An Apologist's Job

So I have speculated that the purpose of apologetics is to ease the cognitive dissonance of believers.

+Melissa Cain Travis is kind enough to confirm that in her blog post What an Apologist’s Job is NOT . When I say things like that, I always wish that I am wrong about it, but I am not it seems, not in this case anyway.

So what isn't an apologist's job?
"You are not a spoon-feeder. I have found that many folks, abrasive atheists/agnostics in particular, aren’t willing to undertake serious research on their own. They’re armed with a hundred pop-atheism talking points that have long been answered, which goes to show they haven’t investigated the opposing viewpoint at all."  (my emphasis)
What does she recommend?
"Pay attention to verbal cues and the attitude of the individual to determine whether or not they are sincerely interested in your answers"
I certainly agree with that.
"give them a sentence or two to chew on and then direct them to a book, article, or lecture by a reputable scholar. If they come back at a later date, having studied the sources, further dialogue is warranted, so long as they maintain a respectful tone. "
I don't usually swear on my blog, so you will have to excuse me this time. Holy shit! If I want to engage with apologists like her I would have to read entire books or watch entire lectures! I suspect though that what is really going on here is a version of the courtiers reply[1]. What's so wrong about teaching people about things? Aren't discussions a way to learn things after all?

When you engage with people online, you are going to get a wide variety of people with a wide range of knowledge. To engage with them you need to realise that they might have some piss poor points. This is usually no fault of their own. 
"If they simply dismiss your words and suggestions with poor logic, make snide comments about the scholars you recommend, or change the subject, cut off the conversation and stop wasting your time."
Poor logic is once again not usually the fault of the person who is trying it. If everyone had to dismiss everyone who used poor logic we would be limited to a small subset of people to talk to. Even experts make amateur mistakes sometimes. Logic is hard!
"Such a person is a distraction from ministry, not a legitimate beneficiary."
Such a shame not to receive the gift of apologetics. 
"Apologetics is about disseminating truth. The apologist is called to demonstrate the quality of the evidence for Christianity and provide substantial answers for objections. "
Scepticism is a search for truth. So should we presuppose a truth and then try to disseminate it or keep looking? You decide.
"As the atheist scholar, Dr. Thomas Nagel has so bluntly put it, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (The Last Word, 1997)"
Not many people like Nagel. At least we can agree on something right! It's odd that many christians espouse exactly the same thing in negated form, and apologetics is the butthurt cream to soothe any doubts:
" Apologetics ministry is not about “winning souls,” as the old-time evangelists would put it. Rather, our work is about removing true intellectual obstacles. For some believers, this removal brings great relief from doubt, for some seekers, it paves the way for a more serious investigation of Christianity. " (my emphasis)
People may wonder why I moan so much about apologetics, and Melissa is kind enough to spread apologetics to children. See her about page:
"She is the author of How Do We Know God is Really There? (Apologia Press, 2013) and How Do We Know God Created Life? (Apologia Press, 2014), the first two books in the Young Defenders series, illustrated storybooks that teach the fundamentals of Christian apologetics to young children (Spanish versions soon available). Her third book, How Do We Know Jesus is Alive? will debut in the spring of 2015."
I always try to read things with a maximum amount of charity, but the idea of presupposing truth and indoctrinating children is sickening. I'm not going to get all worked up about it but that is basically how I feel about it. Children should be free to pursue their own journey to truth and not be lead into accepting the conclusions of their parents. 

I totally think we should be nice to each other and try to be understanding and not reject peoples's sources without justification, but I do think that we need to take pains to teach people who are teachable and not just shove them away with a book title. I think that bringing removal from doubt for believers is doing them a disservice. If theism is so true and people are honestly looking for the truth, then surely there is nothing to panic about. Why is it that religion is taught to children? Why not do philosophy, history and theology lessons in church for adults? I mean I probably know why, not that it matters.


