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.

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.

Yomin Postelnik, poster-boy for arrogant theistic fractal wrongness

Jan. 2009 Introduction & Addendum: The following snarkalicious post has since become somewhat legendary in the atheist/creationism/science blogosphere.

To cut a long story short, this is the one that led self-styled “conservative columnist” Yomin Postelnik to respond vengefully with bizarre edits to my Wikipedia entry (accusing me of all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, including fraud, drug addiction and pedophilia — vandalism that Yomin wasn’t smart enough to realize would be stamped with his IP address, 74.233.115.163), to launch a series of blogs solely geared toward smearing me (since taken down), and to eventually make an Internet-wide nuisance of himself by posting to such forums as RichardDawkins.net (link expired) and ChristianForums.com accusing me of harassment and something he called “Google stalking.” This activity only led people back here, where they could see for themselves what Yomin was really up to, and that his histrionic claims of being victimized by “militant atheists” led by me was revealed to be projection at its worst. The only one engaging in unbridled harassment and defamation was Yomin, against me.

My opinion is that Yomin is not merely a thin-skinned adolescent unable to handle criticisms; I think he has full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. The Wikipedia entry on the condition notes, “To the extent that people are pathologically narcissistic, they can be controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of others’ needs and of the effects of their behavior on others, and insistent that others see them as they wish to be seen… People who are overly narcissistic commonly feel rejected, humiliated and threatened when criticised. To protect themselves from these dangers, they often react with disdain, rage, and/or defiance to any slight criticism, real or imagined…. With narcissistic personality disorder, the person’s perceived fantastic grandiosity, often coupled with a hypomanic mood, is typically not commensurate with his or her real accomplishments.”

This is Yomin to a tee. He likes to imagine himself — hell, he’s desperate to imagine himself — a powerful and influential leader, and anything that threatens to tarnish this inflated self-image is met with ferocious outbursts of emotion.

The second half of 2008 appears to have been the worst six months of Yomin’s life. In September of that year, he had his pre-paid legal service send me a cease-and-desist letter, which was odd, because I wasn’t doing anything to him while he was actively maintaining no fewer than three anti-Wagner blogs. It transpired that this was a lame attempt to intimidate me into removing posts from this blog revealing his libelous activities. Basically toothless, because C&D letters carry no legal weight. In response to this, to get Yomin, basically, to pull his head out and back off, my attorney filed an online defamation suit at the end of October. Dumb luck, however, smiled on Yomin here, because for two months, the investigator employed by my lawyer in Florida claimed he could not find Yomin, and the two addresses we had for him were no longer current. This kept Yomin from actually being served for two months.

At the end of December, Yomin sent me a bizarre array of increasingly unhinged, delusional and vituperative emails, alternating pleas to end our conflict (which was entirely of his own making) with threats of further harassment if I didn’t take certain posts down from this blog. I forwarded all of these to my lawyer, who advised me that the whole affair was “just getting petty…you need to get this guy out of your life!” Also, to continue to pursue the suit would cost thousands of dollars I didn’t have. I had raised the filing fees initially through the help of online donations promoted by folks like PZ Myers. But I didn’t feel right continuing to go back to the same people for more money, when this was, truthfully, turning into a childish battle of egos in which Yomin was simply baiting me and trying desperately to drag me down to his level of juvenile vindictiveness. Therefore I agreed to a tentative truce with Yomin at the end of 2008.

Part of me regrets this, as, given Yomin’s narcissism, it basically means he thinks he “won” and that he’s been able, essentially, to get away with the kind of behavior that, had he been held accountable, would have (hopefully) resulted in some desperately needed character building. The evidence I had linking Yomin to the Wiki vandalism was, in my opinion, ironclad enough to assure a court decision against him. But I didn’t want to do this out of other people’s pockets, and, knowing the personality type I was dealing with here, it is dead clear that a legal victory against Yomin would have been portrayed by him as further evidence of his victimhood. It is simply better to have this poor sad fellow gone.

