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.”


  1. Narf says

    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.”

    The correct answer to that is “No.” I don’t know everything. I could not be wrong about that. I’ll be proven correct sometime later today, I’m sure.

    There are many other things that I could not be wrong about, such as definitional things. Could I be wrong that a square has 4 sides? No.

    This is one of the many good approaches to take against anyone assholish enough to emulate Sye’s assholery. There are several other good points at which to break his script, on several of the atheist blogs that examine presuppositional apologetics.

    Your take-down of Stephen Feinstein’s crap was beautiful, too, but you need a quicker short-circuit when dealing with people who are trying to score points in front of an audience. Depends upon the forum, whether someone should take your approach or something shorter. Yours was definitely more thorough and meaningful, but you have to have people’s attention for a while.

  2. Tawn says

    Very true Russel. What do you think of prefacing comments regarding certainty with ‘for all practical purposes’? i.e. For all practical purposes, yes I am certain or yes I do know. (Philosophically speaking, no.)

  3. Narf says

    Against assholes like Sye, it won’t help, alas. He’s been chastised and thrown out of debates by neutral moderators, when they finally got sick of his one-trick, lazy rhetorical-device. Alas, when he’s showing off for the choir, they’ll accept the dressing-down that he gets as evidence of Christian persecution.

  4. xscd says

    I like to tailor my response to the readers (at websites, blogs, etc.). If I’m talking to hard-nosed Christians, I like to act just as certain that they’re wrong as they are that they’re right. I like to promote the idea that “Christianity should die!” as much as they are fearful that atheists and those evil “secular humanists” are trying to kill it.

    I like to say to very conservative Christians that I hate socialized religion creeping into our schools, our government and our laws; that I think it’s evil.

    In truth, what I am _actually_ against in all this is _authoritarian_ religion, the idea that one’s religious beliefs apply to everyone and under all circumstances, the aggressive attempt to force other people to believe the same as one believes, or at least to behave the same way, according to some “absolute morality” conjured up by their particular god.

    I don’t mind private spirituality at all; it’s just the social version, where people try to get everyone to believe alike and then prohibit behavior (or even thought) that is contrary to that particular set of beliefs. That’s wrong, and that’s why America’s founders tried to make the freedom and authority of the individual citizen paramount in the country they created and tried to make that idea as unassailable as possible, which of course doesn’t keep highly religious, authoritarian-minded people from trying to assail it. (is assail a real word?) 🙂

  5. Narf says

    make a concerted or violent attack on.
    “the Scots army assailed Edward’s army from the rear”

    (of an unpleasant feeling or physical sensation) come upon (someone) suddenly and strongly.
    “she was assailed by doubts and regrets”

    criticize (someone) strongly.

    You’re good, man. An assailant is someone who assails people.

  6. Tawn says

    Well you’re never going to get through to such a person and their sycophants. The point is to give the (correct) appearance of confidence and assurance to neutral or semi-biased observers and not appear to lack conviction in their eyes.

  7. Paul Cornelius says

    I don’t know everything. I could not be wrong about that.

    Putting on my Sye hat for the moment (I keep it at the back of my closet, beneath the unmatched socks): How do you know that? Can you tell me one thing that you’re sure you don’t know? [You give an answer, call it X]. How do you know if X is true or false, if you don’t know it? Will you agree that if X is not true, it can’t be knowledge? So it’s not an example of something you’re sure you don’t know. You’re so confused, you can’t even give me one good example!

    Obviously you don’t even know what you know and what you don’t. When say you don’t know God exists, you’re wrong about that, too (for the full effect, try to envision this remark delivered with a smug look of certainty).


    Taking off the Sye hat…

    Now what? Strangling him with your bare hands in front of the cameras isn’t a good option, since it miight create a martyr. Restating your argument is fruitless since he will just ask you again, “How do you know that?” I think that’s why those who “debate” him seem to get so frustrated. I look forward to seeing how Matt handles it.

  8. says

    Sye Ten Bruggencate is a lost cause — he’s not going to budge (if he did, he’d have to change his name — he wouldn’t be Sye Ten Bruggencate any more!). But anybody else — in the face of an opponent’s confidence and certainty, I would say, “You automatically discredit yourself. Nobody knows everything. Anybody can be wrong.”

    I don’t know how well this would work in a debate, because I’ve never had one, but it seems to me that we should reclaim uncertainty. It’s a good thing! Admitting our imperfect knowledge, and being willing (even pleased) to be proven wrong, is the only way to improve our understanding of any subject. No one will ever have complete understanding of anything. There is always more to know. So anybody who does claim complete knowledge and unshakable certainty is automatically wrong.

