The Handbook: Why Arguments Aren’t Evidence.

The Handbook: Why Arguments Aren’t Evidence. January 5, 2015

Welcome back! And yes, to the folks who noticed the name of this new series–“The Handbook for the Recently Deconverted,” it is absolutely a Beetlejuice reference. (I’m not ashamed of my love.)

We’ve talked before on this blog about what evidence looks like, and I don’t feel like I have much to add on that particular topic than I wrote last year. But today we’re going to talk specifically about why an argument alone should not constitute compelling evidence for the supernatural claims of Christians, how to spot someone using an argument in lieu of evidence, and how to short-circuit the tactic.

First let’s go over some basic terminology.

When I use the word “argument,” I’m using it in the sense of that series of propositions and evidence for a claim that, combined with observations and inferences that build on each other and pieces of evidence, leads to a conclusion that supports the claim being made. Arguments are in great part how humans get by in this world. It’s a process that we all go through in our everyday lives as we consider, accept, or ultimately reject the claims we get bombarded with on an everyday basis. It’s okay to make an argument, is the point here. Arguments aren’t demons. We’re allowed to look at them. Here’s a great link from Infidels.org for how to construct a good argument for something.

When I use the term “evidence,” I’m using it in a common-parlance way to describe a fact that props up a claim. Our dear friend Sirius Bizinus has talked about how lawyers see the term and that sounds pretty similar to what I’m talking about. In his post he talks about how evidence has to be relevant and it has to have weight in the discussion–in other words, that the evidence used has to be persuasive and it has to meaningfully relate to the subject at hand. Arguments in this sense certainly can be relevant and have weight.

When I use the phrase “arguments aren’t evidence,” I’m talking about how Christians often–when talking to outsiders–don’t use arguments that hinge on reality or observations in order to persuade someone else. Most of the time these arguments can’t even be demonstrated in the real world. Arguments incorporate evidence in their most ideal form, but they are not, in and of themselves, evidence.

Most of the arguments Christians use are fallacies in one way or another, like circular reasoning or appeals to authority. I know I’m not the only person who gets really frustrated when seeing Christians leap to fallacies to defend a cherished point. I ran into one today who was using false equivalences to imply that faith in science is the same kind of faith as faith in religion when that simply is not the case at all. I still don’t think the guy understands why his disingenuous shift in meaning (in this case with the word “faith”) wasn’t in the least credible to non-Christians, but a big part of why he thought “informed trust in a tested, long-established scientific explanation” was exactly the same as “blind hope maintained in the total absence of, and even in contradiction to, credible reasons to buy into supernatural claims” was that he himself didn’t really understand what faith is much less what science is.

I don’t think he’s a bad person, and I don’t think he was actually trying to lie. But his brand of religion doesn’t put a high value on critical thinking and it rewards faulty arguments like these with attention, book deals, preaching engagements, and praise, so I don’t think he ever learned better–and because the bad arguments he absorbed reinforced his own desired outcome, he never took the time to learn why the arguments didn’t work. Apologetics as a field is rife with intellectual laziness and shoddy thinking, and there is a good reason why non-Christians think all of it is laughably inept and unpersuasive while believers keep buying these shitty books and watching these shitty videos and attending these shitty seminars–and parroting these shitty arguments like they’re even halfway effective against a person skilled at spotting and rejecting bad arguments.

Why It’s Not Good to Use Arguments In Lieu of Evidence.

1. An evidence-free argument can and usually should be dismissed out of hand.

That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without it. If I argue for the physical existence of something, but cannot provide a single bit of physical evidence that this thing exists in the real world, then people around me are right to reject my argument.

2. It’s more than possible to create a logically-sound argument that isn’t a true reflection of reality by using shoddy science, untrue claims, or misconstrued evidence.

In that Infidels.org link above, we find a perfectly logical argument that is untrue:

Premise: All fish live in the ocean

Premise: Sea otters are fish

Conclusion: Therefore sea otters live in the ocean

Two sea otters in the Olympic Coast National M...
A pair of typical ocean-dwelling fish. (Credit: Wikipedia.)

If someone doesn’t know or find out that otters aren’t fish (they are mammals, obviously) or that all fish don’t actually live in the ocean (many fish live in lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water), then someone might well think that sea otters live in the ocean after hearing this argument. An overly-trusting person might hear this argument and assume that it’s true. In the same way, Christians tend to make these elaborate arguments about their religion without demonstrating any of their premises or providing citations for their claims about reality. (We’ll get to one such instance at the end here.)

At all times arguments about real things should touch base with reality. When an argument conflicts with reality, we need to reject it. Incidentally, you’ll see this tactic called reductio ad absurdem sometimes.

