One of the chief obstacles to understanding is the unavoidable human habit of rationalization. We tend to favor some beliefs, and to resist others, and have a natural tendency to explain away any evidence that leads to conclusions we don’t like. What’s even worse is that most of the time we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. Fortunately there’s a simple rule of thumb that can help us easily separate rationalizations from legitimate explanations.
In a genuine explanation, we describe something in sufficient detail that we can tell what specific, observable consequences would result from our claim being true, as distinct from the consequences that would result if our claim were not true. This makes our explanation testable: since we know what real-world consequences correspond to our explanation being true, we can simply observe the real world and see if those consequences are, in fact, present.
A genuine explanation, in other words, is a tool that helps us distinguish what’s true from what’s not true. Rationalization, on the other hand, has the opposite goal. The purpose of rationalization is to prevent us from telling the difference between a premise that’s true and one that isn’t. The rationalization takes a desired premise, and the observable evidence, and then throws in speculations and supposed extenuating circumstances designed for the sole purpose of making essentially any observed outcome seem consistent with the premise.
We can see this for example in the fundamental test of the Gospel. Note that we’re not talking about testing God here. The Gospel is not God, the Gospel is what men say about God. What men say about God is that He loves us so much that He is willing to leave heaven, become human Himself, work and eat and sleep among us, suffer cruel torture and death on our behalf, and then rise again so that we can be with Him forever in a direct, personal, eternal fellowship. And that’s a workable hypothesis. It gives us enough detail that we can work out what consequences would arise if it were true, and what consequences we would see if it were false.
If it were true of course, then the consequence we would see is that there would be no atheism. God might have enemies, but He would have no doubters, because He would constantly be showing up among us, in person, to participate in that direct, personal, face-to-face interaction that He wanted badly enough to die for (literally!). No power or force would be capable of preventing Him from showing up, since He’s omnipotent, He would not need to stay away on account of our free will because He has already been here without doing us any harm, and He would not fail to show up because this direct, two-way, face-to-face relationship is what He wants, not some unreasonable demand that any mortal is trying to impose on Him.
And if this premise is not true, of course, then the consequences would be exactly what we see in real life: God never shows up in real life, and exists only in the minds and words of the people who believe in Him, and only “works” to the extent that people do things for Him and then give Him the credit for having done them. If we look at the consequences, we can easily and obviously determine that the Gospel Hypothesis fails to be consistent with real-world truth.
What rationalization does in this case is perfectly predictable: rationalization tries to prevent us from being able to tell the difference between the Gospel being false and the Gospel being true. So you look at apologetics, and there’s a huge list of alleged extenuating circumstances that try to make the Gospel predict an absentee God Who has some perfectly good reason for pretending to be a figment of Christian imagination. The various apologetics may contradict the Gospel, each other, and reality in general, but that’s beside the point. The main thing is that they obscure the difference between a hypothesis whose consequences are consistent with the truth, and one whose consequences are not.
So that’s how you can easily tell the difference between rationalization and genuine explanation. If the evidence is inconsistent with a legitimate hypothesis, you go back and change your hypothesis, because you’re seeking to know what the real truth is. If the evidence is inconsistent with a rationalization, you just generate even more rationalizations, because you’re seeking to avoid discovering the real truth.