When does evidence matter?

By Tom Murphy VII, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsLet’s get back to that long (but pretty civil) argument I was talking about the other day. I’ve already covered how the religious side of the debate maintained that whether or not their god exists is not an important consideration in their religious faith, while the atheist side wanted to see a god’s existence established before they formed beliefs about their god. The next issue I want to discuss has to do with some examples that I presented to try to make my case, and Seth R.’s response to both of them. The short version: he argued that collecting evidence to warrant a claim is less necessary in “important” cases, such as religion, than it is in trivial, everyday situations.

We atheists sure love us some outlandish analogies. The invisible pink unicorn, the flying spaghetti monster, the incorporeal dragon in your garage … it’s definitely a favorite strategy for showing how we, as outsiders, view religious claims. What would be a ridiculous story if you were hearing it for the first time can seem totally normal, unremarkable, when you’ve heard it weekly or even daily from a very young age. We concoct alternative, but equally ridiculous, stories in order to ask religious believers, “Why do you believe yours but don’t believe mine? What is actually, substantively different?”

In debates on a wide variety of topics, in contexts both casual and formal, both friendly and competitive, I’ve found these sorts of extreme examples useful in leading my opponents to admit that there’s a flaw in their reasoning. Usually, my debating colleagues are familiar with this tactic as well and understand what their answers might imply about their advocacy — but then, usually they don’t have their personal identity at stake in the debate. Anyway, with this sort of goal in mind, I posed this hypothetical to Seth:

Say you were a biologist. Would you devote your life to the study of unicorn physiology or behavior patterns? Or would you say, “Unicorn biology isn’t a real field yet, because we have no reason to suppose unicorns even exist in the first place”?

He answered very simply.

Of course not.

Unicorns don’t matter.

God does.

Stubbornly, I tried again a little later in the conversation.

Let’s suppose that I start from the assumption that Earth’s atmosphere is filled with invisible floating jellyfish. From a starting point where that statement is considered true, I can logically deduce (by the principle that A=A) that the atmosphere is really chock-full of invisible floating jellyfish.

Is this (extremely circular) argument something you would consider to be good evidence that, in the real world where we all live, we are filling our lungs with invisible jellyfish every time we inhale? Would you accept it if I told you, “It’s useful and fulfilling to me to believe that, so it’s true for me”?

Seth was, as you might have guessed, not swayed by this.

It’s not really an apt analogy. Because the idea of magical jellyfish (or unicorns, or fairies, or spaghetti monsters) is of trivial importance to me or anyone else. The concepts are so by their very design. But the idea of God is not.

Also, the argument from utility cannot really be applied to jellyfish, but it can be applied to God.

Seth objected to my analogies because unicorns and invisible floating jellyfish “don’t matter.” We wouldn’t study them or draw conclusions about their nature without a good reason to suppose they existed in the first place, because they are “of trivial importance.” I actually think that if our lungs were able to process or filter out entire jellyfish where we previously thought there was a mixture of gas molecules, that would be quite an important discovery with major implications for medical science, to say nothing of the ramifications for physical, chemical, and geological theories that would need to be revised to account for the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. But I’m willing to grant for the sake of discussion that whether there are unicorns, or fairies, or any of these other fanciful creatures is not generally very important to us — certainly not as important as an all-powerful, all-knowing being whose whims and wishes decide every person’s fate for all eternity. A relatively small number of biologists study any given animal species, and Seth might very well not be interested in spending his time on unicorn biology even if it were a thing one could study.

But this doesn’t seem to be the entirety of the objection. It’s not just that Seth wouldn’t personally be interested in studying unicorns, because he’s more fascinated by marine mammals or something. It’s that when something is important, for example a god that might exist, Seth believes we should be “jumping in with both feet and trying it out.” When something is unimportant, for example anything other than a god that might exist, we should take our time, examine the evidence, and make sure we’re talking about something real here. (I guess that division would put “spaghetti monsters” in the important category, right, Pastafarians? But I guess the unicorns, invisible jellyfish, et al. are more trivial.)

I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who found this approach a bit backwards. Aristarchus quoted Seth’s dismissal of my jellyfish example and explained:

You’ve said this several times… but how on earth does this change anything? When dealing with questions of great importance, isn’t it more important not to believe things as a result of faulty reasoning? How does circular logic become better as the issue at hand increases in importance?

Maybe this is a way to sneak Pascal’s Wager into the argument without having to deal with the embarrassment of actually having presented Pascal’s Wager as though it were a non-idiotic point. After all, if the consequences of a god existing are really extreme, you might be inclined to waste no time discerning whether that god is real and jump right to the worshiping part. But that argument fails for the same reason that Pascal’s Wager does: there are thousands and thousands of different gods, and many mutually exclusive teachings about how to worship them. There’s no point in jumping if you don’t know what to do after you land. How are you going to figure it out? Well, you’ll have to collect some evidence. You’ll need some way to figure out which god, if any, exists.

So I’m with Aristarchus. Evidence and logic are always good, but the more important the question, the more careful we should be in reasoning out our answer. What do you think?

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  1. Aristarchus

     /  July 6, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I think that your post in support of my comment is wonderful in every way. 🙂

  2. Ubi Dubium

     /  July 7, 2011 at 8:19 am

    As a Pastafarian, I’d better weigh in. I can agree that invisible floating jellyfish don’t matter. But the question of whether the creator of the universe is wise and benevolent, or drunken, stupid and kind of a jerk? Whether the creator would say to Seth “you are the pinnacle of creation”, or say “get over yourself, you’re not that interesting”? If the Flying Spaghetti Monster (pbuH) exists, this is not a matter of “trivial importance”.

    Does Seth have any arguments for the existence or importance of his god that do not work just as well if you substitute “FSM” for “God”? And if he does not, how does he justify dismissing the FSM as nonexistent?

  3. Patrick

     /  July 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    There’s a phrase used in law sometimes: “a distinction without a difference.” That’s when someone claims that one thing isn’t like another, but the only reason for claiming that the first thing isn’t like the second is irrelevant to the reason that the first thing and second thing were being compared.

    For example, imagine I claim that two cars are similar, and should therefore have similar top speeds. You respond, “They’re not similar! The second car is red!” Its redness is a distinction between the two cars, but it is not relevant to the car’s speed. Hence, distinction without a difference.

    Seth isn’t making an argument. He’s just throwing out a distinction without a difference. Either he’s capable of recognizing that and did it by accident, in which case he should come around, or else he’s not capable of recognizing it, in which case he’s not intellectually capable of having this conversation with you. You shouldn’t try to harmonize what he’s saying into a coherent objection to your position, because it isn’t one, and it wasn’t intended to be one. It was intended to be a sort of mental ink cloud, in which the religionist can make his escape from his own knowledge of the weakness of his position.

  4. “Mental ink cloud”–ha ha! Well turned.

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