Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Circular Reasoning

A few months back I emailed an athiest group and a christian group asking about reasoning and how they combat the circular reasoning of their source of truth. The christian group didn't reply back to me, but the athiest group did. Below is the email exchange I had with them (names, places and anything to indicate who the person is has been changed).

I sent this:

Hi there,

I heard a comment in passing that said that everything begins in faith. That is, even the hard core modernist has to have a belief that reason and their senses are the only way to knowledge. They can't actually prove this first premise as it would end up in circular reasoning. eg We know our reason to be true because our reason tells us that it is.

This has troubled me a bit as I thought I could find something to be true based on reasoning, but I do have the underlying assumption that my reason isn't faulty or lacking anything.

I mean I get the circular argument about the Bible being true because it says it is, but is reason true because it says it is? Does reason start with faith?

I just can't work out how you (or I) can rationalise reason to be true without using reason. I thought (using my own reasoning) that you guys might help me with this as you guys seem to appeal to reason a lot. So my question is: how would you explain or refute this idea that reason starts with faith?


A few days later they replied:

Dear Andrew,

Everything does not need to start with faith and I would not rely on what people say in passing. Instead I would seek data, facts and theories thus supported. When you say “the hard core modernist has to have a belief that reason and their senses are the only way to knowledge” I have no trouble with that statement but then you leap to “We know our reason to be true because our reason tells us that it is” but what happened to “our senses”? You forgot the most important part - we rely on our senses, the sense of sight, sound, smell, touch to verify the data and facts of any reasoning. Faith is ONLY required when there are no data, no facts. ‘Faith’ is believing something because one is told to by people in authority or because of a long held (now sacred) myth or because of childhood indoctrination.

You can relax because you are right when you say “I thought I could find something to be true based on reasoning”. However the reasoning must rely on a logical set of facts and data with NO leaps of faith in order to be reliable, repeatable and testable.

I hope you can see that reason is not in anyway reliant on faith; indeed faith is the antithesis of reasoning.

A worked example; say I break my leg. I have faith in the local hospital, faith they can make a satisfactory medical repair. But I need not rely on faith, though not a medial person, I could get the facts and reason it through. But this requires work and effort and data gathering on my part, i.e., who is the orthopaedic surgeon, what are his/her qualifications, how long has he/she been practising, how many successful operations has he/she completed, what are the qualifications and track record of the anaesthetists, the nurses and the other doctors? What equipment does the hospital have, in what state of repair is it, how is the hygiene and cleaning? etc, etc. Notice how if I don't want to rely on faith (lazy, just believing) I have to engage in critical thought and data collection and analysis. Here in lies the problem with most people - they have not been trained in a critical thinking process and instead rely too much on what people tell them.


Public Relations Team
Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc

A Fool Says In His Heart "There Is No God"
A Wise Person Shouts It From The Rooftops

ATHEISM is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural.

About 3 weeks later I sent them the below, and they didn't get back to me (which is understandable as I'm not sure how fruitful my conversations are anyway.)

Hi A.Thiest,

I've just realised that I didn't thank you for you reply. Thanks for taking the time and writing a response back, I do appreciate it. I emailed these CASE people the same question I asked you but they didn't get back to me at all.

My only comment back to you is that you didn't give me an facts as to why I should trust what you say over what others say. It seems like I have to take you on good faith. The problem is that whatever you tell me about yourself, I still have to trust you that your telling me the truth. You may well have a PhD in epistemology and could point me to some websites to prove this, but then once again I have to trust those websites. Also whatever facts you tell me that are true, I still have to trust that they are. I don't mean this to be a personal attack on you, I'm just using this conversation as an example of me having to trust what you tell me (and I'm trying to better understand your position.)

Also to not trust what others say really limits what I can know. Our legal system and historical records are based off eye witness accounts so they are then thrown into question. Sure we shouldn't believe everyone all the time, and just because something really old was written down doesn't mean it isn't void of bias. Safeguards like the more eye witness accounts the more likely an event happened and the use of archaeological findings to back up what was said is also needed. But because history isn't repeatable it means we have to trust (or have faith in) to some extent what was written down, or not trust it and so not learn from the others before us.



  1. This was a really interesting read &, thanks for posting it.

  2. He he, you're cheeky &rew

    I've just been a victim of the circular reasoning of a dogmatic atheist. His poison was the 'infallible fallibilism'. Of course, he selectively applied his philosophy to my views, not his own!