Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rational Warrant: A Critique, P. I

An argument for belief in God attempts to establish credible evidence for a divine overseer orchestrating, or being aback of, the universe.  The direction of all argumentation concerning God's existence is to start with what we do know and extrapolate outward to the best possible conclusion concerning things we don't know. 

For example, the Cosmological Argument proposes that from matter we can extrapolate that there must have been a designer because all of what is, is contingent (i.e., dependent on other material things).  That everything material is contingent necessitates that there must have been one non-contingent, or wholly independent beginning to everything else.  This wholly independent thing is often referred to as "God."

From the example of the Cosmological Argument, it can be seen that the argument progresses from what is known (the existence and characteristics of the material world) to what is unknown (God).  A note on that point: by 'God as an unknown', I simply mean that the argument itself does not prove the existence of a super-being so much as it illustrates a logical correlation; namely, that the material world seems to exist in such a way that it must have derived its existence from a point not dependent on it.  However, correlation is not causality, so the Cosmological Argument cannot be used as a proof proper for God's existence; it can, however, be used as a reduction to a possible conclusion; a "rational warrant", as it were.

Which brings us to the point of this article: I do not consider rational warrant to be anything more than begging the question (circular reasoning), or a cheap rhetorical trick that ends in relativism.

First, anyone reasoning along the lines of a classic proof such as the Cosmological Argument already has in mind the inevitable conclusion, which is fine if you are attempting to defend the cosmological proposition for God.  As a friend recently reminded me, all debate happens that way: the opposing sides know what their conclusions are, and they argue accordingly toward those conclusions.  But notice that the conclusions are already assumed.  Philosophically speaking then, arguments for and against the existence of God already assume the conclusion to the proofs they offer.  This is wholesale question-begging: X is true, this is how X is true, therefore X is true; or, God is real, the cosmological argument shows that, therefore God is real.

Now, as my friend stated, and I agreed, such reasoning is fine in a debate setting because it would be a little improper to go into a debate not knowing your position on the resolution.  However, for a philosophical proof and a didactic aide, such reasoning only gives a person logical permission to assume a plausible conclusion; that is, "rational warrant."  And rational warrant, is not proof.  Rational warrant cannot firm up the link between correlation and causality, therefore it is not conclusive proof.  Rational warrant is only a fancy way of giving yourself permission to believe a given plausibility clause when the hard work of reasoning through a syllogism is over.

That brings us to my second point: "rational warrant" is a cheap rhetorical trick.  Suppose I was to say to you, "there is a 900 lbs. hungry tiger in the next room," and you realised there was no door between you and the hungry tiger.  You would suddenly have a swell of emotions that correlate to your inward ideas of a hungry tiger, what that tiger is capable of doing to a person, and your own need for safety.  You would, in fact, have what Kant described as a noumenal experience.

Even before you encountered the hungry tiger, you would start experiencing that tiger as if it were real, and as if your life were in danger because of it.  Then you would take whatever measures you had to to ensure your personal safety.  All very logical, and all quite appreciable.  However, you still haven't received any proof of a hungry tiger in the next room, so you have effectively believed my proposition that "there is a 900 lbs. hungry tiger in the next room" because it was reasonable for you to believe me (at least for the purpose of this illustration!).  In effect, you had "rational warrant" to believe my claim.

Now let's say that two days later, you learned that I was just tricking you.  You would be right to be irritated, but you would also recognise the falsity of your "rationally warranted" beliefs concerning the 900 lbs. tiger.  And this is where the notion of "rational warrant" really breaks down: simply reasoning to a plausible conclusion is not proof, and that's all "rational warrant" is: reasoning to a plausible conclusion.  It is a stylised flash of rhetoric that gives a veneer of reason to a belief-claim.

Because "rational warrant" is a catch-phrase or byword indicating the right of every person to believe whatever they'd like based on their subjective experience of a thing, or a proposition, it reduces even further to relativism.  That is, the notion that what I believe is just as true and valid as what you believe, even if we disagree.  Objective reality (A is A) is thrown out the window, so to speak, in favour of a solipsistic encounter with the world.  Which is fine if you're a solipsist, but for those of us who don't simply assimilate external realities into our self-projections on the world, the relativism of "rational warrant" simply doesn't supply a useful tool to interacting with the world.

The idea of "rational warrant", as I recently learned, can only apply to those beliefs which are actually true.  In effect, this means that a vast majority of beliefs held through history have not been rationally warranted.  But that can only be known in retrospect because once a belief is shown to be false, it is no longer rationally warranted, and it can only be shown to be false after people have already believed a certain belief and thought themselves rationally warranted in doing so -- that was a mouthful, I know.

So for a believing Christian, say, they would consider their beliefs "rationally warranted" because they are able to determine correlations between what they experience (mysticism),  the contingencies in nature, and what they already assume about supernatural realities (e.g., that God exists).  Oddly though, a believing Christian would disagree with the beliefs derived of a Muslim experience, and visa versa, even though they may agree on a good number of things, too.  And both the Christians and the Muslims would be "rationally warranted" for both their agreements and disagreements surrounding their particular metaphysic.

