Monday, September 25, 2006

Reason and Rationalism

This is the second of two posts promised some time ago in my Xanga blog. Whereas the previous post was a rare foray into politics (sort of), this one will deal more with philosophy and was prompted, interestingly enough, by a television show.

Some weeks ago, Jenny and I were watching a summer rerun of the TV show Numb3rs. I'm quite a fan of the show - it's one of my favorites, actually. And I'm generally a fan of the character Charlie, the young prodigy mathematician (played by David Krumholtz, who does an excellent job of making me forget he also played Bernard the Head Elf in The Santa Clause). For those unfamiliar with the show, Charlie's brother Don (played by Rob Morrow, who does a similarly excellent job of making me forget Joel Fleischman from Northern Exposure) is an FBI agent, and Charlie regularly consults on Don's cases. Anyway, in the episode in question Don winds up working with a psychic consultant on a murder case. Much is made of Charlie's skepticism regarding the veracity of psychic/paranormal phenomena, to the effect that he rejects the notion utterly on the grounds that no scientific evidence for the existence of such phenomena is available. He hypothesizes numerous potential explanations for how the psychic could be obtaining the - generally accurate - information which he claims to have because of his psychic abilities.

This brings me to the subject of this post: Charlie's attitude is not at all uncommon today, especially in scientific and academic circles, where the concepts of reason and rationality are held in such high regard. The dominant paradigm tells that belief in the paranormal or the supernatural is to be spurned as irrational and unscientific. We here stories about a psychic having visions that prove to be accurate, he (or she) must have something up his sleeve - the information must have been obtained some other way. Similar views are held regarding, say, the miracle stories of the Bible. Maybe Lazarus was just in a coma. Maybe when Jesus' disciples said they'd seen Him resurrected from the dead, they had just had a vision or a hallucination. Or maybe they just made it up. Maybe Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Maybe she and Joseph were just too hot for each other to hold off until after they got married (see Bruce Chilton's Rabbi Jesus), and that's how Jesus was conceived. We'll believe anything before we'll believe that psychics may really be psychic, or before we'll believe that the Bible's miracles may actually have happened. We're rational people, after all. We're scientifically advanced and knowledgeable. We don't buy into that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

The problem is that such an attitude is not at all rational or logical. In fact, such an attitude is profoundly irrational. It flies in the face of sound logical reasoning. It's rationalism, not rationality. To dismiss as impossible an entire category of phenomena solely because your presuppositions demand you do so is not only illogical, it is, in fact, patently absurd.

It surprises me - and frightens me, frankly - that so many people who think this way fail to see the inherent illogic of their position. Saying that science cannot prove or discover the existence of certain phenomena and concluding thereby that such a thing must not exist is a classic non sequitur. The conclusion that psychics are all frauds does not follow from the fact that scientists can't prove that psychics are what they claim. Yet in the hallowed halls of academia, we see just that sort reasoning lauded as rationality. I cry foul. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You simply can't say "Science can't prove God's existence, therefore God must not exist." Such reasoning is blatantly fallacious - and yet it's appallingly common, all the same. To say, "I'm a scientist, therefore I don't believe in X," where X is anything from telepathy to the Virgin Birth, is not rational, and it is not commendable. It is an example of what happens when a person's presuppositions get in the way of reason. It's rationalism, not rationality.

Now, to clarify: I'm only referring to psychic and/or paranormal phenomena here because that was the subject of the television show that prompted me to post. I'm not trying to equate the claims of psychics with those of Scripture. In the event, I happen personally to believe that a good many people who claim to have psychic abilities are indeed hacks, charlatans, snake-oil salespersons. That doesn't mean that I dismiss all such claims as impossible solely because I've already decided that such things don't happen. My basic point is this: some would argue that a devotion to science and logic necessarily demands a corresponding rejection of the paranormal and/or the supernatural. My argument is that this is a logical fallacy - a non sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"). In fact, I would argue that a genuine devotion to reason and logic as such would demand openness to the possibility of such things. A genuinely rational person ought to be able to say, "My lack of experience/belief/proof regarding such things does not mean that they do not exist/cannot happen." A genuinely rational scientist ought to be willing to admit that his (or her) inability to prove the existence of God does not require him (or her) to become an atheist.

Unfortunately, though, a great many people who claim to be rational, logically-minded people are in fact rationalists, instead. They display a single-minded devotion to their own sets of doctrines and presuppositions that is not substantially different from the devotion of a religious person to the doctrines and presuppositions demanded by his or her faith.

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