Tone-policing and the need for rhetoric


As some of you have noticed, I’ve adopted a policy of dealing harshly with some commenters both here and on social media. Understandably, this makes some of you who are less experienced in debating uncomfortable: I’ve had a few readers interpret my responses as “reflexive” and “defensive,” and suggest I take a more gentle approach. This is what we refer to in the biz as “tone-policing,” and I’ll explain to you why it’s misguided at best.

As I recently pointed out to a reader who was uncomfortable with my rhetorical approach, it’s neither reflexive nor defensive, it’s a deliberate policy of using harsh appeals to emotion to deal with people who can only be reached this way. Christians who have never done any practical ministry of their own tend to hold the naïve opinion that atheists are honest truth-seekers who just haven’t yet found the truth because of bad luck. If that were the case, then my responses would indeed be needlessly harsh, and gentle reason would be the right approach. However, the assumption of honest truth-seeking is often wrong. Yes, there are honest truth-seeking atheists, and I’ll willingly engage them in civil dialogue; however, experience has sadly shown that such people are in the minority in blog comments and on social media. I’ve engaged in countless debates on serious topics for the last fifteen years, and in that time have become skilled at recognizing when people are not arguing in good faith, but rather are using deceptive techniques to lead people astray, to delude themselves, or to just stir the pot for their own amusement. Others are simply unable to argue on the facts and evidence, because they are driven almost entirely by emotion. It’s a waste of time to attempt to engage any of these people using gentle reason; they will only respond to appeals to emotions, which often necessitates being harsh and caustic.

It’s unfortunate, because I don’t particularly like rhetoric or being harsh. I would much prefer to engage in civil dialectic, but as Aristotle pointed out thousands of years ago, there is a certain type of person who is immune to anything but appeals to emotion. Trying to use gentle reason with such a person is about as effective as trying to explain something in Korean to someone who only understands French.

Now, as to the discomfort some of you feel when you see me responding to critics with harsh rhetoric, it would be instructive to go back to scripture and examine the way in which Jesus and Paul responded to deceivers and manipulators. As some of my friends are fond of pointing out, Jesus was not above overturning tables when it was called for. Western Christians in particular seem to have forgotten this, and have instead become fixated on niceness at all costs. For those of you who insist that niceness is the only way to persuade people of the truth, consider that if this were true, mainline churches in the West wouldn’t be hemorrhaging members. I encourage you to study Paul’s commentaries in the original Greek—he uses language that is far harsher and saltier than anything you will ever likely see from me. And it’s worth considering that Church growth was explosive during times when Christians were far more likely to be harsh defenders of the truth than Ned Flandersesque disciples of niceness.

Defending truth is uncomfortable business. If my responses to certain people make you uncomfortable and you notice a lot of flak flying around, that’s a good indicator that I’m right over the target. Rejoice, because this is an opportunity for the truth–even just a little bit–to find its way in.

“There is no God” is a positive statement

You’ve probably encountered atheists who say, “There is no God” and then insist that the burden of proof is on you, the believer, to prove it wrong since you’re the one claiming that God exists.

That’s not how it works.

Atheists frequently confuse “positive” (philosophy) with “affirmative” (grammar), which is why they think “There is no God” isn’t a positive statement. That’s how they try to push the burden of proof to the God-believer after they make their claim.

“There is no God” is a negative statement in the grammatical sense, but the opposite of this — grammatically — is not a positive statement, but rather an affirmative statement. An affirmative statement in grammar is a statement that asserts the truth of something. Its opposite is a negative statement, which asserts falsity. For instance, “George Washington was the first President of the United States” is an affirmative statement, while “Benjamin Franklin was not a President of the United States” is a negative one. They are, however, both positive statements in the philosophical sense.

A positive statement in philosophy is a statement that is (at least ostensibly) based in fact and is subject to empirical testing. Some examples of positive statements:

“The average donut contains 500 calories.”

“There is no eighth continent.”

“Dinosaurs once existed on Earth.”

“The Earth is flat.”

Note that the statement doesn’t have to be affirmative or even true to be a positive statement, it just has to be based in fact and subject to testing. For instance, “There is no eighth continent” is a positive statement, because it makes a factual claim that is subject to testing. If a person were to make such a claim, he would then be obligated to show evidence of its truth. Satellite images of the Earth’s surface clearly showing only seven continents would suffice. “The Earth is flat” is a positive statement — it’s ostensibly based on fact and it’s subject to testing — even though it’s demonstrably false.

Positive statements that assert the non-existence of something are notoriously difficult to prove, which is why people don’t often make them, at least not seriously. While few people would contest the statement, “There are no rainbow-farting unicorns,” it’s actually difficult to prove, since you would have to have knowledge of everything everywhere on Earth to do so. This is why savvier atheists don’t fall into the trap of stating that there is no God. They will instead say that God’s existence is doubtful, laughable, risible, etc., which they know are much more supportable statements than God doesn’t exist.

