The cosmological argument for the existence of gods finally emerges

A few days I wrote about my conversation with Mike, who had started down the road of committing the argument from ignorance fallacy by suggesting something can be true, just because it has never been proven not to be true.

That’s a tricky tactic and it’s tough to argue against precisely because it’s built on fallacious reasoning. It has taken some time, but we have finally arrived at an affirmative claim, which is a more intellectually honest starting point. That’s not to say that Mike was being purposefully deceptive here. He likely thought he had a sound starting position. I’ve been doing this for quite a while, so I suspected there was a god belief underpinning his approach somewhere, and sure enough it has finally emerged.

Mike said:

“The only arguments for naturalism are arguments against theism.”

And went on to suggest that:

“…the Cosmological Argument is an argument for the existence of God and Premise 2 of the argument is supported by multiple lines of evidence.”

He then went on to explain how in his opinion, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology, is actually evidence for the Cosmological argument for the existence of a god.

Good old William Lane Craig and the Kalam Cosmological argument. I’ve also written about that argument here when I talked about Bill the Creationist Engineer. But in this case, I’m using Street Epistemology, so rather than try point out the deficiencies in the argument itself, and there are many, I told Mike the following:

“…And just an observation here, but it’s also really interesting that you bring up Big Bang cosmology as evidence for the existence of a supernatural being. I know of a Hindu guy who has latched on to some of William Lane Craig’s arguments, especially his revival of the Kalam Cosmological argument, but rather than use it as an argument for the existence of the Hebrew god, he says it proves the existence of Purusha. Which makes me wonder, how reliable is an argument if it can be used to “prove” the existence of two mutually exclusive things?”

I’ll be sure to let you know if that last statement placed a pebble in his shoe.


Careful with the Argument from Ignorance

I’m in a group that encourages honest, respectful conversations about what people believe to be true and why.

My latest conversation, with Mike, is providing a great lesson in what is called the argumentum ad ignorantiam or argument from ignorance fallacy. It relies on there being a lack of contrary evidence.

The fallacy basically goes something like this: something must be true if it has never been proven false.

Mike started the conversation by saying:

I believe that philosophical naturalism is false.

This should already raise a couple of flags.

One is this phrase, “philosophical naturalism.” So first I got clarification from Mike on what he meant by that. His answer was that for him, philosophical naturalism is the belief that the natural world is all there is.

Second, he is saying that he has a belief that another belief is false. We’re already getting into “negative” territory. After some prodding, I suggested that we should be talking about his belief that the supernatural world exists, rather than his issue with the claim that the natural world is all there is. But he was a bit unwilling to commit to an affirmative claim here so after a bit of back and forth, I’ve left him with this comment:


I’m still not entirely sure about your process for arriving at the belief that naturalism is false. I don’t want to put words in your mouth here, but let me try to rephrase where we are at, and you let me know if I’ve got it right.

1. You have a belief that the “belief that the natural world is all there is,” isn’t true.
2. That language is a bit convoluted, since we’re not really talking about something you believe to be true, but rather, something you disbelieve.
3. So let me rephrase a bit. You disbelieve the natural world is all there is, because no one has ever proven that the natural world is all there is.
4. Which is another way of saying you believe that the supernatural world must exist. And since the supernatural world has never been proven not to exist, you believe that naturalism can’t be true.

I’ve never been a big fan of saying something is true, because it has never been proven false. I like to say that something is true, because we have good reasons to believe it to be true. Conversely, I like to say that one explanation is likely false, because we have good reasons to be believe that another explanation is true.

So I think we can go one of two ways here:
a) Using Street Epistemology, you can try convincing me that my belief that the natural world is all there is, might not be based on good methods or
b) Using Street Epistemology, I can try convincing you that your belief that the supernatural exists, might not be based on good methods.

Does that sound reasonable?


That’s where we are at the moment. So stay tuned.

You can’t argue people out of their deeply held beliefs

The following post is a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, Why Do People Believe Unbelievable Things from my book, There Are No Such Things as Ghosts.


One of my favorite questions to ask someone who is making a fantastical claim is, “why do you believe this to be true?”

