Saturday, September 04, 2010

Why the stupid?

Regular readers will note I've been posting a lot of The Stupid! It Burns! articles. Besides the pure entertainment value, there's a method to my madness.

One way or another, I've been talking and writing about atheism and religion for about 10 years. I started all sincere and engaged; I really wanted to discuss all the philosophical and scientific issues and figure out what was going on. But the problem with religion is: there is no there there. The arguments for religious belief aren't just mistaken, they're at best not even wrong. At worst, they consist of most egregious logical fallacies: Straw men, outrageously uncharitable interpretations, equivocations, elementary misuse of logic, begging the question. And I'm not just talking about the amateurs on message boards: William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, for example, couldn't reason their way out of a paper bag if you gave them a squirt gun and a starter hole. But they're credentialed academics, so they can't possibly be making elementary errors, right? Sadly, they do. (Egregious misuse of logic and bad argumentation is pervasive in the entire academic philosophical community, not just among theologians and apologists.)

Atheists are chided for not engaging with the "sophisticated" theological arguments. The problem is, there aren't any. None. They all come down to: we're not absolutely certain about anything, it makes me happy to believe that my preferences, biases, and prejudices are objective truths about the universe, therefore God exists. All of theology and apologetics consists of wrapping this core position in as many layers of bullshit and doubletalk as possible, and quite a few very clever people have engaged in this activity.

It doesn't do any good to confront the religious with the facts, because they don't care about the facts. They'll just make facts up out of thin air, and deny the truth of any other inconvenient facts. It doesn't do any good to confront the religious with logical, rational arguments, because they don't care about logic and rationality. They're happy to use the forms of facts, logic and reasoned argument, but when those forms don't suit them, they'll abandon them without a second thought.

This unconcern with facts and reason is obviously illustrated in one tendency in apologetic writing: the religious argument for agnosticism. (There are a few examples in the most recent TSIB articles.) If agnosticism were compelled by the facts, then why are you a believer? The position is nonsensical. The outright lies too are not just exceptions, they're the rule: atheism claims certainty; there are no transitional fossils; the origin of life requires that DNA popped out of nowhere; the list goes on, and on, ad nauseam.

After a certain point, I realized that simply pointing out errors of fact and logic had no more effect than point out to a CEO that he has more money than a worker. He doesn't care that he has more money; in just the same sense the religious apologist doesn't really care that his logic is faulty and his supposed facts are in error.

The "debate" about religion and atheism isn't really a debate. It's not a dialectic between facts and theories, or between conjectures and proofs. It's fundamentally an ethical debate: how should we go about finding the truth? Should we come up with a position and find reasons to support it, or should we discover the actual facts and try to come up with the best explanation for those facts?

My nose wouldn't be so far out of joint if the religious explicitly took the first approach. This is our faith, we believe it before rational investigation, and we enjoy the intellectual exercise of exploring this faith logically. (To his credit Plantinga does explicitly take this approach. Paraphrasing from memory, he says that the best we can say about religion is that it's not internally contradictory.) But, by and large, religious apologists don't take the former approach. Instead, they secretly change the rules of finding and explaining the facts, and then appear to argue that the ordinary rules of scientific inquiry support their theological prejudices. The enormous prestige of ordinary scientific and rational inquiry almost forces them to do so.

Even when they're saying that science and religion are substantively different, that scientific inquiry simply has nothing to say about religion, they're still being hypocritical and disingenuous. The issue goes beyond one particular way of knowing things: religion goes to the heart of what it means to say you actually know something, and, more importantly what it means to say that something is true. Only the most vacuous deists and fideists come right out and say, "Hey, I have no idea whatsoever whether by beliefs are true, but I believe them to be true anyway," and even these fideists are misusing true.

What's true has to be true for everyone; if I say something is true, and you say the same thing is false, at least one of us has to be mistaken. And if I say I know something, then everyone has to be able to know it. When we're not talking about what's true for everyone and what everyone can know, we're talking about preference.

And fine: if you yourself prefer to believe, for example, that gays are icky, women should be subservient to men and babies, then say so. Take ownership of your own preferences. I have at least some respect for a person who says, "I myself just fucking hate those goddamn faggots," than I do for someone who tries to pawn of his own prejudice on God. It goes both ways too: I have a lot more respect for someone who says, "I myself want gay people to be happy, fulfilled and have all the civil rights and privileges enjoyed by straight people." If you say to me, "God loves gay people as much as straights," my first reaction is, "So, what you yourself think isn't relevant? If God told you to hate and oppress gay people, you'd just as happily do so?" I don't care what you think God thinks about gays, I want to know what you think about gays. I can talk to you about what you think.

Once you push any sort of belief onto God, I just can't talk to you about it. How can I change God's mind? I can't engage your reason, because you're not arriving at your beliefs by reason. I can't engage your compassion, your empathy, your sympathy, your fellow feeling, because the minute you push your ethical beliefs onto God — even an ethical belief I agree with — all of your emotional and empathetic connections to other people become irrelevant, in just the same sense that my empathy for someone who falls off a cliff and is terribly injured is irrelevant to my opinions about the law of gravity.

