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.

Building your mental immune system

When Mark from Stone Church called again yesterday, he provided a perfect example of something that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few months. Namely, it is a tempting but extremely bad habit to only associate with people who agree with you all your life.

One issue that most Atheist Experience hosts feel passionately about, apart from religion, is the spate of anti-scientific attacks which have been leveled against vaccinations. When you vaccinate yourself, you deliberately expose your body to small quantities of a disease or virus, in order to train your immune system to recognize and attack that disease. If you don’t get vaccinated, when the disease attacks you in its natural form it will likely be much stronger, and your body still won’t know how to deal with it.

The fact that they may be adorable is only slight consolation.

Worse, by putting yourself at risk for this disease, you also become a carrier, which could increase its presence in the population at large. The more people there are in a given population who haven’t been vaccinated against a disease, the more risk everyone takes of catching it, and the more common the disease comes.

Critical thinking, of course, is your immune system against bad ideas. Even if you have a general background in skepticism and logic, it can be hard to spot the flaws in a claim that you’ve never heard before. The first time anyone encounters a concerted efforts to discredit vaccination, or prove that alien abductions occur based on anecdotes, or claim that evolution is a scientific conspiracy with no more proof than Biblical literalism — it’s not as easy as you might think to see through those arguments.

It’s really not good enough to say “That’s stupid” and ignore them, because if you have a policy of treating ideas you disagree with that way, then you risk becoming so dogmatic that you wind up rejecting things that are actually true. Instead, skepticism is a habit that requires practice. It’s good mental exercise to take such claims seriously, to ask yourself “What are the implications if this claim is true? Can I investigate it? Are there arguments against it already out there in the memesphere? If so, are they convincing, or do the debunking efforts rely on fallacies themselves? If there are none, why not? Is it not high enough profile, or is there something else going on?”

A lot of religious traditions — like those practiced in Austin Stone Church — reject this approach. Followers of such religions not only don’t try to understand competing points of view themselves, they regard any efforts to do so with suspicion and fear. They may actually believe that it’s a sin against God, or a trick by Satan, if you are even humoring a bad idea. Apologists will often seriously question the value of sending kids to college, because they might be exposed to “worldly” ideas. Cults sometimes advise their members not to read newspapers or watch TV, lest their minds be poisoned by outsiders rejecting their beliefs.

This is the intellectual equivalent of avoiding diseases by locking yourself in a hermetically sealed bubble for life. It can work, of course. As long as no germs can get inside the bubble, you can’t catch anything. On the other hand, once you’re committed to this plan, you can never leave the bubble for any reason. If you do, your immune system is likely to be so weak that you are especially vulnerable to any and all diseases you might encounter. Something very much like this is speculated to have happened to the relatively isolated Native American population when they first encountered European settlers who, by virtue of living on a much larger, more diverse, and densely populated continent, were relatively swimming in diseases regularly, and hence had much broader immunities.

Here, take this blanket. No really, I insist. We’re not using it anymore.


So when you’ve been sheltered by fundamentalism your whole life, my feeling is that you have to keep sheltering yourself or become similarly vulnerable to invasion from foreign ideas. Which is essentially what Mark told us he does in our call yesterday.

Many emailers have homed in on the fact that Mark kept telling us what his church believes, as synonymous with what he believes. Tracie and I mentioned that the kind of evidence that we would need for God is not really all that strict, and that you don’t need to pray or “have faith” in order to be convinced that your mom exists. When something is real and testable, it can be perceived independently by many different people in the same way.

Mark responded that everyone at his church believes the same thing about God, and he proved it by reading a “statement of faith” that all church members are required agree to. I said, “It sounds like you have to devote a lot of work to making people believe the same thing.” And of course, there are 30,000 other Christian denominations in the US, many of which have very different perspectives on who this God person is.

I have long loved this interview that American Atheists spokesman David Silverman once did with Douglas Adams.

Above: A face that David Silverman probably did not have to make while talking to Douglas Adams.

In the interview, Adams elaborated on a great many of his atheist beliefs in a way that he has rarely done explicitly in his other work. One of the most striking and memorable arguments presented by Adams was in comparing religious beliefs to other types of scholarship.

Adams points out that if you wish to be taken seriously in the realms of science, history, or math, you should expect to be challenged constantly. Any claim you make, no matter how trivial the matter may look to those outside the discipline, will be subjected to withering criticism and debate, and the ideas that remain standing after this process, round after round, are the ones that can eventually be regarded as credible.

