Monthly Archives: February 2011

Argument About Argument

I recently read Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape. I’ve always loved his ability to argue reasonably and rationally, this time on a subject that even atheists have a hard time agreeing with – that morality can be defined by science. He makes a strong case, bringing up every objection to his hypothesis and quashing them. It would seem, as I’ve read the critiques of this book, that people disagree with him not because they don’t believe he’s right, but because it’s objectionable to believe it. I don’t have a hard time believing things that I don’t want to believe in, and have no trouble seeing Harris’ logic and agreeing.

The pages contain a very profound message about the attempts to persuade people from their beliefs, and I thought I’d share it before expanding on it.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put forward a very influential thesis about moral judgment known as the “social-intuitionist model.” In a widely referenced article entitled “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,” Haidt summarizes our predicament this way: [O]ur moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the“wag-the-dog” illusion: We believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion: In a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of our opponents’ arguments to change our opponents’ minds. Such a belief is analogous to believing that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy.
I make moral arguments all the time, and I expect that these are based on moral reasoning. I have sound logical backing for this idea, as almost everything I believe morally is the result of hours of research and personal contemplation. However, I will always be biased to think that this is true even when it isn’t. It’s an inescapable bias.
Second, I believe that if I make an argument and it can’t be rationally answered, that I’ll win over my audience. It’s possible to persuade others, but as Haidt puts it, this is largely as “illusion”. For instance, I’ve remarked about contradictions within the bible. Some of these are absurdly hard to rationally answer, such as “When did Jesus drive the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem?” There are 3 different dates given in the bible. The link here is to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which allows Christian authors to post rebuttals to things such as found contradictions, but you’ll notice this one doesn’t have a posted answer. It’s likely to be impossible to give a logical answer to this.
And yet, I’ve put forward arguments like this to my Christian friends, expecting them to concede that an unanswerable challenge to the literal truth of the bible should change their minds. It hasn’t. It doesn’t. The human brain simply doesn’t work like this, although from an objective standpoint it ought to. If you asked somebody if an argument based on factual evidence that has no reasonable counter-response would change their mind, you’ll almost always get positive feedback… until you give them an example that contradicts one of their own held beliefs. Faith is only convincing to it’s subscribers… but that doesn’t change the fact that it does convince them, against common sense.
Now is the point where you’re probably thinking “you’re a hypocrite”. Would my own mind be changed by a rational argument that I couldn’t rebut? YES. I’m not in the majority when it comes to faith. My mind is often changed by argument, as I read debates on political, scientific, and religious topics. When I gain new evidence, I always weigh it against the evidence at hand and come to a new (or unchanged) belief. I’m not worried about being consistent… I’m worried about being right. You’ll often hear me respond to criticism, and this doesn’t mean that my mind is unchangeable. The response you hear will be me, presenting the evidence on the other side of the scale for you to weigh. If I believe that you’re right, I’ll admit it. I really do believe that if I can’t reasonably respond, then I’m probably wrong. Do you keep this same open mind, dear reader? I can only hope so.
Does this mean that I’ll stop putting forth debates because I’m not likely to change minds? No. Hitting a brick wall is merely a challenge. There’s no reason a challenge should stop somebody from pursuing what they believe is right. And I believe that it is right that people be skeptical of their value systems, just as Christians believe that Muslims should be skeptical of their value systems. What’s good for the goose really is good for the gander, and nobody should be exempt from self-criticism. And I’ll continue to present reasons why Christians should re-evaluate their beliefs until the day that this religion passes away like the once-widespread belief in Greek Mythology, on the same principles… under examination, its core is superstition, not fact.
-Supernova

Selective Sampling

The above video shows Ray Comfort “proving” Intelligent Design through use of a banana. Many people are familiar with this argument, especially since ID theory doesn’t actually have a lot of evidence… typically the strategy is to try to disprove evolution and say that ID must be true if evolution isn’t. I won’t be the first to debunk it… not by far. But I’d like to use this argument as an example of selective sampling, an idea that I’ve brought up before but haven’t defined.

