Dec 27 2009

Should we believe what we can’t disprove?

We received a letter from a viewer asking about how some theists interpret evidence. In his view, it appeared some people don’t care about evidence, and I agree. I also note that this is nothing limited to theists. But in my reply, I noted that it’s important to know whether someone cares about evidence before you expend too much time correcting factual or informational errors presented to you by the other party. In his last reply, he added this:

“The question to ask the faithful is, how would you distinguish the difference between faith in something true and faith in something false without evidence?”

This reminded me of the question I have often asked, “How does a theist know the god he believes in is moral, if he asserts that humans are not able to judge his god’s actions when they appear to be wrong?”

But it also put me in mind of a recent conversation I had over the holiday. A theist asserted that it’s not reasonable for people to assert there is/is no god, since there’s no way to prove or disprove it. It’s an old, tired, and well-rebutted refrain, but, somehow, it never seems to lose steam. The interesting thing about this particular exchange is that the theist rebutted herself in short order.

I replied, “Of course we can prove if a thing exists. It’s like Big Foot. First we have to have a clear definition of what it is we are claiming exists: a great ape. Then we define how it manifests—in this case, where this thing can be discovered: North American woodlands. Then we go looking for a great ape in the North American woodlands. If it’s there, eventually the evidence to demonstrate it exists should become available—and when it does, we can say it exists.”

To this she replied, “But what if you don’t find any evidence?”

To which I replied, “Well, then I would wonder why these people were asserting that a great ape lives in the North American woodlands.”

And here is where it got interesting. AE viewers will understand, probably, my take on Big Foot. You will grasp that my question was along the lines of the Dragon in my Garage: Without any manifestation—there is no rational reason for someone to assert something is there.

However, this theist took it as a statement of my own assertion that I accept something must be there, otherwise, people wouldn’t have asserted there was something there. She thought I was presenting the theist fallacy, the argument from popularity. “If lots of people assert it is true, it must be true.”

But her reply was priceless: “Well, in ancient Greece, there were lots of things people claimed lived in the world that I’m pretty sure don’t exist.” And “pretty sure” was put forward with a chuckle—in the same way we might assert we’re pretty sure that W.C. Fields wouldn’t turn down a drink. It was a positive statement that “people assert all sorts of nonexistent things exist—like satyrs, winged-horses, and wood nymphs of the ancient Greeks.”

Of course, the beauty of this is that she just asserted that she accepts these things don’t exist—despite the fact that nobody has ever “proved” they don’t exist. And wasn’t her initial statement that this was an ignorant position for someone to hold?

To frame it in terms of the initial query from the viewer mail: “How does this theist distinguish between the thing that doesn’t exist and the thing that exists but manifests in exactly the same way as the thing that doesn’t exist?” Obviously, she feels confident she has reasonable basis upon which to reject some of these claims of existence of supernatural beings, while she accepts other such claims—but, without being able to “disprove” either, how does she differentiate? And further, why would she criticize the atheist for a more consistent application of a standard she clearly uses herself: In the absence of a conclusive demonstration of existence, it’s reasonable to dismiss inconclusive evidence and unsupported claims, and assert your disbelief (of Greek supernatural beings)—even if you can’t or haven’t “disproved” the claim.

I wish I would have thought more quickly. This particular theist doesn’t believe in the existence of ghosts. Ghosts would have been far more appropriate to the dialogue in this case, as it is something far more people believe in than Big Foot, and for which much “evidence” and “testimony” is, and has been, presented from eye-witnesses and “researchers” in paranormal fields. And yet, she has asserted to me on numerous occasions that she understands such things do not exist.

I still don’t know how she differentiates.


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  1. 1

    Theist thinking: "If there's no way to differentiate in absence of evidence either way, I'll go with what I've grown comfortable with."Many do understand that emotion is not a cognitive tool, but their emotions tell them that abandoning comfort would hurt, so they go with emotion anyway.Bypass the intellect.

  2. 2
    Ken Chamberlain

    Some theists apparently have a mode of thinking that's not easy for me to grasp.

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    There an endless number thing that others believe in that I do not. I find no crying need to spend my time trying to disprove the existence of what I consider silly ideas. I don't feel like spending time justifying my position on gods. These beliefs have never been mine and are not important to my life. No atheist has an obligation to accept god's existence just because they have no interest in studying all the arguments which ultimately lead nowhere. God is in the end not worth the effort.