All Hail The Economy

Economics seems to have been something that was born from the idea that the human species should prosper. Somewhere along the way economic growth seemed like the way to achieve that. Much further along and some people seem to have never gotten the initial point at all and the economy is supposed to exist as an end in itself. We must grow the economy with seemingly no purpose. Somehow, growth in the economy must have some necessary connection with prosperity. 

This is where objectivism comes in. Objectivists seem to despise the state as a religious institution while simultaneously exulting and deifying the economy on ethical terms that are completely removed from any real human goals. 

As an example, there is some psychology showing that people who earn more than $70k per annum don't get appreciably more happiness out of the extra money they earn. Yet people who earn below the breadline or are destitute get infinitely more suffering for being under the poverty line. The thinking then goes that we shouldn't deprive those that don't get a whole lot more out of their 70k because they create jobs which grow the economy. So instead of giving hungry people food, cold people shelter and ignorant people education, we should follow this roundabout way that hypothetically enlarges the economy, and by hypothetically enlarging the economy we hypothetically increase the number of jobs, which hypothetically makes people less cold, hungry and ignorant. 

So modern economics is some sort of crazy Rube Goldberg device that is supposed to increase prosperity but doesn't, because the machine has become more important than its output. Right wing objectivists hand us raw eggs and burnt toast and tell us it's breakfast. Yeah technically it is breakfast, and they are willing to settle for that, but why should we? They only do because they are maintaining the machine and using the money from that to get their breakfast elsewhere. And the objectivist attitude is not something that only infects objectivists. It is a common thread among an older generation that saw a strong correlation between economic growth and prosperity. 

The system seemed to work, but in actual fact there was an undercurrent of problems that would manifest later. In the programming world we call this technical debt. You offset costs in the present by cutting corners, building up a technical debt that someone else would have to deal with later. From your brief window everything seems to go extremely well, with everything being delivered on time and at the right cost. Everyone is high-fiving each other and adding "baby" after they say each other's names. Eventually though those bad decisions in the past catch up with the future. So it has been with the economy. By exploiting cheap fossil fuels we got a lot of energy at a good cost. Cheap foreign labour lowered the prices of goods and accelerated the consumer market. 

Sustainability is a buzzword now, but really think about it for a few seconds. Let this sink in: Sustainability is a buzzword because before it was it wasn't even a consideration. No I'm serious though. Stop reading now and allow yourself about half a minute to just let that really settle in your mind. 

So how do objectivists respond to sustainability? Well they just can't. It takes a collective (this little word is important) effort to solve the problems we are faced with. As an example there is something called the tragedy of the commons. If you are unaware of what this is, I'll try and explain briefly. If there is an abundant supply of something it will be overused, because each user is rationally justified in exploiting it to their own maximal benefit. This is a problem that objectivists can't solve, because of their basic denial of society and self-centered approach. Economics, before the sustainability buzz, reflects perfectly the rapacious objectivist attitude, because this naive myopic view that got us in the current shit-creek we're in is probably the same one that causes the objectivist view to form. The only real difference is that it isn't even rational to be an objectivist now, because sustainability and working together is now directly responsible for the flourishing of a current generation objectivist. The concept of mutual exploitation no longer has a place in a viable future economy. 

But sustainability doesn't seem to tell the whole story. Economics should be a measure of the continued welfare of the human species as a whole. Continued because having an ice cream today and no food tomorrow is hardly a rational goal, and the species as a whole because parasitic nations can be very happy while ruining the happiness of those around them. This approach will encourage more positive sum economic exchanges, it will make people feel good about themselves and it will ensure that there will not be debts accrued that future generations need to suffer to pay off. 

An Apologist On Earth Day

I came across this blog post by Greg Koukl, a Christian apologist. I am not a huge fan of low hanging fruit but this one really takes the cake. The post is fairly short. As always, I'd recommend reading it first before you come back here. 
"Has anyone else but me noticed an inherent contradiction in the underlying convictions that drive annual “Earth Day” celebrations? The vast majority of those who attend such fetes are Darwinists who believe humans have a moral obligation to protect the environment. My question is: Why?"
No. Nobody else has noticed, because there is no contradiction. This is really simple, but I will try and explain it with an analogy. You and I are room mates and we live together in an apartment. The apartment is our environment. Koukl is the kind of room mate that asks "Why flush the toilet? Why clean the floors after you spilled?". In an apartment, it is simply common courtesy, but unlike an apartment, we don't have a backup earth.

