Sunday, May 04, 2008

Atheism and reasoning

Atheism is, of course, minimally defined as lacking belief in gods, i.e. supernatural beings. However, the logical and metaphysical underpinnings of that lack of belief is an important component of atheism. Atheism is — to a considerable fraction of actual atheists — not simply an arbitrary choice on a menu of superstitious, unfalsifiable beliefs but rather a position about truth and rationality. It's not simply that atheism is just as legitimate as any particular religious belief, it's that atheism is true and theism false... or, worse, simply vacuous and not even wrong.

This position on truth is to some degree inherent to atheism; the religious, however, have not exactly been passive about making their own truth-claims about religion. Religion is rationally indefensible, thus those who attempt to "rationally" defend religion have to rely on some characteristic logical fallacies. These fallacies have been so often used in religious apologetics that they have become tropes*. It's useful, I think, to explore the use of these tropes in a non-theistic context.

*Were I a better scholar, I would document the use of these tropes in religious apologetics. But I'm an indifferent scholar, and anyone who's done his time on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board will immediately recognize them.

Planet Atheism member Evanescent and one of his commenters give us a clear example of a few of these tropic religious fallacies in a non-theistic context in his post Ultimate Value and Morality.

Poisoning the Well

This fallacy is well-represented in theistic discourse. I've lost count of the number of times a new theistic member will start off his or her first post on IIDB asserting that atheists are closed-minded, dogmatic or just plain stupid. This might or might not be a valid conclusion, but to adopt such a position at the onset is clearly a defensive measure: when one's arguments are rebutted, the theist can say, "See! I told you atheists were closed-minded." Also, a pejorative introduction tends to annoy people, which allows the theist to express shock, dismay and contempt at the hostility of his or her response.

We see the exact same fallacy in Evanescent's original post:
I had a discussion briefly with several atheists on other blog [sic] that [sic] fancied themselves critics of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. ...

[E]very other New Age Atheist feels themselves qualified to attack Ayn Rand on philosophical grounds when they haven’t the slightest clue what they’re talking about. It’s pretty embarrassing.

One point that was raised again and again was: why is life the ultimate value? One commenter even asked me for empirical proof to justify this statement, a question that belies gross philosophical ignorance. ... [W]hat I criticise is those who pretend to know what they’re talking about and cover it in all the usual postmodern philosophical rubbish to make it seem like they do. (If you want an example of this nonsense, wait until one of these philosophy students says something like “but how do you even KNOW you exist??”)
Note that this exposition precedes the actual argument and does not cite or identify particular instances of clueless or ignorant behavior; its status as a Poisoning the Well fallacy is unambiguous.

Handwaving Fallacy

The handwaving fallacy (similar to the Courtier's Reply) is the confident assertion that the substantiation or proof of some assertion can be found in an unspecified place in some large body of work. Theists often employ this fallacy with reference to scripture or commentary. When faced with a criticism that some particular interpretation of scripture is not justified by the immediate text, theists will often simply assert that the justification for the interpretation can be found "in other scripture".

We see the same sort of fallacy in Ergo's comment:
For example, life is not only the ultimate value (thus being at the apex of the value-hierarchy) but also the standard for all values (thus synergestically reinforcing the valuation of all other values). ...

For a full exploration of this view, read the works of Objectivist philosophers.
Since the issue directly at hand is whether or not life is indeed the "ultimate value", the appeal to the "works of Objectivist philosophers" is clearly a handwaving fallacy.

Hopping from leg to leg

Alan Sokal said, “When one analyzes [post-modernist and deconstruction] writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true.”

DagoodS coined the phrase "hopping from leg to leg"* to characterize this sort of fallacy, a subset of the equivocation fallacy. If an assertion has an ambiguous meaning, the fallacious tactic is to defend the trivially true meaning and equivocate that defense as substantiation of the radical meaning.

*Dagood, I distinctly remember reading this phrase on your blog, but I can't find the post; it was probably in one of your comments (where you shamefully bury some of your best work). Can you help me out?

