Category: Logicall Fallacies

When people use the #atheist or #atheists or #atheism hashtags on Twitter, I sometimes respond.  As an atheist, it seems reasonable to me that the fact that they have used those hashtags signals a desire to engage in discussion. I welcome the opportunity. Sometimes they’re calling atheists out. But sometimes they’re genuinely eager to debate and discuss. And when it’s not absolutely clear that they’re just trying to raise our hackles, I try to give the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the latter.

So recently, when twitter user @shubsy76 , posted the following tweet:

How can someone believe this amazing world exist of nothing but coincidence? #atheists ..SubhanAllah

My reply was:

Simple. Evidence.

In turn, shubsy (if I may call him by his twitter handle, and if I may presume shubsby is a “he”) responded:

give me one evidence,just one simple evidence

To which I replied:

Well over 99% of animals that ever existed are extinct. If that’s an intentional design, its a terribly stupid design.

shubsy asked for clarification:

so your sayin the animals that are existing now equate to 1%

And I obliged

Yes, but to be clear that’s the percentage of species, not the number of animals.

…and also added:

But more importantly, your original premise tests on two logical fallacies: the argument from incredulity & the god of the gaps.

And in shubsy’s subsequent reply, he requested:

speak English,stop trying to be clever by using big words.keep it simple.

From this point I replied by apologizing for using jargon such as such as the term logical fallacies* that people who aren’t familiar with apologist/counter-apologist discussions might not be familiar with. Unfortunately, he then accused me of denigrating him as ignorant. Which a) I really din’t do (follow the links above to read our complete exchanges, and judge for yourself), and b) kind of pissed me off since I was bending over backwards to be polite and respectful, not to mention patient.

But at the end of the day, I really don’t care what he thinks of me, or if he falsely accuses me of insulting his intelligence. What I do care about is his initial query: “someone believe this amazing world exist of nothing but coincidence?” So I want to focus the remainder of this post on the aforementioned logical fallacies on which his question is based, in as plain English as I possibly can.

1. The Argument from Personal Incredulity

Simply put, this amounts to, “I do not or cannot believe x is possible, and therefore x is not true.” In shubsy’s case x is a universe which exists by “coincidence”, or in other words did not come into existence by the agency of a “creator” (his term).

Historical examples clearly illustrate the flaw in this logic.  We can plainly see them in any given time period when that era’s dominant understanding of how the universe works is challenged by scientific progress creating newer, more accurate models. For centuries through the dark and middle ages in Europe, biblically-based geocentrism — the belief that Earth is fixed at the center of the universe, unmoving and unmovable — was the only accepted and acceptable model of the world. Until Copernicus revolutionized this understanding by publishing his heliocentric model of a universe with the sun at its center, it was inconceivable to people of that time that such a world in which Earth was not at the center could possibly exist. The initial response to such a (no pun intended) earth shattering new idea was indeed incredulity, and the Vatican would proceed to condemn Copernicus’ book on heliocentricism as heresy, officially condemning the work for calling into question their massively mistaken concept of the universe.

Copernicus was correct, of course, about Earth not being at the center of all things, and the fact that it revolves around the sun. And with every new major scientific development which has produced surprising new models of our physical world — especially those models which directly contradict religiously shaped views of the universe — there has been at first resistance, disbelief, condemnation and anger. Later this generally gives way to  reluctant acceptance of what by then has been proven far beyond any reasonable doubt to be fact. This finally proved to be true in this case as well although it was not until 2010, in fact, that the Vatican allowed Copernicus to be properly reburied in a marked grave. Their final concession to having been wrong took only 457 years to make!.

From Copernicus to Galileo to Newton to Darwin to Einstein, science keeps delivering better, more complete and accurate models for understanding how the world works, challenging our previously held beliefs at every turn. In our modern age, quantum mechanics and its revelation of the wave-particle duality of light continue to challenge our imagination as, on the face of it, these concepts are so counter-intuitive as to seem impossible. But in actuality they do hold up against the scrutiny of the scientific method, and if laypeople (like me) can’t grasp their reality, it is a failure of our own imaginations, not a failure of the science itself.

