Arguing with theists

A Redditor posted some tips on “How to talk to theists” and it’s such an interesting mixture of (IMO) good and bad advice that I thought I’d take some time for a point-by-point discussion:

Watch your language!It’s easy to get heated over this topic. I know the two things that make me angry are religion and stupid people so you just have to control yourself for the good of the conversation.

Agreed. Dealing with monumental stupidity and/or willful ignorance can get you flustered, and with good reason. But getting flustered in an argument tends to make your opponent (and, more importantly, any onlookers) think you’re losing.

Learn the psychology of words – Context is everything, and an intelligent thought could be ignored just by the misuse of a single word. Like the word “believe”, this is a relative term. Instead of saying, “I don’t believe in god” say, “god does not exist and I simply acknowledge that fact.”

Yes, how we use words is important. And yes, talking about whether you “believe in God” implicitly endorses the framework in which “God” exists. But calling atheism a “fact” is asking for trouble, unless you can actually prove a negative. Personally, the way I phrase it is “I think (or “My best guess is”) that there aren’t any deities.” That makes it clear that I’m not an agnostic or weak atheist, but it also widens the scope to make clear that I’m not limiting the discussion to atheism vs. 1 specific religion (the better to avoid Pascal’s fallacy wherein one falsely assumes that Christianity and atheism are the only options).

Do the Research – If you know you’re going to get into an argument with someone you don’t see every day, be prepared. The best weapon we have is the collection of faith debunking material found on reddit and various books. I wish it was as simple as saying that there is no proof, but it’s not. It’s hard to come to terms with atheism if you are a theist, because you have to give up a lot of pleasant ideas in order to be freed from the stupidity.

Agreed, although I’m not as dismissive of the value of pointing out that there’s no proof (or evidence) for theism. I think it’s important to keep the burden of proof where it belongs — on the one who’s making the extraordinary claims, not the one who’s doubting them.

Don’t be overwhelming – If you don’t know someone’s religious background, ease out of the conversation. You don’t want to look like an insensitive jerk. God is the equivalent of an afterlife-santa. If you tell them god doesn’t exist, then they freak out because they won’t get their eternity of bliss wrapped with a fancy bow. If you don’t know the person well but you will be seeing them often, give them ideas to work with and pry at their own beliefs.

True, and interesting given the very next bit of advice:

The Double Tap – Right when they start to agree with what you say, make sure they understand it by giving them some additional material to reflect upon.

Like he said above, don’t be overwhelming. If you can get a theist to start agreeing with you, to start walking up the base of that mountain, don’t discourage them by showing them how much more mountain is left to climb. When people get the sense that they’re a little bit wrong, they can keep functioning. When they get the sense that they’re really, really wrong, they sometimes curl up in a ball and refuse to listen to any more, or they lash out like a cornered animal. Neither is constructive for a debate (although head-exploding meltdowns can be fun to watch).

Don’t Use Religious Terms – “God, that was an awful movie.” I know I have a habit of saying these phrases. I feel like a jerk when I don’t bless someone when they sneeze. Saying these colloquial phrases hinders your credibility with the subject. If you talk about spirits, or keep talking about god even out of context, it will make you look like a walking contradiction. It’s so engraved in our brains, for some of us, that this is probably the hardest rule to follow.

I totally disagree, and don’t see how this would have any effect on an argument with a theist in the first place. If anything, using those terms helps cushion the blow by showing the theist that he doesn’t have to stop saying “oh my God” when something’s freaky, or “bless you” when someone sneezes, and also shows the theist that a lot of “God talk” isn’t really God-oriented at all.

(pic via Fleasnobbery)

45 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by noblecaboose on August 19, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    The funny thing about the “God” language, is that in my Christian upbringing, saying “God” in vain was discouraged, hence “gosh” and “oh my goodness.” Saying “God bless you,” was an exception, of course. Saying “Oh my God” ought to be fair game for atheists, after all, for us, blasphemy doesn’t matter. And I say “gesundheit” when someone sneezes, because it just means “good health” and it sounds funny.


  2. I would disagree with you about burden of proof, coming as a theist. A theist is just the counter to your own worldview. So if you say, “I think that there aren’t any deities,” a theist would be saying, “I think that there is a deity.” There is no burden of proof when discussing plausability; only (as modern science puts it) inference of the best explanation.

    Asking me to prove that God exists is like me asking you to prove that you were born. Unless you can take me in the time machine back to your birth and have me watch you being delivered, all you can give me is evidence that you were born (e.g. you’re alive and here now, you have a birth certificate, video footage, etc.). It doesn’t matter how compelling the evidence is; it’s still only evidence until I can see you being born with my own eyes. So if you think me asking for proof that you were born is silly, consider how your insistence on proof of a deity’s existence sounds to the theist.

    So there is no burden of proof on the atheist, but if we’re all being intellectually honest with ourselves, there’s no burden of proof on the theist either. We should just follow the evidence where it leads and decide for ourselves. There’s no harm in that.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for your time in reading this!

