Rebirth of Reason


by Joseph Rowlands

If you learn nothing else about false dichotomies, you should learn that awful ideas often survive because people believe the only alternative is worse. In response to the idea that you should be committed to your moral ideas no matter how destructive they are, people choose to not hold ideals. In response to the idea that sex is a meaningless and purely physical act, people choose to claim sex should only be for propagation. In response to dogmatic faith, people choose to promote doubt and skepticism. Occasionally there is disagreement about which side is worse, but each side defends their own by criticizing the other.


One area where this trend holds is in the belief in mysticism, spirituality, and the supernatural in general. Some people believe in ghosts, or ESP, or alien abductions, or alternative medicine, or voodoo, or anything else that strikes their fancy. Some may try to provide evidence that these things are real, but the evidence just isn't there. When systematically tested, these things fail.


So how do believers continue to hold on to their beliefs? How do they respond to critics? It's simple. They just claim that their critics are close-minded. They say the critics are too narrow in what they think is possible, and ignore facts because of it. They claim their critics are the ones clinging to ideas on faith.


Alien abductions is a good example. If you point out the absurdity of it all, and the lack of evidence, they will often reply by asking how you can believe that we are alone in a universe this big. Note that they aren't attempting to explain their own position. They are trying to suggest that there is only one alternative, and that alternative is nonsense. This is the method of the false dichotomy, and it provides them with a view of themselves as being the sensible ones.


Or take the existence of ghosts. You might point out that people find patterns where there are none, or can hallucinate, or can misremember, etc. You might point out that there is no evidence for ghosts, and all examples have been debunked. But it doesn't matter how much you do and how many concrete examples get debunked, they won't be convinced. They'll say something like ,"How can you know there's nothing beyond death?". Instead of providing evidence, they'll go on the attack by implying that you aren't willing to give it a fair hearing before dismissing it. They'll say that you have jumped to a conclusion. Again, only by claiming the alternative is wrong can they make their own case seem reasonable.


There are two major problems with this approach. The first is that the alternative that they claim is often not the position of the critic. Those who debunk alien abductions don't necessarily claim that we're the only intelligent life in the universe. Most would probably think it reasonable to think there might be. We just don't have enough evidence of that. But that's an entirely different matter than whether aliens repeatedly abduct humans leaving no evidence, having no reasonable motive (and certainly no motive that would justify the enormous cost of coming here), and mostly conforming to the expectations of the claimed abductees. But even if they would find it very difficult to swallow, there's nothing wrong with demanding exceptional evidence for an exceptional claim. And the evidence is not only lacking, but there are good reasons to believe the testimonials are wrong.


Similarly, those who debunk ghosts are not always against the idea. Some famous debunkers, like Harry Houdini, wished to find genuine evidence. The story that only the easily fooled are "open-minded" is just wrong.


The other major problem is even bigger. It is the suggestion that there is something virtuous about willing to believe something is true.


A rational person would weigh the evidence and decide which view is best supported. Those who believe in being "open-minded" have a bias towards belief. They think they are better people because they are willing to accept it as true even though the evidence is weak or non-existent. And with the false-dichotomy, they declare the opposition flawed for being committed to non-belief.


But this whole view dismisses the relevance of evidence and logic. It ignores the justification for belief, and makes a virtue out of belief for its own sake, and contrasts that with non-belief for its own sake. It rejects the possibility of rational analysis, and then claims to have the superior irrational methodology.


It's not surprising that this trend exists. Religion makes a virtue out of faith. It says you should believe things despite a weakness of evidence of even when the evidence clearly contradicts your position. Religion creates the precedent for making a virtue out of belief. It also makes doubt or disbelief a sin. So when the new-age people promote belief, unrestricted by evidence, there's nothing new there. They are just applying the old religious method to new areas.


And the more things they are willing to believe, the more pride they can have. In their eyes, the rest of the world is stubbornly close-minded. There may even be conspiracies to prevent the truth coming out. So their belief in these ideas make them superior to others.


Once the idea of justification is brought into the conversation, they can't deal with it. So they attempt to distort the critics position by claiming they are equally irrational, but irrational biased towards non-belief. "They lack imagination. They are scared of anything new that they can't explain." And so they use the power of a false dichotomy to shield themselves, and to try to persuade others.

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