Of reason and logical fallacies

Mike boils down his critique to a single if-then regarding reason:

The fundamental problem of chapter three is that it contains a basic ambiguity, an ambiguity that founds much of the argumentation. The religion of reason leads to authoritarianism and violence. In order to support this position, VD must accept one of two positions. The first possibility is that reason as such leads to authoritarianism and violence. The second possibility is that there is a peculiarly atheist form of reason that produces these sins.

The first possibility, which I don’t think is VD’s likely position, necessarily says that if reason inevitably causes great harm, there must be something fundamentally wrong with reason.

Actually, I would agree, if it were true that reason inevitably caused great harm. However, it obviously doesn’t, so Mike is correct, this is not my position.

Exactly what “reason” is to VD is unclear, because he never gets around to actually explaining it. A catalogue of the acts of the reason-obsessed does not serve as a substitute.

Oh, I had no idea that this required definition. In general, I’m entirely content with the standard dictionary definition about the capacity to think in a logical manner, the logically correct formulation of conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or basic premises. With regards to the Enlightenment, I mean Diderot’s Reason.

If reason is fundamentally flawed, that VD cannot stack up his own reasoning techniques against the New Atheists. It doesn’t matter how careful VD’s reasoning is; he is eating the fruit of the poisoned tree. And VD has already declared he will not introduce any a-rational elements. Additionally, If there is something fundamentally wrong with reason, then the book’s very title becomes moot. The very real possibility that it is the New Atheist’s “irrationality” that will prevent the twin sins of authoritarianism and violence. Perhaps because the New Atheists are so (hypothetically) irrational, they have something valuable to say to us? I certainly don’t accept this position, but if one takes option 1 from above, you’re stuck here.

But we’re not, so no problem.

So the second possibility, which I’ve already implied is more likely to be VD’s position. There is something peculiar about the reasoning the New Atheists use. VD never gets around to suggesting exactly what this peculiarity might be. Atheism itself cannot be the peculiarity, because atheism is a conclusion or at best a framework – it is certainly not a method or an element of pure reason.

And here Mike makes his fatal blunder, not of logic but of perception. I am not saying all atheism is irrational, nor that all atheists are irrational. In fact, I list no less than three perfectly rational atheisms in the book and even name them. What Mike fails to comprehend is that the book is not an attack on all atheists or even atheism itself, it is merely what it purports to be, an attack on the specific arguments made by specific atheists that are often mindlessly echoed by the godless acolytes of the nominally New Atheism. There is no particular rhyme or reason to the various New Atheists’ errors. Hitchens seldom even bothers to attempt presenting a logically coherent point, he simply rambles on about some random guy he once met in Lower Boohooboostan in the hopes that it might prove something. Dawkins often doesn’t even present a case per se, but attempts to pass off tangential asides and trivia as conclusive arguments. Harris at least tries to make a logical case, but he often gets the basic facts wrong, and even when he doesn’t, he tends to reach an demonstrably incorrect conclusion. Only Dennett ever shows a halfway decent logical facility, but even he goes off the logical rails on more than one occasion.

The only thing they have in common besides their lack of belief in the existence of God – and even that varies somewhat if measured on the Dawkins scale – is a shared inability to make logically sound arguments. I don’t believe this is the result of their atheism, the sample size is too small for correlation to imply causation, but there’s no shortage of empirical evidence that this is indeed the case.

Continuing in his misapprehension, Mike writes:

There is a huge logical fallacy in this. It is an especially surprising fallacy, since I’ve seen VD call this on others on his blog. VD’s argument in this chapter is simply a reversal of the “No true Scotsmen” fallacy. “All true atheists are adherents of the religion of reason.” It doesn’t matter how many historical examples of atheists believing in a utopia of reason; it is a blatant logical fallacy to attribute this position to all atheists. The argument of the entire chapter rests on this fallacy, and the fallacy is trumpeted by the chapter’s title.

This is downright amusing. I totally agree, it would be a negative No True Scotsman argument to claim that because atheists who subscribe to the religion of reason are irrational, an atheist who does not must be irrational too. Insisting that Brent Rasmussen is irrational just because Richard Dawkins is would be a massive logical fallacy right up there with Daniel Dennett arguing that because physicists are empirically credible, evolutionary biologists are too… or Sam Harris arguing that because Islamic jihadists are dangerous, moderate Anglicans are too.

Mike’s problem is that I never make that case, nor do I believe it. Had he read further, he’d see that I do suggest an explanation for the empirical observation that atheist political leaders are inordinately likely to commit large-scale atrocities; it is an explanation that lets the overwhelming majority of atheists completely off the hook.

So to recap. If VD is attacking reason itself, then the whole project falls apart. If VD is trying to attack some particular form of reason used by atheists, then he is not attacking something that is constitutive of atheism.

Yes. No, because Mike is confusing the set with the sub-set and attempting to expand the scope of the book beyond its limits. What does not apply to the former in its entirety may well sapply to the latter. I do appreciate this sort of critique, though, as even when incorrect or misplaced, they offer substantive engagement. I still intend to get to his science points one of these days.