So it becomes a moral obligation to protect the environment that we share. If Koukl had thought more than five minutes about this, he would have probably realised his mistake, because besides being a moral obligation, protecting the environment has direct consequences for him and his family. This should be so blatantly obvious to anyone who puts even a modicum of thought into the topic, but not for Koukl.
"Species have passed into extinction at a steady rate from the beginning of time, the strong supplanting the weak. Why shouldn’t they? Each is in a struggle-to-the-death for survival. It is a dance of destruction that fuels the evolutionary process as every creature exploits every other creature for its own benefit. Survival of the fittest - that’s evolution."
If we were small fish that had an abundance of food in our little pond, and we bred like crazy due to the wealth of food, that would increase our numbers rapidly. Good. If our waste gathered at the bottom of the pond and some sort of chemical byproduct saturated the water and killed all of us that would be bad. If we had the foresight that this would happen, and protected our environment (the pond) by not laying too many eggs, we would be directly responsible for our continued survival. 

Humans can take a surprisingly big picture long view of the environment. We can realise the complex causal chains in the environment that can hinder our success as a species, so we don't just live like so many organisms who lack the capacity of foresight and ability to maintain their environments. 
"The logic of naturalism and the rules of evolution dictate human beings rape our environment, just as everything else does, not protect it."
Having just demonstrated the logic of naturalism with regards to protecting the environment I hardly see Koukl as mounting anything more than a holler into his own echo chamber. Congratulations Mr. Koukl for writing meaningless tripe when you really should know better. It is blatantly obvious that you didn't bother to ask anyone, and just assumed your conclusion, constructed a strawman and preached to the choir. Thankfully your tactics of trying to scare away people from atheism will not work forever, because you no longer own the singular channel into peoples' minds through a pulpit. 

A final thing I think bares mentioning is that besides the fact that it makes logical sense to protect the environment, there is a totally different dimension to it. The natural world, and especially the living world, is a thing of immense beauty. By destroying it, we deprive ourselves of the joy that the beauty of nature can give us. I really hope that people will see beyond $2 apologetics, and that we can all stand together to protect the environment we find ourselves in. In the broader view of it, we all share the apartment, and our "world views" have got diddly squat to do with picking our socks up off the floor and not showering so long as to leave everyone else without hot water.

Pt 5. When To End Discussions: Final Thoughts & Closing

In my final post about ending discussions, I want to just add some odds and ends that I couldn't justify entire posts for (not to say I won't change that in the future maybe). They aren't strictly reasons to end discussions either.

More reasons to end discussions:

1. You are out of your depth
Sometimes we talk about things we know little about. It's a normal human response to think about stuff even if we have incomplete information. If we don't understand something well it may be a good reason to stop talking about it. When you encounter your own ignorance on a subject it might be time to step out of a discussion and go and do more reading and learning on it.

2. You are sick of it.
This is really a valid reason to end a discussion. You might just not be that interested in the topic or interested in the debate surrounding it. That's okay. Some people say this when they have being shown that they are wrong, saying they don't care as an exit strategy, but asking yourself from time to time whether the time you are investing in a topic really reflects the amount of interest you have in it can help you to end discussions on topics that interest you less so you can focus more on things you like.

3. You don't really have the time
The worst interactions are rushed ones. It may be better to end a discussion than to fire off a rushed response. I've made some really poor responses before because I didn't take enough time to read and respond. I often notice this when I reread interactions and see how I misunderstood someone.

Some general observations

Don't feel obligated to carry on a discussion for any reason. We don't owe others our time, and if they don't deserve it we should withhold that time for others who may be more deserving, and even for ourselves, because our time is precious to us.

