The Irrational Worm in the Rational Apple

I’ve been promoting rationality on the web for some time now. There is a good core rationalist moment that sticks to the basics of identifying and eliminating logical fallacies, cognitive biases and other barriers to clear thinking. However, many groups of skeptics and rationalists have been co-opted by those with some agenda that they are promoting with very irrational methods. Let me make a few points.

You are not rational if you…

  1. consider arguments contrary to your opinion to be insults
  2. respond to arguments with insults or sarcasm rather than with counter-arguments
  3. think participants in a discussion must be of a particular race, sex or ideology instead of simply being capable of presenting arguments
  4. create a false dichotomy by suggesting that any rational assessment of the strength/weaknesses of accusations of X is actually a defense of X.
  5. tell others what you have concluded they believe instead of asking them what they believe
  6. intentionally misrepresent someone’s position rather than interpreting their comments graciously

There is currently far too much irrational nonsense emitted from those claiming to be rational.

I’m calling it out when I see it from here on.

Rationality is Prior to Burden of Proof

Epistemic rationality is honestly positioning one’s degree of belief in a proposition to the degree that the balance of evidence for that proposition warrants. Epistemic rationality belongs to the individual epistemic agent.

Burden of proof is more of a social concept. If someone wants to convince members of a community a proposition that is incongruent with the current beliefs of that community, then, to accomplish that goal, he or she needs to take on the onus of presenting the arguments/evidence that will accomplish that.

Note that this assumes that the community values arguments and evidence. What could it mean to have a burden of proof where proof (read “convincing evidence” here), is not valued among epistemic agents. If the epistemic agents within a community hold that beliefs need not map to the balance of evidence, then the notion of burden of proof will be of no value to them.

So, what is logically prior? Epistemic rationality is prior to burden of proof. If a community thinks, to any degree, that they need not map their degree of belief in X to the degree that X is warranted by the confirming/disconfirming evidence, then they only foolishly inform those who would attempt to provide arguments/evidence for a position not their irrational own that they must take on the burden of proof.

Burden of proof is like the status of offense or defense in a football game. If you don’t respect the rules of football, or want to play football under the rules of tennis, you don’t have any right to suggest the other team must now play offense. Until you demonstrate a willingness to play by the rules of football, you don’t have any right to suggest who takes possession of the ball.

Rationality comes first. Only after you have committed to mapping your degree of belief to the degree of the confirming/disconfirming evidence can you suggest the other side has the burden of providing evidence/argumentation that might change your mind.

A Rational Dialogue

I’ve recently been engaged several debates on heated topics in which most participants consider themselves to be rational. Yet, many of these discussions end up with insults being thrown around.

I’d like to offer a few tips, based on my failures and successes, to keep the conversation civil.

Let me first list, from least civil to more civil, statements of disagreement. Let’s use the notion of “rationality/irrationality” as the concept we want to convey.

1. You are a f****** irrational fool!
(Expletives only evoke undesirable emotions.)

2. You are an irrational fool!
(Stay away from nouns of insult.)

3. You are irrational!
(This is stated as a permanent characteristic. Not good.)

4. You are acting/commenting irrationally!
(Better, but why not eliminate the “you”?)

5. Your position is irrational!
(Better yet, but stop yelling.)

6. Your position is irrational.
(Closer to civility, but you’ll need to add reasons.)

7. Your position is irrational as demonstrated by Y and Z.
(Good, but we can make this softer.)

8. It seems irrational to hold X as demonstrated by Y and Z.
(Fine, but “demonstrated” is merely how you perceive it.)

9. It seems irrational to hold X after considering Y and Z.
(Great! But can we now use a more Socratic method?)

10. Isn’t it irrational to hold X after considering Y and Z?
(Great progress, but I think we can do more.)

11. Wouldn’t some consider X to be irrational after considering Y and Z?
(Now we’ve allowed our interlocutors to address the argument without feeling the need to defend their identity. And we’ve innocuously invited them to look at the issue from outside their perspective. Now let’s just add a final few softeners.)

12. Is it possible that some might consider X to be a bit irrational after considering Y and Z?
(Excellent! The apex of civility!)

I’ve written this primarily as a reminder to myself to stay civil and rational.

500 Witnesses?

There is an old book that claims some man claimed that 500 individuals claimed they saw Jesus resurrect. (1 Corinthians 15:6)

Imagine I go before a judge, and he asks for my alibi on the night a store was robbed of 5 televisions matching the 5 televisions found in my garage. I show the judge a letter from an unnamed and unreachable friend (the gospel authors are unknown) who affirms that I was playing video games with him the night in question, and that there are also 500 other unnamed witnesses who would also have been able to make the same claim…had they not died last week.

But it gets worse. Here you have 500 alleged witnesses of a man resurrecting from the dead, and not one of them bothered to write it down or report it to people who could write it down? All the gospels were written years after the alleged resurrection. There was no literate person among these 500 who allegedly saw what should have been the most amazing event of their lifetimes? Really? Then you have one man years later claiming to have been a witness finally writing it down, and tossing out, not a list of names to contact for validation, but merely the number 500 as “evidence” for the resurrection? Come on.

This reference to 500 “witnesses” is still being thrown out by Christians as “evidence” of the resurrection. And this is being done under the noses of apologists who could, but don’t, point out the clear vacuity of the claim.

You can’t claim to have a rational ideology when you fail to correct such nonsense committed under your noses.

Thoughts on the use of “F*** You”

How has the most intimate act of affection also come to reflect extreme hatred and contempt? The utterance “F*** you!” or flipping someone off with a middle finger is now the go-to response when wanting to indicate your anger or hatred. And I’ve been guilty of it too. But I’ve never been comfortable with it. The sex act is one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced, and referencing that thing of beauty when wanting to insult someone seems not just a little odd. I’ve been reflecting on the possible reasons why the phase and the gesture referring to this thing of wonder has become so pervasively applied in contexts of contempt.

The origin seems simple enough. There was a shameful time when pillaging and rape were tactics of war. You raped someone for whom you had no affection out of contempt for them and the men of their culture. This atrocious act was frequently practiced for millennia.

So are those that invoke the sex act to insult others potential rapists? Continue reading