Monday, August 25, 2014

On Debating and Bad Arguments

I've recently started listening to the NPR radio program, Intelligence Squared US.  I listen to various podcasts during my daily commute, and since I typically drive home for lunch I spend about forty minutes in my car daily.  The debates have been quite interesting.  So far I've listened to; Was Edward Snowden Justified?Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad?It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power?, and the last debate for this entry was Does Affirmative Action On Campus Do More Harm Than Good?.  I've also listened to More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete, but I'd like to save that one for its own full entry.  A word about the formatting and "scoring" of these debates; there are four debaters, two for the motion two against.  There are three rounds.  I assume the team that gets to go first is chosen at random because in the five debates I've listened to so far they seem to have alternated who goes first.  Each person gets seven minutes to state his or her case.  The second round is a Q&A session with both sides responding off-the-cuff to questions from the moderator, John Donvan, and audience members about the discussion.  Then the third round is another two minutes of uninterrupted time to state closing arguments (again, I'm not certain of the order I haven't really been keeping track if there's a pattern relating to the first round).  The scoring is fairly simple.  There's a poll taken at the beginning (before the debate) and another poll after the debate and the side whose percentage points change up the most wins the debate.

In, Was Edward Snowden Justified? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 29% against (wow even amounts!), 42% undecided
After: 54% for 35% against -- the side arguing that Snowden was justified won the debate.

What do you think?  I think (and as always my thoughts are my own and not the opinion of the US Gov. or the DoD or the US Air Force) that he was NOT justified.  I have a bit of an interesting point of view on this one, given my job.  But, I know there are multiple avenues through which one can lodge complaints, and I don't feel that Snowden did his due diligence to use them.  I understand that he was working within a system, and that he was dealing with appealing to those that perpetuated the situation itself. However, I feel that there are so many better ways he could have handled what he apparently thought were egregious violations of the constitution.  Also, if he were legitimately worried about the constitution he would have been more judicious in what and how he made the information available.  He released so much stuff (according to the debate and some news articles I read some time ago), that there's no way he could possibly know all the harm that he could be causing to the US and it's allies.  If he were really worried about specific injustices, he should have only dealt with and worked with those specific injustices.  The harm that he did, most certainly outweighs the good (if any), that came from his breaking his oath.

In, Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 44% against, 27% undecided
After: 54% for, 39% against -- the side arguing that the president should have the power to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad won the debate.

Honestly, I am still mostly undecided in this one.  I think that we shouldn't handcuff the executive office when it comes to targeting enemies of the state (regardless of their nationality).  Also, I don't think we should restrict such targeting to specific countries, "war zones," or "hot battlefields" etc.  If we say, we won't target US citizens then terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek to recruit US citizens as a type of human shields.  Also, if we restrict our targeting to "hot battlefields" like Afghanistan, the terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek the "safety" of Pakistan and other neighboring countries.  I'm undecided because I think the constitution restricts such power in certain circumstances, but I think that in certain circumstances the power is under the executive's authority to wage war.  The side that argued for the motion did a much better job arguing than the opposing side.  The opposition's numbers actually went down, which is the first and only time I've seen that so far.

In, It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power? the results were:
Before: 25% for, 43% against, 32% undecided
After: 35% for, 58% against -- the side that argued that Russia is not a marginal power won the debate.

I am against the motion, but I feel that though Russia's once-world-superpower status still exists in a certain degree, it is quickly losing it's global meaningfulness and might even someday fade into obscurity.  I doubt that it will happen any time soon and it can be turned around with strong leadership, but it's current road is one towards weakness.

In, Does Affirmative Action (AfAc) On Campus Do More Harm Than Good? the results were:
Before: 22% for, 48% against, 30% undecided
After: 36% for, 55% against -- the side arguing for the motion changed their percentage of votes the most and though they had a lower percentage at the end, they are considered the winners of the debate.

This is a tough one, as it really doesn't apply to me and I don't really know many people to whom it would apply.  I feel like the side that won, those arguing for the motion that AfAc does more harm than good, made better arguments.  The side against, seemed to focus on emotional pleas and things like appeals to 50 years ago status quo.  They had an easier case to my mind, but they didn't make a very strong argument.  The side that argued for the motion cited multiple, peer-reviewed studies that showed that when weaker students were given AfAc bonuses to get into higher-level schools and programs they typically failed out and ended up being discouraged and dropping out altogether.  The much better option would be to place students appropriately according to their abilities and have them in a place that is better suited for their level and they complete their studies and go on to be better, more productive members of society.

