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October 06, 2003

Thinking in Circles

That's about the nicest thing I can say about Dinesh D'Souza's latest piece in the Wall Street Journal, although to use the word "thinking" is being rather generous. In it, he launches from a tirade against the (admittedly rather silly) "Bright" movement to one against rationalists in general. I'd link to the article, but it's available to subscribers only, and I'm not one - but Michele was kind enough to forward me a copy. Anyway, here we go, via the magic of excerpts...

Mr. Dennett, like many atheists, is confident that atheists are simply brighter -- more rational -- than religious believers. Their assumption is: We nonbelievers employ critical reason while the theists rely on blind faith. But Mr. Dennett and his fellow "brights," for all their credentials and learning, have been duped by a fallacy. This may be called the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, and it was first pointed out by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
I would only say that some atheists, those that have been presented the arguments for god and found them wanting and those that have been believers and revised said beliefs to atheism, are indeed more rational than religious folks in the area of belief in the supernatural. That said, I think we all have our own peculiar irrationalities; most of them just don't come attached with a list of orders and moral imperatives from a pixie in the sky or burning bushes that talk.
Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?

Kant isn't arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings simply will never know.

However, the argument that we can't know everything doesn't, in any way, imply that any given entity exists outside of our knowledge of such. At best, it implies that such might exist, while providing absolutely no means of knowing if that is true, since as Kant and D'Souza agree, we are bound by our five senses. Unfortunately, Kant asserting that a greater reality exists outside the range of our senses does not make it so - after all, how could he know of such a thing since it's beyond his measly human sensory devices?

While Kant's universal agnosticism looks pretty on paper, if followed it would reduce one to a blabbering ball of a man sitting in the corner, incapable of taking any action because we can't really know what is real, other than our own consciousness. It's a convenient and flawed escape hatch for a theist to use to justify his own desire to fail to abide by what his senses tell him. The bottom line is that we have to accept certain things as true in order to make sense of the experience of existence; the most basic of those things is that the world can be understood. Without that, we can do nothing, know nothing, and learn nothing.

The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.
OK, Dinesh, how does the theist know there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend? Because Kant implied it "might" be there?

Sorry, but no, as I've said - Kant suggests that to know such a thing is impossible, only that it might exist, thus allowing room for faith that it does. But that doesn't make your faith in your god any more rational than my faith in Binky the Magic Space Clown of Lovin' Goodness, or than Osama's faith in Allah, peace be upon him. All of those faiths are equally irrational - which is all we claim - based outside of reason, which you yourself have just said is incapable of comprehending the ultimate reality (nevermind the contradictions this entails, rocking, blabbering boy).

Your entire article, Dinesh, has just cemented what the Brights claim is true: Faith is separate from reason, and thus (trumpet fanfare)...irrational.

Tell me something I don't know.

Posted by Andy at 08:39 AM





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