  9. says

    > “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?”

    No. My mind exists. My experiences exist. That cannot be denied because it is experienced, undeniably. In the same way being in pain is something I know I am experiencing, I cannot be “wrong” about knowing I am having an experience that is painful. I might be wrong about what is causing the pain. But when I say “I am experiencing pain”–that is something that cannot be denied. It is certain.

  10. says

    One of the best things about Matt’s presentation style back in the day was his ability to sound authoritative without sounding angry, jerkish, or exasperated. Tracie has that same exact ability, and she’s maintained it to this day.

    It was this quality in some of the hosts that first drew me to The Atheist Experience. Too often, I had seen atheists present their opinions in the most wishy-washy kind of ways. Many atheists seem hesitant and unsure of themselves, asking meandering questions that don’t seem to go anywhere – all while the Christian makes confident declarations.

    Some of the hosts of the Atheist Experience presented some really excellent counterexamples to this trend.

    There are a few qualities of this kind of confident tone. The first is the ability to size up a caller’s point and jump to the big-picture issues connected to it. The second is the courage to make firm-sounding declarations about these big picture issues, in a tone that sounds like explaining simple facts [Exercise: Say the following sentence firmly: “Objects fall when they are dropped.” Now say the following sentence in the exact same tone of voice: “The default position for any claim is disbelief until it is demonstrated by evidence.”] The third quality is the ability to sound friendly and even excited about the conversation. Pretend you’re explaining these big picture ideas to an extremely bright child for the first time in the child’s life. Try to imagine how exciting these ideas are from that person’s perspective, even if you’ve heard these same arguments ad nauseam. And the final quality is – as trivial as this sounds – a minimal amount of “ums” and “ahs” and various other noises. Silence actually sounds better than these noises because it makes the speakers seem as if they’re seriously thinking, and it emphasizes the words they actually do say.

    Like anything else, creating this kind of tone is a matter of practice, and I think it’s something that most atheists can stand to get better at.

  11. says

    If that’s Sye’s best comeback, it’s pitiful.

    Here’s a thing I know that I don’t know: the exact number of atoms in the universe. Asking me how I could know I don’t know that is ludicrous. I cannot, as a matter of simple fact, provide that number accurately. If I made up a number, I would know I was making it up, and if by some fluke my guess happened to correspond to the proper number, I would have no means of knowing it had done so, or of verifying the number. So something else I know I don’t know is that fact.

    He may be able to steamroll slow thinkers with that barrage of gibberish, but it doesn’t get him any closer to providing evidence for his God, and is clearly a desperate rhetorical exercise to stave off having to do so for as long as he can control the conversation.

  12. Narf says

    I’m not sure even he is that idiotic, though. There is an answer, for the truth or falsity of proposition X. Your one question, “How do you know if X is true or false, if you don’t know it?” is so inane that you can hold it up to the audience and say, “See? My opponent is a fuck-wit.” The way I phrased it, my statement is a claim about the lack of knowledge of whether the answer is true or false, so the lack of knowledge demonstrates the truth of the claim.

    Anyway, this sort of bullshit only works in fora in which the presupp has full control of the editing. If you go into a debate with a presupp, even vaguely prepared for the bullshit circles, the guy can’t help but look like an asshole.

  13. Narf says

    There’s another one, yeah. If you know the question is coming, know the script, and have had more than 5 minutes to think about it, there are so many answers. Presupps only had real success catching people in the atheist community for the first few months, before word got around. Of course they’ll play those initial recordings for 15 or 20 years, as if they were recorded only yesterday.

  14. Narf says

    Well, yeah. Always for the lurkers. There’s always a chance of deconverting the actual person you’re arguing with, but it’s such a low chance that it can’t be the primary intention.

  15. says

    Are you opening the conversation up to allowing your friendly neighbourhood Sye to come back at you later with this when you tell him that his experience of god doesn’t prove god?

  16. Narf says

    Sye’s experiences absolutely exist, from his perspective. From my perspective, they almost certainly exist, and I’m willing to accept them without quibble, since I don’t wish to put forward the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis. His interpretation of those experiences as being caused by his imaginary friend is bullshit, however.

  17. John Kruger says

    The whole tactic of casting uncertainty on everything in order to bolster your viewpoint has to be one of the most dishonest methods of argument I have ever heard. If your theory is so bad that you must annihilate all forms of knowledge everywhere in order to put it on a level playing field, it seems pretty clear your pet theory is about as false as a theory can possibly be.

