Category Archives: Evidence

Conversations with Friends: Possibly the Saddest Thing I’ve Read in a While

This friend is someone I haven’t known very long, but he is a seminary student, and I was drawn to his facebook page by the open discussion he has with theists and atheists alike about various topics.

I’ll call him CW.

His status updates often entailed provocative statements.  He never deleted or moderated dissenting opinions and seemed to welcome open debate.  This seemed like a good outlet for my desire to discuss religion with others so I joined in a few discussions.

They were good.  The first few were about hell and the Bible and God, and many of his friends were skilled at apologetics.  One quick thing I noticed about CW is that he was quick to ignore large statements I had made detailing an error in thought he had, and simply asserting that I had it wrong, or didn’t understand at all.

This puzzled me.

If I had it wrong, that’s unfortunate, but please point out specifically where I am wrong.  He never could.  One of the worst such occasions was “read your Bible”.  That’s it.  Implying that I had never read the bible or didn’t understand it, and this his understanding was superior, all without demonstrating it.

I felt that things we going well when CW was taking historical bible classes from seminary.  He was learning a lot of things that I had already studied that were quite damaging to Christianity. The fact that the bible was likely not a literal transcribing of events.  That the Torah was likely not written by Moses, nor was it likely that Moses ever existed in the first place.

Things were getting interesting on his facebook page as he espoused some of his professor’s teachings.  It made some of the bible literalists on his page squirm.  My friend was smart and I assumed that he was taking this knowledge in with the thirst for understanding that I knew he possessed.

But then something truly depressing happened.

I was distraught for almost a day over this.  In one fell swoop, in one facebook status, he basically denounced everything his seminary professors had taught him in deference to “the God he knew to exist”.  “How can anyone believe in a God that is weak like this” he said.  As profound as that statement was, he failed to reach the natural conclusion of that statement.  Oh, he denied belief in that God, but he embraced his own version of God, completely unsupported by anything other than what he believed to be true about his God.

“Blind faith at it’s worst”  I commented shortly after.  I was upset, and I didn’t feel like hiding my distain for what had just happened.  This is the faith that is so damaging.

When reality sharply presses against your faith, you can either let it be squashed, or you can pull it away and protect it, ignoring reality completely.   

When this happened with my friend, we had heated words.  We both apologized, but he concluded that “I have just finally come to the conclusion that faith is not something someone comes to by an ascent of the mind.”

And that was that.  The conversation is over.

To learn that there are people, smart people, in this world that will decide that furthering their understanding of a subject is not worth it if it threatens what they believe.  That knowledge is somehow evil, stemming from the Garden of Eden perhaps.

This is the true power of faith.  The true evil of it.  Convincing you that your own mind, and the minds of other rational people are the true enemy.

This was a wake up call for me.  Through my studies, I assumed that everyone would accept my position if I presented it in the way that I had learned it.  If we carved away all but true statements.  If we followed those true statements to their logical conclusions.  My reasoning is sound so this should be a simple matter of explanation.

Boy, was my bubble burst.  I was depressed about CW, who had lost something very valuable.  His mental vigor.  But I was more depressed about something else.

I had failed.

I did something wrong.  I didn’t explain something correctly, or maybe I derailed a part of the conversation.

But, in a few days after reading the conversation again and again I realized that I hadn’t failed.  There is nothing you can do against certain mindsets.  The mindset that “I can’t be wrong about this one thing” is something you can’t win.  I couldn’t have failed because there was no way to succeed in the first place.

This is something CW will have to come to without my prodding.  That faith isn’t a path to truth.  Believing something really hard, so hard that it’s above any criticism is irrational, and often leads to false conclusions.

I set my sights on the horizon though.  Maybe this wasn’t a loss, but a push.  And even if it is a loss, it’s not a reflection on my poor arguing skills or faulty logic.

And even if it were my fault, even if I drove this man into stubbornness, skepticism is growing worldwide.  I side with the Beatles:

The Marketplace of Ideas: Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine

The post I wrote earlier tonight originally started as a big giant rant, but in writing it, I found that my ideas would be better communicated by splitting them up by subject.  Here is the second subject I had in mind.

I am a big fan of the marketplace of ideas.  You show me your ideas.  I’ll show you mine.  Let’s see whose sound the best.

To use a poker analogy.  You have your hand.  I have mine.  We can bet all we want, but if we really believe in our hand, I mean really believe in it enough to not get bullied out of the hand by overenthusiastic betting, then at the end of the day, we’ve gotta lay our cards down and see who has the winning hand.

