How not to stage an atheist debate, part 2

To set the scene: I showed up with Ben at around 6:30 to pick up my tickets from Matt, and ran into Annie. She was already engaged in conversation with a guy in some kind of usher capacity, where he was saying “All I’m saying is, we both see things like the complexity of the cell, we both have the same evidence, but we just arrive at different conclusions.” Never one to waste time on the subtle approach, I jumped into the conversation: “That’s right. One of those conclusions is based on actual scientific analysis of the evidence, and one is not.”

We bantered like that for a bit longer before going in. As I said, the entrance was absolutely jam packed with tables selling, or perhaps giving away, copies of books by Hugh Ross, Lee Strobel, and that crowd. Ben (age 6) got a little green pocket edition of New Testament Psalms and Proverbs shoved into his hand by a guy lurking by the entrance. I told him a lot of people in the room were hoping that they could make him a Christian, and I said we could read the book later if he was interested.

The inside was similar… I found Don Rhoades to sit with, and he introduced us to the very Christian old couple on his other side that he got acquainted with. From behind me I caught a snatch of discussion: “Well I believe in the big bang… God said it and BANG, it happened.” No, seriously. Somebody thought that joke was clever enough to say out loud.

After the lights dimmed and introductions were made, Ross launched into his presentation. Hugh first made the very lofty claim that he had come up with a scientific, testable, and falsifiable model of creation. Hugh Ross first announced that he was not a young earth creationist, as the evidence points to a billions of years old universe just as science said. He also specified that he would not be defending Intelligent Design that evening… as we all know, ID scrupulously tries to avoid the mention of a God, and Ross wants his Christian deity front and center at all times.

Here’s a summary of Ross’s debating techniques:

  • Extremely cutesy PowerPoint transitions. I swear, every single page of his presentation involved a different wipe, fade, cut, 3d foldout, etc. I found it annoying, but an excellent foreshadowing of the total emphasis of style over substance.
  • Lots and lots and lots of quote mining. At every possible opportunity, Ross loves to quote an atheistic scientist who has said one or two lines that says something about the appearance of design. It happens all the time. Dawkins put it on the first page of Blind Watchmaker. He said biology is the study of things that appear to be design but aren’t, but then spent an entire book responding to how nature produced this apparent “design.” Ross, of course leaves out the book and uses the quote to make it sound like Dawkins is a design advocate. Similar atrocity committed against Lawrence Krauss. You have to wonder, if his case is so scientific, why can’t he quote some real, published scientists who actually believes in design, rather than faking it?
  • Steal credit from real science. As far as I can tell, Ross has never done any original scientific research. Here’s what he does instead: Cite a particular scientific discovery that has already been made, and then declare that this is a test of your creation model, which predicts it. Never mind that the people making the discover completely fail in every single instance to recognize the ramifications of their own theory as a point for design. Sure, they’re smart enough to actually do the science, but after that they’re too blinded by ideology to understand their own research.
  • Make one kind of prediction over and over again, which largely takes this form: “I predict that more evidence will be found to support my theory.” Wow, how specific!
  • That old Muslim apologist trick of claiming that your holy book anticipated the discoveries of science. Lots of Bible quotes. In most places he doesn’t put the actual verses on the slides, because then he might have to actually defend some extremely nonspecific language. Instead, he just throws up a page with 10-12 chapter and verse citations, and asserts that those verses were uncannily accurate. Don’t worry, who’s gonna cross-check in the middle of a debate anyway?
  • Tons of big numbers, very little justification. Ross says that there are a large number (let’s say it’s 547, because it doesn’t matter) of features of the universe that require a designer to account for. Like the Bible verses, certainly no one is going to look them up during the debate. In many cases, he uses the “creationist stand-up comedy” technique that I so love, of explaining how big a number is. “Boy I tell ya, that number was big!” “HOW BIG was it?” “Oh, it was SO BIG that…” In one place he announced a number in scientific notation and then said that it was more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Confirming my suspicion that Ross relies on his ability to play to a largely innumerate audience, who don’t understand big numbers otherwise.

Anyway, in the end Ross’s “testable predictive model” boiled down to the fine tuning argument. That’s it. Take away the power point transitions, the big numbers, the Bible verses, the phony quotes, and you’re left with a series of claims that there is no explanation for feature X of the universe, therefore Magic Man Done It. As you would expect, he didn’t ever attempt to justify how Magic Man came to be, just asserted that it was the only alternative.

