Friday, November 12, 2010

Skeptical and Rational

Spending some time reading Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa. That is Kreeft picking sections of St Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and walking you through them with generous footnotes. Lots of interesting stuff. I was thinking about something on arguments for God. Consider this argument:
  1. This beach has footprints
  2. All things that have footprints have been in contact with feet
  3. This beach has been in contact with feet.
Now this argument runs backwards from most. Most look at the cause and make conclusion about the effect based on some cause and effect relationship which we know. This starts with the effect. It tries to reason back to the cause. When we do this arguments tend to be a lot less rigorous. If you think about it, premise 2 is not rigorously true. We can think of ways footprints could be created that don't involve human feet. So if someone wanted to be skeptical one could reject this argument as unsound. But would that be rational? Not in this case. We live in a world where such inferences are normal and they are almost always right. It would be irrational to reject such arguments. We would be rejecting a very good source of information even if it isn't 100% logical.

Thomas makes the point that every argument about God is going to be of this form. When we reason about God we are always moving from the effect back the cause. This is because nothing causes God. So the arguments might be able to convince a rational mind but are unlikely to convince a skeptical mind. A mind that rejects the footprints/feet relationship because they can imagine another cause for footprints will not get far in reasoning about God. But we don't have many minds like that. What we do have are minds that move from rational to skeptical when talking about religion. They accept footprints and feet but will not accept creation and creator.

One reason people feel it is right to become more skeptical in matters involving God is because we are looking at finite effects. We are drawing inferences about an infinite God. There seems like a mismatch. But magnitude does not really matter. We accept DNA evidence in a murder trial. Nobody argues since DNA molecules are small and the impact of a guilty verdict is large that DNA should not be used to justify murder convictions. Small evidence can lead to big conclusions. Finding the footprints of God is like that. They have huge implications if we are willing to take them to their rational conclusion.

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