Where are the lines drawn on what is rational and what isn't?

In another thread the subject came up {again}m of whether religious beliefs are rational. I’d like to address this in a more general way about the human condition.

Personally I conclude that all people have a belief system that is made up of their intellect and their emotions, and all consist of some degree of faith.
Fairly often in the human condition , the emotions and the intellect don’t agree and the individual , probably unconsciously, makes a choice on what they believe , what they justify, what they’re willing to accept.

I’m equating faith with trust. Generally, people trust what their pastor is telling them and what their parents tell them, and trust that what most people seem to believe is true, is true. We trust certain sources , not always because of verification, or a record of accuracy.
Ad to this that emotion and our personal bias has an influence on who and why we trust.

We don’t have the time to personally verify each bit of information that comes our way so we rely on trust and accept certain information as accurate without verification.

In another thread Kimstu made this point.
“However, arbitrary and unsupported hypotheses generally don’t qualify as “rational” just because they’re unfalsifiable.”

which I agree with, but is it acceptable and rational to hold a presently unfalsifiable hypothesis until the evidence makes it clear one way or another? IMO , it’s irrational to hold hypothesis as hard fact when it hasn’t been or can’t be proven , but not necessarily irrational if you can acknowledge that it’s a theory in progress.

IOW, “this is what I believe right now” , allowing for growth and changing beliefs, is not irrational.
OTOH “My belief that has no evidence is hard fact” is irrational.
That would mean, religious beliefs are not accurately referred to as irrational , because the deciding factor is whether the believer recognizes them as a work in progress, which IMO , a lot of believers do.

I’d also note that the same principle holds people who have extreme positions on a variety of subjects as irrational, including what we might call fundamentalist atheists.

I can’t agree that a refusal to believe in a supreme being without evidence can be irrational. If it were, then we all have an infinite number of irrational beliefs because there is no end to the things that we can imagine for which there is no evidence: a tea cup circling the Sun opposite the earth, an invisible flower pot on my head, the fact that everything in my house is swapped each night for an identical item.

That is not to say that atheists can’t be irrational, but not believing in something for which there is no evidence is about as rational as you can get.

100% agree with Fumster. The default, rational position is that there is no gods, until evidence of them is put forth.

I’m also sick and tired of these generic, deistic arguments against atheism.

The vast majority of believers out there are NOT deists, they do not believe in a prime mover god that no longer interacts with the universe. Their beliefs are very particular, and for most rely on one specific book of bronze age mythology - much of which we understand to be precisely that - mythology, and no different than any other human faith based nonsense that has come before and after.

That, I think, is the issue. The vast, vast majority of believers that I have encountered are absolutely NOT willing to consider for even a second that their religion is bogus. And they get vehement about it if I dare to question them in any way.

Yup. Mind you, the refusal to assume the existence of a deity unless and until there is empirical evidence for it is in itself making an unprovable assumption. Namely, it assumes that rationalist materialism—the type of mindset that says “I accept nothing without sufficient objective evidence and reasoning to back it up”—is the only correct approach to understanding reality.

And I’m certainly not saying it isn’t. I’m just pointing out that if in fact there is some non-rational, non-empirical mode of thought that does somehow supply some truth(s) about reality (via personal revelation or drug hallucinations or what have you), rationality and empiricism are intrinsically incapable of detecting that.

Maybe that’s what the OP is driving at? Saying “Based on a rationalist-materialist epistemology, the default rational position is to assume in the absence of any contrary evidence that there are no gods” is indeed totally rational.

But to say “I know FOR SURE that the default rational position is the only one that could POSSIBLY be true, and anyone who holds any other position is indisputably deluded” would be irrational.

Long story short, every worldview ultimately rests on one or more axioms that as far as we know are intrinsically unprovable and unfalsifiable. I don’t agree that that makes all such axioms equally “rational”, though.

The axiom that there is no valid way of understanding reality except via rationalist-materialist epistemology certainly seems to me, and to many other atheists, the most plausible and sensible such axiom that we could have. But there’s no denying that when it comes to absolute proof, our preferred axiom is no more provable than the axiom “A supernatural supreme being created the universe in a scientifically undetectable way” or any other arbitrary belief.

If they thought that they had more to lose than to gain by questioning their religion, would their refusal to do so be a rational decision?


I’d like to expand upon this a bit if you don’t mind.