In his last emails to me, Yomin, in a revealing moment, exclaimed, “I have to defend my reputation.” What the narcissist never understands is that any damage to his reputation is the fault of his own actions. Ultimately, I decided it simply was not my job to help Yomin grow up. Materially, I had not been hurt in any way by Yomin’s foolish behavior, while Yomin’s name ultimately became synonymous with online hysterics of the most absurd sort. One of our commenters coined the phrase “pulling a Yomin” to refer to anyone having a four-alarm meltdown online. That’s a legacy hard to undo, and, in its way, more deflating in the long term than even a court decision.

So, enjoy the following, if you are so inclined.


August 2009 addendum: A number of people have brought it to my attention that Yomin is running for the Florida House in 2010! No wonder he was so frantic to get me to remove embarrassing information about his activities from this blog. While I am amused by this, and by the way a little amount of Googling reveals he is already alienating his hoped-for voter base with his usual online behaviors (like sockpuppeting in blog comments to make it appear he has hordes of supporters, a stunt he pulled all the time in his little battle with me, which was always rendered infinitely sillier by the fact he thought no one would notice he was doing it), I have to say I just don’t care. Yes, it is funny that a man who cannot even handle criticism on a blog thinks he’s got what it takes to enter the snake pit of politics. But as the GOP has sunk so thoroughly into extremism that many of them actually view an airhead like Sarah Palin as White House material, then I have to say their standards are now such that Yomin ought to be considered an entirely viable candidate. So I wish him the very best of success for victory in his campaign!


January 2011 addendum: After polling less than 6% of the vote in the GOP primaries, Yomin was arrested on November 12, 2010, on charges of misdemeanor domestic battery.

It’s been a while since I bloodied my knuckles and let some smug ignoramus have it right in the teeth. So I figured it’s time. This is a l-o-n-g one, but a fun one. I hope.

Via Dawkins’ site, I learn of a lengthy essay over at Canada Free Press by a nincompoop with the improbable name of Yomin Postelnik, with the grandiose title of “Logical Proof of the Existence of a Divine Creator, Why Atheism is Not Logically Sound”. If you thought Ray Comfort was a cocky assclown, you’ll love this guy. Postelnik fancies himself a master of logic (if not proper punctuation or English), and yet doesn’t seem to notice that h
is entire, long-winded blather amounts to one spectacular logical fallacy, namely, the argument from incredulity, with a heaping side dish of straw men. Here he sums up his whole position on why atheism is logically unsound.

No one in their right mind would claim that 10,000 hundred story buildings built themselves from randomness, even over time. Yet those who doubt the existence of a Creator believe that an entire universe, containing all of the billions of elements necessary for life to form, may have come about without a builder. As such, they give credence to billions of times more coincidences to having come about.

Ah, yes. It’s the old “just look at all the trees!” argument that Matt Dillahunty and I goofed on on the TV show last week, just on a slightly grander scale. Apart from making the fundamental dumb apologist mistake of inferring design in nature from observing it in known artifacts like buildings — I’ll explain why Paley’s famous “watchmaker” argument actually does not demonstrate intelligent design in nature a little later — Postelnik’s whole rant reveals little more than boilerplate religious scientific illiteracy, total ineptitude at this whole “logic” thing for which he repeatedly flatters himself, and a laughable tendency to recycle any number of long-refuted and feeble apologist canards as if they were amazing new concepts no atheist had ever considered before.

Let’s have fun going through Postelnik’s catalog of failings here, shall we?

Reading through this, you might wonder: why bother? Postelnik is so stupid that he can say this with a straight face: “Would human beings survive if one organ or cavity was missing or displaced, even after somehow being otherwise perfectly formed with no designer?” Well, knowing, as I do, several people who have had kidneys, bladders, appendixes, uteruses removed, I’d say, well yeah, duh. He’s so silly that he launches his whole article with false analogies and unsupported a priori assumptions like this, which reveal the pitiful depth of his idiocy in living Technicolor…

The simplest proof (yet one that no atheist has ever been able to counter effectively) is that a universe of this size and magnitude does not somehow build itself, just as a set of encyclopedias doesn’t write itself or form randomly from the spill of a massive inkblot.

