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Posted by on Aug 25, 2008 in intellectual black holes, problem of evil, reason | 34 comments

Jamie’s latest email

Jamie writes:

[quoting Stephen] Many religions, cults, etc. are designed – or, more accurately, have evolved – to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, it’s almost impossible to reason your way out again.

If what I’m saying is true — that the worldview (intellectual humanism or whatever) in which you are operating is a religion/cult/philosophical-system — then you, by your own definition, are in an intellectual black hole. You have a self-sealing pattern of thought which locks you in. You can’t see that what I’m saying is true, just like I can’t see that what you are saying is true. You are a true believer.

To answer your question, religion can be defined as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”, which doesn’t necessarily mean “worship” in the liturgical sense. And it seems to me that you ascribe supreme importance to logic and reasonableness. For better or worse, I would say that I use reason and logic as a tool (though perhaps I don’t use it well!), but I ascribe supreme importance only to God/Jesus. I think Rev. Dr. Incitatus got the point I was trying to make in his post on your page.

I get the sense that our dialogue is coming to a close. Thank you again for being so generous with your time. I hope that my perspective has given you blog fodder or arguments for your book if nothing else. I really do appreciate your thoughts and have already ordered one of your books.
–jamie

Stephen now quickly responds:

Jamie, I don’t say reason is of supreme importance. I think it very important, but other things are at least as important, such as compassion, morality, etc. etc.

So, even by your revised definition, reason is still not my religion. Nice try though!

As for your suggestion that I am the one in the intellectual black hole (which I sort of predicted you’d say, of course), well, let’s go step at a time.

We both agree that reason is important (if not of supreme importance) and agree it is a very useful tool for getting at the truth, right?

Yet you insist on not applying reason to a specific subset of your beliefs – just because those beliefs tell you not to (rather, they encourage you to “have faith” – you must just believe).

That kind of view, I suggest, is a hallmark of cults – and of a rather insidious sort of mind-control. I am sure you will recognise that any, say, New Age cultist who agreed to turn their critical faculties off when it comes to the beliefs of the cult has fallen into an intellectual black hole, right?

But that puts you in one too, right? Perhaps you will agree.

Question is, why do you suppose I am also in such an intellectual black hole? After all, I am not the one sealing off a particular set of beliefs and insisting they not be assessed for truth in this way (just because they tell me not to!) am I? Hey, I even subject my reliance on reason to critical scrutiny!

34 Comments

  1. The difference is, given evidence to the contrary, most atheists would abandon their view in favour of another. So I’d say it’s totally untrue to say that we’re locked into the view that there is no God. We hold that view because that is what all the available evidence (or lack thereof) points to. I’d also disagree with your definition of religion. Looking after my children is of supreme importance to me – that does not classify it as a religion (and if it does I want tax-free status! 😉 ). If you say you ascribe supreme importance only to God/Jesus then I can only assume you have no children yet.

  2. BTW, why is the dialogue coming to a close? I am finding it interesting and it’s nice to see a courteous exchange between opposing views ;)From the atheist side I’d say there are plenty of responses left to give.

  3. Yes I am very happy to keep going, Jamie, if you are…

  4. Not to make Jamie’s arguments for him, but I would ask what precisely you mean by, “I even subject my reliance on reason to critical scrutiny!”

  5. I mean I ask – how do I know reason is truth sensitive, etc.? I can see where your going with this (there’s a “leap of faith” involved in reasoning). We can go there if you like, but might be better if I do a bigger post in a day or so.

  6. Stephen, Jamie is there not a slight mismatch here in equating reason with a religion, rather than religion without the article. Christianity is a religion just as Modified Newtonian Dynamics is a theory in physics.

  7. Jamie,You say: “To answer your question, religion can be defined as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”, which doesn’t necessarily mean “worship” in the liturgical sense. And it seems to me that you ascribe supreme importance to logic and reasonableness. For better or worse, I would say that I use reason and logic as a tool (though perhaps I don’t use it well!), but I ascribe supreme importance only to God/Jesus. I think Rev. Dr. Incitatus got the point I was trying to make in his post on your page.”I think a more careful reading of the post by Stephen that you quote would show that the proper analogy is:Faith is to God as reason is to TruthIf you want to argue that Stephen is in fact caught up in his own religion, then by his arguments it seems that the ‘supreme importance’ slot is clearly held by Truth (or maybe Knowledge of the Truth?) and reason is a tool to get there.Thanks for your time.