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    David CT:From a personal standpoint, I couldn't agree more. In fact, just yesterday I advised two atheists in communities of theists that they are not required to understand and offer alternate explanations of things such as cosmology, evolution, or anything else.It's so odd that in regard to theism, there is this idea that it doesn't have to be supported or demonstrated–it seems to "stand" upon the idea that "we don't know anything better."Too often the atheist response is "yes we do," and then the atheist proceeds to have to study and find answers–which are available, but, as you note, unnecessary.The answer that should be offered is, "I don't really know all that much about cosmology or biology (assuming the atheist doesn't), but I don't see how what YOUR asserting makes sense."In one of the letters, someone complained about being presented with the "I didn't come from any monkey" reply to evolution. He posited a long explanation of evolution and how it works and how this is a misconception. But the real point is this: OK, you don't accept evolution–how does your assertion of "mud and magic" make sense?Like you, while I don't mind offering corrections to false facts I'm presented with, I don't see how it's necessary when I'm talking about belief in god. I need to see some merits for that belief offered. The idea that the theist rejects other hypotheses, theorie or even reality is not relevant. I want to know on what grounds he accepts what he's asserting–not what he rejects. Reject it all, for goodness sake–but at some point you need to show me how your ideas are rational or supported by conclusive evidence.I can't just assert fairies make my flowers grow in my garden, and then "support" that claim by asserting that I reject the idea of photosynthesis.OK, you reject photosynthesis–but what on earth got you to "fairies"?

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    I have had a "back and forth" with a theist on fark.com for quite a while now. He initially started with an argument from authority, along the lines of "I'm an engineer, so you can trust me with the science". Then he proceeded to blather about how creationism is scientific.After being countered at every point, usually with links to scientific papers or lectures by eminent scientists, he finally stopped trying to sound scientific. Perhaps I'm optimistic, but I think very soon he will be willing to admit that his idea that other peoples silly superstitions are wrong because they belong to other people, and that his silly superstition is right because he holds that superstition.On the other hand, I'm not holding my breath.

  6. 6
    stronger now

    I was told by a theist that he "got tired of wondering whether there was a god or not, so [he] put all his eggs in this basket (theism)."Why not do the same thing to every other unsubstantiated claim?I just cannot wrap my mind around it. How can someone stop wondering and come to a conclusion by force of will? It sounds like he fell for Pascal's wager.

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    @maddogdeltaThe whole engineer->theist thing is just bizarre.Engineers aren't scientists any more than painters are chemists.

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    "I was told by a theist that he "got tired of wondering whether there was a god or not, so [he] put all his eggs in this basket (theism)."Why not do the same thing to every other unsubstantiated claim?"Pascal's wager to me always seemed to in reality sway towards atheism."we know life exists so enjoy life and hope for an afterlife" seems to be demonstrably THE best bet since it's no cost for the bet and as likely to get a 'win' as any one religion.

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    "The whole engineer->theist thing is just bizarre.Engineers aren't scientists any more than painters are chemists."For the sake of my engineer friends, I have to insist that the problem is not in the engineers necessarily but the fact that engineering lacks a peer review and critique process. They don't foster skepticism and critical thinking as "hard" science does. Basically it can be used as a badge of intellect while lacking the rigors that scientists face.But to demonstrate that engineers can be very good scientists or scientific folk, look at the Myth Busters. To my knowledge Jamie and Adam's real training is in engineering fields, and it's them bringing the critical thinking into that field that makes them excel over your typical cookie cutter schematic schmuck.

  10. 10

    The human brain is a wonderfully creative thing. It can generate an almost infinite amount of hypothesis.I replaced a laptop hard drive for a friend of a friend. She is into angels and crystal energy.She seriously suggested to me that energy from her crystals may damaged the hard drive.She looked me straight in the eye and said "they are really powerful". When I asked her the nature of this energy and how it can be measured, she was not able.I cannot disprove that crystal energy damaged the computer but I did give her a few more likely alternatives. Her kids may have treated the laptop roughly or hard disk simply failed mechanically from one of a myriad of reasons. Even when supplied with far more reasonable explanations a true believer will not listen. "You can't prove it's not true", seems to be enough validation for many people.

  11. 11

    @ RaymondPlease, advise your friend that hard drives come in only two varieties. Those that have crashed and those that are about to do so. Make sue she has good backup for the next time the crystals send out a burst of N-rays or the kids drop the laptop.