The issue with non-empirical modes of thought is that we are fundamentally unable to convey them in an exact and repeatable manner to one another. That is why belief in them should not be considered part of rational thinking. It is logical to trust a scientific conclusion because there is an assumption that if challenged, one could be walked through the steps and experiments justifying that conclusion; and the results would be the same. That is the whole reason that rational, scientific thought is (currently) the only way to transmit information that we consider to be factual. It is the only way in which we can be certain that our personal experiences are part of a shared, external reality rather than the product of a delusion or personal bias. However, I do think that vehement denial on the side of the scientific con be counterproductive when dealing with people whose personal experiences are very real and important to them. Rather than a simple curt denial," There’s no such thing as X!" I prefer a statement like: " Currently there is no physical evidence for X that cannot be satisfactorily explained by other, well understood phenomena. Therefore, without *strong, objective, and verifiable evidence *to the contrary, we shall assume that X does not exist." The difference is more than just PR though. The former shows an adamant refusal to accept even the possibility of X, (no matter how ridiculous or plausible X may be), the latter explains the logical position of denial. True in conversation, simple denial is both powerful and expedient; but lacks, I think, the support of the philosophy that the believe may need to understand to avoid offense and foster understanding of critical thinking.


I didn’t say that at all.

Deciding you don’t believe in God because there is zero evidence is completely rational. I’m saying , as you noted, that atheists can be irrational.
An example, our fellow doper Der Trihs, recently said this again

which is fine as a personal opinion, but to continually insist this is true, when there is no objective way to establish it as fact steps into the irrational arena where emotion supersedes intellect.

The difference IMO, is pulling some idea out of thin air , and being part of a society and growing to believe what your society , your intellectual and emotional environment, teaches as true. As I noted earlier, we come to accept things as true for many reasons other than our own investigation and verification. I don’t find it irrational for people to be influenced by a commonly held belief.

I agree, and repeat, I never said that.

I think we can break down belief systems into specific details and argue that certain details are irrational. For example, the belief that the earth is 6000 years old can be called irrational when it’s maintained in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary , and was basically an arbitrary belief pulled out of someone’s imagination to begin with.
There are different factors when weighing the balance of intellect and emotion in belief systems. What hard facts, evidence , do we have available? How available is that evidence? How many people have been exposed to it?
I think when people who claim to worship the truth will to easily avoid or deny strong evidence then we’re talking leaning away from the intellectual side into the emotional side, and being irrational. If you’re seeking the truth, why would you feel the need to rationalize evidence away in favor of tradition and dogma?

The other side of that coin is atheists who believe religion is an evil blight on humanity and we’d all be better off without it. They embrace that belief more on the emotional side than the intellectual.

and to add another wrinkle , because of the balance of intellect and emotion that varies from person to person and issue to issue within an individual, I’m thinking that there is some sort of sliding scale of rationality.

If you trace it back, the word “rational” comes from the same Latin root as the words “ratio” and “ration”. In its original conception, the idea of rationality and sound reason carried with it the idea of proper amounts and correct balance between multiple things. A rational person was expected to have some logic, some mysticism, some aestheticism, and some of many other things. Treating rationalism as synonymous with exclusive acceptance of materialism or scientific findings or logical positivism is the result of a re-definition of the word “rationalism” that took place over the centuries.

I understand. I’ve had that experience a time or two myself. I could be wrong but it could be in what questions are asked and what is challenged. A particular point of interest for me is the origin and nature of the Bible. I think as more and more facts become common knowledge we’ve seen a shift in how the Bible is perceived in Christianity. Fewer and fewer people see it as literally “God’s word, as if he wrote it himself”

I think if asked , “Can you be 100% certain your beliefs are correct, that God exists and we continue on in spirit after we die?” we’d get quite a few people who acknowledge that it’s what they believe and it works for them , but they can’t really be 100% certain.

I’ll take it a step further and say that perhaps it’s a better step to pursue that acknowledgment, that yes, I may be wrong but this is the belief and path I’ve chosen, rather than try to take them from belief to disbelief.

I think we see a lot of atheists who already acknowledge that while they don’t believe, and don’t imagine they ever will, they at least intellectually acknowledge that it’s possible they are incorrect and that there is something out there , beyond the physical that we have yet to explore and understand.

I’m not familiar with that etymology, although I’m not saying you’re wrong; I always understood that the Latin word rationalis was simply derived from the ordinary meaning of ratio as “reason”. So rationalis just meant “having reason”. But it would be interesting to see a cite for the more complex etymology that you describe. In any case, though, for the sake of avoiding confusion I think we’d better continue to use “rational” in the modern sense.

Here we might find it helpful to distinguish between concepts that we might call “rational in the abstract” and “socially rational”. I completely agree that since human beings function within societies, there is a sense in which it could be called rational (or at least less irrational) to subscribe to an arbitrary belief with no evidentiary support if it has become part of the social structure and has been believed by many people.

There’s no question that people who believe in the resurrection and godhead of Jesus and spend Sunday mornings in church singing and praying in accordance with that belief are in some sense more rational than people who believe that the aliens communicating with them through the toaster oven have instructed them to prostrate themselves before the nearest fire hydrant with sunflowers stuck in their buttcrack.