We know this as “God of the gaps” of course, but Ross was ready for that too: he said that BOTH sides have gaps, therefore it’s acceptable. Oh sure, nobody has complete knowledge; it’s just that Ross argues in a total knowledge vacuum, and then wants to say that this is equivalent to proving something with evidence.

I was already thoroughly irritated, and there was still another full creationist presentation to go. Why, Michael? Why did you agree to this format? First of all, I don’t see all that many other live debates where ANY participants is allowed to speak uninterrupted for thirty minutes to an hour. Usually there’s a back and forth exchange every ten minutes or so.

Second, if your opponent controls the format, and he tells you “Okay, MY side gets more than an hour, you get half an hour” you have an alternative. You threaten to walk. Will your opponent taunt and mock you, call you chicken? Yeah, but he’s going to taunt and mock and declare victory anyway, and he’s going to come off looking like he won even with the bullshit set of rules. If you owned a professional football team, would you sign a contract agreeing to a game where you only get the ball on 1/3 of the plays? No. That’s not brave, it’s gullible.

Let Ross preach to a room full of choir. He practically did that anyway… on the whole I think the debate gave him free publicity with not much down side for him.

To be continued.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 1

As Martin announced on Sunday, last night at the UT campus Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, among other things) held a debate against Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, authors of sever old earth creationist books and proprietors of There were some other guys on Michael Shermer’s side too, UT Philosophy of Science professor Dr. Sahotra Sarkar and Biomedical Engineering chair Kenneth Diller. However, they did not do a full presentation, but were apparently only there as backup for the Q&A portion.

I took my son Ben to the debate, not because I thought he would get much out of it, but because I had him for the evening and I figured it couldn’t do him any harm. I gave him a six year old eye view of the creationism controversy, building on stuff I already told him about Galileo about religion’s frequent stance against science, and touching on the Scopes trial as well as talking about the evolution controversy today. Matt D. was in attendance and so were at least two other ACA members that I’m aware of, Don Rhoades (not Baker) and Annie.

In my perception, the debate was an unmitigated disaster. The debate was a prime example of everything I’ve been saying in these posts about how atheists and science defenders continually get suckered into debates where the theist controls the format, the topic, and the crowd. It’s almost enough to make me give my unconditional support to Eugenie Scott when she warns that you should seriously consider not debating at all.

When I talked to Matt last night he seemed to disagree, and if he doesn’t chime in we’ll be discussing it on The Non-Prophets this weekend. I plan to write several posts in this series, so you can see the updates quickly but still get around to all my notes eventually.

For now, here’s a quick list of grievances:

  1. Turnout. It was very clear that churches hyped the hell out of this. This was a big gymnasium filled with folding chairs; in the lobby there were at least three tables loaded with Christian apologetics books, and none on the atheist side. Without exception, every conversation I heard that did not involve an ACA member was dismissive of evolution.
  2. Format. Oh my dear FSM, what happened? Ross and Rana both got to speak uninterrupted back to back before Michael Shermer got up. Between them — I timed this — Ross and Rana clocked in at an hour and fifteen minutes, while Michael Shermer got just over thirty. The other two members got face time, but no presentation. By the time Shermer was done, people were already starting to leave anyway.
  3. Topic. Was there one? The proposed topic going in was “Was Darwin Wrong?” which is bad enough. (Yes, of course Darwin was wrong. Duh. Evolution isn’t wrong but Darwin was wrong about a great many aspects of it.) However, they didn’t make any pretense of discussing this topic. The opening PowerPoint slide said “Evolution & Intelligent Design,” then Hugh Ross proceeded to say he was not going to talk about Intelligent Design because he would be promoting a Christian “testable theory.” Any kind of constraints on the discussion were thrown out the window from the first minute.
  4. Sponsorship and moderation. The debate was sponsored by one or several Christian groups, and some guy from the UT Engineering department announced at the beginning that the department had also sponsored it, although this didn’t imply that they condone anything that was said. But rather than moderating, the chair introduced the speakers, and then two hours later used some Q&A time to further bash the evolution side and speak about the importance of mixing some religion in your science. (Matt was actually under the impression that he was billed on the creationist side. I looked up the fliers. He was not.)

That’s enough for now; expect more posts as the day goes on.

This week in Austin: yet another evolution/ID debate

Christians still don’t seem to have gotten the memo from Dover that ID is dead deader deadest, and they’re still trying to find public forums in which to flog its corpse. I’m not sure they should be accorded the courtesy of a debate by legitimate scientists any more. More and more I tend to agree with the views of those who say these debates, by virtue of occurring at all, send a message that ID must have some scientific legitimacy, otherwise why would major universities be hosting the debates in the first place.

