then we are left with two options. Either rationality evolved from non rationality, or some external agent imposed rationality onto the pre-human life form at some point in the past.

Many theists hold to the latter option, despite there being precisely no scientific evidence of this intervention. There are no breaks in the DNA record where a large chunk of 'code' has suddenly appeared. The only reasons to believe this option are either because you have a presupposition that rationality cannot have arisen from non-rationality, or because you believe that humans are distinctly different from animals because God made us different. In other words the theory is only used by people trying to reconcile God-belief with reality.

The evidence of nature (i.e. the stuff going on in our cells) shows no evidence of tinkering by an external agent. Thus, based on evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that - until other evidence comes along - it would appear that apparently rational animals (us) evolved from apparently non-rational animals. Given that, it would seem that rationality can arise out of non-rationality, because it has.

Yes, this remains a "huge philosophical stumbling block", but just because we can't explain something philosophically, doesn't mean that it didn't happen.

I'm afraid that I think that evidence-based scientific reasoning trumps speculative philosophy every time.

And I actually do agree that "It really does no good to pretend that the problems in atheism don't exist while blowing up Christian problematics", but the opposite works too.

There are problems in atheism just as much as in theism. If I've misrepresented that on this blog, I apologise. But when you have to conclude with an "I just don't know" (which sometimes you have to do, if you're honest with yourself), this leads to agnosticism on some issues, not belief.

And regarding what I 'prefer' to believe. I'd actually much rather that there was a benevolent God looking over us and the possibility of life after death. That's what I prefer. But what I prefer has little grounding in reality. The more I look at the evidence, the more I have to conclude that it looks unlikely that the central claims of Christianity, regarding the resurrection of Jesus and its salvific power, are based on reality. Whether or not there is a God is a different question entirely, and one which I remain reasonably agnostic on. All I intended to say in this post was that the argument from reason is not particularly compelling. That doesn't mean there is no God, it just means this doesn't persuade me.