Simply not being able to believe something is true is never a valid, legitimate reason for necessarily believing it must not, cannot be true. The appeal to incredulity can at best be considered deeply flawed logic. The people or organizations who cling to them most fervently nearly always end up on the wrong side of history, and when they don’t, it’s only because they were lucky enough to be right for the wrong reasons.

2. The Argument from Ignorance, or the God of the Gaps

Let me first clarify, because there is usually confusion about this, that to say someone has used the logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance is not calling that person ignorant. Here, “ignorance” refers to our common, collective ignorance, or more clearly put, the  limitations of human knowledge. For example, the universe is so vast, and our technology for measuring it so limited, that there is a lot of information simply unavailable to us because we simply do not (at least not yet) have the means to acquire it. So in this sense, we are literally “ignorant” about many details of distant space. It is to such areas where human knowledge is lacking that the “ignorance” in “argument from ignorance” refers to, not to the person making the argument.

Religious apologists and proponents of other supernatural or pseudoscientific concepts will at times use the argument from ignorance to exploit the fact that we indeed cannot know everything, and insert whatever explanation they choose in those “empty” spaces beyond and between what is known. They point to those gaps, which legitimately remain mysterious, and stick their gods in there (or ghosts, psychic powers or what have you).

The arguments from incredulity and ignorance closely dovetail each other, and play off each other as our understanding of the universe progresses. Each time our scientific understanding of the world expands — from a flat Earth to a spherical Earth to an Earth which is an oblate spheroid; or from a geocentric to a heliocentric world to what is now recognized as a universe with no discernible center — the gaps into which those gods can be placed grow smaller and smaller. At every step when that which was previously thought only attributable to a god was demonstrated to have perfectly natural causes, the goalposts get moved back to the new border between known and unknown. God keeps getting squeezed into tighter and tinier spaces, but there remain limits to our knowledge and thus holes to plug that god into.

Lightning and thunder, long believed in many cultures to be the anger and punishment of gods, are now of course well understood as a purely material phenomenon. (Though some still believe that appeasing the gods will prompt them to make it rain). The more we understand the world, the narrower and less relevantt the footholds for these gods become.

In the case of the Big Bang theory, which shubsy is challenging, the space in the scientific model for a creator has essentially been pushed back to the very first few moments after the big bang, at which point the laws of physics as we understand them would completely break down, rendering those events beyond investigation. (Physicist Stephen Hawking actually goes a step further, arguing that modern physics allows no room for a creator of the universe). The scientific validity of the Big Bang model, however, is well established by consensus as being the best explanation we currently have for the origin and history of the universe. It has withstood decades of testing, research and attempts at falsification, nearly all of which have failed to disprove it and confirmed its explanatory power.

And the key phrase there is explanatory power, because here’s the thing about science: It works. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is good. Last month NASA sent an amazingly advanced robot to a very precise location on Mars. Their ability to do so rests squarely on the shoulders of giants like Einstein, Newton and Copernicus. Science, unlike religion, actually produces results. If you are reading this now, it’s entirely because science gave us the internet and all the wonderful IT to make convenient use of it. Psychic powers did not send the Voyager to the edge of the Solar System. Spiritual mediums did not discover and develop the insulin which keeps millions of diabetics alive. And churches most certainly did not help Curiosity get to Mars (if anything, they probably prevented it from getting there sooner by holding back scientific progress).

Like all scientific theories, the Big Bang theory is not perfect, and it cannot explain everything, but it has resulted in the development of the most accurate picture of the universe in human history. In a similar sense, the germ theory of disease is not perfect, and cannot explain everything, but it has resulted in the world of modern medicine in which human life expectancy has doubled over the last century.

The fact that scientific theories do have limitations does leave us with many mysteries about the world remaining to be solved. That does not make it legitimate, however, to just plug whatever explanation you like into those gaps in order to justify the things you want to believe. And if you are to make the positive claim that this universe must have a creator, then you are assuming the burden of providing real evidence in support of that claim.

