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,

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