The BBC’s The Big Questions continues to captivates, today with the question of whether it is more rational to believe in God. There has been some allusion to what it means to be rational; the philosopher Julian Baggini refers to science and naturalism. But a strong definition is never given. I’d like to do that (and offer the definition I give to be criticised and torn apart) and then I would like to evaluate the question.
To be rational is to use methods of knowledge that have a good record of aiming at and moving towards truth, or being true. That means being rational either includes a type of process that can refine or a method that creates a demonstrable immutable truth first time. Rationality must tick at least one of these two boxes.
I think rationality is broader than this definition. However, for this conversation to go on we need some key performance indicators and to benchmark the word rational. Although my attempt as benchmarking the word has two key deficits–it doesn’t reflect a fully comprehensive definition of “rational” and it doesn’t fully outline the metrics we are using–it is important to note this is a step in the right direction. If no one offers substantive criticism of my definition of “rational”, or if no one offers another benchmark-able definition, then I would go on to borrow David Deutsch’s benchmarks from The Beginning of Inifinity: measuring progress and utility. That is an indicator of how we know something tracks reality/truth (as imperfect as it is).
(I should take a moment to acknowledge another definition of rationality that I am building up on an ad hoc basis based on the sociologist speaker Dr Lois Lee. She alludes to this idea of what is considered irrational in one place is a cultural norm in another. The reason I am dismissing this concept of rationality is because it becomes circular. Religion is a cultural norm, and so to ask if belief in a God is more rational is a moot question.)
I’ll evaluate religion first. If we assume that religion either generates demonstrable immutable truth first time, or has a process of becoming more true, we end up with a queer predicament about truth. If religion is a good tracker of truth, we must concede that truth is different in Asia (where people are predominantly Buddhist) to the Middle East (with a Muslim majority) both of which have a different truth to Europe and the Americas (with a Christian majority). We must also accept that truth is fundamentally different in certain neighbourhoods because that particular neighbourhood has a Jewish or Sikh majority. And then, even on the level of a house, certain houses have a different truth because they have a Jainist majority. Truth, in the religious context, is geography-dependent on both the continental and local scale.
We find this same variation in the truth–meaning the truth is not an immutable quality–over time, not just geography. Religions have evolved from polytheisms of imperfect beings to monotheisms with a perfect creator. And over the last four hundred years, since the Enlightenment, we must be willing to entertain the idea that there has been less truth. As Enlightenment values have convinced even the religious to abandon certain tenets of their religion, we must be willing to consider that, if one thinks religion meets the criteria for rationality, there is simply less truth.
Let us take science as a comparison against religion. Although the question includes the comparative “more rational” is doesn’t actually state what the comparison point should be. But I’m not too shy to suggest science should be the comparison point. Science is a powerhouse of amalgamated epistemologies: empiricism, fallibilism, inductivism, criticism, creativity and reason. Science generates claims that are not time- or geography-dependent (unless you’re a geographer, which I am). Science has been wrong before, so it cannot be said to create immutable claims of truth at the first attempt. However, every time science has been “wrong”, we have only discovered that through further scientific investigation and refinement. Science has its own immune system that does direct it at truth (an immutable quality of reality). Science actually ticks a box of the definition of rational.
During The Big Questions Vince Vitale argued, as many people do, that there are only three ways the universe could be: God, something from nothing or it’s eternal. He then equates all three as equally miraculous. And on that there are three big errors. Firstly, science leaves us with the choice that many of us are uncomfortable with: I don’t know. Bottom of the barrel science asks that we don’t move forward with a claim as if it were true until we are at least 95% sure that it is a good claim. We know that over time that are good odds (1 in 20, in fact) that 5% doubt will expand as new evidence comes in, and then the science needs another thorough review. But until we reach that 95% benchmark (at least, and in physics it’s much higher) we should err on the side of “I don’t know”. So Vince’s trichotomy is mistaken and arrogant. Firstly it assumes his imagination of the only three options represents a real limit to the options, secondly it excludes the “I don’t know” answer that is sometimes the only rational one.
Vince’s second error is to assume that all three options are equally miraculous. They are not. Recent calculations suggest that the universe is eternal. However, this hasn’t had enough time to be fully scrutinised yet. But there are also good reasons to believe that the ‘something from nothing’ option is a good one: when we look in places we expect to find ‘nothing’ we find ‘something’ popping in and out of existence. That simply appears to be what ‘nothing’ does. It might not gel with your definition of ‘nothing’, but it might be a case of tough luck; have the humility to accept your philosophical definition might not be holding up against the evidence. On top of that, there are loop quantum gravity and Horava gravity that exclude the Big Bang singularity, but have the Big Bang phase.
Thirdly, Vince also assumes that positing a God somehow gets rid of the need for an explanation. We still have no method by which God could have created the universe and, given that Vince admits that an eternal universe is as miraculous as a God, in the God option he has doubled his miracles: it’s the God option and an eternal God. But this bias we have where we are comforted by the idea of intent and personal agency runs strongly through his argument.