Notice this question doesn’t directly assault their claim, rather it is an inquiry in to how that claim came to represent the truth in their mind.  In other words, I try not to challenge their claim with the more confrontational “that is false” or “you are wrong” although it is quite possible that I take these positions as well. Nor do I jump right to a personal attack – known as ad hominem – with something crass like “you’re just a moron” or “that’s just stupid.”

The reason I don’t confront the belief or the person directly is that either of those responses almost without exception, immediately places the claimant in the position of doggedly defending their claim. They become defensive. This is known as the backfire effect. I do not want to have an argument. I want a conversation. I want them to use their ability to reason, not their willingness to be entrenched and dogmatic.

By asking them to think about why they believe what they do, I move the claim out of the debater’s arena and on to the examination table. We are both doing analysis now, not argumentation. The claimant should now be thinking about how to justify their epistemology as opposed to how to defend the claim itself.

So rather than defending themselves, they are beginning the intellectual exercise of discovering why they believe the claim to be true in the first place.

This is a subtle but important difference. By asking the question, “Why do you believe it to be true,” we are essentially evaluating the support for the argument. We are looking for inconsistencies, holes, fallacies, irrational underpinnings, and mistakes in reasoning.

Pay close attention to the conversation you are having here. Listen to your interlocutor. Resist the temptation to focus only on your next retort.

  • Is your respondent silent?
  • Does she have any credible sources?
  • Is she mistakenly promoting her claim as the evidence for her claim as is often the case with holy texts? This is the old circular reasoning argument that goes, “my holy book is true because my holy book says my holy book is true.”
  • Is she offering no evidence?
  • Is she using purposefully vague, ambiguous, or confusing language (also a common practice in religious apologetics – remember the hoax language from “The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence” in Chapter 2)?
  • Is she just getting angry?
  • Is she saying her belief is based on a special feeling or an unverifiable miraculous experience?
  • In her attempt to explain why she believes as she does, does she admit that she believes the claim chiefly because she was raised to believe it, or told to believe it by someone else?
  • Does she smile and say, “I’ll pray for you” or “do your own research” as an attempt to discontinue the conversation?

The response you are really hoping for is the first one I mentioned. Silence. We are trying to get the interlocutor to evaluate why it is she believes what she believes. We are trying to effectively pry open the rusted door for our respondent to reexamine her own epistemic system.  Many of the canned responses she will give you are hollow. Moreover, at some point, the respondent must come to terms with the rationale that led her to her conclusion; however flimsy that rationale may be. She must reevaluate her own epistemic system. Her mind becomes slightly less rusted shut. And you are the WD-40®!


Street epistemology and global warming deniers

‘Tis the season.

The season when the temperature plummets and the global warming deniers begin tripping over themselves to point to cold weather as evidence that global warming can’t be happening. As my copious letters to the editor will most assuredly attest, I wage this intellectual battle each and every winter.

In fact, I’ve beat my head against so many global warming denialist rocks by trying to educate them and point them to good scientific resources, that I’m now pretty much convinced that education may never work…by itself that is. Let’s be honest here for a moment. Anyone with Google can learn as much about the science as they can possible stand, so it’s not about access to the evidence at all.

With that sad realization, I’m now using a technique called street epistemology almost exclusively when I encounter global warming deniers. I’ve talked quite a bit about street epistemology in other posts, but it’s essentially a way of asking questions such that the person answering them might begin to understand they are on shaky ground when it comes to what they believe is true.

What do I mean by street epistemology in the context of global warming denial? Simply this: my goal is to get these science deniers to examine what is at the root of their eagerness to ignore the evidence.

Rather than point to NASA or NOAA or any legitimate public research institution or organization on the planet, my first question is now often,

“What evidence would change your mind?”

Because it has to go back to how people are determining what’s credible. For example, if someone asserted that global warming is a conspiracy perpetuated by the media, I would have to ask them how they could determine if they were actually wrong in that assertion? What sources or evidence would convince them to change their minds? Why are some sources more valuable or reliable to them, than others? Forget talking about the science. Let’s talk about how they got here in the first place.

Building on those questions, I might even be able to use an analogy to cause the person to doubt the criteria they are using when choosing what to value as a credible source regarding climate science. I might say something like,

“I have a friend who insists that the claim that cigarettes cause cancer, is a vast media conspiracy. In fact, this friend refuses to look at any scientific data. Do you think he is using a reasonable approach?”

