Reasoning in Context

I recently heard a philosophy professor present a talk entitled, “Why I am not a Christian.”  The title, of course, is taken from Bertrand Russel’s 1927 talk on the same subject, though the professor I heard was not nearly as hostile to Christians as Russell.  Nevertheless, in common philosophical fashion he went beyond the apparently autobiographical scope of the title to claim that no one else anywhere is warranted to believe either in the existence of God or in the extraordinary claims made in the Gospels about Jesus.  As he reviewed philosophical arguments for the existence of God and scriptural appeals to faith in Christ, he repeatedly said, “I have not found compelling justification,” and he took that to imply that neither had anyone else.  There were various other elements of the talk that struck me (and upon which I may at some point comment here), but the assertion of categorical lack of rationality for certain conclusions is something I am wrestling with.

I must beg the indulgence of any philosophers who might read this, as I am not a philosopher, but a historian.  I know that philosophers customarily discuss rationality and epistemology in context-free terms.  Yet it seems to me an empirical fact that no reasoning to which we have access exists without a context, and what is more, an embodied context.  Of course I accept that God has universal, non-contextually-delimited, non-embodied thoughts, though I am not sure one could speak of God’s thoughts as following chains of reasoning, our need for which might be artifacts of our own finite perspectives.  God himself said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways may ways” (Isaiah 55:8).  So whatever universal, fully objective, non-contextual reasoning might look like, our only potential access to it is found in revelation (which this philosopher, predictably, rejected).

But is not the rarefied and disciplined reasoning of the philosophers an example of pure universal rationality?  Not at all.  To take only the most obvious example, all arguments are formulated in words, within languages.  And yet languages change over time, and words mean different things in different contexts and to different people.  Arguments that are very persuasive to some people will not be at all persuasive to someone who does not understand the language.

But perhaps the language is just the vehicle.  The argument might still be said to be objective, context-free, and universal by translating it into whatever language is required.  Yet the Italians say, “Traduttore, traditore” (loosely, “A translator is a traitor”).  Translation changes the meanings, which is why translated poetry not only sounds bad, but is also obscure in meaning.

I have heard philosophers acknowledge the ambiguity of language, while yet believing that they could progressively refine definitions to specify the point which they mean.  Yet this is, I think, a faulty view of what meaning is.  Meaning is not a precise point around which loose words jangle like bracelets, which tighter bracelets might help pinpoint more precisely.  No, an utterance’s meaning contains implications, associations, connotations that flow out like blood along the veins of the words used.  It is these very tendrils of meaning which give language its ability to function abstractly, as concrete language precedes abstraction for every human.  We speak first of parents, dogs, trees, and stones, before we learn to analyze reasons, emotions, ethics, and arguments.  All abstract language is, at root, metaphorical, and without the analogies embedded in our speech we could not reason abstractly at all.  The translation of words for parents, dogs, trees, and stones into various languages is comparatively simple, while concepts like “justice” and “reasonable” have very different meanings in other languages.  Trying to find a word for “God” has given more than one missionary a headache, and yet “God” is a cornerstone concept of reasoning about the rationality or irrationality of religious beliefs!  Thus it becomes impossible to translate philosophical arguments without changing their meaning, and thus without changing their soundness.  All philosophical reasoning is context delimited.

The linguistic delimiter of philosophical reasoning is only one part of the context, of course.  Different people will reach different conclusions based on divergent plausibility structures, derived from different background experiences, different values, and the ever-present self-serving wishful thinking.  Rationality does not operate outside or above the context, but operates very much within the parameters which it is assigned by individuals.  This is why it is very rare to find anyone convinced by a rational argument: a precondition to someone being convinced is that they must have decided to allow themselves the possibility of being convinced.  That rarely happens among humans.

The contextual delimitation of all reasoning helps explain what might otherwise seems an odd phenomenon: philosophers claim reasoning is universal, and yet they always find it easier to poke holes in others arguments than to formulate a positive argument that everyone agrees is sound.  If a philosopher invites you to “make the argument” for your view, this is not a compliment nor an advantage.  It is setting you up for failure.  Yet if I understand the theory of objective rationality correctly, the mental processes which allow identification of holes in arguments do not depend on the person who formulated the argument (that would be an argumentum ad hominem fallacy), so a capable philosopher should simply be able to consider any argument they themselves formulate with the same scrutiny as any other argument, identify any weaknesses, and correct for them, and all philosophers should agree on the soundness (or lack thereof) of any argument, just as (basically) all mathematicians agree on the soundness (or lack thereof) of any proof.  And yet, philosophers always find it easier to object to others’ arguments than to convince others by their own arguments, which is exactly what one would expect from context-delimited reasoning.  Somewhat stronger, on any topic that really matters, philosophers will disagree sharply on the soundness of particular arguments, such as for the existence of God or particular ethical positions.  In my experience, it seems that philosophers are only marginally more likely than other people to be convinced by rational argumentation, their purported bailiwick!