    Best regards. 🙂


    • Posted by brachinus on August 27, 2010 at 3:58 pm

      If we’re discussing Russell’s Teapot (a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars), is the burden of proof on someone who says it exists, or on the person who says they think the best guess is that there isn’t any teapot in orbit around the sun?

      As for my birth certificate (a notarized document signed by witnesses to my birth), it may not be absolute proof, but what do you have that’s even remotely comparable WRT God’s existence? The Bible is a bunch of orally transmitted stories that eventually got written down. There’s no notarization, no contemporary witness accounts.

      True, there’s no burden of proof on you if all you want is to keep to your own belief. But if you want to ask anyone else to share your belief, then you can’t just ask them to disprove it. Whereas if someone asks me how I can be an atheist, it’s entirely reasonable for me to say that it’s because nobody has given me evidence of why I shouldn’t be.


      • But if you want to use Russell’s Teapot, the theist would be akin to saying “I think it exists,” not that it definitely does. So my argument remains the same. The two positions are counter to each other; for you to say your best guess is that there are no deities but then pigeon-hole theists into making a definitive claim isn’t being intellectually honest with yourself. We’re both in the same boat; we just choose to paddle on different sides.

        My illustration about your birth was just to highlight the fact that asking for proof of such an idea is silliness. You are correct that there is no absolute proof short of actually witnessing the birth, and that was my point precisely. You can provide evidence; that is all the theist purports to do. A theist doesn’t seek to establish proof; the theist seeks to establish possibility and plausibility. And an intellectually honest theist would never try to use the Bible to prove the existence of God, so I have no idea why you brought that argument into the picture.

        That said, if you believe that there is a burden of proof or at least of evidence on the theist, then it logically follows that if you ask to see such proof or evidence that you have placed on yourself a “burden of objectivity.” If you want to see the evidence for theism, then it is your job to listen to the evidence and ask reasonable questions, not to reject or offer rebuttals at every turn. Anyone who is not objective in this sense is seeking an argument, not evidence. I would be happy to take on the burden of establishing evidence if you are willing to take on the burden of objectivity. We can do it here or offline; whichever you’d prefer. Ball’s in your court.

  3. Posted by brachinus on August 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    But if someone wants to say they think there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, they really should be able to provide a reason why they think such a bizarre thing would be true.

    If someone doesn’t happen to think there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, they don’t really have to provide any evidence, since it’s not an especially extraordinary (or even interesting) view.

    As for birth certificates, they constitute evidence for the existence of the person whose birth they (purport to) record. What similar evidence exists for God’s existence?

    And asking for evidence for theism does not preclude rejecting or rebutting bad arguments. In my experience, it fairly cries out for it. Sometimes you may offer evidence that provokes a question that you consider reasonable. Other times, your “evidence” may provoke a rebuttal. That doesn’t mean the other person isn’t interested in your “evidence,” it merely means they’ve found a flaw in it.

    Also, evidence stands on its own. It requires no cooperation or “objectivity” in order to be valid. If you think you have evidence for God’s existence, I suggest you present it and not worry about whether I’ll be objective enough to accept it. In my experience, the importance of such debates isn’t to convince the opponent that s/he’s wrong, but to convince any onlookers that you’re right.


    • Your first three paragraphs all make my point for me. We’re discussing evidence, not proof, in every one of the cases listed there.

      And absolutely there needs to be objectivity on your part in order for evidence to be viewed reasonably. Pre-conceptions can potentially lead to false assumptions. For instance, you need to have an objective view of science in order to reasonably discuss all evidence that is available. However, the current trend towards methodological naturalism includes an inherent pre-supposition that nothing scientific can be found that supports evidence of the supernatural. That is not objectivity. So if you are willing to except all hypotheses as valid and only reject the ones that carry no support or merit, then we can talk. But that means you have to give it an objective and fair shot before you reject it.

      My goal in such a discussion is to appeal to onlookers, but if I didn’t also care about you personally, why would I choose to discuss with you? The purpose of the debate is to show the evidence to everyone, including you. Although if your aim at the outset is to shoot down everything I offer as evidence, then I’d rather not spend my time that way. Again, ball’s in your court.


      • Posted by brachinus on August 27, 2010 at 5:05 pm

        Obviously we’re discussing evidence. Proof, as they say, is for mathematics and alcohol (even though they don’t go together).

        And what you call “methodological naturalism” is what most people call “science.” By definition, science can’t study the supernatural (if something can be studied by science, then it is by definition natural).

        I don’t know if my aim is to “shoot down everything” you offer, but I certainly think I have good reasons for my views, and I tend to explain why some argument or purported evidence fails to change them. Then again, you haven’t indicated whether you’re equally open to evidence against your views being valid.

        But if you really feel you have evidence for theism (rather than merely believing in it), then feel free to present it. And feel free to accuse me of lacking objectivity if I point out the areas where I don’t share your view of its validity.

      • Fair enough. I am open to your questioning validity of my views, as long as you are willing to do the same.

        What would you like the forum for this to be? Do you want it to be here or offline via E-mail?

