“Logic and reason isn’t everything. Not everything in this world is rational. Not everything that we know in the world is known through logic and reason. Sometimes we have to use our intuition, and listen to our hearts. There are different ways of knowing than just reason and evidence.”
The thing is?
I actually think there’s a lot of truth to this.
And I still think it’s a terrible argument to make against atheism, skepticism, and/or science.
Let me explain.
Personally, I think a lot of people would benefit from a little more rational, evidence- based thinking in their love lives. It might stop them from making the same damn dumb mistakes over and over again, for one thing. But ultimately, decisions about love are made with the heart, not the head. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Sure, there are some commonly-accepted criteria that can be applied to art. Plus, the degree to which we appreciate art emotionally or rationally can depend on the art… as well as on the appreciator. And certainly our appreciation of art can be increased by a better understanding of its history or structure. But ultimately, art either moves you or it doesn’t. And when it does, the experience of being moved is not a rational process. It’s subjective.
And most artists will tell you that an essential part of the creative process is getting the rational part of their brain to shut up for a while. While the editing or modifying process often involves a critical, rational eye, the actual creation part of art comes largely from a non-verbal, non-linear, non-rational place. The experience of art is not primarily a rational one… for artist or for audience.
But have you noticed a pattern to these examples?
They’re all matters of opinion. They’re all matters of subjective experience.
None of them is concerned with trying to understand what is true. Not just what is true for us, personally, but what is true in the external world. The world we all share, as opposed to the ones in our own heads and hearts.
And these questions — the questions of what is true in the external world — are where logic and evidence leap to the forefront.
And intuition, especially, is a deeply imperfect form of perception and understanding. Yes, it can often be a powerful tool for making leaps and seeing possibilities we couldn’t even have imagined before. But it can also be a powerful tool for showing us exactly what we expect to see, and telling us exactly what we want to hear — regardless of whether what we expect or want are actually there to be seen and heard.
But when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the real world — not in the subjective world of our own feelings and experiences, but in the external world — there is very often a difference between what we think is true and what is true. An important, measurable difference.
And if we want to understand what’s true in the real world, we need to acknowledge, recognize, and correct for that difference. When we don’t, it’s disastrous. Think of all the people in history who “intuitively” knew that black people were mentally inferior to white people; who “intuitively” knew that mental illness was caused by demonic possession; etc., etc., etc. The human race’s track record of trying to answer non- matter- of- opinion questions about what is and is not true in the external world by “listening to our hearts” is a pretty abysmal one.
So if we’re trying to understand the external world, we need to be very, very careful to screen out bias and preconception as much as humanly possible. And the best way we have to do that is with logic, reason, and the rigorously careful gathering, examination, and analysis of the evidence.
Which — with its double-blinding, careful control groups (including placebo controls when appropriate), transparent methodology, replicability, falsifiability, peer review, etc. etc. — has specifically developed over the decades and centuries to do one thing: eliminate bias, preconception, and human error, as much as is humanly possible, in order to get the closest approximation of the truth that we can.
It’s true that the history of science is full of stories of scientists coming up with important insights and breakthroughs in irrational ways: through dreams, sudden revelations, etc. Yes, irrational inspiration can be an important part of the scientific process. But it’s an important first part. After all, the history of science is also full of scientists coming up with ideas through irrational inspiration that then turned out to be full of beans. (Nikola Tesla comes to mind.) You just don’t read about them as much.
Inspiration gives scientists ideas, points them in new directions. But they then need to test those ideas and directions. And they don’t do that intuitively. They do it using the scientific method: rationally, logically, and rigorously.
So what does all this have to do with atheism?
Here’s what. The question of whether God does or does not exist is not a question of opinion. It is not a question of subjective experience. It is not a question that can be answered, “Well, maybe that’s not true for you, but it’s true for me.”
And therefore, it is not appropriate to use irrational, emotional, intuitive ways of knowing to try to evaluate whether the God hypothesis is accurate, or plausible, or the best explanation for the current evidence.
You can find out whether you’re really in love by listening to your heart. You can’t find out how to predict tornados, or how HIV is transmitted, or whether eating beef increases the risk of getting colon cancer, by listening to your heart. And the God hypothesis is not in the first category. It’s in the second.
Don’t believe me? Don’t believe that the rational scientific method is a demonstrably better way to understand the real world than the intuitive religious method? Let’s look at the results.
Yes, of course there are unanswered questions and ongoing debates on the frontiers of science. No scientist would argue otherwise. But there are basic fundamental realities about the world that we now know — as well as we can possibly know anything — that we didn’t know, say, five hundred years ago, or even a hundred. Science doesn’t tell us the absolute truth about reality… but it gives us a better and better approximation of it all the time.
Now. The intuitive, religious way of knowing the world? How has that worked out? How has that increased our information and understanding of the real, external world?
Not so much.
You’d think that, after thousands of years of religions intuitively gathering knowledge about the world, we’d have… well, more knowledge. Better techniques for praying; more accurate prophecies; something. At the very least, you’d think we’d have come up with a method for determining which religious claims are more likely to be correct. We don’t. All we have is a different set of opinions than we used to, modified to suit the culture or sub-culture that holds them.
And we can’t.
This is the point Ingrid keeps making. If there really were an all- or nearly- all- powerful God who intervened in the world, it would not be subtle. We’d know about it. We would see laws of nature visibly violated on a fairly regular basis; we would see prayers visibly answered; we would see followers of one religion doing visibly better than followers of every other religion.
And we don’t.
The “God’s existence or non-existence is a question beyond evidence or reason” trope is really just another way of saying, “I believe in God, even though there’s no good evidence for it.” And the increasing abstraction of God into what is basically an intellectual concept with no discernible effect on the real world — or the belief in a God who really is all-powerful and interventionist but who, for no apparent reason, goes to great pains to conceal his power and interventions… well, those are really just ways of hanging onto a belief in God even though the concept has become untenable.
The reality is that we do not see the effects of God on the physical world, in any way that we can recognize and document and agree on. And the best explanation for that is not that God is unknowable, or abstract, or in hiding. The best explanation for that is that God does not exist.
And the world, in my opinion, would be a sad, dull place without irrationality. I have tremendous value for the sides of life that are fundamentally irrational. Love and art, absurdity and sentiment, passion and humor: all of these make life worth living. I would hate to live in a world where nobody hung on to the stuffed animal they had when they were a kid; where nobody drove for two hours to take a midnight hike in the woods, just because it seemed like fun; where nobody ever dressed up as a traffic cone and ran into the street chasing cars. I don’t want to live on Vulcan.
But I don’t want to live in the Middle Ages, either.
And I don’t want to live in a world where this intuitive “knowing” is generally accepted as a perfectly good way to answer questions about what is and is not true in the real world.
I care about reality. I think reality is interesting — way more interesting than anything we could make up. I want to understand it, as best I can with my puny Earthling brain. I want to live in a world where we have a good, road-tested, ever-improving method for figuring out what is or is not true about reality.
Which includes the question of whether God does or does not exist.
Some of the ideas in this piece were inspired by — not to say stolen outright from — Ebonmuse’s piece on Daylight Atheism, The View From the Ground. Thanks, dude.