TAG, you’re not it

As I’ve been away from the blog for way too long, I thought it’d be a prime opportunity to get back in the swing of things with my tuppence on the last AE TV show, and the whole dustup with CARM’s Matt Slick over his use of TAG, the Transcendental Argument for God. I’m going to comment, not on the show — which, sue me, I still haven’t seen, but which sounds to me like it was a terrific episode, due to the response it’s gotten from viewers both pro and con; I judge the show’s merits by how passionately it engages our audience, and not how well the hosts did or didn’t do, as you always find yourself Monday-morning-quarterbacking the damn thing once it’s done — but the argument as Slick presents it on CARM’s site. He is known to boast that no atheist has ever been able to respond to it, which I find hard to believe, since its flaws are readily apparent.

I won’t make this as epic a post as my recent two-parter replying to questions from apologists like Habermas. And it isn’t going to be the ultimate in comprehensive refutations of TAG either; there’s a lot more that other writers have said than I even begin to touch on here. I’ll just cut to the chase: the argument essentially tries to establish that the universe operates logically, and that it could not do so if the Christian God had not set it up that way.

When discussing what he terms logical absolutes, Slick is largely correct. The three laws are accurate as far as I can determine, and he’s right when he says that truth cannot be self-contradictory and so on. If there were no minds in the universe to think about these things, a rock on a barren planet would still conform to the law of identity. It would be what it is, and not be what it isn’t. Slick’s sound on his premises more or less, but keep in mind that what he’s talking about here are logical absolutes — that is to say, unadorned, bald, ontological facts about reality — and not the formalized methods of logic as an intellectual discipline. This distinction is important, as Slick will begin sneakily conflating the two as he gets closer to his conclusion.

Where Slick starts wobbling is in 4C.

4. Logical Absolutes are transcendent

    A. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on space.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on location. If we traveled a million light years in a direction, logical absolutes are still true.
    B. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on time.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on time. If we traveled a billion in the future or past, logical absolutes are still true.
    C. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people. That is, they are not the product of human thinking.
    1. People’s minds are different. What one person considers to be absolute may not be what another considers to be absolute. People often contradict each other. Therefore, Logical Absolutes cannot be the product of human, contradictory minds.
    2. If Logical Absolutes were the product of human minds, then they would cease to exist if people ceased to exist which would mean they would be dependent on human minds. But this cannot be so per the previous point.

You may have notice how carefully a card has been palmed under C. Slick states that absolutes are not dependent on people. What he should have said here, as it would have been more strictly accurate, is not “people” but “minds.” For one thing, minds are what he’s talking about, after all, not spleens or toenails. And in points C1 and C2, he does clarify that he’s referring to minds. But why set things up by referring to human minds specifically? Because he wants to leave the backdoor open for a transcendent, supernatural mind, conveniently belonging to his God, as an explanation for logical absolutes.

Having palmed his card in 4C, Slick switches it in point 6. Watch carefully:

6. Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature

    Logic is a process of the mind. Logical absolutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. Therefore, Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature.
    1. If they are conceptual by nature, they are not dependent upon the physical universe for their existence.

Did you catch that? Moments ago, Slick was telling us that logical absolutes cannot be the product of minds. Then here, he switches from talking about logical absolutes to logic-the-discipline, which very much is a “process of the mind”. Then in his very next sentences, he switches right back to absolutes again, declaring them “conceptual” (that is, the products of mind) right after telling us, more or less correctly, that flawed human minds cannot have anything to do with them. There’s the conflation of logical absolutes with logic-the-discipline.

Slick doesn’t want logical absolutes to be the product of flawed material human minds, but he wants them to be the product of someone’s mind, namely God’s. So he has to introduce a bit of legerdemain at the right moment in his proof to get himself to his God. Which brings us to point 7, in which Slick, having laid down a number of observations of logical absolutes in nature, proceeds to pull God out of his hat in the mother of all non sequiturs.

7. Thoughts reflect the mind

  1. A person’s thoughts reflect what he or she is.
  2. Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.
  3. Since the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are independent of the universe, then they reflect a transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind.
  4. We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

Sorry, Matt, but absolutely nothing in the preceding six points has supported the conclusion you reach in your seventh. You could just as meaningfully have written, “We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, Gus the Magic Cosmic Hippo.”

Let’s get down to a few details. First off, logical absolutes. Here is where Don Baker and Slick really tussled on the show, and I think shows how Slick’s conflation of concepts in logic have really muddied the waters here. Let’s just take one of the three absolutes: the law of identity.

What the law of identity describes is a condition of reality that exists, independent of mind or anything else. That anywhere in the universe, whether there is life and a mind to observe it or not, an existing thing will be what it is, and it won’t be what it isn’t.