The facts don't matter. Reason doesn't matter. Knowledge doesn't matter. The truth doesn't matter. Religion is nothing more than at best infantile fantasy and at worst a justification for sadism and oppression. You can't reason someone out of an irrational belief. All you can do is praise and condemn, or point and laugh. If enough people choose to condemn religious thought, it will go away (or at least become marginalized). In exactly the same sense, enough people chose to condemn slavery and rape, and these ideas have become substantially marginalized.

After ten years of looking, I'm convinced that there's no gem of truth hidden in the enormous pile of bullshit that is religion and theology. If there were, some clever apologist would have found it. Instead I see the mound of bullshit being piled higher and deeper, so the religious can say at least, "You haven't investigated everything, so you can't be certain there's no truth there." This position is itself patent bullshit. Show me the truth, and I'll change my mind. Until then, I'm going to look at the bullshit, call it bullshit, and condemn the bullshit artists for trying to hide the truth, whatever it might be.


  1. This captures my own thoughts on the matter pretty eloquently. Pretty much all religious apologetics come down to a few tired arguments which just get repackaged again and again. It's normally a waste of time dignifying them with a response.

  2. Beautiful. I will be cribbing shamelessly.

    (I think there's a Tim Minchin song in there somewhere.)

  3. Perfect. And thanks for motivating me to post something, even if it is only a link, on my blog. I agree 100% - there's no point even trying to reason with those who refuse to listen to reason.

  4. Well even being a theist (Catholic) I still enjoyed reading this entry.

  5. >>William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, for example, couldn't reason their way out of a paper bag if you gave them a squirt gun and a starter hole.>>

    What do you think is the best example of Plantinga committing a logical error? I doubt you'll be able to provide one.

    (Please don't just give me an example of something he said that you think is false. I'm looking for an example to back up your claim that he's a bad *reasoner*.)

  6. You didn't exactly answer my question. What do you think is the best example of Plantinga committing a logical error?

    You linked to some prior post, so I had to sift through there to try to figure out what your criticisms were.

    Here was one criticism you made:
    "When a philosopher denies the conclusion of his own argument, you must suspect he's bullshitting you."

    Plantinga doesn't deny the conclusion of his own argument. You've confused *not taking an argument to constitute a proof,* in a specific sense of 'proof', with "not thinking the conclusion is true*. Strike one.

    "One of the uses of modal logic is to examine the concept of logically possible worlds."

    False. Modal logic isn't used to examine the concept of possible worlds. The concept of possible worlds was introduced as a useful heuristic to shed light on modal logic. You've gotten things exactly backwards. Strike two.

    "So on one horn of the dilemma, Plantinga's premise #3 is simply not well-formed, it is not a statement of modal logic."

    I don't see why you would think this. Plantinga's premise #3 is perfectly well formed, according to English grammar. Nevertheless, it's not a statement of modal logic. It's a statement of ordinary English! The syntax of modal logic doesn't include words like "maximal." It doesn't include any English words at all! So I think you're badly misunderstanding what modal logic is and what it's for.

    What you seem to think, falsely, is that sentences of English including modal terms like "can" and "must" don't count as 'statements of modal logic'. Well, in one sense you're perfectly right, since no English statement counts as a statement of modal logic. But that's no threat to Plantinga's argument. In another sense, though, you're perfectly wrong: English statements including "can" and "must" are exactly those which modal logic is designed to model. Plantinga's English statement of premise #3 lends itself to very easy translation into the language of modal logic:
    <>3xMx. Where "<>" is the possibility operator and "3" stands for existential generalization. There is absolutely no problem for Plantinga here.

  7. "But perhaps Plantinga does not intend logically possible world semantics. Perhaps, as his comment leads us to believe, he means epistemic possibility: we don't know whether or not God exists; its epistemically possible that God exists. But if so, he seems to use modal logic in a weird way, weird even for a philosopher."

    No, he doesn't mean epistemic possibility. But even so, you're wrong to think that it would be misleading to use the language of modal logic to model English statements of epistemic possibility. Philosophers do this all the time. The language of modal logic lends itself very well to modeling epistemic possibility. We could also use the language of modal logic to model statements of nomic possibilty, deontic possibility, financial possibility, etc. Again, you badly misunderstand the nature and applications of modal logic here.

    Through some effort on my part, I gather that what you're up to here is this: Premise #3 has at least two readings: the epistemic and the broadly logical. On the first it's clearly true, but the conclusion doesn't follow. On the second, it's not clearly true, but the conclusion would follow. Either way, then, the argument doesn't prove the existence of God.

    Friend, this is *exactly* why Plantinga calls it a merely 'victorious' argument, and not a 'proof'. He says that if you're in a position to rationally assent to the premises, you'll arrive rationally at the conclusion. But he doesn't claim that everyone is in a position to rationally assent to the premises! That's why this doesn't count as a 'proof'. So, far from raising a criticism of Plantinga here, you point out something he knew and explicitly said when he originally published the argument. Congratulations, though, on finally catching up with him, over 30 years later! ;-)

    You then consider what you call a similar argument, with a premise #3 that clearly only acceptable on an epistemic reading, but that resembles in some ways Plantinga's premise #3.