“There is no God” is a positive statement. Whoever makes such a claim therefore has the burden of proof. If anyone denies this, he doesn’t understand the difference between positive and affirmative statements — or he thinks you don’t know the difference. If you find yourself with an argumentative atheist making this statement, point out his error and give him the opportunity to either retract it or to supply the proof.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the specific ‘scientific’ reason for my conversion to Christianity.

LC writes:

Thank you for making the story of your conversion to Christianity public.  I am a Christian apologist who is using your story as a discussion point in a meetup I am holding.  One of the atheists that is attending is asking what specific scientific reasons (not philosophical or theological) you found most compelling in your conversion.  The article mentions your work on deuterium abundances as well as your amazement that the universe is comprehensible.  Do you have any other scientific reasons that I could share with the group that you find compelling?

My conversion was a two-step process that took place over many years. I first went from atheism to theism, and then after a few years, I went from theism to Christianity. The former was completely unexpected; the latter was a very deliberate process.

You will have to explain to your atheist attendee that you cannot separate science from philosophy, so there was no ‘purely scientific’ reason for my conversion. What specifically led me to believe in God was the idea best expressed by Einstein when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Through my research in cosmology, I got an overwhelming sense of a universe that is so rational that it’s as though it wanted to be understood. I had a specific question I was trying to answer with my research — how much of the universe is comprised of ordinary matter* — and it shocked me when I realized not only how answerable the question was, but that there was no reason it had to be this way. How is it even possible to have a rational universe without some kind of rational cause? I realized that by far the best explanation for the existence of the universe is that it was caused by a personal, rational, transcendent being of some kind. At that time, I called this personal cause “God,” but didn’t have any specific religious beliefs beyond God as the Creator.

Note that this is not a God of the gaps argument or an argument from incredulity, which is how atheists often try to spin it. It’s simply the most rational explanation, and I had no choice but to accept it on that basis. If you want to understand this explanation in greater depth, William Lane Craig has some good articles and videos on the philosophical argument that the cause of the universe has to be a personal being.

It was that realization that took me from atheism to theism. What took me from theism to Christianity was mostly Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, which I highly recommend. After reading the first four chapters in particular, I reasoned that the odds of Genesis not being divinely inspired were so low as to be effectively impossible. Once I realized that Genesis was, contra the odds, rather scientifically accurate for a thousands year-old document, I began investigating the rest of the Bible and specifically the evidence for the gospels. I came to the conclusion that the best explanation, given the evidence, is that the gospels were true, so I accepted Jesus on that basis.

* One of these days I’m going to write a post about the details of the research project and how it ultimately led to my conversion.

Why Rationalia is doomed to failure

Earlier this week, science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed a virtual nation that sounds like a science-fetishists dream-come-true:

It provoked some mocking responses on Twitter, like this one

The idea is ripe for mockery, because, of all people, a scientist should understand what a subjective basis for policy this is.

As a scientist, I’m very much in favor of evidence and reason; but to base an entire nation’s policy on the weight of evidence is ludicrous, for one simple reason. Has our knowledge of the world stayed the same in the last 500 years? the last 100 years? the last 5 years? the last six months? The last six minutes? The answer, of course, is no. The weight of evidence is constantly changing. There have been so many major revolutions in science and philosophy based on the current weight of evidence that our view of the world has been upended more times than you can probably count. Ironically, to base your policy only on the weight of evidence means that your policy is completely subjective, not objective.

Also, who decides how to interpret the evidence? Interpretation is subject to limitations, like current technology, limited human perception, and human emotions. This is why bad theories persist for so long in spite of evidence to the contrary, and why there are alternate theories for just about everything. And even when there’s consensus, that’s hardly a guarantee that the evidence won’t support an entirely different view in the future. Remember, there was a time when most people thought the Sun went around the Earth and that there were no such things as germs.

But for the sake of argument, let’s accept the premise of Rationalia and apply its sole law of the land to judge whether Rationalia would be a place in which anyone would want to live. We don’t need to imagine it, because there have already been at least two major historical movements based on reason and evidence — the French Revolution and communism. The first devolved into an orgy of violence and produced the exact opposite of what it intended, and the second led to misery and genocide on a scale never before seen on earth before it ultimately collapsed under the sheer weight of its opposition to reality. The weight of evidence says that any nation whose policy is based solely on the weight of evidence will be an unmitigated disaster.

Don’t misunderstand me. The point here is not to reject evidence and reason — evidence and reason are important and have their place in any decision-making process — but they cannot be the sole arbiters of policy.

[This isn’t the post I alluded to yesterday. That one probably won’t be posted until next week. -Ed.]