But in determining that such absolutes are not contingent upon minds, and furthermore, that a mind is a flawed thing that can make incorrect judgments about things, Slick is at a loss to explain them. He does not wish to consider that a fact of nature may simply be a fact of nature. So he has to jump to the conclusion that a transcendent mind must have conceived of what the flawed human mind cannot. Then, Slick just decides to call that mind God, even though there is nothing in the entire preceding argument whatsoever to lead one to conclude, logically, that such a transcendent mind must necessarily be that of the Biblical God. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. After everything Slick has constructed in a largely impressive-sounding proof, he simply gives us an upmarket, designer-label variant of “God of the Gaps”.

There are other little nagging flaws you could nitpick to death, such as the faux-conclusion “Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.” The natural response here is to ask Slick how he, with his imperfect and flawed human mind, can consider himself in any position to recognize an absolutely perfect thought when he encounters it. And remember, when this whole argument started, logical absolutes were not the product, nor could they be, of a mind at all. Until point 6, when logic-the-discipline and logical absolutes did a brief switcheroo that allowed Slick to shoehorn in his pe
rfect, transcendent mind. Then, the “absolutes” became “conceptual,” and thus contingent upon an “absolutely perfect mind.”

But there’s another problem.

For the “perfect, transcendent mind” Slick proposes to exist, it must conform as well to logical absolutes like the law of identity. If God exists, he must be God. Even if he were a God who could magically change his form into a fish or talking donkey or what have you, he would still, in those situations, be God. He wouldn’t be God and Not-God. He couldn’t be all-powerful and possess no powers whatsoever at the same time.

So for God to exist, he must exist in a logical framework. Thus logical absolutes cannot be contingent upon God. God must be contingent upon logical absolutes. QED.

Slick purports to address a number of objections, though he doesn’t really refute the objections he lists so much as ask questions about them. I’ll only deal with the first two.

Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence

  1. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

If you work from a primacy-of-existence metaphysics as I do, then you realize that a logical order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. Existence exists, which is not a statement that requires a proof, I shouldn’t think. And to exist is to exist as something, as George H. Smith pointed out in Atheism: The Case Against God. I suppose a person could propose the existence of something that took no form whatsoever (in fact, they’ve done so: it’s God). But then you’re stuck trying to offer proofs. And yet, what’s the difference between something that takes no form of any kind, and something that does not exist?

Also, notice again how slick Slick is with his language here. Once more, the logical absolutes that are not in any way a product of mind have become “conceptual” absolutes when Slick needs them to. Well, while the law of identity as it is put into words by logicians may be “conceptual,” the thing the law describes is an actual, not conceptual, absolute. And actual absolutes are inherent in nature. Unless my imperfect mind is totally misrepresenting nature to me, and I’m just a brain in a vat! Blub, blub.

Logical Absolutes simply exist.

  1. This is begging the question and does not provide an explanation for their existence. Simply saying they exist is not an answer.

But Matt, your whole argument here has been in aid of getting you to God, a being whom you assume simply to exist, and for whose existence, if you were asked, you would say did not require an explanation.

Since I consider existence to be a causal primary, I don’t think an explanation is needed for the existence of existence. But even though I’ll willingly admit I could be wrong, I think my position is at least more sound than yours, in that existence really does exist, obviously enough so that it shouldn’t require proof, as your God does. And as I’ve explained, your God would have to adhere to logical absolutes like the law of identity himself in order to exist. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than TAG in future if you want to demonstrate God’s existence, let alone that the universe is contingent upon him.

The Slick Transcendental Argument

On the February 15th episode of the Atheist Experience, we got a call from a “Matt Slick” from the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry. Unfortunately, Matt Dillahunty had been arranging this call [edit: No he hadn’t, please see comments. -Kazim] and Mr. Slick happened to call in when our Matt was not on the air. Matt has been anxious to debate Mr. Slick, so he was frustrated that he wasn’t on that week. Matt is hoping for Mr. Slick to call again next week.

After a little discussion, Mr. Slick chose to present us a version of the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God. Apparently, it’s the one for which most atheists are the least prepared to debate. Unfortunately, Russell and I took a different debate strategy with our guest and it didn’t come off as well as it might have. I took the strategy of questioning assumptions as they came across, which perhaps bogged down the discussion. Mr. Slick was frustrated he didn’t get to arrive at the latter part of his argument with his assumptions intact, which might have been the real source of his frustration. Eventually, we ran out of time and he gave the link to his version of the argument before we ended the episode.

At dinner, we had some debate about the nature of logic and I seem to have a position that is not the majority one. I’d like to explain my position and why it sabotages Mr. Slick’s argument early on.

