Friday, August 29, 2008

Today's Atheist Fallacy: Argument From Ignorance

Ironically, it was outspoken atheist pop science TV personality Carl Sagan who said, in his book The Dragons of Eden, "absence of proof is not proof of absence." He spoke of space life. He easily handed to the mere extraterrestrial what he refused to grant to the supernatural : a reasonable probability that it was there and simply hadn't announced itself to everyone yet.
Sagan searched for answers to questions he thought all humanity had failed to frame intelligently so far: What is consciousness? Are we alone as self-aware, planning, moral beings? Is this world, or the universe, purposeful? What matters most? Why have we a desire to do more than survive and pass on our genes, even more than to acquire wealth and social standing? Why is there trans-species self-sacrifice? Who has seen what nature normally does not do -- and what really happened in these cases? Are we merely another part of nature or separate from it? What hurts when we try to live as if we had no souls, what is that emptiness, why do we find it intolerable? Is there a soul apart from the body? Where did everything and everyone and everyplace first come from? What makes a thing alive? When is a person a person?
He deserves some admiration for devoting a whole career to asking such questions, and for occasionally speaking of his own smallness and ignorance to the whole world, his audience. We should all be as willing to be small before the giant hole strewn with fire and rocks our planet spins through.
But he was no scientist. Science means always looking at the evidence and always letting it speak for itself; seeing what we want and what we don't want with the same straight-on gaze; consistent logic, equally level when applied to easy puzzles and to tough ones. He buckled when faced with what science could never address adequately. He would have been even more admirable if he had bowed before such mysteries as did Einstein, Schrodinger and Newton, and confessed that his sextet could not measure such spans, his needles spun helplessly before the gravest quests.
The argument from ignorance means putting one's worldview into the spaces between things one knows. Those who use such an argument look for spaces into which to wedge their theories. They feel surer of themselves when they deny evidence because less proven is less of their opinion crowded out of the puzzle.
Proof of absence is more than absence of proof.
It is impossible to prove a universal negative.
If I said there are zebras in my room, you could, if you were in my room, search for them. On finding no zebras and no room for zebras you could announce that it was false -- you had proof of absence of zebras in my room.
However, if I said there were zebra-unicorns, you could search the whole world, and even if you turned up no evidence of zebra-unicorns, it wouldn't prove there were none. One could have been born while you were searching elsewhere. There could be some hidden in a place that formed after you left the area. You might just have kept missing them. Even if there were none on earth, there could be some elsewhere.
If I could bring you one zebra-unicorn, and you could examine her and see that her horn was real and hers, a zebra-unicorn's existence would be established. But the absence of any would never be able to become solid knowledge.
Sagan didn't believe in God. He said everything anyone ascribes to God could be credited to some other origin. He had no proof of God. He violated Occam's Razor by ultimately multiplying factors prolifically to get rid of the need to include the supernatural. Many atheists do the same thing.
Here's a hypothetical example: A woman with a known, documented tumor in her ear goes to a faith healer and it vanishes. Her doctor confirms that it is gone. She announces the miracle. An atheist steps in to say the healer was merely a hypnotist using the suggestibility of crowds to make her feel healed. He posits that her doctor was getting a bribe to falsify the records. He says even if she never paid the healer and even if she was actually penniless, her family must have bought the phony miracle. Even if shown that she has no religious relations, the atheist will say she has been paid secretly by some organization. The lack of evidence of such will just be dismissed. He will fold his arms tightly, stick his lower lip out, squint, shake his head slowly and say, "You never proved to me that she even had a tumor. It's a blob on a piece of X-Ray film. Lots of doctors are wrong all the time." If you take him to the healer and his own broken toe is healed as he enters the room, he will say there is no proof it wasn't a coincidence. Plenty of bones heal after a delay. Granted it was a fantastically improbable coincidence that it would heal at that moment, but he will not accept any supernatural explanation. He will point to miracle after miracle and state in serious tones that in one room at one moment twenty people had mass hysteria, including several who came in skeptical, and had also somehow bribed or brainwashed their own doctors and medical staff all by sheer happenstance, ten were just ready to heal by coincidence at the same hour, five had been in mass hysteria despite no contact with or awareness of each other over a period of many years, and four are pathological liars, all just happening to come up with identical lies at the same time despite having nothing to gain but a moment's attention, and laying out travel expenses. He will posit sheer conjectures of mental processes that might exist, all to explain away part of what he sees here, part there, piecemeal until he cannot piece any more pieces and then he will say there are "lots of things that could be happening here," suggest vaporously that someone is irrational and something is all explained somewhere, refuse to explain anything further and walk away hugging himself. After deciding the evidence isn't evidence to him, he is likely to announce that "so far no one has been able to prove anything" supernatural and then he will say it is irrational to believe in the supernatural, for it has never been proved. Thus, he suggests, it has been proven not to be.
This Gordian Knot is a defense mechanism against recognizing his mental helplessness in the face of something -- indeed most likely Someone -- all his knowledge can't come close to comprehending. It would humble him far too much. Emotionally, he might not be ready.
Respond with reason and let him walk away if he gets too upset. He will wonder and one day, if he is intellectually honest, he will ask again, and perhaps let the facts speak.
Even if the atheist will not acknowledge proof, at least he must finally admit that absence of proof is not proof of absence, a universal negative canot be proven and the argument from ignorance is just an ignorant way to argue.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why DOES God Heal Amputees?

