“‘Ratio- nal’ means what it says”

A C Grayling has been tweaking the noses of supernaturalists in his recent posts at CommentisFree, and getting some responses that wouldn’t pass the Slugger ‘ball not man’ rule.. [although they wouldn’t be completely unknown in some of our recent comment zones – Ed]. Those responses have, though, prompted a robust argument from the philosophy prof.. on the nature of rational beliefs and a hope for reasonable discussion.

The point to extract from these thoughts is that every belief or hypothesis depends for its respectability on how it was arrived at, how open it is to test, and how it consists with what is powerfully established and repeatedly (a billion times repeatedly) confirmed in our common sense and scientific views of the world. Beliefs about fairies are anecdotal and fanciful, emerge from different folkloric traditions rooted in the ignorant past, and were mainly sustained by the unlettered, though they attracted their Conan Doyles. Had the institutions of political power needed belief in them for governing the populace, motivating them to war, or any other such purpose useful to rulers, there would today be official Fairy Rings, an Archgoblin of Chanctonbury, and daily readings of Hans Christian Andersen in schools.

But of course, the fairies had competition. Until the Church of England got going with its primary schools in the 19th century, largely as it happens to extirpate this rival to the credulity it required for itself, belief in fairies was commonplace and universal, a fact now forgotten, so successful was C of E elementary education. The church achieved this more by demonising folkloric beliefs than by offering rational analysis of them, and helping people to proportion evidence to them. This last would, presumably, have proved too swingeing in its result. But it certainly prompts a hopeful thought…

“And so to the ethics point.”

In debates that crucially affect the wellbeing of the world, ideas and beliefs should be open to tough challenge and hard discussion. Let someone state a view, and let the view be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, no holds barred, and no pleas of offence, hurt feelings, self-proclaimed sensitivities, “sacredness” or any other excuse allowed to stand in the way. But with a strictly governed exception, namely, an office-holder speaking ex-officio, let no individual be the target of attack, and even then neither abuse nor ad hominem attack.

There is no excuse for ill manners and insults, though of course there is an explanation: usually, the impotence and weakness of the insulter and his or her case. Insult an idea or an institution, by all means, if you have serious grounds to do so; but not individuals: that is the bottom line.

Please go and read the whole thing..

..and, perhaps, someone will forward a link to a few other people..

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