[This is primarily a talk I gave at a Vancouver Skepticamp recently, with some expansion/clarification at the end in response to some feedback I received]
I’d like to talk about how we use the word ‘rational’ in everyday conversations, and how we use it in skeptic/atheist/freethinker circles. I don’t consider anything I say here to apply to academic disciplines, as they are usually pretty good about operationalising their definitions (or should be, at the least).
I think ‘rationality’ is a profoundly problematic word, as used in the vernacular, and I’d like to encourage you all to drop it from your vocabulary. Now, before ye get all het up and start acting irrationally, hear me out.
In a recent article in Salon, Jeffrey Tayler goes on quite the tirade against Reza Aslan, and Aslan’s position that people who criticise Islam for what it says in the Koran are simply doing criticism wrong. Tayler, in a magnificent example of “Oh yeah?! Let me demonstrate exactly how correct you are!”, proceeds to sift out quotes from the Koran. I’m not exactly sure what Tayler is attempting to do, but I (for one) try to make an effort to understand what I’m criticising before committing it to print.
I’m going to deconstruct Tayler’s article here, and try to illuminate the various errors that he’s making.
I’ve written a number of posts on the problems of Intelligent Design, and how it’s merely a cover for Creationism, but the problems go deeper than that. Functionally, its proponents pretend that they have ‘nothing in particular’ in mind when they argue for a designer, and under that cover, they attempt to shoe-horn Creationism into the class-rooms of North America.
Intelligent Design masquerades as a ‘scientific theory’ about how human life originated and evolved over time, and its proponents claim that it’s entirely distinct from Creationism, an obvious lie when you review the origin of Intelligent Design. There are, however, other ways to demonstrate this lie.
There was an article written recently in The Telegraph, a British paper, discussing a statement by Lady Hale, the UK Supreme Court Deputy President, that there should be some sort of “conscience clause” put into law to protect religious folk who wish to exercise their beliefs, and not be at risk of losing their jobs over it. On the face of it, this seems like an entirely reasonable suggestion.
But, with a bit more analysis, it’s complete tripe.
How we argue with people sends signals to those around us. We are socially signalling the kind of person we are, and giving them cues as to whether or not they want to engage with us. This is, I think, an important point in rhetoric and persuasion, and can determine how we approach an argument. We can, of course, choose to remain ignorant of the signals that we send (thus sending the signal that we hold the people around us in contempt), or we can go too far and focus too much on ‘how’ the argument is presented such that the content is diluted to nothing.
An example of the former is a tweet by Secular Outpost (@SecularOutpost):
This is, frankly, sending up a flare that displays to all and sundry “I am a giant asshole, and I am not here for constructive conversation, but to have fun at the expense of those around me”. Disagree? Alright, let me walk you through it. Continue reading
The ‘watchmaker analogy‘ has been around for quite some time (about 209ish years by my count), and it was refuted shortly after it’s explication (in fact, Paley was refuted by Hume before Paley was born). Several folk have gone after it, in a variety of ways but the damned thing just keeps showing up. To be fair, it’s not that the argument won’t die, it’s that people ignorant of it’s failure simply won’t stop trotting it out, as if restating it over and over again somehow means that the previous refutations didn’t happen.
Quite recently, Fazale Rana (a member of Reasons to Believe) directed me to his claim that “Kai ABC Proteins Re-invigorate the Watchmaker Argument for God’s Existence” with the invitation to ‘explain how is reasoning is faulty’.
Ask and thou shalt receive.