Monday, April 24, 2006

Look Ma You're a Secular Whackjob
or
Atheist Theological Disputation part N

P Z Myers caught a live one -- Melinda Barton denouncing atheists on
Raw Story


Barton is rude and Myers seems to have demolished her arguments pretty thoroughly. I am actually just going to quote him partly quoting her, because my main aim is to engage him in Atheist Theological disputation.


You know, I'm a fairly extremist atheist myself, and I just find her assertions daffy.

Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.


Well, yes, I believe religion is false; that's no more a damning trait than the fact that Melinda Barton believes religion is true. But this claim that atheism is proven is bizarre; who says such things? She tries to quote a writer for the Atheist Foundation of Australia who defines atheism as "the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural"…tell me, where is the claim of provability there? She goes on to argue that both the presence and absence of a deity are matters of belief, setting up a false equivalence in which she tries to argue that both are therefore matters of faith. What nonsense; the absence of faith is not faith, any more than the absence of a sandwich is also a kind of tasty snack between two slices of bread.


Barton is very odd. She seems to see a fundamental difference between believing something and thinking that it is true. This seems to me to be inconsistent with the English dictionary. Now one can hold beliefs without certainty and therefore not be certain that they are true, but I don't see any difference between "I believe x" and "I think x is true". I have reached mutual non comprehension with many people on this topic and have learned to drop it as soon as it arises.

More to the point, Barton and Myers both seem to me to underestimate the role of faith in thought. In particular, I think to arrive at a conclusion using reason and evidence one must have faith, at least, in some method of reasoning such as the scientific method. Thus even if the scientific method forced everyone who applied it honesty and ably to conclude that there is no God, the resulting atheism would be based on faith. No reasoning is possible without assumptions and no one would bother to reason without at least some faith in the assumptions. Again, certainty is not required, but something prior to evidence is or one would just stare at the world and never infer anything. I believe David Hume agreed with me on this point. Myers is witty with the sandwich analogy, but he doesn't address the question of whether or not he has faith in the scientific method. Sad to say, I think the scientific method goes on to ask "do you have any priors" and if you answer no the scientific method sighs and says it can't help you, that is, one leap of faith is not enough to get you anywhere useful

Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.


Now we get into some real craziness. This basic claim of metaphysical naturalism, which is a reasonable interpretation of the absence of evidence, is called a blatant logical fallacy and scientifically inaccurate by Ms Barton.

She claims it is a logical fallacy because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That's an extravagant misuse of the aphorism, I'm afraid. Absence of evidence is a legitimate argument for the absence of a phenomenon. If I claim there is a unicorn living in my backyard, but repeated attempts to observe and record it, or to find indirect evidence such as footprints or unicorn scat all fail, it is perfectly reasonable to provisionally suggest that the claim is false, and to insist that any further consideration of the idea will require positive evidence from the claimant.


Here I absolutely disagree with Myers and agree with Barton. I am an atheist but I believe in objective moral truth -- That some actions are right and others are wrong and that this rightness or wrongness is separate from my feelings and beliefs and is unchanged since before any living thing existed. Obviously there can be no evidence for the existence of objective right or wrong (as opposed to beliefs about right and wrong and moral sentiments and conciences and such like). Thus I do not accept Occam's razor, or rather, I think it guides us well except for when we ask if there is a moral law. Embarassing to have to use "except" when discusing epistemology, but that's what I think.

Now consider Myers' analogy. There is a difference in that, if I believed there was a unicorn in my back yard, I would assign positive probability to seeing it. I do believe that there is the moral law in my back yard, but I also think it is invisible. My failure to see it does not imply a posterior probability that it is there lower than my prior probability. Similarly it is weightless and hoofless so I learn nothing by finding no moral law prints. Finally the moral law does not defecate - no shit. Absence of evidence of something which could produce evidence of its existence is evidence of absence. Perhaps weak evidence of absence but certainly evidence of absence. Absence of evidence of something which could not produce evidence is not evidence of absence.

God's not like that, by definition God is omnipotent and has inentions (being benevolent). That implies lots of predictions many of which seem to me to be false. Even if it is possible to reconcile the existence of God with all the horrible things in the world, faith in God must be challenged by the enormous intellectual effort required. This is clearly evidence of the absence of God, at least if God is defined as being omnipotent and benevolent.



As for her claim that metaphysical naturalism is scientifically inaccurate…her defense consists of abusing quantum physics. I'm thinking there ought to be an exam and some kind of licensing requirement before people are allowed to use The Argument From Quantum Physics in public.


Here I agree entirely with Myers (noting that he is joking and not really proposing a revision to the first amendment). I think there should be an established norm that if someone brings up quantum physics, they should normally be quizzed on the subject to either show they know what they are talking about or humiliate them. I think that questions whose answers are known because they are reproducible experimental results found in the peer reviewed literature would do. That is 99% of abuse of quantum mechanics could be eliminated by humiliating people who don't know the relevant facts without even testing their understanding of current theories.

Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.


Again, a straw man, and she has got to know it. She reaches for the usual extremist examples with which atheists are typically beaten, the anarchists and communists, and says that they believe "the total eradication of religion is an essential but not sufficient step in the creation of an atheist utopia." The statement of her religious claim and her recitation of an example follow one after another; are we to believe that she doesn't understand what the phrase "but not sufficient" means? Possibly. She's not exactly dazzling us with her clarity of thought here.

Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.

Just a rhetorical tip to Ms Barton: it's a bad idea to end a list of arguments for your position with the weakest, lamest, most pathetic claim you can think of, and also to immediately admit that it's unsupportable. You know, like this:

I tried to find an "official" source for this hasty generalization with no luck, but chose to include it here based on personal experience.

Jebus. Never mind. Do we even need to try to rebut this kind of nonsense?


Heh indeed. How is it possible that Raw Story published such nonsense ? This is a serious question. I can think of three explanations.

One is that left of center people have noticed that we keep losing elections because we are seen by many voters to be hostile to religion. Thus they are desperate enough to find some way of partly agreeing with those voters to resort to intellectual dishonesty based on outrageous straw men.

Another is that current standards of tollerance are inconsistent with logic. This is very much true of religious tollerance. It is considered intollerant to say that one thinks one's beliefs are true and that logically inconstent beliefs are false. Clear thought can not survive under such ground rules.

Finally, I suspect that religious people who attempt to reason with atheists either become atheist, become agnostic or drive themselves crazy.

update: spelling corrected thanks to Sarah's anonymous father.

Update 2: Further spelling corrections thanks to Sarah's anonymous and persistent father (or maybe some other kind anonymous soul). I have also learned that when I try to search this page with firefox it doesn't look in this box (where I am typing) so I get "Meyers" not found when "Meyers" appears repeatedly. Odd that I never learned that till now.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

As he has protested on more than one occasion, it's Myers, not Meyers! My impression is that he feels even more strongly about this than my daughter, Sarah feels about the final h in her name.

Anonymous said...

Well that did not rutn out well. Let me drop the HTML tags and try again.

As he has protested on more than one occasion, it's "Myers", not "Meyers"! My impression is that he feels even more strongly about this than my daughter, "Sarah" feels about the final "h" in her name.

Anonymous said...

update: spelling corrected thanks to Sarah's anonymous father.

Yeh, but you only corrected the first occurrence. PZ's name is still spelled incorrectly everywhere else.

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