My Argument is Invalid, According to This Meme

I saw this on my FB feed, and I just can’t even. I’m super butthurt by this, and I’m a sensitive little snowflake that can’t handle facts. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s have a look at the facts and reason based argument that got me so poopypants:

 

Yes, one of those brilliantly constructed arguments in the form of a shareable image. Line by line, I am BTFO by the logic and facts. Let’s look at it line by line.

We start off with some basic facts about things that are illegal. There’s very little to dispute here, the little I will address below. This is a version of the salesperson’s “yes ladder” where you ask your mark a series of questions to which the answer is an obvious yes. You like keeping your family safe right? You want a car that has high safety ratings right? You like money, right?

Thing is, these aren’t all entirely true. That last item, about felons owning guns, is not exactly open and shut. Some states have a hard and fast rule about felons, particularly those whose convictions haven’t been expunged. But some don’t, and some have distinctions for nonviolent offenders. In many cases, the claim holds up, so I’d call it mostly true.

These are both noncontroversial, but look at the wording. “Shooting people indiscriminately”? Is that the way it’s worded on the books? I mean, yeah, assault with a deadly weapon, possible attempted murder as addressed above, but “indiscriminately”? It’s lazy writing. The word indiscriminately adds nothing. Look at that second one, “Using firearms in a criminal manner.” Could that be interpreted to include irresponsible gun ownership? It’s kind of a stretch, I think it’s written to mean people doing stickemups or drivebys or shooty-shoots or whatever it is that gun criminals do.

We continue on the Yes Ladder, but the focus changes from pointing out illegal actions to a broad, and rather speculative, statement about what criminals do to acquire guns. Notice also that the font got smaller from the eye-catching first line. I don’t know what criminals to to get their hands on guns, but I don’t imagine that it involves background checks.

So far, it looks like they’re setting up the following argument:

  1. Gun laws intend to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
  2. Criminals do not follow gun laws.
  3. Therefore, gun laws are ineffective.

If they stopped here, they might be doing a poor job of representing the relevant facts, but at least they would be sticking to facts. Even so, there are problems with this argument. Premise 1 is true, or likely true, but look at where they go in Premises 2 and 3. There’s no logical connection between P1 and the others, it’s a non sequitur. Further, P2 could be applied to any law, thus rendering it useless. But enough about the meme so far, let’s see where they go with it.

Now they take a drastic turn, imploring you to explain three things. Look at that first one, “how criminals will follow new laws.” Now go back to our discussion about P2 in the previous section. Criminals don’t follow laws, so why would they follow new gun laws? So far they’ve only implied that their position includes the premise that laws are only effective if they are followed by criminals, which is silly by definition. When you realize that that is the core of their position, it falls apart.

The second thing we are charged to explain is how new laws will make us safer. This actually can be done, but you wouldn’t think that by looking at the rest of this meme. By defining effective laws in the narrow way that they do, they make this sound like an impossible ask, but it’s not. New laws, along with more effective law enforcement strategies, better safety education, and probably a whole lot of other things can actually make us safer.

Finally, in much smaller type, it asks us to explain how restricting law-abiding citizens even more will make us safer. Even more? Like, when will it end? These persecuted, put-upon, law-abiding citizens are already doing enough! Now they want even more? The nerve. This is functionally equivalent to the previous one, but they amp up the sympathy for the law-abiding gun owners here.

All these questions would seem to be asking for a conversation to start, if a little strident and in your face about it. If it ended here, it could be seen as taking a firm stand in the gun conversation while omitting some important details and misstating the effects of legislation. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s one more line, and it’s a doozy.

Mic. Da-rop. The final line of this screed supposes that the reader hasn’t made an attempt to answer the three challenges above and thus declares a flawless victory. This is disgusting. I can understand a message being one sided, but this goes the further step to being an imagined one sided conversation, complete with a knockout punch at the end. I used to have imaginary one sided conversations with people as a child (now I do it in blog form), where I would convince my parents or my teachers that I was right all along about some thing, casting myself as a relentless attorney questioning them until they concede to my irresistible logic, at which point I declare, “I rest my case.” I can scarcely imagine a more fragile and intellectually dishonest take than what is presented here.

