Monday, July 11, 2011

Debate Tactics

Though I do not condone debate tactics for the sake of winning a debate, I do want people to recognize when particular tactics are done to them. We ought not to be concerned primarily with debating, or even being right. We rather ought to be concerned with knowing and being in alignment with the truth of God. That said, many times atheists/skeptics (and even believers) evince some confusion (or outright dishonesty) when it comes to debate tactics. Here are a few of the more common ones:

1. The burden of proof is on you, not me.

This is perhaps the most common objection believers are given by unbelievers. Note this is not actually an objection against the existence of God. It is an epistemological objection to the soundness of the premise itself.

This myth springs largely from the pragmatic considerations of formal high school debate and the American system of legal justice. In the former it is a matter of form, and of proving one specific case. In the latter, it is a concern that one is not imprisoned falsely, so the government needs to be as sure as reasonably possible that the person is guilty in order for them to be convicted.

The reality in life is that any positive claim bears a burden of proof. “Aha!” cries the objector. “My claim is not positive! It is that God does not exist!” The problem should be immediately obvious. Every claim to negation is actually the positive claim that it is the case that the negative proposition is true. After all, the atheist is saying “It is the case that ‘God does not exist’ is true.” Unless they think it is false, or they do not know. In the former case they are theists, and in the latter they have to move to a position of non-acceptance. A lack of acceptance does not entail an outright rejection, but frequently skeptics will oscillate between accepting the aforementioned idea but retaining the benefits of claiming rejection. This does not work. If all they wish to do is to not accept the proposition “God exists,” they won’t be able to claim that he doesn’t.

2. God or X is impossible/incoherent/necessarily false. Prove me wrong.

This tactic could take a lesson from the one above. Briefly, it states that a certain idea is logically impossible, or the contrary idea is logically necessary, so that your proposition is impossible to be true. I have had (on more than one occasion) people claim that the universe or the laws of nature are necessary and so cannot be false. They offer no proof of this, typically.

The way to show something is possible is if the idea is coherent (that is, internally consistent and not self-refuting) and that it does not violate any known logically-necessary truth. In the first case, it seems obvious that the statement, “the universe could have had quarks different than what they are” is not self-contradictory. Yet then without any proof the argument that the universe is necessary just becomes question-begging. As I once remarked in comparison, this is like the theist saying “If you’ll just grant me the premise that God exists, you’ll see theism is true!”

3. There is no objective truth.

This idea states that it is not the case that everything that is true is a true statement for everyone; i.e., that truth is independent of people and their beliefs about it. In the unusual but not too rare case someone brings this up, ask them if the statement “there is no objective truth” is true just for him, or for you too? If he says it’s true for you too, then there is objective truth. That is, whether you believe it or not, there is no objective truth. This, of course, relies upon the notion of objective truth. If he answers that it’s only true for him, then two things follow. First, you may say that if the proposition “there is no objective truth” is only true for him, then it is false for you. Hence, for you, there is objective truth. But then it follows that there is objective truth for everyone, by definition. Second, you may ask him if the proposition “the truth ‘there is no objective truth’ is true for me only” is true for him only or if it’s also true for you. Rinse and repeat. Or better yet, make this a quick conversation. After this brief explanation, if the person does not believe in objective truth, you won’t get anywhere with them.

4. Don’t you know that X has already been proven wrong in many different studies?

This is one of my favorites. It is often a complete bluff. It might be something they heard, or something they surmise is probably true, so they don’t mind telling the white lie. It can take various forms. On a CNN article I was reading once, in the comments section, a responder wrote something like, “They proved the Pentateuch was an exact copy of the Book of the Dead.” I mean seriously, people.

The more popular versions are the Christ-myth stories of other ancient near eastern religions. They include “details” of mythological characters that are either misconstrued, or in many cases, outright fabrications. The major idea is to intimidate the Christian into silence. After all, how silly do you look, going on about the Bible, when everybody knows it’s already been disproved!? The way out of this is to call them on the carpet. Ask them for the study or source that has shown this. About a third of the time, you won’t get a relevant reply. Another third of the time they will actually cite some website, and most of the time it turns out to be poorly-researched and not undertaken by any actual scholars. The other third of the time, be prepared. These people will be able to point to a study or two. But generally, these people’s claims are less brash than “Jesus never existed,” but are close—like that of Richard Carrier.