What's the point of all this you may ask . . . Well, I've been thinking.  What makes a good argument?  Do passionate pleas of how the status quo is wrong and needs to be changed make good arguments?  I'm not willing to rule out all appeals to emotion, as after all, we're emotional beings.  We should, at least a little, think and act with our hearts rather than our minds.  But, what about issues like the AfAc question?  On the emotional side it seems wrong to criticize a system that has, or at least has as its core goal, helped so many that are unable help themselves; victims of a bad system of sorts.  But, should we let our hearts overrule our minds?  If there are legitimate studies that show the program doesn't work, should we maintain it, just because it's goal is to help these "victims"?

In the Snowden debate, one of the primary arguments against him being justified was the amount of irreparable damage his actions caused.  Is that a very powerful argument?  On its own, I'd say, no.  Just the amount one steals doesn't make it worse.  I know it's somewhat countercultural, but I believe that if one steals a $.05 pencil from one's place of work that person is just as guilty of stealing as the multimillion dollar embezzler.  I do NOT feel that the punishment of those crimes should necessarily be the same.  (I know what some of you might be thinking, "But wait, doesn't the God that you claim to believe in do that?" "Sentencing everyone to Hell regardless of the degree to which one sins!"  You'd be wrong, in fact, because the punishment for sin is death of which everyone is guilty and must submit to, but the punishment of Hell is for the ultimate in rejecting God's forgiveness.  People are not sent to Hell because of their sins, they are sent to Hell for the specific sin of rejecting God.)

I do have some difficulty listening to these arguments dispassionately sometimes.  I have certain arguments in mind when I hear the topic (sometimes, the debate about Russia's marginalism really didn't occur to me to be an issue), and when I am listening to the debate I try to divorce my preconceptions from the discussion and only weigh the arguments based on their individual merit(s).  There is no such thing as a complete tabula rasa, and we will always have some kind of bias.  Though to me, it's a hallmark of a truly thoughtful person to be able to examine one's own biases and understand them and keep them in mind when approaching new ideas.

I haven't been out to see the sunset in a while!  Need to make some time for it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Atheist Answers “20 Short Arguments Against God’s Existence” (Reblog)

I don't usually do this, in fact it's my first time, but I'm reblogging an article I recently ran across from the atheist blogger Boxing Pythagoras. His piece "An Atheist Answers '20 Short Arguments Against God’s Existence'" is one of the best, most honest atheist pieces I've ever read. Without further ado:

This single-panel comic strip succinctly and adequately describes the bulk of my interaction with the other citizens of the Internet over the last couple of decades. If you think that this is an exaggeration, I’ll refer you to my wife, who will attest that we have had some version of this conversation many, many times. I simply have a strange attraction to correcting bad arguments and inane claims, whenever I see them. Now, since I am an avowed and outspoken atheist, one might think that this generally culminates in my conversing with the religious. However, I tend to spend just as much time correcting many of the lies, misconceptions, and really bad arguments that embedded themselves into the modern humanist/materialist/atheist subculture as I spend in debunking poor religious apologetics. The simple fact that someone’s end point-of-view agrees with mine does not make their claims right. Just like in High School math, it doesn’t matter if you stumbled upon the correct answer; you show your work because the process of finding that answer is more important than the answer itself.
To that end, when I saw a video called “20 Short Arguments Against God’s Existence,” by Hemant Mehta, posted on the Friendly Atheist blog, I knew I was going to have to respond.

1. There’s no evidence

This is actually quite untrue. There’s a good bit of evidence. Particularly anecdotal evidence from believers. This is a common mantra among atheists, but it’s a very bad one to utilize because it is blatantly untrue. When engaging in a persuasive dialogue with a believer, if one of your foundational arguments is as thoroughly untrue as this statement, it gives your audience a reason to immediately dismiss your position.

A better, more accurate claim would be, “I am not aware of any demonstrable evidence which is convincing.” This claim is honest, acknowledging that we don’t have complete knowledge and that there may exist something of which we are unaware. It also clarifies that we are referring to evidence which can be verified by outside parties, eliminating things like anonymous anecdotes and personal revelation from the mix. Finally, this statement acknowledges that some things which seem like good evidence to a believer are wholly unpersuasive to a non-believer– for example, the fine-tuning of the universe or current ignorance as to the process by which abiogenesis may have occurred.