That’s not the case, of course. Any student group can book facilities at their university, and so another one of these debates is taking place this coming Tuesday at 7. Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer will be one of three folks on the pro-science side, taking on two creationists, Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, of Reasons to Believe. These guys, like Behe, have scientific backgrounds, and I know Shermer and Ross have debated before. Despite Ross’s CV’s, though, I must say, I’ve seen some episodes of the Reasons to Believe show on TBN, and was, let us say, amused. On one episode as I recall, Ross tried to answer one aspect of the problem of evil — that of “natural” evils like earthquakes — in this way: that God needs earthquakes because that his way of moving minerals through the Earth’s crust.

I wish I could make stuff like that up, people.

As for Shermer, well, here’s the deal. I like the man, like what he does to promote skepticism, have liked some of his books. I also worry about how he’ll handle himself in this debate, because he’s the kind of guy who — well, I don’t know if it’s too strong to call him a “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” but he is inclined towards trying to find a conciliatory middle ground between religion and science that I just don’t think works. I’ll post a review of his book Why Darwin Matters soon to explain what I mean.

Whatever Shermer ends up saying, I know we won’t have to worry about such “we are the world” namby-pambiness from another of the pro-science debaters, Sahotra Sarkar. This guy takes the gloves right off. In early 2002 he debated that supreme nitwit Kirk Durston at UT, and utterly shamed him. I suspect Ross and Rana will be licking their wounds after a few rounds of Sarkar’s debate-fu.

Of the third pro-science debater, Kenneth Diller, I know nothing. I don’t know if he’ll be moderating the debate and the CFI site has him mis-listed as a participant, or what.

Now here’s the sad bit: I’ll be out of town for this. So we’ll have to rely on a report from Kazim or Matt or someone else on the crew. But I’m sure it will be a night to remember.

One complaint a lot of us have already made: The title of the debate is “Was Darwin Wrong?”, which is a fine example of that problem Kazim has discussed here, which is that so many of these debates — planned as they tend to be by the religious side &#151 come front-loaded with assumptions favoring the religious position. Was Darwin wrong? About what? There were several things Darwin was wrong about. But evolution by natural selection isn’t one of them, as 150 years of solid science have shown. A better title might have been “Which has greater evidence, evolution or intelligent design?” But that would put poor Reasons to Believe at a serious disadvantage, I suppose, and reveal their reasons to believe are fragile things indeed.

Regarding Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™

Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, is the world’s stupidest Christian. When you consider the competition, that’s quite a feat. Ray’s degree of stupidity is truly stunning to behold. It’s so monumental it serves as a kind of strange attractor towards which other Christians, not necessarily as stupid as Ray but not especially smart either, are inexorably drawn. It’s Stupidity as a force of nature, implacable, unwavering as the tides, and entropically hurtling towards greater and greater stupidity until any remaining vestige of what might be determined intelligence has been broken down into its constituent molecules, and scattered to the voids of space.

So like, the guy’s frackin’ stupid. Really. I’ve blown boogers into tissues during a bad cold that are Nobel laureates compared to this guy. Stoo-pid.

Not content with the minor notoriety one gains from being the World’s Stupidest Christian™, Ray has decided he really needs to earn the title. After all, a man’s gotta have something in the way of an achievement in life. So, to this end, as those of you who’ve been hanging out on RDnet and Pharyngula have already heard, he has “challenged” Richard Dawkins to a “debate”. This is as funny as Verne Troyer challenging Mike Tyson to three rounds in the ring.

But it gets funnier. Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, thinks Dawkins will be impressed by money. So he’s offered $10,000. Thinking a millionaire will be impressed by your $10,000 is like thinking a supermodel will be impressed by your Honda Fit. But, bless his heart, that’s why Ray is the World’s Stupidest Christian™!

Dawkins was unimpressed with the $10,000 offer, shockingly enough, replying to someone claiming to rep Ray that the offer “is less than the typical fee that I am ordinarily offered for lecturing to a serious audience (I often don’t accept it, especially in the case of a student audience, because I am a dedicated teacher). It is not, therefore, a worthwhile inducement for me to travel all the way across the Atlantic to debate with an ignorant fool.” Gold! Dawkins then added (and you can see him smiling as he wrote it) that he’d consider playing along if Ray donated $100,000 to the RDF “so that that money will NOT be available for buying animatronic dinosaurs with saddles, or other similar nonsense. The fact that he would be making a substantial donation to a charity dedicated to Reason and Science adds to the humour of the situation.”