Well, I bother because millions of people sadly think like this twat, that’s why, and they’re the ones launching all-out assaults on science education around the world in the name of their invisible magic sky fairy. It’s incumbent upon atheists not merely to refute their nonsense, but to take some of the air out of their puffed-up egos by blasting it to smithereens and peeing on the ashes to boot. I’ve written before about the way Christianity allows its dumbest believers to adopt an air of faux-intellectualism. Here the stupid is unmasked for all to see, and laugh at. Postelnik is the very model of fractal wrongess.

  1. Postelnik thinks scientific explanations are all about “random chance.” Towards this end, he offers up variants on the old “tornado in a junkyard” argument.

    [Atheists] believe that not only did whole planets appear spontaneously, but also believe that the fact that these planets do not collide as meteors do, that they have gravity, that they contain the proper atmospheric conditions for life to take hold and contain sustenance to sustain this life all happened by mere fluke.

    Reality check: Naturally, nothing in science (let alone atheism) promotes any of the nonsense Postelnik spews. Where in physics or cosmology is the theory proposed that planets emerged “spontaneously,” or that collisions between worlds never happen? (Such a collision is, in fact, why we have a moon, and an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.) Nowhere, of course, but Postelnik is typically butt-ignorant of the science he attacks and, like so many apologists, doesn’t realize what a fool he’s making of himself parading his lack of education in public. Planets, as any first year astronomy student will tell you, form within accretion discs of dust and other particles surrounding a star. Gravity, which Postelnik seems to think of as some ineffable magic property (he refers to celestial bodies as “possessing” gravity) when it’s nothing more than the natural attraction between objects based both on their respective masses and the inverse square law, eventually causes the particles in all this whirling dust to coalesce into planets. It is only a “spontaneous” process if you’re a fool who thinks spontaneity takes place over lengthy periods of time. But that seems to be a basic misunderstanding of creationist twits.

    Here’s what Postelnik is too thick to grasp. Science understands the eons of time required for celestial objects like stars and planets to form. And instead of the mere guesswork Postelnik seems to think scientists engage in (typical twaddle: “…they outrageously chalk up to coincidence billions upon billions of times more detail and design in all parts of life found in this universe”), there are in fact well understood laws upon which everything in the universe operates. The “spontaneous” appearance of a planet or a life form would, in fact, refute everything science understands about how nature works, since science does not argue for the spontaneous generation of these things. The laws of physics allow us to understand why planets, once they are locked in their orbits, don’t collide willy-nilly, though eventually their orbits could change or decay, and then they could. After all, whole galaxies collide, so certainly planets could.

    (Incidentally, you would think that with all his dogging on science, Postelnik ought to have some pretty impressive CV’s, don’t you? Well in fact…I know this will come as a shock…no. His bio identifies him as “the President of IRPW, a company that offers business plans, funding advice and facilitation, SBA loan applications, SWOT analyses, bold and effective marketing strategies, general business development and grant writing and research for non-profits and certain qualified businesses.” Clearly he has all the expertise he needs to explain why all the world’s leading astronomers, physicists, cosmologists, and biologists are wrong. One hopes, for the sake of IRPW’s business clients, the “research” Postelnik does for them isn’t as deficient as that which he’s done here.)

  2. Again with the “spontaneity”! Postelnik continues to demonstrate he snored his way through junior high science class by bringing up “spontaneity” straw men over and over again.

    Even if all the planets somehow formed themselves, all somehow staying in perfect orbit and possessing gravity, even take for granted that all the chemicals needed for life were so how [sic] there as well, by sheer happenstance, would it then be possible for billions of species to spontaneously come about, each with a male and female of each kind so that they could exist in the long run?

    Reality check: I’ll take “Scientifically Illiterate Verbal Diarrhea” for $1000, Alex.

