Category Archives: apologetics

The varieties of denialism

This ties in with my post(s) about the importance of the science of persuasion in combatting denialism, which is now being studied as a sociological phenomenon in its own right.

Scientia Salon

Global-Warming-Denialism-04by Massimo Pigliucci

I have just come back from a stimulating conference at Clark University about “Manufacturing Denial,” which brought together scholars from wildly divergent disciplines — from genocide studies to political science to philosophy — to explore the idea that “denialism” may be a sufficiently coherent phenomenon underlying the willful disregard of factual evidence by ideologically motivated groups or individuals.

Let me clarify at the outset that we are not talking just about cognitive biases here. This isn’t a question of the human tendency to pay more attention to evidence supporting one’s view while attempting to ignore contrary evidence. Nor are we talking about our ability as intelligent beings to rationalize the discrepancy between what we want to believe and what the world is like. All of those and more affect pretty much all human beings, and can be accounted for and at the least partially dealt with in…

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Posted by on October 28, 2014 in apologetics, cognitive science


What If?


A while ago I wrote a post called Truth vs. Morality where I pointed out a question I sometimes asked Christians: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should people still believe in god? Receptions to that question (the few times I’ve asked) had been somewhat predictable; some say yes, most say no.

I’m thinking that the “yes” answers are maybe not answering the question I’m asking, but subconsciously substituting it with an easier question and then answering that. Who knows.

I thought of a way to take it further. Instead of asking a truth vs. morality question, I might start asking a morality vs. morality question; that is, a consequentialist vs. deontological question. This would be something like What if being a Christian leads to a net unhappiness in the world? Should one still be a Christian? Not sure what the answers to that question might be, but I predict that they would say “yes” in the majority of cases. Probably because in this instance, they might substitute the implicit consequential point of the question with, not only the deontological question (i.e., what one’s duty is), but with the “is Christianity true” question. I.e., Christianity could only be a net negative in the world if Christianity is false; Christianity is true, therefore it is not a net negative in the world.

Of course, maybe if Christianity is true we should believe it. Even if belief in Christianity ultimately makes humanity unhappy.

But then again, this question could be equally applied to beliefs I hold dear. Just like I applied the same truth vs. morality question to beliefs I hold dear in the original post. What if secularism or atheism ultimately makes the world unhappy? What if sexism is a net benefit for the world, and feminism makes people unhappy? What if slavery is good for the world over at the expense of black people?

In these cases, I’m pretty sure I would answer exactly how a Christian might answer, and my thought process might mirror theirs (hopefully that isn’t too much of a typical mind fallacy). My first response is selfishness; I like my personal freedom/secularism/feminism/etc. thank you very much, and the rest of the world can fuck off. Why should I be a slave if that benefits the world? It seems pretty jacked up to think about it. Or, just like the hypothetical theist, I wouldn’t even countenance the question asked. Meaning that I would rebuke the question with “well that can’t be because racism/sexism/theocracy are obviously false and demonstrably make people unhappy so the question is a non-starter”.

This is one of the huge drawbacks for any sort of upcoming technological singularity. Whose morals do we program into the AI before it goes FOOM? People are all too eager to defer to a supernatural god whose whims are just, if not more so, as arbitrary as a future AI. What if this AI has the same conclusion about sex/gender roles or slavery that patriarchal religions have had? That divisions of labor among sexes and/or slavery makes people happier because they have less choices? There are probably an uncountable number of personal creeds, beliefs, and morals that make you as an individual happy, but if studied by anyone/thing with enough processing power can be demonstrated to be harmful if practiced on a wide scale. And any budding rationalist should always be aware of alternatives to their pet hypothesis.

So it seems like I wouldn’t be able to answer the very question that I would pose to a hypothetical Christian. I would think their answer “wrong” while hypocritically accepting my own answer to my sacred values as “right”.

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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in apologetics, morality, rationality


The Motte and Bailey Doctrine


(More than meets the eye)

As most people who read this blog are aware, I’ve read and have been subject to lot of religious apologetics. Either online or in meatspace. One of the things that I started to become aware of was a particularly nebulous debating tactic. There really wasn’t a name for it; but it would be pretty obvious when pointed out.

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Frustrating. I recently discovered that there is a name for this tactic: The Motte and Bailey Doctrine. The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along. It’s fitting that this is pointed out in an article attacking post-modernism.