But religions don’t accept that burden of proof. Quite the opposite, in fact; when someone promotes a silly belief as a statement of faith, we’re asked to lend that faith some sort of automatic respect. Atheists who argue with the faith-beliefs of others are regularly regarded as being dicks.

Anyway, Douglas Adams concluded:

So, I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn’t apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of ‘truth’. … What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it’s not a good idea to show politeness and “respect” for people’s beliefs. I try as much as I can to show respect for the people themselves, and appreciate the diversity of backgrounds that causes them to think the way they do. Greta Christina wrote a great article a few months back called “No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show ‘Respect’ for Religion,” which observes the same behavior. Greta says:

And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.


It’s not about making fun of religion just for sport. When you tiptoe around someone’s beliefs, you’re not doing them any favors. All you are doing is allowing them to stay in their little bubble for a bit longer, while enabling them to spread the idea that it’s okay to be closed off to competing ideas.

How useful is faith for obtaining knowledge?

This is a typical conversation between a theist and an atheist, and in fact something very much like it occurred over a lengthy series of back-and-forth comments on this blog last week. Please excuse this paraphrase; I want to boil the conversation down to its most important features, and I hope I’ve portrayed the theist accurately.

Theist: “God must exist. Unless there is a god, many features of the universe are unexplainable.”

Atheist: “What’s your explanation for God?”

Theist: “Don’t be ridiculous! We can’t explain God. He is outside of time and space, and cannot be understood by mere human minds.”

Atheist: “But then how do you know that a god exists? Do you have evidence?”

Theist: “Of course I do! The universe is evidence for God.”

Atheist: “The universe definitely exists, but that’s got nothing to do with providing positive evidence for god. Your argument about having ‘no other explanation’ is just special pleading, granting yourself the authority to invent something that is also unexplained. Not only does it not solve the problem, it invents new ones. So again: Do you have evidence that there is any such thing as a god?”

Theist: “Don’t be absurd! Since God is beyond our understanding, we must rely on faith.”

Atheist: “That seems like a really bad strategy for actually finding out what is true.”

Theist: “Nonsense! Just think about all the other things that scientists accept without complete evidence.”

The theist then proceeds to list some of the usual suspects, starting with abstract concepts like “Love” and “Beauty,” and then including some of the vaguer outliers of speculative scientific theories such as aspects of quantum mechanics and string theory.

Let me set aside for a moment the issue of how some things are more or less firmly accepted within the scientific realm based on how good the evidence is; how there are “hard” sciences and “soft” sciences; and how the ideas that individual scientists hold to be true personally is often separate from what they claim as scientific knowledge. I just want to ask some stuff about applying faith to claim knowledge.

Is faith sufficient? If you hold a belief in something without evidence deeply, sincerely, and completely, then does it follow that it is true? Or do you require faith and some component of evidence in order to accept something as true? In what ratios do they apply?

If the answer is “Faith alone is sufficient to establish truth” then let me ask this. Suppose that a Muslim comes up to you and says the following:“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet. Allah has no son and there is no other god accompanying Him. All that we know of Him is revealed in the Qur’an. Believers in Christ are heretics and infidels who tell lies about the one true God. The reward for faith in Allah, Muhammad, and the Most Holy Qur’an is Jannah, an eternity of pleasure and sexual delights.”



Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this fellow is sincere and earnest in his belief, and holds his faith every bit as strongly as you hold yours.


My question is: What is it that would compel an outside observer to accept your faith as correct and his as wrong?

“Unknowable” basically means “who cares?”

Occasionally we’ll hear a believer define his god as an “unknowable” being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that’s a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be “closed-minded,” then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don’t know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces “god” to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our “feeble” human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us “feeble” minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you’d do well to point out he’s pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here’s part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I’ve been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.


The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you’ve done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It’s like new-age people who call “the Universe” God. All they’ve done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I’d have to concede his “god” exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he’s just happy worshiping it as God, then he’s simply come up with another word for “sun.” What you’re demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don’t otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, “God” is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because “you can’t prove it DOESN’T exist!”)