I am not an authority on this topic. I am sure there are people who are, and maybe I am all wrong about this stuff. The important thing I want to communicate is that there are valid reasons to end discussions and that we shouldn't be afraid to end discussions. What I mean is, don't just take my word for it!

Don't try and get the last word. I probably have more to say about this, but don't decide to end a discussion and then try and get the last word, especially not with someone who is behaving badly. They will just respond, and it will start a cycle where you effectively carry on with a discussion you wanted to end before.

Don't tell someone you are ending a discussion, give a good reason and then just carry on. If you do this you are showing that you have no resolve. There may be exceptions of course, for example if someone is behaving badly and you end the discussion and they ask you to continue with a promise of better behaviour. In general however, do what you said you were going to do.

Unless someone is harassing you or insisting on carrying on when you have asked them to stop, blocking someone is not a good way to end a discussion. People interpret blocking in so many ways and often their interpretation seeks to serve themselves.

Try to end discussions on good terms. Door slamming might give a quick feeling of relief but some people, especially trolls, get a lot of joy out of your emotional exit. You can leave a discussion on good terms even if the other person is hostile, as long as you don't fight fire with fire and clearly and calmly tell them why you are ending your discussion with them.

Experiment and figure out when you feel it would be best to end discussions. Find ways that fit your personal style of interaction and decide how much of each transgression to rational discussion you want to take before ending it. I lean toward a no nonsense approach, but it might seem unreasonable to some people.

So there you have it. I've exhausted the topic of when to end discussions. Just kidding. I hope my series on ending discussions have offered at least one thing, and that is the idea of ending discussions. We should maximise the effectiveness of our interactions with people, not only in order to get our ideas communicated but to learn and understand others better. Wasting our time on the kinds of interactions that have a low probability of having any good outcome in the long term undermines the entire project of interacting with people to exchange ideas and learn. People who display the poor behaviours I mentioned in some of the previous posts sometimes use these mechanisms to compensate for their lack of expertise in the subjects they discuss. Anger, disrespect, prejudice and closed mindedness are all ways to ignore opposing ideas.

I hope this series has helped you to think about times and ways to end discussions and to improve your interactions with others. I hope you can be happier by focusing on better interactions, as I am. And remember to have fun!

Pt4. When To End Discussions: Unproductive

Someone might point out that this entire series is about unproductive discussions, that the reason to end a discussion because of aggressive behaviour or prejudice is just ending and unproductive exchange, and that is true. Supposing though that you have gotten into a discussion where the participants are respectful and everything goes well, but the discussion starts to feel like a marathon after a while. If it is someone you know in person you keep bringing it up and if it is written or online you keep coming back for more comments and it spans multiple days, even weeks. We've all seen these types of discussions happening usually between two people with other people falling in but losing interest after a while. 

+Pristine S. aptly describes these kinds of discussions as wars of attrition. It seems like nobody is getting anywhere. It seems like ending the discussion will leave the topic unresolved but carrying on will get you nowhere. Well... I have come to free you from your suffering. You may end this discussion. It doesn't mean you are conceding anything. It doesn't mean that the issue will never be resolved. How do you know when to stop though? 

There are signs of discussions that are stuck. If you keep explaining something to someone but they just can't understand it, or if they keep explaining something to you and you can't quite get it, that is a sign that you should stop. If the other person seems like they are with you and then circle straight back to something they said earlier, or they keep getting back to the initial point it might be a time to stop. If you fail to explain something to someone twice it is quite safe to assume that the third attempt probably won't do the trick. There are ways to get a discussion unstuck, and I don't advocate for jumping ship at every possible opportunity. If you and the other person feel that there is a lot to be gained by carrying on then there is reason to salvage it. If that fails then ending it can be a good idea. 

