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Introduction: How to reason
Section 1: Basic Principles
To reason effectively we need to distinguish what we know from what
we think we know and to learn how to use simple reasoning tools.
The ability to reason is humanity's greatest talent. The more effectively we think, the more clearly we understand ourselves and the world around us.
It doesn't require great intelligence or effort to think clearly. All that is
needed is a few simple tools and a willingness to examine ideas that we may
have held all our lives without asking ourselves whether they are true.
This introduction to
God would be an atheist
provides those tools. They are primarily intended for use in
understanding the ideas of god,
faith and religion,
but they can be applied to every aspect of human life.
The ability to reason is one of humanity's greatest assets, yet
we use it erratically. Our failure to reason effectively at critical
moments in our lives may lead to nothing more disastrous than a minor accident or
unintended pregnancy. It can also lead to major disasters and war.
The world would be a better and happier place if all children were
taught how to reason from an early age.
The first step in reasoning is to distinguish between what we know and
what we think we know. That is not always easy. Many of us have strong
convictions - we know that God exists, drugs are harmful, Republicans are evil, dogs are
unclean, China is one nation and so on. These ideas may or may not be true and it can
very difficult to step back and examine them dispassionately.
Section 2 of this introduction helps us to do so.
The next step (Section 3) is to distinguish between
reasoning and rationalization. On the surface they are
similar - the information in front of us points to this conclusion -
but they are very different. Reasoning starts with a question and
an open mind: what evidence do we have and what conclusion does it point to?
Rationalization starts with an answer and a closed mind: this is the
situation and now we need the evidence to prove it. Too often in our lives - from politicians justifying war to children explaining away a minor mishap - we use rationalization rather than reasoning.
Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we
need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we
describe God? What versions of God are on offer?
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evidence. Rationalization depends on choosing the evidence which fits the pre-determined conclusion - if the police and prosecution decide that A murdered B, they will focus on the evidence which seems to prove it and ignore the evidence that suggests that C was the person who committed the crime. Creationism follows a similar pattern of only selecting evidence that bolsters its argument.
Section 5 looks at cause and correlation. Most
of us are familiar with the difference between the two, at least in theory,
but we find it difficult to difficult to distinguish between them in
practice. Does a friend drink too much because she is depressed? Or does
the alcohol make her depressed? Or is there no connection between the two?
And the Big Question: must everything have a
Our next challenge, in Section 6, is to go slowly. Don't jump to conclusions.
That's the halfway point between reasoning and rationalization. We've started
with an open mind - we don't know who dunnit - but the evidence we've looked at
suggests it was the butler, so we pull him in and in the meantime the real
murderer leaves town. This eagerness to find an answer is the typical response to unexplained natural
phenomena; if we can't explain it, we immediately assume the cause was
God or aliens from space.
Do we know who or what made these crop circles? No.
Does that mean aliens made them? No.
Section 7 is the philosopher's trick. "You can't prove a negative;
that means you can't prove there is no God." Well, yes and no. In the theoretical world, you
can't prove anything, but this is real life and some negatives can be proved. See for
William of Ockham - now more often spelt Occam - was a fourteenth century
English philosopher and friar. His claim to fame is the formulation of the principle now
known as Occam's Razor (Section 8): in any situation that offers two or more
explanations, the simpler / simplest explanation is always best.
It's a useful tool, but as with any razor, we have to be careful how we use it
or we may do ourselves an injury.
Section 9 looks at science, our
basic tool for determining facts about the universe we live in. Observe
Got ten minutes to spare? Check out this basic lesson on reasoning from Qualia Soup
in nature you don't understand, create a hypothesis that might
explain it. If the hypothesis is accurate and predictive - it tells you
what will happen every time - it can be accepted as fact. If not, go back
and set up another hypothesis.
The last section of this introduction comes
to the heart of the matter: reason and faith. Faith, as the Bible itself admits, is
the denial of reason. Faith tells us to ignore the evidence that surrounds you.
Reason tells us to ignore faith. What should we do?
Once we have absorbed all this information, by the end of this chapter, we will know that to reason effectively we need to distinguish what we know from what
we think we know and to learn how to use simple reasoning tools.
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If God existed, he would...
admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create
recognize that eternity is meaningless
deny both heaven and hell
disown all men and women who speak in his name
denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"
help the human race to thrive without him
If God existed, he would be an atheist.
What is the difference between science and faith?
science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything
faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing
Which do you trust?
"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"
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