“I believe that…”: when to ignore someone (pt. 2)

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about a couple of catch-phrases that immediately raise flags in my mind and allow me to ignore the rest of the argument. A line of reasoning that is based on any logical fallacy reminds me of one of my favourite Bible passages (yes, I have favourite Bible passages):

(Matthew 7:26-27) And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Of course, in the above passage, Matthew is talking about anyone who doesn’t follow the teachings of Jesus, but the parable is still useful in describing what happens to arguments that are built upon faulty premises. I recall a conversation with my father about the value of theology. His position was that it was a valid field of inquiry, based on logic and reasoning. I told him that when it is based on an assumption that is illogical and lacks evidence – assuming the truth of that which it wishes to prove – it is a masturbatory exercise only.

Such is any argument that starts with the phrase “I believe…”

I find this strategy pops up again and again when talking about religion, but also when talking about pseudoscience, alt-med nuttery, and basically any time you find someone on the left in a debate about anything. When put into a corner, the wheedling cry comes up as the preface to a long series of assertions. Of course, you can’t attack those assertions, because it’s what that person believes. They don’t need proof!

I am reminded of a “debate” I saw between the Australian skeptic atheist who goes by the online alias Thunderf00t and Creationist Bobo-doll Ray Comfort (for those of you who don’t know, this is a Bobo doll). Comfort is a master of typical creationist tactics. First, he unleashes a barrage of terrible arguments that have been refuted a thousand times before (the refutations of which he’s also heard a thousand times before). When the patient skeptic opposite him tries to take one of them on, Comfort backpedals into arguments from incredulity (based on an intentional misunderstanding of science, particularly biology – “do you really think that humans could evolve from frogs?”), which eventually turns into a reducto ad mysteria, where he asks for the answer to a question that nobody has solved:

When the skeptic opponent answers honestly that we, as a species, have not yet discovered the answer to how life started, or what existed before the Big Bang, Comfort then asserts smugly “well I know the answer.” The answer, by the way, is always Jesus.

The problem with a statement like that, aside from its complete and utter vacuousness, is that it’s false. Ray Comfort doesn’t know how the universe began. He has a belief that is based on a particular interpretation of a particular version of history from a particular tribe in a particular region of the world. To know something means to have evidence of that thing’s truth. Ray Comfort doesn’t have any evidence of anything, just his half-baked belief system (I say half-baked because he clearly doesn’t even understand the scriptures he quotes from).

I recall another conversation with my father (he comes up a lot in topics like these, as he has studied theology) wherein I was trying to explain to him that simply believing something does not grant it some kind of legitimacy, and that it was necessary to test beliefs with the scientific method. People are capable of believing a great many things, many of which are untrue. His response was that science isn’t the only way to know something.

I was too stunned to respond. What I should have said is that while science might not be the only way to know something, it was definitely the only way to find out if it was true or not. Theology (the subject we were debating) is built upon the premise that a deity exists, and then uses (and misuses) the rules of formal logic to work out “proofs” of its position. The problem with this kind of internally-valid “reasoning” is that there is no basis for establishing whether the premises are true. For example:

1. X exists
2. If X exists, it has properties of A, B, …, Z
3. Therefore, X has properties of A, B, …, Z

The problem with this argument is that we have no reason to trust the truth of Statement 1. Statement 2 might be entirely reasonable. It may necessarily follow that if God exists then He has the properties of omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence (it emphatically doesn’t, and the prospects are mutually exclusive, but whatever let’s just pretend), but that is not proof that such a being exists in the first place. It is not sufficient to assume the existence of that which you are trying to prove, however convenient it may be. You have to find a way to demonstrate it through observation – this is the scientific method.

Getting back to the original topic of this discussion, when someone says “I believe that Y is true”, or in Ray Comfort’s case when he simply asserts that he “knows” that Y is true, based on the assumption of the truth of X, they haven’t given the listener any useful information. All they’ve done is state a personal prejudice. Without the ability to point at some body of evidence and say “I draw my conclusion of Y from this collection of facts”, it’s about as useful as saying “Neapolitan ice cream is better than pistachio.” My usual response to such statements is to say “that’s nice that you believe that. So what?”

Needless to say, I don’t have a lot of second dates 😛


  1. says

    Nicely done, sir, especially the logic part. (in so far as premise 1 is assumed, premise 2 is assumed too as even creating conditional statements requires a logical proof (which no religious-type that I’ve read does)).

  2. Beauzeaux says

    Well, you surely wouldn’t want to go out again with someone who thought “neapolitan” ice cream was better than pistachio!

    (Though if he or she could spell both without a crib sheet, it might be worth reconsidering.)

  3. says

    You have to be taught what the scientific method is in order to understand it. My dad is a very smart guy, but he is not trained in science.

    Also he’s married, so I think you’re out of luck 😛

  4. says

    Not sure why Neapolitan is in quotations, but yeah it’s way better than pistachio.

    Also I’m not in the usual habit of having my first dates via text. I am far more charming in person. The reason I mention the dates thing is because I went out on a series of disastrous first dates with girls who believe in horoscopes, and I mocked them openly for it.

  5. says

    It pains me that even many folk who are taught what the scientific method is (be it through Science courses, or Philosophy courses, or some other mode), just don’t get it either.

    There’s this weird seperation between ‘what I learned in class’ and ‘how I think about my life’ that I just don’t get. It blows my mind the amount of people I know who have (for example) taken psych courses, and then make blatant ‘people with characteristic x also have characteristic y’ statements, when that kind of ‘thinking in terms of schemata’ is attacked quite strongly in first year psych.

    Makes me sad.

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