Evaluating an Argument.

1. Does it employ any logical fallacies?

Though I know personally of a debate site that enforces a strict rule that if one side in a debate gets caught using three logical fallacies then the point is considered to be conceded to the other side, most of the time people don’t have rules like that for their own interactions with religious people. I almost wish they did. How much faster would these atheist-Christian debates end if we could only do that!

A logical fallacy does not automatically invalidate a claim, but its presence does neatly invalidate the argument being used to support that claim. One caveat: sometimes people use the names of logical fallacies like they’re Magic cards or something, like they just have to slap one down and they win. It doesn’t work that way. I think it was prominent atheist blogger and philosophy professor Dan Fincke who said a while ago that he doesn’t even tell his students the names of logical fallacies for a while because he doesn’t want them to fall into this bad habit.

If we spot someone using, say, a false equivalence, it is far better to tell that person why the false equivalence doesn’t work than to just snap, “That’s a false equivalence!” and expect the person to just understand. At this point I think most “warriors for Jesus” online are fairly familiar with the idea of logical fallacies and they have the idea that fallacies = bad, but they all think the arguments they’re using are truly and genuinely compelling arguments free of those errors. We are unlikely to make such Christians realize the mistake in their arguments with a declaration of the mistake’s name.

On this note, I will also say that I’ve personally run into a great many Christians who use the names of logical fallacies in this manner who–hilariously in my opinion–don’t actually understand what those fallacies mean. That’s probably the best selling point I could suggest for why we need to not talk in codewords and fallacy names but rather communicate why a fallacy fails to support someone’s claim.

2. Does the argument actually use or touch on any real-world observations for itself?

This one’s huge. An argument that exists solely in the realm of words does not prove a real-world concept. If I say that I am a Space Princess from the Wild Planet of Intoxicated Nurses, then my support for that claim had better look like something better than a long, convoluted stream of college-sized words designed to demonstrate that it’s not totally impossible that I might be what I claim.

A real-world claim such as “there is a supernatural realm that is totally real and a god commanding it who created everything” needs to be accompanied by real-world evidence for that claim. If someone’s trying to make a case for something like deism, then that’s a claim deliberately designed to not need real-world evidence; its whole argument is that a god could exist without strewing real-world evidence of his or her or its existence anywhere in the real world. But if someone’s trying to make a case for a “personal god” who constantly interferes with human affairs, then we ought to be asking for evidence demonstrating this interference.

It seems clear to me that the Christians who use this song-and-dance are trying to cloud the fact that they really don’t have any real-world support for their claims.

3. Does the argument actually provide compelling, meaningful support for the claim being made?

What may seem like compelling support to a Christian looks a lot like “coincidence” or even “personal effort on a regular human being’s part” to a non-Christian.

In the movie Ghostbusters, one of the scientist heroes, Ray, is extremely fervent about his belief in the supernatural. The following dialogue occurs early in the movie between this fervent believer and his more-skeptical colleague:

Pete: You guys have been running your ass off, meetin’ and greetin’ every schizo in the five boroughs who says he has a paranormal experience. What have you seen?

Ray: Of course you forget, Peter. I was present at an undersea, unexplained mass sponge migration.

Pete: Ray, the sponges migrated about a foot-and-a-half.

Obviously, though Ray thinks that what he saw is huge and compelling evidence for his supernatural claims, Pete doesn’t see this “unexplained mass sponge migration” as being anything close to unnatural or strange. Later on, the scientists investigate a library thought to be haunted and discover a tall stack of books reaching nearly to the ceiling:

Ray: Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.

Pete: You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.

In the same way that Pete keeps puncturing Ray’s bubble and annoying his colleague, Christians can sometimes seem downright indignant when their claims get questioned, and even angry when non-believers don’t agree that the “evidence” presented sounds even remotely like support for a supernatural claim. But can’t most of us remember a time when we, as believers, really thought that every little coincidence and slightly-strange event was a genuine show of proof for our god’s existence and our religion’s validity? Christians get trained to think like that.

And on that note, Pete becomes a believer when he physically sees evidence of supernatural interference in the real world.

Defusing an Argument Lacking Evidence.

Pretty easy, really. Again, I don’t suggest people just shout the names of logical fallacies or whatever.

1. Give citations for where the argument fails in the real world if possible; ask for citations when it makes sense to do so.

In the case of me being a Space Princess, certainly one might offer up that we’ve never actually found a real, live extraterrestrial being of any kind. One might offer up instances where someone who claimed extraterrestrial origin turned out to have been lying or mistaken about their claim. But a TRUE BELIEVER™ might not accept an absence of evidence–that’s one of Christianity’s favorite sayings, after all. Far more effective in this case would be a request that I demonstrate the validity of my claim somehow.