Formal logic is a branch of discrete mathematics invented by humans. It concerns the truth or falsehood of logical propositions. The beauty of it is that it is sound, meaning that if the assumptions are correct and the operations are properly applied, the result will also be true. Another important thing to understand is that, like any tool, it’s not universally applicable. It doesn’t apply (without modification) to truth values that change over time, things that are not discrete (think clouds, water droplets, or wave-particle duality), or infinite things. As with any tool, if it’s miss-applied, you will get incorrect results. This is the point I was trying to make in the call.

Mr. Slick was trying to make the point that logic is absolute—that it is true in all times, places, and circumstances. I disagree with this statement. In his argument, for example, he refers to a “Law of identity”, “Law of non-contradiction”, and “Law of excluded middle.” Mr. Slick is trying to lay the groundwork for a Law Giver who will eventually be the author of such laws. What Mr. Slick calls the “Law of identity” is really just the definition of equality. Exactly how you define equality is effectively a human-based assumption built into the model. The “Law of non-contraction” concerns the desirability of soundness of the system, meaning that if you build on false statements, you can no longer trust the conclusion. Soundness is a human-desired property of a formal system and we would reject any system that didn’t have it (and yes, such systems exist). Finally, what he calls the “Law of excluded middle” is an axiom of formal logic. Axioms are assumptions (made by humans) that may not be applicable in all situations. The point here is that no God is involved. Mr. Slick’s argument is on shaky ground from the beginning.

Formal logic is the basis of mathematics, computer science, and other disciplines. It is astoundingly useful, when it is properly applied. Mr. Slick tries to make a rather muddy point that logic is universal and therefore transcendent. The above discussion is necessary to tease apart several possible meanings of this statement.

  • It is not the case that it applies universally and we need to look no further than his own “proof” statements to see some problems:
    • Both conception and death are processes that last over time. There are times where it is ambiguous as to whether or not a person is dead or whether an embryo has been conceived. They are not two-valued things, such as is assumed by formal logic. Likewise, there is no such thing as a “moment of conception” as Christian propagandists would have you believe.
    • Living things change constantly over time, so the notion of what it means to be “the same” from one hour, year, century, has to be carefully defined before any meaningful conclusions can be drawn.
    • Clouds are not discrete objects. Combining two clouds yields one cloud. Does that mean that 1+1 = 1, and one of the first two clouds no longer exists? (Answer: it depends exactly on what you mean by “exist.”)
    • Many quantum mechanical events, such as radioactive decay, are uncaused. (Too bad for the cosmological argument for the existence of a god.)
  • It is absolutely true that formal logic is sound. That is, whenever the assumptions and methods are properly used, they yield correct results. It doesn’t matter where, when, or by whom the model is applied. In this sense, it is absolute and universal.
  • It’s even possible that, given just how useful formal logic is, other races will have invented it independently. Nobody has any evidence for this conclusion, but I think it’s likely. We know of no other species that have independently invented/discovered it, so Mr. Slick has yet to prove it’s absolute in this sense. He is trying to hide an assumption that a god created logic inside a proof of the existence of such a god. This is a circularity that renders Mr. Slick’s argument unsound (false).

Mr. Slick then goes on to say that logic is the product of only minds. It is true that humans invented it, but machines can carry it out. There are computer programs called theorem provers that can perform proofs of novel propositions. A version of the famous four color problem was solved by a computer before it was solved by a human. In his proof, Mr. Slick goes asserts that somehow minds are necessary to apply logic. Mr. Slick’s god is apparently not much better than a calculator.

So even before we get to the “meat” of Mr. Slick’s argument, we find it riddled with falsehoods and muddled thinking. I’ll let Matt refute the rest of the argument on the show, should Mr. Slick call back, but essentially, the rest of the argument is a blatant attempt to steal credit from the hard work of mathematicians that Mr. Slick hasn’t taken the trouble to understand.

I find it pathetic that billions of people believe in an omniscient God, nearly all of them claim to be in direct communication with Him, yet together they can’t come up with any evidence for Him. Mr. Slick lived up to my impression of apologists—intellectually dishonest people who are happy to mislead others using logical fallacies and manipulation. The world would be a better place without these con artists.

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Prison Ministry statistics revisited


Now that I’ve discussed the central issue, I’d like to return to the information about your prison ministry that you discussed in your first letter.

In my first message to you I contested the success of your prison ministry, pointing out that your study considered someone to be “a graduate” only if they successfully got a job after release. This slants the data. It allows you to take credit for an achievement that which, whether or not someone took your program, would have a strong tendency to lower their recidivism rate. I argued that it is the job that predicts their success, not their participation in your program. I also pointed out that when you take the recidivism statistics altogether, the people who took your program (including the ones who did not “graduate”) had an overall worse recidivism rate than the general prison population.