    There is ad absurdum potential limited only by your imagination with this. If absolute certainty is required in order to dismiss something, then literally anything goes. We can put the god hypothesis right next to theories like “drinking milk will make you fly”, “closing your eyes will kill you”, or “standing on your tip toes will allow you see through opaque objects”. It really says a lot about a person willing to discard everything in order to maintain one particular idea, and it says a heck of a lot more about that specific idea.

  18. pete says

    Can’t remember who said this….

    Religion is certainty without evidence.
    Science is uncertainty with evidence.

  19. xscd says

    Sye ten Bruggencate: “Could everything you claim to know be wrong?” (smug conversation-stopping silence)

    Respondent: “No, not really. I know that anything you claim to know might be wrong.”

  20. says

    it is the dualistic nature of the US. it is either 100% or 0% . nothing else or anything in between.

    It is either for gun freedom or gun ban. No gun regulation.

    certainty is never 100%

    i am certain that my car won’t break down tomorrow..

    100% certain, you don’t know.

  21. Narf says

    Hell, I’ve had some of the anarcho-capitalist libertarian nuts argue for personal ownership of nuclear weapons, for anyone who can afford one and wants one. Oh, and I’m sure they would be against government regulation of them for containment safety. Let the free market sort it out …

    You want black/white thinking, those are your guys.

  22. Russell Glasser says

    By the way, I didn’t bring this up in the main post, but I consider this “arrogant certainty” to be a defining trait of right wing media outlets (Fox News, etc) and the Tea Party, to name a few. When they latch on to a point, whether it’s “we are fighting a culture war against a faction that wants to destroy religion” or “politician X that we hate must resign immediately,” there is rarely any thoughtfulness or serious gathering of evidence behind this. There is only “This is what I believe and only traitors and idiots disagree with me.” That’s part of what makes it frustrating to watch an attempted discussion between someone like that, and a person on the other side who approaches things more cautiously.

  23. Monocle Smile says

    I tend to call this the “99=0” fallacy, although formalizing it would probably take an awful lot of paper. Basically, it’s the claim that because 99 and 0 are less than 100, they hold equal status.

    Creationists like to claim that because evolution doesn’t answer every question, creationism is a viable alternative.

    Sye Ten Brutalface claims that because a person isn’t 100% certain about everything, they actually know nothing.

    It’s beyond black-and-white thinking. They shift the line between the two all the way down to one end.

  24. says

    There’s probably a psychological term for it. It’s the same type of “reasoning” error that appears elsewhere… I see the attitude a lot in gaming. Either that shield is “elite”, or it completely sucks. There’s no spectrum.

  25. says

    This can be a tough one. I think that ultimately it’s a matter of becoming comfortable with the fact that there is never such a thing as 100% certainty, and that we are a species that loves the simple words spoken with authority, a skill that many ignorami are the masters of. So paradoxically to be rhetorically successful you need to be sound authoritative about the ability to deal in how well we know what we know. This is something I try to practice on Facebook among other places.

    My attempt.
    How do you know that?
    I don’t and neither can anyone else “know” that or anything else they way you seem to need to.

    Can you tell me one thing that you’re sure you don’t know?
    Everything, just the same as you. (Turn it on what they claim to “know”.)

    How do you know if X is true or false, if you don’t know it?
    I don’t “know” it and neither does anyone else. I’m certain enough of it to act as the chair will support me if I sit despite the fact that chairs can break. I irrational people can stand all the time if they want. I have stuff to do.

    Will you agree that if X is not true, it can’t be knowledge?
    Only if by “not true” you mean X has insufficient evidence for reasonable certainty.

    The rest of it depends on how they respond to this. There is nothing wrong with being authoritative on things for which we have reasonable evidence and justification. As long as conclusions can change with new information, being authoritative on what one knows which fine to me morally. They might try to point at a past view one was authoritative on that was subsequently changed but a person doing that is basically admitting that they have no error correction mechanisms.

  26. xscd says

    Sye ten Bruggencate and Eric Hovind both say that God (the Christian god) is the only thing that allows us to know anything; we can’t know anything without God. Of course, if you ask them how they know this God exists, they say that God gives them the knowledge of His existence, and that everyone including atheists has the built-in God-given knowledge of his existence.

    But I keep wondering, if they assert that a being for which we have no evidence exists, then wouldn’t any imaginary being be sufficient?