God Heals Amputee
A Spanish farm worker reportedly lost a leg -- and regained it.
Miguel Juan Pellicer, a farm laborer in the region of Valencia, Spain, had his leg amputated from four fingers below the knee in 1637 when a cart wheel fractured his tibia, according to the website of Clairval Abbey. Doctors removed the leg to prevent gangrene from spreading throughout Pellicer's body.
Pellicer spent the next three years begging, praying, attending daily Mass and smearing his right leg with oil from lamps that burned before a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In 1640, he returned according to custom despite his disability to his hometown, Calanda, to help his parents with the harvest. March 29, a feast day commemorating a visit from the Virgin Mary the townspeople believed had taken place in the area of Calanda, saw Pellicer struggle on his wooden leg to load baskets on a donkey for his family. Pellicer went to bed early. A soldier had taken Pellicer's bed and he set up a pallet on his parents' floor. The cloak under which he slept exposed his lower legs. Between half an hour and an hour after Pellicer lay down to rest, his mother entered the room. She smelled sweet oil. When she looked around, she saw two legs on her sleeping son. Pellicer's parents told a notary that they believed that the Virgin had prayed to God for the miracle and God had given their son a miraculously restored limb.
Pellicer paraded through the streets with a procession that included doctors and the local mayor. One hundred witnesses testified to the reality of the miracle. Their accounts matched.
The restored leg had scars and other wounds matching those from injuries Pellicer had received on his right leg over a lifetime. It was initially less strong than the left, but in three days both legs functioned well and looked healthy.
The leg had been removed three years previously, in a time when surgical limb reattachment was centuries in the future. The technology to reattach the limb and enable it to function didn't exist anywhere on Earth at the time, yet the leg worked perfectly.
Posted by Serena Rainey at 6:30 PM
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Monday, August 11, 2008

