Jef Raskin, one of the originators of the Macintosh, writes an interesting lament at what often passes for the history of its development. "Holes in the Histories" is instructive for its catalogue of how the telling of history can be corrupted by the use of secondary sources, by oversimplification, by misrepresentation, by an affection for celebrity, by relying on appearances, and by a general lack of interest in the truth of the matter. Every day, each of us hears countless reports, studies, and comments about the way of things and Raskin's article is a welcome reminder to be wary of taking such claims at face value. It is also a call to avoid such carelessness about truth in our own words. We are especially vulnerable to being taken in by fictions when we are inclined to agree with their source for other reasons. David C. Wise's Creation/Evolution page (link expired) is a sobering account of ways in which the "Creation Science" movement has been incorrigibly guilty of many of the sins of scholarship that Raskin describes. For example, see his article "Moon Dust" (link expired).
The Secular Web is currently hosting the Carrier-Roth Debate in which Jennifer Roth argues that an ethical case can be made against abortion without reference to God or any other supernatural entity. It is telling that neither disputant attempts to justify the intrinsic worth they assume for human persons. If each party just grants that humans are inherently more valuable than rocks and trees, the crucial issue has been missed: the question of what it is that makes anything valuable. William Lane Craig presses this very issue in a new article in Paper Trails, "The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality." There is also philosophical confusion in the debate about what constitutes personal identity and other problems, but there are also many highlights in this exchange. Whether or not Roth is successful, it is refreshing to hear concerns about abortion outside of the religious community. Apart from condemnations of clinic violence, ethical considerations are conspicuously absent from virtually every pro-choice website, from Planned Parenthood to Protect Choice. Teenwire is about as close as you get with its swift dismissal: "Abortion is a touchy subject with a lot of people. Remember that this is your body and your decision... You have a right to end an unwanted pregnancy if you feel that it is the wisest decision for you." Considering this, The Secular Web's substantive discussion is especially commendable.
We interrupt this broadcast for a rare excursion into contemporary politics, but only to make a broader plea. Last night, here in the U.S.A., the Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a very controversial health care reform bill. Apropos of our last article, the debate on the floor was intense, the differences irreconcilable. For the minority, John Boehner deplored the bill, characterizing it as striking at the heart of the American Dream. For the majority, Nancy Pelosi beamed that it was a final step toward ensuring the American promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". As bitter as the debate has been, it was to be expected that the conservatives who opposed the bill would be angry and frustrated. Sure enough, this morning I overheard radio talk show host Mike Gallagher mid-tirade, calling the Democrats "filthy", "vile", "bastards", "vermin", and "bastards" several more times for good measure. It recalled Rush Limbaugh's recent ascription of Democrats as "cockroaches". These despicable comments do not represent the best of conservative commentary, and I am very aware that such rhetoric is as bad and worse on the other side. What is ironic is that such voices bemoan the demise of the American republic even as they undermine the civil discourse that is vital to it. It is perfectly appropriate to offer withering critique of ideas and actions, but these ad hominems are themselves worthy of severe reproach. Many of the conservatives who are angry and frustrated this morning are Christians, and to you I make a special plea. May we exemplify Jesus' exhortation to "love our [ideological] enemies, to treat them as our friends". May we treat them as we would wish to be treated. May we speak what we consider the truth in love. May we chasten each other when incivility speaks. May we be exemplars of civil discourse. This is our mandate.
Nathan Jacobson & Dace Starkweather
In more recent philosophical expressions of the Problem of Evil, the argument is carefully articulated to ensure that the evil under consideration is unquestionably gratuitous. That is, while there is suffering for which the theist can posit some possibly redemptive or soul-making purpose, there is also suffering for which it is nigh impossible to imagine any greater good being served. Specifically, attention has turned to natural evil, and to the suffering of animals in particular. For example, William Rowe's widely discussed argument imagines a fawn, alone in the woods, engulfed by a raging forest fire, suffering for days before dying. How could a good and powerful God, if he existed, allow this kind of suffering, which is immeasurable every day? On the other hand, when I watch tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra attempting to cross the Mara River as they finish their annual migration across the Serengeti, many of them violently ripped to pieces in the attempt by basks of writhing crocodiles, it is not obvious to me that this militates against the existence of God.1 I am awed and quickened by the spectacle. Though I naturally root for the antelope, I see tragic beauty in this contest for survival, red in tooth and claw. I'm not altogether sure that a world of harmless bunnies, tribbles and parakeets... a world without riptides, sandstorms, cliffs and fires, would better bespeak a great and beneficent creator. Indeed, I wonder whether a world whose magnificence is due in part to its being as wild and untamed as ours is not itself a justification for the peril and pain entailed therein. But, when I say that I am not sure, that is the truth. I am by no means unsympathetic to the suffering of animals. My heart is rent when I watch PETA's documentaries exposing our oftentimes callous and cruel treatment of animals bred for human consumption. It is egregious to kick a dog, to string up a cat. Furthermore, we have the biblical vision of heaven which portrays a time and place when the lion lies down with the lamb, implying perhaps that the current, ravenous state of nature is not the way it's supposed to be. Considering the abundance of animal suffering, it has always struck me as a bit unfortunate that the examples offered by Rowe, Tooley, and others in thesearguments are usually abstract, when they needn't be.2 So, as I continue to reflect on what we should infer from a natural world that is as violent as it is breathtakingly beautiful, I offer the following contribution. It is a riveting account from the journal of a close friend, Dace Starkweather, who experienced the very real, fiery devastation of Pike National Forest3, and bore witness to the woodland creatures and free range cattle that suffered there. I don't think anyone has ever questioned whether Rowe's example is paralleled in the real world, but this vivid, real-life account makes the question of apparently pointless natural evil all the more poignant.