    Well, so what? Do you take this to somehow show that Plantinga intended his #3 to be true only on an epistemic reading? It doesn't show that. I'm not sure what strike we're up to here, but let's just call it strike three. You're out.

    You've badly failed to pin any serious criticism on Plantinga. Along the way, you showed an abysmal grasp of modal logic. Hopefully you'll be honest enough to take back your criticism of Plantinga's reasoning abilities. It is *you* who needs to work on his reasoning abilities, not Plantinga. I asked you for what you take to be the *best* example of Plantinga reasoning poorly, and you failed to provide such an example. So I think it's safe to assume that any other example you might provide would also fail.

    Nevertheless, I wish you the best of luck in your future philosophizing. Maybe just chill out with the overreaching insults. :-)

  8. Blah blah blah, you paint all theists as fundies, miss the point, and come to a childishly simply conclusion. Well done.

  9. Repare: You're more than welcome to elaborate the point I supposedly miss.

  10. Sooo... do you still think Plantinga is a bad reasoner? If so, why? Any response to Anonymous above?

    -Anonymous above

  11. No, I hadn't read your comment policy. Now I have. There, you say you will rarely respond to comments directly. Well of course I don't think you're *obligated* to respond. I was just wondering if you would *care* to. Would you care to respond to my previous comments? Do you still think Plantinga is a bad reasoner? If so, why? Do you admit that you were wrong about your criticisms of his modal ontological argument?

    I think that's pretty messed up for you to insult someone's reasoning abilities in a public forum, have someone clearly and slowly explain to you how you were wrong, and then not apologize. You besmirched the man's reputation without any good grounds, and then you won't apologize when you're shown what you've done. That's evidence of poor character.

  12. I'm completely indifferent to your opinion of my character.

  13. OK, but how about my *philosophical* criticisms of your criticisms of Plantinga's modal ontological argument? You're just going to lay there like a dead fish? No response at all? Not even "You know, you're right. I made some mistakes there"? Seems kind of like pouting.

    You don't really need to care about my personal opinions of your character. Who am I to you, after all? But doesn't this argument bother you?

    (1) If A besmirches B's reputation without adequate grounds, A has wronged B.
    (2) That's what you, Larry, did to Plantinga.
    (3) Therefore, you have wronged Plantinga
    (4) If A has wronged B, A should apologize.
    (5) Therefore, you should apologize.

    Which premise do you think is false?

  14. Which premise do you think is false?

    (2), Obviously.

  15. Anonymous, you are a) boring me and b) repeating yourself. You have had your say and I've published it. If you have nothing new to add — and your last three comments have added nothing new — I very strongly encourage you to move on with your life.

  16. On reflection, I think my position deserves a little more clarification, Anonymous. You do at least attempt to make an argument, which is rare enough. I see, however, severe deficiencies in your position.

    The first problem is your anonymity. It takes only the smallest effort to give yourself a handle or moniker more meaningful than "hey you." That you failed to do so by itself erodes my confidence in your seriousness and good will.

    The second problem is your choice of post. The proper place to criticize my post on Plantinga's failure to comprehend modal logic would be in the comments on that post.

    The third problem is that you have taken offense at my unfavorable opinion of Plantinga's intellectual competence. An unfavorable opinion does not constitute slander; I have said nothing factually false about the man. Furthermore, it would be one thing if Dr. Plantinga wished to defend himself (I suspect he rightly considers my opinion too insignificant to even be interesting). It is quite another, however, for an anonymous commenter to take offense on his behalf.

    All of the above in some way diminish or compromise my judgment of your seriousness and good will, but they would be irrelevant if you were actually right, or at least trivial had you made an intelligent argument.

    Your "argument", however, is breathtakingly inane and stupid. You get one point for effort, but no points at all for quality. There's nothing I could say in rebuttal except to repeat my original argument; any hope that you will read and comprehend my meaning seems slim to none.

    I have published your "argument", such as it is, and readers can make up their own minds. I have censored neither your criticism nor your opinion of my character, only the repetition of your puerile, incompetent and sanctimonious position.

    This is all you're going to get from me, and it's far more than I'm ordinarily willing to give. You don't like me, you think I'm stupid, and you hold me in contempt. I can live with that. Rest assured my opinion of your own character and intelligence is equally low.

    I'm not asking you, I'm telling you, with the authority I have as author of this blog and holder of its password: shut the fuck up and get on with your life.


  17. I am surprised it took you ten years to work this out. I became aware of this situation as a teenager who tried to persuade my very intelligent religious friend to at least consider facts and rational reasoning in his beliefs. All I ever got back from him was illogical dogma and a yearning to believe in falsifications about evolution and the scientific process.

    After that I decided I had more important things to do with my life than hit my head against a brick wall.

  18. I am surprised it took you ten years to work this out.

    Indeed. Speed of thought is not my strong suit.


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