The Limits of Reason

March 30, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More
Image by CarbonNYC at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by CarbonNYC at Flickr (creative commons)

The antipathy with which fundamentalists hold science and reason is difficult to understand.  The emotional backlash, more storm than counter argument, often surprises.  A simple statement can bring about the most strident denunciations, the pitch and timbre of the debate oscillating out of proportion to the content being discussed.  Or so it seems.

In the course of debating the truth, validity, utility, or relevance of certain topics, the non-dogmatic must come to a point of fatigue by the seeming impossibility of finding common ground.  At which time the debate either fizzles, the rationalist yields out of frustration, or the fundamentalist (of whatever stripe, on whatever topic) is ignored and bypassed.  This last leads to a situation wherein the argument festers like an infection.  It does not go away, often to the dismay of those watching and certainly to those who thought it without merit.

You can flip this on its head and make the same claim in the other direction.  At least, up to a point.

Consider the following statements:

  • (1)  I am not descended from a monkey.
  • (2)  God gave us dominion over the earth.
  • (3)  Homosexuality is an abomination.
  • (4)  The earth is only 6000 years old.
  • (5)  The Bible is the inerrant word of God.

What is the one common, salient feature of each one of these statements?  They are each one unqualified and utterly emotional statements.  They are statements made in reference to personal belief, without reference to any external corroborative evidence or comparative context.  They are, with the single exception of the Earth’s age, unanswerable in any reasonable way.

Taken one at a time, therefore:

(1) Of course you aren’t.  It’s obvious.  You’re descended from earlier generations of homo sapiens sapiens.  You personally are not descended from anything other than other humans.  It is functionally useless as more than a statement of the obvious in support of personal identity.  Who would argue it?

(2) What does that mean, dominion? Well…

1. Control or the exercise of control; sovereignty: “The devil . . . has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion” (Jonathan Edwards).
2. A territory or sphere of influence or control; a realm.
3. often Dominion (Abbr. Dom.) One of the self-governing nations within the British Commonwealth.
4. dominions Christianity. See domination (sense 2).

[Middle English dominioun, from Old French dominion, from Medieval Latin dominio-, dominio-–, from Latin dominium, property, from dominus, lord.]

So, roughly, Lord of Property.  But in the whole of human history, what has this meant functionally?  Short term domination by this or that group (sometimes called a tribe, sometimes a country, sometimes a nation) of small parcels of territory for the purpose of group-distinct political goals.  Everywhere and all times, the territory in question has been utilized as a source of provender, but it has hardly been universally cooperative or universally owned.  Lord is a very specific term in this context and the vast, vast majority of human beings who have lived on the Earth have been lords of nothing.  So which humans did what god give dominion in what way to?  Since the whole purpose of a giving someone something is, presumably, to benefit them, you either have to qualify the term “give” or qualify the term “us.”  By which time, the sentence, whatever your basic beliefs, is functionally meaningless.

(3) An abomination is what sense?  An abomination being presumably something unnatural—more, offensively unnatural—then you have to understand what is meant first by “unnatural” before you may declare something an abomination.  The word Abomination  is from the Latin Abominari, to regard as an ill-omen.  Omens themselves are interpretations of signs supposedly sent by the gods.  But to “abominate” means to “dislike, to hate, to loathe.”  So the noun, abomination, is something which is disliked, hated, or loathed.  This could be anything.  You may dislike, hate, and loathe diseases—which homosexuality has often been described as—but we tend not to refer to them that way.  Diseases just happen, they are value neutral (though not always) and more or less just bad luck.  In Hebrew usage and then in later Christian usage it took on an almost occult tone, implying things of the underworld, evil, constructs that run counter to what pleases God, or, as stated, unnatural.

More to the point, though, the term concerns the reaction of people to something.  To abominate is a verb, it is a feeling one has toward a thing or an act.  The inference in this very common biblical usage is that certain things are automatically abominable and there is nothing that can be done to make them otherwise.

No reasonable person can argue that this is not so.  Certain acts are to be loathed—murder, rape, torture, theft.  The question must be asked if homosexual intercourse is one with these.  In order to determine that, you have to ask what it is that is a common feature among them.  Murder, rape, etc are all violations of, first, the will and, secondly, of person.  To murder someone is to end their life against their will.  The same applies to rape.  An individual’s right of self is violated and the subsequent actions inflict pain, even death.  They are in this sense transgressions.

Homosexuality?  Barring the obvious instance of homosexual rape (apparently a common enough feature of prison life), we’re talking about willing congress between two people.  Where is the pain?  Sex is for pleasure and if it is consensual, one presumes there is no pain (at least not that is unwelcome).  On the face of it, there is nothing here to link it to the other transgressions.

The other binding trait that links all those other acts is that they can happen to everyone.  Male, female, young, old—we do not speak of heterosexual murder versus homosexual murder.  We speak of murder.  In the instance of sex, the only distinction is the gender of the participants.  If sex for pleasure is allowed, even condoned, between male and female, what renders homosexual sex different enough to condemn?

Clearly, this is a personal statement based in emotional response—the claimant is the one uncomfortable or offended and by an act which may, under slightly different circumstances, be not only welcome but actively sought.  There are no circumstances that render murder anything other than murder.

(4) This is the only one of the list that can be tested in the world and we have long since found ample evidence to disprove the claim—although it is not entirely wrong, since the Earth is 6000 years old at least.  It’s not that it isn’t 6000 years old, but that it is also much older.  The proof is so basic and easily understood, that the claim becomes a statement of belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  An emotional testament.