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you’ve simply come up with a new word for “the totality of everything.” My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling “the totality of everything” a “god” increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label “god” contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I’m eating right now are somehow “god”? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is “something that simply does not exist”. If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one’s intelligence can be measured by how correct one’s views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I’ve not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I’m ‘closed-minded’. Terms like ‘closed-minded’ and ‘open-minded’ are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don’t think they understand the terms. It is not ‘open-minded’ to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not ‘closed-minded’ to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it’s the ‘mind’ in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it’s problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the “proof” you think. First, you simply slap the label “god” on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is “god,” then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god “inherently unknowable,” something “we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of.” Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really “inherently unknowable,” then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven’t even got any justification to say god is “an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others.” Because to say that means you’re claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. “Inherently unknowable” means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an “inherently unknowable” thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn’t proof that something unknowable couldn’t ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

“God” is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world’s religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that “god is a
placeholder for ignorance”. Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit “we cannot possibly understand” as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you’ve seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you’ve slipped the qualifier “completely” into the sentence above.)

You’re basically saying this: “There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called ‘god’ that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood.”

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don’t know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is “I don’t know,” and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it “god.”

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We’re still talking about this “god” you say is “inherently unknowable,” right? Sorry, but you’ve singly failed to explain how we can “live better lives” by choosing belief in some “unknowable” concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn’t exactly take much “comfort” in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the “unknowable” offer a “better” life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

Can beliefs be inconsistent?

Last night I listened to the podcast of last week’s show with Matt and Don. I am looking forward to being back in the “other” studio again, but not next weekend as scheduled, since I have plans to fly to Pennsylvania.

One of the responses to the callers caught my attention. Matt and Don, beginning at around 42:30 in the audio, were speaking to Gregory in Eugene, Oregon. Gregory first wanted to propose his own uninteresting (IMHO) redefinition of God. Then, later, he claimed that he “considered himself just as much an atheist as I do a theist.”

Matt asserted that this was ridiculous — which it is. To be a theist means that you believe in a god, while to be an atheist means that you do not believe in a god. Obviously these positions are mutually contradictory, and so it makes no sense to hold both of them.

But then Matt went one step further, claiming that Eugene could not hold both of these positions simultaneously, effectively accusing him of either lying or being deluded about his own beliefs. It is this point that I wish to respond to, because — as an enthusiast of formal logic — I think one can’t make such a blanket statement about other people’s beliefs.

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to assert that people should not hold contradictory beliefs, and to point it out vigorously when they try to slip that sort of thing past. However, it does not follow that one cannot hold contradictory beliefs, and in fact, I think that they do all the time.

Seen in abstract terms, you could say that a person’s state of mind is a set of propositions that they assert to be true. “The sky is blue” and “the sky is not green” are two such propositions; “There is a God” is another. Not all propositions need to be definite; they could be probabilistic, as in “There is probably no God” or “There may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”

Now, given a particular proposition P, P can be either true or not true; and according to propositional logic it must be one or the other but not both. However, just because a proposition is false in reality does not mean that it is not a part of someone’s belief system. Indeed, we know that some people have false beliefs — just consider that many people are theists and many others are atheists. Either there is a God or there isn’t, and therefore one of these groups clearly holds a false proposition to be true, and most likely a host of related propositions as well.

Still, believing a false proposition P does not make your belief system inconsistent; you can easily believe something that is false but does not contradict any other proposition in your universe of beliefs. However, my point is that there is no reason in principle why somebody cannot comfortably believe the assertion P1: “X is true” and P2: “X is false”, at the same time.

As a computer geek, I happen to believe (though not entirely backed by affirmative evidence) that the human mind can be represented as a formal system, not entirely unlike a computer could behave in principle if it was outfitted with the right software. I am a believer in the possibility of artificial intelligence, though I definitely do not believe it has been achieved yet, and it may not be achieved within my lifetime, or even the entire span of the human race.

There is a famous theorem formulated by Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel, which states that all formal systems are either incomplete or inconsistent. In other words, either there is some proposition P for which the system holds P to be both true and not true (inconsistent); or else there is some proposition P which really is true, but the system cannot prove it (incomplete, as P is true but missing).

Some opponents of AI see this as a fundamental limitation of computers, a proof that humans are somehow better than computers because they have intuition which is capable of somehow “jumping outside the system” and directly perceiving truths that cannot be proven formally. I see that as a fallacy. Sure, humans are capable of making logical leaps of intuition, but that doesn’t mean the leaps lead exclusively to true beliefs. We know for a fact that brains are often misled into believing things which are not true, and may even be contradictory, which we sometimes call “hypocrisy.”