  4. Posted by brachinus on August 27, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I’m happy to do it here, or I could give you the name of the (Christian-operated) discussion board where I usually hang out.

    I don’t see much point in an offline discussion, since the chance of either of us persuading the other is pretty slim.


  5. Fair enough. My first point of evidence is in the origin of the universe. The kalam cosmological argument is a good basis for beginning this discussion. If you’ve never heard it (doubtful, I’m sure), it is as follows:

    1) Everything that exists has a cause.
    2) The universe exists.
    3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

    Now if we look at the current expansion rate of the universe, if we use the principle of infinite regress, we would have to conclude that the beginning of the universe had to have come from nothing, for infinite regress would suggest that an expanding universe in reverse would collapse on itself. So this first cause of the universe would have to come from, naturalistically, nothing.

    The theist purports the existence of a Being that transcends time and space, and so is not limited to natural effects of time and space. So it is entirely possible that such a Being would be able to causally affect the creation of the universe without being subject to its limits. A Being not limited to natural cause and effect would be able to create a universe “ex nihilo,” or out of nothing, because a Being who creates such a “box” would have to exist apart from this box. The theistic view of God fits this evidence. However, the theistic view of the Creator of the universe is also that such a Creator would have to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present, so the question “Who created the Creator?” is not a valid one when you attribute omnipotence to the God of the theist.

    Now when we look at what the naturalist says explains the origin of the universe, we don’t really have an answer. We get some vague explanations about quantum fluctuations existing that cause “virtual particles” to pop in and out of existence, though this is not verified as being different from a simple transfer of energy. That, and these virtual particles in discussion only exist when the amount of total energy is minute (like, inside of a proton minute). And yet this is the current naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe, that such a quantum fluctuation (which we can only find in minute parts of atoms) is responsible for the Big Bang. To me, this takes a much greater leap of faith than to assume that a transcendent, omnipotent Creator with the capacity to create the universe ex nihilo exists, so I use the scientific method of “inference of best explanation” to plausibly make my best guess that such a God exists. Or as I’ve put it to others previously, an answer with some science is better than no answer with some science.



  6. Posted by brachinus on August 27, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Sorry, but if the creator is an exception to your first premise (everything must have a cause), then your entire argument falls down, since it’s founded on a false premise. Also, claiming the creator is omni-max doesn’t render moot the question of said creator’s origin. If you can say God “just always existed,” then I can say the same of the universe.

    And you could have saved us both a lot of time and typing. You could have just said “Kalam,” and I could reply “special pleading for God,” and move ahead to Round 2. 😉

    And your “inference of best explanation” implies the existence of an explanation. And “God did it” is not an explanation, it’s an excuse for avoiding one.


    • Ok perhaps I needed to be more specific with my first premise: Everything that exists naturalistically has a cause. I thought that was implied. Sorry about that.

      Regardless of said creator’s origin, even if the creator of the universe were not God and were created by another being, this other being would have to be transcendent of time and space. So another being that created the creator of the universe would also have to be transcendent of time and space. So the supernatural explanation for the universe still holds true. You can’t discredit it by asking “Who created the creator?” We’re talking natural versus supernatural, so the question is rendered moot. The question only becomes valid when you allow that the supernatural explanation is the best fit. You can’t say “which supernatural being is it” until you say “it is a supernatural being.”

      And you can’t say the universe always existed. That would imply an infinite universe, and modern science has shown conclusively that the universe is winding down to a definite end. Something can’t be both infinite and finite. If the universe has a definite end, it has a definite beginning.

      2nd and 3rd paragraphs = lack of objectivity. Please try to look objectively at my argument instead of already bringing in your pre-suppositions, especially because your objections aren’t rooted in anything but opinion. If we’re discussing evidence, let’s use science and reason, not ad hominems. This is exactly what I was saying I didn’t want to get into.

      I’m also curious about 2 things: 1) Why there were absolutely no questions in your reply. I’m guessing it’s because you were using only your pre-suppositions and not objectivity. 2) Why there was nothing in your reply in regards to the current naturalistic postulation about the origin of the universe. Is it because you realize how flimsy it is too?


      • Posted by brachinus on August 27, 2010 at 7:14 pm

        If you want to argue that the creator doesn’t exist “naturalistically,” then you need to demonstrate that there’s some non-natural realm in which such things can exist.

        And if it’s so easy for creators to exist without being created, doesn’t that logically suggest that there are lots of creators out there? I mean, since there’s apparently nothing stopping them from existing?

        And I’m confused by your claim that I can’t say the universe always existed because science disagrees, while earlier you yourself said science was wrong about that.

        I’m happy to let any onlookers judge for themselves whether my 2nd and 3rd paragraphs are as you described, or whether they’re legitimate objections to flaws in your arguments.

        As for why there were no questions in my reply, it’s because I spend a lot of time on an online discussion board where pretty much every 3 or 4 days some joker pops up with the Kalam argument, acting like it’s some new and devastating proof of God. And I didn’t discuss the current state of cosmology because cosmology makes my head hurt — but that doesn’t mean I’m reduced to throwing up my hands and saying “I guess it must be magic.”