And about the man behind the curtain.
Afterall.net is more or less an online filing cabinet of collected articles and snippets from my quest to find answers to the big questions, especially of faith and reason, plus a fair share of reflections and commentaries from yours truly, Nathan Jacobson. As such, it is my hope that Afterall.net reflects some of my core values: an honest search for the truth of the matter, an appropriate humility regarding our human abilities as truthseekers, and a profound respect for all who presume to address the question, no matter their point of view. For the sake of full disclosure, I come at the question as a Christian, inclined to think (and yes, also hoping) that Christian theism is true. However, my whole adult life my faith has been beset by doubt, and it is this unrelenting uncertainty that compels me to return to the question earnestly, again and again. Doubting Thomas, I guess, is my patron saint. And like Thomas, I really do want to know.
The person presenting an argument is attacked instead of the argument itself. This takes many forms. For example, the person's character, nationality or religion may be attacked. Alternatively, it may be pointed out that a person stands to gain from a favorable outcome. Or, finally, a person may be attacked by association, or by the company he keeps. There are three major forms of Attacking the Person: 1) ad hominem (abusive): instead of attacking an assertion, the argument attacks the person who made the assertion. 2) ad hominem (circumstantial): instead of attacking an assertion the author points to the relationship between the person making the assertion and the person's circumstances. 3) ad hominem (tu quoque): this form of attack on the person notes that a person does not practice what he preaches, in effect, "look who's talking".
Nathan Jacobson » July 5, 2006.
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The authority in question is not named, or in written arguments, their is an absence of citation. When an authority is not named, it is impossible to confirm that the authority is in fact authoritative, or even whether the claim is backed by an authority at all. As "they" say, 62% of statistics are made up on the spot. (Wink. Wink.) Furthermore, if the claim is rooted in an authoritative source, one cannot check to see whether the unnamed authority's argument should be disputed. A special case of this fallacy is the appeal to rumor or hearsay. Because the source of a rumor is typically not known, it is not possible to determine whether to believe the rumor. And this is especially important because often false and harmful rumors are deliberately started in order to discredit an opponent. » Also see Appeal to Authority for additional pitfalls.
Clipped by Nathan Jacobson
widely reported. As he tells the story, his recent considerations of apparent design in the universe, and in particular of the complexity of DNA, have led him to believe in the existence of a God who is at least intelligent and powerful. The best account of Flew's new perspective can be found in an interview with Gary Habermas in the upcoming issue of Philosophia Christi. The interview is available online on Biola University's website. Richard Carrier has also corresponded with Flew about his recent thinking and commented on it at The Secular Web. One could conclude that Flew's story illustrates the persuasiveness of current arguments for the existence of God from design even to a person who one can assume was predisposed against them. One of the best details of the story, however, is the collegiality it reveals between Flew and the late CS Lewis as well as with the Christian philosopher Gary Habermas. Understandably, Flew has been somewhat circumspect in his comments so far, pointing instead to the forthcoming edition of his seminal work, God and Philosophy.
While often it is appropriate to cite an authority to support a point, sometimes it is not. An appeal to authority is problematic if: 1) The person is not qualified to have an expert opinion on the subject; 2) Experts in the field disagree on this issue; 3) The authority was making a joke, drunk, or otherwise not being serious. 4) The authority cited is either misinterpreted or in fact did not even say what is attributed to them. 5) A fifth variation on this fallacy, "circular citation", is when a source is cited, but the cited source itself does not reference the study or authoritative source that supports the claim being made. Sometimes a whole slew of articles and books will crop up, all citing each other or some common source, but the seminal source itself fails to substantiate the claim with direct evidence or a trustworthy authority. An urban legend is born. » Also see Anonymous Authorities for a related strand of problematic appeals to authority.
