The 3rd in the Bad Atheist Arguments series is now here. Having covered the ‘Bible and Evidence‘ in volume 1, and ‘Beliefs and Propositional Logic‘ in volume 2, I felt it time to address philosophy, fallacies, and general errors in our reasoning.
Whilst there are a number of common theistic fallacies, we atheists forget sometimes that we too are human and have errors in our logic. In fact, many disagree with the last article due to a lack of understanding of how propositional logic works.
Matt Dillahunty / Aron Ra / Richard Dawkins Said…
Unless they are speaking from a field they are accredited, e.g. Dawkins is a Biologist, and their statements are what is held in that field, then you’re making an argument from authority. They may be right, but with subjects, they are not specialists in, e.g. philosophy, they make gross errors.
In fact, revering these folks as leaders and repeating theirs and other “king atheists” without question is becoming a form of dogmatism and turning atheism into an ideology.
Philosophy is Dead!
This is often touted by atheists, seemingly a repetition of what folks like Dawkins have said, all the whilst spending their time discussing philosophical concepts like morality, beliefs, knowledge, free will and not understanding science was born of philosophy, uses philosophical principles today (scientific method, induction, abduction etc).
I think it is safe to conclude that Philosophy is very much alive and used constantly, and folks spending their time discussing morality, beliefs, knowledge etc are all doing philosophy whether they realise it or not.
“Why is philosophy important?”Unknown
“I don’t know. Why is science important?”
“Well, because sci-”
“And now you’re doing philosophy.”
You Can’t Prove a Negative!
I can prove to you right now there isn’t a Dragon in my living room. You can prove a mathematical negative. So already your premise is showing a flaw. This is could be regarded as a framing bias.
Proving non-existence of invisible/ethereal/heavenly beings is obviously a different ballpark but the way the argument has been presented provides an “ah-ha, but I can prove a negative… see”.
So perhaps you would ask them, “the best method to go about testing for their God?”
Perhaps ask them, “how they tested other deities existence?”
It at least furthers the conversation rather than the lazy “you can’t prove a negative” response.
Most people don’t know/are not trained in Logic/Philosophy/Other and this is the terms/definitions/etc we use
Can you believe I have had fellow atheists say such a thing? They scream down creationists using terms like “Kinds” and phrases like “Evolution is a change in kind” when their entire education on the matter is the Bible/Quran and their religious leaders.. yet seemingly think it is acceptable to discuss philosophical concepts without learning the philosophy? I’m not sure if there is a specific fallacy for this one but I am going to call it an ‘ad populum ignoratium‘ fallacy*. Rather than an argument from ignorance, you’re using the fact that most people are ignorant on the topic to not spend the time learning it, and therefore remaining willfully ignorant yourself.
Most atheists claim to be rational. Part of rationality is reasoning using the rules of logic and probability theory. If they want to be rational, then they ought to use the rules of logic, no?
And if they want to discuss a topic, should they not actually learn about that topic instead of just recycling stuff from atheist youtube channels where they also have it wrong?
*I discussed my coining with the AiR crew, and Andy suggested coining it “An Argument FOR ignorance” – e.g. instead of An argument from/appeal to ignorance (Latin: argumentum ad ignorantiam), which states something is true because it has not yet been proved false. Or, that something is false if it has not yet been proved true… it would be “because I don’t know it, and others don’t, I should remain ignorant of it”
Kriss then pointed out it is akin to a ‘tu quoque fallacy’ – which is basically where someone is being a hypocrite with their argument… e.g. “we shouldn’t smoke… but everyone else does so I am going to too” or “we should look after the elderly, but no one else does so I don’t bother either” – this can basically be broken down to as “everyone does this bad thing, so I am going to too”
This would only work if the atheist is making claims like people should have knowledge about the topics they are discussing, or people should be rational.
Of course, before we got to that point we headed down the path of is not doing a thing the same as actively doing the wrong thing. This went down the path of the trolly problem: if you’re not aware of the situation you are not an active participant, but the second you are aware of the situation, you have the ability to save 5 peoples lives even if it causes you to kill one person… which is better than just letting 5 people die.
So to that end, the initial ignorance is understandable, but as soon as we learn more about there being more information on the topic, we should endeavour to learn it and pass on the knowledge.
Being an Atheist Makes me Smart and Rational
Because there are studies that show a correlation between atheists, in general, being more intelligent and more rational than theists, some atheists think simply being an atheist makes them smarter and more rational than theists, that they cannot have errors in their logic, which in turn is an irrational belief in itself. This is also a correlation causation fallacy.