In my conversations believers aren’t willing to do this.  They are either completely unwilling to showdown their entire hand (“I just believe I have the winning hand and you can’t convince me otherwise.  It’s just a matter of faith”), or they will show most of their cards, but claim to hold tight to the cards that actually “make” their hand.  They’ll show you the 7, 3, and J while claiming they still have two aces left that they aren’t going to show.  They will claim with absolute certainty to have the winning hand.

Maybe they actually do, maybe they don’t.  Who’s to say?

But there’s a lot to be said for why they wouldn’t be willing to show their cards in the first place.  If they actually do have the winning hand, what’s the harm of showing?  If their faith will actually stand up to the fire, why protect it?

I would say there are three distinct possible answers:

1.  They know that they aren’t the best cards.  This is possible, but unlikely.  I don’t think people typically hold strongly to ideas they know are wrong.

2.  They honestly have no idea what they actually hold and are embarrassed to be proven wrong.

3.  They are unwilling to risk the possibility they are wrong due to an emotional investment in their ideas.

I think the last two are especially probable, but this is a bad thing.  This keeps bad ideas alive.  This is what I seek to avoid.

We must get over our emotional ties to bad ideas.

We must not be embarrassed to admit defeat if that admission promotes better ideas.

Conversations with Friends: JN #1

Being new at being an atheist, I studied and studied every idea I could find on the matter of apologetics and counter apologetics.  I feel sufficiently caught up in order to talk to most believers and confront some of the popular sayings and mantras.  One thing I was not prepared for was the invincibility of faith.  It’s not, of course.  After all, there have been many converts, myself included.  But faith is a powerful foe.

I’ve been speaking on and off with two friends specifically about God.  One of them is a former youth pastor of my wife.  I will call him JN for anonymity.  He reached out to me in a very pastor-ly way.  Very nice, very friendly.

The stated purpose for him reaching out was just to ask some questions and see where my head was at.  I’m not sure what the end game actually is, but I figured this would be a good time to show that I was educated on the matters of God and stretch some of my brain muscles.  This should also go without saying, but a great bi-product of this type of discussion is that if there is a flaw pointed out in my thinking, I can correct it.  It’s a win-win for me.

At this point, this conversation has reached a few crucial nodes of discourse.

-JN thinks that faith in and of itself is beneficial.  I’ve pointed out it’s flaws, but the benefits haven’t been stated.

-JN believes that there’s no evidence that he could present to convince me.  While I agree with him in this particular moment, the evidence could be discovered one day that would convince me, or any other skeptic.

One important piece of agreement is the ways in which we can answer the argument from nonbelief:

Either

1.  God does not exist and believers are mistaken.

2.  Nonbelievers aren’t looking for evidence.

3.  Nonbelievers haven’t found the evidence for God’s existence, but believers have.

4.  God has not revealed himself to nonbelievers.

We can immediately rule out #2.  I would say that a lot of nonbelievers are looking for evidence of God, myself included.  If a theists questions this, we can merely ask for the evidence, and that should put that theory to rest.

#4 isn’t consistent with most God concepts.  Most theists would reject this one, while I am still open to the possibility that this could be the case.

#3 is where JN has landed.  Nonbelievers are looking, but looking in the wrong places, or in the wrong ways.  In this case, a simple matter of instruction should clear this up.  Ask the theists, show me God, or show me how to find the evidence for God.  They will say, “just open your heart” or “just believe”, but this isn’t evidence for God’s existence.  If it is, then this can be evidence for just about anything you wanted to believe.  Unicorns exist.  All you have to do to know that is to open your heart and believe that they exist.

I’ll use an analogy that my friend, JN, in this discussion actually gave me.  He said atheists are scanning the FM stations for God, and believers have found him on the AM band.

This is a great analogy.  Let’s expand.  The FM band in this analogy is the natural world, while God resides in the supernatural realm, the AM band.  Never mind, for the moment that God apparently manifests himself into the FM band from time to time which would be detectable by those of us scanning it.

So if the theist is claiming to see God on the AM band, wouldn’t the easiest way to reconcile this be for him to show me how to scan the AM frequencies.  Show me where the button on my radio is to change bands.

Instead, in this analogy, JN is basically saying “you just have to believe that the AM band is there, I can’t prove it to you.  You just have to have faith.”  This wouldn’t make sense at all if the AM band actually existed and if the theists actually had access to it.  He would just show me.  Or demonstrate that he could access it somehow.

In addition, there are millions of other people convincing me of other bands that exist.  There are muslims telling me to tune into the CM band.  Alien abductees telling me that their aliens speak to them on the ZM band.  And none of them can tell me how to tune my radio other than to just “believe”.

How can I reconcile this?

My only course of action is to deny that any of these other bands exist until someone has the ability to demonstrate to me how I can change my bandwidth.  Or at the very least that it is obvious that they are listening to another bandwidth.

But none can.

This defeats option #3 from above.  I am left with the fact that either #1, God doesn’t exist, or #4, he has not revealed himself.  In the case of #4, my life would be exactly the same as if he didn’t exist.

Standards of Evidence Part 2: Risk and Stake

In my first post on the Standards of Evidence, I pointed out how it is rational to adjust our standards of evidence depending on how outlandish or unlikely to occur the claim is.  I concluded that with “believable” claims that our brain works quickly to take into account the small amount of evidence we are given to make a somewhat rational stand on the merits of the claim, and with extraordinary claims, we require more evidence to accept them.

This post will examine another aspect of a claim that we can rationally use to help us determine the level of evidence we should require before accepting a claim:

risk1

Risk is one of my favorite board games even though I have never played it in real life with anyone.  I’ve played it online a lot.  The idea behind the game is that you have to constantly decide what actions to take based on what your opponents are likely to do and what you will lose if you make a misstep.  If you over extend or make a bad map move, you could be easily over run.  A popular strategy (especially early on) is called “turtling”, where you basically conserve your army, and build up numbers until the very end when you overpower the remaining players.  This is a minimal risk strategy.

In the arena of truth claims, minimal risk strategies should be considered.  Consider the following scenarios:

The first scenario is that your close friend tells you that he bought a big dog.  This friend wouldn’t have to try hard convince you of this fact because it’s a common thing for people to buy dogs, but ALSO because if he’s lying to you, it makes no difference to you.  Finding out that you’re wrong about your friend owning a dog will be virtually harmless to you.  It may damage your trust in your friend, but the risk involved with not believing him may be even greater.  If you tell your friend you don’t believe him and ask him to prove it, and are continually incredulous of every claim he makes, he might think it’s not worth his time to be around you.  Constantly having to prove every minor claim he makes would get old, and you would likely lose friends like that.

In another scenario, you’re told by a close friend that your wife and daughter are being held hostage in a nearby building.  He hands you a shotgun, gives you the location, and tells you that you have 5 minutes to bust into the building and take all the guys out before they kill your family.  Well, not only is this an unlikely scenario, but it’s also extremely risky to accept your friend’s claims here.  If he’s wrong, and you believe him you could endanger many innocent lives, go to prison, etc.

On the other hand, if he’s right and you do nothing, you could lose your wife and daughter.  So the claim is at least worth examining.  Merely by alerting you that something valuable to you is at risk, your friend has forced you to examine his claim at least somewhat seriously.  This is why it’s illegal to scream “fire” in a crowded theater.

So here we have two scenarios where, in the first, there’s not much at stake if you’re wrong either way, and, in the second, there’s much at stake if you’re wrong either way.

The risk of losing something valuable is a highly motivating factor when examining claims, and forces us to put at least some standard of evidence on those claims where is much to lose if we’re wrong.

In a later post, I will examine how these two criteria for raising our standards of evidence can help us sort through various God claims.  This will definitely include a discussion about Pascal’s Wager.  For now, thanks for reading! 

Skepticism: “I don’t believe in 2870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2869 gods.”

The quote is from Ricky Gervais.  He’s referring to his reply to theists who question his atheism.

“…they are nearly as atheistic as me.”

I have been having more and more conversations with believers now.  I am in the business of trying to challenge ideas.  My ideas, their ideas, all ideas.  Put them on the table and let’s talk about them.  Recently, a pastor friend of mine asked me this question.

“I would ask you the why is disbelief a virtue? What do we benefit from it?”

My response was probably not very convincing, and I am very critical of myself.  I always second guess the way I convey ideas because my goal is to convey them concisely, directly, and clearly.  I don’t think I did a very good job of that.

“Oh we benefit so much from skepticism. Even you, the faithful Christian! Haha. How much trouble have you saved yourself from being skeptical of all God claims. You benefit from being skeptical about Zeus, Buddha, Allah. You benefit by not believing in Santa and fairies and all sorts of things.

The way in which you benefit is that beliefs inform how we behave, so by you not behaving as if these things all exist, you behave more sanely. You act in a way that is more consistent with reality. You behave more rationally. You buy your kids presents because of your skepticism of Santa. Without that, your kids would be pretty upset.”

But I think that this point is a valid one.  We are all skeptical.  We all live in the realm of skepticism to a degree.  It’s because skepticism works, whether we have admitted it or not.  It worms it’s way into our decision making by the very virtue of it’s use.

The default position of non-belief is virtuous because it keeps us from believing every claim that is presented.  There are more ways to be wrong, and therefore more wrong claims that can be made, than there are more ways to be right.  So we should measure claims with a very accurate ruler.

And we see this in reality.  We see that there are many many many contradictory claims, specifically between the different religions, but even within them.  The different sects, and different theologies.  This doesn’t mean that none of them are right, but it does show that a whole lot of them are wrong just on the nature of the claims and the amount of them that contradict.

Theists would have to agree too.  Maybe even more strongly than I feel about it.  They believe so strongly that their God is the one true God that they disbelieve all other God claims on the basis of contradiction alone.

Skepticism makes two basic assumptions that I think are valid:

1.  We exist in a reality with properties.

2.  Our perceptions about this reality are sometimes right, and sometimes wrong.

But there are those that would claim absolute certainty of an idea.  Ideas that don’t have good enough reason to believe in, let alone claim certainty over.  Those that claim certainty of an idea are incorrect.  Not in the idea they believe in, but in the way in which they believe it.  Absolute certainty doesn’t exist, and even the Pope can be wrong about things.

It’s this acceptance that allows us to examine ALL ideas for truth, and consistency within the reality we inhabit.  In my 2nd blogpost I spoke about the nature of truth.

The second point I brought up in my response was that beliefs inform our actions.  What we believe has huge impact on how we behave.  For example, if I believed that Link for the Legend of Zelda was a true story, I might be inclined to take up my sword, go into the woods and try to help him out!  But this is nonsense, and my actions won’t do anything good or useful.

In the same way, religious beliefs that are false have consequences.  Religious beliefs are also extremely influential.  It’s important that we are skeptical of religious claims until they’re proven themselves correct.

This is why I encourage anyone that believes in a God to seriously question your beliefs.  When I was a Christian I believed in doing this to bolster my faith.  It turned me into a stronger skeptic, and someone with a firmer grip on reality, in my opinion.

Be skeptical.

Standards of Evidence Part 1: Extraordinary Claims

When examining claims and deciding whether to believe one, there are many things to consider.  Evidence is a must.  You can’t simply assert something without basis and expect it to be believed.  But we do this every day.  When we talk about mundane day to day happening with people, we’re making a lot of claims and we usually take them at face value without scrutinizing them.  Isn’t this believing in stuff without evidence?

No.  We are taking into account the evidence.  We’re just doing it so quickly that we don’t even realize it.  The biggest piece of evidence, and maybe even the only one in a lot of cases is the person’s eyewitness credibility.  Generally, people are pretty truthful.  We are using our previous experience with people as evidence for this.  We’re also using our direct previous experious with the individual we are talking to further build a case for their credibility.

Let me list a few claims you might accept with an extremely small amount of evidence:

  • I ate a ham sandwich today.
  • The dog crapped in my living room yesterday.
  • I am an okay driver.
  • My wife tells me she loves me everyday.

We accept these things with a very small amount of evidence.  These are mundane claims, and are extremely plausible unless I am a habitual liar. Now what about these claims:

  • I ate 4 ham sandwiches today.
  • The dog crapped in the refrigerator yesterday.
  • I hit something in my car every single day.
  • My wife speaks to me in latin every day.

Notice the level of doubt that starts to rise as you read these statements.  Why?  These are all just as plausible as the claims made in the first list, but the fact that these events are uncommon that makes them require a bit more credibility to believe.  It’s not often someone eats 4 ham sandwiches in a day, or that someone is such a bad driver that they literally run into something every day.  When met with claims like this you may even voice your disbelief:

  • “No way!”
  • “How did your dog get in the refrigerator?”
  • “No one is that bad of a driver.”
  • “How did she learn to speak latin?”

This is asking for further evidence to substantiate the wildness of the claims.  While the standard of evidence has gone up with these slightly more extraordinary claims, they haven’t gone beyond reasonable doubt necessarily.  You COULD take some of these claims on the word of the person making the claim alone.

Let’s ramp up the extraordinary nature of the claims one last time:

  • I ate 1000 ham sandwiches today.
  • I own 3 unicorns.
  • My house is made of ice.
  • Aliens are actually blue, not green or grey like.

So obviously these are extremely extraordinary claims.  Someone would have to bring you a lot of evidence before you believed it.  The claims demand it.  Some of these are claims we couldn’t even say they are even plausible.  Some of them we can demonstrate that they aren’t true.

To me, this shows that extraordinary (unlikely, strange, or uncommon) claims require extraordinary  (a large amount) evidence.