Introductions: The show

Welcome to our new home on Freethought Blogs.  The transition seems to have gone smoothly, so I assume we’ll have some new people stumbling across us.

The Atheist Experience is a live public access call-in television show based out of Austin, Texas.  It launched in 1997.  You can learn more about the show here, including information on how to watch live and view the extensive archive.  We’ve got two hosts — Matt Dillahunty is on three out of every four weeks, and I (Russell Glasser) host the fourth week.  We also have five rotating cohosts: Don Baker, Jeff Dee, Jen Peeples, Martin Wagner, and Tracie Harris.

Since we have fifteen years of live callers behind us, we’ve covered a pretty wide range of personalities.  They range from slickly packaged professional apologists like Ray Comfort and Matt Slick on one end, to just plain unexpected silliness on the other.

The Atheist Experience is sponsored by the Atheist Community of Austin, a terrific social group which also supports two other podcasts: The Non-Prophets, a round table discussion group; and Godless Bitches, an atheist feminist podcast.

We’re all looking forward to interacting with the Freethought Blogs community at large, and I’ll be writing a new post introducing myself personally as one of your regular bloggers.  Talk to you soon!

Open thread on Episode #728

Russell and Jeff in the self-described “awesome episode.”  One theist caller gets 20 minutes, while another gets summarily dumped after his opening statement.  A new study shows that belief in God is linked with intuitive thinking, or to put it another way, preferring to choose the answer that sounds good over thinking carefully about what’s probably correct.  Be there!

Also, as I mentioned on the show, Lynnea and I have plans to hang out in a bar with Orlando-based fans on a weeknight in November.  Check out this page for planning if you’re nearby.

Open Thread on 727

Secular charities mentioned in today’s show include:

These organizations help real people in this life – the only one we’re sure to get. They’re transparent about what they do, and serve anyone in need.

As I mentioned on the show today, the idea that some reward awaits the faithful in the afterlife is one of the religious doctrines that impairs our ability to solve the problems that plague humanity. It makes it easier to ignore suffering if you think some people are better off dead. Well, it’s not okay with me for people to go without medical care because they’re poor. It’s not okay for people to go hungry in a country where obesity is a major health concern. It’s not okay for women to be pregnant year after year until they die of exhaustion. The organizations above are doing what they can to solve these problems. If you can help, please do, and thank you.

And now, open thread – have at it.

We get email: Brains, evidence, and burden of proof again

Fresh from the “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet” files, this message was sent via the contact form on the ACA website.

My understanding about atheism is you claim that because there is (supposedly) no evidence for God existing that this equates to there being evidence for God NOT existing (please correct me if I am wrong about this).

Kind of, but not exactly.

The default position for any positive claim lacking evidence is usually disbelief.  “Disbelief” doesn’t mean “proof against,” and it doesn’t mean “dogmatic certainty” — it just means, to put it simply, that you generally don’t believe in stuff without having reasons in favor of it.

To give you a small example: Suppose I told you “You know, I died last week, but I rose from the dead on the following morning, so here I am replying to your email.”  Would you believe me or not?

I think it’s safe to say that you would ask me whether I have evidence or not.  My failure to provide any wouldn’t constitute proof that it didn’t happen, but it wouldn’t look good for me.  Don’t you agree?

Or suppose I tried to sell you a car which, by all appearances, seemed to be a twenty year old lemon, but I said “This car has a secret switch which can make it FLY.  And I’m selling it to you for the incredibly reasonable price of $10,000.”  That’s actually a great price for a flying car… but I’m sure you wouldn’t buy it without evidence.

You see the difference between this position and what you’re saying?

My question to you is this:

1) Do you have a brain? You probably think so.
2) How do you know? For the sake of epistomological argument, you could be merely a computer-based machine, akin to a very advanced robot operating on Artificial Intelligence
3) How can you prove this? Given my previous challenge, you probably can’t prove the existence of your brain without cutting open your skull to demonstrate the presence of white and grey matter)

Yes, I’ve heard this one before, there’s a popular urban legend chain mail about a student who stumps a professor with it.  I have a hard time believing that anyone takes that story seriously.

