Open Thread for Nov. 20, 2011, Show #736

Russell and Tracie today. Tracie will briefly discuss a Ouija Board experiment design by a young skeptic viewer, sent to us in viewer mail, before taking calls.


  1. DobermanGuy says

    I remember my first Ouija board experience. I was not the one controlling the game. Needless to say i was young and trusted everyone when they said they weren’t moving it. Such naivete.

  2. says

    How did we get from “atheism has a logical error” to “I don’t feel inclined to define ‘spirituality'”? The hosts would explain for the nth time why what he was saying was invalid, and he’d respond with another digression.

    It makes me wonder what’s going through his head when he’s repeated “But it’s either true or false” yet again. And? And we either accept the claim that it’s true or false, or we don’t.

  3. rrpostal says

    I wish we had gone farther with the Aussie who pulled out the air analogy. How in the world did the statement “I can not prove to you that air exists” not get blasted? Russel was as quick with the button as I ever remember him. It’s not that they don’t deserve it, but they probably deserve to be completely ignored but it’s fun hearing their gears grind audibly.

    And yes, the first theist was a train wreck. A good reason to believe in god is “spirtual”, but I don’t feel like defining “spiritual” and then conceded it’s meaningless. OK, fine argument there, friend. All that after the most convoluted and obfuscated “atheism vs agnosticism” argument ever conceived (or somewhat conceived).

  4. says

    You can demonstrate God through alsdjfk432sdfjasdfjsd, by using alsdjfk432sdfjasdfjsdas a lens, and alsdjfk432sdfjasdfjsd-izing is a sufficient reason to believe. I don’t feel particularly inclined to tell you what alsdjfk432sdfjasdfjsd is.

  5. canatheist says

    When he said that his lawn either had an even number or an odd number of blades of grass you could have said, “Great, count them and find out. Now all you need to do to have the analogy aplly to God is produce one and count him.”

    His analogy only works if he can produce a God and count him, just like a blade of grass.

  6. says

    I spoke to Russell later about the Aussie caller. Russell was skeptical about the accent and thought the call might have been a prank, and that’s why he was distracted from answering. I caught the “air” issue–but wanted to let the guy complete his point before proceeding, I believe he was trying to compare the “evidence” for god to the “evidence” for air. But Russell wanted to pull the plug early thinking it wasn’t a real call. And it was sort of full of easy fail, I have to admit–even if it was a legitimate call.

    Regarding the blades of grass–yes I agree that it can be verified in theory (I was thinking “how do you count blades on the property line?” as I was speaking); but I felt it was a good analogy in demonstrating how claims work. It is a claim that is either true or false and there is an opposite claim. In that regard the analogy worked. And I got him to understand that I can “not believe” his claim there is an odd number of blades, while not claiming there is an even number. He wanted to put that into “agnostic”–but he had to admit that people agree that a person who does not believe a god exists is an atheist. He was trying to say that “why” you don’t believe matters–but it doesn’t. We conceded that atheists exist who also would say there are an even number; but certainly “not believing” does not mean asserting the opposite claim–and I think he did concede that–albeit somewhat clumsily.

    The Carroll quote was the cherry on top, though: I don’t have to make sense! Right…and we don’t have to continue this conversation. 🙂

  7. Bruce says

    I can “not believe” his claim there is an odd number of blades, while not claiming there is an even number

    Perhaps another way to state it is: I haven’t been presented with sufficient evidence to accept any claim to knowing the number of blades of grass. In this way, the only claim I’m making has to do with evidence. Not a negation of a specific claim.

  8. Muzz says

    The accent sounded real, or at least it was likely an Australian doing a different Australian accent. There wasn’t any of the slips and mistakes some of the best actors in the world still manage to throw in when trying to impersonate it.
    We’re not without our fair share of trolls, however.

  9. jacobfromlost says

    Tracie: but I felt it was a good analogy in demonstrating how claims work. It is a claim that is either true or false and there is an opposite claim. In that regard the analogy worked.