Ending a discussion is not about ending the interaction with a person. It is about improving communication by not ruining it. If you don't end discussions like these you may find yourself getting frustrated and becoming mean. If you've ever had to teach somebody something you know well and they were new at, you know the feeling. The best way to end these kinds of discussions is to make the problem clear. Personally I tell the other person that progress is too slow and it might make sense to stop. Give them an opportunity to give you a resource, like a book,video, article or wikipedia page and in turn they can do the same. Be honest about your time, so if you ask for something like that honestly go and consume the resource they provide. If you don't have time or enough interest to put into their resource then let them know. Maybe there is a more convenient resource they can offer. In turn give a resource to them. 

Besides pointing to outside resources participants need time to think. Some ideas are genuinely hard to understand and need time to sink in. Expecting someone to immediately grasp your point of view in a single discussion is unrealistic. You are not the only person who reflects on things people say, and people will generally think about what happened in a discussion. If you met them somewhere random it may be a good idea to establish a method of contact and to make yourself available for questions and ask the same of them. Additionally, when we spend a lot of time in a discussion, we often think of ways to respond instead of trying to understand the concepts offered by the other person. Some ideas are like pudding, they need to set in the fridge overnight. Some ideas are like seedlings that need to grow over a period of time. We need to be accepting of how slow the transfer of an idea can be, and not rush our discussions as if they are the sum total of discourse.

Why Be Faithful As An Atheist?

So I was reading +Melissa Cain Travis's blog where she asks:

"Why Should the Atheist be Faithful in Marriage?"

I really wish she would have asked an actual atheist, but let's pretend she did. Let's also pretend that referring to the Atheist isn't weird either.
But what about in the atheistic worldview? If the atheist determines that he or she can be unfaithful while away on a business trip without their spouse ever finding out (and thus being hurt), on what grounds can they claim their adultery would actually be wrong? Most often, I’ve heard “wrong” defined by unbelievers as being something that causes someone else emotional or physical pain. So, what is there to stop them from satisfying physical urges unbeknownst to anyone that would be upset by the action? If they insist on calling adultery “bad,” how are they grounding that badness? Where’s the measuring rod?

It should be pointed out again, as if it hasn't been pointed out a gazillion times, that there is no singular atheistic worldview. Atheism is a conclusion, not a worldview. We don't sit down and reason from god not existing as some sort of first principle. If apologists could get rid of this absurd notion maybe they will stop asking such ridiculous questions. So my answer counts for me and only me, and has bugger all to do with my atheism, because I was motivated by the same reason when I was a christian.

With that aside, why is it that I remain faithful. There are some very simple reasons why, so let me explain. I don't think I can cheat. Not easily anyway. That's because as I am doing it I will imagine what my wife would feel like if she knew. It doesn't matter if it was impossible for her to ever find out. Inside me I have a concept of what things make her feel like. It's called theory of mind. She occupies a space in my mind that I use when I think of her, and how she would like a joke or a gift, or how she feels about some current events issue. In a way a conceptual version of her lives inside my head, and just as I can't physically beat her or cheat on her, I can't stand the thought of doing it. When I dream of doing anything bad like that, I wake up feeling awful. Cheating wouldn't be fun, because I would be feeling her pain when I do it, regardless of whether she could really find out or not. 

Now I don't know what people who cheat think, but I think they silence the thoughts of that other person in their mind, or they tell themselves the other person is also doing it, or that the other person would not be hurt. I just don't know. The reason I don't cheat is the same reason I don't make jokes about a friend's appearance when they are not around. Quite simply it is because I have empathy, and I find it insulting that anyone would think that atheists are without empathy. 

Regardless of all the poor attempts at philosophy in her post, Melissa doesn't seem to be able to explain a basic constituent of human emotion (empathy) and therefore supposes that it must be from yahweh. It's odd that yahweh felt no empathy for Abraham when he commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, because there is no doubt that even though Abraham did not feel the pain of committing such a terrible act, he still imagined the horror that was about to happen at his hand. I can't imagine any kind of moral grounding emanating from such a monstrosity. 

AS for her Dawkins quote, well... I don't give a shit what Dawkins has to say about relationships because I am not married to him. 