    Let’s set aside the fact planets didn’t “somehow form themselves,” they were formed by well-understood natural laws. Let’s set aside the fact that most life on Earth is microbial, with many species reproducing asexually, some reproducing both sexually and asexually, and some, like viruses, unable to reproduce on their own at all. Let’s set aside the fact that, while the ultimate origins of life are still an open question, no one in science is arguing for its spontaneous — as in “poofed into existence in a puff of sm
    oke” — emergence. Let’s set aside the fact that the vast majority of Earth’s life forms, even the ones like dinosaurs who had the run of the place for far longer than we have or will, have eventually gone extinct. Let’s set aside the fact that, for over a billion years of Earth’s early existence, the whole planet was unable to harbor life. In fact, let’s set aside every fact that science has established about the development of life at all. And once we’re that stupid, we can begin to think along the lines of Yomin Postelnik. Because it’s only through a totality of ignorance that one can hold the views he holds.

    Where does his whole obsession with things popping up spontaneously come from? Why, from religion, of course. Remember, it isn’t science claiming that stars, planets, galaxies, people and puppy dogs emerged spontaneously. It’s religion. You know, God said “Let there be,” and poof, there it was. That’s how tards like Postelnik think things really did happen. And once you think things really did happen in that way, then certainly it will seem illogical to think they happened that way all by themselves, without some agency bringing them about. But of course, things did not poof into existence spontaneously. Not even the universe. Remember: the Big Bang theory is not a creation ex nihilo theory. The Big Bang only describes the event that caused the universe to expand into its current state. There had to be something to go bang in the Big Bang, after all.

    Nothing in science, outside of the more esoteric realms of quantum mechanics, argues for the spontaneous creation of things from nothingness. Religion does. Postelnik is, hilariously, attacking his straw man of science by accusing it of making the very claims his religion makes. The problem isn’t that Postelnik doesn’t accept spontaneous creation. Being religious, he does. But religion offers up a god, and science doesn’t, and so in that context, science has the sillier explanation, you see? This is how people with a head full of Bronze Age myths and no education in actual science think. Pathetic, isn’t it?

    Postelnik babbles on a bit, repeating his bogus analogies (remember, encyclopedias couldn’t write themselves!), occasionally pausing to compliment himself on his brilliance (he has to, as no educated person would), ignoring all of the detailed fields of scientific study that do in fact show that everything we observe in nature can very easily evolve and develop over time. Like many apologists, he seems to think blustery rhetoric constitutes evidence.

    Then he offers up what he thinks are three “stand out” arguments for God, which have been demolished many times, and which I will now demolish all over again.

  3. And the “stand out” arguments are: (And savvy readers will note that Postelnik isn’t even clear on what he does claim to believe. His definitions of the three following arguments are rather confused and conflated, overlapping one another oddly. The way he defines the anthropic principle is closer to the definition of the first cause argument, while his definition of the teleological argument actually sounds more like the anthropic principle. The man argues like a drunk driver.)
    • The anthropic principle.

      Postelnik thinks: The anthropic argument contends that the universe is too complex to have no Creator. This is in effect the central point of this column, although explained in a more common manner.

      A more foolish manner, you mean. Let’s deal with the obvious initial objection, which is that if complexity requires a Creator, then that Creator must be at least as complex as his universe and must have had a Creator too, and so on, ad infinitum. I mean, it’s just logical!

      The anthropic principle has been punctured so many times and in so many different ways that one has to wonder just how many rocks Postelnik has been hiding under all his life to convince himself that “I have yet to meet an atheist who can make even a feeble argument to counter any of these points.” I don’t get the idea he’s met many atheists at all, and certainly has read no atheist literature, all of which has nuked every silly argument Postelnik proudly flogs. To date, the most interesting and unusual refutation of the AP isn’t so much a refutation at all: in The God Delusion, Dawkins makes the fascinating point that the AP is not an argument for God, but a substitute for one. Properly understood, what is known as the Weak Anthropic Principle fully supports a naturalist explanation of reality.

