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Rhetorical questions: of rocks and Jell-O

So this past weekend was the Reason Rally, where atheists from all over the United States gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to make a powerful political point: atheists exist and we are paying attention to politics. The kind of obsequious Jesus-based pandering that is the lifeblood of American democracy is at a particular peak, which makes more baffling the claims of Christians to be some kind of oppressed minority who is forbidden from practicing their faith by the evil secularist government forces headed by secular Muslim socialist Caliph Barack Obama (I am trying to distill a bunch of crazy into one sentence, so I am making this parenthetical thought extra-long in order to not overload the ratio of crazy:comprehensible… almost there… how are all of you doing?).

I didn’t go to the Reason Rally, but I was overjoyed to see a segment on MSNBC’s Up! With Chris Hayes where an all-atheist panel was assembled to discuss some of the rally’s major issues. I was quite impressed with the panel’s mere existence, because it stands in sharp contrast to the usual practice of having a lone atheist forced to contend with one or more idiots presenting “the other side” uncritically. The atheist’s time is then consumed almost entirely in distractions, forced to explain what atheism is, the difference between criticism of belief vs. believers, and in some cases having to explain grade 6 science to grown adults. This panel was different though; everyone (including the host) was an atheist, and thus could discuss the vagaries of the divergent viewpoints within organized atheism without having to stop every five seconds and explain why there are still monkeys.

I enjoyed watching the show, despite having a few objections (that are not really worth going into), and thought it was quite a coup for a nationally broadcast program to put that many atheists on camera at once. But then I read this:

The self-congratulatory unanimity that presided over the discussion was challenged at one point by Hayes, who posed the following question: If you hold to the general skepticism that informs scientific inquiry — that is, if you refuse either to anoint a viewpoint in advance because it is widely held or to send viewpoints away because they are regarded as fanciful or preposterous — how do you respond to global-warming deniers or Holocaust deniers or creationists when they invoke the same principle of open inquiry to argue that they should be given a fair hearing and be represented in departments of history, biology and environmental science? What do you do, Hayes asked, when, in an act of jujitsu, the enemies of liberal, scientific skepticism wield it as a weapon against its adherents?

Hoo boy. Hold on to your bullshit detectors folks, because three paragraphs in and I can already detect the distinctive odour of the “atheism is just another religion” argument.

The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had already made: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

Here’s my problem (well, one of them at least) with this ponderous lump of shit that somehow managed to deserve publication in the New York Times - you cannot ask a rhetorical question if it has an answer. If someone published an article in a reputable source that said “Where was Barack Obama really born?”, they’d be mocked openly by anyone with the slightest shred of journalistic integrity. The circumstances of President Obama’s birth are not exactly unexamined, and we have abundant confirmation of the official story. Pretending as though there’s anything but a succinct, well-established answer to your stupid question is not grounds for constructing an argument for “the other side”. Nor is pretending as though the answer you are given somehow lacks legitimacy:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Ah yes, Mr. Fish has discovered the glaring hole in the materialist argument – it assumes the world exists. Congratulations, Mr. Fish – you have reached the lofty sophistication of a stoned freshman philosophy student asking how we ‘know’ that, like, the world isn’t just, like, an illusion, man? He then moves to the crux of his argument, that their assumption of the existence of the material world is just as big a leap as his assumption that a magic man done it. He then goes on to call liberals hypocrites because we decry others for taking things on faith, but we totally have faith in science too, man! Gussying the point up in elaborate language (and to be sure, Mr. Fish is an abundantly capable writer) sadly does not lend any credibility to the fact that he is making an argument barely worthy of Ray Comfort.

His position basically boils down to this: science isn’t perfect, and liberals pretend it is, so therefore it’s just as reasonable to believe that the universe is 6,000 years old and that the intelligent creator thereof manifested itself in human form in an illiterate region of the world about 2,000 years ago in order to sacrifice himself to appease his own bizarre moral requirements. He therefore chastises them (us) for not giving religious folks an “even break” when it comes to listening to different kinds of arguments. I will shamelessly steal a counterargument from a friend of mine in explaining why someone should take Mr. Fish’s law degree away from him*.

Imagine that you and I are trying to build a structure out of wood. We have the planks sawed and measured, and have many nails at the ready to attach them to each other. As tools, I have a rock while you have a handful of Jell-O. Both of these tools are, technically, capable of ‘driving nails into wood’ as long as we use a really relaxed definition of ‘drive’ and ‘into’ (and ‘nails’ and ‘wood’). The rock is not the perfect driver of nails – a hammer is better, a nail gun is superior to that, and I suppose some kind of tool that teleports nails instantaneously into wood with zero effort would be the ideal. However, every time you use your tool, it yields consistently shitty results – Jell-O is not a useful tool for the task we are faced with. Despite the imperfections of the rock, it is observably better at handling nails than your handful of gelatinous dessert.

Fish’s counter-argument would be that the rock is only better if you accept the standard definitions of ‘drive’ and ‘into’ and ‘nails’ and ‘wood’, tied up as they are in the rock-paradigm. “It’s a circular argument”, he’d gibber. My response to him is twofold. First, we are being asked to deal with questions about the material world. It is not a circular argument to accept the assumption that the world exists, since the question being posed already makes that assumption. Given that the existence of material reality is already granted in the very premise of the discussion, material-based methods are the best for answering that question.

Second, you are asking us to give the Jell-O of faith an “even break” for the possibility of answering questions about the universe when it has demonstrated its complete uselessness in answering any material questions. Until you can somehow demonstrate (rather than simply asserting) the ability of faith to answer any kind of question better than science, then it’s not a question of “other ways of knowing” – it’s a question of useful vs. not useful. Faith is not a useful way of gaining material knowledge – if it was, then the two methods would converge on answers instead of diverging.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this to a grown-up with degrees, but then again, tide goes in and tide goes out – you can’t explain that.

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*Seriously – if you don’t understand how evidence works, should you be allowed to teach law? I suppose that’s another one of those non-rhetorical questions, because the answer is “no you fucking shouldn’t”