It would be kinda like having a flower in your house. No one objects to flowers, right? But then whenever you get in an argument with someone, you transform the flower into an assault rifle. The person being attacked says “Hey! Hey! What are you doing with an M4???” and the then you say “I don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s just a flower!” because you’ve transformed the M4 back into a flower. But make no mistake: That flower is more than meets the eye.

Reading more about why people believe what they do, on the other hand, has made me realize that apologists probably don’t even realize that they’re doing this. Hypocrisy is a very fruitful strategy if you can get away with it. Your subconscious brain knows this. As Robin Hanson says:

Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.

Our big brains were not designed by the blind idiot god evolution to get impartial, objectively true answers. It was designed to be more like a defense lawyer defending a client that’s probably guilty.

Now, I didn’t discover the name for this debate technique. This is thanks to Slate Star Codex pointing out something that I’ve compared to religion before:

I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning – and then is actually used a completely different way.

The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

I wouldn’t read this as a condemnation of feminism. I would read this as a condemnation of the architecture of the human brain. After all, any cause that deals with morality is bound to sacrifice what is truth to what is morality because of our inherently hypocritical, biased brains. We may want to do good, but we really have no control over our decisions. Free will doesn’t exist. We just rely on vague feelings of certainty that we’re doing good. But, crucially, we are kept in the dark about our subconscious algorithm for generating that feeling of certainty… the how of what we decide in the first place.

Case in point:

We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…

Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before.

Realizing that the same affliction that causes religions to be vectors for irrationality also inhabit more (to me) socially acceptable causes made me start being more tolerant of religion.

I’m certain there are a lot of people who don’t consider themselves bigots. But unless you are actively using some sort of mitigation strategy against your biases, using some actual humility, you’ll probably act in a bigoted way without even realizing it. And this cuts across everything; even people who are actively fighting for equality might not even realize that they’re subconsciously favoring their in-group to the detriment of the out-group. Yet their fuzzy feeling of certainty makes it feel like equality. Racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. aren’t foreign diseases that attack your cognition that you have to build up antibodies to… they are your cognition.

So when it comes to hypocritical behavior, we can’t think that we are being objective. Especially when it comes to moral behavior or any sort of normative, social justice goal. Overcoming our biases should be required education before we start making arguments and pronouncements when it comes to morality, or we’ll just be Motte and Bailey-ing at every chance to escape criticism. Just like a run of the mill Christian apologist.


Posted by on August 20, 2014 in apologetics, cognitive science, rationality


Alief vs Belief: Get Up To Speed



Recently I read an article (forgot where) that stated that atheists don’t actually exist because they behave in certain ways that imply god-belief. I actually stopped reading at the point where the author subtly shifted goalposts by initially talking about god-belief to the sleight of hand of talking about belief in spirits (belief in god and belief in theory-of-mind like phenomena are different), but I’d like to make this point regardless of a crappy article.

There are many people who like to watch scary movies. A lot of scary movies in Western culture implicitly assume a worldview where demons are real, most of the time going so far as to have the demon or evil spirit as the main antagonist. I’m sure lots of non-believers who watch these movies don’t think that these spirits really exist, yet they probably get scared at all of the creaky floors and bestial growls just like believers. Does this mean that non-believers are hypocritical when they have the involuntary reaction of fear when the main demon jumps out of the shadows?

No. This is the same sort of fear that people have when they ride roller coasters, or the same sadness people have when watching Titanic or Avatar. A woman I was dating when that latter movie came out started crying during the movie. Does this mean that she really believes giant blue anthropomorphic aliens on a distant planet just had their sacred tree destroyed? Probably not. Another woman I dated started crying at the end of Looper. Does that mean that she literally believes that in the near future (which hasn’t happened yet) Joseph Gordon-Levitt shoots himself to make Bruce Willis disappear? Highly doubtful.

Psychologist call this phenomenon of seemingly contradictory beliefs and actions alief. Christians in the USA don’t have a belief that Japanese Jesus-less demonology is true when they get scared while watching The Ring, but they have the alief that it’s true and is the reason they get scared.

One also has to take into account our modular minds. There is no single “you” that holds all beliefs, there are a multitude of “yous” that have their own separate beliefs; and one way to inject a bit of alief into some of those modules is by telling stories. The process is automatic and unconscious.

So the moral of this story is, if atheist don’t exist due to the belief/alief dichotomy, then neither do Christians (or any believer, for that matter).

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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in apologetics, cognitive science


The Real vs. The Merely Real


(Magnets… how do they work?)