However. If we artificially strip all the social context from those two beliefs and look at them simply as arbitrary unproven claims, there isn’t really that much to choose between them in terms of rationality:

*“Supernatural supreme being transforms into a human in ways that violate all known laws of physics and biology, spends a few decades demonstrating supernatural events and dictating divine revelation, undergoes post-mortem re-transformation into fully supernatural form and thereby guarantees for future believers an eternal existence also completely at odds with all known physics and biology” *


“Highly advanced extraterrestrials detect human life on earth and open contact with one human individual by means of technology not currently understood, and for reasons not currently understood request said individual to perform an act that is socially ludicrous but violates no physical laws.”

Geez, when you look at it like that, the sunflower-sporting hydrant-adorer seems pretty sane and moderate in his peculiar ideas, doesn’t he?

My point being merely that generations of social acceptance may make one arbitrary unsupported assumption more socially rational than another, but doesn’t make it more intrinsically rational considered on its own intellectual merits.

I agree, with the caveat that we don’t all start from a neutral position so the default doesn’t apply all that often. . We are still a product of our environment and as such I don’t automatically see people believing what they are taught as true, what is supported as true by almost all their peers, as irrational.

I sometimes point out that without Icarus we would never had had the Wright brothers. The seed of progress and discovery is born first in the mind and imagination.


I thought that’s what I said.

and neither do I. I don’t think the term rational is just one thing or stagnant. There are lots of factors to consider.
If you start from a place of accepting what you’ve been told by your superiors and peers is true, as true, that is not really irrational. If you are exposed to repeated information that what they told you is in fact not true , and yet you stubbornly refuse to consider the new information and cling to falsehoods, then you’ve crossed a line from intellectual, to more emotional {I fear rejection and negativity by my peers so I’ll ignore and explain away these facts} and that can be called irrational.
What’s interesting to me , is that by these guidelines , basic belief and non belief can be equally rational. You need more details to make a fair judgement of what is rational.

Interesting. IMO, it’s simply reasonable to acknowledge that we still have much to understand about the how and why of our universe. It’s perfectly rational to have an opinion and a preferred approach, but is it rational to shut out other possibilities after we acknowledge our limitations.

It seems to me that mankind has been slowly , and arguably steadfastly, toward a better understanding of our world and how we coexist on it together. Science deals with certain factors , but others, more on the emotional and philosophical side of our humanity are dealt with by religion and philosophy. Yet that is a very real undeniable component of our humanity. I don’t think we can declare intellect rational and emotion irrational. I think it is in how we balance the two that we find rational or irrational.

[quote=“cosmosdan, post:8, topic:632164”]

so anything that you learn from your society that is a commonly held belief is by default not irrational?

so the belief that you get 72 virgins when you die a martyr is rational because its a commonly held belief?

Santa flies around the world delivering presents to children in a single night?

when you die you go to heaven or hell based on (depending on your religion) the foods you eat/don’t eat, the way you pray, or your ability to claim some quite possibly fictional person as your savior?

disease is caused by demons?

the sun orbits the earth?

all of these things are or were at one time perfectly normal beliefs, commonly believed has nothing to do with rationality. you may be normal in your society but that still makes you irrational.

[quote=“Critical1, post:13, topic:632164”]

That’s not quite what I took from that discussion.It’s more along the lines of: " Since everyone believes in Santa, it is socially rational to put up your stocking along with everyone else. The repercussions from not going along with the groups ludicrous, but harmless cultural norm outweigh the social benefits of standing your ground. If you want to change the norm, you work from within on a social level.

This not the same thing in regards to important matters of fact, or when irrational behaviour is becoming detrimental to society as a whole.

The Latin word ratio is the noun derived from the older verb reor, which originally meant just “calculate/reckon” in a numerical sense. However in much the same way “calculate” is used in English to describe a more general process of thinking (e.g. “a calculating person”), reor was used more abstractly to mean “think, suppose, believe”. Nevertheless, ratio retained its original “calculating” sense much longer, a sense which shows up in, e.g., the English words “ratio” and “rate”.

We have Cicero to thank for giving it the more explicit meaning of “reason” when he translated Greek philosophical ideas using the relatively thin Latin vocabulary. So yes, ratio = “reason”–but to be clear, this is because he explicitly defined it as the mental faculty of thinking in general. Rationalis = “rational”–the adjective derived from the noun–seems to come strictly after this definition (at least I haven’t found a pre-Cicero citation other than Auct. ad Her.).

The big difference between faith and science is verifiability.

Nothing becomes accepted as a scientific truth unless is can be verified by objective evidence and has been tested. You might personally choose to accept a scientific fact on trust but you don’t have to - you have the option of doing the experiment yourself.

Religious faith doesn’t present that option. Religion asks you to believe things which you cannot verify even if you want to.