2a. God doesn’t stop the evil in the world

Theodicy, or the Problem of Evil, has been a very common question in philosophy for more than two millennia. As such, it is a question which has been tackled by theistic philosophers and theologians for nearly as long. Unless you are familiar with this area of philosophy– particularly Alvin Plantinga’s work, which is extremely commonly cited by modern apologists– it’s quite likely that a believer will dismiss you as being uninformed on the subject.

2b. According to the Bible, God caused a lot of evil


3. Drowning everything alive is not a sign of love


4. The opening lines of the Bible are factually wrong

Firstly, arguing against the deity described by the Bible does not constitute a very convincing argument against theism, in general. At best, it might show that the Jewish or Christian conceptions of God are flawed. However, it says nothing at all about whether a God exists.

More importantly, however, is that most atheists tend to be wildly ignorant of the fields of hermeneutics and exegesis. They are so used to dealing with fundamentalist Christians who interpret the Bible literally that they are completely unaware that the majority of Judaism and Christianity has never thought this was the proper way to read the text. Atheists who are unfamiliar with hermeneutics are likely to be quickly dismissed by Christians with even a rudimentary knowledge of this process.

5. Prayer has never fixed anything physically impossible [to fix]

The follow-up question being, “Why won’t God heal amputees?” This is, again, an example of conflating a broad and general belief (“God exists”) with specific claims about that belief (“prayer to God can lead to miraculous healing”). Invalidating the latter does not necessarily invalidate the former. There are plenty of theists who do not believe in any miraculous healings.
Furthermore, the idea that the primary purpose of prayer is to request things for oneself from God is a common misconception on the part of atheists, and not one shared by the majority of theists. Yet again, displaying ignorance of someone’s beliefs often makes it very easy for them to dismiss your arguments, entirely.

6. There are thousands of gods you don’t believe in

Followed by, “What makes yours any different?” Given half an opportunity, a great many theists would absolutely love to tell you about why their god or gods are different from those claimed by others. This is especially true for anyone with even a modicum of apologetics training.

7. Where you are born determines what you believe

This is a particularly egregious fallacy. Noting that people in similar geographic areas tend to have similar beliefs says nothing at all about the veracity of any of those beliefs. This is a version of the argumentum ad populum fallacy, and we should strive to avoid fallacious arguments whenever possible, if our aim is to convince others of the rationality of our own beliefs.

8. Who created God? And how does your answer make any sense?

Once again, displaying one’s ignorance of the millennia of philosophy and theology regarding this question is not very likely to be convincing to anyone with even a modicum of experience in these fields. If you are not familiar with the concepts of non-contingency and eternity, or with the manner in which these concepts are applied to deity in classical theology, you really should not be asking this question. And if you are familiar with these things, you would not be asking this question.

9. Pediatric cancer

This goes right back to 2a and the discussion of the Problem of Evil. Again, if you are not familiar with the philosophy which has been done in this field, you are not going to be convincing to anyone, let alone strong believers.

10. Unconditional love shouldn’t come with a list of conditions

Similar to 5, Mehta is again conflating the general claim over God’s existence with specific claims about God’s nature. Commenting on the latter says nothing at all about the former.

11. Every single supposed miracle gets debunked

There are actually quite a few “supposed miracles” which have not been debunked. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches tend to be particularly adept at listing such events. Amongst Catholic apologists, the Incorruptibles and Our Lady of Fatima are particularly popular. While it is far from convincing, to a non-believer, that these anomalous events were supernatural in origin, neither can it be claimed that these things have been clearly shown to be falsely portrayed (which is the meaning of “debunked”).

12. The 10 Commandments left off “Don’t rape” and “Slavery is bad”

Another instance of conflating the general and the specific, as well as another instance of objectionable interpretation of someone else’s beliefs. Generally, “your god doesn’t behave the way non-believers want a god to behave” is not the most convincing argument.

