Penn Jillette on Questioning What You Really Want to Believe

In the clip below, Penn Jillette talks about his bullshit detector:

So I guess my detector on God is that whenever someone uses what they feel as evidence instead of what they think as evidence or what they can prove as evidence, I’m very, very skeptical. The most important thing is to feel about things you feel about — should feel about — and think about things you should think about. You should not feel about the speed of light or evolution and you should not think about love. You should feel “I love you,” you should think about reality. And when someone says they feel the universe was created by a God, that’s nonsense, just like saying, you know, “I’ve thought about it and maybe I should love you.” Don’t mix those two.

(via Atheist Media Blog)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Yeah, but if you feel “I love you” toward the person that believes that God created the universe, then you will forgive them their beliefs no matter how wrong-headed and delusional you may think they are. True love is total acceptance, you don’t try to change the person. Otherwise the feeling of “I love you” is as Penn wold say complete and utter “Bullshit.” You only love them so long and they believe as you do and share your belief in reality.

    Can we ever be accepting of the people Adam Savage describes,”I reject your reality and substitute my own?”

    • JohnnieCanuck

      I don’t believe true love is total acceptance without trying to change the person. Parents wouldn’t correct their children’s behaviour if that were the case.

      Just as examples: If your wife’s beliefs included letting your child die because medical intervention is an affront to her particular god, might you not try to dissuade her? If she sees your abuse of alcohol as likely to kill you wouldn’t she try to get you to stop, if she loves you?

      My wife knows I think her hours spent studying the Bible every day is a waste of time, trying to rationalise all the contradictions within it and with reality or memorise it or something. She does it anyway and we mostly don’t mention it.

      When I reject a religion’s ‘reality’, it’s only to prevent its being imposed on me. I support Freedom of Religion, which to me means you can believe what you want as long as it hurts no one else.

      You can also attempt to convert others, if you like. Lot of religious people do, annoying as it might be. Therefore, you shouldn’t object if I deny the truth of your beliefs or even try to convert you to mine.

      • Ronlawhouston

        Two things come to mind. First, the role of a parent is different. They exist to guide and direct the child. Second, there is a vast difference between benign belief and malignant belief.

        One of the reasons people hate those trying to convert others is that there is what I’d call a level of emotional violence by trying to convert someone. For whatever reasons we feel that we must change the beliefs of others no matter how benign. No matter how nicely or logically we do this, we are still trying to control and manipulate the mode of thinking of our target. It’s not what I’d call particularly loving.

        • baal

          Let’s not forget that you (rlh) appear to want all atheists to stop mentioning that we exit. By your own argument here, you don’t love us (atheists) and want to control and manipulate us.

          ‘Unconditional’ love for a person means that you want what is best for that person. The word ‘best’ is slippery and often relates to specific facts and specific circumstance. To the issue of conversion, if someone has minor delusions (or even major ones) but they are otherwise reasonably able to live their life w/o harming themselves or others, yes you’d give them a bit of a pass. If their delusions are harmful (by this scourge we can cleanse the filth of our soul, come here child), it is entirely loving to
          ‘control and manipulate the mode of thinking of our target’ i.e. to get the abusive and delusion religionist parent to reconsider flogging as good for spiritual health.

          • Ronlawhouston

            Nice mind reading Houdini. Got any other assumptions you want to pull out of your backside?

        • JohnnieCanuck

          And you are not attempting to ‘control and manipulate the mode of thinking’ of the people who read your words here? That could be just presenting arguments in a discussion, as we are doing.

          Of course, if the arguments are based on quote mining or other deceptions, or try to use arguments from authority, that can easily be seen to be an effort to control or manipulate others.

          When an Imam declares poliio vaccine to be a Western plot to sterilise Muslims, that’s not particularly loving. When Pat Robertson declares that hurricanes are the fault of the victims because they made God mad at them for having unapproved sex, that’s not loving. It’s part of the way he makes his living, though.

          If I knew someone was being courted by Scientologists, I’d definitely try to change their minds. It would be an act of human decency to try to keep him or her out of their clutches.

          When I think of all the person-years wasted by people trying to delude themselves and others into believing theists’ lies, I feel justified in trying to guide others away from that. The harms done to humanity by religion outweigh the benefits, as I see it.

          • Ronlawhouston

            Honestly guy, you’ve gone way off the deep end. I honestly cannot give a llying f**k what your mode of thinking may be.. I do 100% fully support your right to decide for yourself free from any influence by whatever I or anyone else may say.

            Onto your second paragraph, I didn’t quote mine not did I try to appeal to any authority other than my own personal opinion. So, if I may ask what in the f**k are you talking about? Your argument is so nonsensical as to amount to complete and utter BS.

            Look if you want to spend the rest of your days being an evangelical for atheism for gosh sakes have at it. I suspect you’ll be every bit as successful as the Jehovah’s Witnesses that come to my door. Just remember that you will probably be viewed as every bit the obnoxious arse hole that people consider the Jehovah’s witnesses.

            My motto for you is “Onward atheist arse holes, marching onto battle.”

            • JohnnieCanuck

              Clearly you haven’t comprehended a thing I was trying to say. I don’t even recognise how your responses relate to specific things I said. You take general examples for points I was making as if they were personal attacks on you.

              This is going nowhere. Sorry I couldn’t make myself clear enough.

    • noone

      BS. So your friend believes he must kill himself, so that his soul can take a ride in the comet that will take him to the planet of God Azghul, and you think that if you reall care for him/her you just have to accept if and be grateful for the time you had together?

