That Is Not Logical, Part 1

Spock, logical

Star Trek, logicalI loved Star Trek from the time I was five years old. The show inspired my early artistic skills, here displayed in the marker sketch made by my 5 year old self.   Star Wars hadn’t come out yet, so there was no competition, other than Lost In Space, perhaps. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Spock.  He unfailingly let Captain Kirk or Dr. McCoy know when they strayed from the logical path. Now, more than four decades later, I appreciate Mr. Spock even more. And I’m not alone. Some fellow Trekkie nerd made the early animated series into a collection of short logic primers.

You can find numerous other websites floating around the interwebs, giving lists of logical fallacies. But I recently was asked by a colleague to present a list of logical mistakes particularly common among Christian communicators. So, in no particular order, I’ve assembled them here. Most are common fare, available in logic textbooks. But a few of these are my own observations. (Also see this post and this post.)

Eleven Logical Mistakes, #1-6

#1 Hasty Generalization 

Taking one example and assuming all other cases are the same. 

puppet, logicalWhen I tell people I’m from Florida, they sometimes look at me and think, “But you’re so pale!” As if all Floridians are tan! Sheesh. But that’s a generalization or stereotype people have. This fallacy arises in Christian circles quite often in the form of anecdotal evidence. We base an entire philosophy of ministry on one story. “Well, Johnny’s life was changed when we did that puppet show!” So, we will now do puppet shows forever. But one story is hardly enough evidence to show that a particular outreach is really effective. Christians also love to generalize about men and women. “Well, my wife is shy and I’m assertive, so really that’s just the way all men and women are!” But that’s a double blunder! Not only is it a small sample size, but even if every one in the church was that way, the sample is biased. Walk outside the church walls and you’ll find much more variety among male and female behavior. Bottom line: all generalizations are bad logic! (Just kidding!) But really, be careful that your conclusion or belief stands on a significant foundation of evidence or “unbiased samples” before you shout it from the roof tops.

#2 Slippery Slope

Assuming that A is bad because it will lead to B (which is bad), but there is no clear causal or logical connection. 

dog, marriage, logical, fallacyThe DirecTV commercial from a few years ago illustrates this beautifully. “Don’t end up in a roadside ditch . . . get rid of cable.” This error occurs, in part, because of a confusion between possibility and probability. Sure, it’s possible that if you have cable, you’ll end up in a ditch. But it’s also possible that you’ll end up a millionaire! The important thing is: what is probable. Christians needlessly use this fallacious kind of reasoning in arguments against gay marriage. “If the state endorses gay marriages, pretty soon we’ll have people marrying dogs and cats — mass hysteria!” Sure, that’s possible. But there’s no clear causal or logical link that leads us to expect that such a thing will happen. So use a better argument! On the other hand, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day will probably lead to lung cancer, which will lead to hospitalization and death. That’st NOT slippery slope reasoning. 

#3 Perception Fallacy

It seems this way to me, so it is this way.

elephant, logical, fallacyIf you’ve never heard of no-see-ums, they’re tiny biting bugs nearly invisible to the eye. Suppose you asked me, “Are there any no-see-ums in here?” After casually looking around the room, if I said, “I don’t see any, so I guess not,” that would be bad reasoning. No-see-ums aren’t the sort of thing you would expect to see, even if they were in the room. So just because you don’t see any, you shouldn’t conclude that there aren’t any around. By contrast, if I claimed there was an elephant in the room, and you didn’t see one, you’d be justified in thinking I was crazy. That’s because elephants are the kind of thing you would expect to see if they were in the room. So it all depends on how reliable your perceptual faculties are in spotting that particular thing.

This mistake became especially apparent to me during the protests here at the University of Missouri in 2015. While black students came out in droves to protest racism on campus, white students were baffled. “What’s the big deal?” they said. “Aren’t they blowing this out of proportion?” Most white students just didn’t see the racism that was being talked about. But the truth is that white students’ “racism perception” isn’t very reliable. Most racism occurs when they aren’t around, and even when they are around, they are often oblivious to it. Minority students, however, are very practiced, from much experience, at noticing racism. So, it’s a mistake to go from “I don’t see it” to “it just doesn’t exist.”