  7. I was going to hold off on the non-natural, but since you asked, would you like door #1 or door #2?

    Your 2nd paragraph still misses the point. It makes no sense to talk about how many or which one until you can admit that there is something supernatural. This is putting the cart before the horse.

    3rd paragraph: Then explain to me how something can be both infinite and finite, because science also says that the universe is definitely ending.

    I didn’t think the kalam cosmological argument was new, just that it seems to make a pretty compelling case for God. The universe exists because it was caused, but science has no explanation outside of God to explain the cause. That you wouldn’t even give a “yup, sounds good” to the current cosmological hypothesis of science suggest to me that perhaps you are as unconvinced about this hypothesis as I am. Yet you are so willing to say, “We don’t know and that’s fine” rather than give any sort of credit to a theory that’s been postulated for at minimum 4,000 years. Is that being intellectually honest with yourself? To say that no answer is a better explanation than an answer? I’ll let any onlookers judge your argument for themselves, because it clearly has less merit than mine.


    • Posted by brachinus on August 28, 2010 at 10:09 am

      I’d at least be willing to stipulate to a supernatural realm, just to see how you’d defend your version of it against other possible versions. But I admit I was jumping ahead a bit.

      I’m not aware of science saying anything is “definitely” happening, although it may well have a hypothesis strong enough that knowledgeable people treat it as fact (like gravity, evolution, germs causing disease, etc.).

      I’m not aware of any “theory” that’s been postulated for thousands of years. A theory explains the available data, and as I’ve already mentioned, “God did it” is not an explanation. You claimed science has no explanation for the cause of the universe, but you contradicted yourself on that in your first or second post when you mentioned quantum fluctuation and the Big Bang. Science at least relies on phenomena that are known to exist, rather than postulating some supernatural realm containing a supernatural being.

      And, of course, you’re begging the question if you wish to use God’s existence as a premise in an argument meant to demonstrate God’s existence. That’s not quite what you’re doing, but you’re right on the edge of it.

      But yes, “we don’t know” is actually preferable to “God did it,” in situations where the existence of “God” hasn’t been established. If we know nature exists, then “nature did it, somehow” beats “God did it, somehow” as an explanation (although neither one should satisfy us and prevent us from finding a better answer).


      • The way I would stipulate theism is via both the horizontal and vertical cosmological arguments. Using deductive arguments, the logical conclusions are that God is the cause of the universe, but also a necessary element in the sustaining of the universe. Only a theistic God purports to be both transcendent and immanent.

        To your second paragraph: if you are willing to stipulate that evolution is a strong enough hypothesis to be called a theory and to be accepted, then you have to accept that the second law of thermodynamics should also be accepted, since it is a law and therefore stronger than a theory. So if the universe is winding down to an end, then it is finite, and you still are unable to explain how something can be both finite and infinite.

        I said that science has no good answer for the origin of the universe, particularly because naturalism’s theory is not measurable and repeatable. So scientific method cannot be used when discussing the origin of the cosmos. We’re looking at the evidence, and given that the theist has evidence of creation ex nihilo, which supports the account of Genesis 1:1, that gives the theist the advantage over no evidence for the naturalist view.

        And I’m not using God’s existence to prove God’s existence. I’m using creation of the universe ex nihilo to support the evidence for God’s existence. I’m not trying to prove anything, because as I’ve clearly stated and established the evidentiary method is the only reasonable method for determining something that is not repeatable, such as the beginning of the universe.

        Your last paragraph clearly shows that you are looking in a black and white world. You’re looking for proof, and not evidence. This goes back to my proof of birth argument. We should be looking at evidence, and the only reasonable evidence postulated here supports theism. You have given no evidence for the naturalistic worldview, so clearly theism is the more plausible worldview.

  8. Posted by brachinus on August 28, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I’m missing the “deductive arguments” that lead to God existing, unless you’re referring to Kalam, which is rife with special pleading and question-begging. And what some religion “purports” about their deity is irrelevant.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics isn’t a theory, it’s much smaller in scope than that. And it says nothing about the universe winding down to an end. Entropy doesn’t produce non-existence.

    Even if current cosmological hypotheses are non-repeatable, that doesn’t mean science is useless for cosmology, and it sure doesn’t mean religion is an acceptable substitute. You say “the theist has evidence of creation ex nihilo” — what evidence are you referring to?

    If you want to use creation to prove God’s existence, then go ahead and demonstrate evidence for creation. And keep in mind that evidence against competing hypotheses is not evidence in favor of your hypothesis.

    At any rate, if (just for fun) we stipulate to a supernatural realm existing, then what’s the most likely number of deities? It seems to me that “one” is exceedingly unlikely, since apparently there’s no major obstacle to their existence. And lots of things in reality are suggestive of more than one deity — I mean, just look at lions and antelopes. Did one entity really create lions to be good at catching antelopes, and also create antelopes to be good at running away from lions? Isn’t that kind of like playing chess with yourself? Seem to me that it’s more likely that there are lots of creators, working against each other.