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    Thanks for the advice DavidCT.However, I can see there is a slight flaw. The unspecified energy from the crystals could affect the backup media. Even a remote backup could be affected, remember the crystals are "really powerful".

  13. 13

    Disclaimer 1: I am not trolling. I am an atheist — I swear on a stack of The God Delusion.Disclaimer 2: I'm aware that this is your blog; I'm only complaining, not demanding change.I came to this blog looking for an Internet place to "hang out" with fellow atheists. After a couple of weeks, I've decided this isn't the place for me, and this thread is as good an example as any of my reasons.You may fairly argue that I'm merely posting to flame you in order to salve my ego — so I concede that this post may not make it past moderation. But I thought you might find some interest in why I'm uncomfortable here.First, I grew up on a farm. I was 11 before I knew "shit" was a bad word. I take a back seat to few people in the fluency of my vulgarity; it doesn't "offend" me in the slightest. The difference is that I reserve it for cows and tractors; unleashing it on people is just something I disagree with (I don't believe in the concept of "bad language" personally, but oto, and I choose to respect that), most especially when those folks weren't employing vulgarities themselves (at least by their own standards).Second, I'm a political conservative. The leftward political tilt here was perhaps to be expected, since conservatism does tend more toward religious belief. But the gratuitous shots at conservative politicians (when aimed at their politics rather than their religious beliefs) simply strike me as irrelevant here.The general tone of anger here really puts me off. There are real reasons for "angry atheism", but I just think it's like railing against the weather.So, in sum, this isn't a community for me; I'm sure I'll look in from time to time, but I had thought to become an active participant — though not any longer.OK, now you can all jump in and call *me* names! :-)

  14. 14

    Sorry; after all of the trouble I had logging into my Google/Blogger account, I wound up posting my comment to the wrong thread. It was meant for the pope-attack thread. If you can move it; great. Otherwise, please just reject it and I'll re-post.Thanks.

  15. 15

    Neutron: I wound up posting my comment to the wrong thread. It was meant for the pope-attack thread. If you can move it; great.No need. It serves its purpose here just as well.While I'm sorry you feel the way you do, I think you've misjudged the blog and this group of folks if you feel there's a "general tone of anger" here. Even at the "pope knocked down" thread, there was no anger in the original post. The only person to introduce anger into that discussion was JD Curtis with his histrionic overreaction to the whole thing.As you noticed you'd posted your comment to the wrong thread, I wonder if you actually took the time to read Tracie's post at all. That ought to have clued you in that a "general tone of anger" is not S.O.P. here. Tracie's posts are always extremely detailed and thoughtful, and in her responses, even to people who don't agree with her, she's the soul of civility. Kazim's posts are even-tempered and witty. I tend to be the snarky guy, finding things to make fun of, but I flatter myself I vary it up a bit when I'm in an analytical mood to write something much more in-depth. True, there are things about which I write where I am angry. I submit they are things worthy of being angry about. Is it not justifiable to be angry at the spectacle of the Catholic Church shielding sexual predators among its priests from prosecution? Is it not justifiable to be angry when people are denied equal rights (or even basic civil rights) because of their creed, or sexual preference? Should we not be angry at fundamentalist frauds who bilk their congregations for millions? When is it okay to be angry and when is it not?I think you have taken a single flamewar with an (in my opinion) unjustifiably angry theist and blown it out of proportion to where you think it represents the blog and this community as a whole. I do hope you reconsider and stick around enough to look at the bigger picture, and find out what the people who write and comment here are really like. Because if you think we're the sort who will "jump in and call you names" because you're exercising your free choice and offering your sincere opinions in a respectful tone, you really don't know us.Take care. We now return you to your regularly scheduled thread…

  16. 16

    Martin,Thank you for your thoughtful reply. As this is off-topic for this particular thread, I'll just keep this short.I did, in fact, read Tracie's entry; I've read all of the stuff posted here over the past couple of weeks, plus some of the historical stuff. I wouldn't be so incautious as to let just one thread pollute my opinion, honest!As to the pope-attack thread, with all due respect, JD's original post wasn't "angry" at all; the incivility and vulgar tone started with responses to his original post. It is true that he began to get more belligerent as the thread went on, but by far the bulk of the incivility and *all* of the vulgarity came from responses to his posts.While this isn't true of *all* threads, of course, I did read at least a couple of other threads in which essentially the same conditions held.Let me reiterate that I have no objection per se to the anger, incivility, and vulgarity. It's just that it sets a tone here that I find, overall, distasteful.Thanks for your invitation to hang around a bit longer; I'll do that. And I again apologize for being so fumble-fingeredly stupid as to post to the wrong thread (and for my utter failure to keep this as short as I'd promised!).

