Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Is Religion Rational?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 14, 2000

Someone (I'm losing track) wrote: "I'm personally tired of people saying that a belief in God is irrational (both in your sense, and with the more common connotation of "wrong"), whereas atheism is logically and rationally sound."

We can play around with the definition of "rational" a bit, but the essential meaning is "believing and acting on the basis of the evidence of one's senses and/or following the principles of good reason".

The question of whether a belief in God is rational is therefore the question of whether the statement "God exists" can be obtained through either of the two forms of rationality.

Arguments concluding that "God exists" on the basis of the evidence of one's senses are invariably inferences to the best explanation, since there is no reliable report of a person having seen God (and by "reliable" we mean an instance which can be verified by independent observers or replicated under a set of similar circumstances). Inferences to the best explanation require, for their reliability, that the proposed explanation be the best of all possible alternative explanations.

The best explanation of a set of proposed alternatives will be the one which has greatest predictive powers, corelates best with other knowledge, explains the most phenomena, and all other things being equal, postulates the least new principles or entities (this last condition is often referred to as Ockham's razor).

An example of such an argument is the "teleological argument", sometimes called the "argument from design". Just as we would infer from the intricate design of a watch that there must be a watchmaker, so also we should infer from the intricate design of the universe that there ought to be a universe maker.

The problem with this argument, and similar inferences to the best explanation, is that the existence of God is not the best explanation. For example, when explaining the intricate design of human beings, we have a better explanation in the theory of evolution, which shows how complex species can develop though a process of genetic mutation and survival.

It is not simply that evolution (and similar theories which explain other natural phenomena) are alternative explanations, and therefore no better or worse than the theological explanation, or even that evolution passes the test of Ockham's Razor. It is better across the board: it can be used to make predictions, it can be empirically verified, and it fits in nicely with other knowledge.

To reject evolution (and similar theories) in favour of theology is therefore, in essence, to reject the findings of all of science: and while it is certainly possible to do so, such a philosophy is not based on the evidence of the senses, and is therefore not in this sense rational.

Arguments which conclude that "God exists" on the basis of reason alone invariably invoke the concept of necessary existence: that is, God must exist because it is impossible to conceive of a universe without him. There are several variations of this argument, including Aquinas's famous "five ways" of proving that God exists, and Descartes's proofs in the Fourth and Sixth Medications.

These arguments generally follow the form: you can't get something from nothing; there is something; therefore, there is not nothing, therefore God exists. For example, one version of the argument states that, everything which exists has a cause, nothing can be uncaused, therefore there must be a primary cause (the "prime mover"), which is God.

There is to be sure a certain amount of empirical content even in these arguments, as you need to prove that "something exists"; but this empirical content is usually held to be self evident, as is the case with Descarte's "I think" or Kant's "conditions for the possibility of perception."

Even so, such deductions fail because the conclusion does not follow from the premises: first, in the sense that there must be one and only one prime mover, and second, in the sense that the prime mover would have any qualities other than moving. Moreover, the principle that "you can't get something from nothing" is not self-evident; in the realm of ideas, at least, it is very easy to get something from nothing.

Consider the first of these objections. Even if it is true that all things move, and that all things, in order to move, must have a mover, it does not follow that all things were moved by the same mover. Moreover, there is nothing which infers that the regression of moving must stop at a certain point: history might indeed have no beginning. The inference to a single mover thus fails.

Even if we were able to prove that there must be a single mover, no reasoning will describe any of its qualities (though Descartes tries in a heroic effort by saying that, if we can imagine perfection, there must be a perfect being, a variation of the something from nothing argument). Thus, from the premise that "God moves" we cannot deduce that "God is good" or that "God is omnipotent". Moreover, there an alternate account of the "prime mover" in science, which is the "big bang", which is actually supported by empirical observation. The mere existence of this alternative invalidates any proof of the necessity of God's existence, much less the qualities of such an existing God.

The principle that "you can't get something from nothing" is one of these common-sense principles which turns out to be, in practice, false. To show that it is false, let us imagine the "absolutely perfect baseball game," one in which the pitcher throws 81 pitches, all strikes, thus striking out each of his 27 batters in turn. Though we can have such an idea, no such baseball game ever happened: we have, therefore, something from nothing.