    “Sye, my Fairy Godmother told me your Christian God doesn’t exist. Fairy Godmother said it, I know it, and that settles it!”

  27. Narf says

    “But you can’t use logic without first accounting for the laws of logic. The laws of logic are not properly basic. I account for the laws of logic with God, who is a necessary element. God is necessary, because I’ve defined him as such.”

    And that’s when the moderators throw him out of debates.

    He’d shortcut everything you said by saying that God gives him absolute certainty, because God is omnipotent. So, all of the restrictions he’s placing on you don’t apply to him.

  28. says

    “But you can’t use logic without first accounting for the laws of logic. The laws of logic are not properly basic. I account for the laws of logic with God, who is a necessary element. God is necessary, because I’ve defined him as such.”
    I don’t have to account for shit when it comes to your assertions. Even laws are only called that because we have an extremely high degree of certainty because of a profound lack of examples of things that don’t conform to them. If we discover exceptions they will not longer be laws. If you “know” God is a necessary element you can try to demonstrate that. Otherwise you are getting boring with these assertions.

    If you are getting absolute certainty from somewhere you need to demonstrate that and it should be trivial if the things you are being certain about reflect reality. Tic toc, we’re waiting…

  29. Narf says

    You’re using logic to construct that argument. You can’t use logic without accounting for it.

    Never underestimate the ability of a douche-bag like Sye to broken-record endlessly.

  30. Narf says

    You need to take him off-script in the first question or two. If you let them get more than 2 or 3 questions in, they’ll reach one of their endless loops.

  31. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To reply to the hypothetical:
    “But you can’t use logic without first accounting for the laws of logic. The laws of logic are not properly basic. I account for the laws of logic with God, who is a necessary element. God is necessary, because I’ve defined him as such.”

    There’s only one way to handle this. Our very own Russel has it right.

    To the hypothetical: I’m sorry, when you “The laws of logic are not properly basic.”, I do not accept that premise. You made that assertion nakedly and without justification. I do think the laws of logic are properly basic.

    And that’s about the end of the conversation. If someone wants me to logically justify the laws of logic, they’re asking me to commit a circular justification, which is fallacious.

  32. says

    Logic is a tool like a screwdriver. We know it works because of the results that we can observe and direct personal observations are really the only thing that we can say we “know” for sure like the fact that I know this chair just supported me. The Screwdriver does not justify itself and the patterns that we call logic do not justify themselves either. If the screwdriver justified itself a screwdriverless society that encountered one would know what it did automatically and would have to be taught, just as the utility of logic must be taught.

    I know that one gets covered in mud if one wrestles with pigs but I find pig wrestling kind of fun for some reason.

  33. says

    The loops can be fun when one gets used to them though. It’s like an ancient primate dance that takes time to learn. For good or for evil. I’m not claiming to be an expert but it does seem to be a ubiquitous phenomena.

  34. says

    That should say “If the screwdriver justified itself a screwdriverless society that encountered one would know what it did automatically and would not have to be taught, just as the utility of logic must be taught.”

  35. L.Long says

    I usually turn it against them with “Yes I am as totally certain of my position as you are certain of yours.” and “I Could be wrong as much as you can be wrong”. And “I can produce various types of evidence of my statements and until you can describe the experiments and results of your statements, you have NOTHING worth listening to!”

  36. says

    That works too. At some level there will be an assertion that can be rejected with prejudice (and mockery if the audience is right), followed by a rhetorical flourish about the foolishness of accepting undemonstrated assertions.

    A law is a law due to observations and not underlying known realities, otherwise physics and other sciences would not be using the term while simultaneously trying to learn about the underlying realities.

  37. Narf says

    You’d think, wouldn’t you? That’s when he starts saying things like, “That’s just your presupposition. My presuppositions are simpler and more basic.”

    Yes, Goddidit is a simpler explanation, but it doesn’t explain a freaking thing.
    He looks like an asshole to anyone who is there, who isn’t already a brainwashed cheerleader. You just have to make sure they don’t get you on tape saying anything useful to their dishonest editing.

  38. Narf says

    Science is a slave to philosophy, and the scientific method is inferior to Goddidit, because Goddidit is a simpler, more basic presupposition. He dresses up the language a little more, but that’s essentially his argument. He is such an asshole.

  39. adamah says

    Xians are as facile and as slippery as can be, professing absolute confidence in Gods existence one minute (as if it’s a GOOD trait), even in spite of being able to intellectualize that their confidence is out of proportion to the supportive evidence, and dismissing any concerns by turning such unfounded confidence into a positive trait (in their eyes) by relabeling it as “faith”.