In case it wasn’t obvious, all the “I’m butthurt” stuff at the beginning was fake. I am disappointed that people are sharing things like this and passing it off as smart debate. It’s very telling about this age of information. First, that there are a lot of low-information people that have not bothered to learn what makes a compelling argument, or how to look at both sides of an issue. Second, that there are some slightly clever, but ultimately dishonest people willing to exploit the first group.

This problem makes it clear as day that we need to get better arguments. We need people to learn at least a basic foundation of epistemology. We need people to be able to identify fallacious arguments from their own side, and not just from their opponents. I’ve talked about this before in We Might Be in Trouble and The Principle of Charity.

The image we looked at here is not designed to win new supporters. It’s specifically written to prop up those who are already enthusiastically against any new gun legislation. Worst of all, it tells those people, “You’re right. You dont need to listen to those libs. Their argument is invalid.”

Look, if you’re a pro 2A person and you don’t want new gun laws, I’m not having a go at you specifically. My aim is to improve the quality of conversation. Don’t share the above image, it’s trash. Maybe next I’ll find a garbage meme that takes the other side of this just to show I’m not being partisan. I’m on the side of having good reasons for what you believe, and using the best information available to shape policy.

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What if I’m Wrong? What Do You Mean “if”?

After I posted an article that stated the not-at-all-controversial fact that evolution was the best explanation for biodiversity and that creationism did not belong at all in the science classroom, a friend responded with comments to the effect of, “What are the consequences if we’re wrong?” There were other things he brought up, and we talked more about those things and not so much about this play on Pascal’s Wager. I honestly didn’t want to address that question because the question is flawed, and I don’t really want to (1) explain what a garbage philosophical argument Pascal’s Wager is, because that would mean I’d have to (2) admit that I’m conversing with people who think Pascal’s Wager is a good argument. I tried instead to present the case that there are many people of faith who have no problem with evolution, as it is the best explanation of the facts as we understand them. This worked to steer the conversation toward science and facts and away from making it a theist v. atheist thing, which may as well be insoluble as long as the two sides seem more often than not to talk past one another rather than really trying to reach an understanding.

Still, the question and its implied misconception stuck in my craw. I found the perfect rejoinder to it this morning in the form of a Phys.org article about how the Standard Model may need to be revised. That headline alone – “Hey we’re probably wrong about something!” – is enough to smash the premise of the question. That premise being that we don’t acknowledge the presence or the possibility of error in current scientific models. The whole point of capital S Science is that we know that we’re wrong somehow, and we want to find out how exactly we’re wrong. This idea of scientists declaring the answers to life, the universe, and everything from some ivory tower, never to be challenged is bullshit. What if we’re wrong? We gather more data, form another model, test it to see if it makes useful and reliable predictions, and eventually settle on a new understanding of the phenomena in question by consensus of experts in the field.

There’s this absolutist thing in the question, a black-or-white-ness that is not at all what real life is like. As if there were just those two choices, creation and evolution, that are either 100% right or 100% wrong. This characterization reveals how little the questioner knows about the topic. In every field that I’ve looked into, I’ve found that there are almost always shades on shades on shades of grey coloring every aspect of it. Things are seldom, if ever, just that simple. When we talk about things that way it is usually out of convenience – which makes me wonder, did my friend talk that way about “the two sides of the evolution debate” out of convenience? I think maybe yeah, there’s something to that. Of course he’d realize that the two positions have mini-camps within them that differ on some details, but that they agree on the fundamental things enough to count themselves as on the same side. However, the idea that there are two somewhat equal “sides” to this thing is an idea favored only by the uninformed or those who are under the sway of the charlatans on the side of creationism. For that reason, I can say that my friend is oversimplifying this topic much to my chagrin.

