Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Value of Reason

I'm often disappointed to see how little people understand the concept and use of reason. Reason is typically seen as the buzzword of intellectuals who engage in debate and lay out formal argumentation in books or articles. Yet we all utilize the tool of reason on a daily basis, in ways that most of us probably are not aware of. Even when you view a painting in an art gallery and think to yourself, "I like this. It would go well in my living room," you are reasoning that purchasing the painting would be beneficial in the enjoyment it would bring to yourself and to your guests, perhaps. Reason is how we make sense of things in our world - it's how we make choices, how we verify information, and how we communicate to others why we have made a particular choice and why we do, or do not, accept certain information.

Aside from reason there is no other method for assessing truth that has shown to be reliable. Personal experience is sometimes suggested, but we all interpret our experiences, and these interpretations are always made from reason. They may not be reasonable, but they do use reason, even if incorrectly. This is why many miracle claims are accompanied by reports of the numbers of people present, the slant of those involved, the improbability of the event, and more. Even believers in the supernatural recognize that reason is a vital part of making a persuasive argument to others. Asking us to believe without reason is far less likely to result in a successful conversion than providing bad reasons to believe.

Recently I talked to an individual who said that he believes that there is more truth out there than what we can find through science and reason. There are also truths in religion, poetry, and metaphor, he said. I don't say that science is all there is because, for one reason, I know that science misses the significance of things like poetry, music, literature, and other media. I do believe there is some truth in religion, as well as poetry and metaphor, but there is still one step left out, which is how one finds these truths from such sources. Again, the only reliable method is reason. Using reason, we can take a story like Jesus and the adulterous woman, or Shakespeare's thoughts on mercy in Act 4 of The Merchant of Venice, and we can apply them to our lives and to the facts of the world at large to find their meaningfulness and, in that sense, find truth.

How else is one to find these truths? One has to first understand the passages before they can be appreciated, and part of appreciating them means uncovering how they relate to us. Since reason is how we make sense of things in our world, we use reason to interpret passages of scripture and poetry, just as we use it to interpret personal experiences. Any time you try to figure things out, reason is involved. The funny thing is that this person, in trying to persuade me of his belief that reason and science are not "all there is," was forced to use the only tenable method he has: reason. And in fact, all of our beliefs are dependent on reason.

Since we can't believe what we know to be false, we must think something is true if we believe it. In order to regard something as true, we have to have some basis for considering it true, whether personal experience, evidence, hearsay, loose connections, or whatever. We don't just suddenly and arbitrarily decide that something is true, we figure out that it's true (even if we're mistaken). By good use or bad use, we have come to hold the beliefs we now hold thanks to reason. This may be one of the most powerful realizations in understanding the place and value of reason in our thinking. Even the belief that reason is limited requires reason to be sustained.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Hell is for Real"

As much as I love books, I never fail to find that there are usually some absolutely ridiculous titles topping the bestseller charts. One of these atrocities that I've recently become aware of is Heaven is for Real, which is currently at #5 on Amazon. The subtitle is A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, and you can guess what the book is about based on that. An 11-year old boy comes out of surgery talking about his near-death experience that supposedly transported him to heaven. The synopsis boasts of mysterious knowledge the boy was 'never told,' such as the fact of him having a miscarried sister, or the details of his grandfather who died before his birth. It always amazes me how people will bite that line of garbage hook, line, and sinker. Of course, Heaven is for Real is written by the boy's father - who also happens to be a pastor - so it can hardly be called an eyewitness testimony (as if an 11-year old's testimony of Santa's workshop would be credible) or an unbiased account.

However, something else strikes me about these sorts of stories too: they're pure sugar-coated fluff. They're an inspirational serving of gullibility for people who are already believing and looking to feed their appetite. By no means are these even meant to be serious proposals for the existence of a supernatural realm. How can I be so sure? Because the premise betrays it.