This is one of those very annoying phenomena that comes up repeatedly in arguments between religious and non-religious people. When someone offers a scientific explanation for some phenomenon, the non-scientific person will say something to the effect of “Oh, so this means that XYZ is merely atoms colliding randomly”.

The offending word here, with all of its deliciously negative connotations, is “merely”. Or some connotative equivalent, like “nothing but” or “only”. Take this criticism that Jerry Coyne posted on his blog:

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, whose faith in evolutionary naturalism has no limits, will continue to remind us that the high degree of accident and blind necessity in biological evolution renders the emergence of mind nothing but a fluke of nature.

The point being, you can tell when people are using this sort of sophistry by the inclusion of these weasel words, especially due to the negative connotation of it all. As a matter of fact, you can insert the weasel words into just about any sort of scientific explanation and come away with a pretty transparently ridiculous critique. The transparency is the connotation of the weasel words “merely” or “nothing but”. As though there is necessarily more to it than “merely” the scientific answer.

Rainbows are merely refracted sunlight [connotation: therefore rainbows no longer have meaning]

Magnets are nothing but electrical charges [connotation: therefore magnets no longer have any meaning]

Stars are merely balls of colliding hydrogen in space [connotation: therefore, stars no longer have any meaning]

Love is merely a chemical cocktail of oxycontin, dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones sloshing around in the brain [connotation: therefore, love no longer has any meaning]

You can go to town with this. Pick any phenomena — any at all — and insert the word “mere” into its explanation, and you can reduce this critique to its obvious absurdity. Yes, the emergence of the mind is merely due to blind evolution; because the mind is merely real instead of… not real.

Why settle for mere reality?

You can even throw the “mere” accusation back at them. Love is merely the infinite expression of god’s infinite infinity, or Jesus Christ was nothing but god’s firstborn son and took on all of our sins and merely washed them away with his blood, or… so on and so forth. Really, this whole “mere” thing really annoys the crap out of me.

Eliezer Yudkowsky points out this phenomenon in his post Explaining vs. Explaining Away

John Keats’s Lamia (1819) surely deserves some kind of award for Most Famously Annoying Poetry:

…Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow.


Apparently “the mere touch of cold philosophy”, i.e., the truth, has destroyed:

  • Haunts in the air
  • Gnomes in the mine
  • Rainbows


The rainbow was explained. The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were explained away.

I think this is the key distinction that anti-reductionists don’t get about reductionism.

You can see this failure to get the distinction in the classic objection to reductionism:

If reductionism is correct, then even your belief in reductionism is just the mere result of the motion of molecules—why should I listen to anything you say?

The key word, in the above, is mere; a word which implies that accepting reductionism would explain away all the reasoning processes leading up to my acceptance of reductionism, the way that an optical illusion is explained away.

I think the larger valuation problem is with most people’s love affair with mystery. If something is mysterious then it’s good; it’s valuable. If something is not mysterious, then it is bad. Boring. Vanilla. Mere. God is mysterious. Therefore god is something good, something to venerate (or maybe it’s the other way around? Euthyphro?). The mind or the nature of consciousness is something good; venerable. Therefore, the mind is mysterious. It has to be, if not then it wouldn’t be valuable. Women are mysterious. Therefore, women are valuable. If women weren’t mysterious, then they wouldn’t be valuable! They would be mere women (dark arts warning: If you want to be seen as “valuable”, then you want to be seen as mysterious. Not as a “mere” or “nothing but”).

Who knows why this mystery = veneration link happened. I blame the ancient Greeks.

Anyway, I’ve written about this before. But the gist of it is that nothing is fundamentally mysterious, meaning that mystery is subjective. Mystery is a description of your own state of knowledge. So if you are venerating something because it is mysterious, this is a subtle arrogance since you are in effect worshipping your own ignorance.

Nothing is mysterious. Everything is merely real. And that’s the only response needed when someone says that XYZ phenomenon is merely atoms colliding randomly. Yes, that’s right; the phenomenon is merely real.