You replied:

“The grounds for the compilation of empirical data, established by Prison Fellowship in cooperation with the Texas Department of Corrections was that we would measure graduates, that is, those people who completed our program, as opposed to simply people who signed up for it. The reason we did that was obvious: we could not select the people coming in—we had no control over that. The state made that choice, as it did with the people in their control group. If both sides had made their own choices, then you would consider including drop-outs. But we knew the state couldn’t choose the kind of people we knew were motivated to do this.”

No, of course you can’t. That’s kind of the point of a randomized study. If you could cherry-pick people who were already “motivated,” then you would be working with a subset of prisoners who were already inclined to get their lives straightened out, and then your sample would be even more biased.

I mean, suppose you knew how to identify the people who were motivated to turn their lives around. Once you’ve picked them out of the general population, no further action is needed at that point. I’ll bet you could just study them and find out that this group naturally has a lower recidivism rate than those who are not so motivated.

“The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania believed that this was sound methodology. We were very clear about this from the beginning, because we use a process of self-selection. In other words, the initial curriculum was geared to a pretty intense biblical grounding, so only people who really wanted this would take part in it. Anyone who has worked in this area, like Alcoholics Anonymous, will tell you that it’s the motivation of the participant that is crucial. If the person doesn’t want to change, you can’t change him. As Christians, we believe everyone has a free will to choose or not choose to follow Christ. So we’re obviously looking for people in our programs who are at least open to that.”

It’s not the soundness of the methodology that I’ve questioned here; it’s your spin on the results. The study looked fine to me, and I certainly can’t go back and try to reproduce the results myself. But I don’t need to. On page 18, the study stated explicitly: “Simply stated, participation in the program is not related to recidivism reduction.” This is actually generous, since the final results on page 19 show that the program was in fact counter-productive, once you stop filtering out “non-graduates” and just compare participants to non-participants.

Although I understand why you don’t wish to count the program’s effects on the people who didn’t “graduate,” the fact that the presence of the program had a net negative effect on recidivism is a very significant result. As I said before, you can’t just define “graduation” to be a set of preconditions which, if met by prisoners who didn’t take your program, would ALSO result in lower recidivism. Or you can, but if you do that then you don’t get credit for prisoners who meet these definitions.

“The acid test here, however, is what has happened since that data was compiled and released in 2003. We have continued to monitor these programs across the country, and they have continued to produce between 8 and 10 percent recidivism.”

Of course they did. Those are the people who already got a job. Again, I’m not questioning the conduct of the study, but your interpretation of the results.

“As for the case in Iowa, we did indeed lose it at the trial level. But the case was appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held in our favor on all of the substantive questions except accepting state funds. … on the more important question of whether the program is effective and whether it is constitutional without federal funds, the Eighth Circuit, in an opinion joined in by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, did not declare anything we’re doing to be unconstitutional. I consider that a very significant victory.”

It sounds pretty hollow to me, I’m afraid. I thought we were discussing whether the program actually helps people by incorporating your teachings, not whether a court allowed you get away with continuing the program. The only reason I brought up the case at all was because you used it in your book as a way to criticize Barry Lynn for hating truth.

“As for the question you raised about whether someone could be paroled, not get a job, and therefore not be counted in our statistics, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that. I’ll ask one of our staff to look at that, but I can’t believe that’s the case. I don’t think the University of Pennsylvania would have accepted that. The researchers who did this study were enthusiastic about the results.”

I’ll be interested to know whether you have found anything out by now. It seems fairly clear to me from the study:

“A program graduate is someone who completes not only the in-prison phases of IFI dealing with biblical education, work, and community service (usually lasting 16 months), but also includes an aftercare phase (usually lasting 6 months) in which the participant must hold a job and have been an active church member for 3 consecutive months following release from prison.” (page 5)

Sounds pretty cut and dried: if you don’t have a job, then you are not a graduate.

Assuming that my interpretation is correct, another way I could think of to create a control group for your experiment is to keep track of all those prisoners who were rejected from your program, but went on to be paroled and then got a job. If you could compare that information, then you might weed out the bias. As it is, I certainly don’t think you have sufficient grounds to criticize Barry Lynn for hating your program because it helps people.

Open thread on AE 2/15

Since there was no post before yesterday’s show, or any post in the last several days, I’m submitting this. If you want to discuss the show with me and Don yesterday, including the final conversation with carm.org apologist Matt Slick, then have at it. Note that comment moderation is on, so it might take a while for yours to show up.

