Why I am Not A Street Epistemologist


In a previous post, I defended street epistemology against the onslaught of apologists, who want to badmouth the method as a persuasive device to win converts to atheism. I loved the book and many of its principles remain a part of my discussions with believers. There were some problems with the approach however. I noticed this when I tried to apply it.

My first pang of doubt hit me when I realised that there wasn't any good way to measure your outcomes. If people dig their heels in it means it works. If you come back to that person three weeks later and you see that they have reverted to their original beliefs, does that mean it worked or that it didn't? Here is a quote from the book.
If you’re worried that your intervention has made someone’s epistemic life more disconnected from reality because they seem more resolute after treatment—don’t be. Their verbal behavior is a natural and expected consequence of Street Epistemology. What appears to be doxastic closure is really doxastic openness. (p 55)
I would much rather elicit a positive or neutral response at the end of a discussion, so that is what I continued to seek, instead of pushing people until they lose their temper. Maybe the SE approach works, and if that is the case that's okay, but I think there should be better ways, where the goal is to make the discourse a two-way respectful exchange, instead of a list of questions, which is how SE ends up being applied.

Another thing that didn't sit well with me is that some questions are actually masked accusations. Here is an example from Boghossian's book:
PB : Do you think selection bias has anything to do with that? (p. 58)
Another example from someone who uses the method:
Can you think of any natural explanation for that?
Both of the statements above insert a hypothesis, that what the person claims is false. It matters because the person is already getting on the defence, because they are upset about the insinuation. One of the principles of SE, meeting someone where they are, should require you to take a step back and remember the limited tools for reasoning that person possesses. It always works best if you can show people that the things they believe don't work under the assumptions they hold, rather than asking them questions that presuppose your worldview. In the latter question, a presupposition of naturalism may not be effective for someone who believes in the supernatural, and adding natural is totally unnecessary and betrays a bias from the questioner.

Something else I don't agree with is the idea of an intervention. Maybe we are wrong to not have faith. Maybe we should be open to the idea of faith. In that vein I think we should view the person we are having our discussion with as an equal in the exchange. This equality between yourself and the other person is not only important because they can be someone close to you, but because I am sure you wouldn't feel good about the idea that someone needs to do an intervention and fix you. If apologists take this position of inequality between participants it pisses me off, so I cannot take part in an interventionist/patient relationship with the people I discuss religion with. It is a matter of respect.

I'm sure that Boghossian understands this kind of view, and I don't think he would object to people making use of other methods or mixing his methods up a little to create something new. Street Epistemology radically changed the way I thought of exchanges and how I treated people in the discussions I had with them. My goal has become to have discussions with people and to show them how I reason. They can observe my process and think about it. I don't assert my process as the only or the correct process, but I give reasons for why I think it is the best reasoning process.

I will hopefully in time be able to elaborate on my thoughts about discourse in my discourse series a bit more. My methods are not just methods I use to change peoples' minds. My methods are how I discuss things with people about anything. My methods are about enabling myself to change my mind too when someone comes along with a truth, not only about how to convince others.


Discourse: You're Being Dishonest!



If you are ever in a discussion with someone and they insinuate or state that you are intentionally being dishonest, it may be the right thing to end the discussion at that point. Integrity is something you should always take very seriously and challenges to it just as much. The problem with someone accusing you of dishonesty is that they have set up the following scenario in their minds:

If you are X

1. X agrees with me. I am correct.
2. X disagrees with me. X is being dishonest. I am correct.

It's important to realise that in both scenarios above according to that person they cannot be wrong. They have failed to preset a failure condition for their position. It doesn't matter what you say, either way they escape into the conclusion that they are correct. For that reason it is not a matter of principle to end a discussion with someone in this mode of operation, it is a practical necessity.

It may be possible to call this behaviour out, and maybe that is something I will try when this happens to me again. If however the person refuses to budge, the circular process above will ensure failure on your part. Engaging in a discussion that is bound to fail and be unproductive is looking for a fight.  