Remember my blog about weighing evidence? I introduced a court case with heavy evidence against the defendant, but said that wouldn’t be enough to sway the defendant’s mother. Her biased account of the case would be selective sampling – taking just the data points that support a point of view and pretending the rest of the body of evidence doesn’t exist.

When Ray Comfort talks about the convenience of the banana, he expects us to believe this represents all fruit. Obviously he believes that all plants have been created, but he’s not discussing inconvenient foods such as the pineapple, pumpkin, or tapioca. He just chose one fruit that supports his argument and ignores the rest.

Not only does he gloss over all of the other fruits, but he doesn’t mention the inconveniences of the banana. Bananas may be easy to peel, but that’s not as convenient as an edible skin such as found on the apple… it’s still got a peel that you have to throw away. It doesn’t contain enough nutrients to eat by itself. And the fruit inside may be accessible, but the fruit itself isn’t… banana trees in the wild are very tall and practically unscalable.

Banana trees on farms are generally not tall or unscalable, and this particular fruit is – just like Ray Comfort says – pretty convenient. But they weren’t always this way, because of artificial selection. Artificial selection is the human-caused version of natural selection, a basic component of evolution. If Ray Comfort truly understood this, he wouldn’t ever bring up bananas. But he only sees one side of the argument, and only wants you to see that side.

-Supernova


Faith is Overrated

In Genesis Chapter 3 of the bible, there is a story in which Eve is tempted to commit the world’s first sin. I imagine you’re familiar with the story, but you’ve probably never considered it in the context of faith. It was her faith that led to the fall of man.

God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and told them not to eat from it or they would die. He must have assumed they would take him on faith, although I’m certain he could’ve proven that it was true. He was fully aware that they’d never had experience with temptation or deception, but apparently wasn’t worried that they’d run into these. He was wrong.

Eve then ate from this Tree because a talking snake told her to do it. Did she treat its words skeptically? Did she ask for evidence from the snake to prove its claim (that it would make her like God)? Obviously not. But if she had been skeptical, she wouldn’t have sinned.

If she had acted skeptically, she might have noted that a talking snake is abnormal. A snake has a cleft palate, fangs and tongue that are useless for speech, no lips, and no vocal chords. Upon hearing a snake talk, it would’ve been logical for her to question her sanity*, or wonder about this origin of this snake. The bible claims this snake was the Devil, and if she had known that then she probably would’ve acted differently.

Faith can turn people into suckers. Suppose I offer to sell you a mansion in the Bahamas for a mere $100. If you’re smart, you’ll want evidence that this mansion exists and also that I own it and can sell it. You’ll also want verification of the sale before you part with your money. If you’re a fool, you’ll take my offer on faith and then hope that I wasn’t swindling you.

Christians place great value on faith. They’ll say that it’s needed in Heaven, but believe contradictorily that they’ll have perfect knowledge in Heaven, which makes faith obsolete. They may say we have faith because we’re made in the image of God, and yet God has perfect knowledge and doesn’t need faith, either. God is not a “sucker”, is he? Then why did he create us to be (and demand that we be) suckers?

Faith isn’t good for anything except friendship. Putting faith in our friends shows that we trust them, and that strengthens friendship. But in every other area of our lives we should look for evidence, and put faith in the ideas that are well-supported with the strongest factual proof. You may argue that this isn’t really faith at all… and I agree. Let’s get rid of faith whenever possible, and instead live like rational people.

-Supernova

*Atheists question the sanity of anyone who believes in the literal truth of this story. Snakes can’t talk, even when possessed, because they lack the physical hardware. Why would the Devil use a body that was not only useless for this purpose but ugly as well? And where was God while the Devil was deceiving Eve? God blamed humans for their mistake, but failed to recognize that He could’ve very easily prevented it… if He weren’t so lazy.


