“You do not reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into.”

Many left/liberals exhibit a gigantic hostility/intolerance of relgious folks. They should read this FANTASTIC article:

Here I want to discuss one particular view of religion, popular among skeptics, that I call the “sleep of reason” interpretation. According to this view, people have religious beliefs because they fail to reason properly. If only they grounded their reasoning in sound logic or rational order, they would not have supernatural beliefs, including superstitions and religion. I think this view is misguided, for several reasons; because it assumes a dramatic difference between religious and commonsense ordinary thinking, where there isn’t one; because it suggests that belief is a matter of deliberate weighing of evidence, which is generally not the case; because it implies that religious concepts could be eliminated by mere argument, which is implausible; and most importantly because it obscures the real reasons why religion is so extraordinarily widespread in human cultures.

I tend to think that liberals beliefs function more like religion rather than like policy of science.
Read this next bit and think about left/liberal explanations/justifications for terrorism/anti-semitism/anti-americanism:

For these occurrences that largely escape control, people focus on the supernatural agents’ feelings and intentions. The ancestors were angry, the gods demanded a sacrifice, or the god is just cruel and playful. But there is more to that. The way these reasons are expressed is, in a great majority of cases, supported by our social exchange intuitions. People focus on an agent’s reasons for causing them harm, but note that these “reasons” always have to do with people’s interaction with the agents in question. People refused to follow God’s orders; they polluted a house against the ancestors’ prescriptions; they had more wealth or good fortune than their God-decreed fate allocated them; and so on. All this supports what anthropologists have been saying for a long time on the basis of evidence gathered in the most various cultural environments: Misfortune is generally interpreted in social terms. But this familiar conclusion implies that the evolved cognitive resources people bring to the understanding of interaction should be crucial to their construal of misfortune.
[….]
To be exhaustive, one should also mention the close association between ritual participation and group affiliation, the role of our coalitional thinking in creating religious identity, the specific role of death and dead bodies in religious thinking, and many other aspects of religion. Psychological investigation into these domains reveals the same organization described above. A variety of mental systems, functionally specialized for the treatment of particular (non-religious) domains of information, are activated by religious notions and norms, in such a way that these notions and norms become highly salient, easy to acquire, easy to remember and communicate, as well as intuitively plausible.

The lesson of the cognitive study of religion is that religion is rather “natural” in the sense that it consists of by-products of normal mental functioning.
[…]
Taking all this into account, it would seem that the “sleep of reason” interpretation of religion is less than compelling. It is quite clear that explicit religious belief requires a suspension of the sound rules according to which most scientists evaluate evidence. But so does most ordinary thinking, of the kind that sustains our commonsense intuitions about the surrounding environment.
[….]
People do not adhere to concepts of invisible ghosts or ancestors or spirits because they suspend ordinary cognitive resources, but rather because they use these cognitive resources in a context for which they were not designed in the first place. However, the “tweaking” of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so small that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument.
[…]
In a sense, the cognitive study of religion ends up justifying a common intuition, best expressed by Jonathan Swift’s dictum that “you do not reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into.” The point of studying this scientifically is to show to what extent we can expect religious notions to be stable and salient in human cultures, not just now but for a long time to come.

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9 Responses to “You do not reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into.”

  1. I disregard the bit about Libereals and Leftists, commenting only on the religion article. Boyer begins by describing the “sleep of reason” explanation of religion. By his lights, the explanation says that there is religion for the following reasons: “People are superstitious, they will believe anything,” “Religious concepts are irrefutable,” and “Refutation is more difficult than belief.” Boyer finds these reasons unsatisfactory explanations. So do I.

    I subscribe to another version of the “sleep of reason” explanation. There is religion because the reasoned arguments that would defeat religious belief are very demanding and very threatening. The vast majority of us are reasonable people, but few of us are willing and able to meet the demands and face the threats involved in the reasoned challenge of conventional religious belief. This explanation resembles the third of Boyer’s reasons but is different because it is relativized to one’s current beliefs. What is more difficult is neither refutation nor belief. What is difficult is change.

    After Boyer’s survey of the relevant science on the subject, he returns to the question of the refutation of religious belief. I copy the final section for reference.

    –Boyer——-
    Can We Reason Religion Away?

    Taking all this into account, it would seem that the “sleep of reason” interpretation of religion is less than compelling. It is quite clear that explicit religious belief requires a suspension of the sound rules according to which most scientists evaluate evidence. But so does most ordinary thinking, of the kind that sustains our commonsense intuitions about the surrounding environment.
    –Boyer——-

    Our ordinary thinking is a blend of reasonable proto-scientific thinking and reason-suspending proto-religious thinking. So it would be better to say that only part of our common sense is sustained by the suspension of reason. Moreover, this fraction of common sense is no less unreasonable for all its apparent practical value.