    Rather than mess around with that possibility of tilting at windmills, I prefer to bring the discussion back to their home turf, the Bible, which is, as they say in the military, “a target-rich environment”.

    If you have to get beyond Genesis in order to expose MAJOR logical problems and continuity errors, then you’re working too hard as an atheist.

    My favorite topic de jour is “rightous” Noah, who’s name in Hebrew means “rest” or “comfort”.

    Noah’s father Lamech prophesied that Noah would achieve permanent relief from God’s ‘cursing of the Earth (Hebrew word, Adamah, and my user name), a prophecy which came to pass after the Flood when God promised never again to curse the Earth on account of the actions of men, since he now had another way to punish humans of their evil doing, and announced that bloodshed was a sin.

    Note murder wasn’t a sin BEFORE the Flood, but AFTER (and Paul confirmed this in the New Testament). Oops…

    Oh, the OTHER way in which Noah secured ‘comfort’ and ‘rest’ for the future “chosen people” (ie the descendants of Shem and Japeth)?

    Noah was the first human to institute the practice of slavery, delivering his Curse of Ham. Nothing like slave owners securing a life of leisure sipping mint juleps on the plantation, while the slaves were providing all the sweat equity as blood.

    Of course, ancient Hebrews owned slaves, and didn’t have ANY ethical or moral problems with the God-approved institution (in fact, the curse of Ham is the ONLY other act of Noah that’s recorded in Genesis after the Flood) in both the OT AND NT, where Noah is lauded as a man of righteousness in Xianity.



  40. David Marjanović says

    The idea was to test if the <q> tag works the same way as in Pharyngula. It doesn’t. Too bad.

  41. David Marjanović says

    Like several comments above, I prefer embracing doubt loudly and clearly. After all, “even” Sye ten Bruggencate can’t disprove solipsism.

    Of course “goddidit” isn’t a simple assumption at all. It’s massively unparsimonious, requiring as it does the assumption that a god exists – that a mind exists that isn’t the activity of a brain, and that can nonetheless interact with matter in rather magical ways that don’t seem to require energy or perhaps have access to a huge energy source the existence of which is another unparsimonious assumption, and so on ad infinitum vel nauseam.

    Logic is a simplification and generalization of how mathematical objects behave, and mathematics is a simplification and generalization of how reality behaves. Empiricism is primary.

  42. Narf says

    Of course “goddidit” isn’t a simple assumption at all.

    Yeah, but try getting them to admit that … or hell, even contemplate the proposition in anything but the most vague, mystery-laden manner.

  43. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @David Marjanović
    As we’ve discussed before, your ability to seemingly arbitrarily decide what is and what is not “parsimonious” or “complex” boggles the mind. It completely eludes me as to how you came to that decision, and how that process may be generally applicable. Again, what units is “parsimony” in? By what process do you determine what is parsimonious and what is not? Before, you tried to answer that the process is domain specific, which IMHO is bullshit. The process of determining what is parsimonious under your system of science must be general purpose, or else you believe that there is no such thing as a general scientific method, and instead that each branch of science employs its own distinct meaning of “parsimony”.

    You did not continue in the last conversation, and thus I am not hopeful for my chances here.

    I politely disagree with you in the strongest possible terms. Contrary to your assertion made else, science is in fact founded on inductive reasoning. Not the naive kind that you are going to trot out as strawmen, but the proper sophisticated kind otherwise known as Bayesian reasoning. Again, please see the work of Richard Carrier on this topic, specifically his book “Proving History”.

  44. Matzo Ball Soup says

    I listened to a debate with a presupp on some podcast recently (though I forget which podcast it was, and who exactly was involved), and it made me extremely uncomfortable how “gaslight-y” the presupp got. He was basically portraying his atheist opponent as a mentally-fragile individual who couldn’t be trusted to make any decisions for himself (poor Fred*, he could be wrong about EVERYTHING he knows!). The epistemological (or at least “epistemological”) subject matter, combined with the apologist tendency to argue based on emotion, made for some really unfortunate implications.

    *or whatever his name was – ever since watching Matt’s video responses to Sye, I’ve been getting lots of presupp debates in my YouTube recommendations (and watching them as part of my usual weekend procrastination routine), so they all kind of run together in my head.