Ten New Commandments

It’s remarkable that Christians look at the 10 Commandments with awe. It’s no accident – they are, after all, the only words that God felt were important enough to write himself (and in stone). Strangely, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he told his followers what the greatest and second greatest were… and neither of them were among “the” commandments. I think this is because Jesus recognized the ten commandments as being foolish, and his actions showed this, too. He didn’t honor the sabbath, and said that it was made for man rather than for God. He didn’t honor his mother when she came to visit him, and instead said that those who did God’s will were his “brother and sister and mother”. And in all his teachings, he didn’t repeat these commands or draw attention to them.

It’s also remarkable that the bible is so boring. Men, God’s creations, wrote better than He did. Shakespeare was clearly not a Christian, so God can’t even claim partial credit for inspiring his wonderful plays that are still re-read and pondered over today.

It’s in this spirit that I’m writing my own personal ten commandments. I think I can do a much better job than he did (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife?” Seriously, that’s more important than “Thou shalt not beat thy own wife”?). These commandments carry no penalty of eternal torment, or a death penalty, or even a slap on the wrist. But I believe they do lead to personal peace and growth.

Supernova’s Ten Commandments:

1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

2. Treat everyone as equals. Be fair to everyone. Do not give or demand special treatment.

3. Respect the opinions of others and allow them to disagree with you.

4. Presume innocence until proven guilty. Be careful not to ruin another person’s reputation.

5. Be careful before judging others. Be willing to see the world from another person’s point of view.

6. Be skeptical of new ideas, but don’t close your mind to them. Ask for evidence and seek knowledge.

7. Don’t harm or injure animals except in matters of human safety or survival.

8. Raise your children to be safe, healthy, and kind towards others. Allow them to have their own beliefs, opinions, and personalities. Don’t treat them like slaves.

9. If you hurt someone, fix the mistake if possible and apologize. Don’t repeat your mistake.

10. Be quick to forgive a mistake that is openly admitted and honestly regretted.

There’s nothing on this list about lying or stealing or murdering, but the first commandment prevents that. In fact, that one commandment covers the rest pretty nicely, too. It isn’t called “The Golden Rule” for nothing. And it is actually from the bible… but somehow didn’t crack the top ten.

-Supernova


Theodicy

Let’s imagine you’re standing on a street corner and beside you is a young girl. A car comes to a screeching halt in front of you. Suddenly a door opens, a man rushes out, and he grabs the child. As she kicks and screams in resistance, it becomes clear to you that you’re witnessing an abduction, and it’s likewise clear that you’re the only person close enough to prevent it. Do you intervene?

No? Let’s further imagine that you’re incredibly powerful, so that your intervention can’t possibly fail or put you in any danger. Do you intervene?

No? Let’s assume that this girl is not a stranger but rather someone that you love dearly. Saving her will cause her to love and praise you for the rest of her life. You now have motive and incentive, too. Do you intervene?

No? Seriously??? Well, I shouldn’t be so surprised, because God would give the same answer.*

————————————————–

God claims to be omniscient and omnipresent, which puts Him at that street corner every time this situation arises. He’s omnipotent, so there’s never a question about whether He can prevent it. He loves you, so it makes sense that He doesn’t want to see you get hurt. He claims to protect you – he has the hairs of your head numbered – although I personally wonder why he doesn’t even protect these numbered hairs against the most routine shower, let alone from evil men who would want to hurt me.

This situation is not hypothetical. In the US alone, a child is kidnapped every other minute on average. Many of them are in no danger, but some of them are raped or beaten or killed. This happens under the watchful eye of a God who claims to hate such evil.

In many of the United States, it is illegal to simply watch a criminal act without intervening because of the Good Samaritan laws (you’ll notice the name is taken from a parable that Jesus told in which he admonished Jews to help a person that needed it, no matter who the person was). This intervention can be as simple as calling the police, which is perfectly acceptable (given the personal danger often involved). But I believe that the population in general doesn’t need to be threatened with prosecution in order to motivate us to action, because it’s against our nature. But isn’t it also against God’s nature? What’s His excuse?

