I think this article gives a pretty good description of a distinction I often think about:



“Theoretical rationality is (roughly) a matter of evidential and argumentative support. Your belief in God is rational in the theoretical sense just in case the balance of evidence and argument supports the truth of the proposition that God exists. Your belief in God is practically rational, on the other hand, if it is in your interest for you to hold it.”


It seems to me both theoretical and practical rationality are important.   Often times it seems people only think in terms of the theoretical.   I often suggest that we might want to consider something beyond the probability of our beliefs being true, as to whether something is rational to believe.  The typical response from some atheist and theist alike is along the lines of “O my god! that’s Pascal’s wager O my God! Oh my god!  You know that’s been refuted right? Oh my god!”  And then they give me a link to some blog or wiki or something like that.  (I don’t think I have ever been offered a link to a peer reviewed article on Pascal’s wager.)  The link will rarely give a reason not to use practical rationality.  Instead it will give objections to Pascal’s specific formulation of the wager.  This will typically be a shot gun approach with decent and poor objections mixed together.  The result is that atheists (and certain theists) often only think in terms of Theoretical rationality.   I think that is a mistake.  Here are two points I would make in that regard:


First we might not have an option which is more likely true than not.  One of the objections to Pascal’s Wager is that there are many different exclusive God’s to choose from.  I think this illustrates a major problem for only thinking in terms of theoretical rationality.    If they all were assigned a probability value, it’s possible none of them would have a probability greater than 50% yet one still might put the probability of there being no God at under 50%.   What sort of beliefs should we then use to conduct ourselves?


I think this issue of choosing beliefs to base our conduct on is most directly brought to bear when we consider ethical and meta-ethical views.  As you might already know there are several different ethical positions we can hold.  But unfortunately each of them seems to present more problems than solutions.    I don’t think there is much in the way of evidence in support of one particular view of meta-ethics.  At least not evidence of the sort that I can mark as an exhibit in a court case.  (I plan to do a blog on what “evidence” is if there is an interest)  Yes there are arguments in favor and against a variety of different views.   But the problem is there are definitely more than 2 options.  I gave 4 major options in an earlier blog.  But there are all sorts of variations and sub-possibilities within those options.  E.g., Quasi-realism, naturalist realism and non-natural realism.  There are all sorts of varieties of constructivism and relativism.   Suffice it to say that these options cannot all be true.  If we ever find out the truth there will be many more losing theories than winning theories.    That’s just meta-ethical theories.  We also have many possible ethical theories, which one we choose might depend on which meta-ethical stance we take.   Christianity presents a set of moral beliefs as does Hinduism and Islam, not to mention all the different secular theories of ethics.    


Well here is the problem for someone who only follows theoretical rationality.  Let’s say you think theory 1 has a 20% chance of being true, theory 2 has a 15% chance of being true, theory 3 has about a 15% chance of being true and 5 other theories (theories 4-9) all have about a 10% chance of being true. (this should add up to 100%)   Well what to do?  You have to live your life.   In living your life you will be presented with binary options.  For example you either will go to church on Sunday or you will not.   What will you do?


You might say you will not believe any of these theories.   But what does that mean?  That doesn’t mean you will accept moral nihilism because perhaps you only give that a 15% chance of being true.    So if you accepted that belief you would believe something that you think is more likely than not false.  But what can you do?  How can you live your life?


It seems to me that theism is indeed an ethical and a meta-ethical theory.  Arguing that this theory is not more likely than not true is just like arguing nihilism or moral realism or relativism is not more likely than not true.  It really doesn’t itself decide anything.  This is because all these possibilities might be more likely than not untrue! 


It is my opinion that theism and Christianity in particular not only has a higher probability of being true than other meta-ethical and ethical theories, but also it is the most attractive option when we consider consequences from a practical rationality point of view.   But that is not the point of this blog.  I am here just merely trying to explain why solely using the theoretical model of rationality is a mistake.   That brings me to the second problem.


The second problem with just looking at rationality from the theoretical standpoint is that doing that doesn’t seem, well…. rational.  If you are looking at rationality solely from the theoretical view then what?  We are just to believe things that are more likely true then not and purge beliefs that are likely untrue.

Now how important is it to hold beliefs that are likely true?  Well this narrow view of rationality gives us no guidance of what views are important to get straight.  It’s just a matter of gaining beliefs that are likely true and purging beliefs that are likely untrue.   So on this narrow view there is nothing to say learning the facts by reading the phone book is any less important than learning science or ethics or history.  In fact, the phone book will likely give you more certain beliefs than studying ethics or meta-ethics.  So really if your goal is to just fill your head with as many beliefs that are likely true you might as well memorize the phone book.    That just doesn’t seem rational. 

 Now it seems that certain atheists are more concerned that people might hold beliefs that they think likely untrue.   Why is this a big concern?   We hear arguments like well if people believe this, which is likely untrue, then maybe they will believe something else that is likely untrue.   The concerns are fairly fantastic.  Maybe people will believe in the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot in space.  One philosophy professor even expressed concern that someone might believe in “absolute purple.”  He wasn’t sure what that would mean but he thought perhaps someone would believe it.  And this was somehow a concern. 

It’s not that I think we should believe in absolute purple.  Nor do I think we should believe in spaghetti monsters or tea cups in space, for that matter.   But I also don’t think we should worry about people believing those things either.    That concern, just really doesn’t strike me as rational either.  It just strikes me as odd for several reasons.  Not only does it seem unlikely people will believe that but it’s unclear what untoward consequences of such a belief would entail.   It just seems a bizarre concern to have. 


Of course I am not saying that the probability of a belief being true is not part of the equation.  I think it is.  But there is more to it than that.   That’s the point of this blog.  Any thoughts to the contrary or otherwise are always appreciated.