Now it gets even funnier. Get this: Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, thinks Dawkins is haggling. So he raised the offer to $20,000, imagining, I suppose, that Dawkins is now obliged to come back with something like, “How about 90?” At which point the haggling continues as a matter of form until they settle on 50.

Of course, Dawkins isn’t playing. He doesn’t have to. And the funniest thing of all, in a long list of funny things, is that without this stupid “debate” even taking place yet, Dawkins has already humiliated Ray! D’oh! That’s what you get for being the World’s Stupidest Christian™, cupcake!

And Dawkins has humiliated Ray simply by letting Ray be Ray. It’s uncontrollably funny the way Ray’s very offer essentially amounts to nothing less than an admission of inferiority in all respects. To wit, Dawkins doesn’t need Ray. Ray desperately needs Dawkins. Dawkins has everything Ray doesn’t have and cannot gain through merit: prestige, respect, authority, legitimacy, expertise. Ray wants all of those things, and hopes an association with Dawkins will cause them to rub off on him, especially as he’s deluded himself into thinking he can prove evolution false in a debate with one of the world’s leading scientific authorities on evolution. But you see, that’s Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, all over!

I love Ray. Really. I heart him like a hearty thing. He cannot know what joy he brings into the daily lives of atheists, just by the million little loving ways he reminds us that he’s the World’s Stupidest Christian™.

So Dawkins has named his price, because he can, because Ray has nothing Dawkins wants or needs. And the mere fact that Ray has already upped his previously pathetic offer to a slightly less pathetic level has pretty much bagged this “debate” for Dawkins right out of the gate. In the same way it’s funny to see the no-hopers at the Discovery Institute still trying to convince themselves of their relevance more than three years after Dover put a howitzer shell through ID, by their continuing efforts to find scientists to debate them, it’s even funnier seeing Ray running after Dawkins, like some loser at a bar trailing after a hot chick pleading, “Well, maybe if I gave you my number…”

Gang, this is exactly the right way to treat creationists every time they try to make a grab for legitimacy and shore up their inflated sense of importance: pure derision. Because you know, it works! It really gets their gander up.

How did Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, react to being dubbed an “ignorant fool”? Well, nosir, he dint like it! And he whined about it in entirely predictable fashion over at — where else? — the Christian Worldview Network.

During the more than 5,000 times I have spoken in the public forum, I have engaged hundreds of little Richard Dawkins’ and have noticed that when their argument is very weak, they always revert to personal insults. While I won’t condescend to insults, I will point out that Mr. Dawkins does believe that we were created by aliens.

Which, of course, he doesn’t, but that’s beside the point. Ray doesn’t realize that Dawkins is not insulting him by saying he’s an ignorant fool. He’s simply stating a fact, as I am when I refer to Ray by his unofficial title, the World’s Stupidest Christian™. It’s like, imagine that Dawkins has a bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of him. And he looks at it and says, “The flavor of this ice cream is chocolate.” Is he calling the ice cream a name? Is he insulting it? No! He is merely stating an observable fact about the nature of the ice cream. Likewise, when he points out Ray is an ignorant fool, he is merely stating an observable fact about Ray Comfort. Ray will never get these points. Because &#151 what is he, everybody…? All together now…

“Anything is Possible”

The last time I was on AE, a woman used this line. I asked her if she understood that what is possible has no bearing on what is real. A friend of mine indicated he would have rather asked the woman if it’s possible she is wrong. I liked his reply better, because it creates an interesting situation: Is it possible that not all things are possible? And if so, doesn’t that mean that you’ve just said it’s possible that your assertion is incorrect?

What is impossible, on the other hand, has a great deal of bearing on what is real. A married bachelor or a square circle, for example, would be examples of things that are clearly not possible, because they would be contradictory by definition. Some things, in fact, we can demonstrate are not possible.

While I wouldn’t deny it is not a misuse of the term “possible” to say “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use of the term. And in the article below, I’m dealing with the more pragmatic usage (as in the headline), where people apply it as a means to express that which is not impossible, but also not a requirement of existence or definition. So, while I could say, “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use. Generally a person would say something like, “A square has (or must have) four sides,” as a requirement of a square, and the term “possible” would be reserved for what may be, but also is not required.

An atheist is anyone who does not believe a god exists, or who further adds that no god exists. An atheist, then, is not concerning himself with what is possible, but with what s/he believes is most likely to be true. And if this atheist is also a skeptic or counterapologist, s/he is also concerned with what evidence suggests is most likely true. But even the “hard” atheist is not making any sort of shocking claim. S/he’s not assuming anything each of us doesn’t assume daily for all sorts of situations. Here is an example of what I mean:

Scenario: John and Mary are happily married by their account. Mary has just left to go shopping for the afternoon. As she walked out of the house, John was watching a football game. After 30 minutes at the mall, can Mary claim John is not engaged in an infidelity? Is it “impossible” that John is now with another woman?