Imagine if a book were published under the title, Hell is for Real: A Little Boy's Terrifying Story of His Trip to Hell and Back. In this story, we read about an 11-year old's encounter with demons who torture his heathen relatives in unspeakable ways. You can be sure that such a book would not sell, but would widely be denounced as extreme and horrendous. More importantly, though, I don't think that Hell is for Real could even exist in the first place, because all Christian parents seem to reinforce the belief that children go to heaven, and believers in general like to affirm the certainty of their destination in god's kingdom. No one who believes in heaven seems to think they could end up in hell. Hell is for 'them,' not us.

Although it once held powerful sway, Dante's vision of hell is no longer considered authentic by most Christians. Yet when an 11-year old boy says he went to heaven, it's taken seriously enough to create a bestselling book. I don't like to seem jaded, but I can sooner believe that the reason is to cash-in on a heart warming story than to report what these dolts actually think is a real vision of the afterlife. Anyone who claims that god saves little children should read 2 Kings 2:23-24, wherein 42 kids are torn to bits by two bears for mocking one of god's precious prophets. Is it really that unthinkable that an 11-year old could end up in hell instead of heaven? To these people, it is, because they want sugar-coated fluff that reassures them, not what might scare the living daylights out of them.

Perhaps this is why Christians apparently never consider their own alternatives when they jump to pose Pascal's Wager. Faith blinds their minds to the possibility of being wrong. Hell is useful as a conversion tool these days, but afterward it is often dismissed. The era of fire and brimstone preaching is over, replaced now by the feel-good, warm fuzzy nonsense of Joel Osteen and company. This is how a book like Heaven is for Real betrays its own worthlessness. That the active imagination of an 11-year old boy, which has more than likely been cued by his Christian parents, can be treated with the respect and attention that this book has received is a sad statement about the lack of critical thinking and skepticism in our world. As some have said before, many of us appear to just believe in belief, and when we set our own terms like that, we obviously prefer to belief what makes us most comfortable.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Smart People Don't Always Believe Smart Things

Smart people are very good at justifying things they came to believe for non-smart reasons.

Perhaps no other statement has rung so true, in my experience, than this one from Michael Shermer. It spells the death of appeals to authority. Recently I was told by someone that Muslims offer better arguments for their beliefs than Christians, because they "seem to know what they are talking about what with them being Doctors and all that kind of stuff." This is possibly one of the most imbecilic remarks I've encountered in my conversations with religious believers. Not only does it ignore the many non-Muslim physicians out there (including atheists and agnostics), but it operates on a non-existent connection between medical skill and factually accurate belief.

Doctors may be very intelligent people in their respective fields, yet religion is the realm of philosophy, history, myth, and other fields that are not always well known by medical experts. More importantly, though, even people who have studied religion extensively are not to be trusted off the bat. Certain degrees may warrant further credibility, but only in addition to strong arguments and persuasive evidence. It's the depth of exposure and research that culminates in the credibility assigned to those degrees, and that will be shown in the strength of the case one makes for a particular position. Shermer's statement beautifully illustrates this fact.

Intelligent people are quite capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs and sealing off specific ones in a "do-not-disturb" section. Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, but we need not believe it, even if he was a brilliant scientist. Darwin consulted alternative therapies, but we need not accept them, even if he was also a brilliant scientist. There's nothing about a Muslim holding a physician's degree that tells us whether or not his belief in Islam is founded on good evidence and strong reason. Religious believers are more than willing to embrace the character of those whom they deem to be nice reflections of the religion, but when we point out the garish reflections of suicide bombers, inquisitors, and the likes, cries of a mistaken connection abound.

An appeal to authority should be easily recognized as a fallacy almost at first glance, especially in an age where "experts" are being viewed with increasing skepticism by paranoid and deluded folks like Don McLeroy, the former chair of the Texas State Board of Education. Unfortunately, the fallacy persists. Maybe if we learn to emphasize the value of logic and evidence, then such problems will be avoided, but until we do, I remain doubtful that this common sense truth will really catch on. Still, in the meantime we should all do our part to try and educate others about the fallacy of an appeal to authority.