Unsupported and Unsupportable Assumptions

Continued from What Does 'Irrational' Mean?.

Some people think that religious belief or belief in one or more gods is irrational. They might ask "What is rational about believing something for which there is no credible evidence?" (from the discussion of my post Why We Ought to Do Away with the 'Free Exercise' Clause).

Such a question clearly implies that the person asking it has made a number of assumptions regarding what justifies belief, what counts as evidence, what it is to be credible, etc. Let's say one of them is "You shouldn't believe anything for which there is no evidence." Try asking such a person what justification there is for that statement. They might simply snort and ask "What do you mean? I don't need to justify that - that's just the truth, plain and simple."

But what makes it true? How are we justified in believing that it's true? What evidence do we have to support the claim that we can only believe that for which there is evidence? Any attempt to answer what evidence we have to support the claim that we should only believe that for which there is evidence is going to lead us in a big ugly circle. It's just not going to work.

A slightly more clever person might say something like "Well, if something is true, then there must be evidence for it. That's why we should only believe that for which there is evidence." That's a nice try, but that doesn't cut it either. What's the justification for believing that if something is true, there must be evidence for it? Our slightly more clever person might say "Well, tell me something true for which there is no evidence." You can try almost anything you want - "It's wrong to kill people for no reason," or "God exists," or "There are twelve gods reigning over the earth." Something of that nature.

The reply will be something like "That's not true," "You don't know that that's true," or "How do you know that's true?" But these responses beg the question - the person you're debating is already assuming that you should only believe something you have evidence for. Her argument is circular.

Another way to think about this problem is simply to think about what sort of answer a person could ever give that would prevent you from asking "And what is your justification for that?". Even if you agree with something, even if someone convinces you to believe some point or another, there will never be a point at which you can't still ask what her justification for some assumption is. And if you keep asking, her answers will either become circular, or she will at some point concede that she "just knows" or "just believes" that some assumption is true. We're all in the same boat with that one - no one is in some special position of not having any ultimately unjustified assumptions.

The commentor in question, I gather, is one of those people who thinks she adheres to a "scientific" ideology while failing to understand exactly what science is or what science does, or that science and scientific methodology rely on a great many (admittedly, ultimately unproven and unprovable) assumptions. For more on the science topic, check out the following posts:

Regarding the Evolution/Creation debate:
Is Evolutionary Theory Scientific?
Is The Limited View of Evolution Scientific?
Man Living with Dinosaurs?
Is the More Comprehensive View of Evolution Scientific?

And another related:
Must a True Theory be Scientific?

Concluding Remarks

It's always fun and amusing to show the inconsistencies of someone's beliefs, and this is particularly easy for (almost all) people who claim the view about rationality I've been discussing (basically believing that you shouldn't believe something you have no evidence for). Because chances are that these people have some beliefs for which it should be clear, even from their muddled thinking on the subject, there is no evidence for.

Anything regarding morality, for example. Is it wrong to cause others to suffer for your own amusement? How about you, right now - would it be wrong if I did that to you in this situation? If you think there is anything at all wrong about such actions, you're making some (very un-scientific) assumptions. What's your evidence for thinking it's wrong? You simply believing it's wrong doesn't count as evidence, nor does the fact that most other people in the world probably agree with you - people are mistaken in their beliefs all the time. Do your "bad feelings" when you think about some type of action count as evidence that that action is wrong? The person in the position I've mentioned must either give up all such beliefs (really, all beliefs) or give in and admit that they are wrong. Because, again, every belief is based on assumptions, and those assumptions are based on other assumptions, which are based on others, and so on, until we are left with assumptions that we simply accept even though we have no justification for doing so.

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