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Faith and certainty


Hello again Chuck,

Thanks again for taking the time to compose thoughtful replies to my discussion of your book. This time I’ll have to echo your apology for taking so long to reply. I’ve had an extremely eventful year, and it took me a while to devote time to giving your three messages the attention that they deserved. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve chosen to break down my replies into a series of multiple posts, and I will be treating your posts out of sequence.

I’d like to start by discussing the position on faith that you revealed in your second and third messages. I have to say that your perspective surprised me a bit. As I had previously noted, throughout your book you chastised postmodernists for their position that there is no objective truth, only subjectivity. Yet in your recent message, you came out with an extraordinary pro-subjectivity statement:

“All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.”

What I found particularly remarkable about this claim was that it almost perfectly echoes claims by the very same post-modernist movement that you have so often decried. Like you, post-modernists believe that reason is just another form of faith, and that there is no way to objectively determine the nature of reality outside your own mind, and the only thing that can be described as “true” is what is “true for me.” I disagree with post-modernists: I believe that reality exists, and that it is independent of individual minds or beliefs. While it is by necessity investigated and interpreted by fallible humans, the nature of “knowledge” is that it must be accurate; i.e., it must conform to a reality which is not dependent on belief.

When I read your statement above, it sounded to me as if you don’t really feel the same. When you say “faith,” you appear to be implying that knowledge is a subjective matter, which may be said to be entirely dependent on the observer. If I adopt a position of faith that, for instance, Allah is God, and I will be rewarded with 72 virgins if I die as a martyr, then that belief is “true for me.”

I thought I must be mistaken; this couldn’t possibly be your position. Perhaps you meant something different than I do when you use the word “faith.” After all, you had claimed that St. Augustine’s influence “gave Christians the liberty to use reason when interpreting their faith.” (Incidentally, I find this a curious statement. Why should they even need permission to use reason?) In any case, because of this nod to “reason,” I thought perhaps you were implying that faith is simply an application of justified belief; a corollary to reason.

However, reading your other statements about faith, it became clear to me that you DO in fact set the concept of faith as something separate and apart from reason. Let me highlight a few examples of other places where you applied the word:

“But if we could prove the existence of God, we wouldn’t have to have faith.”

(Clearly, you are setting faith in opposition to the notion of coming up with some kind of objective demonstration of the reality of God.)

“God is that which is greater than that which we can know. It’s almost by very definition what we mean when we say God. And if we could know Him, we wouldn’t love Him. Faith is required for a relationship between the Creator and His creatures.”

(In other words, by saying that if we have faith in God, we are explicitly ruling out the possibility that we can actually know God.)

When I look at your response from this perspective, what I get from your declaration of faith is the following: You think we cannot prove anything, even in a conventional sense; we cannot know anything; we cannot claim objective certainty of anything except through the subjective lens of our own fallible human minds. Therefore, we might as well just treat the things we fervently believe as “True.” So tell me, how is this not the essence of post-modernism boiled down to its purest form?

What’s interesting is that when it suits your purpose, you freely use the term “faith” as a pejorative, again in the sense of “belief without evidence,” as long as it can apply to those with whom you disagree. For instance, when you speak of Darwin, you say this:

“Yet on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions—a faith position—he had to make this argument, and scientists who share that faith position must also support it.”

So you ridicule Darwin’s scientific conclusions as “a faith position,” yet elsewhere you have repeatedly said that faith is the most important thing there is. I mean, really, it’s right there in the title of your book. This leads me to wonder: how do you, Chuck, go about disting
uishing which kind of faith is worth supporting, and which kind is ridiculous?

To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge. But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason. So again, if you’re going to take that point of view, I don’t see a useful way to distinguish your faith from the faith of a Muslim, a Mormon, a Wiccan, or a Jehovah’s Witness – all of whom stand on faith-based principles with which I am sure you disagree.

I wish to turn now to your third message, in which you attempted to justify this style of faith. You say:

“I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally.”

“I suddenly realized I did have a good ability to think. And ever since then I have really enjoyed the life of the mind. But I do apologize if I’ve come across as arrogant. I have nothing to be arrogant about; whatever good I have done is a gift from God.”

I don’t begrudge you the confidence in your own abilities. I too have spent a lot of time considering these issues, and I have a similar high opinion of myself – I’m confident that what I think is probably right because I’ve already given it a lot of thought. Both of us hold inherently subjective opinions, but we are basing them to some extent on our own past experience, which is certainly one component of reason, and hence a step in the direction of objectivity.