Bill Nye the ignorant guy

A philosophy student asks Bill Nye what he thinks about other science popularizers, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking, dismissing philosophy as unimportant:

While Nye claims in his response that philosophy raises “cool questions,” he essentially dismisses it, and in a manner that betrays an ignorance of essential Western philosophy. A writer at Quark describes his statements as “ludicrously wrong” and explains why philosophy is, in fact, relevant not only to science but to our everyday lives.

What stood out to me in Nye’s dismissal of philosophy was his skepticism of the idea that “reality isn’t real or that what you sense and feel is not authentic.” Most of us do indeed go about our daily lives on the assumption that what we sense and feel is authentic, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the idea that it’s all an illusion. So, why does Nye dismiss it? Because he can drop a hammer on his foot and feel the sensation of pain.

I’m a little astonished that a Science Guy would use such an example to address one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy, given that it’s not only a logical fallacy, but demonstrably, scientifically flawed. Amputees experience a sensation known as phantom pain in limbs that no longer exist, and neurological experiments have been able to create the sensation of touch by directly stimulating the brain. The sensations exist in both cases, but are those experiences authentic? Not by Nye’s definition.

I’m also a little astonished that a Science Guy would ignore one of the most fundamental scientific arguments against the authenticity of experience, which is the Boltzmann Brain idea. The Boltzmann Brain idea is a version of the brain-in-a-vat argument that has been popularized by the Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, who makes frequent use of it in debates with atheists. The idea is that in the absence of a personal entity creating the universe, it’s statistically much more likely that atoms in the universe would spontaneously arrange themselves into brains that hallucinate having experiences than that these same atoms would spontaneously arrange themselves into the vast, complex, and ordered structure we observe in the universe. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if we are merely Boltzmann Brains, then the sensations we think we’re experiencing are nothing more than the atoms in our brains, for physical or chemical reasons, arranging themselves in a certain way that give us as a by-product these sensations. The question of whether this is the case goes beyond a simple inability to disprove it; it’s much more likely to be true if the material universe is all that there is.

The only way you can be reasonably certain that you’re not just a brain in a vat is to assume that a personal entity — God — created the universe, an assumption I’m reasonably certain Nye, the avowed agnostic, rejects. Nye is therefore entirely unjustified in dismissing the idea that reality might not be real or that experiences may not be authentic. This is why philosophers have been discussing the nature of reality and experience for thousands of years. It’s also why science could only have arisen from the Christian worldview.

Now, here’s the punchline for the agnostic Science Guy who dismisses the importance of philosophy in favor of the “realism” of science. When you understand the big questions of philosophy sufficiently well, you understand why belief in God is necessary for science to even exist.

Demolishing atheist arguments — clarification on the Third Way

This is a follow-up to Russell’s guest post about Aquinas’ Five Ways. Following a vigorous discussion in the comments, he wanted to clarify his commentary of the Third Way.

My apologies, I’ve muddled up the Third Way a bit here. Let me try it again and unmuddle. If you aren’t satisfied, I’ll double your money back.

The Third Way

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence – which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

The words ‘possibility’ and ‘necessity’ have be used in the context of Aquinas’ time.

‘Possibility’ is used in the Aristotelian sense, that is, the hylemorphic composite nature of something that can possibly be and not to be. This nature is inherent. Whatever form something has now, if it has hylemorphic nature, it will fail to exist in that form given enough time. It lacks the potential for indefinite existence.

By ‘necessity,’ he means the opposite of possibility: something that by its nature is everlasting, it cannot cease to exist no matter how much time passes. It cannot change into something it is not. By its very nature, for example, it cannot become contingent.

Aquinas’ argument starts with establishing the fact that if the hylemorphic somethings of the Universe, be it an entity or an action or a cause or an event or whatever, at some point, given infinite time, never existed, and, again, given infinite time, all things would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be here arguing about why we are here.

He says that’s absurd, and, because we are here, something has to have Necessary Being, which means something that exists is non-temporal and non-contingent. Here he uses being to mean being as existence and as a supreme being that men call God, “I am that I am,” which is of itself Being. He uses being not as one being among other beings, but being qua being. I’m not an expert in Latin, but the tricky passage is here: Ergo necesse est ponere aliquid quod sit per se necessarium, non habens causam necessitatis aliunde, sed quod est causa necessitatis aliis, quod omnes dicunt Deum. Sit per se isn’t complete by itself, so we have to look at necessarium, as well, and that all roughly translates into being as an abstract which has its own necessity, its own everlastingness.

It’s this Necessary Being that sustains all Possible things.

So, Aquinas’ argument then takes care of the Universe always existing, the Universe contracting and expanding forever, and multi-universes for the same reason.

I hope this has unmuddled what I had muddled. Amateur philosophers, sheesh!

Another point is that these Ways are not empirical, scientific proofs, but metaphysical demonstrations. That means none of his arguments are tied to past, current, or future scientific knowledge, because they don’t rest on empirical evidence.