    • Where is the special pleading or question-begging in the kalam cosmological argument? There is no exemption to any of the premises, so there is no special pleading, and the conclusion is not stated in the premise at all. This is a simple deductive argument:

      1) Everything that exists naturalistically has a cause. –> Where is the exemption to that? The theist purports that God exists supernaturally; ergo, no special pleading.
      2) The universe exists.
      3) Therefore, the universe has a cause. –> Where is this stated in the premise? This is deductive reasoning, not circular reasoning.

      So are you willing to admit that modern scientists don’t think the universe is going to come to a finite end? I think Christopher Hitchens might want a word with you.

      And you missed what I said about cosmology. I didn’t say science is useless for cosmology, but the scientific method is, because it’s non-repeatable. So to make assumptions about cosmology based on methodological naturalism and the scientific method is ridiculous, and herein lies a fundamental flaw for naturalists.

      My evidence for creation ex nihilo is in infinite regress. See my initial post on this argument. I’m not using creation to prove the existence of God. I’m using the idea of creation ex nihilo to show that if we came from nothing naturalistically, what’s the most plausible explanation? Something natural? How can nothing produce something, unless the producer of something comes from outside the box?

      Your last paragraph doesn’t make any sense in light of the ontological argument. There is logical conception of a being that would have to be the greatest possible being, so even if there were a bunch of supernatural entities, one would have to be the greatest being, and would exercise omnipotence, omniscience, etc. over the other entities as well as our universe. This being would be, by theistic definition, God.

      And a God who creates lions and antelopes allows the lion to win sometimes, and the antelope sometimes. What’s the harm in that? The Axis won sometimes, and the Allies won sometimes. What’s the big difference?


      • Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 10:21 am

        Claiming there’s a supernatural realm in which your premises no longer apply is a great big example of special pleading. But if there is such a realm, then the universe could have arisen in that realm, with no need for a creator. If you want to argue that the universe exists in this natural realm, so couldn’t have arisen supernaturally (or just always existed supernaturally), then your God faces the same problem.

        I never said scientists don’t think the universe is going to end (though I’m not aware that they do), I just pointed out that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics isn’t what you’re claiming it is.

        There’s no distinction between science and the scientific method — if the latter is useless, then the former is.

        If nothing can’t produce nothing without something “outside the box,” that just puts you in a bigger box.

        And our ability to imagine a “greatest possible being” has no connection whatsoever to the question of whether such a being exists.

        The Axis won some battles and the Allies won others because there was no authority governing both. They weren’t part of the same system.

      • It can’t be special pleading if it’s not an exemption to the actual premise. I saw Andrew’s post, so even if we go with that form of the argument it’s not special pleading, because it’s not an exemption to the rule. The rule is that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”, not “everything begins to exist.” You’re trying to simplify the argument too much, which does your position a disservice.

        I want to argue that the universe exists in the natural realm because as I’ve pointed out time and time again it has a finite end, according to modern science. You haven’t disagreed; you haven’t really even said anything on the subject. All you’ve done is dodge. Be definitive for once. Do you believe that the universe is going to have an end or not?

        There’s nothing wrong with the logical assumption that if there are beings, that one being is greater than all other beings. Where’s the problem?

        The same authority governing the Axis and the Allies is the same authority you were trying to attack by using your lions and antelopes. Keep the playing field level. If you think God is ridiculous for creating lions and antelopes, then God is ridiculous for creating you and me. So if you think your own existence is ridiculous, then I think your problem is deeper rooted than whether or not God exists.

        Last question, and this might start a new line of discussion, though perhaps you have discussed this at length too. Where do the laws of logic come from? Specifically the law of non-contradiction. This is one evidence of something existing in a non-natural realm, in my opinion. If you believe the laws of logic come from a natural spot, where is it?

  9. […] enough, my “Arguing with theists” post has evolved into an argument in the comments. A fairly boring one, I’m afraid (Kalam […]


  10. shame on sabepashubbo!

    He got the Kalam Cosmological argument wrong TWICE.

    The first premise is this: “Everything that BEGINS TO exist has a cause.”

    Without it, you have a regular (and considerably weaker) cosmological argument. (this actually glosses quite a bit, but oh well.)

    With that adjusted premise (which is the entire way cosmological becomes Kalam), you can believe one of two things: the universe is self-existent or the universe began to exist.

    Many people look at the Big Bang and say, “aha, the universe began to exist.” But I think that a cyclical model of the universe sidesteps this issue. Or, well, the fact that when talking about time, it is something contained within the universe itself…for the same reason that people can talk of God being “outside of time”, one cannot even invoke the idea of time “before the universe” at all coherently. What came before the big bang? How could anything be before the big bang? What’s North of the North Pole?


  11. that being said, I disagree with the main point on the psychology of words.

    I think that weak atheism is more defensible than strong atheism, because strong atheism relies on a faulty premise. To make the jump from “I do not believe/think god exists” to “I believe/think god does not exist” is to assume that absence of evidence is evidence of absence and that we understand enough of the universe to properly assess whether we have an absence of evidence.


    • Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 7:01 pm

      If strong atheism is put forth as a logical conclusion, then I agree. But if it’s just put forth as a working hypothesis, a best guess, then asserting that it’s more likely that deities don’t exist than that they do is really no different than asserting that it’s more likely that Russell’s Teapot is a hypothetical construct rather than an actual celestial object.


    • But my issue is what knowledge does one have to start working out “best guesses” and “likelihoods.”

      Both Russell’s Teapot AND strong atheism either make some claims on faith (which is where they get “likelihoods”) or are verbally lazy.

      I for one have always seen the teapot as a justification for weak atheism.

      But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

      Russell talks about a reluctance to believe it exists, not an eagerness to believe it doesn’t exist. We are rightly to think that it is nonsense to say that doubt and disbelief in the existence of the celestial teapot is an intolerable presumption, NOT to say that belief that the teapot does not exist is the proper presumption.


      • Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 9:11 pm

        You don’t have to be “eager” to believe in its non-existence to think that the most likely situation is that it doesn’t exist.

        Just out of curiosity, what’s your best guess as to whether there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun? Do you think there’s something improper about hazarding a guess, since you can’t completely verify the situation one way or the other? Or would you, in a “gun to the head” type of scenario, admit to thinking it’s much more likely that there’s no teapot than that there is one?

      • but you *are* eager to trust in some sort of probability that you have come up out of convenience and not out of pure rationality. E.g., we like to think that there aren’t surprises, that our knowledge (and therefore our assumptions about knowledge, probabilities, possibilities, etc.,) doesn’t have glaring holes, etc., That doesn’t give us a solidly rational justification for such convenience probabilities.

        Everything I’m saying, of course, only applies if you want to believe you somehow are being more rational. But if that’s not your aim, and you admit that some things you accept on an irrational or extrarational basis, then that’s entirely different.

        With my rational cap on, I do not guess anything about whether there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. I do not believe there is such a teapot in orbit around the sun, but I also do not believe there is not such a teapot in orbit around the sun. However, the two questions that are likely to come up in conversation are, “Is there a teapot around the sun?” and I’ll say, “I don’t know,” OR “Do you believe there is a teapot orbiting around the sun?” to which I’ll say, “No, i don’t.”

        Your gun-to-the-head scenario kinda proves my point. Are we expected to be rational when we have guns to the head? In fact, you could say that “guessing” itself is a nonrational or irrational proposition. In such a case, one guess is simply as good as the other…thinking there is a god/teapot or that there’s not. It’s all based on a hunch and not necessarily a rational foundation.

        Just as long as you recognize that your “guess” is not meant to be rational.

  12. Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    So you really don’t see any difference in probability between a teapot orbiting the sun, and no teapot orbiting the sun?

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about what “rational” means.


    • Basically, the only things I could see working with the teapot are presuppositions about our current knowledge of teapots. Namely, they are created by humans, for the sake of carrying tea, and have observed physical size, etc., that is inconsistent with a celestial teapot that is “too small to be detected by telescope,” etc., etc.,)

      The problem is that these presuppositions poison work against the analogy in a potentially fatally way, since they do not carry to all (or even most) ideas of gods.

      We either have to admit that 1) these presuppositions destroy the analogy or 2) they are examples of nonrational or irrational intrusions on both sides of the analogy.

      If you want to preserve the analogy, then yes, we’ll have to agree to disagree about what “rational” means.


  13. Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    We’re not discussing whether it’s possible that a teapot is orbiting the sun, we’re merely discussing whether it’s likely.

    And we don’t need “presuppositions” other than the ones that pertain to any sort of understanding. If you want to suggest that perhaps some other extraterrestrial civilization has developed tea and teapots (or something equivalent), go ahead. LIkewise if you want to discuss the possibility of some space rock shaped in the form of a teapot. It works just as well either way.

    Most people (myself included) will say that it’s more likely that there’s no such teapot than that there is one.

    Likewise, many people (myself included) will say that it’s more likely that all of the stories about deities are false, rather than all but one (which always seems to turn out to be the only one that the believer doesn’t find laughably absurd).

    We could certainly quibble about whether the degree of probability for some deity is greater or smaller than that for a celestial teapot, but nobody’s claiming the teapot is a precise analog of mathematical probability. It’s merely an illustration of how someone can reasonably make a guess in a situation where absolute knowledge isn’t attainable.


    • possibility is just a part of likelihood. (e.g., possibility is just likelihood greater than 0).

      I don’t think you establish what you want to establish by pointing out what most people will say. I think most people (yourself included) will say it’s more likely that there’s no teapot than that there is one because they have comfortable yet fallacious assumptions about what exists “out there,” so that appeal doesn’t work.

      This is especially damning for your next analogy. It’s telling that you change “most” to “many” for your next one, because you know that since *most* people are theists, it is false to assume that most people will say it’s more likely that all of the stories about deities are false, rather than all but one.

      But what does this show us? That people have comfortable, yet fallacious assumptions about what exists “out there”…and you say that the one people believe is “the only one that the believer doesn’t find laughably absurd.” Presumably, as the saying goes, the only difference between atheists and theists is the atheist goes one formulation of god further?

