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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

In your last column you argued that you were not antagonistic to religion but only to bad religious argumentation. You claimed to welcome religion into the dialectical fold, asking only that it be prepared to defend its premises like any good philosophical interlocutor. But I think you were being disingenuous, Socrates. It is no more possible for religion to defend its fundamental assumptions than for you to defend yours. There simply is not time enough to conduct such a dialogue.

In the real world we argue and debate about issues that can be resolved without questioning our deepest beliefs. More precisely I should say: people argue fruitfully only about such issues. Otherwise we are just venting steam to no good effect – or at least to no good rational effect, since of course rhetorical displays can be effective in other ways. But if you are interested in persuasion via logic and evidence alone, then do not pretend to engage people at the level of their worldviews, for these are not likely to change.

You said you were happy to entertain an argument one of whose premises was, “If the Bible says it’s so, then it’s so,” as long as the arguer were willing to accept the burden of convincing you, a Biblical skeptic, of the truth of that premise. Now, whether or not such an outcome is even imaginable, it would at the very least require more days to accomplish than you have remaining in your reincarnated life. That is why the public space or agora of which you wrote requires that certain questions be bracketed, and certain premises placed out of bounds, since it is idle to base arguments about issues requiring t imely resolution on premises your audience would never accept.

I conclude that your seemingly innocent complaint against only bad religious argumentation is actually your clever way of ruling religion itself out of bounds as irrational. For any attempt by a religious arguer to close the debate on a question would be greeted by you as premature and question-begging; yet the only alternative you have to offer is indefinitely prolonged dialogue, which is the same as postponing the possibility of your opponent’s victory forever.


Dear Bryan,

You make an interesting criticism. I think you are quite right that current affairs debate in the public forum must sidestep examining fundamental questions if resolution is to be reached. But does that relegate rationality and philosophy to the sidelines? I think not. One can still strive to base one ’s arguments on premises that are wholly acceptable to all.

I often feel that an explicitly religious premise in an argument is not doing any logical work anyway. For example, suppose someone were arguing for greater public services for immigrants, and religiously cited the Golden Rule, saying, “For Jesus said, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’.” The argument could just as well be, “For we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” There is no reason to insist that it’s true because Jesus said it, or even that Jesus said it. In other words, a secular person may just as readily accept the truth of the Golden Rule, whether it was uttered by Jesus, Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Madalyn Murray O’Hair or her Uncle Moshe. Therefore, there need be no haggling over the truth of the premises if all parties agree on them, even though the bases for their belief in them might be different.

But Socrates, doesn’t that directly contradict your assertion in the previous column? I quote: “this is precisely why I cannot abide irrationality, for there is always more at stake than any particular argument or issue. Thus, even if I approved someone’s conclusion but their reasoning were defective, the ground would have been laid for future disagreement and error.” Surely you believe their reasoning is defective if their argument contains a premise supported by falsehood or illogic?

A very fine point, my friend. Let me make it finer. Since any argument is capable of being pushed back forever, simply by questioning the grounds of the premises, a kind of logical truce is mandated even in the most rational dialogue. The terms of this truce are simply that one need not argue beyond the point of agreement with one’s interlocutor. This is provided of course that one has not handpicked one’s interlocutor(s), but exposed one’s argument to genuinely widespread scrutiny. And of course, one should also be careful to avoid equivocation, and be sure that the premises on which there is apparent agreement have the same meaning for both parties. But having established that, as long as the premises are all accepted as true and the logic of the inference to the conclusion is valid, the case is closed. Thus rationality does partake of pragmatism, at least to this extent.

Even so, Socrates, in your seemingly benign way of restricting the premises to those on which all can agree, aren’t you in effect banning religion from public and hence rational discourse? Because by definition they would have to be secular to enable the secularist to agree with them.

I don’t think so, Bryan, because I still welcome my religious interlocutor to be motivated by explicitly religious concerns. Thus she may cite and believe in the Golden Rule solely because she believes Jesus uttered it. All I ask is that that fact be omitted from the argument – just as I should omit my own reason for accepting the Golden Rule. In fact, I might not even have one, since the Rule might simply strike me as obvious – and it’s only obvious because, unremembered by me, it was taught to me in my youth by my atheist grandmother!

As ever,


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