Have you ever wondered How to Confuse an Atheist? Apparently, theists do, and they even think they have a surefire recipe for doing it. I started reading this expecting a Big Daddy style gotcha that wouldn’t leave any atheists even slightly disturbed (except that eye rolling that hard can make you dizzy), and I was not disappointed.
Let’s take a look at the six steps to confuse an atheist. I’m going to stop at three because that’s enough to see that it’s going nowhere, but I’ll leave the last half as an amusing exercise for the reader.
1. Remember that everyone is entitled to ones own opinions and beliefs, but not to ones own set of facts. Use these steps appropriately, perhaps for debating. Don’t believe you have a right to change anyone’s beliefs.
What did I tell you about eye-rolling? The irony is strong with this one. But OK, I actually agree with this point — if only evangelicals and creationists also thought likewise.
2. Confirm with the atheist what is a thought and / or a feeling, and of what consciousness and thought consist. For example, according to M.I.T. a thought is an electro-chemical reaction in the mind. Feelings are based on clusters/networks of such electro-chemical reactions as well. “The human brain is composed of about 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) interconnected by trillions of connections called synapses. On average, a live-connection transmits about one signal per second. Some specialized connections send up to 1,000 signals per second. ‘Somehow that’s producing thought’,”… as “billions of simultaneous transmissions coalesce inside your brain to form [one] thought” says Charles Jennings, Director of Neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research.[
This is, in principle, another one I agree with. You should make your premises clear from the beginning, and I do think the brain is the product of natural processes and uses natural mechanisms to generate mind.
However, there are some hints here that we’re seeing a non-scientist at work. They always go for the list of great big numbers, which are essentially meaningless. How many grains of sand on a beach, how many stars in the sky? I am unimpressed. It’s easy to generate lots of cells and connections — the interesting part is the specificity and functionality of the connections. A zebrafish embryo has a repeating pattern of about 20 neurons per segment that generates a coordinated rhythmic set of muscle contractions. That’s interesting. Going gosh-wow over the number of cells is not.
Nice of him to bring Charles Jennings into the argument, but he’s not going to be referenced again, and the quote is simply a very general statement that most scientists would agree with. Dragging in a quote from an authority is a very theist sort of thing to do, but it’s irrelevant and adds nothing — except to someone who thinks citing list of numbers and name-dropping scientists makes their argument sound more sciencey.
Hint: it doesn’t.
But now, the meat of their argument, the point that’s supposed to make us stagger because we’ve never heard it before. Except for those of us who like to laugh at Alvin Plantinga.
3. Ask how anything is known-true, including facts, abstract thoughts and feelings. If abstract thoughts and feelings consist of electro-chemical reactions in the brain, what chemical reaction tells an atheist that s/he is right about disbelieving in spirit or God? What electro-chemical reaction tells the atheist ones own emotion, feeling or hunch is more or less right or true than that of another person’s reaction? If the mind can play tricks on you, why trust it in forming conclusions of what exists in the material or spiritual sense? Why trust what other atheists say, like Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens? After all, there’s no way of confirming their thoughts. The atheist would be operating under a mental framework, illusion, opinion and electro-chemical-agreement; so, to believe in anything to be true or exist would take a tremendous amount of faith.
One immediate objection is that this reveals that the theist is not making a good faith argument — they’re trying to set a rhetorical trap. I said I agreed with the general thrust of point #2; the idea was that we were setting up the consensus to debate a further point. Yet what we discover is that our theist is disagreeing with the whole idea of naturalism. So why were they citing Charles Jennings, Director of Neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research? Do they agree with #2 or not? Are they rejecting the authority of Charles Jennings, Director of Neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research? We should go back a step and argue about that, if they want to be honest about this discussion.
But let’s play along. Is there anything in this paragraph that should confuse an atheist? No, but there’s plenty that ought to leave the theist embarrassed.
There’s the over-simplification and reification of
chemical reactions. They ask,
what chemical reaction tells an atheist that s/he is right about disbelieving in spirit or God? Did they or did they not just babble about one hundred billion nerve cells? Didn’t they just cite Jennings saying that billions of signals have to converge to generate a single thought? You might as well ask what transient voltage in the circuit board of your computer makes the pretty moving pictures in your favorite video game. It makes no sense. The question says a lot about the questioner, not so much about the science.
The fundamental problem with this point is the supposedly difficult question it asks: how can you know anything for sure if you’re just a bunch of chemicals sloshing around in a skull? And even at that, how can you possibly decide to trust the perceptions of other skull-bound chemical reactions — they’re no better off than you are!