Of course, the only logical answer to that question is “no, it is not impossible. And even Mary cannot logically make such a claim.”

Based upon what we (including Mary) know, it is possible, for John to, at this moment, be with another woman. There is absolutely nothing stopping this from being a possible scenario.

However, based on the scene as described, has any reason been given for Mary to suspect that John actually is with another woman at this moment? No. Certainly he has opportunity—but opportunity and possibility are, obviously, not necessarily correlating to reality if the reality is that John is faithful.

Whenever we acknowledge an event or scenario is possible (not required, but may be), we are also acknowledging, whether we admit to it or not, that the opposite scenario must also be possible. So, to say “It’s possible John is unfaithful,” means, inescapably, that we are also saying that it might not be so—that it is, in that same moment, possible that John is faithful.

And this is the context in which most theist apologists use “possible,” in my experience—in a context where I must always hold as true both that John is possibly faithful and John is possibly unfaithful. But the moment I acknowledge one, I have acknowledged the other.

I have heard more times than I care to mention someone appeal to mathematical models of other dimensions and then insist that a god may be existing in such a dimension. In other words: It’s possible these mathematical models correlated to reality and that other dimensions exist; and it’s possible that something we would agree can be labeled as “gods” might exist within those other dimensions.

Yes. It’s possible. It’s also possible that reality does not correlated to the math. And it’s possible that even if there are other dimensions, there is nothing within them either of us would be remotely inclined to label as a “god.”

What does that tell us about reality? And how does that move forward as “evidence” for the existence of a god?

In other words—how do I take those two conflicting possibilities and convert them into beliefs?

We can believe that mutually conflicting possibilities exist. As John showed us, we actually must—since, for every “unknown, but possible” scenario, there is an equal and opposite “unknown, but possible” scenario. John is possibly faithful and possible unfaithful. And I believe this, and there is no conflict or contradiction in that framework.

However, I cannot both believe John is faithful and also believe that John is not faithful. That is very much a conflict and a contradiction. So, the atheist—who is concerned with what s/he believes, is not dealing with possibilities, but with what s/he actually believes is correlating to reality. The fact that many things are possible does not help us to determine what we should believe to be true.

The hard atheist, then, is not saying anything more critical than Mary would be to insist that “John is faithful to me.” And how many spouses would feel safe making that statement—even without 24-hour surveillance on their husbands/wives? Surely some would be wrong. But we can all grasp the pragmatic reality that we make such statements daily with an unstated asterisk behind them that leads to the footnote, “to the best of my knowledge.” Saying no god exists is no more than this. And saying I believe god does not exist is to say even less—even less than people (atheists and theists alike) assert every day about all sorts of things of which they cannot be sure.

And I’m a little concerned now that quite a lot of time and energy is spent in dialogues with theists about what might be possible and what that would mean for reality if what were possible were actually true. Such discussions are fine if people enjoy philosophical exploration for the sake of sheer exploration. But if the dialogue is about “why should I believe a god exists?,” they are an utter waste of the atheist’s (and, therefore, also the theist’s) time. They get us no closer to truth. This is one reason, it just dawned on me, that Pascal’s Wager is not at all compelling to me. Despite the many faults with this particular apologetic offering, the main problem with it, for me, is that it starts out with an assumption that we should operate on pure possibilities without any consideration regarding whether or not those possibilities can be shown to correlate to reality. And who in the world operates using that model in their day-to-day life?

It’s possible I’m hallucinating traffic signals. And certainly if I am, the consequences will be dire if I attempt to drive. It’s far safer, then, to not drive my car. But would I be wise to function in that mode of reason in my life? Obviously not.

I submit that discussions that begin with a premise of “possible,” be nipped in the bud—unless philosophical discussion is what you’re into. As soon as the apologist goes down the path of, “in mathematics, there are models of other dimensions,” or anything else that is “possible” but not known to correlate to reality, the response should be to ask if they are intent on discussing what is most likely to be true or merely what is possible. Because I will acknowledge off the bat that any number of “possible” gods can be defined. But that doesn’t offer me any compelling reason to believe that any of them correlate to what really exists. And if their premise starts off with what is possible—how do they intend to get to what is convincingly true? The premise is possible, b
ut so is the negation of the premise—so there had better be some really compelling reason for me to move forward on such a premise.

