On maintaining passionate intensity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray probably exists, I think…

Ray has asked for evidence that Darwin existed and, as expected, has decided to imitate his strawman view of atheists by declaring every piece of evidence unacceptable because we can’t be absolutely certain.

Here’s my response:

“Ray’s right, we can’t be absolutely certain that Darwin existed. We can’t be absolutely certain about any historical event.

But absolute certainty is a red herring, the only issue is one of reasonable certainty – that a claim has been verified as ‘most probably true’, to the best of our ability to do so. Some claims have more supporting evidence than others. Additionally, some claims require more evidence than others before they become ‘reasonable’.

The only answer anyone needed to give, and the only answer that is correct is this:

We have sufficient evidence to claim that Darwin most probably existed and that the events attributed to his life (the voyage on the Beagle, his writings, articles about him by contemporaries – favorable and unfavorable, his family line, etc) are most probably accurate.

The same is true for George Washington, though the “I cannot tell a lie” story is most likely false, and there may be other romanticized, mytho-heroic tales attributed to him which aren’t very accurate.

The same cannot be said for Paul Bunyan or King Arthur… or Jesus.

When we try to determine whether a particular historical figure existed, we have to collect the stories about them to define the personage we’re trying to verify. If the preponderance of evidence confirms a significant portion of those stories, it’s very probable that the individual existed.

If the stories are supported by nothing more than anecdotal evidence or hearsay, they’re unreliable. If they also include claims of supernatural/magical abilities, they’re better relegated to the “tall tales” bin.

Ray has mistakenly tried to represent the case for Jesus as being of a similar nature to the question of Darwin’s existence. They’re not remotely comparable – and if we find out tomorrow that Darwin never existed, that he was a fictitious invention, it doesn’t change a single thing about the science of evolution or the value of the discoveries attributed to him. The same isn’t true for Jesus.

Ray is comparing apples and motorcycles and making a childish appeal to absolute certainty where no such appeal is required or justified.”

Though that will come as no surprise to anyone.

Merry Christmas (to those celebrating it for any reason). Happy Holidays, or not, to those who celebrate something else, or nothing at all. :)