Foundations of rationalization vs. rational thinkingApril 20, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I’d like to take some time over the next few days to look at the evidence against God’s existence—not just the negative evidence (i.e. the lack of supporting evidence), but actual, positive evidence against the existence of the Trinitarian, loving, almighty deity that Christians (and most other Westerners) mean when they say “God.” But before we get to that, I’d like to look at some of the foundations of rationalization vs. rational thinking, the thought patterns that produce and promote false conclusions with regards to God.
There are many ways to go astray, of course, so this will fall well short of being an exhaustive survey. Still, it’s useful as a preliminary to the main discussion to follow.
Compartmentalized thinking vs. cohesive thinking
Let’s look first at compartmentalized thinking. As I so often say, truth is consistent with itself; untruth is recognizable chiefly by the contradictions that arise when we try and force a false idea to fit into real-world circumstances. The primary defense mechanism against acknowledging or even noticing these contradictions is compartmentalized thinking. By breaking up our beliefs into separate, isolated compartments, we can narrow the scope of our thoughts until the contradictions are no longer in our field of view—a kind of mental tunnel vision.
Compartmentalized thinking is a particularly difficult problem to avoid whenever the subject at hand is large and complex. There is only so much that the human mind can focus on at any given time, even with the best of intentions and the most disciplined approach. A certain amount of compartmentalization seems unavoidable, just to accommodate human weaknesses.
There are work-arounds, however. One useful strategy is to keep shifting the boundaries of the compartments. Look at things from a different angle. Combine two ideas that are related but not usually combined. That sort of thing. Or we can take a more scientific approach: instead of weighing the value of individual ideas on their own, compare two or more competing hypotheses in light of the available real-world evidence. The real-world evidence is inherently non-compartmentalized, thus breaking down compartmentalized thinking as we follow the evidence and try to stretch our ideas to fit.
Our goal, as rational thinkers, should be to develop cohesive thinking, a mode of thought that breaks down compartments, and draws conclusions that are consistent with all of the real-world evidence. This way, our beliefs are reality-based, and are guaranteed to be the most accurate and reliable conclusions we can draw, since they have the greatest possible consistency with real-world truth.
Relationship-based assessment vs. fact-based assessment
Relationship-based assessment is a mode of deciding truth based on how we feel towards the people who are presenting the idea. For example, when Expelled! tries to argue that Darwin’s theory led to the Holocaust, what the producers are doing is urging people to judge the scientific validity of evolution based on how they feel towards the Nazis. Likewise, when the New Atheists are criticized for being “harsh” or “strident,” we’re being urged to judge the legitimacy of their claims based on whether or not we think Dawkins and company are likable fellows.
Naturally, this weakness cuts both ways, as we would do well to remember. When Christianity is criticized as being the religion of ignorant bumpkins and bigots, we’re being tempted to draw our conclusions about religious doctrines based on how we feel towards “rednecks.” While that might have some validity with regards to the claim that Christianity makes better people of us, in a lot of cases it’s simply relationship-based assessment, and a fallacy.
The alternative, of course, is fact-based assessment, which should be obvious enough that I don’t need to belabor the point, so let’s move on.
Attribution vs. explanation
This is the old superstition vs. science dilemma, the fellow who says shoes are made by elves in a hollow tree, and then cites the existence of shoes as evidence that elves are real. When we are rationalizing an idea that does not truly correspond to external reality, we have trouble making the connection between real-world facts and the thing we’re trying to rationalize. It becomes necessary, therefore, to bolster our case by claiming (spurious) connections to the thing we’re proposing. Rather than explaining what we see in the real world, we simply attribute it to some factor we want to claim as true, in order to count it as evidence in our favor.
The wiser alternative here is to not be satisfied with mere attribution, and to insist on a genuine, scientific explanation: a series of cause and effect relationships that links the initial cause to the observed effect by means of detailed and analytically-predictable consequences.
Form vs. function
Another manifestation of rationalization vs. rational thinking is a tendency to observe the form of rational thinking without actually invoking the functions needed to reach rational conclusions. This occurs when we claim to be applying scientific tests that aren’t really scientific, or when we accuse our critics of fallacies that aren’t really what our critics are saying. Outwardly, we’re respecting the forms of rational thinking, but our application of the principles involved are too shallow and insincerely-applied to gain the full function of how these techniques are supposed to work. Naturally, the cure here is to apply the tools of rational thinking more rigorously.
That’s all I have time for right now. Feel free to suggest some other differences between rationalization and rational thought in the comments.