  8. It would be helpful if Stephen, Jamie, and the other participants in this discussion defined more precisely what they mean by “TRUTH”.It constantly crops up here, and on other threads, as a Humpty Dumpty word meaning whatever the user has in mind without making their favoured meaning explicit.I find myself constantly asking, with Pontius Pilate, “what is truth?”

  9. I agree with that last comment. People hunting for the truth use reason, logic, and evidence to support any claims they make. Religious people often allow their own faith to exceed any kind of justification that it may be built upon. This is unreasonable, and it is the difference between Stephen as a philosopher trying to question the world using reason, logic, and evidence to justify what he says, and a religious person being sucked into a “black hole”. Good grief.

  10. I meant the comment before that!

  11. I don’t think there’s any disagreement in this discussion about what is meant by “true” or “the truth”.Both Stephen and Jamie mean the everyday, ordinary meaning of the terms. When a man asks his wife “Is it true? Have you been cheating on me?” everone understands what he means by “true”.It makes no more sense for us to demand a definition of “truth” in this context than for the wife above. Lets not be sidetracked by pedantries.

  12. Stephen: The examples you list (compassion, morality) would be subject to your continuum of reasonableness, correct? Therefore, reason is more important because it is the standard by which you judge. For ex., if you did not think a moral choice was reasonable you probably wouldn’t make that choice.So my question is what do you hold to be supremely important? What is the thing against which all of your ideas are filtered? I postulate that it is reason.Emile and Anticant postulate that it is truth, I think. But I’d say that you would even subject truth claims to reason, again making reason more important.So if reason if even more important than truth then reason is your god. And if reason is a god, then why isn’t that a religion?My head hurts from thinking. I got the impression from Stephen’s posts and others too that all had been said. I’m happy to continue the discussions…

  13. I’m a bit mystified by the objection to labeling reason religion, if that’s what Jamie wishes to do. It seems somewhat cosmetic. The question simply becomes which religion holds legitimacy with regard to the observed world.On that score, reason is going home with the trophy every time, isn’t it?The definition of religion simply presents another set of perambulatory goal posts, imho.

  14. A slight problem is that reason may be God in a metaphorical sense, but religion is something which is taken literally. Sure, many atheists may claim to experience the world in almost a religious way, to revere nature and science and the universe as something truly amazing. But they are aware that the experiences they sense come to them through natural means, that any religious feeling is simply that- a feeling alone. Religion surely is a thing based on supernatural grounds, a thing which cannot be justified, a feeling without thought or explanation.1 thing- Why do you assume that Stephen puts reason above all other things? I mean, he probably doesn’t put it above human life, etc etc. But I suppose whatever he would say he puts it below, you would argue that he came to such a conclusion through reason. So that is clearly a silly theory, as it seems to be irrefutable :S.2- Why is something which is more “important” necessarily a religion?3- I’ve never heard anyone define religion quite as you do. How odd. :S4-I’d like to know how you measure this “importance”? Surely different kinds of things are important in different and incomparable ways?5- WHAT IS A GOD?I mean, is YOUR definition of a God right? Think of all the innumerable Gods in history. Gods, angels, demi-gods, saints… What about religions with many gods? Were they all equally important? Cos if they weren’t, surely they don’t count as gods?

  15. Jaime,How can you or I know what is or is not true? Obviously, human beings have an enormous capacity to fool themselves and others as to what is true. I may be fooling myself and you may be fooling yourself. So how can either of us know whether or not we are fooling ourselves? Our only mechanism to evaluate whether something is true or not (and this of course comes with a degree of certainty) is by recourse to reason, i.e., evidence and critical thinking. This does not mean reason (or reasons) is “my god”. Rather, it just means that I appreciate this is the mechanism or process by which we as human beings can evaluate whether our views have any substance. We all do this — to varying extents — in our normal, everyday lives.