It is still healthy to sit down and ask yourself whether what you said was consistent and correct because if it is the case that you are mistaken, it can appear to someone else as though you are lying. On the other hand if they mistaken it can also appear to them that you are lying, because people often misunderstand the amount of agreement between them and others. Other variations can include:

- Surely X cannot believe something that absurd.
- X is just a victim of indoctrination
- X is just repeating what they have learned
- X does not understand the concepts they are referring to.

Of course, each of those statements could be true but the whole point of a discussion is to flesh out reasons for disagreement and work through them, not throw out accusations or even keep a barrier of accusation in your mind that prevents anything someone else says from penetrating. That is referred to as being closed minded. 

At this point you have probably realised that what I am referring to is ad hominem. I guess that is true, but I hope that this gives a slightly more than superficial account of why ad hominem is bad. It is not simply the fact that it is logically invalid to draw an inference from the accusations above, but that it creates a scenario in the mind of the person using this kind of reasoning that insulates them from changing their own minds. 

As a final note, I wish I could say that theists were more guilty of this kind of thing, but I find it in atheist circles all too often, and very often levelled at apologists. Obviously they are intentionally lying to sell books according to some atheists, which means that these atheists are not seriously evaluating the arguments from these apologists. 

If you didnt get the reference from the title image, here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCLizTg9nWo

Is Nature a Machine?


Since the scientific revolution, one metaphor above all — the root metaphor — has dictated the nature and progress of science. This is the metaphor of the world as a machine, the mechanical metaphor. What questions are ruled out by this metaphor? One is about ultimate origins. Of course you can ask about the origins of the metal and plastics in your automobile, but ultimately the questions must end and you must take the materials as given. So with the world. I think the machine metaphor rules out an answer to what Martin Heidegger called the “fundamental question of metaphysics”: Why is there something rather than nothing? Unlike Wittgenstein, I think it is a genuine question, but not one answerable by modern science. [1]

You would be mistaken if you thought that the quote above is from an apologist. It could very well be employed by one, and Ruse, the author of it, is a favourite mine for quotes used by William Lane Craig.

Far from being a simple statement, the idea that we see reality as a metaphor isn't strange at all, and I think we need to consider why that is before we go any further. When people first encountered the platypus, they were dumbfounded. In fact many people thought it was a hoax animal. It's difficult to describe the platypus as being like other animals, because it is a sort of a mish mash of other animals. It is like a water-mole-duck-fish-mammal-reptile or something. The reason the platypus challenged us is because we didn't have similar creatures to understand it from. It is a mystery. It threw our taxonomy out of kilter. When we encounter new things we classify them according to their similarities to other things. The word hippo means river horse for example.

Reality itself is something rather hard to fathom. The universe (encompassing all existence) is bizarre. When we investigate it we look for similarities to other things. For most of human history the metaphor we used to identify reality was that it was the arbitrary result of the actions of superhumans. Divine beings that made everything according to their desires. The metaphor demystified nature in the sense that we felt we understood what was going on. All we needed to do to get circumstance to favour us was to understand the desires of these beings and align ourselves with it. Theology was born.

After attempting this method for most of recorded history and failing, we were ready to try something new. The arguments are pretty simple: there are things with wills and things without wills. An animal has a will, and consequently making the animal do things involves bending its will. However things like rocks do not have will, because they are subject to our will. If you wanted to throw a rock at a lake or a newborn, the rock would not discriminate. The rock has a mechanism that we operate and by which it has no choice but to obey. [2]

So everything was dandy. Animals had intentions like gods and rocks were subjected to those intentions by force. If you fail to throw a rock it is not because the rock is denying you, but because it may be too heavy to lift. In other words it possess a property that prohibits your action, it is not deciding its own actions. This new and immensely successful metaphor brought great riches, and something rather surprising too. People asked the peculiar question of whether humans too were mechanistic, but that maybe it only seemed as though we were not.