So if you are confident in your own mind that your position is the right one, then that’s great; enjoy your certainty. If your only goal in writing your book is to “preach to the choir,” then by all means, just tell your audience that you know you are right from experience, and they’ll probably believe you.

But I was under the impression that you wrote your book at least partly in order to persuade unbelievers like myself that your position is correct. I recognize that you would like to help me get saved from the fire and damnation that you feel certain is in store for me. Unfortunately, I need to point out that merely stating “I know it is true because I am thoughtful and intelligent” doesn’t really achieve that goal. Instead, it is an obvious effort to set yourself up as an authority by fiat: “You should believe this because I believe it, and I must be right.”

If I were to accept this sort of rhetorical tactic, I would be basing my beliefs on something truly subjective. Either I just agree to accept you (or somebody else) as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge, or I accept everybody’s beliefs as equally valid, even contradictory beliefs. Neither reaction strikes me as a satisfying approach to knowledge.

The long awaited reply to Chuck Colson (but not quite)

Okay, okay, okay.

Those of you who have been hanging around for a while will remember that I reviewed a free copy of Chuck Colson‘s The Faith many months ago; he took a couple of months to reply, and then he wrote three separate but very long posts over the next few weeks.  And you’ll also remember that I keep on making half-hearted promises to post a substantial reply to those posts, but I keep on not actually doing it.

Part of the reason has been personal life stuff, and part of it is because there are just so many things to criticize, single sentences that take hours to rebut.

I’m thinking of a new approach to get me moving.  I have a long commute with a carpool and a laptop now, so I’m able to write regularly, but I’m still swamped trying to think of how to organize the mega-response I was writing.  So here’s my proposal.  Since I’ve managed to get fired up writing so much about debate lately, I’m thinking I should make this a weekly installment.  I’ll post what I have written already, and then each week maybe identify one particular aspect of Chuck’s posts, write something during the week, and post something even if it’s short.

The question I have for you readers is: Should I send a message to Chuck’s liaison immediately after writing the first post, and keep updating him, thereby inviting more replies before I’m finished?

Or, should I do this for several weeks, and then gather up ALL the posts when I’ve finished having my say, and send a big list of links?

What do you say?

So who is making money during the economic crisis?

Sleazy “psychics” with their usual exploit-the-scared-and-insecure routine.

But you know, you’re likely to be astonished — simply slack-jawed in astonishment — over the powerful predictions that come from “psychic” Roxanne Usleman. Prepare to have your skepticism swept into the sea:

The housing crisis will deepen, the country could fall into a depression and laid-off workers may need to start their own business.

Holy shit! How does she do it? Bog knows no real financial advisor would be able to come up with ideas like that! Must be why so many pathetic dimwits concerned, thoughtful people like Bruce Levy (who, of course, was “skeptical at first”) consider Usleman someone who “is able to make me see things that I wouldn’t otherwise see.”

I’d suggest that if Levy is so lame a “businessman” that he cannot see that we’re swirling in a financial whirlpool, that it will get worse before it gets better, and that a whole new career game plan might be worth thinking about, and see those things all on his own without paying some dingbat with a really ghastly face lift $20 a minute to tell him, then he deserves to be a broke-ass chump.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame Usleman for doing whatever she can do to avert financial hard times on her own. But I have these things called morals, and, well, taking advantage of the mentally disadvantaged or emotionally vulnerable just isn’t on my “cool things to do” list.

You weren’t wondering, but…

Where has Rhology been trolling since we showed him the door? Well, he’s currently being tiresome over at poor Abbie Smith’s blog. The usual obfuscation, idiotic premises (“The consistent naturalist can’t prove that he is not a brain in a vat.”), goalpost shifting, hand-waving and tautologies (“Or perhaps you could prove that evidence is the best way to discover truth. I’d like some evidence for that claim.” …etc) presented as if they were bold challenges, followed by smarminess. His pattern is the same there as it was here: present a load of hopelessly inane questions and risible assertions, and when people point out how inane and risible they are, slip into smirking condescension that they’re — ha ha! — avoiding answering you.

Poor ERV. Sure, her commenters are making mincemeat of the guy. But only a few of them have twigged that he’s an intellectual poseur who isn’t interested in answers, facts, or even genuine discussion, only in getting a rise out of atheists. And once he’s done so, he does his little victory lap. Anyway, go have a look if you need a reminder of why the boy isn’t welcome here any more.