      Douglas Adams lampooned the AP in his famous bit about the puddle of water remarking on how amazing it was that the hole it was in was so perfectly formed to contain it. This is the problem with the AP if used to support theism: it’s a tautology. Any universe whose properties for supporting life such as ours we could marvel at would have to be one in which we existed in the first place. This fact alone says nothing about a godly designer, nor does it address the likelihood of other possible universes containing entirely different properties, under which entirely different forms of life might arise. Hey, the believer might say, there’s no evidence for those other universes, so that’s just hypothetical guesswork! To which we say, by Jove, I think you’ve got it! Your God is the same kind of hypothetical guess, chum. At least the concept of other universes or other physical properties for sustaining life are hypotheses about natural rather than supernatural things.

      Understood as supporting natural processes, the AP points out that life developed after an environment in which it could exist arose. We, along with millions of other species (making the term “anthropic” both arrogant and inaccurate — since dogs exist, why do we never hear theists argue the “caninopic” principle?), were fortunate enough to be that life. Such an environment could just as easily not have arisen, as in the false start we see evidence of having occurred — remnants of vast flows of water, etc. — on Mars. In other words, we have been fine-tuned (by the ongoing processes of evolution) for our environment, not vice versa.

      The vast bulk of this universe is deeply inimical to life. Most of it, as Postelnik might have overlooked, is hard vacuum hovering around zero Kelvin. And of all the planets we know of, ours is the only one we yet know of teeming with life.

      An all-powerful universe-creating God could easily have populated every single planet and satellite and asteroid out there with highly advanced forms of life. Argue for an all-powerful God, and suddenly the need of the universe to possess specific properties for the support of life becomes superfluous. Unless the theist wants to argue that natural laws don’t permit that. In which case, they’ve just argued their God is subject to (thus not transcending) natural laws, and not likely to be the creator of them. An omnipotent being would not be bound by the kinds of natural laws that keep the planets on their courses, and only allow life on our little blue globe while seven other perfectly lovely planets full of pretty exotic real estate go to waste. He wouldn’t need to “fine tune” the universe for life. He could merely say, as the Bible has him say, “Let there be…” and there it is.

    • The cosmological argument.

      Postelnik thinks: The cosmological argument maintains that finite matter (original matter, which was clearly finite) cannot create a universe that is greater than itself.

      The cosmological argument is better known as the “first cause” argument, one basic objection to which I’ve mentioned above: the problem of infinite regress of Gods. Postelnik adds confusion to the whole thing in trying to skirt this objection, by qualifying his version of the argument to state that “finite matter…cannot create a universe that is greater than itself.” But he offers no support for this simple assertion, and in terms of its content, it’s really not
      hing more substantial than the creationists’ routine insistence that complexity cannot arise from simplicity through natural processes. Postelnik simply wants to throw the phrase “finite matter” into the mix as a way of differentiating his God, which he naturally assumes is “infinite matter.” But in making this distinction, our Master of Logic has fallen into another fallacy, that of special pleading. Nature has to obey these particular rules which disallow it from creating a universe, says the apologist. So here is my God, who doesn’t have to obey those rules. Convenient, eh?

      Cosmological arguments answer no questions at all while raising more than they ever can. Why make assumptions about the supposed limitations of “finite matter,” and what evidence does Postelnik provide for the “infinite matter,” a.k.a. God, that he clearly sees as the “logical” alternative? Why assume, even if such “infinite matter” exists, that it needs to bear any resemblance to Postelnik’s ideas about a God? Finally, the fallacy at the core of cosmological arguments is that they assume knowledge of conditions at the beginning of the universe — mainly, that it was “caused” — that simply are not known. Their very premises are insupportable. They fail before they even get going.

    • The teleological argument.

      Postelnik thinks: Especially compelling is the teleological argument, that the existence of a Creator can be seen from the fact that the universe works in perfect harmony, as would a giant machine. Gravity, orbits, chemical atmospheres and all other ingredients needed for life to exist come together in unison to allow such existence to happen. An enormous machine that works like clockwork needs to have a Creator.