Given the clash between competing belief systems, how can "rational warrant" be rationally claimed?  Simple answer: it cannot.  As I stated before, it is a cheap rhetorical trick used to prop-up the arguments of one set of beliefs, sometimes in the face of a competing set of beliefs.  And if competing beliefs cannot both be true (see: law of non-contradiction), then anyone claiming rational warrant for their beliefs has also to claim a relativistic mindset concerning reality.

In part II, I will discuss how a relativistic mindset toward reality not only denies reality but also reduces belief-sets (e.g., Christianity, Islam, religion in general) to agnosticism.

***Thank-you to AgnosticInnocence for the picture.***


Theophilus said...

It seems like you are bashing all inductive (probabalistic) logic. Is this a correct reading? If not, how do we save inductive logic?

Kane Augustus said...


I'm not bashing all inductive reasoning, no. Certainly people can note personal correlations and make their own conclusions concerning themselves. However, making an "educated guess" as inductive reasoning is sometimes labelled, at issues that are external to their own personal inward lives forces the necessity for deductive reasoning.

For example, if a person were to say to me, "I'm generally a serious person, but I'm not always serious", I would accept that as valid inductive reasoning. But if that same person were to say to me, "All the swans I've ever seen are white, so all swans must be white", I would not accept that as valid reasoning. Thus the necessity for deductive reasoning.

In the example from the essay, suggesting that because people experience certain subjective realities therefore God exists, is not valid reasoning. The use of induction on issues not germane to a person's subjective apprehensions (e.g., God exits) requires deductive confirmation. It is illogical to suggest that because a person has a mystical experience therefore God must exist.

So, in the end, we don't have to "save inductive logic" anymore than we have to save people from having subjective experiences. We do, however, have to keep logic in check and make sure we're not making claims that are more grandiose than the information warrants.

Theophilus said...

I'm not sure I follow you. There are many things that seem to be pretty basic epistemic items that are subject to no deductive proof. For example, I have basketball on Monday and Wednesday, I reason inductively that when I show up for basketball on Monday that there will be class, but this is not deductive reasoning. Also, how do you save science from your rather narrow logic?

Scientists assume that the laws of nature hold at every point in space in the universe. Yet there is no deductive proof for this assumption. If this were not the case then our present astronomy is all based on unjustified inductive reasoning.

And another thing, there is a form of the cosmological argument which is deductive, I'll give you a quick outline.

(1) Nothing can be causa sui.
(2) Therefore whatever is changed is changed by another.
(3) The series of changers cannot go back into infinity or there would not be a first changer.
(4) Therefore we need to arrive at a first changer which is itself not changed.

Notice that this argument is entirely deductive except for the hidden premise that change exists. Is this argument therefore invalid because it does not have deductive proof for the fact that things are in motion?

Kane Augustus said...


Yes, you have not grasped what I'm saying in my article. I'm not saying that those things that have empirical attachments cannot be reasonably induced. Your examples reason out things that are external to people and that also have empirical referrences. I have no problem with induction along those lines. For example, reasoning that things are in motion is empirically confirmed by observable reality; valid induction.

My article deals specifically with transmogrifying subjective experience (or mystical experiences) into an irrational proof of the divine. There may be a correlation, but that does not reason to causation. Whereas in your examples, all the correlations reason easily to a causation. And your examples also have observable co-determinates to make the case. Show me: where is the co-determinate for 'God' simply because a person sees their body from above during a surgery?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hendrik van der Breggen said...


Your critique of "rational warrant" (in your post) is mistaken in several important ways.

1. The friend you mention in your post is giving you bad philosophical advice. Your friend is confusing knowing where an argument is going with question-begging. Yes, of course, opponents in a formal debate know what their conclusions are and so the truths of their conclusions are assumed by the debaters in formal debate situations. However, to know in advance where one's argument is going -- even when one is in the process of making it -- is not the same as setting out a question-begging argument. Question-begging has to do with the argument that's been set out. Whether an argument (that's been set out) commits the fallacy of question-begging depends on whether the argument's premises assume as proven/ established that which is at issue. Question-begging occurs when the conclusion or something very close to the conclusion (which is the claim at issue) is assumed as defended in the premises, which are supposed to be providing support for the conclusion.

(In deductively valid arguments, the truth of the conclusion is "contained" in the premises in the non-controversial sense that if the premises are true then they logical imply the truth of the conclusion. In inductively strong arguments, the truth of the conclusion is supported by the premises because the premises induce or provide good grounds for the conclusion without giving the conclusion 100% support. You should have learned this in our Intro to Philosophy course.)

For you and your friend to claim that because an arguer knows where her argument is heading (i.e., she knows what the conclusion of the argument is) therefore she is question-begging is to commit the ad hominem fallacy. (The ad hominem fallacy is the mistake of attacking personal characteristics of the arguer rather than her arguments when doing so is not relevant.) Whether the premises of an argument provide independent support for their conclusion is logically independent of whether the arguer knows this beforehand or not. Your friend is advising you to blur this important distinction. In the name of good reasoning, I hereby encourage you not to do so. (No doubt your friend has good intentions; it's his/her advice that's problematic.)