    Me: What I didn’t like about the analogy is that it starts off with evidence–actual grass in your yard. It is true that IF there is grass in your yard, the number of blades must be odd or even, and it is also true that you don’t have to have any belief about which it is. The problem is that I don’t think the god question is analogous, since it doesn’t start off with evidence, and so there isn’t even an agreement about the possibilities within the question itself. True, it is either “my god exists” or “my god doesn’t exist”, but within the “doesn’t exist” category there are all kinds of other unknown possibilities that neither of the parties agree on. If you have evidence (ie grass), then you know there are only two possibilities in reality…and that there are no unknown possibilites within the “even” or “odd” categories.

    Tracie: The Carroll quote was the cherry on top, though: I don’t have to make sense! Right…and we don’t have to continue this conversation.

    Me: Indeed. What if there was NO evidence for grass in the yard, so you say the question of “odd or even blades” is pointless. So the person you are talking to says, “Ah-HA! There is ONE invisible, intangible, spiritual piece of grass that we all feel is there, so it is an odd number of blades.” Then I start asking how you know there are not two spiritual blades, or 3, or a million (and by the way, I don’t really feel there is one blade of grass there, and I know plenty of people who feel there are 3, 4, or 5).

    I had a recent argument on the net where the person claimed god was real based on the reality of metaphysical concepts like “love”, “inspiration”, etc (I wonder why they left out metaphysical concepts like “hatred”, “jealousy”, “malice”, etc, but I digress). So I asked them how they can tell between metaphysical things that are REAL from metaphysical things that are NOT real, as metaphysics can be whatever it wants and there are plenty of metaphysical concepts that contradict this person’s god.

    He had no answer. With no evidence for the blades of grass, all one is left with is human psychology projecting into the unknown, and wishful thinking.

    Besides, metaphysics is only real AS METAPHYSICS, which is to say abstractions, which is to say not the kind of things that can create universes, have intentionality, or be born a god/man. Calling it “spiritual” is just a cute way of saying “my metaphysics is real, and all the contrary metaphysics is not because I said so”.

  10. Vall says

    Start with invisible grass in an imaginary yard, then maybe we could see where that argument was going, if you had magic glasses.

  11. mike says

    Good job with “Nicholas from NJ” you just let him talk and in the end he self-destructed! You shouldn’t have hung up on him because of the time constraint but rather you should have made it known to him that once he didn’t or couldn’t define spiritually he lost the argument.

  12. says

    I loved 2 parts in this episode:

    1. When Tracie pointed out how one religion will take aim at another, and the careful dance they have to do. (I’ve noticed how most TV Preachers and psychics don’t call each other out.)

    2. When Russell was able to re-frame the conversation to the Nigerian email “winfall”. We can dismiss things without proving them false; recognizing an established pattern of falsehood, and considering the evidence is often enough.

    P.S. It was fine that you let the Australian, but perhaps you could let him know ahead of time and why.

    Thanks for everyone’s time and effort in producing a valuable show.

  13. Jason says

    When the caller asked about preachers not believing what they preach I was surprised you guys didn’t bring up the work that Daniel Dennett has been doing. If you aren’t familiar, take a look over here:

    He has spoken to many preachers who are now atheists and are still preaching a lie every Sunday. Dan Barker over at FFRF was in this category for a bit too in that in-between stage after he stopped believing, but hadn’t told anyone or found another job. He has commented that when he was an atheist, people would come up to him after a sermon and say it was his best ever and they felt the presence of Jesus while hearing him preach.

    For all of us former believers we understand how it can be hard to come out to those around you. Imagine the fear one would have if you were a preacher. Those around you is a large number of believers who look up to you. Also, figuring out how you will support your family and finding another line of work can be very difficult.

    Great show as always.

  14. jacobfromlost says

    I think the caller was talking about the famous/prominent evangelists, not the kind that Dan Dennett is studying.