      Postelnik embarrasses himself hopelessly here. His scientific illiteracy is complete, and his fondness for bad analogies is simply spewing over. Again, good old natural laws that have been understood and derived through observation — all the way from classical Newtonian physics to the more exotic fields of study that new research and knowledge are just now opening up — are proving entirely sufficient to explain why the universe functions the way it does, and though we still have numerous unanswered questions, we don’t need to invoke any magic man in the sky just yet to fill our knowledge gaps.

      And it’s hardly a flawless, clockwork-like process. Some planets have atmospheres conducive to life (though ours is the only one we know of), most have deadly atmospheres or none whatsoever. There is evidence at least one of our sister planets, Mars, started out warm and watery, which would be life-friendly conditions, then failed. Where in that fact is evidence of a creating hand, let alone that of the Biblical God who supposedly made us in his image, whom Postelnik is clearly trying to argue for? If anything, what we observe about the way life has developed on Earth (and more importantly, where life has failed to develop) is ideal evidence of the way evolution allows organisms to adapt. Speaking of which: there are over 1,000 species of parasites that can live in the human body. Evolutionary explanations for why they exist make sense, but why would Postelnik’s God need, let alone desire, to “design” such creatures to infect us? Is this part of his “perfect harmony”? Maybe it’s part of our punishment for Eve’s “fall,” eh?

      Once more with feeling: argue for an omnipotent God, and all this talk about the universe needing to obey specific laws, work in “harmony” like a “machine,” have only certain planetary conditions to harbor life, and all that, is so much superfluous noise. Postelnik’s all-powerful creator God could, if he so wished (and, given this God’s obsession with being worshiped by as many sentient beings as possible, there’s no reason for him not to wish), have intelligent beings living on every planet in the solar system, on every airless asteroid, hell, even on the surface of the sun and floating in pure vacuum between the worlds. The great irony of apologists who employ such things as design and anthropic arguments is that they don’t realize they are using limits to prove the existence of their limitless God. The premise of their arguments contradicts the nature of the God they’re arguing for.

  4. And now for a little projection. Postelnik goes on to make a further fool of himself by throwing out some vacuous twaddle about how (he thinks) scientists think that will utterly fry your irony meters. After falsely claiming, without citing sources, that more scientists are embracing theism than otherwise, he goes into what can only be called weapons-grade projection. Try this on for size.

    However, we must realize that while the sophistry it takes to purport a falsehood can be easily countered, the person who has upheld such notions for decades must have each of his or her counterpoints addressed. This is able to be done smoothly, in light of the inherent logic that necessitates the existence of a conscious Creator, but it must be done thoroughly.

    Encouraging atheists to open their minds to pure logic and to possibilities that they hitherto only sought to counter or to avoid on any pretext also involves an emotional challenge for them, as they must open themselves to the possibility of having to shed preconceived notions that they’ve held firm for decades. And that, rather than facts, is the primary challenge to exposing them to insightful logic. However, if they are willing to address the issue honestly, a search for the truth should be of paramount importance and enough reason for them to take an open look.

    *snort* Yeah, whatever you say, Captain Logic.

    Postelnik also amusingly advises all us atheist sophists to read Anthony Flew’s book, There Is a God. Thing is, Richard Carrier has investigated this book thoroughly, and even corresponded with Flew. And the fact is that the book was not written by Flew at all, but entirely by evangelical Christian Roy Abraham Varghese, who is given a co-author credit on the cover. And one of the arguments in the book is one that Flew, in a letter to Carrier, had abandoned before the book was published. (Questions about Flew’s possible mental decline remain, but are ultimately irrelevant. If a former atheist suddenly became a theist, and did so on the basis of lousy arguments, that would not undermine the views of rational atheism. It would simply mean we had a stupid ex-atheist out there.) So if Postelnik wants to shore up his case for theism with another fallacy — argument from (ex-atheist) authority — he’ll have to do better than Flew.