Posted by on May 11, 2013 in apologetics, fallacies


The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

So I was reading Matthew chapter 1 in Greek and I stumbled upon this little gem:

1.25 καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως [οὗ] ἔτεκεν υἱόν: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν

That reads, in my own translation “And he did not know her (Mary) until she gave birth to a son: and called him Jesus”

So it looks like the straightforward meaning of this is that Joseph had sex with (i.e. “knew”) Mary after she had given birth to Jesus. Of course, there is a ready made apologetic for the plain meaning of this sentence, since Catholics have had over a thousand years to debate and prepare it:

Till she brought forth her firstborn son… From these words Helvidius and other heretics most impiously inferred that the blessed Virgin Mary had other children besides Christ; but St. Jerome shows, by divers[e] examples, that this expression of the Evangelist was a manner of speaking usual among the Hebrews, to denote by the word until, only what is done, without any regard to the future. Thus it is said, Genesis 8:6 and 8:7, that Noe sent forth a raven, which went forth, and did not return till the waters were dried up on the earth. That is, did not return any more. Also Isaias 46:4, God says: I am till you grow old. Who dare infer that God should then cease to be: Also in the 1 Maccabees 5:54, And they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain till they had returned in peace. That is, not one was slain before or after they had returned. God saith to his divine Son: Sit on my right hand till I make thy enemies thy footstool. Shall he sit no longer after his enemies are subdued? Yea and for all eternity. St. Jerome also proves by Scripture examples, that an only begotten son, was also called firstborn, or first begotten: because according to the law, the firstborn males were to be consecrated to God; Sanctify unto me, saith the Lord, every firstborn that opens the womb among the children of Israel, etc. Exodus 13:2.

The problem is that this makes sense if you assume the Perpetual Virginity of Mary from the start. But was that what Matthew intended? Matthew wasn’t a Catholic, so we have no idea whether he subscribed to the perpetual virginity of Mary, thinking of her as though she were some sort of vestal virgin. Maybe he put that in there to cement the idea that Jesus was born before Joseph had sexual relations with her.

Catholics, having syncretized a lot of their dogmas/traditions with the mores of the (pagan) Roman Empire, would be more likely to argue for that tradition based on being Romans. They would also have had traditions of aceticism since this undercurrent was around from at least the 2nd century; the idea of flesh and sexual relations being “sinful” inherited from the Gnostics and Marcion. They did get the basic layout of their NT from Marcion anyway.

There’s also no reason why Joseph would keep Mary around, being wed with her, and break the traditional Jewish requirement to be fruitful and multiply with his young nubile wife; Mary was probably around 13 or 14 when she gave birth to Jesus (assuming a modicum of the story is true). Joseph being a celibate, also, implies proto-Orthodoxy traditions of acetisim and not any legitimate (that we know of) early 1st century CE / late 1st century BCE Judaism.

Anyway, we should take Matt’s own writing in and of itself into account to determine what he meant. Earlier in the same chapter, a couple of verses before 25, he writes:

17 Πᾶσαι οὖν αἱ γενεαὶ ἀπὸ Ἀβραὰμ ἕως Δαυὶδ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ Δαυὶδ ἕως τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος ἕως τοῦ Χριστοῦ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες.

That is, “All of the generations from Abraham until David were fourteen generations, and from David until the Babylonian Exile fourteen generations, and from the Babylonian Exile until Christ fourteen generations.”

So what is the evidence we have? For one, we don’t know whether Matt was a Catholic, so apologetics from Catholic Jerome two centuries later might not represent what Matt himself was thinking. Second, Matt doesn’t seem to use ἕως in other contexts to signify “never”. Third, the phrasing of the sentence seems to have been written to emphasize that Joseph didn’t have sex with Mary until after Jesus was born because Matt’s emphasis was on the virgin birth of Jesus, not the perpetual virginity of Mary. Mary all but disappears from Matt’s special material after this introduction, meaning that her role as the immaculate conduit for Jesus’ birth was over in Matt’s mind. If Matt had intended for Mary to be depicted as a virgin for the rest of her life, he might have mentioned it elsewhere.

Of course, none of this is intended to dialogue with Catholics. Just my own lucubration.

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Posted by on October 5, 2012 in apologetics, greek, virgin birth


Good Without God?

A lot of the time theists are shocked that atheists can be good without believing in a god. Or, at least they pretend to be, who knows. They usually ask something like “what’s stopping you from going out and murdering and raping people without believing in god?”. Unfortunately, this argument isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against theism.

By way of analogy, say you have two kids. For one of your kids, the only reason that he doesn’t take cookies from the cookie jar is due to fear of punishment. The other kid, she doesn’t take cookies from the jar because she knows it will ruin her appetite. In this scenario, which kid is the better kid? Which kid would you want as your own?

In this analogy, the kid who doesn’t take cookies because of fear of reprisal is the theist. And the kid who doesn’t take cookies because she knows it’s bad for her in this context is the atheist. Most parents would want the atheist kid in this scenario, yet somehow in real life the theist kid is the one who gets respect.

Seems exactly backwards to me.

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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in apologetics

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