We obtain something from nothing - in the mind, at least - through a process of abstraction. We consider something which does exist, a baseball game, say, as a set of conjoined properties (balls, strikes, hits, runs, etc), and then delete in our minds, some of those properties. This produces an abstract representation of the item in question: the concept of a baseball game, say, without any actual results (we even represent this concept, in baseball at least, with an empty scorecard)

Once we have an abstract concept, we can imagine a multiplicity of entities by inserting new values (or more precisely, new combinations of values) into the blank spaces. Thus, with a blank scorecard in hand, we can easily imagine an absolutely perfect game, simply by inserting the value "strike" for every pitch.

Just so for other forms of reasoning. The concept of "cause", for example, is an abstraction: we observe that something causes something else (or as Hume would more accurately say, we observed that something follows something else), and invoke the concept of "causation" as a scorecard to keep track of similar events.

So we can get something from nothing, and the refutation of the necessity of the existence of God rests on essentially this point, that God is a concept we have invented, a scorecard with nothing but strikes entered, and that there are numerous other possibilities, all equally likely, and some of which we have actually seen with our own eyes.

So the existence of God can be proved neither by experience nor by reason: there exist better explanations than God for the experiences we have, and the existence of God cannot be shown to be necessary through the use of reason alone. It follows, therefore, on the definition of rationality I sketched above, that it is irrational to believe that God exists.

So why do so many people believe in God? Are they insane? Are they irrational, in the perjoritive "wrong" sense of the term? Of course not: it is perfectly rational to believe in the existence of God, even though the belief in the existence of God cannot be proven rationally.

We need to distinguish two major types of grounds for our beliefs: the logical, and the psychological. The logical grounds for our beliefs are the principles of rationality, just described above. And there may be no logical grounds for a belief in God. But there may still be good psychological grounds for the belief in God. And if so, then a belief in God may be "rational" - in the sense of "sane" and "right" even though it is "irrational" - in the sense of not supported by logic.

A "psychological" reason for believing something (or, for that matter, for doing something) is a factor or set of factors which may affect one's mental state through processes other than reason and experience. Some psychological causes of belief - such as chemical imbalances in the brain - are clearly counterproductive. But others - such as an irrational fear of danger - may (in moderation) be useful.

The list of psychological reasons for belief is long. Here are some examples: fear (we will be hurt if we don't believe), envy (we want to believe what rich people believe), popularity (we want to believe what everyone else believes), consequences (we want to hope for the best), craving (we believe because we want to believe insomething), and more.

Many popular arguments for the existence of God appeal to psychological motivations for belief: their conclusion, quite properly, is not that "God exists," but rather, "You should believe that God exists."

Pascal's wager is an example of such a belief. If God does not exist, and we believe he does, argues Pascal, the cost to us is minimal. But if God exists, and we do not believe, then the cost to us is significant. Therefore, even though we have no direct proof that God exists, we should believe because the consequence of being wrong are too great.

Another argument, so often cited I cannot even think of an original source, if that "We should believe in God because everyone needs something to believe in." That is is a bad argument should be self evident: we do not all need to believe in a supreme being, and even if so, we need not believe in a God of this or that variety. But as a psychological argument it is powerful: people seem to need direction, morality, values, and a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

The difficulty with psychological arguments for a belief in God is that they have substantially different impact on different psychologies. A person with a very strong sense of value and self-identity, for example, is unlikely to feel a need to belong to and be guided by a greater force: and thus such psychological arguments appear shallow and meaningless - religion, to such a person, seems more like an "opiate" than a comfort and aid.

Moreover, another difficulty with psychological arguments is that certainty is lost. While a psychological reason may be a very good reason for believing, a psychological reason in no way assures the truth of the belief. Only rationality - in the sense of logic - can assure the truth of a conclusion.

If a religious belief is held for psychological reasons, it is a personal belief, and moreover even, one which might be false, since the means used to arrive at it do not guarantee its truth. A person holding such a belief, therefore, must be very hesitant before recommending that others hold the same belief and before recommending that the tenets of this belief be imposed on other people or implemented throughout society.

Religion is, no doubt, a solution - even a rational solution - for some people (by all accounts, the majority). But on no account is it a solution for all people: and perscribing religion on people who do not need it is like giving medicine to the healthy: it may produce more harm than good.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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