Case study: William Lane Craig vs. Bart Ehrman

In my ongoing discussion about the need for experienced debaters in the atheist camp, a theist named MrFreeThinker linked to a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, in which he asserts that Bart Ehrman was “pwned.” In particular, MFT says:

Bart Ehrman made some mathematically poor claims where he equivocated between intrinsic probability and specific probability with regard to miracles. W.L. Craig was able to use Baye’s theorem to show how his reasoning was mathematically fallacious. Ehrman was unable to counter Crag’s claims but made some backhanded ad hominems later on saying that Craig would be laughed at if he tried to bring his calculations on miracles to any secular university. W.L. Craig then pointed out that philosophers such as Richard Swinburne (a eminent philosopher of science at Oxford University) had also made similar calculations it was a moment of sheer pwnage.

(On a side note Swinburne’s calculations on the probability of Jesus’ Resurrection and God’s existence are available in his books “The Existence of God” and “Resurrection of God Incarnate”)

After reading the debate transcript, I have to agree that Ehrman made some missteps. But I don’t think they’re the ones the MFT thinks they are.

Let’s start with the topic being debated. Right now I’m a bit fixated on the issue that theist/atheist debates are routinely set up with fixed, bogus, and stacked resolutions. THIS debate proposed to settle the following question:

Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?

Sigh… here we go again. As I keep saying, theist debaters perpetually count on setting up debates with a loaded topic, so that the unbeliever loses before the debate has begun.

So what’s wrong with this topic? Yet again, it allows the theist side to play semantic games with definitions. What qualifies as “historical evidence” for the resurrection of Jesus? I think a naive atheist would assume that this means there is “sufficient, compelling, and persuasive evidence” that establishes the resurrection of Jesus. Fine, if you have a sympathetic audience. But you don’t. You never will. So here’s what Craig’s obviously going to do: he’s going to declare that any claim by anyone that indicates Jesus was resurrected counts as “historical evidence.” And he wins! Why? Because he’s right!

Just like “theory,” “evidence” is a word with numerous meanings depending on how it’s applied. So if Craig can find one person, from any point in history, who is willing to say “Jesus was resurrected,” he’s got evidence. Is it good evidence? Duh, of course not. But it’s evidence. By the same standard, I could easily lose a debate asking me to prove that there’s no historical evidence for Galactic Overlord Xenu. And the Salem Witch Trials provided all kinds of evidence (read: other people’s testimony) proving that those women were, in fact, in league with the devil.

Ahem, Bart, I believe the topic you actually meant to debate was this: “Was Jesus resurrected?” Simple. No frills. When you stepped into this loaded topic, you gave Craig a free pass to “win” just by throwing out enough stuff to allow for the vaguest possibility that Jesus was resurrected. You awarded yourself the burden of proof, requiring yourself to demonstrate conclusively that there is no evidence of any kind, good or bad.

So if nothing else, I want to thank MFT for bringing up yet another perfect illustration of my point. Now let’s move on to the substance of the debate. I’m not going to go through the entire thing. For now, I just want to focus on the specific case this argument from probability that he brought up.

From where I sit, all I see is Craig doing what creationists always do. He throws up a bunch of obfuscated equations on the board, counts on his audience not knowing enough to understand what the argument is, slips in gigantic assumptions about the natural world, and declares victory.

Obfuscated equation: check.

Pr (R/ B&E) = Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) /
[ Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) ] + [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ]

What value does that equation add to the credibility of Craig’s actual argument? None whatsoever. It’s a time filler, and it awes a lay audience who are expected to treat monstrous equations as magical incantations.

When you strip away the filler, Craig finally gets around to framing his actual argument, which is this:

“In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.

But that’s not all. Dr. Ehrman just assumes that the probability of the resurrection on our background knowledge [Pr(R/B)] is very low. But here, I think, he’s confused. What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.

That’s it. It took approximately five pages and three slides to say that. Five pages of scribbled equations, smarmy insults, cute little nicknaming conventions, and a whole pile of hand-waving. To obfuscate those two simple sentences.

And when you strip the argument down to those two sentences, the argument sucks. It’s basically “Jesus could rise from the dead, because God can do magic!” Hey, wait a minute, I thought that was a big part of what we were arguing about in the first place. But Craig just asserts that this is true, and doesn’t support his implied belief that magical events are happening all the time. Instead of backing up this claim, he deftly covered it up in those five pages of completely tangential empty academic masturbation.

This is endemic to creationist arguments. Kirk Durston does that too. Michael Behe does it a lot. What these debates have in common is that they use tons of math as a way of befuddling the audience, lulling them into thinking “I have no idea what that guy is saying so he must be smart.” Then they have a hook to bring the argument back to the audience’s reality. They make a spurious connection between the hook and the math, and then “therefore God exists.”

They do this all the time. It’s their main tactic.

The thing about math is, it does actually mean something specific, but it’s impossible to look up or pore over the details during a live debate. It’s also long and it’s boring, and they’re counting on the audience to gloss right over the equations and assume that the hook is a correct summation of the math.