(5) If so, then one must explain all the mistakes.  One must also explain why so many of the rules issued in the Bible go unobserved even by those who claim the profoundest devotion to it.  One must explain why the various prophecies in the Bible failed to materialize—for instance, how come Jesus didn’t make his comeback in 60 or 70 A.D.?  One must also explain why it took somewhere around fifty to one hundred authors to set it all down and why it took a few scholars, known as Redactors, to “clean it up” and make it self-consistent—and why they then failed to do that.

But that’s not in any way relevant to the source of the claim.  Again, there is no way to judge the Bible’s conformity to anything other than by simply deciding that it is utterly true.  It is a personal statement on the part of the believer, unassailable by logic or reason, because logic and reason attack the concrete and ignore the emotional.  There are people who believe Elvis is still alive and some who think he was Jesus’ other brother.  They have made a claim based on an emotional need that is wholly self-contained and self-relevant, and the point of it is simply to Believe.  In order to shake that belief, you would have to offer some other symbol or object of worship to replace it, to fulfill the exact same function, and since the rationalist is trying to demythologize exactly that emotional construct it is an impossible task.

When in the course of a debate the rationalist is asked “Do you believe in science?” a curious disconnect occurs, and the rationalist does not so much lose the debate as simply fails to engage.  The rationalist misunderstands the question.  “Do you believe in” is another way of asking “is this your god?”  Since often the rationalist has taken a position contrary to any kind of formulation in which a “god” is real, the answer is generally off the mark for the believer.  It’s not so much a question of “having faith in” something as it is having something to be utterly and self-annihilatingly submissive to.

I choose my words carefully here.  “Devoted to” does not cover it—a scientist with no belief in a god can be utterly devoted to an idea, to research, to his or her conception of reality.  “Submissive to” however, adds the necessary component of surrender of will.  This is absolutely vital to the whole enterprise of fundamentalism, again of whatever stripe, because it is a giving over to something the control of one’s life.  It is in a sense a kind of emancipation for the believer, because at that point nothing is his or her responsibility other than to defend the central conception.  The requirements of that defense provide structure and community.  It is an ideal sense of purpose because nothing has to be judged other than those who seek to destroy it.

That is where all the statements listed above come into concert with the central emotional bonds of the group—because they are outside the bounds of proof, because they incorporate personal revulsion that might otherwise be inexplicable and require the hard work of self analysis, because they supply concrete-seeming touch points that everyone in the group can agree upon as (nonmaterial) proof of the central thesis, because of all this they are unassailable.

And because the rationalist usually misses this characteristic about them, the debate goes nowhere.

For this reason, I think it would be useful to find a different phrase than “Believe in” to characterize one’s convictions.  It really is a rather silly formulation to say you “believe in” evolution.  It puts all the wrong emotive markers on something that is not designed to carry that kind of weight.  You don’t “believe in” science—you accept it.  Conditionally.  You can even be devoted to it, but it does not dictate your life.  There is no behavioral code attached to science outside the requirements of research.  But more importantly, it is simply not a religious ideology.  To say “I believe in physics” is to implicitly twist the substance of physics into something it is not and never was intended to be.

And it plays into the systemic traps of religious fundamentalism.  It becomes, for that time of near-cogent interaction, a rhetorical cul-de-sac.

The claims of fundamentalists cannot be disproved.

Nor can they be proven.

That’s not their intended purpose.

Their purpose is to draw a circle around a group and by so doing define everyone outside it as an enemy.  (In certain benign instances, all enemies are potential converts.)  The rationalist who engages them on material content and rational merits of their statements fails to stay out of the trap set by such tactics, which is, the more the rationalist rails against these statements, the more the believers in these statements feel justified in holding onto them.  The rationalist becomes party to entrenching their ideas.  Because it is not so much the content of those statements that is important to the fundamentalist, but that the rationalist reacts to them and by so doing seems to reject belief.

In other words, by mounting counter arguments based on reason, the rationalist implicitly accepts the validity of the fundamentalist position, and when rational argument seems to fail, the rationalist position is shown to be false.

And feeling that you are absolutely right is a powerful, powerful narcotic.


Category: Bigotry, Communication, Culture, Good and Evil, Language, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (6)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    This reminds me of a post I wrote in 2006, Failure To Communicate.

  2. Oh. Well, great minds and all that…

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I remember a bit from "The Hitchhiker's Guide" series.

    The publisher of The Guide had been sued because a typesetting error had resulted in several deaths.

    An entry that was worded "The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal often makes a feast for tourists." when it should have read "The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal often makes a feast of tourists.".

    Lawyers for the Guide argued that the errant wording was more prosaic and beautiful, and since truth is beauty, beauty most be truth and it was reality and not the publisher that was wrong, but reality itself which was at fault.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Mark, never argue with a fool, folks don't usually know the difference.

    It's kinda like wrasslin' a pig; you get dirty, covered with poop and the pig likes it.

    • The only time one should wrassle with a fool is if it might benefit onlookers. Privately, I rarely challenge anyone of the sort described above, but if it's somewhere with people who might learn something, I go at it with occasional gusto. Often I find I have to say very little.

  5. Hanna Sayce says:

    Most everyone on this site seems to huddle around their disbelief in God. "With big words and careful arguments we waste our time in science that proves how meaningless everything is." If everything is relative, nothing is meaningful. How can you say anything is wrong or right – even murder, without belief? Everything is meaningless without an authority that gives it meaning. How arrogant 'atheists' are to think they know all there is to know because only then can one say there is no God. What good is your modern secular ideology to anyone besides yourself and your attempt to be convinced that you will not be held accountable for the way you have lived your life? If there is a God, it explains everything. If there is not a God, we try to explain everything. In the end, if there is a God, everything is meaningful. If not, everything is meaningless. I hope you discover what it is that makes life meaningful.

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