2. Relate the argument to something a little less inflammatory that both sides can agree on, like the non-existence of Hogwarts.

I’m fond of substituting words in Christian claims to demonstrate the existence of a giant magical Pink Unicorn, but I’ve seen people do the same thing to prove Hogwarts is real. During the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, a lawyer famously got one of Creationism’s brightest lights, Michael Behe, to admit that under his (re)definition of science, that even astrology, the ether theory, and geocentrism counted as legitimate sciences.

An absurd argument looks a lot more absurd when we get away from using everyday words to outline it. We do want to be careful not to fall into another logical fallacy like an appeal to ridicule, but as long as we’re careful then a simple word substitution can highlight quite a lot of flaws.

3. Offer an example of what evidence you’re looking for.

On a comment thread once, I mentioned a political stance I hold and someone objected vehemently to that stance and said I should not hold it. I asked why and got a wall of bad arguments. I told this person that I did not find the wall of arguments he’d typed out to be very compelling and offered up a few ideas that maybe he could find for me that would actually be what I’d consider a good reason for opposing this policy. What I asked for was something that I myself had researched extensively but had been unable to find, and he seemed knowledgeable enough in the subject that it didn’t seem unreasonable to ask him for this assistance. What I got in return was three walls of arguments instead, mostly restating his original wall o’ text, almost all based around premises he had not demonstrated and involving observations that didn’t seem like they came from the real world, and not a single word of any of it touched on what I’d asked for help in finding. So in the end I had to ask that we table the discussion; he either didn’t have or didn’t want to seek the information that I’d find compelling, and I didn’t find his thousands-of-words-long essays compelling because they were riddled with other flaws that he very clearly could not detect or acknowledge.

It’s okay to be wrong. I don’t mind being wrong. Had my friend come up with the evidence I’d requested, I would absolutely have been thrilled to get it. I want my opinions to be based on reality. So I usually know exactly what it would take to change my mind, and yes, I look for that stuff. I’m aware that it’s really easy to become convinced of something and to seek only information that confirms an opinion. In this case, I ended up feeling more certain of my stance because the person discussing it with me seemed so hellbent on basically screaming at me to change my mind that he couldn’t even step back to ask why the evidence I’d asked him to provide was more compelling than his pages and pages of text.

When it comes to Christian claims, the kind of evidence I’d be looking for is stuff like verified miracles, proof that prayer is more than just magical thinking, evidence that Christians are, as a group, more moral and less prone to crime and dysfunction than non-Christian groups, or that speaking in tongues is really a real language, or that events in the Bible actually happened. It really depends on the Christian and the exact claim.

It’s also okay, when this evidence is requested (or if a request is challenged), to explain why this is the evidence you’d need. Sometimes what you want won’t be reasonable–like we often see in Christians who often demand evidence that their Savior never rose from the dead or something. But at least you’ll know at that point if the discussion’s worth your time. When a Christian declares that no matter what, there will be no change in opinion happening that day, you know that it doesn’t really matter what you say and you can move on.

It’s not that arguments can’t be used for evidence for some things. If you’re talking about subjective concepts that really don’t have an observational basis, or something you don’t care very much about either way or that isn’t terribly important, then have at it. It’s just that the claims of Christians center around a very real god doing very real things in this world, with very real consequences for not complying with this supposed god’s supposed demands, and yet all they’ve got to show for this being and his activities is fancy arguments with relation to reality.

Our friend Neil has written before that if you have to believe something, then it probably isn’t real. I’d go him one further:

If a believer has to create an elaborate argument for something’s very existence, then it probably isn’t real.

The big problem with this stream of terrible Christian arguments is that every single time I hear them, in the back of my mind I’m wondering why this believer couldn’t come up with a simple show of compelling, objective evidence for the claim being made.

Or maybe I should say that I’m not wondering that at all. I know exactly why.

One does not need to go far before encountering Christians using arguments for evidence. Many of us used them that way when we were Christians–because we had to. Our leaders did it all the time as well. I’m watching a really fabulous debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig on YouTube right now on the other computer and noticing that WLC is doing this right at the start of the debate, claiming that because he doesn’t personally see any conflict between science and theism then obviously there isn’t a conflict. He even puts a slide up about what he’s claiming. That he’s doing it around a noted scientist who is very likely about to eat him for dinner for doing it just makes his arrogant ignorance all the more shocking and entertaining to me. I can’t wait to see what Mr. Carroll does to this guy.

It was realizing that I only had arguments to prop up my faith and no actual real-world observable support for those arguments that really had a lot to do with the loss of my faith. We will be talking next about how arguments translate into reality–see you then.

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