When someone puts forward to me that “X is possible” as a premise for believing in god, I will hopefully remember to point out that “–X is also possible,” and ask if they believe that as well, since it is also a possible scenario. I simply wonder if it would not be best to not pursue fruitless arguments about what is possible, but to simply negate the possibilities until it sinks into this type of apologist’s head that “possible,” when used in this vein, is utterly bankrupt of meaning. If “it is possible god exists” is a reason to believe, then surely “it is possible god does not exist,” is just as much a reason to disbelieve. I, though, see neither as a reason for anything, and I will try to remember to press this point at every opportunity to see if it actually can get the apologist’s mental light bulb to click “on,”—not to get them to agree with me, but to at least make them understand the fallacy they’re working under with this particular line of “reasoning.”

Copy and Paste Dialogue

I don’t mind a theist being inspired by another person’s arguments or ideas. I don’t mind a theist referencing someone else’s ideas and arguments in his own arguments. There’s nothing wrong with including a link or a quoted passage, in a correspondence, to someone else’s data or views. But if a person comes to me announcing that he wants to talk to me about his beliefs, he should at least do me the courtesy of presenting his beliefs—whether or not they are supplemented by the ideas of those who have influenced his thinking.

The author of Article X, from which the theist quotes, is not the person who contacted me to discuss her beliefs. If that author wants to hear my views about her beliefs, she is able to write to me and request my feedback. But I see no value in pretending that a long strand of copied and pasted material from her article is the view of the theist who wrote to me to dialogue about his beliefs.

If a theist writes and wants to know my response to a particular article or view that is not his own, that’s fine. But he should refrain from calling it his belief, if all he can do is parrot the argument of someone else. If he lacks sufficient understanding of the concept to be able to so much as restate it in his own terms or respond to questions without running back to the source, then he shouldn’t put it forward as his belief.

Forming our own beliefs in life is not the same as memorizing and internalizing someone else’s arguments and ideas. To label such things as our own beliefs is plagiaristic and shows a woeful lack of understanding about what constitutes forming beliefs of our own. In order to dialogue about what I believe requires I have a firm enough grasp on the belief to express it clearly, in my own terms, to others, and also to respond to questions without seeking input from any source beyond my own mind. Anything that can honestly be labeled as my belief can exist nowhere but inside my own mind. A prerequisite to holding a belief is understanding the belief. It is not possible for a person to both assert a proposition is true, and to fail to understand the proposition. When questioned about what we believe—why should we need to go and look it up? If I find myself looking up my response to a question that concerns what I claim I believe, clearly, I have a dilemma.

If someone were to ask me, for example, what I believe regarding UFO activity on our planet, I can’t imagine it would make sense to that person if I said, “give me a second to go and look up what Carl Sagan has to say about that, because I believe whatever he says.” How can I call it my belief if it (a) is not contained within my own mind, and (b) I don’t even know what it is I’m claiming I believe while I am asserting I accept it as true?

I seem to see more often than is comfortable long-winded e-mails that ultimately say, “I don’t understand it myself, but I absolutely believe it.”

Show #572: A Missed Opportunity

What does it mean to say “God Exists”? That was what I examined Sunday afternoon on The Atheist Experience. The statement is brief–only two words. It should be simple, but for some reason, it’s always disproportionately hard.

What is god? Every theist seems to know. Yet no two theists seem to agree. And no one theist seems able to communicate it in a way that actually provides any real, informed data.

I think it’s safe to say a concept of god can exist in any mind. But most apologists put forward that god is not merely mental concept–an idea; god is, rather, existent outside the mind. Despite the often used refrain “god exists like love exists,” I have yet to meet the theist who will then declare that god, like love, is a mental concept with no external referent–solely an idea. God does not exist like love exists, to theists, when you explain how love exists, and ask them if this is what they mean by “god.”

I have been told on air that god is “ultimate strategy,” and tonight someone told me god is “the set of all [logical] possibilities.” What does this mean? I agree there is a set of logical possibilities–but how does that constitute a “god” any more than the set of all ipods constitutes a god? I’m less willing to agree there is such a thing as “ultimate strategy.” I have actually witnessed many times when there are equally efficient strategies for achieving any given goal. But even if there is a most efficient strategy–again, how is that a “god”? This might provide me some shred of information about an individual theist’s concept of a god–but it gives me no data about any god that exists outside this theist’s mind.

