Rationality and Sentimentality

You often meet online a kind of person who goes on and on endlessly about “reason” and “rationality.” Just recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made a bit of a fool of himself by proposing the creation of a “virtual country” called #Rationalia.  And of course a lot of the usual suspects got on board with this:


The addition of the C. S. Lewis quote is my doing. And maybe this isn’t that much of a bandwagon, since it was apparently necessary (or rational?) to include @CosmicPinot twice—but this sort of thing reminded me of an analysis this phenomenon given by philosopher Edward Feser, a thinker for whom I have a lot of respect.

Feser, being a Catholic and a Thomist, has often crossed swords with atheists.  And like anyone who argues with modern atheists, he has been struck by the contrast between their rhetoric of rationality and the manifest irrationality of their conduct.  This glaring contradiction cries out for an explanation, and I think Feser has put his finger on the best or primary explanation.  I’ll quote Feser and intersperse my own thoughts. If you’d like to read his entire blog post (which I recommend), it is found here: Walter Mitty atheism.

Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here. And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention. Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism. Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it. And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach. After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid. In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work. For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects. Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions. The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.

I am also frequently asked this question, especially on Twitter, and my response is exactly the same.  I may not be able to convince my opponent or their ideologically blinkered followers, but third parties can often see who is making a reasonable argument and who is acting like an irrational ideologue.

Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence. They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others. What exactly is going on here? What makes these weird people tick? That is a question of real intellectual interest.

I agree.  This is a very interesting question. In fact, this question and Feser’s answer are so interesting I’m writing about them right now.  The general pattern of human beings contradicting their stated beliefs with their actions is commonplace. It is simple hypocrisy.  But the hypocrite that is genuinely blind to his or her own hypocrisy is interesting. What explains this?

The answer, according to Feser, following Roger Scruton, is something he calls sentimentality:

The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality. I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner). A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.

For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental. “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him. What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!” His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue. His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers. This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it. Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people. Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.

Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this. The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc. Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc. And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices. But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him. Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think. After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think. (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.) Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people. His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

Here we have the heart of the issue, I think:

[I]t is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him


His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

What is paramount to see is that this sort of ‘rationalist’ is not dedicated to reason or rationality in any real sense, but to his own feelings, particularly those touching on his self-image of “being a rational person”.  It gives him a great deal of pleasure to contemplate his own superiority to others, which he does by celebrating his “rationality” (defined in such a way that he cannot fail to be rational, do not doubt), both inwardly in his thought-life and outwardly by means of rationality virtue signaling. Anyone who has engaged atheists in online argumentation will also have observed this pattern of both self-congratulation and of fellow-rationalist-congratulation.  Both are ubiquitous and unmistakable.

Those of us who actually love truth for its own sake and seek it by means of reasoned inquiry experience a disconnect when talking to such people.  They say that they are in favor of reason and inquiry, and yet their actions bely their words.

When one encounters someone extolling the virtue of rationality, especially his own virtuousness as a paradigmatically rational person, odds are high you are dealing not with a real rationalist but with a sentimentalist.  And if you are going to engage a sentimentalist in debate or discussion, do not expect him to act in a rational manner.