#4 Deconstruction Fallacy

“She only believes X for emotional reasons/bad motives, so X is false (or can be dismissed).”

This error sometimes goes by the name “genetic fallacy,” but I’ve never cared for that label. I like the term ‘deconstruction’ because I often hear people speak of “deconstructing” someone’s views by analyzing their cultural and psychological influences. In the religious realm, both believers and nonbelievers fall into this type of poor reasoning.

crutch, religion, logicalChristians will say of atheists, “they’re only atheists because of a bad relationship with their fathers,” or “they just want freedom from moral restraint.” Thus any intellectual arguments against God are dismissed. But the irreligious commit this classic blunder as well. “Christians only believe because they need an emotional crutch,” or “they only believe because they were raised that way.” And the arguments for faith are dismissed out of hand. But sound reason recognizes that how a person came to acquire their beliefs is irrelevant to the truth of those beliefs. All truth claims must stand or fall independently of the motives or history of those who assert them.

#5 Tribalism Fallacy

“My ‘tribe’ is against X, so X is bad/wrong.”

Trump, tribe, tribalism, fallacy, logical Tribalism becomes, for many, a substitute for thinking. Violators come in all flavors: Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, etc. Take the debates about Trump. If you’re a liberal, then you know that liberals hate Trump, so that means Trump is bad. No logical argument required. If you’re a conservative, the same procedure applies. And when you find your Tribe holds a certain position, there’s no need to examine evidence or reasons. You instantly defend that position to the death! Conversations about the recent Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kanavaugh offer a consummate example. Don’t look at the evidence–just defend your Tribe at all costs!

Now lest I be guilty of mistake #4 (Deconstruction), let me clarify. I’m not saying that Tribalists’ views can be dismissed out of hand as false or bad, simply because they are Tribalists. I’m encouraging people inclined toward Tribalism to stop and examine their reasoning, and to be sure they are believing according to their evidence. And “my tribe believes X,” is probably not evidence for the truth of X.

#6 Circular Reasoning

X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X. 

car, logical, fallacyLarry arrives home with his new (used) car. His wife, Lisa, asks, “was the car salesman honest?” Larry answers, “Yup.” “How can you be sure?” inquires Lisa. “Because he told me so.”

This sounds laughable, but it’s easier to fall into this kind of logical error than many realize. Christians frequently and famously commit this mistake when they defend the Bible.

Christian: The Bible is the Word of God.
Skeptic: How do you know?
Christian: Because it says so in the Bible.
Skeptic: But how do you know what it says is true?
Christian: God’s Word is always true!

This is a bad argument. There are many other logical ways of arguing for the truth of the Bible, so Christians need not resort to circularity. But it happens in other venues as well. “Abortion is murder!” “Why do you think that?” “Because it is the wrongful killing of a person!” (But that’s simply another way to assert “Abortion is murder.”) The bottom line is, be sure that when you state reasons for your conclusion, you aren’t merely rephrasing your conclusion.

Tune in next time for Part 2 of “That Is Not Logical!” Mistakes #7-11

Responsible Religious Belief Q&A

responsible belief, SASHAThis video records the Q&A after talk I gave to the University of Missouri SASHA club (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics). The title was “Responsible Belief,” and I shared with them a model of how beliefs are formed and evaluated responsibly. That went about 30 min. Then, we had Q&A and everyone stayed. It was a wonderful conversation and one of the highlights of 2015 for me. At some point, I may post the original presentation.

I’ve broken the 30 min of Q&A into 3 separate videos, and this is Part 1. If you’re interested in how a Christian might respond to being put on the hot seat in front of a lot of smart people, you’ll enjoy this!

 

An Atheist, an Agnostic, and A Theist Walk Into A Bar

(That literally happened to me one time.) Ok, this joke still needs writing, and that’s not my thing. But I do want to try and tease out a related conversational knot that’s been giving me trouble. In short, the knot involves the answers to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be an atheist?
  • What does it mean to be a theist?
  • What does it mean to be an agnostic?

Why does this matter? Because labels matter to us. If someone called me a “feminist,” my reaction might depend on what they mean by the term. If it just means “someone who advocates for the complete social, economic, and political equality of the sexes,” then I’m happy to carry the label. But if they mean it pejoratively to mean “someone who hates men and wants women to take over the world,” then I’m going have a problem with that. So which is the correct definition of feminist?