  17. 17

    Neutron:I would agree with Martin on a few summary points, and beyond that I don't have much to say, because I can't really insist that a person fits in with this group. You know what you like, and if this isn't it–then I accept your assessment.When I saw your qualifier that you had posted to the wrong thread, my first thought was "Oh, OK–that makes more sense"–since this thread seemed to have none of the things you mentioned you objected to. And my article for this thread was pretty benign.However, I quickly wondered along the lines of Martin–if this post and thread doesn't represent what you object to, then clearly we offer more than what you object to here.I actually can get "fired up" over issues–but I can't recall the last time I ever "got angry" at a human being I was dialoging with. I can't recall the last time I was ever offended or insulted–although I've certainly been the target many times of people clearly trying to offend and insult me. I'm not averse to swears, but I don't ever "aim" them at anyone. I might drop the F-bomb alot in conversation–but I don't ever tell a person F-you or F-off. I don't hurl emotional abuse at people. However, I live in a real world where I understand it's anyone's right to hurl such abuse at me or at anyone else. I simply, for myself, don't engage that.If you lean conservative, I'm sure there is a left-feel here for you. And that could be unsettling if you're looking for community and not debate. And that's fair. I would say that most conservative atheists will get arguments here. And I would agree that if I wanted to sit around debating my every thought and opinion, I'd be hanging out at a theist forum and not here, where I can share community.So, wherever you land, best of luck. I know conservative atheists are "out there"–I have met them. So, probably you will locate them soon enough.Take care!

  18. 18

    Hey Neutron,We're human beings, and we're passionate and imperfect. That's all. Perhaps one way to elevate the discourse here is to partake in it! :-) Cheers.

  19. 19
    Hammered Thor

    @Neutron, you said…"As to the pope-attack thread, with all due respect, JD's original post wasn't "angry" at all; the incivility and vulgar tone started with responses to his original post."I disagree. The incivility started with JD saying "…let it sink in for a bit while you are wondering why you feel empty on this day while the rest of the world is rejoicing." Who's feeling empty? Oh, right, we're atheists so of course we feel empty right? How nice of JD to come by and tell people he doesn't know how empty we are.

  20. 20
    Hammered Thor

    I think the response to JD was totally appropriate.That said, this isn't the right place for everyone and if it's not your thing Neutron then hey, that's okay.But like Martin said, you could also jump in and add your voice to the mix.

  21. 21

    Thanks, HT and Neutron. Now, to correct thread drift, I'd appreciate future comments here to return to discussing Tracie's OP.

  22. 22

    Trying to get back on topic here… Theists have shifting standards when it comes to assess their belief. I remember a muslim fundie accointance who was ready to believe every ridiculous claim of miracle coming from Muslim converts, but would be sceptical to similar claims coming from Christians. Virgin Mary appearing in Our Lady of Whatever in times of war? Pure hallucination from gullible and stressed people. A guy claiming to have been frozen in ice and survived, thus discovering Allah's greatness? Of course it's true, if he says so, why would he lie? There was a Catholic girl I know who would acknowledge that the Bible could not tell the whole literal truth (even though the text claims it does), but was sure that there was more historical truth in the Bible than any other religious text. I also think that theists willingly mixes sincerity and evidence. That the early Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of God did not make it so.

  23. 23

    Well, since the drift is my fault, let me take a crack at correcting it.Like the crystal energy person with a dead hard drive, from a previous post in this thread, many theists appear to have a thought process that goes "unless you can disprove it, it is OK for me to believe it is true" (answering Tracie's post headline in the affirmative). Proof isn't required to *believe* something — only to *stop* believing.For them, belief itself requires only scant evidence, or even no evidence at all (and never mind what passes as "evidence" for some …). There are all kinds of people who believe all kinds of strange things with no more evidence than an airy wave of the hand — and some have quite literally drunk the Kool-Aid for their belief.Maybe that's what's behind the animosity of fundamentalists toward evolution. Perhaps they see the conflict of vilifying biologists for believing evolution on what they think is "scant evidence" while holding their own beliefs based on scant evidence.Or perhaps, if only subconsciously, they realize that, by their own standard, they should believe evolution if they can't disprove it.Nah. Either of those positions would imply reason. That can't be it.This dichotomy of thinking was never presented more directly than by Whoopi Goldberg on The O'Reilly Factor. After a long (and polite) discussion, she finally said "Bill, you're using reason and logic, and I just go with what I feel."That, I think, is theist thinking in a nutshell (quite independently of whether she herself is or is not a theist.)(There — I've just taken a gratuitous shot at a liberal. I'm starting to get the HANG of this place!) :-)