All of the foregoing statements are empirical (and potentially falsifiable with better data), but what implications might they have?  First, there are a few non-implications that I wish to highlight.  The contextual delimitation of all human reasoning does not imply that truth itself is contextual (the common post-modern position).  Truth may be absolute, and reality objective, and yet our only access to it remains perspectival, bounded by our context.  A parallel distinction operates in the obvious case that truth is unchanging, even though what we think we know changes.  I used to think that there was no God, and now I think that God exists.  Whether God exists or not has not changed as a result of my change of belief.  Similarly, the limitations on human viewpoints, while they do constrain human reasoning, do not somehow fragment all of reality.  The unity of truth may exist without being accessible to any finite human.

Another non-implication is that all reasoning is equally valid.  Just because every argument has its context does not mean that every argument is equally good.  Some arguments are bad in any context, while others are more clearly bad from certain perspectives.  In my context, I know that biblical scholars often contradict each other and make idiosyncratic assertions which are obviously false.  So if I say, “X because one Bible scholar says so,” this is a bad argument.  An assertion of one Bible scholar is not a sufficient warrant for any belief, in my context, because of my awareness of the frequency of false assertions by Bible scholars.  Contextual delimitation of reasoning does not justify bad reasoning, and in particular, the defense, “Well it works in my context,” is always at best lazy, and at worst wishful thinking.  What makes an argument convincing in your context and in another is an interesting question, but the contexts are limits, not bases for argumentation.

A final non-implication is that we cannot reason with each other.  It is obvious that we can.  (Otherwise there would be no point in me posting this argument…)  When we get a cup of coffee and hash through the issues, our contexts overlap.  The contexts in which human reasoning works (or fails to) are not fully idiosyncratic.  Languages are shared.  While it is rarely possible to convince anyone by rational argument alone, rational argument often forces us to refine our views, and sometimes to abandon views which have accumulated too many counter-arguments for us to swallow.  We can learn a lot from other people’s reasoning, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

Yet there are some implications. One implication is that the answer to the questions “Why do you believe X?” and “Why do you not believe Y?” are almost always primarily biographical.  While reasoning often enters the picture, at least for consciously chosen beliefs, it takes the form, “Then I thought to myself…”  There are things I believe now which I came to believe using reasoning processes I would now regard as incomplete or even fallacious, but which I can usually identify auxiliary arguments in support of.  I think this is not unusual.  Nevertheless, why anyone continues to believe what they do is always also tied up with their desires, social connections, anticipated psychological and relational cost of admitting one was wrong, etc.

Another implication of the assertion that all human reasoning is contextual is that what is rational in one context may be irrational in another.  This is perhaps least contentious in situations where “if only I’d known!”  Thus in the 1950s doctors prescribed thalidomide to pregnant women for morning sickness relief.  By the early 1960s, it became apparent that thalidomide causes severe birth defects.  Before the teratogenic properties of thalidomide were known, it was rational for pregnant women on the basis of the available information to believe that thalidomide was a safe way to manage morning sickness.  After the recall of the drug, it would be irrational for anyone who has heard of the birth defects to believe that thalidomide was perfectly safe for pregnant women.  Rational inferences can depend on what is known in non-monotonic ways.

A further implication, by consequence, is that it is difficult to demonstrate the universal irrationality of any reasoning process, as that would imply its illogicality in every possible context.  Some arguments are bad in every context, but they are few and so catastrophically bad as to be recognizable.  All of the tempting arguments are so because they are plausible enough in some context.  They might still be unsound arguments leading to false conclusions, but that is compatible with their validity if the reason for the erroneous conclusion was a mistaken premise.  To argue that a form of reasoning, which appears plausible to many, is in fact categorically irrational requires one to demonstrate its irrationality in every possible reasoning context, which is a tall order, to say the least.  Indeed, I am not at all sure we are creative enough to imagine every such context.

Another implication is that we should realize that our abstract intuitions are less reliable than our physical intuitions.  Our physical intuitions were honed by painful experience tripping and falling as children, banging into corners as teenagers, and getting embarrassed as adults.  Our erroneous intuitions about abstractions (such as what position we take on the arguments for the existence of God) rarely bite us so directly, and thus they remain unrefined.  Already 2400 years ago Socrates apparently made a career demonstrating to people how mistaken their abstract intuitions were, until they killed him.  We have a lot to learn.

A final implication is that we can stop setting up universal context-free arguments for the existence of God.  It has been conclusively demonstrated empirically that no argument attempted so far convinces everyone.  Yet that empirical fact, in light of the contextual delimitation of reasoning, does not imply that God does not exist.  Instead, it merely implies that the existence of God is an interesting question which impinges upon us rather more than many of us are comfortable with.  This last fact is widely known; few people simply do not care whether there is an all-knowing and all-powerful being in the universe (regardless of whether he is all-good or not).  As above, we can continue to argue about whether God exists, and some people might even be convinced, but it is not necessary to frame an argument that convinces absolutely everyone that God exists in order for it to be rational to believe in God’s existence.

As a convert to Christianity, I am always particularly interested to hear why people who grew up in Christian homes moved the other way.  It fascinates me to hear about their experiences, their reasoning processes, and what led them to abandon what I have come to adopt.  I am not usually as interested in what they regarded as the knock-out argument for Christian belief; such arguments tend to be variations on a very few themes which I have already heard, and I predictably do not find them convincing.  But to understand one another, we must understand a portion of one another’s context, and in that way we may come both to think more precisely and to develop more compassion for those around us.  Reasoning in context is more human than the pretense of context-free universal thought, and recognizing each context can lead us to be more humane.


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