  45. Matzo Ball Soup says

    Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding you, but I think I disagree: logic is more like arithmetic than like science. It’s not the case that “8×7=56” is a statement that we’re tentatively accepting as likely true until we get evidence that there’s a better one that we should replace it with. Similarly, the fact that {p->q, q->r} entails p->r isn’t an experimental generalization, but a representation of the fact that a reality where (for any p, q, and r) p->q and q->r are true, and p&~r is also true, can’t exist.

    I guess a Sye-type figure would argue that we need a god (namely his) for both logic and math, because you “can’t have rules without a mind” or something like that. But does it make any sense to say that 8×7 would somehow not be 56 if there were no minds around?

  46. theignored says

    Sye is a fool. His question “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?” shoots down everything except a philosophy of absolute agnosticism about everything.

    If one can be wrong about everything that one claims to know, that would have to include any so-called “divine revelation”, wouldn’t it?

  47. says

    What gets me about Sye is that he can’t even correctly employ the logic that he claims comes from his god, to make any kind of coherent argument supporting the assertion. Every argument he makes is bursting at the seams with logical fallacies.

    So apparently God didn’t give Sye the gift of logic.

  48. corwyn says

    I think, in defense of ‘science’, we should use *science* (or in this case mathematics). We should always be expressing our confidence in exact proportion to that confidence. Try putting a number on it in your mind and see if that helps (I like the deciban scale, but it really doesn’t matter what you use). Try giving that number to people when talking to them. People who believe things for emotional reasons, have no defenses against the expression of a degree of belief based on numbers (especially if you don’t allow them the 100% (or even 110%) that they will try to claim. For example: “What did it take for you to go from 99% to 100% certain?”

    “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?”

    Do you mean, ‘are there any propositions for which I will no longer do updates given new information?’? No. If there are any that you don’t, you are guaranteed to hold an incorrect level of confidence in those things.

    “Do you know for certain that you are right? No? Well I do.”

    “Do you mean are there any propositions for which I have infinite confidence?. No, I have never found the infinite evidence that would be required to have infinite confidence. Where did you find infinite evidence, and where do you keep it?”

  49. corwyn says

    I am reminded of a line from _Fletch_:

    Fletch: “We are getting into a bit of a grey area there.”
    Fletch’s Boss: “How grey?”
    Fletch: “Charcoal.”

  50. adamah says

    Except remember that Xians don’t believe God gives humans the gift of logic, but instead claim God gives some humans the gift of FAITH via His grace, only after asking Him for faith (and it never hurts to ask preety-pleeze with a cheery-cherry on tippy-toppy-top)!.

    Over 2,000 years since Paul delivered his diatribes in the public arenas of Greece, ranting against those “foolish mortals and their man-made logic”, and even after penning 1,000 of words declaring the greater importance of faith over logic, why do some believers STILL even try to engage in logical rhetoric?

    It’s almost like these “new theists” have never even read their own New Testament, or if they HAVE, they’ve failed to have taken it’s message to heart, failed to grasp it’s tenets.

    As usual, Xians want to hog all positions, being seen as faithful, yes, but also desirous to not be viewed as dupes. rubes, AKA illogical fools. As usual, they want it all, they want their cake and want to eat it….


  51. stevene says

    If the libertarian anarcho-capitalist view dominated society then we wouldn’t have nuclear weapons in the first place. It takes a state to develop and manufacture nuclear weapons.

  52. Russell Glasser says

    I thought the anarcho-capitalist belief system maintains that if there is sufficient market demand for something, it can and must be produced with no government intervention.

  53. stevene says

    Hi, Russell. I seriously doubt that, absent a state with the physical means to tax a large population of subjects, there would exist the consolidated resources that it would take to produce something such as nuclear weapons. I’m not aware of any entities besides states that have done so.

  54. Russell Glasser says

    That’s the same thing I always say about the Internet, roads, a mostly educated populace, and other large scale infrastructure projects. They keep assuring me that somehow or other, those things would not only exist without the government, but would be much better than they are now.

  55. stevene says

    And I believe that those things would exist without the state, because they are valued by almost everyone. Nuclear weapons don’t have the same appeal to most civilized people. Would you get rid of all nuclear weapons if you could? So would most other people.

  56. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    And I believe that those things would exist without the state, because they are valued by almost everyone.

    And this is about the part where most of us write you off as living in a fantasy world completely detached from reality and all known facts of economics and sociology.

  57. xscd says

    Sye ten Bruggencate: “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?”

    Respondent: “If I said ‘yes,’ would I be right about that?”

  58. Narf says

    I bet the Koch brothers would love to have a few nukes, of someone convinced them that they could develop something like that.