Similarly, if someone calls you an atheist, what exactly does that mean? You might accept the term when defined a certain way, but not when defined in another way. Also, if I say something like, “atheism is irrational,” the reasonableness (or truth) of that claim depends on the definition being used. If it means, “someone who knows with certainty that no gods exist,” then few people will accept the label, and rightly so.

What I want to do here is compare two approaches to defining these terms, and explain why I recommend one over the other. I’ll start with what I call the “four quadrants” model.

The Four Quadrants Model

Some people propose we renovate these terms (atheist, agnostic, theist) a bit to make things clearer and avoid foisting burdensome views upon others. Here is the renovation proposal:

atheism, agnosticism, belief grid

There is a certain elegance and symmetry to this model. You have ‘theism’ and ‘a-theism’ juxtaposed with ‘gnostic’ and ‘a-gnostic.’ Very nice.

This “quadrant model” carries other advantages as well. First, it takes some pressure off of atheists who don’t want to claim that they “know” there are no gods. Second, it also takes pressure off of theists in exactly the same way. Third, it uses the term ‘agnostic’ in a way more true to the original meaning of the Greek word. In ancient Greek, ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’ and the prefix ‘a’ mean ‘without’ or negation. So, to say that I am “agnostic” literally means “I don’t know.”

Cons of the Quadrant Model

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to this model. For one, the unconventional use of ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic.’ While I do love etymologies (word origins), most people find them rather pedantic. The simple truth about language is that meanings change over time. A word gets it’s meaning from usage. If we were arguing about what technical term philosophers should use, that might be a different story. But if we want an ordinary term for common usage, it is simpler to use the word conventionally. So, when it come to ‘agnostic,’ most people understand this to describe someone who is undecided about God’s existence. And when it comes to ‘gnostic,’ this term gnostic, mysticalrefers to followers of an religion that revolves around the possession of esoteric, mystical knowledge (Gnosticism). For Christians, this is especially important, because ‘gnostic’ carries a heavy negative connotation, and has for thousands of years. To be a “gnostic theist” is to be a heretic, for most Christians. So, shifting meanings in this way muddies the waters.

Secondly, this model suggests that knowledge and belief are like height and width–two separate dimensions of thought. But belief and knowledge relate more like acceleration and force. Belief is a component of knowledge, just as acceleration is a component of force (F = ma). So it is misleading to represent them on two perpendicular axes.

This quadrant model also fails to provide a safe conceptual space for the truly undecided. True undecidedness is a real position on many important questions, including scientific ones. In numerous cases (e.g., the multiverse), the most rational thing to say is “I neither believe there is an X, nor do I believe there is not an X.” But the diagram above tells me that I must pick a quadrant.  I must either believe (the space below the ‘x’ axis) or not believe (the space above the ‘x’ axis). If we revised it to allow people to be on the axis, perhaps right at (0,0), then what do we call them? There is no in-between because the model is binary in principle.

confused, atheist, agnosticFinally, the fellow in the upper-left quadrant confuses a few things. He wants to say “I don’t believe any god exists,” but he also wants to say “I’m not CLAIMING that–I might be wrong.” I understand the discomfort here. He doesn’t want to make a strong claim, because that would require a strong defense, which is a burden he doesn’t want. Fair enough. But he isn’t like a helicopter that has yet to land. He has landed, even if tentatively. He thinks there are no gods. He’s not saying he is certain, or that he can prove anything, he is simply describing where he has landed. And he admits that he may have landed on the wrong spot. That’s fine. But even a tentative landing represents a claim about what you think is true about the universe. I’ll say a bit more beloe about the the difference between “having no belief about p” and “not believing p.”

The Sliding-Scale Model

Instead of a binary-based model, and the restrictions that entails, I prefer a sliding-scale approach.  This non-binary model allows for a wide range of possibilities, grouped into three natural categories. Rather than being forced to choose from only four possible positions, people can personalize their position based on their beliefs and confidence level.

I didn’t have a cute graphic for mine, so I made this:

belief scale, agnostic

On this view, you can be anywhere between 0-100% confidence about a certain idea or claim. (“p” refers to any claim, or proposition, like “God exists.”) If you find yourself hovering around the 50% mark, we’ll say you neither believe it nor disbelieve it. This is where we should fall on claims like “this fair coin will land on heads when flipped.” Sometimes we say things, loosely, like “I don’t know.” But this conversationally implies that we simply don’t have a belief one way or the other.

pool jump, confidence, beliefIf you land roughly between 65-100% confident that p, then you clearly believe it is true.  At 100% confidence, you have no doubts and think there is no chance that p is false. (Notice that we’re saying nothing about knowledge here. This is only about beliefs, just to keep things simple and clear.)  If you fall anywhere in between 0-35%, you think that p is false, though the closer you get to 50%, the more you lean toward thinking there’s some chance it could be true. For example, suppose I’m looking over a balcony, wondering if I could jump safely into the pool. I give myself about a 15% chance of plunging safely into the water. So, if you ask me, “Do you believe you can make it?” I’d say, “no.”  If you have 0% confidence that p, then you have no doubt it is false–you disbelieve it with maximum confidence of its falsehood.

The Sliding-scale & God

Now, if we apply this to our debate about definitions, here’s how I think it works in terms of belief about God. If you have ~65% or more confidence that God exists, then you believe that God exists and we call you a theist.  (I think most of us agree with that.) But theists, like atheists, can possess little or much confidence. If you are ~35% or less confident that God exists, then you disbelieve that God exists and we call you an atheist. (Nothing about knowledge here!)

Both segments (red and green) of the scale represent a “belief state,” two sides of the same coin.

coin flip, tails, beliefBut that’s ok because merely believing or disbelieving that p doesn’t saddle you with an undue burden. I call them both belief states because disbelieving that p is roughly synonymous with believing that p is false. I.e., “I disbelieve that God exists” is the same as “I believe there is no God.” It’s like someone saying, “I don’t think the coin will be heads”– you wouldn’t need to ask whether they believe it will be tails. It’s just a belief! No big deal. Whether it is rational or whether you know is a different ball game and will require more justification. But the atheist need not attain certainty or prove there is no God in order to be a rational atheist.

Questions & Concerns

Some atheists prefer the quadrant model because they are more comfortable saying “I don’t have a belief about God–I lack belief in God.” But saying you lack a belief about God’s existence is not accurate. Atheists lack an affirmation of God’s existence, but they have a belief state (doxastic attitude), and that belief state is disbelief. They take the claim “God exists” to be false. If you don’t take it to be false, then you are either undecided or a theist. The only people who truly lack a belief about God are those who have never considered God’s existence, like my dog Duke or my friend’s baby. They just have no belief state about God whatsoever.

Huxley, agnostic, agnosticismWhat about agnostics? Now, I admit that the term ‘agnostic’ as a label for the undecided is somewhat regrettable, given the literal Greek meaning. Coined by Thomas Huxley in the late 19th century, the term served to contrast his position against those who felt they had attained “gnosis” or knowledge of answers to the big questions. Huxley used the term to express either skepticism or humility or both. But regardless of Huxley’s intentions, the term now refers to someone who is undecided on a matter, religious or otherwise. For now, it works. Launch a campaign to shift the usage if you dislike it, but it isn’t quite right to tell people that they’re using it wrong now.

To avoid mixing up atheism and agnosticism, note that the claim “I don’t believe that any gods exist” (as in the four quadrant graphic above) can mean several different things. Consider the claim E: “the number of stars in the universe is even.” If I say that “I don’t believe E,” that could mean: (1) I think E is false, which implies that I hold the odd-number-stars view; or (2) I don’t believe E, but I don’t think it’s false either. I’m just undecided, or agnostic on the matter. So when you want to express atheism and NOT agnosticism, it is better to say something like, “I believe there are no gods,” or more simply “I disbelieve theism.”

If you discover that the belief-state you are in is difficult to defend, welcome to the club! Each position has its unique challenges and weaknesses. There’s no problem with redefining your position in order to make it more defensible, as long as the changes are not “Ad hoc” and the new definition is coherent and unconfusing.

Are There Good Reasons To Be An Atheist?

disagreement, rational, atheistI debated whether to even write this post. Here’s why: many people think that ANY concession to the “other side” amounts to total defeat. For many, to admit that atheist beliefs are reasonable amounts to admitting they are correct. But this is just plain wrong, and I’ll explain why below. Nevertheless, this post may disturb some theists.

Setting the Intellectual Stage

I’m going to set the stage here with a few concepts. Then I’ll tell you whether there are good reasons for atheism and what they might be (if there are any).

Castaway, island, belief, atheistThe first idea that needs stating is this: you aren’t obligated (epistemically) to believe X simply because there are some good reasons to think X is true. The equation is more complex than that. Imagine you are Tom Hanks’ character in the film Castaway. You hear on a radio that there were no survivors from your plane crash, and they even claim to have found your body! You now have two excellent reasons to believe you are dead. But you have one HUGE, overruling reason to believe the opposite: your own (physical) self-awareness. So, having good reasons for X doesn’t settle the matter.

The second idea we need to get straight is what counts as a “good reason.” We can say more than just “whatever reasons I like/agree with.” Good reasons should be those that give some rational support to your position. Put another way, good reasons (if true) should be things that increase the probability that your position is correct. Example: I believe that Dylan will win this tennis match against Austin because Dylan has never lost a tennis match against Austin. (Even though these are independent events, the inference comes from Dylan’s apparent superior skill.) Believing that Dylan will win because he wears orange shorts would not be a good reason because the color of his shorts, presumably, has no bearing on his probability of winning.

Rationality and Reasons

dreams, rational, atheistThirdly, rationality.* The problem people have with understanding rationality is this: they assume that if Joe’s belief is false, then it can’t be rational. (People also assume the contrapositive: if it is rational, it is true. Sort of the logical Field of Dreams.)  This misses the mark completely. Rationality and truth come apart all the time. We aim to be rational or reasonable because it increases our chances of believing what is true. But being rational cannot guarantee we are right.

Throughout history, and even today, people have rationally and reasonably believed false things. Many intelligent people rationally believed the earth was the center of the universe. Heck, I read an encyclopedia from the 1950s that claimed space travel to be impossible. Bottom line: it’s OK to concede that people can be rationally wrong.

Think of it another way. There can be good reasons to believe something, even when it’s false. Think of a murder trial. Juries sometimes convict a person of a crime because there is a good case against them, only to be proven wrong by new evidence later. The jury may have been completely rational in their decision, given that they did not yet have the new evidence.

Pro-atheist?

cancer, child, evil, faith, atheistSo are there good reasons for atheism? I think so.  First, if God exists, then you’d think he would prevent small children from getting cancer, or from being sexually abused. But these things still happen. This counts as prima facie evidence against God’s existence, I think. Second, much of what we attribute to God can be explained other ways. Religious experience, alleged miracles, changed lives. Alternate explanations for these things give us reason to doubt the reality of God. Third, if one already has strong reasons to accept an atoms-only view of the universe (i.e., physicalism), then one has a reason to deny God’s existence. These three brief, good reasons fall short of a total survey of arguments for atheism, but it’s a start. Suggestions welcome.

There are also many awful reasons to be an atheist. In my research for this post, I found several websites about “reasons to be an atheist,” and they were, to be honest, mostly atrocious. People routinely conflate theism with Christianity, and mistakenly think that an argument against the Bible or the church is ipso facto an argument against God. Some claim that there’s “no evidence,” which is obviously false, since billions of people would line up to give testimony of their experience of God (some have even written it down). You may discount this evidence, but it is evidence nevertheless. Some even go so far as to say that since we don’t “need” God, then we shouldn’t believe in God! That argument fails in exactly the same way that the “we need to believe in God or else we won’t have meaning/morality/happiness” argument fails.

Conclusion

respect, disagree, belief, atheistIn conclusion, many theists ought to reevaluate their attitude toward their atheist acquaintances. Some atheists may believe irrationally (as many theists do), but many of them actually have good reasons behind their disbelief. In fact, I’d wager a small amount that the percentage of (evidentially) irrational atheists out of all atheists is smaller than the percentage of (evidentially) irrational theists! So, approach your conversations with respect, and assume the best, until proven otherwise. (The same goes for you atheists!)

*I’m using the term ‘rationality’ quite loosely here. I’m taking ‘rational belief’ to be roughly synonymous with ‘reasonable belief’ or ‘justified belief.’