He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dissecting the Debate: Atheists and Theists

Some debates are so timeless, spanning as they do from ancient India and ancient Greece to the European Enlightenment and the modern internet debate forums, that it becomes difficult to avoid noticing patterns in the arguments.

I have noticed five distinct categories of arguments used by atheists and theists, some of them much better than others.  They range from truly awful to astoundingly mediocre to quite sensible.  I have organized them in tiers according to how useful or effective I think they are as a category.  My purpose here is not to evaluate individual arguments, but to elucidate the qualities of various types of arguments.

Tier 5 - Snark and Ad Hominems

This tier is the worst of the worst as far as the potency of the arguments is concerned, mostly because they aren't even arguments at all.  It is however the most entertaining and "feel good" part for those of us who like to openly indulge in a lot of bombastic confirmation bias.  At this level of argumentation, witticisms are bandied about, fun is poked at various parties, and insinuations about the intelligence of one's opponents are ubiquitous.

If you find yourself entertained by these sorts of exchanges, you needn't feel that there is anything wrong with that.  If you find yourself persuaded to one side or the other by them, then it's time for you to learn how to think critically.  If you feel the need to use this sort of "argument", my recommendation is to sprinkle them lightly into your discourse.  A little bit of it adds flavor, but much more and it ruins the dish.

Tier 4 - Obviously Fallacious Arguments

This tier is one of the most popular places for folks to park their intellectual abilities.  The arguments are easy to understand for those who make them and easy to refute for those who disagree with them.  Everybody gets to feel very competent and impressed with themselves at this level so long as they don't actually understand argumentation very well or just conveniently ignore it when it suits their purpose.

An example of this type of argument would be the extremely common case of question begging.  For theists, it might be the argument that we can conclude that God exists because the Bible says so.  What they leave out is that they believe that the Bible is authoritative because God inspired it.  Whoops!  For atheists, it might be the argument that science has never discovered evidence of God, which means that we can conclude that God doesn't exist.  What they leave out is that methodological naturalism and principle of parsimony make it impossible for science to ever conclude that God exists no matter what the evidence might be.  Whoops!  These arguments just flat-out assume what they're trying to prove, a time-honored custom in human cognition.

In both cases, these arguments are for people expressing their confirmation bias boldly without realizing it.  At least they're making an argument, but we should really encourage them to do better.

Tier 3 - Classical Logical Arguments

This tier is where a lot of folks who have a basic grasp of logical argumentation and fallacies tend to spend most of their time.  Premises and conclusions are set forth, syllogisms are employed, and terms may even be defined.  Definitions are disputed, reductios are performed, and the laws of classical logic invoked. This is what the folks at Tier 4 probably think they're doing, but haven't quite managed to accomplish.

Some examples of this type of argument are the Problem of Evil and the Cosmological Argument.  Correctly stated, these arguments are logical in form.  This does not mean that their conclusions can determine what exists or that these arguments are impregnable, and particularly when we critique an argument we have to be careful of making an argument from fallacy.

These arguments are actually arguments and they are logical, but they are not demonstrative of anything but the ability of the person formulating the argument to work within the structures of classical logic, structures which (as Krauss has pointed out) we cannot use to model our world and consequently predict what sort of things exist because quantum mechanics violates the fundamental axioms of classical logic.

If you're looking for an interesting intellectual exercise or an opportunity to practice critical thinking skills and maybe try out a new argument, then this a great place to be.  If you're looking to prove something and you take yourself really seriously, then I recommend going deeper into the rabbit hole and learning how little you know.

Tier 2 - Epistemology & Ethics of Belief

This tier is where folks start exploring the limits of what we can know and the propriety of our belief formation process.  Here we can take positions on how we ought to decide what to believe, wonder whether or not we should believe what we cannot know in a rational sense, and decide whether or not we can know that God exists or that God does not exist.

The debate at this level does not hinge so much on argument as on intuitions and sensibilities.  At this tier, the players explore the axioms rather than the arguments, the claims necessary for making the argument, and the values which shape our worldviews.  There are a number of common questions we seek to address at this level.  What constitutes a good reason for believing a claim?  Do we need to know the claim in the sense of meeting the requirements of the Tripartite definition of knowledge to be justified in believing it?  Do we know things empirically, rationally, both, or neither?

Here is where you will notice claims like the following.  "It is wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."  Or perhaps, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  These are platitudes rather than arguments, but they are not without weight.  You'll find a lot of agnostics hanging around this place, stuck in endless questioning and understandable uncertainty.  Some of them are unwilling to take a stand on the theism question and others are willing to jump into the fray on one side or another.

Most people never venture beyond this tier, and even fewer do so comfortably.  The benefit of this tier is that, assuming you understand what happens here, it helps you to understand how limited our intellects are and mitigates our natural hubris.  If not, then you'll just be a slightly more educated person who still doesn't understand their cognitive limitations, which is probably a lot of the folks who visit here.

Tier 1 - Problem of the Criterion

This tier is a very sparsely populated one, and folks tend to pass through more than anything else.  This is where we have to formulate a standard of evidence which can allow us to adjudicate claims about theism without appealing to standards which assume our conclusions and which we can apply usefully to our beliefs.  Neither theists or atheists manage to do this very often.  Even the most intelligent among both groups tend to find it very difficult to apply genuinely neutral principles.

The question we seek to answer here might be posed this way... "What impartial principle can help us decide the matter?"  The reality is that most of us don't use impartial principles to form our beliefs because that's not how our minds naturally work, which makes this a tough question to answer in practice.

If you're willing to get to the rock bottom of your worldview and spend some quality time within your own mind cleaning house and cogitating robustly, then this is the place for you.  If not, then just enjoy your confirmation bias and whatever intellectual pretensions you have managed to collect.  If nothing else, you can do the popular thing and feel intellectually superior to everyone else without good cause.


