Tuesday, January 03, 2012

On some common fallacious anti-atheism arguments.

I was just googling for an old image about adults with imaginary friends being stupid, and I ran across a derivative image trying to make a counter argument against atheism.

(And I want to clarify first and foremost that adults with imaginary friends aren't necessarily stupid inherently. They could have been tricked, brainwashed, led to believe false things by people they trusted, etc. The stupidity comes in when they refuse to look at the valid evidence and reasoning and rationally accept the overwhelming evidence and sound reasoning to the contrary of what they've been led to believe. Up until that point it's just an honest mistake... ignorance and falling prey to basic human cognitive biases and so forth. What angers me most about many "believers" is that they are in fact smart enough to know better, but choose irrational and dishonest self delusion and lying to others to preserve their beliefs... willful stupidity, and they even go so far as to glorify it... a kind of pervasive anti-intellectualism of the kind we see saturating the conservative and Republican political ideologies today. The celebration of ignorance, simple mindedness, and the vilification of science, education, reason, critical thinking, etc.)

The original image I was looking for was the following;

Adults with imaginary friends are stupid - thanks for not littering your mind

The argument, and another I found on the same page as one of the copies, were so riddled with fallacious reasoning that I felt compelled to address them here. I'll try to keep it brief. [ In retrospect on final editing, I failed as usual. ;) ]

Here are the two images I ran across that just made me roll my eyes and sigh in exasperation;

Fallacious counter argument against atheism

(Humorously this also serves as a strike against a number of atheists as I saw this on a lot of atheists sites, posted by atheists who clearly didn't read what it said and only looked at the top portion. They don't get a free pass just because they're "on our side". We should all be held to the same standard.)

Another fallacious counter argument against atheism

We'll address the longer one first because it's the first one I ran across, is directly in rebuttal to the original I was looking for, and is longer and bit more nuanced than the laughably stupid second one.

In case you can't read the text on the image, it goes as follows;

The ironic and self-defeating orderly appeal to reason for the existence of a reasonless universe without order, whose purpose is to evidence that there is no purpose, and whose morality is to argue that we should teach that there are no morals except that which they have reasoned for their purpose, which, in turn, produces the ultimate emotional articulation of self-centeredness which is fearfully bent toward the cover up and suppression of belief in an ultimate personal cause who brings order, purpose, and judgement to all things. Oh yeah ... I'm in.

I'll try to overlook the jabs of the opening and move into the meat of their claims. The first that we're making an "orderly appeal to reason for the existence of a reasonless universe without order". We never made the claim that the universe wasn't ordered. The universe in fact operates on a number of comprehensible laws that we have come to understand through empirical observation, testing, confirmation etc. In fact our argument is merely that this order is not itself evidence for their particular claim of a deity. This is a fallacious claim on their part. This brings us to the second and more subtle fallacy, the equivocation between "reason" as "a basis or cause, as for some belief, action, fact, event, etc.", and "reason" as in "the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences."

It is fundamentally important to understand this kind of fallacious argumentation on the part of the faithful because their excuses are not only riddled with such poor thinking and failures of sound reasoning, but they in fact cannot stand without them. They are inherently unreasonable, irrational, etc. So let's have a look at that particular fallacy a bit more.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equivocation states; "Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal logical fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)." It goes on to say "Equivocation is the use in a syllogism (a logical chain of reasoning) of a term several times, but giving the term a different meaning each time." and the example given under the "Fallacious Reasoning" section brilliantly illustrates exactly what we're seeing in our own case, with the apologist trying to ridicule us as too stupid to see the irony in contrary positions on reason, when in fact these are two entirely different words with fundamentally different meanings that merely sound the same, and which the apologists is trying to pull a fast one with in hopes that we don't notice.

It is simply put no different than the example given;

A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

It's clearly obvious here that in spite of using the word "light" both times, fundamentally different meanings are meant in these two cases, and thus the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise.

Not only is this not self-defeating as they try to claim, but it also has nothing to do with the proposition of whether or not the universe actually does have any purpose. This is an entirely separate question which they do nothing to give any evidence for. Trying to ridicule us does nothing to address that lack of evidence on their part, and there is nothing to imply that the universe does have any "purpose" per se, and certainly not one expressly revolving around ourselves. The insistence on their part of some deeper "reason" or "purpose" always boils down to nothing more than wishful thinking and a basic appeal to emotion. They don't like the idea that there isn't some deeper meaning, so they think that they can invent one without giving any valid evidence to justify the claim. We'll see more on this as we go along.