Another atheist fallacy: Post hoc

Post hoc means "after this".
A woman is pulling weeds. Passenger pigeons fly overhead in great flocks. Hens cluck. Corn husks rustle under the clothesline. She adjusts her bonnet. She has been a successful farmer and married a successful farmer. Her daughters are healthy. Her cattle bear strong calves. She knows the poor old woman down the road resents her relative good luck. She smiles at the idea that she is well-off because she deserves to be. Her whole family have lovely sweet rye cakes at every meal.
Her daughter should be milking the cows, and she isn't there. The woman lifts her apron hems and runs to the house to scold the girl. The old woman comes up the road. She is short, stunted for want of good food. She points to the farm woman and scowls, mutters something the farm woman can't understand and throws her apron and skirt over her head, ties them like a bonnet and walks into the forest that hangs wet and tall over the outskirts of the Pilgrim settlement. She returns the next morning with a scar across her neck and chin. The farm woman watches her. She seems so angry... poor for so long, and now a widow, never had a child that lived. Why is she hanging around here, pointing at me like that? Why the forest?
The farm woman walks into the house with her turnips in a basket and sees her daughter curled on the hearthrug, writhing. She is pointing too, but at everything in the main room. The woman shakes her shoulder and calls, "What's wrong?" into the girl's ear several times. She goes out to milk the cows before they bellow for the whole town to hear. She finds they've dried up. The hunting hounds are running in circles, barking at nothing. She returns to the field and waits, nerves taut, for her husband to come home and help her. When he returns he has no idea what is happening or where to go. She asks the woman across the way, an old friend. Her friend says, "That old woman spends every night in the woods now. She pointed at my house and laughed once." After trading memories for a few hours the two decide the old woman might be a witch. If so, the friend assures her, when the witches in town are all dead, the spells will be broken and their families will live. They are on a mission. They must stop the spells. But there is only one person acting strange, and the friend heard somewhere that witches always live in groups of 13. There are just 245 people in town. They must find out which 19th-part of the settlement are witches.
They start a campaign to root out the danger that doesn't stop until hundreds of farmers in the colony, all the people in the town, have been harassed, several tried, often by ordeal, and some executed in the gallows.
A couple of fearful isolated people have committed the post hoc fallacy.
A college student learns that Christianity spread throughout Europe in the last days of the Roman Empire and then the Empire collapsed and Europe was lost in the Dark Ages for a millennium, only to crawl out into the light again after a few skeptics and freethinkers discovered the hidden Greek artworks.
He concludes, and argues to his class and friends, that Christianity can't be true because it caused a thousand years of darkness.
He has committed the post hoc fallacy.
In reality, the daughter, cows and dogs' afflictions were most probably ergotism, a poisoning by a product of a rye fungus. Well-off people, especially women, children and dogs, got sweet cakes made from honey or sugar and sweet rye. The finest rye grows in the dampest wetlands, where ergot also thrives. The old woman was poor and therefore unlikely to eat much sweet rye, but she was aging and lonely, which contributes to senile dementia. She was mentally confused. She slept in the forest thinking she had to, or that it was home, or that someone was telling her to. She pointed because she had forgotten how to communicate. It was a coincidence. A very common one in a culture that prized rye. The result of post hoc thinking was injustice and destruction.
In reality, the student was getting a biased version of history that left most of the key facts out. His textbooks were written using materials from a violently anti-Catholic period of American history. In fact the so-called Dark Ages saw many inventions, scientific discoveries and feats of architecture that astonish those who study them. The reason these didn't lead to more technological progress was that constant attacks from primarily pagan invaders -- the Norse, for a prominent example -- made travel, communication and storage unsafe. Actually, some monasteries, especially in Ireland, preserved Greek and Roman works and indeed preserved literacy itself. A sort of Renaissance occurred in the 12th Century, as soon as a short time of peace and improved weather made room for one. But a series of wars that brought on a series of plagues cut it off. The development of better fortifications and better weapons, which had been a lot of what the engineers of the "Dark Ages" worked on, allowed enough safety in cities, and the population drop and improved weather in southern Europe contributed. A Renaissance began anew, this time bigger and more prosperous. Most of the artists were devout Christians. So were most of the scientists. Religion hardly changed, before or after the 14th-Century Renaissance.
The post-hoc fallacy, though, is used to attack the faith.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is its legal name. After this, therefore because of this. It means saying one thing caused another just because it preceded it.
A man says he lost his faith because his mother didn't like the name of a game he played with his brother (actual example taken from an "Ex-Christian" site). Maybe he really thinks so. If so, that's as thin as skin can be if you ask me. My mother was far grouchier than that and I just laugh over it now.
Next time an atheist or anyone else says "THIS happened, and ten years later, THAT happened! Explain that," say, "Since you seem to think you have the explanation, can you explain it?" Often the opponent won't even be able to describe a supposed mechanism. Then, you tell him or her why you think "THAT" happened -- if indeed it ever happened at all.
Until next time,

Friday, August 8, 2008

Another Atheist Fallacy: The non sequitur

A non sequitur is something that doesn't follow. It's Latin. It means "It doesn't follow."

