Explanation vs Rationalization

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.


  1. Cuttlefish says

    True, in theory. In practice, belief perseverance in scientists shows them to be as human as the rest of us. Heck, they have more practice at being wrong, since they ask a greater proportion of falsifiable questions, and yet we often see the “I knew I was on the right track; I just had to ask the question the right way” sorts of explanations. In the scientific community, we do have disagreements, and strong ones, and sometimes ideas only die off as their proponents do.

    But we do have that scientific community. I don’t actually have to admit I am wrong; someone else can (and will, eagerly) point that out, and the consensus move away from my hypothesis, even as I do my best to defend it. And if I am actually right, my motivated defense is sweetened by the fact that I am showing my critics to be wrong.

    It’s all so very human, but we have imposed a structure and a community that promotes critique, whereas apologia are promoted among the religious. Disagreement does not move the consensus, it splits the community into two factions, and perhaps eventually two sects or two religions, until now we have thousands of “one true paths”.

  2. Tige Gibson says

    Rationalization is simply making excuses, and it typically takes a lot of little excuses to cover a big error. You can tell that someone is lying or concealing something by how many different inadequate explanations they offer. Whereas a true explanation is one simple “excuse” that never seems to go away no matter how much people try to make it go away.

  3. hoverfrog says

    We see this a lot in creationist arguments that try to tear down good science. We have an explanation for the diversity of species on the planet in the form of evolution and rather than explain a different interpretation of the evidence a creationist with rationalise their belief by picking at the edges of the theory or speculating on already debunked ideas. That is why even if evolution were wrong it is still the best explanation of biological diversity that we have and why creationism explains nothing

Leave a Reply to hoverfrog Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *