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Posted by on Feb 13, 2008 in Ibrahim Lawson | 22 comments

Ibrahim on rhetoric and sophistry vs. reason

Ibrahim Lawson says here (scroll to end) that, in defending Islam,

“The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.

So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia…”

STEPHEN RESPONDS: I agree with anticant – “the purpose of an argument is to win” is a quite extraordinary thing to say (note the “the“). A central point of a rational argument is to reveal what is true (indeed, a nice feature of cogent deductive and inductive reasoning is, if you feed true premises in, you will get, or are likely to get, true conclusions out).

Mere rhetorical ploys and sophistry aim to convince irrespective of truth. That is why they are rightly viewed with suspicion. They don’t provide a different sort of “evidence”. They don’t provide evidence at all.

Indeed, once you’ve said all that matters is winning (convincing your opponent), hey, why not just go straight for indoctrination, brainwashing – indeed, anything that convinces!

Oh, I forgot – you do.

As you said on Radio 4:

IL: [t]he essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.

ER: You use the word “inculcate”: does that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?

IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really…

(Ok sorry, that was a bit cruel, Ibrahim, but still, can you understand my horror at your remark?)

I think we might here have got to the nub of something.

POST SCRIPT FRI 15TH FEB: Incidentally, this earlier post explains the same point I make here more fully. Ibrahim, I would certainly be interested in your response to this part:

There are, correspondingly, two ways in which we might seek to induce belief in someone. We might attempt to make a rational case, try to persuade them by means of evidence and cogent argument. Or we might take the purely causal route and try to hypnotize or brainwash them or apply peer pressure, etc. instead.

What’s interesting about these two ways of getting someone to believe something is that generally, only one is truth-sensitive. The attractive thing about appealing to someone’s power of reason is that it strongly favours beliefs that are true. Cogent argument doesn’t easily lend itself to inducing false beliefs. Try, for example, to construct a strong, well-reasoned case capable of withstanding critical scrutiny for believing that the Antarctic is populated by crab-people or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese. You’re not going to find it easy.

On the other hand, hypnotism, brainwashing, and peer pressure can just as easily be used to induce the belief that Paris is the capital is the capital of Germany as they can that Paris is the capital of France.

Sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs. Admittedly, this filter is not one hundred percent reliable – false beliefs will inevitably get through. But it does tend to allow into a person’s mind only those beliefs that have at least a fairly good chance of being correct.

Indeed, unlike the purely causal techniques of inducing belief, the use of reason is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It doesn’t automatically favour the “teacher’s” beliefs over the “pupil’s”. It favours the truth, and so places the teacher and the pupil on a level playing field. If, as a teacher, you try to use reason to persuade, you may discover that your pupil can show that you are the one, not the pupil, who is mistaken. That is a risk some “educators” are not prepared to take.

[Some “post-moderns” insist, of course, that “reason” is just a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms, for of course there is no “truth”.]


  1. The main point of argument is to get closer to the truth not to win irrespective of the truth.I was being deliberately provocative, excuse me. Please would anyone else at least have a look at Wikipedia on ‘sophistry’ (which I believe I mentioned just prior to the decontextualised citation above) before condemning me out of hand.I want to get at the idea that we have swallowed whole Socrates ‘we must follow the argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us’ and have lost sight of any other view of ‘argument’. If we are going to re-contextualise argument in the real world, which includes all kinds of motives we should perhaps not despise, including the need to act in conditions that fall short of certainty, for some of us, we should acknowledge this and try to agree some rules. I didn’t say that winning was all that matters, but practical outcomes are important. Arguing with people who have made a requirement of the crystalline purity of logic while pretending it is a discovery, a ‘given’, in other words, is as frustrating for me as it is for them as I have different ‘givens’. The only reason we haven’t given up is because maybe there is still an opening there somewhere. Is the idea of sophistry, in its original sense, any help?

  2. Perhaps Ibrahim is confusing a rational argument with an altercation. It may be the case that I might want to win a rational argument because I think I’m right, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of truth.Personally I’d say that if someone I’m arguing with appears to accept what I’m saying there’s an almost deflatory element to it – okay, so what now? On the other hand, if I suddenly get what the other person is saying, I see there argument, it’s a revelation. I’ve learnt something new. I’ve come to understand something I didn’t before.Winning a rational argument isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Unless of course you have some other motive, in which case the winning might be more important than the truth. I’d say that isn’t the case here. I’m sure if Ibrahim could provide something more convincing he’d find a more receptive response here.

  3. I offer the following comments in yet another effort to reach towards greater mutual understanding, and hopefully greater harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims – because surely, that should be the aim of any worthwhile dialogue.I flinch when people – especially philosophers! – throw big words like ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ around without explaining what they understand these concepts to mean. In my recent Open Letter to Ibrahim [which he’s not yet responded to, though I hope he will], I said the following:“You have asked me to articulate what I understand the words ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ to mean. As to the first, I am not well read in the minutiae of epistemology, but my own working definition of ‘truth’ is that it is related to actual states of affairs which can be verified by relevant evidence [leaving aside the extreme scepticism of solipsism], and that it is also inextricably related to the honesty of the subject. That is to say, unless I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I am telling ‘the truth’, my words are insincere and lacking in integrity. I may be completely mistaken in believing that what I say is true, and my sincerity does not make it true if it is not. But intentional veracity is an essential component of ‘truth’ statements, whether factually valid or not.“Knowledge is an integral aspect of subjective consciousness. We all mediate our awareness of ourselves and the world through our imperfect and variable physical senses, whose powers of perception change through time with increasing age, poor health, etc. So what you and I are aware of and believe we ‘know’ depends upon the current capacity for sense-data processing by our embodied mind. [See G. Lakoff and M. Johnson: “Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999.] This is not to say that there is no reality external to ourselves, but each person’s capacity to perceive it is always variable and inevitably far from comprehensive. That is why there is a duty incumbent on us all to recognise the limits of our knowledge, and not to claim the proven existence of unverifiable truths, whether physical, mental, or ‘supernatural’.”I realise that this takes is into a broader field of discussion than the current one, but it would be helpful if others would contribute their own definitions of ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘reality’. I take ‘sophistry’ to mean intellectual argument advanced in a deliberately dishonest or misleading way. Ibrahim speaks of the ‘real world’. My difficulty is that although I accept that Muslims exist in the real world, I have to be convinced that there is any actual reality in the doctrines of Islam apart from the notions inside their heads. To me, they are living in a fairy-tale world which, because of their profound and unquestioning conviction of its ‘truth’ and the teaching to that effect which Ibrahim and his colleagues instil into the minds of their pupils, is an extremely dangerous one because it prompts them to act in unrealistic ways.I do, however, side with Ibrahim in questioning, in his earlier response, whether there is any such thing as ‘objective and universal’ criteria for rationalism. I am not a Platonist.I am confused when Ibrahim speaks of “the mystical basis of belief in god as traditionally defined”. I thought that the essence of mystical belief in god – Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or any other – is that god is indefinable and has no attributes which can be comprehended intellectually.At one point Ibrahim says: ”I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims”, but elsewhere he says he is “unsure” about whether the same criteria of justification [I suppose he means verification] are applicable to the existence of material objects and non-material entities [whatever those are!: I can conceive of non-material concepts and qualities – e.g. moral and aesthetic – but not non-material entities. ] Ibrahim says that evidence and logical argument can prove the existence of very little. But unless we are being deliberately perverse, most of us most of the time don’t feel the need to prove our own existence, although many of us do think it is incumbent upon believers to provide some proof of the existence of a supernatural deity. Descartes’ back-to-front logic aside, why do we need a reason to believe in the existence of the everyday world we inhabit? To assert that because we can’t be sure that solipsism isn’t true it follows that it is not unreasonable to believe in god is a non-sequitur.Ibrahim says that we “need” to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse. Theists may feel the need for such ways of speaking; non-believers in the ‘supernatural’ don’t. Anyway, if religion is a matter of ‘faith’ and absolute certainty, as Ibrahim keeps telling us, what is there to reason about?

  4. 1) The physical worldReason and science is a good working model, dispite existential doubt.2) God, mysticismOkay, so philosophise on metaphysics or theology if that’s your thing. No effect in this world. Not a good working model. Discard it. Treat it as a fantasy – though Harry Potter is more fun.If it’s a category error to use the reason and science of (1) to object to aspects of (2), then isn’t it a category error to use mystical experiences of (2) to object to or impact on phyisical aspects of (1)?Religion is dogma. rhetoric, and does use (2) to make decisions about (1), but why? Where’s the leap from mysticism and metaphysics to religion? How does knowledge of God inform you that apostates should be killed?For more detail on my objections to Ibrahim’s post see my 7:42pm response here.

  5. I really don’t see how sophistry might somehow form its own category or manner of justification. Sophistry, after all, includes bad arguments unrelated to the truth of matters. Sophistry includes what Kant called “lawyers proofs” – arguments that rely upon the mistaken reasoning of the audience for their success. We might as well say, ‘anything goes’. Believe what you will, its all the same.

  6. Ibrahim’s chosen belief-system is, to say the least, arbitrary.

  7. If you look at things phenomenologically and ontologically rather than in terms of rationalism or empiricism, the validity of mystical experience as a knowledge-standard becomes clear. In the former ontological possibility, 1] things that are perceived, and 2] physical things ‘as they are’ ; ) are unified in that they are (for want of a better expression), partakers in ‘being’. The intuition of the fact that everything equally exists makes it difficult to see why rationalistic knowledge should be given such unquestionable primacy, as tends to be the case in the modern world. Rational knowledge relies on definitions of empirical data which stem from our abilities to abstract meaning. Abstracting meaning based on perception of the intrumental values of empirical objects is something that cannot occur without the existence of the perceiving subject who sub-consciously allocates these meanings to objects. Northern European man, because of its raging doubts about God, is trying desperately to cover-up any trace of other-wordly proclivities by reducing truth to ‘logical positivism’ – but they cannot, of course, prove the epistemological justification for their use of abstraction of meaning, for their giving credence to that perceiving subject perceiving meaning – the existence of this subject of course being necessary for any logical positivism to exist. But if we look at things ontologically, in terms of the being of things, rather than merely their instrumental relationships to other things, it becomes clear that logical positivism has not really more of a claim to our epistemological assent than mystical experience. Mystics certainly know which they’d rather trust and this is perhaps because of the fact that their standard of knowledge actually offers them understanding of the nature of being … something that it clearly not disputable (being that is) being the ‘ground’ of all specifics. The soul of man, that carrier of meaning (cruelly abstracted and limited by nasty positivists) will, in his innermost being, simply not stand to being relegated to the status of matter (that only he himself can specify as being matter, anyway!) Why do mystics in every religion agree that they perceive the same God? Linguistic expression may differ, but that doesn’t mean an object is not ‘there’. In fact, people who have stepped outside of their very narrow Enlightenment cultural-parameters, may well find that God is not all that far away. Every other traditional culture in world history found Ultimate Reality! Could it be that we are deliberately obscuring our ability to do so through giving primacy to our anal-retentiveness in a bid to ensure the primacy of our cheaper thrills, and to avoid having to ask painful questions? (popular, not Freudian usage by the way, further reference to questionable psychological models will be found in the next paragraph aimed at our dear moderator )Dearest Stephen, branding as schizophrenic any one whose perception on things theodicy differs from your own seems a bit unfounded. Your analogy to psychiatry was quaint, but alluding to such careless and questionable models – you’re not doing yourself justice. However, I think it quite justified to at the very least call ‘neurotic’ those too frightened of themselves to go beyond comfortable rational categories. In fact, I believe it is deeper than that, selfish, pathetic, psychotic wretchedness masquerading as common-sense under the banner of ‘reason’ and ‘ethical avoidance of the religious out of fear of religious wars’ and other constructed absolutes of the post-Christian age. To deny the only thing that can give every faculty of man real satisfaction! Anyone can embark on the journey to God, who has a soul. God is the true nature of reality. And God will give you unimaginable bliss.

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  9. I forgot to mention another problem:1) Strident ejaculations of “Cult” (perhaps attempting to reduce those implications of “mysticism” that do not correspond to the very limited gaps of understanding in your vast overarching ignorance, to something bite-size, pejorative and scornful to give an impression that you have encompassed its’ sheer folly’ in your omnipotent Enlightenment sweep). So is mysticism inherently cultish? Well, history says no. Organised monasticism in the Christian West being the apex of orthodox religious devotion, the Hindu Brahmins studying the Bhagavad Gita as their key text (well, Hindu mysticism speaks for itself), the Ottoman empire’s endorsement of Sufi tariqas, as well as that of most major Islamic scholars throughout history, and the modern Iranian establishment’s ‘irfan’, and North African Islam including Al-Azhar, ‘the intellectual hub of Islamic orthodoxy’. Furthermore, Buddhism basically just being a religion based on mystical knowledge, Taoism clear (read Tao Te Ching and then find me something more mystical). Mystical religion is in fact normative religion for the majority of people in these religions. Sorry for the nasty tone, ya bunch of monoculture sycophants. : )

  10. The ‘inner path’ of mysticism may well be OK and harmless – indeed, virtuous – for those who, like Mr Huckabee, define God as “the true nature of reality” [a bit question-begging, that!] But organised religion is not OK, and mobilised adherents of faiths, churches and sects do NOT – unlike mystics – worship the same God. Hence much of the hatred and strife in the world.It is all very well and good to teach children [and adults] the benefits of mystical inner contemplation, whether theistic or non-theistic. It is not all very well to teach children – as Ibrahim does – that Islam is the only “true” faith.

  11. @ f. huckabeeyou ask:…..Why do mystics in every religion agree that they perceive the same God? Linguistic expression may differ, but that doesn’t mean an object is not ‘there’. In fact, people who have stepped outside of their very narrow Enlightenment cultural-parameters, may well find that God is not all that far away…….While I suspect that your claim ( that all mysticits agree on perceiving the same god) is patently false, let me accept your assertion for the sake of the argument.Don’t you realise that other explanations fit with such an observation?One fairly obvious hypothesis is that these type of experiences are products of particular brain processes that are overriding cultural differences across cultures (and religions). I assume you are aware contemporary neurophychological research. If not, you will find a relevant entry here., arbritary test subjects can be given experiences closely resembling both types of religious (euphoric and meditative) experiences, and “Out of body” experiences, simply by stimulating appropriate brain regions by extrenally applied electrodes.Cassanders”A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.Bertrand Russell

  12. “the purpose of an argument is to win”His subsequent backpedalling notwithstanding, Ibrahim here gives us a refreshingly ingenuous glimpse of his true feelings, and a nice example of the difference between religious and philosophical thinking.To the philosopher the main point of argument is indeed to get closer to the truth. But to the religiously committed, who is already “quite certain” that he has the Truth, the point of argument is to defend that truth. Hence, for the religionist, the imperative really is “to win” – by whatever means necessary.Failing that, running away is usually the next step. I strongly suspect Ibrahim is nearly at that point now (but I hope I am wrong).

  13. “So is mysticism inherently cultish? “Cults do not necessarily practice it wholesale, but cults often invoke mysticism either as a lure – “when you are initiated you will know…”, or as a way of diverting searching questions.

  14. Ibrahim and Huckabee – I have just added a post script. Do please take a look…

  15. Its beggars belief that people still believe that human states can be reduced to their chemical con commitants. Scientist’s can trigger physical concommitants of original states in people – but that does not mean they can reproduce the purification and refinement that only selflessness and meditation can produce. If you want to understand why your Scientism is so lacking, read this:’…Denying the spiritual world somehow seemed to me like someone blind from birth denying that there were colors. Understandable, but not something one could agree with. One of Abu ‘Umar’s notion’s was that the advance of bio-chemistry would debunk ‘mystic states’, and reduce them to their true level of physiological phenomena. I told him about Sartre’s discussion in Being and Nothingness about a scientist who is observing the brain of a human subject observing various phenomena. Sartre asks what guarantees the primacy of the scientist’s observations, his belief that he is recording an ‘objective’ description of what is happening in the process of the subject’s perception, while the visual phenomena beheld by the subject are deemed mere ‘sensation.’ Sartre answers the question by saying that nothing guarantees the primacy of the experimenter’s ‘data’ over his subject’s except an attitude, which he terms the ‘spirit of seriousness.’I told Abu Umar that I had every confidence that it might someday be possible to isolate chemical compounds in the brain that would represent molecularly encoded beliefs and ideas. “But if one were to find,” I said, “the particular chain that corresponded, for example, with the conviction in the mind that ‘there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God’, it is not easy to see why this should nullify the validity of that conviction, or make someone no longer responsible for it.” From an external point of view, all moral acts are physical states. Do they therefore no longer count? And if a researcher finds, for example, that there is an increase in methadopamine compounds in a mystic’s brain when he describes himself as undergoing ‘a state of satisfaction with God,’ does this vitiate it? Rather, ifthis state is desired from man by revelation, then the fact that it has a biochemical concommitant is what twentieth-century logicians would term ‘trivially true’: it is a fact, but of little importance when we consider that the entire causal nexus by which we represent the ‘world’ to ourselves also has physical biochemical concommitants. Here, we can either realize we are not explaining much, or else turn to the scientist and ask what kind of compounds his brain is secreting to produce his observations. In other words, it is inadequate to rename with physical phenomena those entities that cannot be understood without reference to their meanings.”from Noah Keller, Interpreters Log, Unpublished manuscript, 1993.So, I suggest we ask our scientist’s to trigger ‘rational’ experiences in us. Rationality would be disproven!!!!! Give me a break. Just because your social and cultural circumstances tell you should favour the ‘rational’ over the meaning-imbued mystical does not mean there is any justification for doing so. I think Stephen will at least be able to grasp this, but who knows!

  16. No one has suggested that mental states are reducible to physical states.

  17. There are two things to say to that: firstly, there are plenty of people who claim that mental states are reducible to physical states of the brain, and secondly that Cassanders’ comment above at 9:11 can only be reasonably interpreted as resting on this claim (even though it’s not explicitly made).

  18. @ Stephan Bear with me, I am neither a philosopher nor a neurophysiologist,But if you don’t consider mental states to be *reducible* to physical states of the brain, what are you proposing?(Cartesian) dualism?I find this: quite relevant:CassandersIn Cod we trust

  19. @ huckabeePray(sic) tell me, is it the chemical nature of neurotransmitters you find so abhorring? :-)You said:……….beginquoteScientist’s can trigger physical concommitants of original states in people – but that does not mean they can reproduce the purification and refinement that only selflessness and meditation can produce………..endquote…”purification”….”refinement”…says who? …Carlos Castaneda? Bart Simpson?…you?As for you daring scientists to produce “rational” experiences. Why do you think this somehow will “disprove rationality? I can suggest a very simplified example. Let us assume that a stimulation of the olfactory area yielded the perceived sensation of strawberries. Would you think a knowledge that such sensations can be artificially produced, destroys our confidence that the normal pathways for this (via sensing cells in the nose epithelium and through the appropriate brain structures) should not be trusted as a working representation of the real world?.Regarding Keller’s piece, he seems to completely misunderstand the organisatorial levels between biochemistry and cell biology in the brain. To my knowledge, the neurotransmitters (i.e. biochemistry) are NOT storing information, they are simply conveying it.CassandersIn Cod we trust

  20. It’s one thing to say mental and physical are causally related, another to say they are identical, or reducible in some way one to the other. I thought Cassanders committed only to the former claim. The latter claim is highly philosophically contentious. You certainly do not have to be a Cartesian (substance) dualist to say that e.g. mental properties are irreducible and/or not identical with physical properties (even while admitting they interact). This is a whole can of worms we don’t need to open. It’s also a hostage to fortune as the religionist will then accuse us (whether or not with justification) of saying “So a person is just a bag of chemicals then.”

  21. @Stephan,I do (of course) not believe that mental states and the physical structures in which they are produced are identical. My current understanding of “brain science”, is that we have a fairly good knowledge on the low organisatorial level (signalling over synapes between neurons) and the top organisatorial level -the brain and its functional areas/modules.The understanding of the organisatorial levels between becomes gradually poorer as we “move downward” from the top level or “upward” from the bottom level. And there are probably organisatorial levels inbetween yet to be discovered and described. BTW, a concept like “mental STATE” can be slightly deceiving, because there are processes taking place that is an integral part of the “mental state”.I would think that even within a very “reductionistic” model of brain functioning, there would still be non-reducible entities. And you are right, religionists (or other) who claim that this means that we are “just a bag of chemicals” are grossly misrepresenting what the natural sciences are describing….We are of course much more than a bag of chemicals.we are e.g. also open thermodynamic systems maintaining a reversed entrophy at the expense of the surroundings :-)CassandersIn Cod we trust

  22. Stephen – maybe we DO need to open that can of worms in order to make further progress with this discussion. Neurology clearly has some important new insights to offer. As I keep saying, Lakoff and Johnson dispose of dualism – convincingly, to my mind – in their ground-breaking “Philosophy in the Flesh”, and I’ve also been reading Thomas Lewis’s “A General Theory of Love”, which deals with the physical origins of emotions. As for what religionists may say, why bother? Let them say what they like! Surely our aim should be to get nearer to an accurate depiction of the human entity.

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