On his Dangerous Idea site, Victor Reppert quotes, apparently approvingly, from St. Augustine’s City of God:

“Even after the plain truth has been thoroughly demonstrated, so far as a person is capable of doing, the confirmed skeptic will insist on maintaining belief in his own irrational notions. This is due to either a great blindness, which renders him incapable of seeing what is plainly set before him, or on account of an opinionative obstinacy, which prevents him from acknowledging the truth of what he does see. Thence arises the woeful necessity of going to ridiculous lengths to expound yet more fully on what we have already made perfectly clear, in hopes that we might get through to those who close their minds to reason.

And yet how shall we ever profit from our discussions, or what bounds can be set to our discourse, if we forever fall to the temptation of replying to those who reply to us? We must acknowledge that those who are so hardened by the habit of contradiction will never yield, but would rather reply out of stubbornness, even when they recognize their own error.”

As Mr. Spock would say: Fascinating.. Change a word or two and you would get the perfect expression of what many atheists have reported as their experience of debating religious people. This raises an interesting issue relating to my last post: If two groups are so deeply divided that even the most earnest efforts at rational debate end with each side feeling that the other is just being pigheaded, what should we conclude?

Well, four conclusions seem possible:

1) Atheists are being pigheaded.

2) Religious people are being pigheaded.

3) Both atheists and religious people are being pigheaded.

4) Neither is being pigheaded. The issue is one that cannot be resolved by rational argument.

Increasingly, I lean towards (4). The reason is that arguments between theists and atheists are generally either in the form of inferences to the best explanation or they take a Bayesian structure. With inferences to the best explanation, theists and atheists have such fundamentally different intuitions about what constitutes a good or an acceptable explanation that these go nowhere. In a Bayesian context, the arguments are just too weak to overcome radically divergent priors as well as very divergent estimates of likelihoods. Put simply, there just is no sufficient common ground for arguments to ever really go anywhere. Sure, we each accept basic logic, mathematics, and maybe the laws of physics, but–when push comes to shove–damn little else. What we share is just too exiguous to make up for our vast differences. The upshot is that attempts at rational discussion almost always end in questions being begged.