  16. I know, I know, this is off the current topic. But guess who shows up at the James Randi forums?Though to be fair, they did bring up his website first…

  17. We need reason to survive. So that we don’t walk under a bus and get squished. So it is reasonable to trust reason. But then this is reasoning in itself, and is then circular. However, reason helps us to survive, and connects us with knowledge of the world and how it works. So surely, you have to accept that reason has a definite and justifiable importance to us, or else everything is otherwise meaningless?It seems to me that anyone more or less would say that reason is quite reasonable. You yourself said you use reason as a tool. So what are you disputing? The amount of importance in which Stephen may apparently or allegedly place in reason? I mean, is there a limit? :S Such things can’t really be judged, can they? :SWe all use reason every day. We need it; it is a real thing. I don’t get the point you’re trying to make. Like tha other guy pointed out, it seems pretty redundant seeing as even if it were up against religion (God forbid!) it’d clearly go “home with the trophy every time”.

  18. Hi Reynold – so that’s where he went. I was wondering…Weird. He’s still peddling the same old crap, despite it having been very patiently and carefully taken apart and revealed to be baloney. I was hoping for more…

  19. Yes, by “truth” I just mean the way things actually are, rather than e.g. the way we would like them to be, or believe them to be, etc.which may be different. We don’t need a philosophical theory just yet, do we?

  20. Bertrand Russell said that a pedant is someone who cares more about accuracy than other people. I’m happy with that. If it’s “pedantic” to ask for terms used in philosophical [or any other] discussions to be as clearly and accurately defined as possible, I’m content to be pedantic.If it were true that everyone understands what other people mean by the terms they use, there would be no point in these debates.

  21. Jamie,my question for you would be, (the objective validity of religion aside), does religion work? Beyond the threat of hell and the “gift” of heaven, is religion useful?My thinking is that, it’s not so much the case that Reason is necessarily true, but that it works. Surely some people have a certain faith and dogmatic view of reason, and I can see how in this way it fills the role as God (in one’s opinion anyway). However, one does not believe as such due to a consequence that would be received if you didn’t, (as in going to hell).So tell me Jamie:I understand that one may avoid speeding for the sake of the ticket, but the real reason for avoiding speeding has nothing to do with punishment and everything to do with safety. Following that, aside from avoiding punishment, what practical reason is there for believing in God? Does religion do something for humanity that we cannot do for ourselves without it? Personally I’m not so concerned about whether or not religion and religious language speaks objective truth; my question is, what does it do? What advantage does it give us?

  22. The James Randi Forum? Funniest thing about that link is that Sye describes himself as “scholar”. Of what?

  23. Stephen said that I’m in an intellectual black hole [IBH] because I’m defending from a religious perspective. My point with figuring out if reason was a religion is that it would then fall into the same IBH. I think that may be what Stephen was calling “going nuclear”. I was just trying to level the playing field. If he is saying that he is objective because he’s not in an IBH and that my claims are “silly” because I’m in an IBH then that doesn’t seem equal.

  24. Hi JamieYou say: Stephen: The examples you list (compassion, morality) would be subject to your continuum of reasonableness, correct? Therefore, reason is more important because it is the standard by which you judge. For ex., if you did not think a moral choice was reasonable you probably wouldn’t make that choice.My reply. Yes morality is subject to reason, but that doesn’t make reason supreme. Unlike Kant, I don’t think reason can ultimately underpin or justify morality. Reason can reveal e.g. contradictions in our moral beliefs etc. It can also reveal unacknowledged consequences of our moral beliefs. But it cannot conjure up our basic moral principles in the first place. They are primary. Reason necessarily plays a secondary role. So no, I don’t consider reason of supreme importance.You then say:Emile and Anticant postulate that [my supreme value] is truth, I think. But I’d say that you would even subject truth claims to reason, again making reason more important.So if reason if even more important than truth then reason is your god. And if reason is a god, then why isn’t that a religion?My response. As I say, reason is not of *supreme* importance to me. I have already illustrated that. Yes I apply reason – but why? Only because I believe it is our best route to the truth. So it turns out I value reason only because I value truth. So that makes truth a higher value for me.See – reason is neither my God nor my religion. It’s just that I, like you, think it very important, and rely on it constantly so far as trying to find out what’s true is concerned.You do too. You will even use it to support your religious beliefs if you think it can. But the minute reason looks like threatening your religious beliefs, well then, in effect, you stick your fingers in your ears and go “Nope, I am not listening – you can’t trust reason – it’s just another faith position!”Of course anyone can do that, to defend any belief, no matter how nuts it is.If I did it to defend belief in fairies, you’d think I was a nutter.So why do you make it here? It’s utterly mystifying.