13. The movies and music that honor God are just awful

While there are some fairly prominent examples of bad Christian art, today, this claim is preposterously overbroad. Even as an atheist, I can absolutely proclaim that much of the best and most beautiful art ever produced has been religious in nature. If we are talking about music, it’s incredibly easy to find extremely good pieces which were written to honor God– Gregorian chants, classical and baroque pieces, choir music, gospel music, and much more. In film, focusing on a terrible movie like “God’s Not Dead” without acknowledging the magnificence of a movie like “The Ten Commandments” is simply willful ignorance.

14. The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike


15. No hide-and-seek game lasts this long

Radio waves. Gravity. Dark matter and dark energy. We don’t have to go far to acknowledge a number of invisible things which are almost certainly extant. It’d be better to compare the entirely undetectable with the non-existent, but I wouldn’t even recommend that unless two conditions are first met: your opposition has made the claim that God is entirely undetectable, and you are at least somewhat familiar with the arguments for and against Verificationist philosophy.

16. Science explains so much of what we used to attribute to a god


17. The more we learn, the less reason we have to believe in God

Scientific understanding of a phenomenon is not mutually exclusive with the attribution of that phenomenon’s explanation to a god. For example, the people over at the BioLogos foundation will completely agree with all of mainstream biology that the complexity of life can be understood through a combination of the blind processes of genetic variance and natural selection. Understanding the way in which it works does not preclude one from attributing the way in which it works to a god.

18. Explaining your mythology makes you sound crazy

Explaining that the Earth moves around the Sun to someone who has never heard it before sounds pretty crazy, too. Explaining that Time shifts and bends in accordance with an observer’s acceleration or velocity sounds crazy. Explaining that there is an infinite quantity of real numbers that are greater than 1 and less than 2 sounds crazy. “That sounds crazy” is not a particularly good epistemological qualifier.

19. If God didn’t exist, the world would look exactly the same

This is just blatant question-begging. Mehta assumes God is not necessary to the world in order to argue that God does not exist. One cannot claim to be supporting a more rational view than his opposition while supporting that view with logical fallacies.

20. If God existed, he would smite me right now

This is one of the most juvenile, ignorant, and fallacious of all the arguments which could be made against God’s existence. Making this claim is like declaring to your audience, “I have absolutely no intention of addressing my opposition’s beliefs in a fair and rational manner.” You might as well just stick your fingers in your ears and scream, “Nuh-uh!”

The Real Problem

My contention against Hemant Mehta’s “20 Short Arguments” is more than just the sum of its fallacious parts. The real problem is that even attempting to formulate arguments against the existence of God unnecessarily assumes a burden of proof which does not naturally belong to the skeptic. I do not believe in the existence of gods. If someone wants to convince me that some deity exists, the onus is on that person to support their claim. If I want to address the problems in a person’s specific case for the existence of deity, I will do so. However, the minute I try to extend that response into a more general claim about the ontology of deity, I am stepping beyond the role of a skeptic and into the role of a claimant. This is why I tend to steer clear of anti-theist religious antagonism. Why should I take the theist’s burden upon myself?

I do not burden myself with attempting to find arguments against the existence of unicorns or fairies or elves or ghosts or UFO’s. There’s no reason I should do so with God, either.


I have one point I'd like to bring up about "arguments" 2b and 3.

This is a fairly common thing I've read from internet atheists and is a common theme in Dawkins' book The God Delusion. There's a serious problem with critiques like that. If one claims that the God of the Bible did some evil, then one must appeal to some authoritative morality by which one can claim that God did something wrong. If one has no authoritative objective source of morality, then the claim that God has done something wrong rings hollow. It's as powerful as saying, "boo, I don't like that." Your feelings about what I (or anyone else) do or do not do, have no weight. They're just your opinion, and as they say, everyone has an opinion just like everyone has a butthole, and some of them stink. I have every right to dismiss your opinion about what God has or has not done without recourse because so what, you don't like it. If you try to claim some higher authority then what higher authority exists by which you can appeal to judge God?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, and Theists

I once read a post on about defining atheism/agnosticism/theism.  Unfortunately, that entry doesn't appear to be available anymore.  I really liked his diagram so I was quite unhappy to not find it again.  So, I'm going to move forward with my own diagram:
The colors are arbitrary, just the standard colors from Microsoft Word.
Edit: At long last I have finally found the original article, see here.