More of the same with the line "whose purpose is to evidence that there is no purpose". Another equivocation with "purpose", trying to contrast our motivation in making an argument with the fundamental cause and "reason" of the existence of the universe. The two are not related, and again no valid argument or evidence is given for the proposition that there is any purpose, their obvious position.

Next we have "and whose morality is to argue that we should teach that there are no morals except that which they have reasoned for their purpose, which, in turn, produces the ultimate emotional articulation of self-centeredness which is fearfully bent toward the cover up and suppression of belief in an ultimate personal cause who brings order, purpose, and judgement to all things."

This part is a bit long, but we really need to tackle it as a whole. First they try to argue that we're arguing that there are no morals, which is false, but they go on to say "except for that which they have reasoned for their purpose" which itself doesn't state what the purpose is per se... not the previously mentioned purpose apparently... but goes on to give us a hint of what they think it is... "which, in turn, produces the ultimate emotional articulation of self-centeredness which is fearfully bent toward the cover up and suppression of belief in an ultimate personal cause who brings order, purpose, and judgement to all things."

Now sadly this is the part that is perhaps the most uninformed, misguided, and quite possibly willfully dishonest. The morality of the non-believer is generally based on modern day human understanding of the world we live in. (An important factor to note here is that all that unites non-believers is really the non-belief in a deity. There is no other over-arching doctrine or beliefs, although there is a strong prevalence of general adherence to reason and evidence etc. But let's not digress too much.) The lessons we've learned as a species about things like slavery, equal rights, etc. And those things are in part based on basic human empathy, our understanding of human suffering and how it feels to suffer. The fact that it pains us to see other human beings being hurt, or emotionally abused, or struggling with a heavy burden. Studies have shown that when we see a person carrying a heavy unbalanced load, we quite literally try helping them in our minds... we feel the distress of it almost toppling... and our brain goes through the motions of trying to help them.


(Sam Harris actually makes a great case for this position in his TED talk "Science can answer moral questions".)

So first and foremost our actions are actually something inherent in us as a function of our biological evolution. Second, this inherent sense of empathy is what motivates us to alleviate suffering in others. We know how they feel and we know we wouldn't like it if it were us. It in a way hurts us to see them being hurt. So we take actions to make the world not only a better place for our friends and family and those we care for, but because we understand our place in history and want to do for future generations what those who came before us have done for us to help bring us things like modern medicine and other technologies that have extended our lives and made them safer, healthier, longer, and arguably happier as a result. This couldn't be further from the "ultimate emotional articulation of self-centeredness" the apologist tries to argue. This is further illustrated by their explanation for what they think our motivation actually is...

"fearfully bent toward the cover up and suppression of belief in an ultimate personal cause who brings order, purpose, and judgement to all things."

First off we're not trying to cover it up. And in fact even a cursory understanding of contemporary history will show that it is time and time again the religious that seek to censor, and not the free thinkers. The free thinkers in fact thrive on the concept of free inquiry; that one should be able to express their mind in open and honest discourse. The religious have consistently sought to censor through threats, blasphemy laws, even torture, imprisonment, and murder, those who expressed views which they felt threatened their own. Sadly this concerted effort at oppression and censorship still goes on even today... something we constantly have to fight against. So it strikes me as absurdly disingenuous that the apologist would make such a counterfactual claim.

Further, the apologist makes yet another unfounded assertion. Not only are we not trying to cover up or suppress the belief the apologist asserts, but neither are we making the assertion that the belief we're supposedly trying to suppress is what they assert it is, nor have they as usual done anything whatsoever to establish the validity of that stated belief as they express it.

We are saying that there is no evidence for their claim. We are saying that we want people to think rationally and honestly about the issues in question and not fall prey to appeals to emotion, wishful thinking, fallacious arguments like the equivocation seen here, etc. We expect a burden of proof to be fulfilled... the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and no valid evidence has been given to justify a belief in what they are claiming.

(For instance the Scientific Method states that "a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning." And that's putting it simply. You can't just make things up and expect them to hold any merit not only without any valid evidence to support such claims, but contrary to everything else we do know that has been established through this rigorous system of evidence, sound reasoning, critical assessment, falsifiability, peer review, predictive powers, and on and on.)

Now I want to move on to the next image, because this one really takes the cake with the blatant appeal to emotion. This is what the entire argument behind their faith comes down to, and this image really lays it bare.

"How are you anything other than the coincidental, purposeless miscarriage of nature, spinning round and round on a lonely planet in the blackness of space for just a little while before you and all memory of your futile, pointless, meaningless life finally blinks out forever in the endless darkness?"