Okay, so since we know this tactic is going to come up repeatedly. How do we deal with it? I haven’t settled this in my own mind, but I have some ideas. First of all, the math is guaranteed to be a smokescreen. There’s a place for equations in a scientific journal, or a class full of students who are studying the topic, but if you’re trying to persuade an audience of mixed education, it’s a sure bet that the intention is to obfuscate rather than explain.

So blow past the math. It’s important to watch like a hawk for the moment where the apologist explains what his REAL argument is, and make a snap judgment about whether this argument stands up on its own. You can’t study the math or verify it during the debate, so you can assume that (1) it may well be full of lies and phony inferences, and (2) the audience will have no idea if it isn’t. So above all else, do not waste time actually addressing the equations.

At any rate, atheists already have a perception problem of being overly nerdy, being concerned with “science” and “evidence” and whatnot. I think a little verbal kung fu is in order, i.e., using your opponent’s strength against him. Don’t just skip the math… ridicule it. That may sound kind of mean, but pay attention: William Lane Craig is kind of a dick anyway. He resorts to slides with labels like “Ehrman’s Egregious Error” and “Bart’s Blunder.”

Hell, I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a slide ready that says “Craig’s Cretinous Calculations.” And then, fill the page with truly irrelevant equations. Put up the freaking Pythagorean Theorem, or an expanded quadratic equation. Make a joke out of it. The audience will crack up if they realize you were prepared all along to hit Craig with his own nonsense. Odds are that they were probably feeling uncomfortable already because Craig was making them feel stupid, so it should be easy to get them laugh with you. And then, boil down his argument to its unsupported essence, and nail it.

But I digress. We were discussing how Bart Ehrman did. Well, MrFreeThinker, I’m willing to concede that he didn’t do all that great. This is right in line with what I keep saying: apologists win debates because they are good at performance art. Ehrman wasn’t prepared to act like a circus sideshow attraction.

But don’t think that means I’m ridiculing Craig when I say “circus sideshow.” That’s what an apologetics debate is. Bart should have been prepared to do performance art, and if he can’t win at that game then he isn’t prepared to debate.

As for Richard Swinburne, I couldn’t care less what he thinks. Craig pulled him up because he was name-dropping. Preceding this comment, Ehrman said this:

“I have trouble believing that we’re having a serious conversation about the statistical probability of the resurrection or the statistical probability of the existence of God. I think in any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage.”

Ehrman shouldn’t have said that. You know why? Because he should have known that for any crazy belief in the world, there probably exists some crackpot academic who will support it.

So yeah, I guess I’ll sort of give Craig the point for his name drop. What he proved was that the correct phrasing is:

“In any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage… unless, of course, one of them happens to be Richard Swinburne.”

Yet another loaded debate topic

Via a comment from reader Curtis Cameron:

Next week (on Darwin Day), Dan Barker will debate Kyle Butt on the specific question of the existence of the God of the Bible.

And from the linked web site:

Barker will affirm, “I know the God of the Bible does not exist”…

Okay, seriously, this is getting ridiculous.  In fact, it’s rapidly becoming my number one pet peeve about theist/atheist debates.  I’m going to try to make this real simple.

Attention debaters: Stop falling for this!  Theists who challenge you to a debate are not representatives of the National Forensics League.  They are not a neutral party trying to set up an objective and fair confrontation for both sides.  They are deliberately trying to stack the deck against you.  They want you to lose the debate before you set foot in the room.

How in the world did Dan Barker fall for this?  One of the strongest tools that atheists have is attributing the burden of proof to the theist.  I don’t know that unicorns do not exist.  I don’t know that Russell’s Teapot orbiting beyond Mars does not exist.  I simply don’t have any reason to believe that they do.

By accepting this ridiculous topic, (a) Dan Barker is forced to defend a position that he probably doesn’t hold; (b) he’s now locked into a position where the theist can just spout vague pseudo-philosophy about knowledge and epistemology, and not defend the concept that a god exists at all.

This is important, guys.  Pay attention to the format and the topic before you agree to a debate. Tell your friends.  Don’t make me keep repeating it.

Will somebody please pass this friendly advice along?  This trend must be stopped.

If I were Barker, I’d try to salvage this bad situation by making a self-deprecating joke about it.  First thing you say is, “Let me tell you right away I’m going to lose this debate.  Why?  The topic is set to a position that is not mine.  I don’t ‘know’ that there is no God, any more than I know that there is no FSM.  So recognizing that I’ve already lost my case, I’m going to turn this debate into a draw by making sure my opponent loses right along with me.  He doesn’t know that God exists because…” etc.