    I have a vague memory of reading about one of the those former believers (not Dan Barker) who worked with one of the famous evangelists (Billy Graham, I think, but don’t quote me).

    This former believer/preacher apparently asked Graham (or whichever famous evangelist) if they ever doubt all these stories, the bible, making a living this way, etc. Apparently the evangelist said, “Well it’s too late to back out now,” and laughed and laughed.

    I wouldn’t be surprised AT ALL that someone like Benny Hinn doesn’t believe a word of what he’s preaching. His shtick is pretty weak, and always the same–and the money just rolls in continuously. Human nature being what it is, there have to be some very prominent evangelists that are in it just for the money.

  15. David says

    Another great episode, but I have to admit that I do cringe a bit when the callers are suddenly dropped without any formalities whatsoever. Maybe I’m just too sensitive.

    I also have to say that I wouldn’t have minded hearing more of the grass-in-your-yard call, even though I can’t help feeling that the issue in this case (and other similar ones) is just a problem of different people defining the words slightly differently.

  16. Green Jelly says

    Regarding gun enthusiasts and christians, I am surprised Russel didn’t talk about the “strict father morality” of right wingers. He talked about George Lakoff’s book on moral roots of liberals and conservatives, and the strict father morality argument perfectly answers why so many christians are also gun owners.

  17. says

    “but I have to admit that I do cringe a bit when the callers are suddenly dropped without any formalities whatsoever. Maybe I’m just too sensitive.”

    Same here.

  18. warren grubb says

    It drives me nuts when people make the claims to “other ways of knowing” and they don’t define what those are.

    I have been in discussions with people who claim I am too reliant on “science” and when I ask them what alternative methods they use, they eventually just outline the scientific method in a more general, roundabout way, but with the implication that I am too trusting of scientists and that I am not getting all the data. This is usually laden with conspiracy theories.

    In the end, I think it really just boils down to frustration that I don’t accept their personal experiences and the anecdotes from people they trust when it doesn’t align with broader observations.

  19. maddog1129 says

    @ Green Jelly

    I agree. The common thread between Christianity and guns is authoritarianism and violence. Not hard to see that at all.

  20. Mond says

    Nicholas claimed that gods existence is a 50/50 proposition and it is either true or false.

    To my mind he indulged in a bit of the lottery fallacy. This is where you claim that your chances of winning the lottery are 50/50 because you either win or you don’t win. We do know, however, the mathematical odds of buying the winning ticket are usually many millions to 1. (dependant of which variant of the lottery is played in your region).

    I know this doesn’t directly speak to the problem Nicholas has understanding the meaning agnostic vs atheist.

    He seemed to make the underlying assumption in his whole argument that the LIKELYHOOD of the existence of god is 50/50.

    In the god context we are really talking about how likely an extraordinary claim is to be true. We judge the evidence, then make a decision about belief or non-belief about the claim.
    The likelyhood of a claim being true is rarely 50/50 (perhaps a cointoss or similar).

  21. laschesis says

    I don’t know about anyone else but as soon as he said there is either an even or odd number of blades of grass my first thought was that there could also be no blades of grass on his lawn.

    However, his self destructing tap dancing was too awful to look away from (metaphorically speaking) 🙂
    Great show as always peeps

  22. says

    In the AE archives, that’s actually come up verbatim before. The theist was essentially making that claim, and the host made that comparison.

    You know what the theist response to the rebuttal was?

    “It’s not the same thing”

    No explanation. No elaboration. Just straight up denial.

  23. says

    Well, that’s easy to explain. See, if it was the same thing, then the theist would clearly be wrong. Since he knows, by various spiritual means, that he’s always right, it must not be the same thing.


  24. jacobfromlost says

    That’s the one. I haven’t been able to track down exactly where I read the story, but I have seen several people on the net indicate it is in his book “Farwell to God”. I haven’t read that book, though, so that can’t be where I read it (or heard it).

