Yesterday I wrote an article offering some reflections on my soon-to-be released debate on the rationality of theistic belief with Chris Hallquist. Chris asserts that theism is always irrational and I argued that it isn’t. In other words, I argued that at least sometimes theism is rational. Yes, my thesis is as modest as Chris’ is bold. But hey, I didn’t choose the debate topic.
This prompted one of my readers, john (adj), to ask whether I believed rationality was relative. I replied:
Not relativism about principles of rationality, but yes, relativism about the rationality of specific beliefs given that the rationality of specific beliefs is (almost) always context-dependent.
Is it rational to believe Toronto has a larger population than New York? That depends. To whom has this belief been presented for consideration and under what circumstances?
Adam Hazzard then joined the conversation by observing:
Sure, of course. So the relevant question would be, “In light of the best current knowledge, is it rational to believe Toronto has a larger population than New York?”
Adam then tied this back to the question of whether it is rational to believe in God:
In light of the best current arguments and evidence, is it rational to believe a god exists?
There are two problems with Adam’s take on what the “relevant question” is (henceforth “Adams’s question” or “AQ”).
First, AQ appears to assume that the only way to have rational belief that God exists is by way of a properly non-basic reasoning from available evidence. But why think this is the only way? Why think rational belief in God is contingent on the provision of evidence?
Let’s go way back to 1967, known both as the Summer of Love and as the year that Alvin Plantinga published God and Other Minds (Cornell University Press). In that book Plantinga amasses the best current arguments and evidence for the existence of other minds … and finds that it is not nearly strong enough to support the universal belief that other minds exist. (And even if it were, that wouldn’t address the fact that the vast majority of people go through life oblivious to those arguments and still appear to have a rational belief in minds other than their own.) Consequently, to think that rational belief in other minds would be settled by drawing together the best current arguments and evidence for other minds may be beside the point if that belief can be rational in a more direct manner (i.e. that it would be properly basic). Now it may be that belief in other minds can be properly basic while theistic belief cannot be. However, a person cannot simply assume this without argument.
Second, let’s turn to this word I used to describe Adam’s advice: a “chimera”. The word refers to a creature of Greek mythology, but in colloquial usage it flags an entity that exists in imagination but not reality. In this case, the chimera is the idealized court of Adam’s imagination in which rational minds present all the evidence for and against a given truth claim, and then based upon that evidence draw magisterial conclusions about whether anybody could possibly be rational to assent to this truth claim.
Note that this chimerical court is quite different from the court each one of us enters every day by which we seek to draw specific conclusions about whether a given proposition is likely true or whether a particular person in a particular situation is being rational in assenting to a particular proposition. So I’m not claiming we can’t draw rational opinions about the rationality of others in specific circumstances. But Adam’s court is very different, for in his court we seek to render opinions about whether any person could be rational to assent to a particular proposition.
Let me note one reason why Adam’s court is chimerical: there can be evidence available to individuals which is not available to a wider court. (Here I’ll borrow an illustration from Al Plantinga.) Imagine that the question is whether any rational person could deny that Smith is guilty of the crime of murder. So we go to the court of rational opinion and amass all the evidence: DNA, eye witnesses, motive. And as a result, everybody except Smith’s mother concludes that Smith is guilty. Well, clearly the mother is being irrational, so the court is working fine.
But wait, there is one other person who insists in Smith’s innocence, and that is Smith himself. And his insistence that he is innocent is based not simply on an assay of the evidence provided to the court but also his very clear memories that he did not commit the crime, indeed that he was not even in the area at the time.
The court necessarily views Smith’s protestations differently from the way Smith views them. He sees them from the inside, while the court sees them from the outside. Consequently, the court can still conclude that Smith is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But it doesn’t follow that Smith is rationally obliged to conclude he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And that means that a rational person can still believe that Smith is innocent, even in light of the best current arguments and evidence that sway others.
Please note that I am not suggesting we can’t have reasoned opinions based on evidence, including opinions about other people. The court can indeed rationally believe that Smith is guilty. But at the same time, they should also recognize that Smith can simultaneously rationally believe he is innocent. And consequently, the court can’t establish that every rational person who assays all the evidence available to the court will reach the same conclusion.
And that’s why the rational court that Adam proposes is chimerical.