Without a god to compare to the theist’s idea, I must acknowledge no real information or data about a god has been provided to me. If a theist claims god is “ultimate strategy”, and I cannot examine god, then I understand his idea of god is “ultimate strategy”–but is there an existent god that actually is “ultimate strategy”? Telling me about an idea of god does not provide me with data about a real, existent god. And our argument is not about anyone’s concept of god. As I said, I fully agree that a person can have a mental model of a god. No one needs to convince me of that. But if a theist is claiming god is more than an idea, then providing me with more and more information about his idea of god helps me not at all. Explaining his idea of god does nothing to support the existence of a god outside his mind.

If his idea of god cannot be verified as correlating to any “god” in objectively verifiable, existent reality, then his idea of god cannot be said to be a god until some external referent can be provided with which to compare his claims. I don’t doubt the theist has an idea of god. I understand that he clearly does. What I doubt is that there is an external referent, “god,” to compare to his claims about his idea. I doubt that his mental model exists in any way outside his own mind.

Meanwhile, there are attempts to “define” god by putting god forward as the cause of particular effects. “God is the creator of the universe,” is one common example (but “the Bible” or “manifestation as Jesus” would work just as well). Ask this theist, “if we examine the universe to determine the cause, and it turns out to be a singularity–is that god to you?” You will find that is not god to the theist. So, “god” is not whatever the evidence asserts is the cause of the universe. God, to this theist is a preconceived concept that exists regardless of the actual cause of the universe. If a singularity turns out to be the best model of what caused the universe, but god, I am told, is not a singularity–then this helps me not at all to understand what it is this theist is calling god. And I am only confused now by his claim that god is what caused the universe. Going back to an earlier point, without a god to examine, I have no idea whether a god is at all connected to the production of any universe, holy books, manifestations of Jesus or prophets, miraculous events, or anything else we can drum up. What is this theist calling god, then? I have no idea.

There are also those who define god as “nothing.” God cannot be measured. Cannot be examined. Cannot be verified. Cannot be known or understood by mere mortals. God is transcendent, supernatural (and what does that mean?), outside time and space. In other words, god shares all the same attributes in objective existence as “nothing.” Except that god is “something,” insists the theist. God is exactly like nothing–except god is something. Not helpful.

In fact, definitions of “god” are as unhelpful as they are confusing. And the only external referents we are given are insufficient, to be kind. Intuition and instinct are often defined as evidence of “god” guiding believers. In my earlier post about Jung’s book “Psychology of Religion,” I discussed his reasons for pointing out that the subconscious mind is more than sufficient to explain why most people who believe in a god, believe in a god. Alternately, claims of miracles are sometimes provided. In fact, on the program, a woman claimed that several years back, she had an indeterminate mass in her chest one morning. She never went to a doctor, so we have no idea what it was. She prayed. It was gone the following morning. Ergo god. I feel no need to critique this “miracle,” as I trust any reader’s capacity to identify the problem here.

I don’t doubt such experiences. However, I’m highly dubious of the presumed interpretations and implications that people place upon them, unfounded.

In the end, I have no idea what any of these people mean when they say “god.” And explanations of what “exist” means only appear to cause more trouble.

Humans use the term “exist” in normal conversation to mean “manifest to humans”–to be somehow measurable in a way that is perceptible to human beings. If I say to you, “give me an example of an existent item,” you will, no doubt, point out something that clearly manifests. Certainly some things are more difficult to make manifest to us than others–but the things that we can measure–difficult or easy–are the only things we can legitimately toss into the group we label “existent.” And, again, just to clarify, I’m not referring here to the existence of ideas–but of the objectively verifiable items we think of as being existent outside our minds.

How do theists tell the difference between existent and nonexistent items? Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? We all are called upon every day of our lives to perform this task. People who can’t perform it are sometimes locked away–considered too defective as human beings to function properly in reality. But never, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of a theist to confuse the simplest of things if they conflict with his belief in god. Don’t get me wrong–existence itself is a real wonder. I’ll be the first to agree that I’m amazed at the idea that I am “here.” I’m confounded by the properties of light. I have no idea what causes matter and energy act on one another as they do. But as odd and wonderful as existence can be, is it incorrect to claim that we can tell the difference between that which exists and that which does not exist? If we can, how can we? If we cannot, then how can it mean anything to say that any item or entity exists?

This is a fair question–and one I was repeating often on the program. But at a pivotal point, with a caller on the line, I failed to address it. Alisha called to talk about “The Void.” Apparently god is a physics model called “The Void.” Alisha is going to send us some information so we can look into this for ourselves. “The Void,” according to Alisha, is the set of all possible items. Somehow, we reached a later consensus of “logically possible” items. But, when pressed as to whether she believed in a god or not, she said it was possible. “All things are possible,” she quickly added.