Continued below...

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

2. Your argument for showing us that rational warrant is a "cheap rhetorical trick" is, to put it mildly, an instance of poor reasoning. Your example, wherein you assert "there is a 900 lbs. hungry tiger in the next room," and whereby you purport to provide an instance of "rational warrant," which subsequently allows you to dismiss "rational warrant," is an instance of the fallacy of straw man. (The straw man fallacy is the mistake of misrepresenting an opponent's position, critiquing the misrepresented position, and then dismissing the actual position on the grounds that the misrepresented version doesn't hold water.)

Let's get your view of "rational warrant" straight (so I'm not guilty of misrepresenting you). You tell us that on the basis of your assertion that "there is a 900 lbs. hungry tiger in the next room" we end up having an emotional experience (because we feel danger and feel the need for personal safety) and so we "have effectively believed [your] proposition" about the hungry tiger "because it was reasonable for [us] to believe [you]"—and so we have "rational warrant" (even though we later realize that your assertion about the tiger is false).

Your illustration, however, is not a representation of rational warrant; rather, it's a misrepresentation of rational warrant. Rational warrant isn't mere acceptance of another person's assertion based on the emotional experience that's evoked by that assertion. Your mere making of a claim, whether it stirs me emotionally or not, doesn't provide me (or anyone else) with rational warrant, surely. The acceptance of a claim is rationally warranted if and only if there are good grounds for accepting the claim. That is to say, to determine whether a claim is rationally acceptable (not merely psychologically or emotionally acceptable) involves questions such as the following: Is the claim true? Are there good (non-question-begging, evidence based) reasons to accept the claim as true or probably true? Is the claim intelligible, i.e., non-contradictory, as well as clear, i.e., non-ambiguous and not vague? (A claim is not acceptable if it’s sheer babble or otherwise unclear.) Instead, you have reduced rational acceptance to emotional acceptance—and thereby you have misrepresented rational warrant.

3. Yes, reasoning to a plausible conclusion is what rational warrant is, and, yes, reasoning to a plausible conclusion is not a "proof." However, from this it does not follow that rational warrant is merely, as you allege, "a stylized flash of rhetoric that gives a veneer of reason to a belief-claim." Proofs only occur in mathematics and formal logic. But this doesn't mean that arguments that don't provide 100% proof can never provide rationally obligatory grounds or justification for belief. If you do think this, then you are committing the fallacy of false dichotomy (a.k.a. the everything-is-either-black-or-white fallacy). The fact of the matter is that rational warrant (rationally obligatory/ justified belief) is a question of degree: some arguments get close to being proofs, some are very strong, some are strong enough to convict (i.e., beyond reasonable doubt, as in a court of law), some are merely strong, some are weak. Some arguments are better than others, depending on the quality of the reasoning and the evidence that's mustered. There is a continuum of rational warrant, in other words, and so a case by case assessment is needed. What isn't needed is simplistic dismissals of all rational warrant because rational warrant isn't proof. Such dismissals are philosophically sophomoric and silly.

Kane, I hope that the above comments are helpful.

Best regards always,

P.S. I see that in your responses to Theophilus you seem to change your understanding of rational warrant. Still, it seems that my response to your original post is important, at least for the sake of achieving clarity.

Theophilus said...

I don't really want to defend the claim you want me to defend. Perhaps it isn't so silly as you imagine though. There have been several attempts to argue to God from Mind. I don't think I accept them but they are not given by stupid people and are worth a look.

I have really nothing to add to what Dr. van der Breggen has said.

Metacrock said...

sorry know nothing about argument. There's a huge in knowing the conclusion you are arguing to support and stuccoing the arguemnt that such it assumes the conclusion. that is not done. that is circular reasoning. Arguments for God structurally are no different any other argument. they do not assume their conclusion. Just becuase you know what you are arguing for does not mean you are assuming it in your premise.

calling warrant a cheap tricks show you don't even know what it is, and that you do not understand argument at all.

All logical arguments include warrant. Using that as the goal in a Go argument merely means that you are stopping with the production of warrant rather than following through to the end result of absolutely proving whatever one is arguing for.

BTW the cosmological argument can be put over as a warrant for belief without changing anything about it. All it means is that you are trying to actually prove it. WE don't try to claim that we proved God exists, only that there's a valid reason to believe in God.

Warrant is the thing that makes a conclusion possible. The use of warrant as a goal of argument was put forth by Stepehn Toulmin who taguth at Brandeis University and at Oxford. He's very noted and is in Britannica it says of him that he is noted.

If I start with the premise that we should make cars safer and I end with the conclusion that we should mandate air bags, the studies that show air bags work in cars is the warrant.It warrants the conclusion.

saying that God arguments only have to show warrant means we are saying "belief in God is raitonal. it's not stupid there is good reason to believe in God," it doesn't go all the way and assume "it's proved that there must be a God."

there are two levels of warrant in that case belief that God exists is warranted and the warrant is found in the actual argument as to way one should believe.