This line of questioning stems from a total confusion about the difference between “evidence” and proof.  You of course couldn’t prove with 100% certainty that any particular person has their own brain; after all, they COULD be a very clever robot.  However, the evidence that we do have is sufficient to that it’s way more likely that you have a brain than any of the alternatives.  For example:

  • Induction (an important tool of science): Every human skull we’ve ever cut open has contained a brain.  Thus the DEFAULT assumption for any given person is that they match an already observed pattern.
  • Necessity: we have built up a pretty good idea of how brains work, and that they are a the source of cognitive processes in people.  In order to say “Person X lacks a brain” you’d have to come up with a credible alternate explanation of why they’re continuing to move around, speak, and write.  Instead of, you know, lying there.  (By contrast, we don’t have any evidence of any particular processes caused by any gods, which means that’s the possibility that requires explanation.)
  • Ruling out alternatives: It’s easy to SAY that your brain’s been replaced with a computer, but as far as we know this can’t be done successfully with any modern techology.  If those kinds of transplants were commonplace, then there would be evidence for the brain switching theory, but there’s not, so following the known pattern is the simplest conclusion.

4) Do you claim to know everything, as in all possible facts? If not, then what percentage of information about the world do you claim to know? 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 %? Whatever the percentage of information about the world which you have knowledge about, it surely is not a full 100% – if this is correct, then the percentage for which you do not have knowledge could, quite possibly, include existence of supernatural phenomena such as the existence of God.

Sure, the possibility is always there, even if the odds are 10^-googol.  You don’t need to convince me that a god is possible.  I just don’t believe that it’s true, due to lack of evidence.  If you want to change my mind about the likelihood, then find some evidence.

My argument then is as follows:
1) You do not really have logical or rational proof for claiming, with certainty, that God does not exist

And, as I just said, I don’t make that claim of certainty.

2) Therefore, you are, by definition, an agnostic, in other words: you are uncertain and do not know the final truth of the matter with regards to God’s existence.

You’re right.  As I’ve said many times on the show, I’m an agnostic atheist.  “Agnostic” because I don’t know whether a god exists, but “atheist” because, given the information currently available, I don’t share your belief that the god exists.

3) You have therefore been mistaken about calling yourself an atheist, since you actually are an agnostic and are simply in need of getting your terms right before using terms such as “atheist” inaccurately

Wrong.  My usage of the word atheist is consistent with the standard definition (as I am not a theist), and also consistent with the viewpoints of many well-established atheists, such as George Smith and Richard Dawkins

Perhaps a more accurate way of describing yourself, as well as your friends and colleagues on your show, could include:
- agnostic

Yes.

- secular

Yes.

- lay

Why, because I’m not a scientist myself?  Okay, I’m a layperson, but I don’t see what that has to do with atheism.  You and I are both lay irrespective of our religious beliefs.

- irreligious

Yes.

- epistemologists

…Sure, if you want.

Now I’ve agreed to your entire list of alternate descriptions, and I’m also an atheist.  If you want to throw some more labels on there, I’m also a computer programmer, a gamer, a father, etc.  None of those things are mutually exclusive with atheism.

Atheism, however, with its claim to conclusively “know” that God does not exist, seems about as irrational as the very belief in God which it seems to have contempt for.

Atheism doesn’t require such a claim of knowledge.  I’m afraid you have been misinformed.  Withholding beliefs in the absence of evidence isn’t irrational, as is obviously the case in my example of the flying car.

Hope that clears things up.

Open letter to Mark/ChrisLanganFan et al

Dear Mark,

I’ll call you Mark because that was the first name you used when you called us, and I’ve spoken to you at length using that name twice.  If that’s not your preferred name, please let me know what name I should use instead.

For a long time, I denied that your calls were coming from the same person — I suppose due to some kind of misguided pride.  After all, I thought that you and I had some interesting and even somewhat productive conversations when I was talking to you.  I didn’t want to feel like those conversations had been a waste of time, and I was unfairly annoyed with the viewers in email and chat who were trying to point out the obvious — that you were disguising your voice to keep calling.