There is still debate on whether we are mechanistic, but if we are then the person metaphor we applied to reality before we applied the machine metaphor becomes totally invalid, because the kind of agency we imagined has no example in our reality, and presumably the intentions of any gods would just be driven by underlying knowable regularities in nature. In other words, if there were gods, they too would be subject to the operations of nature.

If libertarian free will is defeated, it would then mean that all our concepts of free will were actually fictitious, so stating that there are entities that escape the mechanistic imperative would be completely unfounded in what we know about reality. Consequently gods that rely on being above nature somehow would be defeated, and any gods existing in nature would not be able to exhibit libertarian free will. All theology collapses in a puff of logic.

I believe that everyone turns out to be a naturalist, but that is another argument for another post. The point is that the answer for "why is there something rather than nothing" in this view turns out to be an invalid question. You could raise a similar question if a god existed: why is there a god instead of no god? If theologians would say that this is an invalid question then the fact that we can keep asking questions doesn't mean a damn thing. We can ask how a rain drop is feeling, but that doesn't mean that it is a valid or interesting question at all. It seems that if there is no god then all these why questions will turn out to be a colossal waste of time. That's what my money's on anyway.


PS: Sorry for the reducing volume of blog posts, I have hurt my arm by overusing the computer (RSI), so until that is sorted I am trying to go slower and being forced to by discomfort.


[2] Unfortunately, some arsehole called these kinds of things laws. The brute fact is that nature has no laws, because we know law as something we impose on others. Implying that there is some abstract entity such as nature that creates laws that rocks follow is still a messy teleological view of the universe. This misunderstanding of what a law of nature is has been the lifeblood of many shitty apologetic arguments in the vein of "If nature has laws, there must be a law giver".


[1] http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/does-evolution-explain-religious-beliefs/?_r=0

McGrew & Gilson Miss The Point Of Street Epistemology

For context, I am responding to the following video:



The reason why The Devil's Dictionary entry for faith is so humorous is that it is so accurate. In fact all the humour in that book is based on the principle of saying what things actually are instead of what we believe they are. Here is the full definition of faith from The Devil's Dictionary:

Faith
n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. - The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

The fact about faith is that regardless of how it is defined, it is used to bridge justification gaps in someone's theory of knowledge. So whenever someone is liberal in a belief where they would usually apply more scepticism to similar beliefs faith has been employed. Whenever we want to engage in some serious confirmation bias, we humans apply a little bit of faith (or in the case of religion, boatloads) to ensure that our usual standards of knowledge don't stand in the way of beliefs that serve our own selfish or egotistical desires.

That is why someone who laughs at a Muslim kneeling at midday prayer has no more justification for how they kneel at the edge of their beds before going to sleep is applying faith, the primary ingredient in the bubblegum and sticky tape epistemology of apologists and sidewalk believers alike.

The purpose of street epistemology is not to instil atheism, but rather to move people into a contemplative stage where they seek to build a reliable epistemic system, based on the realisation that theirs is poorly developed. Apologists also use socratic dialogue, but in the moment of cognitive dissonance, sell a quick solution (or answers) in order to relieve the person's discomfort. The purpose of SE is to leave someone to deal with that discomfort in any way they wish. If they run to apologetics websites and books that is their choice, if they immediately renounce faith: their choice. If they engage with philosophy, knowledge and metacognition that is the ideal, but in no way is the purpose to coerce someone to change their mind.

If Christianity is true then there should be nothing to fear, and no need to attack Boghossian with such fervour. The purpose of SE is to get people to ask questions, not to furnish them with a new worldview complete with an answer starter pack. The co-evolving tradition of scepticism with modern atheism is antithetical to telling people what to believe and why, and emphasises how to think about the world in a manner that is more likely to produce reliable results.

