Friday, March 21, 2014

The Appeal to Mystery

There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Oh dear - your cult’s belief system is patently nutty. Not only do you have little in the way of argument for it, there also seems to be a great deal of evidence against it. If you want, nevertheless, to get lots of people to believe it, what do you do?

Why not appeal to mystery? By appealing to mystery, you can portray your critics as arrogant, unspiritual know-it-alls who think they have the answers to everything. You will appear humble and spiritual by acknowledging that, when it comes to the deepest questions, we must acknowledge our powers of reason have their limits. You can neutralize your opponent's use reason, and make yourself look good and them look bad all, at the same time!

There are several versions of this move, including:

(i) “Well, YOU explain it, then!” Find something that science and reason cannot explain or answer. Build an answer into your belief system. Then, whenever it’s pointed out that you have no supporting argument, say, “Well, YOU explain it.” This puts your accuser on the defensive – they now have to do all the work. As they will fail to provide an explanation, your theory will appear to “win” by default! (N.b. this is the fallacy known as ‘argument from ignorance’.)

(ii) “Beyond reason to decide.” When the Christian Stephen Green recently complained to the Advertizing Standards Authority about the atheist bus posters, the ASA said the adverts were allowed because the claims made (“There is a God” and “There is no God”) lay beyond the ability of reason to decide. The idea that religious claims are in principle beyond the ability of reason to decide is popular. So, as a cultist, try claiming there’s a supernatural being X who created the universe, and then, when people say your belief system is irrational, point out that their rejection of your belief must be just as irrational, because whether or X exists is something that it is in principle beyond the ability of reason to decide. So theirs is a faith position too! Keep saying this over and over and there’s a good chance no one will notice that actually such claims are not necessarily beyond reason to decide. Take the claim that the universe was made by a supremely powerful and evil being. This claim is straightforwardly falsified by observation – the world is just too nice a place for it to have been created by such a being. Even the religious will reject the claim as just obviously false, given the evidence! Yet, when it’s pointed out to them that there’s way too much pain and suffering in the world for this to be the creation of an all-powerful all-good God (i.e. the exact sametype of objection), they typically say, “Ah, but this is something that’s necessarily beyond the ability of reason to decide!”

These moves are designed to render religious beliefs immune to rational criticism. But the truth is that, just as a detective who does not yet know who dunnit may still be able rationally to rule out certain suspects, so atheists unable to explain why the universe exists may still be able rationally to rule out certain answers. As even a religious person will typically admit there’s overwhelming evidence the world was not created by an evil God, so they must also admit there could be overwhelming evidence it was not created by a good God either. But then it’s not something it’s necessarily beyond reason to decide.

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