In comment 22 Evanescent defends the trivially true interpretation that (good?) values enhance one's life, which trivially follows from the definition of "value" as that which enhances one's life.
Because [the absence of pain] make[s] life enjoyable to live. Pleasure is the physical/emotional reward for achieving one’s goals.
However, he hops to the other leg immediately afterwards:
But to what are these goals directed? [Life!]
Anyone even passingly familiar with Rand's work understands the other leg. The core of her moral philosophy is a supposedly rational evaluation of whether some value is pro-life* or anti-life. The banal and trivially true observation that values by definition are what enhances one's own life is substantively different from the idea that values can be differentiated on the basis of whether they do or do not enhance one's life.

*The similarity to the common label for anti-abortion politics is presumably unintentional.

Framing Perseveration

Framing perseveration is the repeated insistence on a frame or context to a question or assertion after the frame itself has been questioned or controverted. The use in theistic apologetics is rampant, usually in the form of, "Who created the universe, then?" even after explanation that the question itself presupposes the answer.

We see frame perseveration in Evanescent's repetition of demand to name an alternative ultimate value in comments 15 and 19. Admittedly, only two instances is thin evidence for actual perseveration. Comment 15, however, re-establishes the frame specifically in response to my own comment and clarification questioning the frame, and furthermore does so by substantively misrepresenting my own position.

Enthymeme obtusity

An enthymeme is an unspoken premise in a logical argument. The identification of enthymemes in arguments is one of the most basic skills in philosophy and logical argumentation in general. Enthymemes per se are not very objectionable; all philosophers, even mathematicians, take some premises for granted that they consider too obvious to mention. Any logical argument that explicated all of its premises, however trivial, would be too long and too boring to read. No one is perfect, though, and sometimes a controversial enthymeme is required to make a logical argument work. In such cases, the enthymeme has to be explicitly stated so it can be discussed.

Enthymeme obtusity, however, is the objection that one did not actually explicitly state the premise in question. For example, I observe that the dichotomy between ultimate and infinite regress requires the enthymeme (presupposition) of a strict hierarchy. Commenter Ergo responds with enthymeme obtusity: "*YOU* have added to her words the phrase 'strict heirarchy.' It appears nowhere in her argument."

(A particularly amusing example of enthymeme obtusity can be found in Evanescent's outrage at my use of "singular".)

There are, of course, any number of logical fallacies (appeals to authority, assertions treated as arguments) in this thread but the interesting thing is the similarity to the specifically bad-faith logical fallacies found so often in theistic attempts at logical reasoning. Indeed the study of Randian defenses of Rand's philosophy might prove every bit as useful to develop a philosophical education as is the study of religious apologetics.


  1. Note that the definition of "strict hierarchy" is a set where the members have a particular kind of strict less-than (i.e. parent-child) comparability. Every "child" has exactly one direct parent, and a graph of the relationships is not circular: no member can be a child of another member and also a direct or indirect parent of that member.

    (If there exists A and B such that A < B, then there is no element C such that B < C < A.)

    If we add the additional restriction that every member pair shares a common ancestor (which may be one of the two members), then there exists at most one root node.

    (For all members A, B, then either A < B, B < A or there exists a member C such that C < A and C < B.)

    A strict less-than ordering (such as the natural numbers or the integers) adds the additional restriction that all member pairs are less-than comparable.

    (For all elements A and B, A < B or B < A).

    A hierarchy, however, does not require that "cousins" be less-than comparable.

    As far as I know, a strict hierarchy is the weakest ordering from which one can conclude a unique "least" element in a finite set.

  2. We find hopping from leg to let in their equivocation on "value", as well. In my most recent post to evanescent's blog, I identified two distinct interpretations of value, under Objectivism's own definition of the term, and called evanescent out on the BS.

    One interpretation, using their definition, is "a thing or condition that an agent intentionally acts to gain and/or keep", and the other is "a thing or condition that an agent unintentionally acts to gain and/or keep".

    This distinction is important, since we need to know in what sense the prepositional phrase in the definition is meant. On one interpretation, anything my body gains and/or keeps is considered a value, including dog shit when one steps upon it. This is, of course, absurd, and this "mechanistic" interpretation of value should be thrown out if we wish the term to have any useful function.