  1. Part 1:

    Sorry to resurrect an old post, Sam, but I couldn't resist on this one. Just wanted to throw a few points out there:

    First, I would disagree that Krauss's (did I formulate that possessive correctly?) example shows that the structures of classical logic are ones that "we can not use to model our world and consequently predict what sort of things exist because quantum mechanics violates the fundamental axioms of classical logic." Having read Krauss's entire article, as well as Craig's response, it's not clear to me that the quantum mechanics Krauss describes violate the laws of classic logic. Yes, they certainly violate our expectations about the way the world should be, but not the laws of logic, I think. Take the following example, a logical argument for the posit:

    A: An electron (E) will be in two places at the same time only if the observer (O) doesn't measure it.
    B: An observer (O) does not measure the electron.
    C: Therefore, the electron will be in two places at the same time.

    This is perfectly consistent with the laws of logic. We might not understand why this is the case, but one need not understand why in order to come to the conclusion (C). Although the laws of classical logic are often used to address causal phenomena, they themselves contain no basic assumptions about causality that I am aware of (correct me if I am wrong). For the electron example to violate the laws of logic, one would have to show that the same electron is both in only one place and is in two places in the same sense at the exact same time. The only way for that to happen would be for an electron to be both unobserved and observed at the same time, which seems impossible.

    Logical arguments are a good starting point for argumentation, but they are not the end-all. The reason is that there are many truths which cannot be apprehended so perfectly as to come to nice, neat "this is always the case, and so is this, therefore, this conclusion inevitably follows." Most things in life are not so neat as that. In the past eight months, I've had to make a few grave life decisions. In both cases, I did so based on evidence that, while it was sound, did not constitute invincible proof. In both cases, there was no time to delay decision making, and the circumstances necessitated making a decision within a few days. The laws of logic were not very useful in either situation, because their was so much uncertainty and ambiguity. I had to dig down into tier 2 and even into tier 1, because in one of the cases I had to overturn a deeply-held personal belief, not because I wanted to, but because the evidence demanded it.

    Tiers 1 and 2 seem to deal with the more personal level, which is probably the reason why a lot of apologetics remains stuck at tier 3. Statements such as "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" or "whatever begins to exist must have a cause" are tier 2 statements, and debating their validity with someone of the opposite belief persuasion is generally fruitless. Tier 3 is very useful, though, because both sides can use it to bring their best arguments forward; an impartial observer, who has examined his/her own beliefs by digging down into tiers 1 and 2, can then evaluate the tier 3 evidence as impartially as he/she possibly can.

  2. Part 2:

    Tier 1 is a difficult place to remain, I think few of us can claim to remain there for very long. In fact, there are some Christian philosophers who might even deny the possibility of operating outside of what we might call the Wisdom of God, the Logos. If God's very nature is To Be, in what sense can I stand outside of His Existence and decide whether or not I think he exists? (It would be like trying to move to a point outside of the Universe to observe the whole thing--for whatever point in physical space you moved to, you would still be within the Universe).

    Even in the very act of my thinking about the evidence for God's existence, I am being held together by His Merciful Love and His Wisdom. Even in the act of trying to come up with impartial criteria for evaluating evidence about His existence, I am thinking His thoughts after Him, albeit in a very imperfect way. God is not one object among many in the Universe--He is not one Being among many. Rather, He is the One who is the source of all, Who holds everything together. In that sense, I'm not optimistic that any human attempt to "prove" his existence once and for all is going to be successful, no matter how impartial a person is.

    In my own case, one of the basic reasons for my belief in God is that it provides grounds for thinking that the Universe, and even my own thoughts, are intelligible. Given materialistic atheism, my thoughts are simply the results of neurons firing in a certain sequence and the release of neurotransmitters, all of which are more or less determined events. But if all my thoughts are reduced to this, in what sense can a belief, which is nothing more than a certain sequence of neurons firing and neurotransmitter release be "true" or "false?" It presupposes someone, or something, who is non-material and who is "experiencing" the neuronal firing and neurotransmitter release. But that is exactly what the atheist is trying to disprove. But my own experience as a human tells me that there is a real "I" who experiences these brain events, but who is distinct from the electrical events in the brain. The atheist tells me that this subjective experience of personhood is merely an illusion.

    An illusion to whom, I wonder?

  3. Apologies for more grammatical errors and typos in my posting than usual--my excuse is that it's late and that I probably don't have much business being up this late in the first place. Hence I must retire soon and so shall leave my errors for posterity...

  4. Ugh, I made a "there/their" error. Doubtless so that I would learn humility...

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post, Jack. A lot of what you've written here is very reminiscent of Aquinas' perspective.

    Since you put forward a logical argument, I would like to examine that for a moment. The syllogism you wrote out is valid, I think. That said, I think that I need to provide a more accurate description of how quantum mechanics violates the laws of classical logic.

    Let's take the Law of Identity, for example. Under the Law of Identity, thing A is identical with thing A. Thing A cannot be identical with thing B. In quantum mechanics, if we take the example of a boson (in contrast to fermions like the electron, two identical bosons can occupy the same quantum space) then we have the logical statements "boson A is identical to boson A" and "boson B is identical to boson A" which as far as we can tell is confirmed to be true based on empirical evidence, and it's a violation of the Law of Identity. Not to mention the Law of Non-contradiction (boson A is UP AND boson A is DOWN are both true statements). And for the Law of Excluded Middle, it's also a problem (electron E is in a state that is both/neither UP and/or DOWN before the waveform collapses).

    This has nothing to do with causal inferences, and I agree with you that a lack of causal explanation is not the issue here.