I hope something fundamental is noticed here. In all four of these, the proposition “God does not exist” or even “the Christian God does not exist” isn’t even being defended. These are all side issues designed to avoid the implications of biblical evidence and theism. Sometimes borne of ignorance, other times of malice, we must always be ready to give an answer. We must do it with gentleness and respect. We must answer in love. But we must have an answer!
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  1. Excellent post, Randy. When one is truly committed to truth, the person will never use dishonest tactics like these more than once regarding the same issue (I leave room for ignorance on multiple subjects). It is satisfying to know that Christians do not have to resort such behavior.

  2. Thanks Luke! Yes, I believe we all need to make sure these tactics are not acceptable, whether they come from atheists or other believers! One thing about internet discussions though; it is so difficult to get past atheist's emotional issues. Typically, no matter what the subject is, the atheist will respond with "God said to kill the unbelievers!" or something like that. It's completely irrelevant, but they persist. Why? Because they are bitter, angry, people. But they are people. And we should love them, and demonstrate that love.

  3. What a great post, the timing is excellent! I've been running across the #1 Burden of proof one, quite a bit and really was struggling with that, but you've cleared it up well.

    Thanks for sharing

  4. I'm curious how you might express non-belief in something (e.g. Bigfoot, Flying Spaghetti Monster, the monster under the bed) without incurring the burden of proof? And if it can be done in one case, why not the other?

  5. Thanks boise! I really appreciate the feedback!

  6. Hi Michael, thanks for commenting! I would distinguish between claiming "I believe X does not exist" and "I do not believe X exists." The placement of the negator "not" makes all the difference. The former expresses that it is the case that X does not exist, while the latter expresses a mere lack of belief, which may or may not entail the subject (the "I" in the sentence) actually asserting the object does not exist. Here's an easy example of this: let's say there are two sides to a mathematical equation, and if one side is true the other side is false, and vice versa. Now suppose I, not being terribly good at math, decide that I do not have a particular belief as to which side is true and which is false. It does not then follow that I have to prove the one side's being not true, as I did not claim that. I merely refrain from believing. These people, in the context of theism, are called "agnostics." It would be incorrect to say they hold a belief in God, so that it is correct to say "I do not believe God exists." But it is also incorrect for us to claim they then mean they believe God does not exist. Does that help at all?

  7. @Randy. That does help, thanks. Although it's easy to see where it's more important to pay attention to what one means than what one's says. I can imagine there are plenty of non-believers, or anyone for that matter, who hadn't thought about where to put the 'not' in their expression of non-belief. I might say, for example when presented with the scant evidence for Bigfoot, that I don't believe there is such a creature. But what I'm saying is that, based on what I've been shown, I'm not convinced. Which is not to say that the Bigfoot believer who may have been duped by a hoax and the non-believer who isn't swayed by shoddy evidence say anything about whether there is such a creature.
    Is the agnostic position the default, then? In everyday conversation, can we dismiss nothing out of hand? When we talk about mathematics, we know that there is a right and a wrong answer. But when we talk about pieces of evidence for something that doesn't ring true, we can't be so sure. Does it make sense to be agnostic about the tooth fairy? Or leprechauns? Put that way it seems silly to say anything but, 'of course we can dismiss some some claims out-of-hand.' It seems harder to answer these by saying, 'well, I don't really know, but...'
    Lastly, what little I know about agnosticism is that it's supposed to be a statement about what one knows - or is knowable, not about what one believes. Can one then be both atheist and agnostic? Or is an agnostic automatically an atheist - pending suitable evidence? I've heard many atheists say they would accept convincing evidence of God's existence. Does that make them both agnostic and atheist - are the two mutually exclusive or somehow compatible?

  8. Hi Michael, thanks for your thoughts. For pragmatic purposes, I wouldn't mind saying agnosticism is a default in general. But that can't be true for all propositions (especially in the case of inference and any a priori knowledge). As far as things "ringing true," plausibility and the like can only be based on intuitions and/or background knowledge. Background knowledge can vary wildly based on person to person, and even one person's knowledge can change very widely due to experiences, education, introduction of evidence, and so forth. So if something qualifies as evidence for proposition A, one can only reject that evidence if one has greater reason to suppose that A is false even with that piece of evidence for it. As to agnosticism's being a claim about what one knows vs. what one believes, I'm not even sure what it means to say one knows something but does not believe that same thing at the same time and in the same sense; that is to say, knowledge entails belief.