Imagine a person who is completely insane, in the sense that he believes everything that is false and nothing that is true. Such a person must necessarily be inconsistent as well. Why? Well, consider the following untrue statements. P1: 2+2=3. P2: 2+2=5. These statements are contradictory — they cannot both be true at once. Yet the insane person must believe both, because they are both false.

But you don’t have to go so far as complete insanity in order to hold contradictory beliefs. In fact, I would speculate that everyone in the world probably has some beliefs that contradict one another. I do. Matt does. I’m not saying that this is desirable, or that you can’t minimize the number of contradictions you believe, but the mind is full of shortcuts and logical leaps and rules of thumb that let us analyze reality without becoming immediately paralyzed by an in-depth comparison of new information against every other single proposition you already believe.

In fact, I once read a beautiful proof by logician Raymond Smullyan that every person must necessarily be either inconsistent or conceited. It goes like this:

The human brain is finite, therefore there are only finitely many propositions which you believe. Let us label these propositions p1, p2, …, pn, where n is the number of propositions you believe. So you believe each of the propositions p1, p2, …, pn. Yet, unless you are conceited, you know that you sometimes make mistakes, hence not everything you believe is true. Therefore, if you are not conceited, you know that at least one of the propositions, p1, p2, …, pn is false. Yet you believe each of the propositions p1, p2, …, pn. So you believe at least one of these statements to be both true and false; hence you must be inconsistent.

Believing a contradiction does not make you crazy or a liar. Continuing to believe both “there is a god” and “there is no god,” even after the contradiction is explicitly pointed out to you, might make you a bit thick. But there’s no impossibility there. We know thick people exist, and most of us encounter them on a daily basis.

What’s So Good About Being Wrong?

If you’re like me, you couldn’t wait to see that six-mile plume of debris kicked up on the pole of the moon recently when the NASA rovers dove into the surface of our most famous natural satellite.

And, if you’re like me, you were totally disappointed by what you saw on NASA channel, or, I’m told, through your telescopes at home—even with a clear sky.

A brilliant explosion of dust and ice was predicted. It didn’t happen.

Again, if you’re like me, you immediately thought something along the lines of “What happened?! What went wrong?!”

NASA, however, announced it was a great success. Data began streaming immediately. And they expect to be analyzing it for weeks to come. Maybe it wasn’t a glorious sight, but certainly we’ll learn something from the voyage. In fact, the failure of our prediction has already taught us something: It taught us that some prediction and some part of the model that NASA attempted and anticipated was wrong. Observably wrong.

When we make a prediction about reality, and our prediction clearly fails, we would do well to go back and rethink our assumptions. I’m sure NASA will be doing just that. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if one of the most burning questions they’re asking is why they didn’t get that plume they expected (and even computer generated). The truth is, when life goes on as predicted, we learn very little. When life throws us for a loop—if we’re so inclined, we have an opportunity to learn a bit more about ourselves, our assumptions, and, most importantly, about the reality around us.

Can you imagine a NASA engineer watching the plume fail to rise, who insists his assumptions cannot be flawed? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that even in the sciences, there can be such fools. But generally speaking, most average people, and most scientists as well, understand that when assumptions fail, we have an opportunity to learn something. And we ignore such opportunities, generally, at our peril.

And yet, I can recall time after time in my former fundamentalist life, when I insisted it was simply a mystery when my beliefs, or what I read in the Bible, failed to correspond to reality. Why does the Bible say this if it doesn’t make sense? Well, it does make sense, I was taught to insist—it’s just that I can’t understand it with my human mind. And if you think you can—well, you’re just arrogant.

I know that wine doesn’t turn to water. I knew it then. I know a man can’t survive for days in the belly of a fish. I knew it then. I had never seen such a thing. I had never heard of any such things having ever been verified. And yet, the fact that these stories failed to correspond to reality hindered me not at all from accepting they were true and that reality was not to be trusted in these cases. What I observed in reality didn’t matter. This was “different.” This was “god”—residing in a compartment in my brain that reality could never taint.

Recently I heard of something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth—which is just a fancy way to say that if I believe I can run through a concrete wall, and I try, and I bust my head and fall on my ass instead, I would do well to question my assumptions, rather than the wall.

