Dishonest Apologetics Pt. 2: Upsetting Milkjugs

Religion offers simplistic answers for everything, which is why it is so easy for people to succumb to it, and let go of reason. It is a placeholder for actual knowledge, because it explains everything without the need for any real understanding. The champion of this simplistic view of reality is C.S. Lewis. I've seen this claim by Lewis posted as a meme by Christians, and when you are done removing your palm from your skull you need to find a way to describe it, because it is so radically dumb that it leaves you speechless at first.

Here is the C.S. Lewis quote that has been doing the rounds in theist circles, probably for the better part of the last century:
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
Let's follow a simple analysis in Lewis' thought experiment:
 Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. 
Lewis enters with a dishonest suggestions that a mind needs to be designed. At this point the theists are already giddy because they know this will be another trophy on their confirmation bias shelf.

 It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought.

Atoms? There is something basically wrong with referring to the brain as a bunch of atoms. We don't talk about computers as a bunch of atoms, yet brains are infinitely more complex. This is the worst kind of argument from absurdity. Knowing some basic high school neurobiology, I cringe every time I read this statement. Brains are made of neurons, which themselves have complex modes of operation. A neuron can communicate with many other neurons. Neurons interact in a massively parallel network of super sophisticated networks that take multiple external and internal inputs. The statement above is no less than a lie of omission. I am fairly sure that Lewis was too lazy to learn the neurobiology of his day, and completely ignorant of the massive strides we have made in neurobiology today. 

Here is a hypothetical C.S. Lewis like character describing some other things: "The Narnia books are just letters on paper. The Mona Lisa is just paint on a canvas. Curiosity is just a buggy in a sand pit. Star Wars is just a series of still photos shown in quick succession." All of these statements are technically true, but in a very essential way they fail to describe something properly. 

Lewis loves to appeal to simplicity. He has a very simple view of life and how things work that appeals to the everyman. The difference is that he was a simpleton who could write and speak well, which made him the foundational apologist of modern Christianity, despite his overly simplistic view even of the christian faith and his terrible analogies, like the one in this article. 

The Definition Of Atheism Revisited

Over the past two weeks, I have been in the unfortunate position of once again debating the definition of atheism twice. In this blog post, I will be beating a dead horse to death. I will beat it to a bloody indescribable pulp. It is important simply because I want people to understand what I mean when I talk about atheism, and there are many others who share my definition. You can define these terms in any way you like. You can define atheism as the act of jumping on a trampoline for all I care. I just want people to understand what I  mean when I use the terminology.

Definitions offer a special problem to us. We communicate using common definitions of terms so that when we discuss things we know what the other person is saying. Sometimes we incorrectly assume that another person shares the same definition of something, and we have useless lengthy arguments that go nowhere.

When you want to find out what something means, there are several sources you can appeal to in order to make your case for what a word truly means. Some people appeal to a particular scholar, some people appeal to Wikipedia, some people appeal to various dictionaries (they don't all agree), some people try etymology, and yet others try to analyze the word by its components. All these different and incommensurable definitions, and more particularly the people who make use of the terms end up being misrepresented by other people, simply because people often don't try to understand the concepts behind definitions, instead focusing on the definitions themselves. "An atheist is someone who jumps on trampolines. Therefore you must jump on trampolines." - I hope this fallacy is obvious enough to anyone who can see it illustrated here. Definitions are not helpful when they don't convey the intended meaning of the person who is using a term.

I like to use the clearest definition of the term that stays true to the following two definitions:
a - the prefix a means without.
theism - denotes belief in god or gods.

This definition describes only one aspect of someone's position. It only describes belief. It ignores the variation of positions that lead to said belief and also ignores the epistemic position of the belief itself. Therefore anyone who agrees with the following statement can be said to be an atheist by my definition:

"I do not believe that any gods exist."