    When one is making a truth claim, he is saying "I believe X is true;" and if he believes it, he either thinks he knows it or thinks he has no justification for it (since if he thinks he is justified in making the claim, he, by definition, thinks he knows the claim. That he or she is not certain is of no consequence.). If he is the former, then he is a true atheist. If he is the latter, he is probably better described as an agnostic who wants the benefit of atheism. He is a person who believes he has no justification for his belief, and thus, he literally believes there is no god for no good reason, as far as he can tell. I suspect there are precious few people in the world. :)

  9. @Randy. It's been a while, but I'd like to respond to your reply.
    We've gotten off-track from my original question: when can one make a positive statement of non-belief (e.g. Bigfoot, alien abduction) without incurring the burden of proof? I don't see that you've directly addressed the question I asked.

    With regard to agnosticism, you've conceded that it could be a reasonable default position, depending on the claim. I think that's fair. For instance, I don't know and possibly cannot know whether there are other universes outside of our own. I can believe one hypothesis might have more merit and therefore more plausibility than another, but ultimately I cannot know conclusively.

    But then you confused my statement about about agnosticism relating to knowledge rather than belief. The 'a' in agnosticism means 'not' and 'gnosis' is knowledge, not belief. You said that you can't imagine knowing something an then not believing it; this is precisely backward. The point I was making was that one can make a statement of agnosticism - not knowing - without having to commit to a belief either way. Not knowing does not imply belief or disbelief.

    Your last point misses the thrust of my original question. If instead we say 'Bigfoot' rather than God, does your argument make any sense? I argue that we often say 'I do not believe X' as a shorthand for saying 'you have not provided sufficient evidence for X.' If we now ask the same Bigfoot question from this view, it makes sense. And usually if one is making a strong statement of disbelief it is often upon the analysis of evidence provided for the original claim and found it wanting. Again, this makes sense in regard to Bigfoot: the footprints are fake, the film footage is hazy, someone admitted to the hoax. At that point one is fully justified in saying not only 'I don't believe you' but 'I don't believe there is a Bigfoot.'

    I'm curious to know, by the way, what is the 'benefit' of atheism?

  10. Hi Michael, I did in fact address the claim in my last comment here: "When one is making a truth claim, he is saying 'I believe X is true;'" In this case, one must provide some justification for it. So, the explicit (rather than implicit as before) answer to your question is when not-believing becomes a positive truth claim.

    As to the construction, "agnosticism" is more or less a psychological-epistemological state of "not knowing." However, it won't work to claim "There is no God" is true while saying one doesn't know "there is no God" is true. Propositions just are claims to knowledge about states of affairs, persons, objects, events, etc. So perhaps an agnostic would say the proposition is "I believe 'there is no God' is true." That is a proposition. But what's interesting is that the object of belief is itself a proposition! My point in bringing up knowledge is that knowledge is "justified, true, belief." If you believe that a proposition is true, and you think you are justified in making that claim, then you are asserting a claim to knowledge for that proposition. Only in the cases that either: a) you do not think the proposition is true, b) you do not think the affirmation of the proposition is justified, c) you do think it is justified but it is not, or d) you do think it is true, but it is not, can you divorce the proposition from a claim to knowledge. In case (a), it would be very bizarre indeed for you to say you believed it was true, but you really didn't. I don't even know what that means! In (b), you literally think there is no reason to believe your claim, and hence while you can remain an agnostic, the position won't do you any good, or give anyone else a reason to believe it. In (c), you would think it is justified, but it turns out your justification is faulty. In (d), you would think it is true, but it comes to be revealed it was not true. If there are any other cases in which you believe you may assert "there is no God" without bearing a burden of proof or making a claim to knowledge I would be glad to hear it, but I'm afraid it will suffer from one of these problems.

    The "benefit" of atheism is to be able to hold to the truth-claim of atheism (such as "there is no God") while not providing any justification for the claim (like agnosticism). The project of justification of a claim from lack of evidence is not mine--but I would be happy to critique any axiological arguments provided for one, and to see if one can be agreed upon.

    The bottom line is that atheists certainly should not go around saying things like "I don't have to prove God does not exist;" at least not if they want to be taken seriously!


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