    –Boyer——-
    More surprising, religious notions are not at all a separate realm of cognitive activity. They are firmly rooted in the deepest principles of cognitive functioning. First, religious concepts would not be salient if they did not violate some of our most entrenched intuitions (e.g., that agents have a position in space, that live beings grow old and die, etc.). Second, religious concepts would not subsist if they did not confirm many intuitive principles. Third, most religious norms and emotions are parasitic upon systems that create very similar norms (e.g., moral intuitions) and emotions (e.g., a fear of invisible contaminants) in non-religious contexts.

    In this sense, religion is vastly more “natural” than the “sleep of reason” argument would suggest.
    –Boyer——-

    The “sleep of reason” explanation actually assumes that religious belief is natural. Only by assuming that it is a natural result of understandable circumstances is there any hope for an explanation that the appearance of supernatural revelation is a natural illusion.

    –Boyer——-
    People do not adhere to concepts of invisible ghosts or ancestors or spirits because they suspend ordinary cognitive resources, but rather because they use these cognitive resources in a context for which they were not designed in the first place. However, the “tweaking” of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so small that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument.
    –Boyer——-

    There is a third alternative. People suspend ordinary reason *and* they use their cognitive resources in a context for which they were not “designed”.

    –Boyer——-
    To some extent, the situation is similar to domains where science has clearly demonstrated the limits or falsity of our common intuitions. We now know that solid objects are largely made up of empty space, that our minds are only billions of neurons firing in ordered ways, that some physical processes can go backwards in time, that species do not have an eternal essence, that gravitation is a curvature of space-time. Yet even scientists go through their daily lives with an intuitive commitment to solid objects being full of matter, to people having non-physical minds, to time being irreversible, to cats being essentially different from dogs, and to objects falling down because they are heavy.
    –Boyer——-

    Here Boyer’s oversimplifications reveal the emptiness of his argument. Scientists, or those most deserving of the name, can and do go through their daily lives without superstition or obvious contradiction. They know that solid objects are *both* full of matter *and* largely made up of empty space. They are materialists committed to the view that the mind is ultimately physical. They know that the differences between cats and dogs are evolutionary accidents. And they know *both* that gravity is due to space-time curvature *and* that objects fall because they are heavy. (As for processes that go backwards in time, you’ll have to fill me in.)

    To be sure, there are many scientists who do not share these consistent views as I put them. Assuming my own views are right, I can only point out that accredited membership into the scientific community doesn’t require immunity from religious lapses of reason, especially outside one’s area of expertise.

    –Boyer——-
    In a sense, the cognitive study of religion ends up justifying a common intuition, best expressed by Jonathan Swift’s dictum that “you do not reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into.”
    –Boyer——-

    I do not know the source of Swift’s dictum, but it sounds to me like an adaptation of the good advice that one should not reason with unreasonable people. The difference between my interpretation and Boyer’s lies in that not all beliefs acquired reasonably are acquired critically. Much and maybe most of what we believe is absorbed rapidly in our earliest years, without reasoned review. When there is so much to learn and our critical resources are still weak, it’s unreasonable to question everything we are taught. We do not “reason into” a belief about Santa Claus, for it would be unreasonable to be unduly critical of what our parents tell us. But we do “reason out” of this belief, by eventually turning critical when it is reasonable to do so.

  2. Rodrigo,

    You are ignoring the fact that most religious belief is unfalsifiable (therefore it is not reasonable to be critical of religious beliefs) or that the value of proof/disproof less transaction costs is substantiallly less than the cost of incorrect belief (therefore it is not economical to be critical of religious beliefs).

    How do the claims of quantum physics differ from those of creationism from the perspective of someone of average intelligence?

  3. 1. I agree with Boyer that religious belief is unfalsifiable. It simply doesn’t follow that it is unreasonable to be critical of religious belief. One doesn’t have to falsify to dissuade.

    2. As for the economy of criticizing religious belief, not only do I agree that it’s generally a waste of time, I practice what I believe. I very rarely try to persuade someone of atheism, and when I do try, the payoff is in the social rather than the epistemic effects.

    3. There isn’t much to say for average intelligence or education. The claims differ very little for the average person, except perhaps that he knows who is arguing for which view.

    I don’t see that any of these points connect with Boyer’s article or my reply to it.