    And Stevene, after you’ve ruled out the civilized people wanting nukes, can we talk about the remaining 80% of the human population? 😀

  59. says

    No, because Tracie isn’t saying that her experience of pain proves the objective existence or cause of the pain. The experience proves the existence of the experience. That’s all. If Sye would agree that his god is simply a subjective experience, I’d be happy to grant him that.

  60. Kaveh Mousavi says

    I strongly disagree that “The Second Coming” is a Christian narrative. Yeats escapes the usual binaries of religious/irreligious, and regardless of his own personal convictions, (which are disputed), his poetry was never Christian, and calling the poem a Christian narrative is so reductive it’s like calling “War and Peace” a novel about marriage. Yeats had his own mythology, which was decidedly personal and much more interesting than Christianity.

    Plus, reading the poem itself shows that the Second Coming is uncertain, we don’t “what rough beast” is “slouching towards Bethlehem”.

  61. Pete G says

    The post reminds me of the Objective Morality argument. Anyhoo…

    I would argue the Bible and the absolute bollocks in some parts, mainly Genesis. I can be 100% sure that plant life came after the sun.

    Leaving aside the Bible, I can be 100% sure that if the inhabitants of the ISS opened the outer docking hatch without their spacesuits on that they would die.

    Atheists definitely need to hammer their points across more. The best I have seen to date is Christopher Hitchens. Matt got upset when I said his style reminds me of Hitchens, but maybe he was just embarrassed.

  62. says

    I think it’d be most fun to just dick Sye around, and keep replying to his questions with more questions until he figures out that you are mocking him.

    Reads like Tom Stoppard dialogue.

    Sye: “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?”
    Me: “If I was, how could you determine that?”
    Sye: “So are you claiming you don’t know anything?”
    Me: “Are you claiming I do?”
    Sye: “Answer the question.”
    Me: “Answer what question?”
    Sye: “How can you know anything?”
    Me: “How do you know if I know anything?”
    Sye: “So you’re saying you know nothing.”
    Me: “Are you certain of that?”
    Sye: “What are you claiming to know?”
    Me: “What are you claiming to know what I know?
    Sye: “Answer the question.”
    Me: “You first.”
    Sye: “Give me one thing that you know for certain.”
    Me: “What makes you think I know anything for certain?”
    Sye: “So you’re saying you don’t know anything.”
    Me: “How do you know that?”
    Sye: “How do YOU know that?”
    Me: “No, how do YOU know that?”
    Sye: “Are you going to answer the question?”
    Me: “Sure, but first: What makes you think you know that I know that?”

  63. says

    Sye and Eric Hovind do this sleight-of-hand word switch where they interchange “everything” (100) with “anything” (1-99) and “nothing” (0). By moving from one word to the other without dwelling on it, they have shifted the parameters of the argument, and that’s where the trap is set. This is the line that usually springs the trap:

    “If you can’t be certain about everything then you can’t be certain about anything, therefore you’ve given up all knowledge claims and you know nothing and I don’t have to listen to you anymore.”

    I have yet to see anyone recognize this error and point it out to them. I hope Matt does.

  64. escuerd says

    And I believe that those things would exist without the state

    In practice, when there’s not a functioning state, these things tend not to exist. One thing that does tend to happen, though, is that the most powerful parties tend to become a de facto state, if only locally.

  65. says

    First I would ask the Christian(s) if they would consider themselves to be blessed because chances are they are going to boast about how their god has blessed them. I would ask them if they own or are buying a house and a car and if they have a job that pays well. Then I would ask them in their opinion if they would consider God the father as being wealthy because chances are they would say something incriminating like God is more wealthy then anyone could imagine. Then I would point out the fact that according to the worlds standards if you are able to buy a house and/or car, or if you own both or even one, you would be consider to be wealthy and that according to the bible in Luke 18:18-25 then it’s going to be next to impossible for you to have eternal life. That according to Je$u$ you would have to sell all that you own and give to the poor and follow Je$u$.

    Of course this is an obvious case of higher standard discrimination against the wealthy, but then again it does prove a point.

  66. adamah says

    As is usual, the Xian Bible shotguns contradictory advice, flip-flopping the fairly-consistent theme found in the Tanakh, eg Job was a man of great wealth and health who lost it all as a test of his faith, but Job was blessed with twice as much of everything for remaining faithful to God (aka prosperity theology).