  25. Andrew said “So tell me Jamie:I understand that one may avoid speeding for the sake of the ticket, but the real reason for avoiding speeding has nothing to do with punishment and everything to do with safety.”The Christian’s reason for not speeding is neither of those. The Christian’s reason probably won’t make sense without a whole other thread.The Bible says to obey the law of the land. And if God said it then the believer is obligated to do it.

  26. Hi Jamieno I am not saying religion is by definition an intellectual black hole. Some religious people do use reason and consider the arguments for and against, and think that reason supports what they belief. I have no particular problem with that (other, of course, than that I think they are mistaken.It’s the playing of the “but reason is a faith position too!” card that I object to. That’s just “going nuclear” (see link to “going nuclear” on my sidebar).

  27. “The Bible says to obey the law of the land. And if God said it then the believer is obligated to do it.”You highlight a prime example of where blind faith in scripture becomes somewhat problematic when it comes to our moral obligations.Never mind that, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is a suspiciously pro-Roman sentiment for a group originating among dissident Jews living under an unpopular Roman occupation (every religion must sacrifice a little of its narrative for survival, I suppose; natural selection favours flexibility and adaptation after all). But this sentiment also plays right into my accusation that faith can, more often than not, provide the perfect conduit for tyranny. “Your God said obey The Man, so shut up and hand over your women and your coin!”.At least the Christian Abolitionists were enlightened enough to see this interpolated piece of imperial-appeasing nonsense for what it was: a white card for oppressive regimes to do what the hell they want.

  28. Jamie : How do you answer my statement in the first comment here that it is my children that are of supreme importance to me? Surely that doesn’t make them gods or fatherhood a religion?I’m glad you are trying to define religion and work out exactly what it entails – I think that is an extremely important process – but I think your current definition is seriously flawed.

  29. Off topic,Stephen said,“I don’t think reason can ultimately underpin or justify morality.”This is a subject I’m very much interested in. Have you already posted on it (I had a quick skim through your archives, but there’s a lot there)? If not, do you plan to in the future?

  30. Jamie Self said: “The Bible says to obey the law of the land. And if God said it then the believer is obligated to do it.”So those Germans who obeyed Nazi laws and manned the gas chambers were right to do so as long as it was the law of the land?And Christian doctors should assist in legal abortions despite their having conscientious objections to dong that?

  31. Hello Dr Rev I – I might change my mind on this. But that’s my view currently. I devoted a chpt of The War For Children’s Minds to the topic.

  32. Anonymous said “So those Germans who obeyed Nazi laws and manned the gas chambers were right to do so as long as it was the law of the land?And Christian doctors should assist in legal abortions despite their having conscientious objections to dong that?”Now who’s not using reason? It would be an unthinking person indeed who did this.Rev. Dr. Incitatus “But this sentiment also plays right into my accusation that faith can, more often than not, provide the perfect conduit for tyranny.”Yes, it does — and historically the visible church has given us tons of examples. But then, so have secular governments.

  33. Thanks for the link Sam. What is Mark Vernon doing there?

  34. Jamie,“Yes, it does — and historically the visible church has given us tons of examples. But then, so have secular governments.”So you would agree that reason is a good antidote for tyrants then, secular or otherwise? After all, there is nothing remotely rational about any of the ideologies responsible for the horrors of the last few millennia.Stephen,“Hello Dr Rev I – I might change my mind on this. But that’s my view currently. I devoted a chpt of The War For Children’s Minds to the topic.”Cheers. I might just boost your book up my Amazon wishlist a little way just for that. My mind’s not made up either, but I’m erring towards the argument from natural selection that reason and morality are intrinsically linked. Even though I agree with Hume’s thesis that much of our moral code is instinctive, I think the instinct is merely a collection of short cuts for achieving the same ends that would be reached by reasoning along the lines of pragmatism and survival. Thus, altruism is partly instinctive, but it serves a deeply rational purpose inre survival.

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