      So, no, you don’t illustrate how someone can reasonably make a guess in a situation where absolute knowledge isn’t attainable. You do show, to the contrary, how people can make guesses that they think are reasonable (but of which other people would say are “laughably absurd”).

      I have a question: do you think there are intelligent extraterrestrial life forms elsewhere in the universe? Would you say your guess, either way, is “rational”? Would you say another’s guess, either way, is “irrational”?


  14. Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    How is a fallacious assumption to assume there isn’t a space station manufacturing teapots and launching them into orbit for the purpose of confounding philosophers?

    Keep in mind, I’m not trying to prove conclusively that our solar system is free of solar-orbiting teapots. I’m just trying to make a reasonable, provisional assumption about a question that has arisen.

    And I don’t think the reason I scoff at the notion of a space-based teapot factory is because it challenges my comfortable assumptions. I think the reason I scoff at it is because it’s silly.

    As for my guess about extraterrestrial life, I don’t think that’s as cut-and-dried as celestial teapots (or deities). I think there are rational and irrational guesses going either way. As for me, that’s a subject about which I’m truly agnostic — I just don’t know, and don’t care to hazard a guess (although if the weapon pointed to my head was a pulse-beam laser held by a little green man, I might lean one way rather than the other!).


    • you’re assuming that absence of evidence is evidence of absence or that we have enough understanding about an area to appropriate pronounce that there is such absence of evidence, or that we at least have such an understanding to make probability calculations rationally.

      Because you’re not trying to prove conclusively that our solar system is free of solar-orbiting teapots, it is odd that you are instead trying to prove conclusively that you can still reasonably assume that the solar system is free of solar-orbiting teapots without such proof.

      Brachinus, how do you think you get notions of what is silly in the first place?! Reactions of silliness are *exactly* what I mean by comfortable assumptions (there are other things, of course). And yet we do not have a great track record of getting things right when we are guided by “common sense,” feelings of “silliness,” etc.,

      I asked the question about ETs because I think it is quite similar here. People on both sides can drum up all sorts of reasons why they think intelligent ETs do/don’t exist. In all cases, I think it shows that we can THINK we are rationally evaluating probability for something on which we actually have NO CLUE.

      I think the difference between celestial teapots, deities, and extraterrestial life is the extent of comfortable assumptions we are likely to have with each. The “cut-and-driedness” of one vs. the others isn’t inherent to each proposition, but to *our* context. We have the most “familiarity” with teapots, some knowledge about life forms, but the least about divine beings.

      …and yet we analogize deities to teapots, not ETs?


      • Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 10:39 pm

        I think absence of evidence for X is sufficient to refrain from believing in X, and I think that if a concerted effort has been made to find evidence for X, the continued and persistent absence of such evidence tends to tip the balance in favor of X probably not existing.

        I don’t know that I’m trying to conclusively prove that my guess is reasonable. I think I’m just trying to defend it against the notion that it’s inherently absurd to think one of those possibilities is more likely.

        And I think we have quite a bit more of a clue about things on earth than about things that are hundreds of light-years away, which is why speculating about orbiting teapots (or deities interacting with humans) is more feasible than speculating about things we’d have no way of even beginning to investigate.

        If we were discussing whether ETs had ever visited earth, then it would be a good analogy to deities. But merely discussing whether they exist is different — unless we stipulate that we’re talking about local deities elsewhere, not omni-max deities who are affecting our neck of the universe.

      • I think absence of evidence for X is sufficient to refrain from believing in X

        I am in complete agreement!

        and I think that if a concerted effort has been made to find evidence for X, the continued and persistent absence of such evidence tends to tip the balance in favor of X probably not existing.

        I am not in agreement. You have no idea if 1) we are looking in the right “place,” 2) we know what to look for, 3) we have to tools to know when we have found what we are looking for. (among a few others that I just haven’t gotten to, yet.) I’m saying that you harbor assumptions about what is a “concerted evidence,” and how much “continued and persistent absence” means you can start tipping the scales. This is basically saying “absence of evidence is probably evidence of absence,” which *still* does not follow.

        How do you defend your guess from the notion that it is unreasonable (or, as you say, “absurd”) except by proving its reasonableness?

        When you say you have quite a bit more of a clue about things on earth, that’s what I mean by the analogy being poisoned. For it to be a good analogy with deities, you either can’t have such clues, or you must admit that any clues you have are irrational intrusions. The analogy suffers either way.

        I don’t think the proper analogy is whether ETs had ever visited our earth (although this would be pretty slippery for you as well). All that matters is that these ETs have “affected our neck of the universe.” Considering the butterfly effect, have fun showing that has or hasn’t happened.

  15. Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Replying to this:

    If you want to show that the universe must have a cause because it began to exist, then you need to show that the universe began to exist (we’ll leave aside for now whether something really needs a cause to begin to exist). If you resort to science to show the universe began to exist, you can’t turn around and reject science when you don’t like what science offers. If science is so unreliable about the universe’s origins, then science isn’t reliable about whether the universe had a beginning in the first place.