Also known as argumentum ad consequentiam, in this form of argument the author points to the disagreeable consequences of holding a particular belief in order to show that this belief is false. "In an argumentum ad consequentiam the premises deal only with the consequences that are likely to ensue from accepting the conclusion, and not with its truth. Logically speaking, it is entirely irrelevant that certain undesirable consequences might derive from the rejection of a thesis, or certain benefits accrue from its acceptance." (Rescher, 1964, p. 82.) By this description, the appeal to consequence would be categorized as a fallacy of irrelevance.
This form of argument is also known as argumentum ad baculum. "Baculum" is Latin for "stick". The listener is told that unpleasant consequences will follow if they do not agree with the advocate. In other words: "Agree with me, or else." The old adage, "walk softly and carry a big stick", also comes to mind. "An argument always attempts to prove that the conclusion is worth of belief. Trustworthy arguments do this by providing clear and reasonable support for the conclusion. They rely solely on the power of reason. Whenever an argument relies on any other type of power to support its conclusion, it commits the fallacy of appeal to force. The most obvious sort of force is the physical threat of violence. The argument distracts us from a critical review and evaluation of its premises and conclusion by putting us into a defensive position." (Stratton, Critical Thinking for College Students, p. 169.)
Traditionally known as argumentum ad misericordiam, in this fallacious argument it is implied that agreement should be forthcoming out of sympathy for the pitiful state of the one making the argument or of someone related to the argument in some way. It is often categorized as ignoratio elenchi, i.e. a fallacy of irrelevance. "Instead of defending an argument on its merits, this fallacy evades the pertinent issues and makes a purely emotional appeal. Too often a person who is unable to cite relevant facts in support of his claims may resort to a plea for sympathy." (Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers, p. 16-7.)
Also called argumentum ad ignorantiam, arguments of this form assume that since something has not been proven false, it is therefore true. Conversely, such an argument may assume that since something has not been proven true, it is therefore false. (This is a special case of a false dilemma, since it assumes that all propositions must either be known to be true or known to be false.) Other phrases often employed here, are "lack of proof is not proof"; "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"; "the lack-of-knowledge inference"; and, "negative proof" or "negative evidence".
A proposition is argued to be true because it is widely held to be true or is held to be true by some important segment of the population. "Because many or most people believe A, A must be true." We'll call this consensus gentium the "Appeal to Popularity". 2) Additionally, the argumentum ad populum has been used more literally as "appeal to the people" or "appeal to the gallery". In this version, it refers to a direct emotional and rhetorical appeal to the people standing in judgment. For example, when a politician turns to the crowd, looks them in the eye, and begins, "I implore you...", or, "I know that we all agree that...", take note. Appeals of this sort may resort to the argument from pity or to the audience's presumed shared values. Strictly speaking, appealing to "the people" need not be fallacious, but only when the logic (or lack of logic) of the appeal is problematic.
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Jeffrey Jay Lowder, founder of the Internet Infidels, offers a welcome clarification of the term 'feethinker,' in his article, "Is 'Freethinker' Synonymous with 'Nontheist?'" He ultimately agrees with Bertrand Russell that what defines a freethinker is not the content of his beliefs, but because "after careful thought, he finds a balance of evidence in their favor." In principle, then, Lowder concedes that a theist could be a freethinker. His unremarkable conclusion is noteworthy because it demurs from the pervasive opinion of many skeptics that the defining characteristic of religious people is their unthinking credulity. Consider, by way of contrast, the Freedom from Religion Foundation's 'nontract' (sic), "What Is A Freethinker?" Still, Lowder rejects the possibility that an Evangelical Christian could be a freethinker. Considering Lowder's familiarity with the recent flowering of excellent Christian scholarship, especially in philosophy, his denial of Christian "free thinking" is, in the end, a bit puzzling.
George Washington in Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation: a Book of Etiquette (Beaver Press: 1971).
