Saturday, March 7, 2009

Wilful Ignorance

without understanding an opponent's position, you'll never learn anything. For all you ever get is confirmation of your own agenda.

- Kel on Pharynugla

People like to have opinions about everything - from politics to religion, philosophy, science, technology, parenting, etc. It's natural as humans to have opinions and to want those opinions validated, mostly by those close to us. We form groups of like minded people who share similar values and ostracise other groups. This of course can sterilise conversation, and ideas as a group becomes homogeneous, back-patting and dogmatic. Without a contrarian, without doubt, our ideas can never be challenged and we may never discover if we are ever wrong.

There are of course, some ideas which transcend opinion and are in the realm of facts and truths. The lack of (serious) flat earth societies is testament to the idea that peoples minds can be changed when it comes to issues of undeniable fact even if our basic intuitions (the earth looks flat) fail us. This doesn't work in all cases - to steal the ironic title of Ray Comfort's new book "You can bring a person to knowledge, but you can't make them think". The irony being that Ray has consistently been given the information, yet wilfully ignores it.

The difference between wilful ignorance and natural ignorance is the question of will. There are always going to be two sides (or more) to a story, and especially for controversial issues, the fact that a multitude of people exist on the other side means that you ought not to ignore it. Some people might be too scared to question their opinions or ideas they have for many reasons, including social ostricization, fear of hell, fear of being wrong, fearing the consequences, or an unhealthy belief that their position is indisputable - irrespective of what the other group has to say. Others are just arrogant and stubborn...

Natural ignorance is understandable. No one person knows everything, and some of us just go with our gut when it comes to things we do not know about. The question is, are you able to admit that you are not knowledgeable about something and that you might be wrong. If the answer is yes, then you are showing humility and an open mind. If you say no, you are probably closed minded and wilfully ignorant. Even if you believe you are knowledgeable about something, there is always a chance you might have missed something or new information has come to light. In either case, is there any justification for ever closing ones mind?

A novel idea I learned in high school when debating was to be put in *any* position. Which is to say, instead of just debating the side you already believe in, there is a chance you might need to defend the other point of view - even if you do not believe it. This is where debating becomes a game about convincing people you are right, or winning, even if you are in opposition to what is being proposed. This is the game lawyers play, especially in criminal cases where they know they are defending someone who really did commit the crime. Naturally there are bound to be sandbaggers who will present the case they do not believe in, in a negative light to convince people that point of view has no merit. This would make them fail the class or make their record look bad!

The easiest way to distinguish between someone who is wilfully ignorant and naturally ignorant is to ask them to argue for the other side. If they are unable to come up with even the basis of a cogent argument - they do not understand the other side. If someone claims they have "done the research" or presents themselves as an authority, yet does not present "common knowledge", it becomes trivial to identify those who have serious objections to those who are sandbagging for their cause. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you know someone is being wilfully ignorant - and you want to call them out on it.

I highly recommend Christians take the Debunking Christianity Challenge.
One of the next books on my list of books to read is "Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity" by John W. Loftus.
If there is one thing the "new atheists" cannot deal with, it's that fact that none of them were ever apologists for a faith and lost it, so they do not really understand the other point of view.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Belief and Faith

Belief and faith
A theist is one who believes and has faith in God.

Belief without faith
I've found that many say they lose faith but still believe in God.

Faith without belief
Is it possible to not believe in God but still have faith?

No belief and no faith
The atheist does not have belief, nor faith in God.

Question of the day: Could an atheist become a theist or religious without believing in God but having faith regardless?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Debating: Lose the Battle - Win the War

Want to formally debate the following?
9/11 Truthers
Global Warming Deniers
Moon Hoaxers

Well I take my hat off to you. You are clearly braver than I.
All those listed above have a material advantage in a debate and that is simply that they can rattle off a number of plausible sounding arguments in less than than it takes to debunk them.

Why they win.