    As for the universe ending, I don’t see how it can. By definition, the universe is everything that exists. If nothing exists, then that’s the universe.

    There’s no reason there can’t be more than 1 being tied for “greatest” (even if we stipulate that “great” has any meaning). And “god” doesn’t merely mean “whichever being is greatest,” it carries a lot more baggage than that.

    Which governing authority was running both the Axis and Allied powers? And why did that authority allow the Holocaust and the Japanese A-bombings to take place? What force prevents the existence of more than one supernatural beings? According to you, it’s easy-peasy for them to exist without any need to be created, so why couldn’t there be 330 million of them like the Hindus believe? Or a dozen or so like the ancient Greeks and Romans believed?

    The laws of logic come from humans, who devised them in an attempt to understand reality (and their own thinking) better. The law of non-contradiction is a statement about logical expressions, not about reality. The reason a number can’t be both “5” and “not 5” is because that’s how we use those expressions.


  16. brachinus re “that guy whose name I do not like to spell”):

    That Guy isn’t saying that the universe must have a cause because it must have begun to exist. What he is saying is that, IF it began to exist, it must have a cause…and then he is coupling with, “it is currently scientifically very popular and intuitive to believe that the universe began to exist.” He is coupling a contingent truth (e.g., whether the universe began to exist or not) that can be evaluated with science with an alleged necessary truth (things that begin to exist need a cause) that need not be evaluated with science.

    …But since there are other ways of looking at it scientifically, we aren’t locked into that.

    although your statements about logic are fascinating. Do you buy into the correspondence theory of truth?


    • Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 10:45 pm

      My online friends (and enemies) generally call me Brach, or you can call me Dave. 🙂

      I don’t know what the “correspondence theory” is — is it just that “truth” is that which corresponds to reality? I tend to avoid terminology, because such exchanges tend to turn into one-upmanship contests on who knows the most Latin. I took a bunch of philosophy classes in college (including Logic and Ethics), but I try to keep things vernacular, partly so onlookers can follow along and partly because sometimes it’s easy to hide a fallacy behind a bunch of big words.


    • LOL, I’m fine with brachinus.

      just not sabe~

      The correspondence theory of truth is that the truth of a statement is how well a statement corresponds to reality “out there”.

      So, I get the feeling that sabe was hoping that you believed logic corresponds to reality “out there.” But, when you say things like, “the law of non-contradiction is a statement about logical statements, not about reality,” that is VERY VERY different and it questions everything about how you believe we can know stuff.


  17. Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Responding to Andrew,

    The thing is, if we’re talking about a personal-type deity, then the tools and knowing where to look don’t really come into play. Such a being presumably would have the ability to communicate clearly to us, and differentiate themselves from all the posers. Or, if not, then screw him.

    If someone wants to say my guess is unreasonable, I guess they can go ahead and explain why, and then people can see which of us is making more sense.

    As for the ETs, sure, I’ll go with “affected our neck of the universe” or thereabouts. We’ve certainly been looking hard enough, and haven’t found anything yet. I think that makes it reasonable to guess that so far we haven’t had “first contact” (or “first detection” or whatever).


    • And yet, we’re assuming 1) he/she/it isn’t communicating with us now, or 2) s/he/it may well have the ability, but may have reasons for operating as is. I guess you respond with “screw him’ to that.

      Your guess relies upon unfounded assumptions about what we can expect to find in the universe (or outside of it) that masquerade as common sense, intuitive, “obviously true,” etc.,

      With ETs, you assume that we would know what to look for and what it would look like when we found it.


  18. Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    Yeah, that’s how it is with guessing. You go with your available understanding, not some perfect understanding nobody possesses. That’s also why you make sure people understand that it’s a guess, not a logical proof.


    • is this a concession that guessing is not rational.

      Or is this a concession that sometimes, it’s ok for people not to be rational?


      • Posted by brachinus on August 29, 2010 at 11:52 pm

        I think guessing is entirely rational, but I just define “rational” as something like “sensible rather than silly.”

        And I’m one of those “maybe I’m just a brain in a jar” types, so to me it’s impossible to get out of bed in the morning without taking a chance on assuming that the bed and the floor are real.

        A lot of Christian apologist types have a really hard time with anything that has a hint of uncertainty about it, so they fool themselves into believing they have certainty (which I guess they do, in their own minds). But I’d rather be mostly right than totally certain and mostly wrong.

      • but now the question is, “what the hell does sensible mean” 😀

        I’m guessing from the brain-in-jar thing that it means something like practical, or pragmatic?

        I can see that (with caveats). I just think that this “sensible rather than silly” is up to a lot of debate.

        For example, reformed apologetics (at least Alvin Plantinga) would argue that in the same way the pragmatic trust of the senses (even if not held with certainty) is properly basic (“sensible,” perhaps), and in the same way we pragmatically trust that there are other minds and this is properly basic (“sensible” even), we can make similar arguments for belief in god.

        obviously, I’m not a reformed apologist so I disagree on that point.

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