    We are then left with the intentional interpretation. Only under extremely rare circumstances does a human act so as to knowingly and willfully keep oneself alive--usually, actions are done because they accomplish some other goal, including happiness, pleasure, and other positive emotions--so we see that the mere condition of being alive is almost never a value under the nontrivial Objectivist definition of the term.

    Ergo's reply to my post makes the equivocation, I believe (though I'm not going to reread it right now). We also see the problem of comprehension when evanescent talks about asking for empirical evidence for the statement "life is the ultimate value" as being idiotic and misunderstanding the issue. His explanation uses the "mechanistic" interpretation of their definition of value--the one that has no merit. But under the reasonable interpretation of their definition of "value", the presence of empirical proof is necessary.

    Objectivists are so disappointing.

  3. Oh... I hadn't noticed, but I referred to the same interpretation of the definition of "value" as both "unintentional" and "mechanistic". They are the same.

  4. This is the first time I've fully encountered objectionism although I heard people (boldly) claim that Rands Fountainhead changed their lives, although what exactly it changed was left unclear.

    I found Evanescents argument that animals have no rights interesting as an alternative to the nearly canonical ideas of negative utilitarian and specisism as a defense of animal rights. I cant say I agree with her/his argument though: the conclusion that "..Rights are a moral principle that exist in a social setting to guarantee freedom of action for rational beings" is far too strong to be justified by the premises given. The subsequent examples of a 'right' merely illustrates the point, it does not justify it. Also Eva's dismissal of positive and negative utilitarianism is far too brief and flippant to carry any persuasive weight.

  5. "objectionism"

    Just a little pedantic criticism, but Ayn Rand's philosophy is called "Objectivism" (Rand was female, BTW). Objectives and objections aren't quite the same thing. :P

    What I find interesting about evanescent's view on animals is that a person is immoral and irrational if they torture an animal, but animals have no rights. If memory serves, the defense of at least the immoral part of the claim is one based on a correlation with actual decisively immoral behavior, but not based on causation. I have not seen an argument for the claim that was not confusing and seemingly wrong or incomplete.

    And I think you'll find that evanescent's dismissals of most things brought up is far too brief and flippant to carry any persuasive weight (for non-Objectivists). From my experience, most Objectivists you find online are like this.

  6. In comment 22 Evanescent defends the trivially true interpretation that (good?) values enhance one's life, which trivially follows from the definition of "value" as that which enhances one's life.

    Since you commented on a part that I (was momentarily allowed to) reply, you may find it interesting that my further replies to that thread were deleted as well as your trackbacks. How better to silence the antilogue and preserve groupthink.
    Mark another foul for Objectivists.

  7. Actually I may have meant something else.

    You piqued my interest to see if I could remember the development of this particular phrase I use of “hopping from one leg to another.” After a bit of searching, I came across its inception Here.

    Wow. 3 ½ years ago. Seems like a great deal of water under the bridge since then…

    To explain, we were having a discussion with a Calvinist. Who pointed out that every person saved was predestined (or pre-chosen) to be saved. Then said Calvinist would ask whether we would “accept” the salvation. We would point out how, if we were already predestined to be saved, we had no choice in the matter. If predestined or not; equally we had no choice in the matter.

    As the conversation progressed, we noticed when we asked about lack of choice, the Calvinist would talk about how it was our responsibility. When asked if it was our responsibility, it would be pointed out how we are predestined.

    What became apparent was when it is convenient to have it one way; the theist would rely upon one “leg” of their theory. When asked about how it logically made sense, they would rely upon a contradictory “leg” of their theory. We often see this in the human/divinity argument of Jesus. It goes like this:

    Theist: I have a logically consistent theory. See how I levitate?
    Skeptic: But your left leg is standing on the ground.
    Theist: [puts down right leg and lifts left leg] No it is not. See how it is down?
    Skeptic: You are not levitating; your right leg is down.
    Theist: [puts down left leg and lifts right leg] No it is not. My right leg is lifted.