This is the problem of Theodicy, and we should consider it solved. These attributes that we’ve given God aren’t all there (you’ll notice I cited scripture for each one). I believe God isn’t all of these things because He’s none of these things – He just doesn’t exist. But I can’t prove it.

But even if He did exist, then what is the real benefit of a relationship with Him? He has complete authority over you – he treats you like a slave (the apostle Paul even suggests that you be a bondservant, or “willing slave”). He punishes you when you disobey Him, and promises eternal torment if you distrust Him. And He doesn’t even protect you from natural disasters, accidents, or from the very evil that He claims to hate. On this basis, I strongly recommend that the Bride of Christ dump Him. You can do better.

-Supernova

*I’m assuming an answer of “no” throughout this series of questions, but if you answered “yes” then congratulations! You are more moral than God.


Scientist are Atheists

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – scientists don’t believe in God. Why not? Because what makes them scientists is also what makes them skeptical of unsupported claims of fact. And religion makes claims that it doesn’t have evidence for.

Let’s take the example of Heaven. No one living has seen it, and even if they did, you’d have to consider the bias of the source (refer to my last blog). Such a claim will invariably come from a religious observer, which gives them reason to lie and gives you good reason to doubt them. Heaven is untestable – it’s considered unreachable and unobservable.  It has no measurable properties, and it doesn’t leave measurable evidence anywhere around where it is or was… that is to say, you can’t measure it by its “wake” as you can with other traveling objects in space.

So with no proof of Heaven, you’d think that Christians would be skeptical of this. After all, they claim to believe in scientific methods, and they also claim that their faith is not blind. So does your average Christian believe Heaven is just a hypothesis? Of course not. Heaven’s existence is written about in a book (a book that claims it’s true!) and that is all the evidence they need. It should be obvious that this is not real evidence. Even if we were to say that we can’t find a fallacy in the bible (and we’ve found plenty), that still wouldn’t prove that everything in it is true. The encyclopedia aspires to be true and has no motive for being false, but it is still possible for the encyclopedia to have errors. We trust in such a book, but we would never call it irrefutable – and in the past when I’ve used Wikipedia for source material, I’ve had its contents refuted to me by Christians. Nor would we say that something is true “because it’s in the encyclopedia”… even the encyclopedia has to have good evidence in support of its claims (unless it has a disclaimer such as “some people believe that…”).

Most of the time, if you argue science with a Christian, you’ll find yourself defending evolution. This is because Christians don’t have a problem with any scientific idea that doesn’t directly refute the bible – they’re not anti-science. But this is simply a wrong tack, because even if they could disprove evolution, that still wouldn’t prove God’s existence. They make claims such as “complexity requires a designer”, and they say it as if that phrase has ever been proven. It hasn’t. They may even say “design requires a designer”, as if the appearance of design is the same as design. And even if, after all their work, they could prove that the universe was created by a God, that still wouldn’t prove that this God is personal, answers prayer, or is good rather than evil. Even harder is the proof of a specific God… if a god created the universe, why not Allah? That will never be proven by any scientific method, but will fall back on faith – blind faith.

It’s frustrating to debate with a Christian, because they don’t think like a scientist. We (scientists) believe that a proposition is false until proven true. With the religious, a proposition is true until proven false. This doesn’t logically work. Bertrand Russell was a mathematician/philosopher who claimed a teapot orbited the Earth. The teapot was undetectable by radar, was invisible, and gave off no tell-tale signatures like heat. He made this claim and challenged it to be disproved… and of course, it can’t be. But this was an example to show that anybody could claim anything, and it’s up to the person making the claim to provide evidence. As Bertrand Russell also said, “We may all have come into existence five minutes ago, provided with ready-made memories, with holes in our socks and hair that needed cutting.” But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s reasonable.

Atheists and scientists alike are skeptics. Before we believe what you have to say, you should be ready to back it up with evidence. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe it or how many people believe it, because the human brain is easily deceived (as skeptics love to demonstrate). Faith is what the con man sells, and we’re not buying.

-Supernova