This term applies to weak atheism, strong atheism, negative atheism, positive atheism, gnostic atheism, agnostic atheism, igtheism, apatheism and agnosticism (in all it's own various definitions). All these terms and their uses may have their own problems, but I am only interested in this one. It may be called doxastic atheism if you like to distinguish it from other uses of the word, because it only pertains to belief and nothing else. If we are discussing reasons for atheism, we may then start to hone in more specific positions. The only requirement to meet this definition is agreement with the statement above. This kind of atheism comprises the views of many modern atheists, regardless of their different confidence levels and reasoning used to arrive at the conclusion that they could agree with the statement above.

The statement above is also devoid of making absolute claims about reality. It does not define what is actually the case. It does not say whether gods exist or not.

But how do I define gods? I would say that gods are causal agents that are required for the existence and fate of reality. This definition is important, because it includes everything from harvest gods, to the Abrahamic god and right down to a deistic god. This definition applies to a collection of gods as well as singular gods. The important thing is that we are somehow dependent on such a god. If we were not dependent on a god or collective of gods for anything, they would have no causal influence on us and therefore could not be called gods. I'm sure this definition is incomplete, or even erroneous, but I hope that it conveys the meaning I intended it to.

The old definitions roughly classed a person as such:
a) asserts that there is no god: atheist
b) asserts that there is a god: theist
c) does not know whether a god exists or not: agnostic

a And b are the same class of statements, but c is different in a very important way. c  is a statement pertaining to epistemology. In order for c to be properly understood the epistemology of the person who holds c must be understood. Maybe this person is agnostic about absolutely everything except the existence of their own mind. Does that mean that they don't believe that their parents exist? Of course not. They just have a rigid definition of knowledge, so their agnosticism is disconnected from their beliefs. They accept that some beliefs fall outside of their epistemology. You can believe something without knowing it. Let me illustrate with a simple example:

Joanne believes that there is a ghost haunting her house.

If knowledge is taken to be justified, true belief maybe Joanne can justify why she thinks there is a ghost, and believe it. If it isn't actually the case however she would not know it by that definition. So a and b are assertions and c  is a statement about knowledge. Not one statement between a, b and c deals with beliefs. So not one describes a person's position only relative to their belief status.

Agnosticism suffers from another serious flaw. It is fairly accurate as a representation of my own definition of atheism but it doesn't acknowledge the fact that many atheists, though not strong atheists, possess knowledge that make the existence of god seem very improbable. This is an important distinction between an agnostic who just finds religious claims as being unbelievable versus a person who has done a fair amount of research into the matter. Therefore the term fails as a single descriptor of someone's position on religious belief.

So by my definition, someone might say that rocks and cats can be atheists, but that is a misunderstanding. Because it is a description of belief, and entities incapable of forming beliefs by considering a topic need not apply.

So why all the fuss about definitions? Why is it that the biggest attackers of the so called "new atheism" are people who object to the use of the term itself by their new imaginary enemy? Could this be a resistance to a different way of doing things? Philosophy of religion has gotten to define these terms, and the field has been dominated by religious thinkers since its inception. It is no wonder that the old definitions are problematic.

Dishonest Apologetics: Part 1. The Set Up

Having had discussions with +Sebastian Nozzi before, I can guarantee anyone taking part that atheists are not in fact welcome in this discussion. The entire post is a set up, intended to fool any atheist into accepting a burden of proof they cannot possibly shoulder. Why?

Most atheists I know are agnostic atheists. They make no claims about the absolute existence or non-existence of gods. Apologists have responded by calling atheists naturalists, defining the term naturalist to their satisfaction and then forcing the burden of proof onto atheists. If you were suckered into this, you now have to be omniscient. You must explain the exact nature of the cosmos, because you must have eliminated every single possibility of any realm beyond the natural. You must reject any agnosticism. 

I don't think Sebastian is being deliberately dishonest, he is just picking up on the intellectually bankrupt tactics of other apologists. 