Atheists often try to use the non sequitur as they do the ad hominem, tu quoque and straw man tactics -- to distract. These and others, such as the tantrum, the unanswered question, and many more, are what we call red herrings, rabbit trails, or diversionary tactics.

The non sequitur can be subtle, as when you say, "God is merciful," and the other person replies, "Well, then, what about Darfur?" In these cases you have a difficult choice. You can appear to dodge what might sound at first hearing like a rational response, and come out looking as if you don't care about Darfur. You can follow the red herring and get lost in a side discussion and never get the topic you brought up discussed. You can try to compromise and risk looking flustered. Or you can call it out. Say, "That's a red herring, and I want to talk about God's mercy." If the opponent can actually connect the topics, she will probably then try to do so. It helps to remember you're right. This keeps you free of the mistake of assuming equivalence. You aren't winning if you get out of talking about her topic and she gets out of talking about yours, any more than a robbery victim is winning if she gets to go home early tonight and so does the robber. It's not the same. You aren't trying to hide anything and you have no reason to avoid any topic at all. Forge forward. Only forward. But be aware where you are.

It can be screamingly upfront, as when you say, "God is Love." And your opponent says, "Oh, yeah? What about the different translations? Doesn't that prove there can't be a worldwide flood? I mean, didn't you drop out of high school and only go back and get your Master's in Ancient History last June? Doesn't that tell you I'm right?" That makes it easy. Ask what that has to do with what you said. Repeat your statement verbatim. Repeat as many times as it takes to get back on topic or win a default game when your opponent runs away.

That's today's look at the non sequitur, another favorite atheist debate tactic.



Today's atheistic fallacy: The straw man

Atheists love to style themselves "rational". Are they?
They posture as courageously sticking to the evidence wherever it may take them. Do they?
They decry those who believe in more than the physical world, while they claim to use their logical minds exclusively. Is that so?

Today we''ll look at a favorite tactic of atheists -- the straw man.
Long ago, boxers would take bets that a much bigger man could beat them. They rolled up their sleeves, squinted, spat and threw roundhouse punches that laid their opponents out flat, never to stand again.
Ringside gamblers would notice something yellowish poking out all over the fallen fighters: straw. They were clothes stuffed with dried grass and leaves to look like tall, strapping men, roaring to go, but there was no one there. Just dummies invented by the "winning" boxers, who ran with the cash in hand before the furious crowds could pound the money back out of them.

A straw man is such a dummy in debate, a position no one holds, and a straw man argument is one that works by knocking down a straw man: refuting what no one is saying in the first place.

A popular atheist straw man is "Christianity is the only ancient religion." They go to enormous trouble to refute this but no one said it. They try to distract the debate from the comparative merits of Christianity and other religions by posturing as teachers explaining to remedial students that there are others. We know that. We wish to talk about the differences because fact-finding is a process of distinction.

Some will knock down "Priests and preachers are perfect and have never done wrong things." Again, a straw man. No one thinks religious leaders are perfect people. We just find that they help us in valuable ways. Some are corrupt, abusive and unfit for the job. That is so in every profession. There are more child molesters per thousand men in the profession of teaching American public schools than in the priesthood many times over, and this country is hardly the only place teachers molest. But does that mean there is no truth to the multiplication table -- or even to an ethics text?

Be prepared as well to hear round denunciations of "Every word in the Bible is to be accepted literally and in every translation without reference to context or linguistic and literary traditions." Even among hardcore Bible-pounding Fundies who begin every discussion with jabs into that soft leather and a "Show me where it is in here!" you won't find that assertion. There is obviously poetry, metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory, cultural context, textual context, literary style and a little thing called an expression or several in those 73 books.

Keep an eye on your haystacks and straw bales when debating atheists, and never bet on a fight until you've shaken both men's hands.

Till next time,