Think about it. You enter a formal debate where each side has twenty minutes to open and say fifteen minute for the response. Those in the above category can make their simplistic case (eg Evolution is *just* a theory, as you can *clearly* see from this image the shadows are wrong, Al Gore was *discredited*) and it takes a good five minutes to refute each argument. Lets say it takes five minutes to disprove something which takes one minute to state. That's a 5:1 time advantage. This means someone can rattle off four arguments which take four minutes to state and twenty minutes to refute - going over the specified time limit for a response.

Why does it take so long?

Some may ask, why does it take so long to formulate a response? (eg. How come you can't distill a refutation of the Kalam Cosmological argument into a few sentences)

The easiest answer is that common sense is poor when it comes to truth-value, yet easy to manipulate for those who are not willing to do the leg work and actually research a topic. Confusing the common use of the term theory is an example of a case where one (who isn't a scientist or a knowledgeable person) takes use of the popular but misleading wrong definition and runs with it.

"If evolution is true, why is it just a theory?"
"You are mistaking the definition of theory. A scientific theory is powerful because it explains facts. As more facts emerge a theory is either disproved, refined or further backed up with evidence. You can never prove a theory but you can disprove it."

On the basis of word count alone, the refutation takes just over 4 times more words!

Countering Stupid with Stupid.

The success of the New Atheists when debating, in particular Christopher Hitchens, is testament to countering stupid with stupid. I'm not suggesting that Hitchens presents wrong arguments, but he does so in the same simplistic manner as his opposition. This is why he is good in debates, yet lacks thoroughness and can be seen to be simple minded by his opponents. Perhaps Hitchens in a debate gives the opposition gets a taste of their own medicine.

For example, how long might it take an atheist to formulate an argument for the "Problem of Evil" and think about how long it would take a theist to properly articulate a response. The problem of evil is a simplistic argument to make, one which can use emotional appeal to convey to the audience (eg. Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world) yet requires the theist to go into great deal. Any theist who can rattle off a simplistic answer clearly is doing a disservice to the vast amount of literature (as in books) on this subject.

What you cannot do.

Whatever you do, you cannot do the following
  • State that it has been refuted. This will then give the other person license to use the exact same argument against things which have not been refuted, but which they do not wish to address.
  • Attack the person for being stupid, simple minded or wrong without explaining why they are wrong. After all, there is a chance if there is this one stupid person you are debating there is likely at least one other stupid person like them in the audience.
  • Refuse to answer. By refusing to answer you are effectively giving up. This can be difficult when the opponent presents something you are not familiar with, and perhaps even see as being a good argument.
  • Say you don't know. There is no time for humility in debates. If you don't know, this gives your opponent ammunition that clearly they have made a valid argument if you cannot refute it.
What you can do.

All is not lost! There are a few things you can do to even the playing field. It might not make you win the battle, but it might help win the war against stupid.
  • Debate anyway. Just having a visible presence and presenting your arguments gives others the notion that there exists alternatives. It might even plant the seed of doubt in their mind.
  • Fight stupid with stupid. If its good enough for the opponent to rattle off a few one lines, its also good enough for you. It may be intellectually dishonest, but your opponent clear started it!
  • Find novel ways of answering the question instead of giving the same canned response.
  • Humour! Most Creationists/Christians/Conspiract Theoriests are deadly serious. Mixing some humour in shows a human touch.
  • Get under the skin of your opponent.
  • Stay knowledgeable about the subject area including common fallacies, common arguments and especially uncommon arguments. (Print out the friggin page on creationist arguments if need be)
Debates in General

Debates are not for determining truth value. This is something that people ought to be clear about. The format of a debate is such that a crappy defense does not make a poor argument. For example, Christianity isn't disproved if some random guy cannot defend his faith nor does Creationism become valid because a moron thinks theories are crazy ideas scientists come up with to deny God.

Debates are not won by content or the truth value of a position. It is won by the best debater, the person who strikes the right chord, the right set of words, plays to their strengths and their opponents weaknesses, and those who come across as human and approachable. Its the typical snake-oil saleman technique to get people to depart with their hard earned dollars, but in this case, to depart from their normal though process into one where they become right.

For the real argument, consult the literature, organise conferences, allow a continuous dialogue. If you look for bite-size truth, you will always end up intellectually starved.