“How could anybody possibly believe there’s no creator?” Because all of the scientific evidence points to a universe in which at the very least a creator would be unknowable and irrelevant, or at most (as Hawking argues) incompatible with our understanding of physics. And in all of human history there has been literally no scientific evidence which supports the existence of a creator. None.

“I’m amazed!” isn’t evidence. It’s the argument from incredulity.

“It’s amazing, so there must be a creator!” isn’t evidence. It’s the exact opposite. It’s wishful thinking. It’s plugging a god into a gap precisely because there is no evidence at all.

I took the time to answer this question at great length because it’s such a common stance, and because it is in fact an important question worth examining. I hope shubsy and others who share his views might use it as a stepping stone towards critically examining previously unquestioned beliefs and claims.

*If you are not familiar with the formal discipline of logic, or logical fallacies, a good introduction can be found here at the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

There seems to be a neverending confusion and conflation of the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”. In this post, I hope to clear up the difference between the two.

From my experience, the two most frequent and important points to address in this matter are:

1) The false claim that, by definition, atheism is the positive assertion that no godds exist; and

2) The profession by many who, according to the precise meanings of the two words, are in fact both atheists and agnostics, that they are agnostics, but not atheists.

Before addressing what’s problematic about these two points, let’s examine the etymology of the words “atheist” and “agnostic” in order to more clearly undeerstand their definitions.

Both words begin with the prefix “a-“. The definition found (as all subsequent definitions are) in wordinfo:

a-, an-
(Greek: prefix; no, absence of, without, lack of, not)

Just as in the words “apolitical” or “areligious”, which respectively mean “not political” and “lacking religion”, this suffix simply means “to lack”. A-theism, then, is a lack of theism, and a-gnosticism a lack of gnosticism:

gno-, gnos-, gnoto-, -gnostic, -gnosia, -gnomic, -gnomonic, -gnomical, -gnomy, -gnosia, -gnostic, -gnosis +
(Greek: know, learn, discern)

theo-, the-, -theism, -theist, -theistic
(Greek: God, god, deity, divine)

As in the words “diagnose” (literally, to know thoroughly) and ignorance (literally the opposite of knowing or not knowing), the root “-gnostic” pertains to knowledge.

The root “-theist”, on the other hand, pertains to belief in one God, or gods. Just as polytheism is the belief in multiple gods, and pantheism is the belief that (roughly speaking) everything is god, atheism is a lack of any belief in any gods.

The fundamental distinction to make here is the difference between belief and knowledge. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Many people, for example, believe in ghosts although they do not claim to have any knowledge – whether by personal experience or external evidence – of the veracity of their existence.

So, when it comes to atheism and agnosticism, these are not different positions on the same linear spectrum. They are answers to two entirely different questions.

In the case of theism or atheism, the question is, “Do you believe that one or more gods exist?” If your answer is anything less than an affirmative “Yes”, then you are an atheist. You lack theistic belief.

And in the case of gnosticism (in the simple sense of peertaining to knowledge) or agnosticism as applied to deities, the question is, “Do you claim to have knowledge of the existence (or nonexistence) of one or more gods?” And if you cannot answer “Yes” to this question, then you are an agnostic.

All four combinations of atheist/theist and agnostic/gnostic are therefore possible. It’s likely that most theists are gnostic theists, who not only believe in God, but also would claim to have knowledge of that God. There are, however, also agnostic theists, who maintain a belief in the existence of God without claiming to have any direct or indirect knowledge upon which to base that belief.

Likewise, the majority of atheists are most likely also agnostic; while remaining unconvinced that any gods exist, they do not go so far as to say they are absolutely certain than none do, or at least could exist (I would include myself in this category). Some atheists do take that extra step beyond lacking belief, however, and make the positive claim of knowledge that no gods exist.

And with that, being that it’s about 2:30 a.m., I’ve just got to cut this off short and hit the sack. I will follow this post up, hopefully this weekend, with a further explanation of why I find the two points at the top of this post problematic.

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