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8.4.04

Irrational Steve

Sebastian Holsclaw has acquired a book by Victor Reppert dealing with the larger issue of strong materialism and the mind raised by our exchange over Plantinga's argument about trusting an evolved brain. In a guest post on Obsidian Wings, he relates the story of Steve, a man who gives compelling logical arguments to support his opinions. But as it turns out, Steve selects his opinions by rolling dice, then constructs the best argument he can to justify the randomly-selected view. Holsclaw laments the fact that political discourse so often involves accusations that our opponents are like Steve, and thus their arguments are merely post hoc rationalizations of a pre-selected opinion.

My response in the comment section was:

"I think in some cases our desire to ascribe Steve-like irrationality to our opponents comes from an overestimation of rationality. Say Steve states an opinion* that I disagree with. Obviously I don't think his given reasoning is solid, or else I wouldn't disagree with the conclusion. So what am I to make of his argument? To agree that Steve believes what he does because of the reasons he offers (i.e., to conclude that reasonable people can disagree on the matter) would require me to assume that rationality is limited -- either an admission of humility about our mental capacities, or a postmodern denial of the efficacy of reason. As someone wishing both to win an argument and to maintain a belief that my own opinions are rationally grounded, I find neither option terribly palatable. So I turn to the idea that Steve's opinion is not rationally grounded, and look for other possible explanations for why he believes what he does (he was brainwashed by his church, he's callous and selfish, he has a secret homophobic agenda, etc.). It takes a lot of effort (and some cooperation from Steve) to take the "humility" view while holding out hope that by working together we can do better."

The question of cooperation with Steve (the basis of the discursive methodological position found from Mill to Habermas) raises another issue. It's all well and good to claim that we should always presume we're dealing with Amy rather than Steve, and thus to deal with the rational content of our opponents arguments rather than psychoanalyzing them. But how much good does that do if we are in fact dealing with Steve? If he selected his opinion based on the dice, then refuting his rational justification isn't going to change his mind. At best it will give us both some mental exercize.

The answer, I think, is that few people are complete Steves. Certainly a great many non-rational factors influence our opinions (so there are few complete Amys). But (as Habermas points out) engaging in argument generally involves a presupposition that you are Amy, or at least close enough. Few people treat their post hoc rationalizations as such -- rather, they trick themselves into believing that they are ante hoc**, or at least that they would be sufficient as ante hoc arguments and that their prior nonrational holding of the opinion was functionally coincidental. This presumption gives us a way in to turning Steve into an Amy for the other side (or allowing our interlocutor to do the same to us -- given what I've just said, there's no reason to presume that we're Amy). And if we do meet a pure Steve, out-arguing him can prevent him from converting any Amys to his cause, since a pure Steve's strategic use of rational argument presumes that his hearers can be convinced by it (and even if Steve is making rational arguments purely as a game, he runs the danger of convincing people since we know we're surrounded by many would-be Amys).

*If you want an example that brings it back to the Plantinga post, imagine he's a signatory of Project Steve.

**Or whatever the actual Latin opposite of "post hoc" is.

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