The naturalist's position is that there is only a natural world, because as far as we can know this is the only world for which there is evidence. Naturalists value evidence. Let's see the description from the website:
"If you don’t believe in anything supernatural – gods, ghosts, immaterial souls and spirits – then you subscribe to naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is. The reason you’re a naturalist is likely that, wanting not to be deceived, you put stock in empirical, evidence-based ways of justifying beliefs about what’s real, as for instance exemplified by science. You probably (and rightly) hold that such beliefs are usually more reliable and more objective than those based in uncorroborated intuition, revelation, religious authority or sacred texts. Kept honest by philosophy and critical thinking, science reveals a single manifold of existence, what we call nature, containing an untold myriad of interconnected phenomena, from quarks to quasars. Nature is simply what we have good reason to believe exists." (My emphasis) [1]
Naturalism is not an absolute metaphysical claim of anti-supernaturalism, even though the positions seem dichotomous. The conclusion has been drawn from an epistemic value for reason, logic and evidence. It is not an a priori assumption or belief.
"Are they free of contradictions? Do you assert them to be true philosophical positions? If so, I would love to hear your justifications..." [2] 
Unlike more subtle apologists, Sebastian tries to explicitly shift the burden of proof here. The first question is probably bait to bring up the EAAN, an argument that rubbishes metaphysical claims. Of course old school epistemic scepticism can also be deployed here. The goal of this kind of apologetic is not to convince anyone, only to distract from the glaring problems of theology, such as the fact that the resurrection remains without evidence. If a naturalist was given ample evidence of the supernatural, that would be a good time to abandon the position, not when someone tries to shift the burden of proof to the naturalist to force them to prove that something invisible does not exist, which is an absurd and impossible demand.

Miracles Require Extraordinary Evidence

In a recent post, the topic of the claim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" came up. Someone shared the following video where William Lane Craig tries to bash the concept.

Here is the original post, along with some other christian blogs that attack the idea.

The following nine points address some of my own observations on the idea and some of others.

1) The bible is not evidence. The bible is a book of claims. +Daniel L correctly states that "There is hearsay evidence written in Greek years after the supposed resurrection based on stories being told and repeated by followers of Jesus."

Although I would go a step further and say that the existence of those witnesses has not even been established.

The lottery numbers are each improbable

In the video above, Craig mentions this. It is true, and if someone told me that my number had won, I would want evidence of that. I would need good confirmation before I quit my job and buy plane tickets to the Maldives. I've supposedly won the UK lottery three times already mind you. Where Craig goes wrong is that even though each number is improbable, the appearance of random numbers on television every week is not.

2) Craig is not addressing Sagan AT ALL in the video. He subtly switches out a term in the statement

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

to make it

"Extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence"

Someone might forgive a lay person for the switch in terms, but Craig is smart and he has an agenda. He promotes a _*claim* that an event occurred_ to an _actual event_ , betraying his presupposition and trying to sneak it into the discussion. I don't think Hume ever uttered that statement. This is what Hume said:
"The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”
Hume's language is quite archaic, but it certainly cannot be accurately condensed into Craig's oversimplification. His whole mention of the principle is a huge straw man misrepresenting Hume and Sagan.

3) If the principle "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is to be rejected, we would be forced for the sake of consistency to believe every miracle claim from history with the same amount of evidence. Muhammad flew into heaven on a winged horse, the Oracle of Delphi was a divine prophet, Achilles was the son of a sea nymph. We would be stuck with a reality full of contradictory supernatural claims with no way to distinguish true ones from false ones.

4) The second person in the video claims that Hume's argument is circular, but fails to represent Hume's position accurately. If experience is a type of evidence, the lack of experience we have of miracles outweighs any experiential evidence of their occurrence being reported second hand. If miracles were commonplace we wouldn't have the problem of accepting that they did in fact happen in history.

5) This particular speaker's second argument is that the universe does not conform to such principles. That is true. I could see something immensely improbable happening, and try to tell everyone about it. They would not believe me, but it is still true. It is not about what is true and what is not true, it is about how we should rationally decide when to believe something. When you apply a rule for belief on one belief, you must apply it equally to all others. If you make exceptions, those exceptions must be consistent with another rational rule. Epistemic principles like the one Sagan expresses don't make absolute claims about reality, they just offer a guideline of when it is rational to believe something.