My first failing was in not pointing out that not all things are possible. As I had noted earlier, logical impossibilities can be formed. There are no married bachelors. I might have asked Alisha how much she believes her own statement. If I drop a lead weight off a building on a normal day–does Alisha think we can predict accurately whether the weight will float away like a soap bubble or fall to the ground? Or is she unsure what the weight will do–since all things are possible?

Carl Sagan once repeated a quote that it is fine to keep an open mind, but it may not be wise to keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. Did Alisha mean that at the singularity, we cannot say what is and is not possible? I don’t know, because she didn’t mention the singularity. Did Alisha mean that relativity and uncertainty and subatomic behavior wreak havoc with our physical “laws”? Perhaps. That was my initial assumption. But should I have to assume and guess at what someone means? If a theist expects to communicate an idea, and he is unclear about this idea–how can he possibly hope to provide an understanding of it to another human being? If a theist can’t explain what he means, he will sound as though he is saying he doesn’t understand what he believes. And if that is the message, how can he then ask me, not only to share that belief, but to even comprehend it?

But I missed a golden opportunity. We asked the caller if she believes fairies exist. Her response was “It’s possible.” OK, I understand her framework. No matter how farfetched I make the example, I am going to get “it’s possible.” While this may be an interesting philosophical thought, is it not the case in reality that we operate as though certain possibilities are not possible, and that others are so probable that one would be a fool to doubt them? For example, there may be an invisible, pandimensional vehicle in the middle of my lane as I’m driving forward on the highway. Should I swerve to avoid it–since it is possible the cars on either side of me will not be impacted by my car as the mass of my vehicle moves through them effortlessly? Philosophically, we can acknowledge this is possible. Realistically, however, will it work? Does anyone who holds to this philosophical claim walk the walk in their life outside of their god claims? Not that I’ve ever seen.

Did my brain lock up? I’m not sure. But the next question I should have asked was “is there anything you are willing to acknowledge does not exist?” At this point I can only wager a guess–since I didn’t ask. But based on her response about the fairies, I’ll wager that Alisha would not be willing to state conclusively that any item-X does not exist. I do not think that is an unfair characterization of her mindset during our discussion. All things, after all, are possible, to Alisha. She cannot, therefore, say they do not exist. Gods, fairies–sky’s the limit.

Alisha scores a brilliant gold star for consistency. However, she presents a major dilemma for the claim “god exists.” What does it mean to exist in a reality where nothing can be said to NOT exist? If we cannot differentiate between existent and nonexistent items–does it mean anything to claim that any item-X “exists”? Rhetorical as that could be, let me answer for clarity’s sake: No.

In order for Alisha’s god to “exist” requires “exist” to be redefined to include all items–whether they actually exist or not. In other words, it’s the same as defining “red” as “all colors–whether they are red or not.” If we accept that, does it then mean anything anymore to call something “red”? No. It doesn’t.

I missed my chance to exercise the point of my presentation live and on the air. And I couldn’t have asked for a more serendipitous opportunity. My only excuse is that when presented with claims that are unfamiliar, unclear, and that defy my experience with reality, it is sometimes difficult for me to wrap my brain around them in the present moment. And it is only later, after some consideration, that the bizarre contortions of logic that were used become clear.

“God exists.” Three callers later and I still don’t have a clue what I’m even being asked to believe.

Ray Comfort on WDAY AM 970

I’m listening to Ray Comfort spew nonsense on WDAY this morning and losing an IQ point a minute. You may recall that he was supposed to debate PZ Myers on today’s show, but there was a change of format. PZ will be on tomorrow at 10:00am, so I can regain my lost IQ points.

Some gems from the show include Ray’s agreement that the Catholic Church tortured people during the Inquisition, but “don’t blame that on Christians.” This was after a caller pointed out that the church imprisoned Gallileo for suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun. Just a few minutes before that, Ray had commented that “In a hundred years time we will laugh at what science believes.” The man truly has no sense of irony.

He also thinks there’s “absolute, 100% proof” that intelligent design is true. Well, we already knew that Ray, but where’s the proof? He had the temerity to use the old “no building without a builder” canard and to further demonstrate his misunderstanding of evolution by asking the host, “Can you make me a cow from nothing?”

No Ray, but you’re doing a pretty good job of making an ass of yourself from nothing. Aside from your gross misunderstanding of evolution, you have a habit of pretending you can’t hear the callers who disagree with you. Of course, your hearing miraculously returns for the YECs recommending Answers in Genesis as a source of science information.

In short, nothing new here. Same old creationist nonsense, same old intellectual dishonesty.

Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancé, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exi
sts. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.