    From what others have written about the passage, though, it seemed clear that Templeton was asking Graham how he can keep doing this (evangelism) when he doesn’t really believe it. Graham responded that he couldn’t stop now, and had no idea what else he could do–everyone expected it of him.

  25. Eric126 says

    Regarding the shootist who called – it would’ve been prudent to bring up indoctrination. Here in Northern New York (a very red part of a blue state), gun culture is hereditary. I suspect it to be the same in other parts of the country. God, guns and glory are sort of a package deal in a great many family traditions. You hunt on Saturday, worship on Sunday, and GO USA 24/7. The typical NRA-style fetishism of guns and the right to bear is hammered home right along with the infallibility of the Lord. Indoctrination, straight up.

  26. David says

    I don’t know if this is relevant, but “A Personal Word” from A Farewell to God is also reprinted in The Portable Atheist (pages 282-284 in my edition).

  27. jacobfromlost says

    Guns and religion are ingrained culturally, as are a lot of politics.

    I saw a red, white, and blue bumper sticker the other day (in my very conservative little town) that said simply, “Support America! Be an American!”

    What did that mean? This is how my brain scanned through the possibilities: “they must be a conservative…but there is no overt conservative message…you can be an American and not be a conservative…maybe it is a call for illegal aliens to become citizens…but the sticker’s on that HUGE truck, there’s no WAY they are calling for illegal aliens to become citizens in this town…”

    And then it struck me. To this person, American = Conservative Republican. Not only that, they apparently think that is what it means to EVERYONE because they put it on their vehicle and expect it to make sense to everyone.

  28. jacobfromlost says

    I haven’t got around to reading that yet, but I did read “God Is Not Great” in hard copy, but I can’t find it right now to look in the index to verify. It seems like I did get that story from Hitchens, though, either in a book or vid.

  29. Jdog says

    Or it could simply be a tongue-in-cheek statement about American freedoms? That was my first thought when you posted what it said.

  30. AtheistSteve says

    It isn’t a 50/50 proposition. I think the solution is more like this. The null position of “no God” is not only the default but also singular. The positive claim “God is” represents an entire range, I’d even go so far as to say an infinite range, of possible gods. Every possible god is equally non-falsifiable. Now the relationship in the logical equation becomes one over infinity or essentially zero. Now of course theists will claim that there is only one God but lack any means by which to differentiate their God from any other possible god.

  31. Achrachno says

    I’m doubtless days too late with this, but I’m always late seeing the show. Sorry!

    On the even or odd blades of grass in a lawn issue: While your approach was solid, it struck me that another way to go would have been to point out that the number of leaves (blades) is unstable — the population is growing and changing and in addition there are no sharp boundaries between fully developed blades, half-formed leaves, and minute leaf primordia that consist of nothing more than a small mound of cells. There is no practical way to determine the number of blades because there is a big definitional problem at the beginning (what do we count?), and in any event long before you’ve gotten them counted the number will have changed. Plus the issue of the ones on the property boundary that you noted. One missed blade among thousands will change the result, and so one is well justified in not believing any exact number that might be offered, however hard someone worked in getting it.

    This is one of those issues of a theist wanting, insisting, that things be black or white and not wanting to face the messy variation in reality and the practical problems in getting the answer. There may be an odd number at one moment, but minutes later that will have changed, because new leaves will have appeared (crossed whatever line you established to define becoming a blade) or old leaves will have died. I’d be a hard-core agnostic on this issue. It’s almost impossible to know how many blades there are at any moment in a whole lawn. And, this is about something that’s clearly real and existing — counting gods and fairies is obviously a step beyond “almost impossible.”

    Simple-minded philosophy of the sort your caller was selling seldom succeeds in describing reality. We always need observation, and when it is impractical to get the observations necessary to solve an issue, then “I don’t know” is a very sensible position.

  32. says

    could you please put english subtitles in your videos?,im speak spanish but i’m learning english and if you add subtitles i can learn atheis when i learn english =D.