Even after accepting that you were faking the British accent, I wasn’t completely convinced that you were the original “Mark.”  But obviously, you gave the game away when Matt asked you about it this past Sunday.  Instead of asking “Who’s Mark?” you answered by repeating an argument from another of your alter egos, which was basically as good as an admission.  And I know you read this blog, because you’re obviously the one writing in as “ChrisLanganFan” (and Andrew, when you double-posted) so I thought I’d ask you about this directly.

First of all, why do you feel the need to disguise your identity?  We don’t avoid conversations with real theists.  A few months ago I invited you to meet us for dinner, and I was serious about it — I’d be happy to meet with you.  (Granted, I was also trying to work out whether you were really a native of Austin as you claimed.  I guess I have my answer now, and I’m disappointed.)

I recognize that the internet and phone-only conversations can feel impersonal enough that you don’t need to reveal every detail of your identity, but I’ve always valued honesty a great deal.  On the web I sometimes go by the screen name “Kazim,” but I’ve always been up front about who I really am and what my real values are.  I tend to expect that of others — sometimes, unfortunately, incorrectly.

I had a phone conversation about you with Martin once, when I wasn’t sure whether you were really calling in with multiple names and voices.  Here’s what I said in a nutshell: “I suppose Tom might be Mark, but I don’t understand what his goal is.  The way I see it, there are three possible reasons why he might be doing it: 1. To make us look bad; 2. to make us look good; 3. Some kind of weird performance art.”  Number three doesn’t make much sense to me (again, as someone who values honesty).  If it’s number two, we don’t need your help.  And if it’s number one, well, first of all you’re not doing a very good job of it; and second of all, I don’t see how it helps you in your goal to use fake identities.  Shouldn’t the arguments speak for themselves without worrying about the personality?

I guess what I’m feeling most of all is disappointment mixed with a bit of confusion.  On some occasions, you seemed to be very angry about the show.  On other occasions, you seemed like you were actually listening to the people who were talking to you and trying to understand what they said.  And in the latest calls you’ve started out angry and then switched topics repeatedly without settling on one point long enough to make a lasting impression about it.  This Chris Langan fascination seems like a new development — you never asked us about him in your first few calls, and you always seem to hang up before any real discussion about him can get underway.  Besides that, you appear to be more fixated on the idea that Chris Langan himself should speak to us directly to defend his ideas rather than being willing to do it yourself.

So I’m just wondering which one is the real you?  How do you really feel about our show, and why is it so important that you keep talking with us at all costs?  Is it because you really like us, worry about us, hate us, want to shut us down, or what?

I really am interested in trying to understand you better, but I can’t do it without your help.  Doesn’t it bother you to try to keep all these lies straight?  Wouldn’t it feel better to come out and say what’s really on your mind?  Come on, give it a try.  What do you say?

If it IS performance art, then I guess you win.  You’ve gotten past the screeners multiple times, and now you have a lot of people talking about you.  That must really stroke your ego to get all that attention, I guess.  Do you want to supply a web site or a podcast so people can admire other facets of your work?

Ball’s in your court, Mark.

Sincerely,
Russell Glasser

Update: “Mark” came clean in comments, pronouncing that he’s an atheist who is deliberately prank calling.  He repeatedly states that he will only stop if we devote 75% of the show to theist callers.  He is now banned from this blog for all the previous posts in which he’s lied.

“21 dead in religious rioting in central Nigeria”

I don’t have much to comment on here. Just to say we hear often about religious persecution of Christians around the globe from Christian news sites. We don’t usually hear about Christians murdering people of other faiths, even though it happens. So, just to share:

http://news.yahoo.com/21-dead-religious-rioting-central-nigeria-115350915.html

Open Thread for show #725

Matt and me (Tracie) today. Since it’s just an hour, informal conversation and some calls, I’m sure.

Also, just to let you know there’s now an unofficial fan page for a virtual after show dinner, but it’s also running during the show if you want to stop by it:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Atheist-Experience-virtual-After-Show-Dinner/136839649738723

Days when I’m not cohosting, and not at the dinner in Austin, I do go and show support there. Just letting others know it’s out there as well.

Enjoy!