    Compare and contrast with the words of Jesus, who said stuff like how it was easier for a camel to pass thru the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and how one should give away all their Earthly possessions and become a follower of Christ (since the payoff was taken off-stage, occurring just after death, where no human could actually see it, all thanks to syncretism occurring with Judaism and competing mystery religions which contained the element of resurrections and ascensions to Heaven).

    But God’s plans are immutable, eternal, and God doesn’t change His mind, no sirree….

    It’s not God’s plans that are changing, and God is NOT talking out of both sides of His mouth, dispensing contradictory advice: it’s just that us humans are just too dumb to understand, doncha know….

    (Insert Rollie eyes emoticon here….)

  67. Jesse Sipprell says

    I’ve seen a number of replies playing Devil’s Advocate by advancing potential Sye responses. I think some of them do his position a bit of an intellectual disservice, if such a thing is even possible.

    It’s hard to guess very specifically how Sye would respond because presupps, being ever artful at linguistic slight-of-hand, tend to frequently change tactics (but not strategies). I think Sye’s response would be something like:

    If you could be wrong about anything then you could be wrong about everything. In that case you can’t deny my knowledge of God’s revealed truth because you’ve already admitted you could be wrong about that.

    The most obvious come-back (and a sort of reverse-presupp argument in style) is that one cannot be wrong about everything one claims to know while also being right about the claim to know one could be wrong about everything one claims to know. But, presuming an intellectual high-road for the moment, the interesting point to note is that a slippery move happens in the second sentence of the original proposition, specifically the intimation that the counter-apologist’s admission of epistemological fallibility somehow permits Sye to be right (or even possibly right) on claims of perfectly known divine knowledge. It’s masquerading the default position regarding an objective epistemological claim.

    Sye used to ask questions like:

    Is it possible for God to reveal truth such that I could know it for certain?

    He doesn’t ask that any more, and I think this is because he’s now clued into the fact that it exposes a weakness. He asked this, mostly of very (apparently) skeptical atheists, because he was relying on the “skeptically intuitive” answer to be Well, sure, anything is possible.

    The fun answer to the above question is:

    Sure, but I could be wrong about this answer — in which case, no, it wouldn’t be possible for God to reveal truth such that you can know it with certainty.
    The intellectually rigorous answer is:

    I don’t know. It might be possible or it might be impossible. How do you know it’s not impossible for a limited and fallible being such as yourself to correctly acquire knowledge of revealed divine truth with perfect certainty?

    As John Shook likes to point out, one never ever ever has to justify I don’t know, and any syllogistic argument trying to force one from such a position is suspect at best. The counter-apologist never claimed Sye couldn’t know revealed truth and thus being wrong wouldn’t correspond to the truth of the contrary. Before we can even get to considering Sye’s “insinuated epistemology” we need to do something like examine the ontology of revealed truth itself via modal logic — which I will note is the very first time anything in the apologetic/counter-apologetic is actually making valid use of a tool to abstract a metaphysical premise. Modal logic here would seem to suggest that at best there is a contingent possibility of revealed truth and that an actual possibility of revealed truth simply does not thus follow. Unless a possibility is either actual or necessary then it could be an impossibility and thus we must conclude:
    Sorry, we can’t say that it’s possible. Perhaps human beings are simply not the type of being that can receive/understand divine revelation both perfectly and accurately. In such a case your entire worldview might even be correct — with that exception — and you’ve just managed by sheer good luck to guess correctly.

    I’ve no doubt that Sye has multiple responses in various and sundry forms which can make similarly slippery statements; it’s what he does. It’s all the particular form of apologetic methodology he has anchored himself to CAN do and yet the gimmick will always be the same: Find a way to debunk empiricism without also succumbing to the problem of inductive reasoning and thus unable to argue from sense perception and contingent reasoning. He can do the first and force global skepticism but he doesn’t get to then appeal to his senses and reasoning. Neither does he get to assert that someone else can’t be skeptical.

    So this turned into a bit of a rant and I apologize; such wasn’t my intention. I’ve seen so many non-theist restatements of these Van Til descendant presupp strategies. They all too often miss the mark on what the actual flavor of this presupp argument is and thus end up conceding justifiable skepticism; although I’ll not begrudge this on the fact that said argument is intricate and has multiple tricky ways of moving goalposts while simultaneously applying misdirection for cover. The only question the skeptic need face is: How can one say anything useful if embracing skepticism universally leads to global skepticism which definitionally makes no claims? … and on that point there are philosophical approaches which at least offer a good reason why one ought limit one’s skepticism on certain considerations even if it may not be ultimately “absolutely true”.