And ba-dee, ba-dee, that’s all, folks. I was going to go on another round of ridicule over Postelnik’s final paragraphs, in which he claims the Bible reveals the first and second laws of thermodynamics before any stoopid scientist ever thought of them, so there. (He grossly misstates both laws, unsurprisingly.) But by this point I would hope I’ve exposed Postelnik’s staggering silliness in all its tarnished glory, and frankly I’m as tired of writing this as I’m sure you are of reading it (assuming you still are). Maybe you folks will have fun refuting those final paragraphs of his yourselves. The fellow is your typical fundamentalist apologist, an intellectual poseur through and through, and in his entire article he never once advances a single new argument. He merely recycles every tired falsehood and fallacy that defenders of the faith have tried again and again, and they work no better for him. The only novelty about Postelnik’s writing is watching a bozo who thinks he’s some kind of logical paragon when what he really means by “logical” is “Gawrsh, it makes sense ta me!”

Stick with, uh, your “bold and effective marketing strategies,” dude, okay? I have no idea if you do that well, either. But it can’t be as bad as your oh-so-”logical” attempts at apologetics. (Or as dumb as the way you chose to respond to this critique of your essay.)

Lore’s guide to logical fallacies

Although I love Lore’s ratings videos, I can’t give this one any higher than a solid B. Points off for a needless tangent on “Begging the question” while failing to explain what the term actually means.

Still, the effort to be funny while covering logic earns a recommendation from me.

You don’t take me seriously, but I’m disrespecting YOU?

I found an odd irony in an exchange recently.

On another blog someone asked if atheists can expect fair treatment from presidential candidates who state their religious beliefs are very important to them in their own lives. While I do think it’s possible for a person to value X, but still understand and respect others who don’t value X, I also understand the reason for the question. Some religious people see their views as simply being their own personal choice, and they don’t really extend that outward to consider what other people might choose. Maybe they don’t care what other people choose so long as we’re all getting along OK. But some religious people express real difficulty even understanding how a person could be moral, trustworthy, or honest (with themselves or others) if they aren’t also religious.

Without asking each person, it’s not possible to know how an individual views their beliefs or how they judge others based on the beliefs others may hold. But it made me recollect an online exchange I had, a very brief one, with a theist recently. And here’s why: I was accused of not being objective when I questioned an inference he made. I asked, “…are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of fairies)?”

The person was pretty obviously offended by my equating his god to fairies. He became defensive. So, I I responded that I wasn’t trying to be funny, that my question was in all seriousness. He never wrote back.

I have no doubt that this person truly felt I was only trying to get a rise. But I can honestly say I never was. He wrote to an atheist list. He knew in advance that atheists do not believe gods exist. Why it would surprise him that I would equate gods to fairies, in that case, and in all seriousness, I cannot fathom. Apparently, I’m supposed to pretend to grant his belief in god a special status over belief in fairies—even when he knows, before he addresses, me that I don’t. And if his arguments support the existence of fairies as much as the existence of gods, I’m not supposed to notice that or ask about it.

In other words, by expressing my perspective of god’s existence, and by not accepting his view as a given, I’m being offensive. If I say that I—honestly—can’t see how fairies wouldn’t be proven just as much as gods by the arguments he’s providing, I’m not being serious, and I’m just being a jerk. But what’s really happening is that this theist isn’t taking MY position seriously. I REALLY do not see the difference between his belief in god and a belief in fairies. And he refuses to accept that as a serious assertion on my part—even though it is asserted in 100 percent seriousness. Am I offended by that? No. After all, I didn’t go to a theist forum to push my view on anyone. What do I care what he thinks? I was just responding and asking what I thought was a fair question about claims he was making.

But, how does this tie into respect? Well, I respected his belief by treating it like any other. He didn’t care too much for that. But if he’d have come to me saying he could prove fairies, and given me the same arguments he provided for gods, I would just as well have asked, “How would this not also prove leprechauns?” And so on. Would it be offensive to compare fairies to leprechauns in that case—just because someone actually believes in them?