First off; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_emotion

Appeal to emotion is a potential fallacy which uses the manipulation of the recipient's emotions, rather than valid logic, to win an argument. The appeal to emotion fallacy uses emotions as the basis of an argument's position without factual evidence that logically supports the major ideas endorsed by the elicitor of the argument. Also this kind of thinking may be evident in one who lets emotions and/or other subjective considerations influence one's reasoning process. This kind of appeal to emotion is a type of red herring and encompasses several logical fallacies, including:

Instead of facts, persuasive language is used to develop the foundation of an appeal to emotion-based argument. Thus, the validity of the premises that establish such an argument does not prove to be verifiable.

Conclusively, the appeal to emotion fallacy presents a perspective intended to be superior to reason. Appeals to emotion are intended to draw visceral feelings from the acquirer of the information. And in turn, the acquirer of the information is intended to be convinced that the statements that were presented in the fallacious argument are true; solely on the basis that the statements may induce emotional stimulation such as fear, pity and joy. Though these emotions may be provoked by an appeal to emotion fallacy, substantial proof of the argument is not offered, and the argument's premises remain invalid.

I mean do we really even need to walk through the absurdity of these claims? "coincidental", "purposeless miscarriage of nature", "spinning round and round on a lonely planet in the blackness of space for just" and on and on... the entire thing from start to finish is nothing more than a blatantly obvious attempt to make you feel lonely and insignificant so that you'll believe their position. But of course they never give any evidence for their actual position whatsoever. They do nothing whatsoever to rationally invalidate the very claims they're attempting to mock and use to sway you. And while their wording is intentionally meant to sound as terrible as possible, they've done nothing to show that it isn't actually true.

It doesn't matter if that reality isn't emotionally satisfying to you. Objective reality is not dependent on whether or not you like it or find it emotionally satisfying.

"Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality." (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wishful_thinking)


Now even with that said, the reality still isn't as bad as they try to make it sound to scare you into taking their position. We are not mere coincidences. We are the result of millions of years of evolution, the application of the laws of nature in action. These forces have led to the evolution of our ability to think and understand... to be conscious of our own existence and our own mortality. It is a misunderstanding of theirs at best to refer to evolution and human life as "mere coincidence" as though it was nothing more than random chance. As with most things they fight against using simplistic and wrong binary thinking, it's much more complex and wondrous than that.


Further, as my previous statements imply, you're not merely a purposeless miscarriage of nature. You're the expression of evolution creating, within its confines, the best fit that it can with what it has to work with, a persistent reproductive life form in a given ecological niche. Now while there may not be any "purpose" on the cosmic level, and while in a broader sense the purpose of life may merely be procreation and perpetuation of itself... that doesn't mean that we personally cannot define our own purpose in life, even if that purpose is shaped in some part by the evolutionary baggage that effects the ways in which we perceive the universe around us.


On a personal level, the purpose of our lives is what we, and we alone, make it. And because we realize that we are most likely only going to have this one short time of sentient existence, we want to make the best of it... but we by and large don't choose to spend it in self serving hedonism. Many of us live arguably more moral lives than those of the religious primarily because our morality is based on the real world... on a modern and enlightened understanding of human rights, and not on some ancient tribal mythology that also condoned slavery and genocide and bigotry and intolerance... we understand how our actions effect others and we believe that we alone are responsible for those actions. We don't believe that some invisible man will forgive us, or that invisible monsters made us do bad things... or that we'll get eternal rewards or punishments after we die... we realize that we are responsible for our actions in the here and now and we try to avoid those acts which negatively effect others, and we try to make amends when we do with the persons we may have aggrieved, not closing our eyes and wishing for magic to make it all better.

So no... it is not a "futile, pointless, meaningless life" if you don't want it to be. That's why many of us try to do what we can to improve the world as a whole, because of how much we appreciate the great works of the human minds before us who made our own world a better place by acting selflessly for future generations... for humanity as a whole. And we do realize that all life eventually "finally blinks out forever in the endless darkness"... but we also realize that it's nothing more than returning to that state from which we came before we were born. Nothingness. Our constituent parts returning back into the forms from which they came... and our conscious to that same state of nonexistence that it was before we were formed.

There are many variations on the unsourced quote to follow, but the general meaning is what underpins the idea I've been getting at... the very nature of selflessness and the appreciation of our place in the circle of life.

"The people who benefit society the most, are those old men who plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in."