Apologetics And Overconfidence

In a recent interaction I had with an apologist, Nathan Baronthini, I pointed out the overconfidence that he exudes with his arguments, and that his source (William Lane Craig) does not even reflect such confidence. You can check my last two posts to understand the interaction better. There was a specific sticking point for me, reflected by the following quote:
"Therefore, we see that the Kalam argument passes all three "tests," survives all objections, and definitively demonstrates the truth of its conclusion. In other words, Kalam has proven that God must necessarily exist. "
Anyone with even a basic reading of epistemology will wince at this statement, as did I when I responded to it.
"I would like to object in the strongest terms to such declarations. Even William Lane Craig would not make such a bold assertion about the Kalaam, because in philosophy it is almost certain that there will always be objections and unknowns. People like Craig believe that the assumptions (I did say that) of the Kalaam are reasonable ones that we should accept, but that we cannot conclude absolute truths from his arguments. Craig would certainly not present any other argument if his argument was a sure thing."
Nathan saw this as an ad hominem. The reason I had to address his certainty was that if anyone came from his post with his views as accepted, I think it is important to point out the hubris of such a statement. I responded to the idea that it was an ad hominem, but that is not the important part of my response:
"There is no epistemic system which can provide certainty as far as we know. Nathan is simply unaware of the fallibility of human logic and reason. Knowledge as understood by the Greeks as certain truths is an outmoded and ancient concept which every reader of Hume will recognize."
His reply to this was telling:
"Your argument that no epistemic system can provide certainty itself claims certainty, and is self-referentially incoherent."
Nathan literally ignored the second half of my sentence that stated "as far as we know". There is a clear indication that Nathan does not understand epistemology, but his unawareness of his ignorance makes his comment seem even more foolish than his initial assertion that an argument can establish the necessary existence of anything. Knowledge of argumentative fallacies are useful, but blind us when we are ignorant and actively in denial of our ignorance. 

They feed into the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I think is something that Nathan should keep in mind when issuing his confident pronouncements on the universe. The assertion that he makes is so strong that it is hard to understand the ego behind it. Nathan literally thinks he knows the ultimate source of the universe as an indisputable fact, even in the face of the massive uncertainties of cosmology. If Nathan had known any philosophy of science he would have blushed at his poor assessment of what science can tell us. Science by design cannot give us proof of anything. That is why when theologians use science to attempt to demonstrate the existence of god it is a fool's errand. Some theologians recognize this, like William Lane Craig:

Besides the obvious conclusions, why would someone say something like this if they have proven that god exists necessarily? Quite honestly it is how someone talks if they want to make sure they cover their bases. So if cosmology turns out not to support Craig's argument, he is still okay, because he has covered that already. 

Doubt is a built in aspect of science, and indeed one of the most important personal characteristics of someone that cares about truth and one of the most important factors to build into any epistemology, not to mention that the problems of epistemology have made certainty impossible as far as we can tell.

That concludes my interaction with Nathan. It's difficult to drag someone toward more reasonable views of knowledge if they are committed to certainty. The reason for that is that the loss of certainty can be alarming for people who feel a strong need for closure. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for the human mind, which is really unfortunate since we are yet to find certainty anywhere. That does not mean that there aren't people like Nathan that are eager to sell it to us, and their eagerness reflects their happiness at having attaining certainty. The most certain thing I find about certainty is that it is a guaranteed path to foolishness.

What Nathan has done, and what apologists do so often, is excused himself from rational discourse by refusing to accept the entire basis of rational discourse itself. If we don't accept that we can be wrong about something then there is hardly a reason to go out and have a discussion about it. Although I think it goes deeper with people like him. It is not about discourse at all, it is about creating a comfortable echo chamber where people pat each other's backs while ignoring or poorly addressing any outside concerns. These kinds of attitudes are not exclusive to apologetics, but it is extremely common there. If you find yourself agreeing with your peers all the time you should pause and think about that, because something must be wrong. Our in-groups will only be intellectually rigorous if we turn the sceptical gun back on ourselves. It is vital for our own intellectual health that we embrace doubt and uncertainty and actively seek out disagreement.