    Back and forth, never dealing with both legs at the same time, but breaking it up to only deal with one leg at a time.

    Theist: Jesus was tempted like we are:
    Skeptic: So God can sin.
    Theist: [putting down humanity of Jesus and picking up divinity] No God can’t. God cannot sin.
    Skeptic: So if Jesus couldn’t sin; how can he be “tempted” to do something he can’t do?
    Theist: [putting down divinity of Jesus and picking up humanity] Because Jesus was fully human.

    And you can play this back and forth all day long as well.

    I have been following (loosely) the conversation. Is value “life” or is it a “happy life”? The “hopping” I see is that whenever value attempts to be nailed down, it morphs from just life itself to a certain kind of life. And that “kind” may change from person to person, yet objectivism seems to want to claim that “kind” is an absolute.

  8. Yes, Dagood, that's precisely the conversation I remember. No wonder I couldn't find it by searching your blog; I must've read it on IIDB. (BTW: Do you remember SingleDad or PoodleLovinPessimist? That would have been me.)

    The specifically religious fallacies seem to be characterized by a degree of obtuseness that's not typically found in merely bad philosophy. It's not enough to have an equivocation fallacy, they have to actually structure their style of argumentation around preserving the fallacy.

    The sense of deep obtusity is the most important sense, I think, that I wanted to take from your example.

  9. If you guys would like to see some fatal spanking of the Objectivist ethics, and of evanescent and Ergo, I recommend going to evanescent's post now and reading my new comment. Unless it gets deleted for depicting too much intelligence, it is comment 29. I don't see any way they can rationally escape from my argument--I tried to make it as precise as possible, and I even recommended plenty of expositions from a couple critics of Objectivism.

    Enjoy the destruction.

  10. "And that “kind” may change from person to person, yet objectivism seems to want to claim that “kind” is an absolute."

    And that is precisely why Objectivism has a subjective element, although followers don't recognize this.

    An explanation of exactly why it is subjective can be found here:

  11. @Mark C: You have just been "handwaved" away. B00YaH!

    What? You consider this fallacy? Why you lowly irrational peasant...

  12. What a fucking cowardly bastard Ergo is.

    Thank you for alerting me to his responses, db0. His cowardice makes me feel a bit good, actually. :P

  13. I am not familiar with all the discussions to which that blog post refers because this is the first time I've been on this blog. Anyway, I like the post simply as an explanation of a few fallacies with examples.

    I don't think the fallacies are significantly more common among theists than non-theists, though. Incompetent philosophers from both sides of the fence use repeated fallacies and argue illogically. And even the most competent philosophers are far from perfect. (I'm an atheist.)

  14. I have little to donate to this discussion except to say that any honest inquirer is free to read my articles for themselves (in full) and comment on them. If you're after an honest and intelligent discussion I encourage you to comment and we'll see where it goes.

    The reason I'm not getting into debate here is simply because all of the attempted "objections" on this thread I've already dealt with and refuted on the original article(s). Some of the attempted attacks on Objectivism and my articles are so warped and off-track I wonder if some people here have reading difficulties.

    Lest I be accused of dismissal without example, I'll provide an example. If anyone wants to discuss it, please visit my blog:

    Mark C said:
    "What I find interesting about evanescent's view on animals is that a person is immoral and irrational if they torture an animal, but animals have no rights."

    This is the opinion of someone who clearly has not fully read or understood the article on animals rights I wrote.

    For a start, why does Mark seem to think that moral or immoral actions only pertain to things that have rights??! Did he make this up? He must have, since it relates to nothing I said.

    In fact, what he actually seems to be doing is sneaking in his own ideas of morality as 'that which relates to how we treat other people/things'. But that is not Objectivism! Morality, according to Objectivism, is not primarily about how we treat other people, it's about a guide to how we live OUR lives.

    Now, certainly one aspect of this is not to encourage character traits or actions that are negative or deleterious to ourselves as rational beings. It is actually in our own selfish interest to not be cruel and unkind. It is in our selfish interest to be peaceful and cooperate and generous, and take care of things. Even taking care of animals can engender positive qualities (especially in children). That is why cruelty is immoral.