      It’s an extreme example but the same logic persists even for less harmful delusions. Just like you’d try to dissuade a friend or everyone into falling for some Ponzy-scheme thing of “network/multi-level marketing” and this sort of stuff. You don’t let the person be fooled and lose money, even if it makes her feel good/hopeful. It’s not that different with superstitious beliefs.

      Perhaps, sometimes, there may be some important strategic differences when addressing people close to you versus the general public, but dissuading people from being manipulated is a good thing, in general.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    So I guess my detector on God is that whenever someone uses what they feel as evidence instead of what they think as evidence or what they can prove as evidence, I’m very, very skeptical. The most important thing is to feel about things you feel about — should feel about — and think about things you should think about.

    Never thought about it quite that way, but makes sense to me! I’d also add that a lot of people believe certain things because they want them to be true, regardless of whether they actually are. That’s letting emotion get in the way of evaluating evidence. Ideally, people should approach the question of deities without a desire for either atheism or theism to be true.

    • allein

      People prefer to believe what they prefer to be true. – Francis Bacon

  • DougI

    A Libertarian has a bullshit detector?

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    I think what Penn described is system 1 and system 2 thinking. When someone claims to “feel” a truth, it’s the application of system 1 thinking. I’m not sure I agree that an intuitive path to a truth belongs in the same category as an emotion like love or anger. But if it does, then emotions constitute, at least, part of system 1 thinking. And if that is the case, then we can think about our emotions too.

    I dislike the distinction so many people make between the head and the “heart.”

    • Brian Pansky

      of course we can think *about* our feelings. but the feeling exists independent of thinking about it. feelings of emotion may be similar to feelings of cold or pain in this way…I think…

  • Blacksheep

    “You should feel “I love you”, you should think about reality.”

    I would say that the feeling “I love you” is a reality.

    (Why is Penn Jillette so often used here as an expert on the human condition?)

    • Gus Snarp

      I wouldn’t say he’s used as an expert on the human condition, but rather as someone who expresses interesting ideas in a unique way. The focus should be on what he’s saying and whether he’s expressing it in a useful and convincing way, not on who he is. I, for one, consider Penn to be a questionable skeptic, but he does get it right a good amount of the time, and when he does he often delivers the message in a way that’s fun and humorous.

      Actually, in this case I think he picks a poor example. We probably should think about love a little more than we tend to.

      • Blacksheep

        “Someone who expresses interesting ideas in an interesting way…”

        makes sense, I would have to agree with that. I did watch his “Bullshit” series on cable – it got old really fast, but it was entertaining.

        • Gus Snarp

          Heh. I hate to go off on a Penn bashing tangent, which I’ve mostly avoided this time, but I couldn’t stomach what I saw of Bullshit. I saw a clip of a vaccine episode and I saw the entire circumcision episode and in spite of basically agreeing with Penn on the merits of those issues, I found his arguments and presentation to be entirely unskeptical. Penn, like other skeptical magicians, is very good at spotting fraud and trickery, and that makes him useful to the skeptical community. He’s also entertaining to a broad swath of people, which makes him more useful still. But I think he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to consistent and coherent skeptical thought.

          • Blacksheep

            On “Bullshit”, what I actually felt was that he put time and effort into the first episode or two – and phoned in the rest.

  • dgriffey

    Well, that was certainly something. I’m not sure what. I have a feeling that someone with an expertise in philosophy or theology or historical doctrinal development would have ol’Penn for breakfast. Probably toss in a few scientific thinkers with religious backgrounds as well. So much of what he said was based on not understanding religious thought. But then, so much of modern atheism seems based on rejecting things that most informed religious believers would never say in the first place.

    • Gus Snarp

      Yeah, you go on believing that. I would argue that “most informed religious believers” is not at all synonymous with “most religious believers”. The informed ones are the minority.

      • noone

        Most “informed religious believers” still believe in magical super-guys anyway. The only thing they do is to make their magical super-guy in something ever more intangible/irrefutable (rather than just super-guy in a floating throne in a cloud, like it was originally) and to uselessly take the “debate”/arguments a impressive degree of pseudo-sophistication. You probably can take the debate about any irrefutable magical entity/phenomenon to the same degree of sophistication/abstraction, but it does not really mean it should be taken more seriously. It’s just an “emperor’s new clothes” sort of strategy.

  • noone

    Given some episodes of “BS” it seems to me that he does not apply that so rigorously to libertarianism/ain-randism… or perhaps, he could say, what happens is that he really wants so bad to believe in liberalism, and then he questions it, and every time reaches into very libertarian/randian conclusions…. (sarcasm)

    That sad thing is that I’m myself inclined towards libertarianism, even anarcho-capitalism as an “ideal” (that is, something I don’t believe is feasible in practical terms, just like a philosophy of “love every human being equally” is arguably ideal, but it’s not going to happen), and when I see stuff like what they did in the global warming episode, I feel they just compromise their credibility, both as skeptics and as libertarians.

    For someone even just barely familiar with the science (like someone who have watched potholer51′s main videos, perhaps just the first three will do it), that episode sounds just like “darwinism is bullshit”, seriously. It seems like their methodology was more or less like, “well, Al Gore is a liberal; he says AGW exists and that governments should impose regulations in order to avoid it, therefore it’s a lie. Let’s just google some key terms and pick the first results claiming to refute AGW [...]“


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