All of us use this method of getting by in life all the time. When you sit in a chair, you believe it will hold you. If it does, your belief has been verified. If it doesn’t, your belief has been demonstrated to have been wrong. When you fall to the floor, it is nothing more than folly to insist the chair really did hold you, exactly as you said it would. The children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a cautionary tale about Correspondence Theory, in fact, that any child can comprehend: A person who can be separated from reality and reason, is an easy mark.

Undermining our reliance on how reality corresponds to our mental models divorces us from the most basic means we have of testing our beliefs against reality as a means to differentiate true beliefs from false beliefs. It is just one way religion can damage a person’s reasoning ability. Getting an adherent to doubt a method of validation he must use day-in and day-out as the basis for how he learns and survives with any modicum of success in this life, is a monumental accomplishment. Shameful—but monumental. The fact that religion accomplishes this on such a grand scale should cause everyone to take notice.

If you’ve never suffered indoctrination, it probably seems ridiculous to you. How could I ever, for example, get you to believe reality is not what is clearly demonstrated before you? How could I convince you, through unverified claims alone, that I knew a guy who flat-lined for three days, and has recently been brought back to life? How could I convince you that moral knowledge is gained by eating magical fruit? How could I convince you that angels can make donkeys speak? That the planet is 10,000 years old? How could I convince you mass infanticide can be a good thing sometimes?

I understand how easy it is to think Christians are merely stupid. When judged from the perspective of a person who has never suffered the indignity of having his own reasoning skills utterly gutted and discredited as a child, it will probably only ever be understood as “stupid.” Honestly, I really can’t defend otherwise. I was stupid. But today, at least, I know why.

Some of you will never understand the sick depths of indoctrination and what it can do to the mind of a child. I am sincerely happy for those of you who never knew, and will never know, what it’s like to have come to recognize that a group of people, including those you loved and trusted most, convinced you for many years to doubt your own ability to think and reason, and to doubt the most basic, objective reality that surrounds you.

Reintegrating into reality can be a chore, a process that can take, literally, years. I cringe each time I see a letter on our list from someone going through this who writes to ask “When will I stop being afraid? Does it ever go away?” or “When will I stop feeling like I’m so stupid? Will I ever learn to trust myself?”

And where am I going with this? I guess on the one hand, if you’re not familiar with anything like this, try to empathize, even if you can’t actually sympathize. Consider mercy sometimes when you feel like being sarcastic or cruel. These are abused people. The fact some of them don’t yet realize it doesn’t alter that fact.

And if you know exactly what I’m describing, know that you’re not alone. Know that you will get better. Know that what was done to you was abusive and wrong—even if it was done by misguided people who thought they were doing the right thing. Forgive them for your own peace of mind. And work on getting past this and finding some way to reintegrate with your humanity and to celebrate the fact that imperfection isn’t something for which you need to continually denigrate yourself.

Remember that being wrong, and recognizing we’re wrong, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s OK to be wrong. It’s an opportunity. It’s how we learn and grow as human beings.

10/14/09: Addendum
Today we received a letter on the AE TV list. It was from a Christian, imploring us to reconsider our atheism. I wanted to share this quote as a demonstration of the harm caused by childhood indoctrination. It was just such a sterling example of my point:

“So, you are going to live in fear and doubt until you deal with the question of whether Christianity is true or not.”

When I was an adolescent, I prayed long and hard for something to help me to believe. The idea that a vengeful god existed and that he required a belief I might fail to provide was terrifying. At the time, I don’t think I would have recognized I was in terror, because I was so used to that level of fear
. Today I know that there is nothing to be gained by “fearing” ignorance. And the cure for ignorance isn’t prayer–it’s investigation. While I’m not immune from fear in my life, I can honestly say I no longer fear in the sense that I “doubt” my choices about god and religion. I don’t lose any sleep over the thought “what if god exists and I don’t believe?” I recall the day I realized that if I researched as much as I could, and honestly concluded there was no god there, god would be an absolute ass to torment me for an honest, heartfelt effort, which his what I gave. And if god is such an ass, I don’t want to worship and obey him anyway–even if it means eternity in Hell, in the same way I wouldn’t want to follow orders from Hitler, even if it meant firing squad.

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.”

Why science is despised by religion

When I reviewed the movie Jesus Camp, I mentioned that I was surprised by weird opposition to global warming research which is displayed by the homeschooled fundamentalist kids. I thought, sure, I expect them to be anti-science to the extent that they’re opposed to evolution and believe in a young earth. But why global warming, exactly?

