Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Empathy, Reason, Presuppositional Apologetics

The following are very rough, and partly speculative, outlines of how I see empathy, reason, their interrelations, and what kinds of conditioning can overshadow one or the other. As one major example, I show how Presuppositional Apologetics serves as a mind-trick to block out those basic human capacities by way of circular logic and self-referential tautologies.

There are two major basic tools to help a human being connect with another human being: reason, and empathy.

1. Empathy as a visceral tool of connection

We use empathy to understand each other on a non-intellectual level.

We don't need to agree on anything in order to be able to empathize. Using empathy, we realize on a visceral, rather than an intellectual level, that we are all just humans, that we all suffer, that we all desire and love and hate and want our basic needs met, and have the same rights.

When I see a beggar on the street, my empathy triggers - it's not even voluntary. Sure, conditioning and thinking can interfere with empathy, can add a layer to numb it out, and it's sadly necessary to have that additional layer in a modern city where I encounter several beggars each day. In a similar way, the butcher cannot afford to empathize with the pork, and the surgeon cannot empathize with the person on whom she is performing open heart surgery. They have to habitually suppress their empathy with regard to their working material - otherwise, they simply couldn't do a good job. But that doesn't change the fact that there is an involuntary part in my brain going beep-beep, fellow human in trouble. (This is, of course, a hugely oversimplified example - in reality, a lot of unconscious factors play into this, such as the beggar's attractiveness, gender, age, etc.)

It is a capacity deeply ingrained in our brains, and rather astoundingly, it even extends to other species. I can totally empathize with my cats when they meow for their daily fix of Whiskas(R), even though they probably won't agree with me on climate change, or nuclear power, or atheism for that matter.

Interestingly, empathy doesn't seem to extend so much to slugs, snakes, poisonous spiders or the HI virus. It seems that the more removed from humans a species is on the tree of evolution, the less empathy it gets. To take it even further, I don't think anyone really empathizes with a rock - or with 2004 MN4 "Apophis", the asteroid who will probably hit earth in 2036, for that matter.

It is not a "perfect" tool, it is more like an axe than a razor. As such, it is a perfect example of a trait acquired through millions of years of evolution. (And that is also why every metaphysical, religious view of "love" as a superior aether or gift will always fail - it simply is not that.) But it is the best thing we've got for this very specific purpose - to help us connect with each other, and with our environment at large.

2. Reason as an intellectual tool of connection

We use reason to understand each other on an intellectual level.

And here, too, there is a large involuntary part. A trivial classic syllogism can show this: Once you've accepted that I'm a human being, and that all human beings are mortal, you will have a hard time not seeing that I am mortal.

Sure, you can deny it. And there are definitely circumstances that will keep you from seeing the obvious. But, in the absence of those circumstances, I bet that you cannot help going along with correct logic. (We can discuss whether this is an absolute, a necessary presupposition, or an arbitrary set of rules that just works, but that's beyond the scope of this article.) As soon as you have understood why time is relative, it is virtually impossible to convince yourself that it's not, regardless of how counterintuitive the concept seems.

The interesting part, of course, are the factors that can keep us from applying reason: If you're upset, if you have a strong emotion attached to the speaker, if what they say goes against your core beliefs, if you see it as a personal attack, etc.

The trouble is that reason is a much, much more fragile capacity than empathy. Maybe that's because we developed it way later in our evolution from happily floating cell to homo sapiens concerned with the stock index; and on a similar note, it's because reason is less visceral, and more intellectual - because it requires more neocortal activity, a.k.a., thinking - and thinking is hard work. (I'm not even being snide - spend a few hours on a complex philosophical riddle, and you'll see my point.)

But - as with empathy - reason, as fragile as it is, is the best thing we have to connect with each other intellectually.

3. Presuppositional Apologetics as an example of an ideology opposed to empathy and reason

When I watch a video of the likes of Eric Hovind debating an atheist, I cannot shake the impression that those people are not actually engaging in conversation. They seem to be running an automatic program, an autopilot in their head, listening out for a few keywords in whatever their proposed "conversational partner" says, and then spouting the canned answer that was drilled into them in their class on Presuppositionalism.

Now, sure enough, those "conversations" annoy the hell out of me, and they sometimes have me up in arms and annoyed and angry. And I can totally empathize with myself on that.

But ultimately, based on empathy and reason and the understanding they grant, I think I can present a fairly clear picture of what's going on here.

See, people like Eric Hovind have - for whatever personal reason, deliberately or by force - intoxicated their brains with an ideology that blocks it from its own capacities.

Just like alcohol or heroin, Presuppositionalism gives an empty and treacherous promise: the promise that, using it, you can win any debate with an atheist, any time, anywhere.

This promise is empty in that debates cannot be won - in most cases, people walk away having their own prejudices reaffirmed, instead of shaken. It would be interesting to see some stats here - christians, I dare you: When you look at bare numbers, do you actually see a significant surplus of lasting conversions in Presuppositionalist debates as opposed to Thomist ones? If so, I would have to retract that statement. I highly doubt that I ever will...