The answer is simple: we can’t know anything for sure. We don’t trust our brains — they’re easily tricked. We don’t just trust other brains, either. We need confirmation that they’re working reliably. This is what science is, a collection of tools that allow us to cautiously cross-check ideas and test the interpretations of our imperfect brains. We demand measurement, independent confirmation, and critical testing before we accept a conclusion provisionally.
We all do this routinely. For example, there is a coffee table in my living room. How do I actually know it’s there?
I see it. I can touch it. I can crack my shin against it. I can put things on it and they don’t fall to the floor. So I can make multiple kinds of observations that each confirm its existence.
I can ask my wife, “Is there a coffee table in our living room?” and after giving me a funny look, she will independently confirm that it’s really there. I could photograph it and post it to the internet, and ask people if that is a coffee table. (There will always be some joker who tries to say no, it’s a hedgehog — we have to balance our inputs to get a consensus.)
I can make repeated observations. I could check its existence every day for a week; I could pull out a tape measure and record its dimensions every morning, and also confirm that it seems to be a fixed object.
I can study its history. I suspect my wife has a receipt for its purchase hidden away somewhere; I can look up the manufacturer; I can go to the furniture store where we bought it and see if they have a record of it, and maybe they even have another one.
So even though everything about that coffee table is filtered through physical-chemical signals into the hundred billion neurons in my head, which then make a virtual model of the coffee table for me to think about, I can be pretty sure the thing exists. There are so many independent ways to test and confirm the existence of this object that it would be perverse for me to insist that it really was just a figment of my imagination — our brains are imperfect, so there’s no way I could assemble so many entirely imaginary lines of evidence!
Our theist gives themselves away with these other points.
Why trust what other atheists say, like Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens?
This seems to be a difficult point for theists to grasp. I don’t grant unquestioning authority to anyone. There are things I disagree with strongly from each of those three, and things I agree with. I test claims. I read widely to look for better ideas. You can’t just cite Dawkins at me, or St Augustine, or Mike Huckabee, and expect me to roll over and surrender — “They said it, I believe it” isn’t a useful phrase in my toolbox.
After all, there’s no way of confirming their thoughts.
Why, they could all be mindless robots pretending to have thoughts!
Nope, sorry again: We do have ways of confirming the validity of their thoughts. If Dawkins tells me there’s this process called “natural selection”…I can read the works of a thousand authors that confirm it, I can see experiments that test it, I can see the math that makes predictions about it.
So far, I find this theist’s arguments wrong and unconvincing, as well as dishonestly presented. I don’t seem to be confused at all, but that could just be my brain chemicals talking.
Unfortunately, #3 is actually the high-water mark of their argument. The rest falls apart even harder. This next one is just plain incoherent.
4. Make the question science. All sorts of people appreciate what science has achieved. Just because someone is theist, it doesn’t automatically make him or her a disbeliever in science. What one must do is make the atheist question the existence of observable science. Why? Because, some believe that to an atheist science is the “I Ching” as if to do divination of all knowledge. Ask how can science prove that science is the only way to know anything? It can’t. Science presupposes that it is the way of knowing. That also takes a tremendous amount of faith.
Science does no such thing, just as the wrench in my toolbox does not presuppose it is the only possible tool.
5. Analyze your certainty of any moral truism, if you can’t know anything for sure? Usually by now an atheist will say, “You can’t know anything for sure.” That’s assumed to be a true statement about fact or knowledge. Are you sure you can’t know anything for sure? Here’s the problem, atheists can be subjective moralists. They will usually say that “to each his own” but then condemn those people who do “bad things”. Well, if you can’t know anything for sure, how do you know that the things other people do are bad/good? Don’t let them use the scape goat, “Oh, because I see the results.” Well, in order to know something is bad, you have to know that there is “bad”, or that “good” exists. Remind them, “I thought you couldn’t know anything for sure?”
That I can’t know anything with 100% certainty does not mean I can’t know anything with some degree of confidence. Acknowledging that I could be wrong about something does not immediately mean that I am wrong.
6. Think of choosing/causing an action. There is a question of causality. Cause and effect are crucial to material, physical substance? Of course it is said that, “For every action there is a reaction.” Ultimately, why or how could a thing/event have no cause. How can nothing come from something (it can’t according to conservation of matter) ~~ or something from nothing (it can’t. unless there is spontaneity of matter?). Is there a universal “mind”. Do inanimate objects have a mechanical, analog “mind” that parallels that in life, and so do subatomic particles have a facet of a universal mind. Is there something universal that supersedes, preexists and was the source of known matter? How do you know?
Go home, theist. You’re drunk.
I’ll let the rest of you expand on 4, 5, and 6. Or maybe you have a better response to 3. Whatever. All I know is that I’m not only unconfused, I have reasonable evidence that the theist doesn’t know what they are talking about.