I guess that if you think the world is ending within one generation, then you might be disinclined to care about environmental issues that will cause problems for the next generation, or the one after. But “disinclination” doesn’t begin to describe the outright hostility that conservative Christians appear to have for the issue.

The study of global warming is a relatively recent field — compared with, say, evolution (150 years) or Newtonian physics (300 years) or even relativity and quantum mechanics (about 100 years). As such, it is a field particularly active in generating new data and interpreting what this data means. Like evolution, there is a scientific consensus on the big picture (global warming is real, it is a recent development, and it is in some significant way affected by worldwide human behavior) but the details are open to debate (i.e., what will be the particular short term and long term effects, and what policy actions should be enacted as a result).

This is a fundamentalist gold mine, because what anti-science religious folks love to do is highlight a particular controversy and then say “See? Science is unreliable because it’s changing all the time!”

Case in point:

Noted Hurricane Expert Kerry Emanuel has publicly reversed his stance on the impact of Global Warming on Hurricanes. Saying “The models are telling us something quite different from what nature seems to be telling us,” Emanuel has released new research indicating that even in a rapidly warming world, hurricane frequency and intensity will not be substantially affected.

“The results surprised me,” says Emanuel, one of the media’s most quoted figures on the topic.


From a scientific perspective, if you believe one thing and then later you recognize that you were mistaken based on new evidence, it’s simply part of the process. It’s an important component of intellectual integrity. Science changes, just like people do. In both cases, it’s otherwise known as “learning new things.” Dawkins sometimes admiringly tells the story of a scientist who profusely thanks the man who shows that he has long been in error about an important concept.

To a fundamentalist, on the other hand, this story is treated as an opportunity to dismiss the entire science of climate change. “Ah, so they were WRONG! Knowing this, how can we trust anything those scientists say?” In this frame, change is treated as a sign of weakness rather than a sign of improvement. While creationists often pay lip service to the importance of science (“Our beliefs should totally be taught in science classes, you Nazis!”), when science appears to contradict the Bible, they do more than argue against the theory; they denigrate science itself. I get the distinct impression that science is viewed as a threat because it is a competing method of knowing things in general.


I’ve heard numerous sermons — some on the radio, some live — where the theme appeared to be “Everything in life is garbage unless you have Jesus.” Often repeated in this flavor of sermon are verses such as Isaiah 55:8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”


And 1 Corinthians 3:19:


For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.

Human knowledge is garbage. So says the Lord. And since we can’t rely on our own poor knowledge, the default option available should be to look to the church for answers. If someone purports to say something that does not match what the church says, don’t listen to them, for their ways are not His ways.

Then along comes science.

Science proposes a systematic, reliable, testable method for gaining more knowledge over time. It is not based on the Bible. It is not inherently hostile to religion; it just disregards religion completely in the pursuit of understanding the world.

That’s not something the church can accept. It undermines authority-based teaching, and it removes the feeling of helplessness that Isaiah’s words are meant to invoke.

So as a result, a large body of work has grown around the effort to frame science as simply a competing worldview, devoid of merit in its own right. It’s not just fundamentalists who do this; post-modernist writers also get off on the idea that there is no such thing as reality. In their works, they reduce science to one of many “belief systems,” neither better nor worse than any other way of understanding.

To paraphrase George Carlin: “Same as God. Same as the four leaf clover, the horse shoe, the rabbit’s foot, and the wishing well. Same as the mojo man. Same as the voodoo lady who tells your fortune by squeezing the goat’s testicles. It’s all the same.” (Carlin, of course, was not talking about science, but about offering prayers to Joe Pesci.)

Science is a threat to religious beliefs not only because it sometimes contradicts them, but because it offers a way to be correct without relying on supposed magic powers.

An Epistemological Nightmare

On the TV show this Sunday, I mentioned a short story to a caller just before the closing credits. Because one person has already emailed me to ask where to find this story, I’m linking to it here:

An Epistemological Nightmare by Raymond Smullyan.

The reason I brought up the story at the time was because the caller asked something about (I think) whether you can know something, but not know that you know it. I always found this story kind of funny. I admit that I didn’t actually know that the story was online when I recommended it, but I was making a reasonable guess that it would be. I just didn’t get the name right.