George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. To modern ears many of these rules may seem quaint and moralistic, overly aristocratic and deferential. But though they are primarily rules of a lost formality, I take good manners to be an outward expression of respect toward others, and there is a timeless wisdom in many of them. One of the prevailing undercurrents here at Afterall.net is a desire to be competent at speaking in love what one takes to be true and not trivial. The first article I wrote here was "Recipe for Conversation", borne out of frustration with my own failure in many cases to speak with as much kindness as conviction. It is not easy to disagree without being disagreeable. Fortunately, to our great benefit, there is a long conversation in Anglo-American discourse about this subject of "civility" or "civil discourse". Indeed, the American Experiment is in large measure an attempt to live well with differences. To that end, Washington's rules with respect to civil conversation are worth considering. If nothing else, they are a glimpse into another time. Not surprisingly, incessant talkers and interrupters, not to mention gabbing with a mouth full of food, were as gauche then as they are now. As an aside, I've also added a new category, Civility & Rhetoric, to begin to gather books, quotes, and papers on this subject in one place. ~ Nate
A Clarification in Response to Luke Muehlhauser's "Who Designed the Designer?"
Luke, the wunderkind over at Common Sense Atheism, continues to be a tremendously salutary voice in the online conversation about God. Recently, Luke set out to kill a sacred cow, "one of atheism's most popular and resilient retorts", namely: "Who designed the designer?". This, he argues, simply is not a defeater to theistic arguments. I should add, what he offers with one hand, he takes with the other. "The problem with offering 'God did it' as an explanation is that such an explanation has low plausibility, is not testable, has poor consistency with background knowledge, comes from a tradition (supernaturalism) with extreme explanatory failure, lacks simplicity, offers no predictive novelty, and has poor explanatory scope." But returning to the more common objection, Luke points out 1) that we accept unexplained explanations in science, and 2) that if every explanation must be explained to count as an explanation, we end in an infinite regress and nothing is ever explained. It is the nature of the case that some explanations must be ultimate explanations. Both of Luke's points are well taken, and echo the responses offered by William Lane Craig and other theists to this common rejoinder. However, throughout, Luke characterizes the supposed conclusions to the natural theologian's premises as simply: "God did it". Luke undoubtedly knows that this is an oversimplification of such arguments when they are carefully articulated, that much like postulates in physics, their conclusions are of the form: some entity x exists with property p. We'll give it the name y. I do not mean to nitpick, and I understand the use of shorthand, but this distinction is critical in evaluating the appropriateness of a given explanation, the very subject matter of the post. My attempt at a constructive response follows.
Two otherwise unrelated points are conjoined and treated as a single proposition. The reader is expected to accept or reject both together, when in reality one is acceptable while the other is not. A complex question is an illegitimate use of the "and" operator. "The fallacy of many questions is a common form or error, which has been variously defined as: 1) framing a question in such a way that two or more questions are asked at once, and a single answer is required; or 2) framing a question in such a way as to beg another question; or 3) framing a question which makes a false presumption; or 4) framing a complex question but demanding a simple answer." (Fischer, Historians' Fallacies, p. 8.)
The age old question of the existence of God has made headlines recently with Al Sharpton's debate with Christopher Hitchens and ABC's, Does God Exist? The Nightline Face-off. In the latter, Ray Comfort, a street preacher who is a regular fixture on Santa Monica's 6th Street promenade, and Kirk Cameron, of Growing Pains fame, argued in the affirmative. Brian Sapient and Kelly of the Rational Response Squad argued for the irrationality of belief in God. One could have hoped, considering the import of such a momentous question, that ABC might have sought out philosophers more up to the task, but that probably wouldn't have made for "good TV". Instead, the viewer was treated to a foursome of philosophical lightweights. There were some high points. Despite his malapropism, calling fundamentally philosophical arguments "scientific proof", Ray Comfort's articulation of the complexity of the human body as a part of his argument from design was eloquent enough. And Brian and Kelly delivered a number of zingers that left Ray and Kirk speechless. But mostly, at best, both sides offered sophomoric versions of the arguments that need to be reckoned with when considering the evidence for and against the existence of God. Fortunately, more capable thinkers have addressed this question more profitably. William Lane Craig is well known for arguing for the rationality of belief in God and a number of his debates with worthy opponents can be found online. His debate with Michael Tooley at the University of Colorado is especially worth reading. JP Moreland's and Kai Nielsen's debate, published in the volume, Does God Exist?, is still an excellent read and features commentary from a number of thinkers who add valuable insight. Many other relevant volumes line the shelves at Amazon.com, including Richard Swinburne's, The Existence of God, and George Smith's classic, Atheism: The Case Against God. Online, Wikipedia provides a helpful catalog of the arguments for the Existence of God. Tim Holt makes the argument for the existence of God in summary form at Existence-of-God.com as does All About God, weighing both philosophical and scientific considerations. The Secular Web provides the counterpoint with a roundup of logical arguments for atheism.