The series seems like an attempt to save face thus far. It seems clear that according to Gilson and McGrew that Christians should be introduced to apologetics in the form of a lesson on what they should say, rather than an honest question of whether all the stuff they believe is actually true. When people peel back the layers themselves they just see the poor answers of apologetics to serious challenges to faith, and these answers are worthless if there isn't some apologetics salesmen coming around first to convince the hapless christian (Gilson and McGrew's disrespectful term for their own fellow believers) of how good their underwater hair driers actually are. Once the product has been sold to the believer, they will just fire off these answers to challenges instead of thinking through them, because thinking is the greatest enemy of faith.

Malheureux année: Je Suis Charlie*

*If the french in my title is poor, please let me know how to fix it.


We have barely stepped into 2015 and Muslim extremists have already tainted it with blood. But there is a lot more going on than just that.

One of the greatest things that western societies hold dear is freedom of expression. The war for that freedom was fought over hundreds of years and involved torture and burning at the stake of people whose voices we may never hear because they were erased for supposedly being toxic. Thanks to Cosmos we know the story of one of them: Giordano Bruno. One of the greatest sins of our liberal society is the burning of books or the stifling of speech. In fact as much as I think that the Quran and Bible are deplorable books and despite owning 3 Bibles I don't think I could ever bring myself to burning any book.

Yes, it's true that a dozen people died, but a spear has been struck into the heart of what makes our societies tick: the idea that you should be able to express yourself without fear.I am afraid of Islam, and I think that many people share this feeling. That is the purpose of terrorism. To control by terror. If we take things into perspective however we might be surprised, because after all the population of France is about 66 million. If 1% of France drew a picture of Mohammed and published it online that would be about 660 000 people. It would take more than an AK-47 and RPG to murder that number of people.

What this shows is that these attacks, while scary shouldn't discourage those that want to express themselves, because the more they murder us, the more brave artists will come forward and blaspheme to show their disrespect for an idea that makes no sense whatsoever.

Freedom of expression is not an option in a happy, healthy society; it is a cornerstone of it. Attacks like these are a clear message that we should suspend our freedom out of fear, but the truth is that we should do the opposite. We should confront our attackers by behaving like any rebel would when being told what not to do. We should lash out by doing the thing they hate more, because they can't kill us all!

Can an eternal god have a nature?


When I refer to the nature of a thing, what do I mean? I basically mean to refer to its inherent features. The reason why some wild animals can be docile pets one minute and fiercely tear their human companions to pieces the next is because of their nature. The animal has inherent behaviours of self preservation that when triggered are life threatening to us. 

 The nature of anything is contingent on the environment it finds itself in and its constituent parts. Some animals are aggressive because it aided their survival in their evolutionary path. Some are friendly for the same reason. When you imagine something in a total vacuum with no limitations then it becomes impossible to define its nature because there is no reason or cause for such a thing to possess a nature in the first place. 

So what do we mean when we say that a god has a nature? A god does not have any preceding cause and has no environmental constraints. Some apologists claim that it is in god's nature to be morally good, but how could this be? How can the constraint of goodness be imposed by an environment external to god if a god is supposedly eternally existent and not at all contingent? The way I see it god cannot have a nature because it is not constrained by its environment. Furthermore, god could not determine its own nature because the whole concept relies on inherent and unchanging properties. 

This question is raised directly by two different apologetics. Namely the apologetic position that it is in god's nature to be good, and another that it is in god's nature to behave according to the laws of logic. Both of these apologetics seem to suggest something that god should be contingent on but at the same time these apologists claim that god is not a contingent being nor is there any cause for its nature. 

I wonder if someone can resolve this apparent contradiction or whether these apologists have it wrong. If it is the case that an apologist would agree that god could not have a nature god becomes totally arbitrary, not conforming to logic and not possessing of behavioural traits like we do. If the position is held that god has a nature then it seems to me that the simplest explanation of what god is dependent on for its nature is man's conception of god. An imaginary being of course is always dependent on how the imaginer imagines it. 