Subjective means from the mind…
This is of course when someone is speaking of morality. Subjective does indeed mean “from the mind/a subject” but it a polysemous word, and words have correct definitions based on the context. When discussing morality it means “based on personal opinion”. Moral Subjectivism is the theory that each individual agent decides on the morality of the action. This would mean if a rapist decided it was moral to rape, it would be moral for the rapist to rape regardless of your opinion. Is it moral for a rapist to rape, or do you hold them to a standard above their personal opinion?
For more information on morality, why we use these definitions, please check these posts from Dave.
There are subjective, relative and objective aspects to morality, especially in a descriptive sense. It is more objective when considered normatively.
For a normative look at morality check the below:
Many atheists seem to take one tiny part of morality being subjective and think that makes the whole thing subjective. It is similar to the god of the gaps argument… “you don’t know this part of reality, therefore, God did it”. “well some people value different things, therefore, morality is subjective”
It is far more complicated than a simple objective/subjective argument. It is not binary. Although normatively we do try to move to a Correct Objective Standard.
Scepticism vs Denialism
Many folks don’t realise that scepticism isn’t simply saying “I don’t believe you” and “no, you’re wrong!”. In fact, as I have demonstrated with this article series and my conflated misunderstood terms series, many take a defensive stance to new information.
This is understandable, we form cognitive biases and when you have heard the same arguments from theists, especially when you spend time speaking to the really irrational YEC types, you start to form a bias against things that they say. The second someone says something similar to it, you’re already closed off to the notion.
This, however, is not the behaviour of a good sceptic.
In other circumstances, folks wear the badge of a sceptic but are more interested in “winning” an argument over understanding the other person’s position and getting to the right answer.
Like a fallacy is an error in logic where you are not necessarily wrong, but have a flaw in your reasoning, denialism is an error in your scepticism where you have forgotten to check your bias, have lost the will to understand the other person’s position, and just deny everything they say.
- Podcast: Scepticism.
- Denialism and Pseudoscepticism.
- Changing A Mind: Respect Matters.
- Cognitive Bias.
- Confirmation Bias and Our Tribal Nature.
Some useful reading on the matter
- Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, London, Penguin House.
- Greco, J. (2011) The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Pritchard, D. (2019) Scepticism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- SEP entry for Skepticism: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism/
- SEP entry for Epistemology: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/
- IEP entry for Contemporary Skepticism: https://www.iep.utm.edu/skepcont/
Using dictionaries as evidence
Especially in the case of a single dictionary as your only evidence.
Dictionaries are useful things, they describe how language is most commonly used… so on the internet, e.g. google dictionary, you will get how words are most commonly used there, an American dictionary will have American usage and spellings, and an English one will have English use and spellings. Over time words that are considered “slang” might become official uses in dictionaries, and definitions that are no longer used or are highly contextual may not be present in that dictionary.
However, a dictionary might not have all the definitions available, or folks may cherry-pick a definition to suit what they are discussing when the word is polysemous and in certain contexts has a CORRECT definition. These types of fallacies could be known as a definitional fallacy. (not to be confused with a redefinition fallacy or no true Scotsman fallacy)
Consider how theory is used colloquially vs its application in science. Theory can be used to mean an idea, but when used in science it is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Vastly different usages, right? But a theist can point to a dictionary and say “see a theory is just an idea” and ignore the context.
This irks us atheists no end, yet we seem to fall back on it when discussing things like faith, beliefs, and all sorts of philosophical concepts. We can’t have it both ways folks! Either dictionaries are acceptable for these discussions, and we ignore the context, or we admit words are funny things and realise there might be a correct definition for the context that we ought to be using regardless of how people might actually be using them.
I am in no way saying you can’t use a dictionary at all. The problem comes with cherry-picking one definition that suits your needs, claiming it is the “correct” definition, and operating on confirmation bias (and therefore other definitions that are in conflict are “wrong”), ignoring the context, and perhaps more stipulative or contextual definitions of words, all the while asserting you are right because you’ve found an entry or two that agrees with you.
Summary of Philosophy and Fallacy
Being an atheist does not make us smart, rational, logical, or prevent us from committing fallacies. Assuming it does is an error in logic and an irrational belief.
Ignorance of a topic is not an argument against it, and others ignorance is not an excuse not to learn it.