    Now, what Mark has done is to think that just because animals have NO RIGHTS, which they don't, that makes it OK to hurt them. But, this again just shows that he has totally missed the point (which Mark does time and time again). There is a difference between the MORAL and the LEGAL. In fact, one of Objectivism's beauty is that it makes this distinction.

    Animals have no rights because rights are a concept that is predicated on the social interaction of moral beings. (The original articles argues and explains this so I won't go into it here). Since animals are not moral beings that CANNOT have rights. No amount of emotionalism and hand-waving and sympathy and complaining and "aww look at the poor seal's face" is going to change that. PS: I love animals and I hate to see them needlessly harmed.

    Objectivism explains why cruelty is IMMORAL, but ALSO why animals have no rights and cannot be protected by law.

    Anyway, this is all in my original article. The point is that there is nothing for me to defend here, because all the objections take the form of Mark's which I used as an example:

    1. misunderstand objectivism (or don't read properly)
    2. sneak in stolen concept for which the attacker has no philosophical basis for (the best examples in this thread are "value" and "morality" etc.
    3. attack a strawman
    4. declare objectivism defeated

    I'll be on my blog if anyone has any honest comments to make.

  15. evanescent: Lest I be accused of dismissal without example, I'll provide an example.

    It's interesting, evanescent, that in a post devoted to substantive criticism of your work, you chose a "throwaway" deprecation of a peripheral point.

    Furthermore, your explanation is very confusing. Absent any reference to your original work, we are forced to rely exclusively on your comments here.

    You ask, "[W]hy does Mark seem to think that moral or immoral actions only pertain to things that have rights??!" and you go on to assert that, "just because animals have NO RIGHTS," then it is not the case that "it OK to hurt them."

    But you go on to say, "Objectivism explains why cruelty is IMMORAL, but ALSO why animals have no rights and cannot be protected by law."

    You assert that, "It is actually in our own selfish interest to not be cruel and unkind," but your argument is specious and rather retarded.

    It's fairly trivial to assert that if some object has positive utility, then it is dumb to destroy that utility for no compensating benefit. But moral beliefs about animals do not concern their utility, they concern what we approve or disapprove of in the absence of a utilitarian argument. You have simply failed to address this component of the debate.

    Furthermore, a key component of your philosophy, that "Morality, according to Objectivism, is not primarily about how we treat other people, it's about a guide to how we live OUR lives," is definitional. You are, of course, entitled to define Randianism (i.e. Objectivism) any way you please, but it is a legitimate objection to say that the Randian definition so violently and substantively contradicts our own moral intuitions that it requires an objective argument to persuade us to actually employ the definition.

    The typical Randian move of argument by vehement assertion is not typically considered a persuasive objective argument.

    There are two possibilities: Those who criticize Randianism to be sincere and honest seekers of the truth arguing in good faith, or they are not. If you believe the latter, then it is moronic to argue your case on its intrinsic merits, because you are assuming that those objecting do not actually care about the merits. (It is for this reason that I rarely participate in explicitly theistic or Randian venues.)

    If you believe that critics of Randianism are indeed arguing in good faith, then the objection that they do not understand Randianism is specious: If they fail to understand, then Rand (or you) has failed to communicate, and it is incumbent on you, not them, to explain more skillfully.

    I am convinced, for the reasons I detail in the OP, that Randians are not typically honest and sincere seekers of the truth, and are unwilling or unable to argue in good faith. Your post that I link to and your comment here do nothing, according to my judgment, to contradict that view.

    I've written at considerable length on moral and epistemic theories that directly contradict Randianism. My evaluation of your character notwithstanding, you are free to comment on this body of work; if I can extract an actual argument from your typically incoherent ramblings that I think would be of interest to my readers, then I will address those arguments.

    In any event you are correct, everyone is free to read your articles and make up their own minds. That's why I link both to your own blog as well as to the specific articles I criticize. I would never support high-level censorship of your work merely because I think you're a retard.


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