But the promise is also treacherous: What Presuppositionalism actually does, has nothing to do with apologetics at all. It does not actually have any effect on the brains of the "opponents", the atheists (except, perhaps, the effect of getting them rather annoyed) - but it does have a massive effect on the brains of its proponents, the very apologists who learn that stuff for better conversion stats.

Presuppositionalism starts off with a simple, and as such, innocent premise: The world can only be understood by presupposing god's existence. This is a neat speculation, rather fascinating if done well, and I would sure like to see it in a few pages of fiction à la "The Name Of The Rose".

The presuppositionalist will then venture to say that this assumption is not only one random assumption, but a necessary assumption. The necessary asssumption, in fact. In order to understand the world, it is not only necessary to assume god's existence, but it is also necessary to assume that it is necessary to assume god's existence. Are you confused? Good! Because that's the desired effect! Because if you're confused, it's even easier to tell you what to think.

Because that's not at all where it ends. Instead, it moves on to then forget that this was an assumption, and treat the assumption as if it were a given fact. All in the name of "overcoming the enemy", "being a good christian", "being a good defender of the faith", etc. etc.

It's a bait-and-switch maneuver, plain and simple. It is based on the fact that self-referential assertions can serve to reinforce themselves because trivial tautologies work as reinforcement and the self-reference helps to induce a comforting trancey feeling (in short, a trance). As another example, "The gospel is foolishness to the fools who deny it" serves to reinforce the truth of the gospel while neatly setting up a boogey-man that will further drill the truth of the message into your brain. That sentence does not, itself, set up the truth of the gospel in any way - but, if you're a believer, it makes you feel as if it did. Real-life Jedi mind trick FTW!

Once you've fallen for this trick, your brain simply shuts down. You were taught that you have to treat this assumption as necessary, in order to achieve a goal that is dear to your heart. And then the speaker just silently treats the necessary assumption as fact. And since you believed it anyway, you will lap it up like the cats do with their milk. And since, in all likelihood, you didn't receive any formal training in philosophy, it is terribly easy to overlook the subtle distinction between a necessary assumption, and a fact. You cannot question what you think is fact, and you keep telling yourself that you have to treat the assumption as fact, in order to achieve a goal that is dear to your heart. And then the speaker just silently treats the necessary assumption as fact. You cannot question what you think is fact, and you keep telling yourself... etc. etc.

It is not a trivial task to reason your way out of that trap, and I deeply admire everyone who has managed to do so. The matter gets further complicated by the fact that every religion contains an impressive number of circular statements, which seem to support each other, so it's easy to believe that the whole system is coherent.

3. Back to the roots

But what makes it outright evil is that it cripples your ability to connect with other people, be it emotionally or intellectually. I suspect that this is the main reason why it is popular - just as scientology's "personality tests" are not actually meant to fetch in new customers. Just as Jehova's Witnesses are not made to go door to door in order to gain followers. That may be a nice side-effect, but the real motivation is to keep the sheep in place: by facing the obvious hostility of nonbelievers, the believers become ever more convinced of their religion. By rendering communication with outsiders impossible, the hostility factor is amplified.

Nothing better blocks our ability to empathize, or to think straight, than an emotionally charged, self-referential system of thought. And that is precisely what Presuppositionalism amounts to: the explicit and implicit denial of reason. It is highly ironic to see that Van Till, the inventor of modern Presuppositionalism, designed his system because he was frustrated with traditional Thomistic apologetics - whose main tenet is that reason, as the common ground between the believer and the non-believer, is to be used as the basis for any attempt at conversion.

Seeing Eric Hovind in a debate, I cannot help pity him and other proponents of Presuppositionalism. They have succumbed to a brainwashing technique. They have removed themselves from the playing field. They cannot reach out to their fellow-men, and have to see people like me as fools, liars, enemies. They have to assume that I'm writing this in hatred, spite, with dark sinister motivations. They cannot read this and actually think about it - their brains will automatically go clickedy-click, atheist, doesn't know anything, has to be converted. Well-conditioned, they have reduced themselves to a state far below their own abilities.

I am deeply convinced that those people are actually intelligent, decent folks. As I said above, they're not evil - they're just intoxicated. You cannot trust a drunk person with a car, but that doesn't make them evil - they just shouldn't have access to your car keys, that's all.

All the more, I think it is important that we empathize and reason with those who have fallen into such intellectual traps. Not in a condescending way - those tricks can be played on basically anyone, including myself. But simply in the hopes that they can find back to their own powers, their own capacities, their own strength of empathy and reason.


  1. brent.mosher@yahoo.comAugust 14, 2012 at 5:24 AM

    About the Whiskas might want to consider spending a bit more for a better product. Whiskas contains corn (whixh is why it is cheap), which cats do not eat in the wild. You can google it, but feeding your cats corn- based food can lead to health problems for them, and vet bills for you. Try to find a food without corn in it.

  2. Thanks for the advice. I actually feed them a variety of different brands, so as to create a balanced diet as much as possible.