  24. 24

    "This dichotomy of thinking was never presented more directly than by Whoopi Goldberg on The O'Reilly Factor. After a long (and polite) discussion, she finally said "Bill, you're using reason and logic, and I just go with what I feel.""wait a minute! O'Reilly was on the side of reason and logic in a discussion?? I'm gonna have to see if I can find a clip of this. Excuse me for being a Doubting Thomas, but seeing is believing afterall lol

  25. 25

    Yes, if I were coaching Team Lefty for the scrimmage line of live TV debate, I'd probably keep Whoopi warming the bench while I let the likes of Jon Stewart, Al Franken and Robert Scheer stiff-arm their way to the end zone!

  26. 26

    wait a minute! O'Reilly was on the side of reason and logic in a discussion??I expected this. You have to actually watch the show, rather than read a synopsis of it from some left-wing columnist with a broadaxe to grind. Let me just cite the incident of a Denver Post columnist who wrote that "O'Reilly spewed racist bile" in a column. When confronted, she admitted that all O'Reilly did was use the term "illegal alien", which, to her, was racist. That's all he said.The easiest way to get O'Reilly to yell at you on the show is to ignore the point of his question and go off into your own little soliloquy instead. If you debate him, he'll debate you. And he generally gives good debaters the last word.I find much of liberalism rooted in exactly the kind of intellectual "honesty" illustrated by the Denver Post columnist. But I am not here to argue against liberalism, but rather FOR atheism. I apologize for providing the bait, and I won't repeat the error.OK, I can't resist one dig, Martin: I don't think it is a coincidence that two of the people you cite are comedians and Robert Scheer is almost laughably illogical, which arguably amounts to the same thing.That's it; no more politics from me here, ever.

  27. 27

    Erg. If only such discussions could end so easily. Most of us have watched O'Reilly (I quit because I got sick of him blaming "the secularists" for everything he didn't like), and I think your generous characterization of him doesn't really pass "No Spin Zone" muster. He does in fact go off on guests he doesn't agree with, with little provocation, the perfect example being his infamous post-9/11 "interview" with Jeremy Glick. Glick, who lost his father in the attacks, was invited on to explain his opposition to war, and while doing so, O'Reilly went apeshit, screaming his usual "SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" while Glick entirely maintained his composure ("Please don't tell me to shut up."). I watched this unravel live, so you can't say I'm providing second-hand reporting from a lefty blog on this. After seeing a consistent pattern like this from BO'R, I pretty much lost whatever respect or interest I had in him as a journalist.I should also mention that one of the liberal comedians I named is also now a U.S. Senator, who recently drafted legislation prohibiting the government from giving defense contracts to companies that prevent their employees "from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court," a bill that was opposed by 30 conservative senators. One is prompted to ask what could possibly possess right-wing lawmakers to protect a company's right to protect rapists.Franken has shown a great deal more trustworthiness and integrity as as senator than Obama has as president.

  28. 28

    "I expected this. You have to actually watch the show, rather than read a synopsis of it from some left-wing columnist with a broadaxe to grind.""If you debate him, he'll debate you. And he generally gives good debaters the last word."—I agree with Martin on this. Your analysis of O'Reilly is contrary to many of the interview/debate clips I have ever seen of him. And I have seen alot.Of the clips I have seen I admit that his points are rarely ones I can agree with or find even remotely logical, but he often dominates the conversation and doesn't give his guest the opportunity to finish his/her points. He seems to only want to preach at times. The Richard Dawkins interview springs most firmly in my mind as a good example of this, but there are plenty of others.To be fair though, I have seen him give more disciplined interviews. I've just watched an interview with Marilyn Manson, where his Authoritarian biases were coming through clearly, but at least he gave Manson the chance to make his points.But as I am someone who would lean more to the right than most people here on economic policy, I find it very telling that even I rarely find him logical or reasonable. On the other hand I am very libertarian/anarchist when it comes to personal freedoms.However while I may be biased, I think that O'Reilly's lack of reasoning powers transcends wherever your position might be politically

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