Honest inquiry vs. rationalization

One of the reasons why so many people believe wrong things is because it is so easy to rationalize things to make them sound true when they’re not. What’s worse, it’s very difficult to recognize rationalization when we’re the ones doing it. And that goes double when it’s someone else trying to convince us that we’re rationalizing. But there is at least one significant difference between rationalization and honest inquiry that helps clarify which one we’re actually employing.

I noticed this during an extended conversation with a Christian on my other blog (around the time I first presented the Gospel Hypothesis, as I recall). I noticed a pattern in his arguments: every time I introduced an argument that highlighted a clear difference between what was true and what was not, he would introduce an argument designed to obscure the distinction between truth and falsehood, so that you couldn’t say which of two possibilities was more likely to be correct.

I’m sure you’ve seen the same things many times. For example, if a loving God existed, we would hear about it from God Himself, when He showed up to participate in the loving, personal relationship that He was initiating and that was His heart’s desire. That stands in stark contrast to His inevitable failure to show up if He does not actually exist. There’s a clear-cut, visible, verifiable difference between the outcome if God is real, and the outcome if He is not.

Obviously, this demonstrates conclusively that no such loving God exists, which is a problem for the believer. The believer’s response, therefore, is to propose some additional set of extenuating circumstances whose primary goal is to make it necessary that God not show up in real life. In other words, it is designed to make the outcome if God exists look exactly like the outcome if God does not. It is designed to prevent us from finding out which is true.

This attempt to prevent discovery of the truth is one of the hallmarks of rationalization. The person who is honestly attempting to discover the truth has no need to try and make it more difficult to tell the difference between truth and falsehood—quite the contrary! But the person who is resisting and opposing the truth must necessarily seek to suppress it and prevent anyone from being able to tell what’s true and what is not.

It’s not ironclad, and there may be circumstances where in fact there is insufficient evidence to tell what’s true and what isn’t, and it’s not rationalization to say so under those circumstances. But when we have to go out of our way to invent something whose sole function is to make a false hypothesis indistinguishable from a true one, it’s time to seriously consider whether or not we’re just rationalizing to ourselves.


  1. davidct says

    It is always a risk that we humans give in to our biases. Fortunately rational arguments make more sense without being convoluted. There is also not as much at stake if we find we are making a bad argument. A believer could lose everything while we only have to learn how to better present ourselves. We are not trying to prove something for which there is no rational evidence. It makes things much more straightforward.

  2. says

    I noticed this rationalization 20 years ago when I was studying theodicy in college. The discipline came across as utterly dishonest because the one conclusion that was out of bounds was “there is no God”; the existence of God was just a given, a premise, and the rest was desperate flailing that flowed from that restriction. I was still a believer at the time, but that study revealed the rationalizations I used myself.

  3. sailor1031 says

    “One of the reasons why so many people believe wrong things is because it is so easy to rationalize things to make them sound true when they’re not…..”

    Well that may be the case but I’m convinced that many people just aren’t educated well enough to think things through or to know what is and isn’t possible. That’s why so many believe in magic – be it secular or religious magic. That and the fact that many of them are too lazy and unmotivated to check anything for themselves. My teaparty neighbours for instance: they could easily know that the nonsense they receive and uncritically pass on is just that – nonsense. But they don’t check because the truth won’t support their prejudice and the complexities of a situation exceed their mental abilities to comprehend. They prefer a simple answer that is wrong! Maybe that is rationalisation.

  4. Owlmirror says

    Just a few years ago I read: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s written for the layperson, and it makes it really clear how pervasive the tendency is. Most of the examples they give are actually secular, but it’s easy to see how it applies to religious beliefs as well.

    I try to use “invisible person with supernatural superpowers” as a minimal definition for God, but it occurred to me that what most religious people believe in is a bit more like “an invisible intangible person with supernatural superpowers that specifically include omniscience and omnipotence and benevolence, and for whom we have these handwaved ad-hoc rationalizations for why this putative person demonstrates neither benevolence nor knowledge nor power nor personhood“. Or in other words, the belief in God is all tangled up with oppositions, with God’s attributes being canceled out (as it were) in the believers’ minds by the rationalizations for why God demonstrates none of those attributes.

  5. says

    …highlight a clear difference between what was true and what was not, [then interlocutor] obscures the distinction between truth and falsehood

    If we bystanders spot that pattern, then we should also note that –though we’d like to think it does– the historicity of a bible character often doesn’t give us a black-and-white answer.

    That said, modern humans are capable of determining the historical likelihood of a bible character existing. Unsurprisingly, historians have ever decreasing levels of confidence in the testimony of Genesis 1:1-3 and its main character, see wikipedia.org. Eg, cosmology.

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