Saturday, March 24, 2012

Logic and the Art of Reason Rallies

I teach an introductory logic class to high school students.  Each year, I have to explain to  a new group of students the difference between a valid argument and a sound argument.  
 A valid argument is on in which the conclusion must follow necessarily from the premises because the argument is framed correctly.  For the sake of determining validity, we grant conditional truth to the premises.  The goal in determining validity is not to decide if the argument is true, but only if it is valid. 
A really strong argument needs truth in order to be sound in addition to being valid.  My students can construct the best logical fortress in the world, but if their premises are not true, the argument collapses.

Arguments need to be valid and sound.
As I write this, the Reason Rally is in full swing unless the weather has hindered their plans. As the rally has raised the bar pretty high by claiming what appears to be exclusive rights to reasonableness,  I have been looking for thoughts from their leading lights that display valid thinking based on truthful premises.  I must admit, I am having a hard time with the material available.


“Goddamned annoying evangelical Christians. I’m beginning to feel like my long-standing personal policy of not intruding on their church services needs to be questioned, because man, is this ever arrogant and obnoxious…."  His advice?  "Calmly and politely take their rubbish arguments apart with much soft-spoken malice and cruelty… I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This gathering will certainly attract swarms of mindless parasites."
 My argument with P.Z. Meyer is not that his thinking is invalid; my argument is that his thinking is not sound.  Even if Christians are damned by a God he does not believe in, and are in fact annoying, arrogant, obnoxious, mindless parasites, it does not follow that their arguments for God are either invalid or unsound and deserve to be taken apart with malice and cruelty.  I have heard plenty of adjectives attached to the stars of  Jersey Shore, but if any of them say  2+2 =4, I wouldn't pick the claim apart with malice and cruelty. Neither soundness nor validity hinges on likability. 

So, let's grant that Christians can really be lousy people. Does that matter?  Surely P.Z. Meyer is aware that top notch Christian philosophers present perfectly valid arguments for God’s existence - and some of the people are even nice, if that helps.  In his post he links to a website offering Christian literature to the Reason Rally as well as a list of names of the authors who contributed. Here is the partial bio of just one of the authors, William Lane Craig:  
Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology...dual M.A.s from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham (England), and a D.Theol. from the University of Munich... taught Philosophy of Religion at Trinity... moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Dr. Craig pursued research at the University of Louvain.  
I get that Meyer doesn't agree with Craig, but calling him a mindless parasite with rubbish arguments is hardly the kind of language by which glowing homilies to reason are constructed.  Not a great publicity post for a Reason Rally. 


According to Yahoo News: “And while there are plenty of critics of atheism, CNN reports the only group to have officially registered for a competing spot of land to protest the rally is the Westboro Baptist Church, a group infamous for its picketing of funerals of American servicemen and servicewomen.”

CNN and Yahoo News got this story wrong by leaving out a crucial detail:  The Reason Rally invited WBC.  That’s right, in spite of being contacted by Christian philosophers and apologists who asked to be part of a reasoned discussion, the Reason Rally went out of its way to reject those overtures and pursue the most inflammatory, irrational Christian group they could find. They are inviting the weakest possible opponent to showcase the strength of reason.  Odd...  

This pursuit of the easy target is not out of line with past approaches by those connected with the Reason Rally.  Bill Maher, one of the featured guests at the rally, made a movie called Religulous which featured predominantly really unfair representations of genuine Christianity. If his film was all we had to go on, I suppose his conclusion might have been valid:
"The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people - by irrationalists - by those who would steer the ship of state, not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken." 
That's a very thoughtful analysis.  Wait - no, it's not. That film did absolutely no justice to the breadth and depth of Christian history and philosophy. I simply cannot find a way to make a purported celebration of Reason coexist with the decision to invite WBC and speakers whose analysis of faith is far more visceral than rational.  


 Richard Dawkins is the headliner for the rally.  In an interview with PBS Dawkins stated,
“Even if you are in some sense a determinist -- and philosophically speaking many of us may be -- that doesn't mean we have to behave as if we are determinists, because the world is so complicated, and especially human brains are so complicated, that we behave as if we are not deterministic, and we feel as if we are not deterministic -- and that's all that matters.”
So we are determined, but we don’t have to behave as if we are, which sounds like we aren't (?) Even while we deceive ourselves into thinking we are free – but wait, I can’t choose to deceive myself, because that’s determined, I guess – we can comfort ourselves with the idea that we at least feel free, and apparently that Noble Lie is all that matters.  

(To read more about Dawkins, follow this link to read about an event in 2008 in which he tried very hard to walk carefully through the ethical maze of vegetarianism, alas to no avail.)

My point is not to contrast irrational atheism with rational faith.  There are plenty of irrational people of faith, unfortunately, which is one reason I teach a logic class at a Christian school.  I merely intend to point out that no one owns the domain of rationality.  We can all be involved whether we claim faith or not.

Perhaps we could cover much more ground if we could agree that people from a huge range of worldviews have the ability to think rationally.  At the most basic level of reasonable discourse, we ask if the reasoning of an argument is valid.  

If the answer is "yes" - if conclusions logically follow from premises -  perhaps the debate can move more quickly to the soundness of the different premises contained in worldview systems.  If all parties are brave enough to look at themselves and their arguments honestly - and the ways in which they think - then we have nothing to fear from a pursuit of the truth.

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