  4. Rodrigo,

    If most belief is like religious belief, then the choice to challenge a group (e.g. evangelical christians) because of their religiosity seems more agenda driven than justified. Or to put it another way, any secular humanist claims to to moral superioirity are just as ungrounded and religious as those of any other religion. The hypocricy at the heart of secular humanism is that it denies this fact.

  5. More agenda driven than justified? The agenda *is* the justification. When I, a secular humanist, claim moral superiority over evangelical christians, I do so because (1) I believe it is true and (2) I am pursuing a political agenda, i.e. I want politicians who agree with me to run the country. As for the grounding of my beliefs, it remains to be shown, either by you or Boyer, that my beliefs are ungrounded. I believe they are grounded on a great deal of evidence and reason. By contrast the moral beliefs of evangelical christians are “grounded” on faith and revelation.

    No doubt, most belief is like religious belief because most people are religious. But the absence of faith and revelation from the grounding of secular humanist beliefs justifies their claims to non-religiousity.

  6. Rodrigo, the burden is on you to show that your beliefs are grounded and the status of your beliefs until you do is religious. Preemptively, if you deny burden of proof, I challenge you to show that your belief about who has the burden is grounded.

    I totally buy that secular humanism is a political flag. I just don’t buy that it is more than that.

  7. I decline your challenge as just another attempt to shift the burden of proof to me. You can call my beliefs religious if you like. I will just disagree with you and leave it at that.

    Except, I will say just this. The methodology of the secular humanist scientific world-view can be summed up as limiting its ultimate grounds for belief to evidence and reason. By contrast, the methodologies of many, if not all, world-views that aren’t secular, humanist, and scientific do not limit their ultimate grounds for belief to evidence and reason, allowing the inclusion of “grounds” such as faith, revelation, tradition, and authority.

    I claim that faith, revelation, tradition, and authority do not qualify as grounds for belief. But this claim is informed by my scientific world-view. It is the application of what I believe by way of evidence and reason alone that leads me to believe that these other sources of belief are ungrounded. Is this circular? Yes, it is. But in a good way. Can I prove this? Not without circularity.

  8. You have evidence/reason to believe that killing children is bad but killing fetuses (and animals) is not?

    Moreover, given that you cannot afford to reason/evidence everything you believe and that even if you do, you could be wrong, do you think it makes sense at times to rely on tradition and authority (if not revelation)?

    I would further note that the current status of our evicence/reason does not warrant your belief that your beliefs are not religious. At this point, all we can say is that your beliefs *might* not be religious. However, your adamant denial that your beliefs are relgious is MOST CERTAINLY religious.

  9. ooghe says:

    Boyer argues against “the sleep of reason” and says that while religious notions are not entirely congruent with beliefs which are held for purely rational reasons, it seems not to be the case that religious belief represents the complete absence of cognitive capabilities either (how flattered Ghandi would have been to learn that). In that religions are practiced by human beings on earth, and people are capable of employing reason- this doesn’t shock me- the only part of that I would quibble with is his professing that religion is cognition being used in a way “it was not designed for”. Part of my confusion in the back and forth here is that the term secular humanist is used in a way that both of you seem to imply means “one who claims moral certainty on the basis of reason alone and not faith or revelation”, and then Alex extends this definition to encompass the entirety of “the left” (where does that leave Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, I wonder)- and then this rationalism is exposed as just as religious as the evangelical christian right, because there is no rational basis for the process of reason to be treated as a fundamental ethical value.

    Rodrigo, you do indeed impute moral worth to worldviews that hold “evidence and reason” as their methodologies without saying much else for them, which seems to be something everyone here agrees most human beings do not actually adhere to in their daily lives, and to the extent that you’re endorsing social views based on that value, circular reasoning isn’t convincing enough.

    I would agree that there are many who obsessively approach ethics as if it were some kind of subset of reason- from Kant to the John Rawls, although it’s hardly a quality isolated to the left. In another post, Alex says that the human rights of the palestinians are subordinate to their utilitarian implications to Israel, as well as the validity of their legal claims- by which I take it, Alex, you mean their deportation would be ethically justified specifically on rational- not religious- grounds. Yet here while you argue that Rodrigo’s secular fundamentalism is religious- I don’t see how you’ve maintained the distinction you made earlier when you said the left functions more like religion than “the policy of science”. The oddness is that your statement “the current status of our evidence does not warrant your belief that your beliefs are not religious” simultaneously implies that there is not a rational basis to ethical dispositions towards of religious beliefs, and that you are arguing this from the standpoint of evidence/reason- which seems to leave us with nothing but moral relativism as a result. Is that a consequence you’re willing to take, even if it ultimately means your views on the west bank would become, in essence, “religious”? Maybe it is, but then, it seems like we’re back to square one.

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