6) At the end of the video the author of the video cuts when his favoured speaker finishes what he has to say. The rebuttal to that last bit is never heard. We are left to wonder what the other person said, who was putting forward good arguments up to the point where he was cut off. This was either an editing trick, or maybe the original video ends there abruptly. The chances or misrepresentation by omission render that part of the video useless.

7) Carl Sagan manages to distill a powerful tenet of science into a single statement. This is good, but single statements are not meant to defend themselves against one sided videos that last  7 minutes. The statement was also meant as communication to lay persons, not to Craig and other eager apologists who hate reason with such a passion.  don't understand the application of reason without motivated reasoning to a predecided conclusion.

8) Another tactic to attempt to refute extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is the road runner tactic. Apparently the statement represents an extraordinary claim, so where is the extraordinary evidence for it? It is not a claim as such, it is an epistemic guideline. It can be tested by negations. I will present the original statement plus it's negations, consider the outcome of each and consider which one is more extraordinary in itself:
Original: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Negation 1: Extraordinary claims don't require extraordinary evidence.
Negation 2. Ordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

When considering each of these possibilities it is obvious after some reflection that both negations are absurd. If extraordinary claims could be accepted by ordinary evidence not only would science implode, so would the law courts. Bayesian probability would not be useful. The claim that the guideline is in itself an extraordinary claim is absurd and extraordinary, just as its negations are. 

9) The other problem raised by and the other apologetics website mentioned above is that the demarcation between ordinary and extraordinary is arbitrary and subjective. It is certainly subjective, in the sense that things are considered ordinary if they can be said to be commonplace in the experience of the observer, but the demarcation is not. If some experience cannot be said to be common to human experience, it counts as extraordinary. If we were to travel through time to the middle ages for example, people of that time period would demand extraordinary evidence of the flying machines we claim to know for instance. Building a working aeroplane would prove the claim. Once sufficient evidence has been presented, a claim can pass into ordinary experience, at which point the sceptical subject can accept the claim and move on. It is not common for people to wake from being deceased after three days, in fact there are only few claims in history that this ever happened.

10) Many interesting events in history are extraordinary.
This is true. What is also true is that we possess extraordinary evidence of such events. Direct archaeological evidence, along with multiple accounts from neutral sources can establish historic facts. Even so, the way we treat historic facts are somewhat different to the way we treat scientific facts. Historic facts are often less well established than scientific facts. Details are often revised as evidence emerges. Some claims, like the existence of King Arthur or Ragnar Lodbrok are treated as unfactual due to the fact that their existence have not been established. Accounts of actual historical events are taken with a pinch of salt, because ancient accounts of events suffer from embellishment by their writers. On an epistemic scale, historical claims generally don't enjoy a confidence level nearly as high as scientific claims do.

In conclusion...

This is just another example of how christian apologists are willing to reject scientific concepts in order to promote their dogma. As I mentioned in point (3), rejecting the concept of extraordinary evidence puts us in a epistemic despair, stuck with an incoherent and irreconcilable reality. Christian apologists think that everything will be okay, because they will just cite the bible as the truth, without realising that their truth claims hold no more water than those of other religious believers. We would be stuck with relativism or ideological wars that can only be won through political force. The solution the apologist presents is to make a special case for their beliefs. Their beliefs are to be believed without the burden of an epistemic system that would exclude all other similar beliefs. Apologists whose work I am familiar with always apply strong scepticism to any claims except their own. This raises a serious red flag. Motivated reasoning perfectly explains this kind of behaviour, in concert with compartmentalisation of critical thinking and blind faith.

Apologists want to raise doubts about whether scientific modes of teasing out reality is valid, because those modes of thought specifically undermine their belief systems. By undermining it they undermine our sensible way of knowing the world. They unknowingly undermine their own position by opening the door for claimants of other belief systems to assert themselves with the same objections and arguments.

** EDIT: I refined this post a little and added another point. There may be more to come in the future! **

** EDIT: Replaced last paragraph because I don't know what I was thinking. Added 10.