If I can’t even ask a question without being considered an ass; if I can’t give my view without being considered an offensive jerk; If my perspective is automatically interpreted as sarcasm and cruel joking, even though it’s not. How is THAT respect for MY belief (or in this case, lack of it)? What if, instead of asking him how his claim for god did any less to prove fairies exist, I had written back and said, “Well, if you’re just going to write to us with ludicrous claims, trying to be funny about ‘god exists’—I mean, what sort of idiots do you take us for? You can go send your joke e-mails about gods existing to someone else’s list you arrogant prick!”

THAT’S respect? I asked a serious question. He blanketly refused to take me seriously. And it appears to me that he is totally incapable of taking my view seriously on any level. Yet, somehow, that makes ME disrespectful of HIS beliefs.

While I’m not concerned about one online theist, I have to wonder how many others feel this way, or how many politicians share this view? That is a concern. Not an offense (to me, at least), but a real concern.

First cause argument and machine guns

Sometimes in apologetics, you get an argument that something (i.e., morality, the universe) cannot exist without a creator. But when you try to pin down the fallacies in these arguments, the person presenting them will often back off to a safer position, such as: “All I’m saying is that there COULD be a God who started everything, and that is at least as plausible as the foolish idea that the universe (or whatever) came into existence without intelligence behind it. Surely you must grant me that much.”

Case in point: a theist wrote to me:

Current observations indicate that order and consistency (e.g., “design”) can arise from intelligence or from undirected events (e.g., Mandelbrot patterns, chance).

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that the design of the universe more likely arose from intelligence (theism/deism) or from undirected events (atheism)?

First of all, just because you have two possible events doesn’t mean that the two must be equally likely. Some people actually play the lottery this way. They reason: “I either win or I don’t. So my odds of winning are 50%.” Wrong. The odds of winning the Texas jackpot are about 3*10^-8, which is way WAY less than 50%. Likewise, even if we grant that the existence of God is “a possibility” that doesn’t necessarily mean that the probability is any more that 10^-googleplex. Just about anything that you make up off the top of your head COULD turn out to be true, but probably isn’t.

But explaining logical fallacies can be difficult when dealing with somebody who is convinced that he’s got an airtight case. So I responded with:

Current observations indicate that people can be killed by machine guns, or by things that are not machine guns.

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that Julius Caesar was more likely killed by a machine gun, or by a non-machine gun event?

He wasn’t buying it:

We know with reasonable certainty that there were no machine guns during Caesar’s time, so the latter is best assumed.

So what is it that you know about the origin of the big bang that makes your analogy relevant?

But I said:

We certainly do not know that. All we know is that we don’t KNOW of any machine guns in Julius Caesar’s time. Yet we know that it is possible for machine guns to exist. So what is your proof that machine guns did not exist then?

Another thing we know is that it is much easier to kill someone with a machine gun than without one. Given the reasonable belief that Julius Caesar was killed (rather than dying of natural causes), isn’t it fair to say that if there is even a small chance that machine guns existed, then it is at least equally likely that they were used as that they were not?

Why is assuming the existence of something complex, like a machine gun, not plausible to you, when it can be used as a handy explanation for Julius Caesar’s death?

What’s wrong with this logic? As far as I can tell, nothing. Oh sure, it sounds stupid, but I think it’s just as solid as the first cause argument.

The problem with postulating “an intelligence” as the answer to “where did the universe come from?” is that as far as we know, there wasn’t any intelligence available at the time. Intelligence in the world we’re aware of universally requires some kind of brains, and the brains that we know didn’t just happen to exist; they are the end result of billions of years worth of painstaking evolutionary processes.

Could there have been a cosmic super-brain, long before the brains that we know of came into existence? Sure, anything’s possible. And Julius Caesar could have been killed by a machine gun.

But you know, I think he probably wasn’t anyway.