Two things here. Like most folks here, I was taught since middle school that science is defined by the fact that all its conclusions are backed by experiments which can be replicated by anyone. As I grew up, I accepted the basic idea, and shared roughly the position you outline here, that empirical thinking is better because it can be replicated, while rival ways of thinking don’t have that advantage. That’s roughly where I stood when I entered college. Later on, after I had learned more, I concluded that is not actually the case, and that at least a great deal of what is advanced as science is not and cannot actually be demonstrated by repeatable experiments. This conclusion came partly from classes that I took on the history and sociology of science and mathematics, and partly from direct observation once I began participating in actual research.

So for a person like me, who observes that much of the knowledge that gets advanced as empirical knowledge actually isn’t, wouldn’t it be rational to conclude that empirical thought is not superior to other modes of thought by reason of repeatability?

Second is simply the fact that different people who claim to be using rational, scientific thought do not arrive at the same conclusions. Skeptics make much of the fact that mystics have a wide variety of mystical experiences. But imagine for a moment that we could disregard temporal difficulties and gather together in one room Voltaire, Karl Marx, Sir Francis Galton, Sigmund Freud, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, B. F. Skinner, Ayn Rand, Philip Wylie, and Richard Dawkins. They would all agree that religion is wrong, but they’d barely agree on anything else. Yet all would claim that their worldview is based solely on rational thought. If the conclusions derived from rational thought are guaranteed to be part of a shared reality, then why are they so variable? (Of course some of the differences can be explained by new research developments, but massive differences still arise among those with access to the same information.)

We do it all the time from the beginning. We accept what we are taught in school as factual without personally checking it out. We do so because we put our faith in our society. We accept it when the news tells us there was an earthquake in Japan. Did men really land on the moon?
When I read “End of Faith” the concept that religious beliefs did not deserve any special respect or protected status really made sense to me, but what also makes sense is that we judge belief systems by the same standard , in an attempt to observe and understand how the human animal works. Clearly we are all a combination of intellect and emotion and both affect our belief system. Clearly we all apply faith in some way and there is no significantly separate category called “religious” faith. The question is , how do human belief systems operate? How are they formed and maintained? How and why do they change?

I think one error is to try and judge belief systems strictly by intellect or to assign intellect only to reason, rather than seeing reason as a judgement made by using both. I don’t the intellect and emotion aspects of our humanity can be completely separated and recognizing that is essential to judgement calls about what is or is not rational.

I don’t agree. I think judging rationality has something to do with the information you’re given and have access to. That does mean that in an advanced {and I use the term loosely} society , that has free access to lots of credible sources, a little more is required of people, than a far more restricted one. Then there’s the question of motivation and moral obligation. How much obligation does the average person have to explore and question the details of their belief system.

You mentioned some specifics of a particular religion. I absolutely think the details and specifics of belief can and should be questioned. The very act of social confrontation and conflict in the arena of ideas and beliefs is an essential part of growth and exploration. I have a good friend who goes to church every week. He likes to hear how the teachings of Jesus apply to our day to day life. Compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness. He rejects the idea that Jesus had to physically die for our salvation. I feel the same way.
Let’s back up a little to just the idea of God, a supreme being or force that created the universe , and the concept that some part of our consciousness, our soul for lack of a better label, survives our physical death.

No real evidence to believe that, only tradition and perhaps retold experiences that we have yet to explain. Isn’t there equally no evidence to shown none of it is true? Is there any evidence to show there was nothing before and will be nothing after this physical existence?
You can say the default “logical” position is to reject it, but it’s a little late for that in human existence isn’t it? If it’s not irrational to accept what you’ve been taught, then the possibility of God , is not irrational, unless, as I noted, you insist that you have some absolute knowledge that you do not have.

Hmmm. Such as? As a historian of science, I quite agree with you that the process of accumulating scientific knowledge has historically been very far from empirically flawless, and that even nowadays new results are surrounded by a lot of uncertainty.

But it does seem to me that the iteration of experiment/model revision/experiment/revision etc. does over time tend to produce more coherent theories and more replicable results (although of course not every result can be replicated by the average hobbyist in a basement lab). Can you specify some important counterexamples illustrating the “great deal of what is advanced as science” for which you claim this isn’t true?

Whoa whoa whoa whoa. They would?!? (Well okay, I expect Ayn Rand would, but I don’t rank either her understanding of science or her level of self-awareness all that high.) Do you really think that all or even most of the thinkers you named there really claimed that their worldviews were derived only from rational thought uncontaminated (or unenriched) by any other inputs? Got cites?

The only philosopher that I can think of who made anything like such a radical claim was Rene Descartes in his Discourse on Method, and I don’t think even he suggested that he had actually attained 100% pure uncorrupted rationality in his entire worldview, although of course he held that his “Method” could in theory get the user to that point.

Care to elucidate us on this non-empirical science you speak of?

I think I might have missed that class…