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On Reason, Rationalization, and Skepticism

It is an unwritten rule in Filipino Freethinkers that those who participate in the discussions must use reason and avoid citing dogma. And except for the occasional troll, I think this rule has been quite effective. While non sequitur arguments are still employed from time to time, I believe what matters is the attempt at using reason especially for those who, until just recently, have for so long taken for granted the factuality of certain traditional beliefs.

Proud as I am of our small but growing online community, I must emphasize that while we freethinkers practically revere Reason, sometimes what we are actually doing is rationalizing, so I guess it is important to define terms lest we confuse similar but non-synonymous words with one another:

Reason involves conscious explanation.

Reasoning as a process takes proposed explanations, considers them, contrasting them, or fitting them together in order to determine which beliefs or actions or attitudes are best.

Here the definition seems to cover both reason and rationalization, with the latter being defined as:

In psychology and logic, rationalization (or making excuses) is the process of constructing a logical justification for a belief, decision, action or lack thereof that was originally arrived at through a different mental process.

But if we look at the word rationality, we find something specific and determinate:

In philosophy, rationality and reason are the key methods used to analyze the data gathered through systematically gathered observations.

And here the difference between rationality and rationalization becomes clear. In rationalization, the belief which was “originally arrived at through a different mental process” comes first and then rational arguments are later formed to support this belief. But as for rationality, the data comes first and analysis comes second before reaching a conclusion – if it even comes to that. And here I am reminded of a brief introduction to skepticism:

Skepticism is a method, not a position.

Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can ‘provisionally’ conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis or the origins of language, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.

I think most members will agree that freethought is more related to skepticism than atheism or agnosticism. Along with skepticism, freethought is a method, a way of thinking and forming beliefs; atheism and agnosticism, on the other hand, are more like the “positions” at which the freethinker or skeptic arrives.

But to people whose present beliefs are still those formed long before they were capable of rational thought, it is amazing to see how they try to rationalize now in the absence of solid evidence. They start off with a position based on religious doctrine and try to use rational arguments to back up such position. This is very hard to do considering they are performing the scientific method backwards, and I cannot help but admire the ingenuity of those who were able to keep their claims from being falsified outright. Of course, they could not prove their claims, but for one who has no real evidence, a technical stalemate is already a great achievement.

We freethinkers do not claim to be highly intelligent especially in philosophical discourse; we just learned to set aside our biases and let the observable facts speak for themselves. It takes a lot of brainpower to effectively rationalize something as confounding as the presence of gratuitous evil in the same universe where a loving and all-powerful deity supposedly exists; it only takes intellectual honesty and the continuous attempt towards unbiased rationality to become skeptical about such contradictory co-existence which can certainly cause cognitive dissonance in stubborn minds.

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