My recent critique of Reasonable Doubts prompted Counter Apologist to pose the following question:
“On your view, would nothing be classified as “stupid” or “irrational”, or is it only religious belief?”
Wait a minute. How did we get to this question from my position? I objected to the categorical characterization of major Christian beliefs as “clearly false”. And as a result I am interpreted as saying all religious beliefs are rational?
Imagine I had objected to the assertion that string theory were clearly false. Would anybody infer from that claim that I was also endorsing the view that all scientific claims are rational? Of course not.
So I admit to being a bit taken aback by the question. Nonetheless, it provides a great occasion to say a few words on the constant abuse of the word “rational” in internet forums like this. And I must say that so-called free thinkers and skeptics are among the very worst abusers of the word “rational” and all its cognate forms. Mind you, this isn’t a veiled attack on Counter Apologist. His question simply provided me the occasion to raise the general complaint. But what you do see assumed in Counter Apologist’s question is the unqualified use of the word rational” (and irrational”) as applied to beliefs. Thus, we have p1 is a rational belief, p2 is an irrational belief and so on.
But this is all wrong. “Rational” is not a quality of beliefs timelessly abstracted from context, like free floating propositions in the Platonic empyrean. Rather, it is a quality of beliefs as they are held by particular rational agents at particular times, under particular conditions, and set against the backdrop of other particular beliefs.
Think of an indexical. “I was there” has no truth value until we know the context in which it is being uttered. Tell me in which context the indexical is being uttered and I’ll tell you whether it is true or not.
Similarly, tell me the context in which a belief is being believed and I’ll tell you whether that belief is rational or not. Or at least I can render an opinion on whether it is rational or not. But shorn of context, I cannot render an opinion on the rationality of a belief any more than I can render an opinion on the truth value of a decontextualized indexical.
Consider an example:
p1: “Earthquakes are caused by the shifting of tectonic plates.”
This proposition doubles as a belief insofar as somebody affirms it as true. But is it rational to believe it? That depends. Who believes it, and under what conditions do they believe it, and what other beliefs do they hold?
Ten year old Johnny believes p1. But under what conditions? Here are two different scenarios:
Scenario 1: Johnny’s friend Timmy who Johnny knows to be a pathological liar, tells him p1. Johnny comes to believe p1 based on Timmy’s testimony.
Scenario 2: Johnny is watching an episode of Nova on PBS when the narrator says that earthquakes are caused by the shifting of tectonic plates. Johnny comes to believe p1 based on the narrator’s testimony.
In the first scenario Johnny’s belief is irrational while in the second scenario it is rational. (Obviously in both cases it is true. Just a basic reminder that truth and rationality often take different courses: true beliefs can be irrational and rational beliefs can be, and very often are, untrue.)
So there is no sense to saying that p1 is rational simpliciter. Rather, you must consider the situation of the agent that believes p1 and then render a judgment on that agent’s rationality in holding that particular belief.