Just recently I encountered on Twitter, a rather belligerent fellow who claimed that anyone with “common sense” can see that global warming is a hoax. He went on to say as you can see in the tweet below, that he uses common sense to make determinations about the truthfulness of scientific claims. Rather than get baited in to a fact fest or a defense of liberalism or even Al Gore, I asked this question:

“Can you think of an example where scientific data showed common sense to be incorrect?

He never responded. I’d like to believe that he was able to think of an example, for there are many, and decided it best not to further embarrass himself on a public platform. Maybe he’s re-evaluating “common sense” as a reliable method for validating scientific facts.

As the temperature hovers around freezing, I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to try these questions again. Stay warm!

It’s almost 2018, what’s your style?

I’ve been debating with people who hold irrational beliefs for my entire adult life.  Long before Facebook created easily accessible young earth creationist groups, Christian apologist groups, agnostic atheist groups, or you-name-it whateverist groups to join. Long before YouTube gave us brilliant examples of intellectuals and polemicists – people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris – to study and emulate. Long before Twitter. Long before Reddit. Long before I had any idea that there were even others out there like me who were arguing against irrational ideas, as near as I could tell, there was just me in an office or at a restaurant table or in a living room, arguing.

Growing up where I did here in north Georgia, I more often than not found myself the sole representative of a particular position (imagine that), surrounded by a growing chorus of opponents in various states of distress and emotion. I loved it then and I love it today. Arguing from a position of fact tends to bolster one’s confidence even when it’s one against many. And as much as my exasperated opponents I’m sure felt as if I was simply arguing for argument’s sake, I was and am, always searching for and defending the truth. I only mention all of this to give myself an excuse, albeit a weak one. That is, old habits die hard. After that many years and that many confrontations, my style is my style.

Before I get too hard on myself for the confrontational style of debate that I’ve developed over the years, I should mention that no one really knows how well a particular technique works if one’s goal is to decouple the individual from the irrational or absurd beliefs they hold. And curing people of bad ideas is of course my goal.  I loosely characterize my style as 85% countering with facts, 10% making jokes to inject levity, and 5% ruthlessly ridiculing my opponent whenever his or her jerk quotient hits that magic number (everyone has their own magic number).

Alas, there’s another technique that I’ve grown to love that I’m working hard to incorporate into my style.

I’ve written about it on the Street Epistemology blog and that post is also available on my blog to read so I won’t repeat the rationale I describe in those posts here. Suffice it say, I’ve seen it work for me as well as others. I’ll put a link to more information about Street Epistemology at the bottom of this post and I highly recommend watching my friend Anthony Magnabosco’s videos where he literally records conversations between himself and others while using these Socratic techniques. In a nutshell, Street Epistemology is the idea of using the Socratic Method to get to the reasonswhy a person believes what they do. In other words, rather than attack the beliefs of the individual and rather than counter his fictional claims with your facts, your goal is to encourage your interlocutor to examine the methods he is relying upon to arrive at what he believes to be true, and ultimately for him to question the reliability of his own methods. This technique is less confrontational (or at least should be) and it’s less likely to result in the backfire effect because it’s not a frontal assault on a cherished belief.

All that said, being people who value data, while we have some wonderful anecdotal evidence, we still don’t know how well a given style works at dislodging poorly reasoned  ideas. As I admitted, I still fall back on the style I honed over the years.

However, I like to look at it through the lens of history. For centuries dogmatic beliefs were protected from the light of truth, literally by the threat (and act) of death and torture. The fact that dogmatic beliefs needed such extreme protections should give everyone something to contemplate if they are intellectually honest, but that’s a post for another day.

Now, as we prepare to enter the year 2018, we need to recognize the opportunities we have. We live in an amazing time where we can openly criticize any beliefs or ideas; so remain silent? Who are we not to criticize those beliefs which inspire bad behaviors? Who are we not to relentlessly defend reason and evidence and enlightenment values? And while you may not change the person’s mind with whom you’re engaged, there are others who are listening to what you’re saying. You may never hear from them, but they will be watching, reading, and quietly evaluating your positions. Your confident defense of the truth may inspire them to speak out the next time they are a witness to injustice.

So keep at it. Get your own style, stick to the truth, and have a wonderful 2018.

We have work to do.


For more information on Street Epistemology, the resources page on the Street Epistemology website has an impressive list: