[This is a continuation of Section Two, Reason and the First Person. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found [url=https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/sword-to-the-heart-reason-and-the-first-person/1081/1]here.]
[This series starts Chapter 16, “Real Action and Atheism”.]
You and I can act. I think we also react; but evidently we must presume, for the sake of our own arguments, either that we can also act or that somewhere someone else (who can judge our proclamations) can act.
This is why, for instance, we have mental competency hearings in our legal system. A person or group of people who are presumed not to be utterly and automatically reactive to environmental stimuli, sit in judgment to decide whether a given person (not themselves) is or is not utterly (or at least significantly) reacting to the environment: a decision that carries subsequent conclusions about notions such as ‘ethical responsibility’ (although I must defer that particular issue until Section Four). The jury may say ‘This man was not responsible for his actions’; what they really mean, however, is that although the man is responsible for his actions (whatever those may be), the behaviors being judged in court were not his actions. They were the equivalent of a sneeze, even if rather more complex. This is the difference between a sick man, and a guilty man.
Or, put another way: if an atheist posted a defense of atheism on a website, and then added that the beliefs and arguments represented in his letter were purely the result of his automatic response to environmental conditioning, I do not think his defense would be considered worth listening to (assuming we believed he was serious about his explanation for his own beliefs). At best someone might charitably write in: ‘Don’t worry; I ran through your argument and you seem to be on target anyway’–a response which itself would only have weight for the original ‘argument’ as an argument, if the charitable responder was presumed or concluded to be doing something herself other than merely responding automatically to her environment.
I don’t think it is possible to jump off the shadow of real action. A presumed and commonly accepted distinction between action and reaction (whatever words we use to describe the distinction) is irreducibly and irreplaceably fundamental to the acceptability of a formal argument.