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How To Logic

I don’t go into a lot of detail about my work on the show, because it doesn’t necessarily interest everyone. But I do occasionally mention that I’m a software engineer, and work it into my discussions here and there. I had to take a break from the show for a year or so while I finished my Master’s Degree at UT in 2008. I have a second blog for writing thoughts about my profession; it’s called Castles of Air.

Occasionally people ask a question like the following: “I like your show. I’m a young skeptical atheist and I’m trying to decide what to do with my life. What should I study in school?” Some common answers are: Go into science. You will learn how to study the world in a naturalistic way and be better equipped to answer questions without resorting to supernatural answers. Or: Try politics. You can work to reinforce separation of church and state, and use your influence to advance causes you care about. Or: How about religious studies? You can get a real handle on how major world religions developed, and promote skepticism from the inside.

Those are all good answers, but I’d like to take a minute to speak in praise of the career track I picked.

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ReasonCon Materials Going Public

The material that was produced in Hickory, NC, at ReasonCon earlier this month, is beginning to post for public consumption. The majority of presentations are not yet available, but one is, along with something that has become informally dubbed The Drunk-Cast. Below are the audio files that are currently accessible, with descriptions. I will post the remaining material as it becomes available to share.

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On maintaining passionate intensity

I want to say something witty and interesting on the subject of confidently presenting your point of view… but I’m not sure I have the confidence in this view, so I’m just going to throw some stream of consciousness at you.

It’s no big secret that I think “Faith” in general is a problem. By “Faith” I mean the religious variety, where you fervently believe in things which you have no reason to accept as true. I don’t think one set of doctrines is necessarily more problematic than another — i.e., I don’t think Mormons or Muslims are inherently more scary than Christians, but I do think that believers become scarier as you slide from the “vague spiritualist” end of the spectrum to the “ardent fundamentalist” end of the spectrum. That’s why I don’t object to atheist churches and atheist rituals. But I do object to what I call “arrogant certainty” of all stripes — the practice of bluntly asserting a position and sticking to it in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

But there’s an inverse problem, which is the problem of being too timid about things that you pretty clearly do know. I like people who understand that all knowledge is tentative, and recognize that they could be wrong, but all the same… good grief. There is a certain style of presentation that I struggle to avoid, which is to make every point of view you hold sound like an apology.

Sye Ten Bruggencate likes to play on this trait with his signature question: “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?” An intellectually honest person would say “Yes, but it’s extremely unlikely.” Sye takes any “yes” answer as an opportunity to say that since you are uncertain and he is certain, he must be right. You see what Sye did there?

Ray Comfort uses a similar approach, saying “Do you know for certain that you are right? No? Well I do.”

Being certain doesn’t mean that you are right in reality. In fact, often it can simply demonstrate that you are not intellectually honest. But sometimes, faking certainty can be a shortcut to gaining an audience’s trust without actually earning it. People aren’t inclined to look things up in a spoken argument, so they may just think to themselves, “Well, that one guy sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I guess he was more convincing.”

There’s a fine line to walk here. I don’t necessarily want to say that atheists should present that same kind of fake certainty that evangelicals seem to be so good at. On the other hand, there is a kind of confidence in your own point of view that you should be willing to present when you state your positions, because it is a good tool.

There’s a poem by William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming,” and yes, it is a Christian narrative, so it may not necessarily be the ideal model for atheist discussions. Nevertheless, these lines have always struck me as significant:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This is a real problem. If people give weight to the opinions they hear based partly on the passionate intensity of the speaker, then someone who is right, but boring and apologetic, will generally lose to someone who is just making stuff up, but blustery about it.

So this is a fine line to walk. Not only is unjustified arrogant certainty annoying to people who care about the truth, but also, being certain of your own opinions can actually make you, yourself, more likely to be wrongThe more confident you feel about what you think, the less likely you are to catch genuine errors in your own thinking.

Nevertheless, I feel like people standing up for the truth should strive to err a little more on the side of sounding authoritative and not apologizing for it. Yes, it can be an uncomfortable place to stand, stating that you are right when you know that you “could be wrong.” But listen to people like Ray and Sye, remind yourself: “I am damn sure that I know more than they do.” With that in mind, it should be easier to aggressively push back on their certainty.”

“A Better Life” – The Movie

Most of you on this blog have likely already heard plenty about Chris Johnson and his “A Better Life” project (AKA “The Atheist Book”). The book was published, orders taken, and product shipped. And if you haven’t seen it—you’re missing something really gorgeous on your coffee table. The book provides photos and stories from the lives of 100 atheists, explaining what brings them joy and meaning in their lives.

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ReasonCon One, in Hickory, NC

This weekend I was a guest speaker at ReasonCon One. This was the first ReasonCon, held in Hickory, NC.

I was invited to come and talk about “Analogies.” The main Keynote was Dr. Richard Carrier, who spoke on the historicity of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. The speaker sessions were free and open to the public. Only the social events had fees. The lecture room held 250, and was packed, with overflow guests standing in the doorway of the adjoining room. The turnout was stunning.

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