If someone persists by saying that god can both have a nature and be a necessary being I would love to know how these two contradictory positions can be reconciled logically. My best effort to do this so far has failed me, but I've learned not to underestimate the creativity of the apologist. 






Discourse: Ask Questions, Give Answers



In any debate the best goal you can strive for is for keeping your opponent on the defensive. There are quite a few ways to achieve this. You can attack many angles (Gish Dash Gallop[1]) that makes it hard for them to address all of them, or even address even a few meaningfully. Then when they don't respond to a single point you keep pointing it out. This is a common tactic of William Lane Craig, who likes to use five arguments for the existence god, ranked from strongest to weakest. He knows his opponent will challenge the strong arguments, but then leave the weak arguments unchallenged, or choose the other route and do a superficial refutation that is easily objected to in the next round. If you want to see an example of this strategy, here you go:



Another method of keeping your opponent on the back foot is to keep firing away questions. A sceptic can show that you can doubt just about anything, and when an opponent's position is constantly being defended, it seems weaker to anyone watching. As long as you keep your own positin from being challenged, you should be okay, because it doesn't matter who is right. It will seem like your opponent is suffering through a strong line of questioning, unable to defend their position. You could hold an utterly absurd position. It will seem better as long as you can keep the discussion away from your position and focused on the position of your opponent.

Here is an example of this strategy, executed against an atheist once again:



The goal of proper discourse should be opposite to this kind of tactic. We should be exchanging ideas, not attacking ideas in order to beat an opponent. Everyone in a discussion is a partner in trying to find out what the correct position is. A rough outline of the question answer process can be sketched as such.


  1. Find out what the other person thinks or believes.
  2. Carefully try to understand it.
  3. Ask questions where things are vague.
  4. Provide your counterpoints.
  5. Allow them to ask questions too.
  6. Give clear answers to illustrate your position.

In any kind of discussion your primary mode of operation should be to firstly try to understand the position of the other person as accurately and truly to how they hold the concepts in their minds, and secondly to express your position as truly and accurately as possible to them and to try to help them understand what you actually mean. 

Discussions that don't roughly follow this structure look like a series of disjoint position statements, followed by repeated accusations of straw men. Eventually the frustration boils over and the discussion ends in failure. The assumption that what someone wrote will translate perfectly into your own mind as what they actually mean is a damaging one that causes a great number of unproductive discussions. You must look very carefully and see if ambiguity is hiding in the words that the other person wrote, ask them to clarify or explain their understanding of the concepts and continue from there. 

As a rule, the best way to mount an objection to what someone says is to frame it as a question. "Aha I've got you now bitch!" objections can backfire hard, because the person in question may already have an answer ready. Rather try to unpack their position to understand it as best as possible by questioning problems with it rather than outright stating them. This is not a hard and fast rule I follow, but it works good for me in many discussions.

Don't answer questions with questions unless those questions require clarification, and when someone asks a question do answer it, unless they are avoiding an outstanding question you asked. Keep track of your questions mentally. Go back and see if what someone says answers your questions, and point out unanswered questions politely. Some people willingly or unwittingly avoid answering tough questions and just start firing off their own questions. By answering you are allowing them to avoid your question. Mutual respect in discussion dictates that both sides have an equal right to have their questions answered. 

If someone violates these general guidelines and you find your discussion getting unproductive it is sometimes best to let it go. I usually announce my departure from the discussion and why I am leaving it, and then resist strongly the temptation to get the last word, because a then disgruntled person will almost always reply and challenge you, especially if the discussion has turned into a fight for them. You are not a coward because you are leaving the discussion. There is no winning in an honest discussion, so if it ends this way everyone loses. This is not the wild west and you don't have to answer every challenge.

Good hunting friends!

[1] Thanks for the correction +Alain Van Hout , and a link for anyone interested in learning more:
http://ncse.com/rncse/24/6/confronting-creationism