Now, the original diagram had parts of the extremes cut off.  The original author said he cut off the extremes because there are very few people that hold the extreme positions.  The ideas are NOT from current word usage and more from the traditional concepts behind the actual words.  The word gnostic in the diagram is in no way related to the term given to the heretical view called gnosticism (from ancient Greek) except to use the same Greek term, "γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge" (from Wikipedia).  Also, this table is not an attempt to make new terms.  There is an important distinction to be made though, philosophically.  The discussion about the existence or non-existence of God often asks, "On whom is the burden of proof?"  Well, the burden of proof is on the person that is making the claim.

If a gnostic-atheist stands up and says, "There is no god, and I know it."  That person bears the burden of proving that claim.  Also, the strict (original meaning of the term) agnostic, if he/she stands up and claims, "We cannot know whether or not god does or does not exist."  That too is a claim and must be defended.  Likewise, if the gnostic-theist says, "I know there is a God."  Then he/she must prove it.  Now, this is all philosophically speaking, and thinking like a debate wherein there are rules by which one must abide.  If, you're simply seeking a worldview that makes sense, there aren't really "rules," it becomes more about what evidences and arguments to which one is willing to listen.

I would argue that no truly honest thinking person would ever be on the top half of this diagram.  Here's the problem though, people talk "big talk" and in books, lectures, blogs, etc.  People talk like they know one way or another when really all the "gnostic" positions are lying to themselves and everyone else.  Here's something I heard a while back from Ravi Zacharias and lately I read from an apologist on Facebook, and though I don't know the exact words I'll try to capture it the way it comes to my mind:
To absolutely affirm a negative, is to claim infinite knowledge.  To affirm the negative that there is no God, is to claim infinite knowledge that there is no being that has infinite knowledge.
I assume you see the contradiction there, though some don't see how affirming a negative is claiming infinite knowledge.  Here's one way to think about it, I affirm the negative that there are no such thing as unicorns (an affirmation of the negative).  That means I know for certain that there are no unicorns anywhere or at any time.  Ironically, unicorns are often used as examples of things that everyone knows don't exist.  There's an interesting conundrum with that claim.  Take the initial premise that there are an infinite number of universes, a multiverse.  *This is a common claim which runs counter to the claim that the universe is uniquely fine-tuned for the existence of our galaxy and life itself.  So, here we are with an infinite number of universes, and within at least one of those universes a unicorn must exist.  If you don't think so, then you are misunderstanding the concept of infinite!

Back to the diagram.  There are so many positions on this continuum.  There's rarely anyone on the far extremes, but there are lots of people that sit somewhere in the middle.  People that don't think there's a god, but allow that there might be one.  People that think there might be a god, but aren't sure about his/her/its existence.  There are people that don't care and sit right in the middle.  Let's not redefine terms, let's stick to these ideas.  Language is vague and that makes things difficult.  People might say, "I'm an atheist," and they're really saying they're an agnostic-atheist.  Same with theists, some claim that God exists, and if they're being honest they mean they're pretty sure that God exists, but they're not sure.  I often hear internet-atheists claim that atheists aren't making claims at all, which is pure ignorance.  If you say you don't believe in god because there's no evidence you're not being honest with yourself or those you're dealing with.  There is plenty of evidence, the problem isn't the lack of evidence, it's what you will accept as evidence.  Will you accept a simple straightforward argument?  If not, if you try to explain it away with some kind of untestable theory (like the aforementioned multiverse) then it's not about a lack of evidence, it's about outright dismissal of evidence.

Edit: After a short conversation with a coworker there may be an edit in order for affirming a negative.  Here's a possible exception to the idea that affirming a negative requires infinite knowledge.  If I make the claim that there is no such thing as a square circle, I do not think it requires infinite knowledge to affirm a philosophically contradictory claim.  So, to say, there is no such thing as a square circle or a married bachelor, is affirming an already established contradiction and does not require infinite knowledge.  Here's an interesting point that this route would take an atheist should he/she go down the route of philosophical arguments.  Many atheists, including John Loftus (though to be fair, he only speaks out against the philosophy of religion and not philosophy itself), are against philosophy, and for good reason too.  Looking at this site, the logical arguments against theism are just weak.  I'm only an elementary philosopher and I can see through these arguments like glass.  Also, in all my discussions with atheists both face-to-face and online, they have always appealed to science.  In fact, all I've ever heard from atheists, including in their books, is the mantra "science, science, science."  Philosophy is on God's side, in a manner of speaking.