I am aware that even though the concepts and fundamental ideas of science, lofty though they may be, are not without flaw in practice. Malfeasance of all kinds is something that we should always be on the lookout for. It would be folly to say otherwise. If you want to bring up those kinds of problems in the scientific community, fine, but now you’ve started another discussion.

What about the other side of that question, what consequences await if it turns out that creationism was right all along? Aside from the obvious problem of which particular version of which creation story it is, we could defend ourselves by saying that the evidence we encountered led us to understand the world in the way that we did. And by every measurement we could make, it appeared that we had made a lot of correct predictions about how things worked. We were able to produce results with science. Far be it from me to know the mind of God, but it seems like maximizing life and minimizing misery – by and large the output of science in the last four hundred years – should be thought of as a good thing. So if we were able to do all this good stuff using science, how can it be bad if the employment of the same leads us to concluding that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor? What, if any, difference can be drawn between the two?

Whenever I have these kinds of discussions, I always end up asking about the epistemology of the other participants. What is it that led you to hold the position that you do? But epistemology is more than that. It’s the next question, or even the next next question or later. What do you consider to be knowledge? What attributes make a statement, or series of statements true?  

This is at the bottom of every discussion people have with one another, and they rarely realize it. We go back and forth with our talking points about this or that issue, and to the one making the statements, it seems like you must be crazy to think differently. We do this without realizing that the other person is thinking the same thing about their own view. Once we realize that people think differently than us, and that they think they have good reasons for doing so, and that we could benefit from finding out those reasons, can we hope to have productive discussions.

Apparently, I Don’t Exist: Another Intellectually Dishonest Apologetic

My friend declared the other day that atheists don’t exist. I was kind of flabbergasted by this news. Here I was, thinking that I was existing, but it looks like, ever since a couple years ago when I decided that I officially didn’t believe in god, I wasn’t. After I got over the very real existential crisis this statement wrought in me, I wondered what he meant by that, since it could be a couple different things. He could be 1) abandoning reason altogether and casting his lot with the Presuppositionalists, who say that everyone knows that the god of the Bible exists; or 2) defining atheism to mean gnostic atheism, or having absolute knowledge that no gods exist. Turns out it was this one.

There are two main questions being asked here that my friend is conflating. One is, “do you believe in a god or gods?” and the other is, “can we know for sure whether or not a god or gods exist?” Here is a helpful illustration:

Epistemology

For me this comes down to epistemology, or how we know what we know. I only want to believe things that are demonstrably true. Religious claims such as, “There is a god.” don’t have any demonstration to support them.

You should be able to test any claim so that there are clearly defined, measurable circumstances that indicate that a claim is false. This quality is also called being falsifiable. Evolution is extremely well supported because there are clearly defined conditions that would show it to be false (e.g. rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian as J.B.S. Haldane once said) and those conditions have never been met in the century and a half and then some following Darwin’s The Origin of Species. On the other hand, Creationism doesn’t work as since there are no defined conditions that could show it to be false.

For example, I know as well as one can know anything that our planet rotates approximately every 24 hours. I also know that this planet orbits the star we call the sun, and it takes about 365.25 days to do so. I can support these claims with measurable, testable, falsifiable data.

Biblical Claims: What Do We Know?

I know that there are some ancient writings where a man named Jesus worked miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead. I know that there are many people that believe that those things happened, and that Jesus died for them. The most that any non-biblical text ever says about this is that there were people who believed that these things happened. All of the non-biblical texts are from at least a hundred years after the crucifixion.

The above is just a nugget of the information that is available about the truth of the claims of Christianity. I have seen many Youtube videos and lectures on this, and read about it. I am but a layman when it comes to ancient writings. There’s a crapload of information out there. I recommend interacting with media from both sides.

However, if you are an expert, like my friend that I mentioned above, your faith-based opinion on the Jesus story doesn’t sell me as long as it is, at bottom, based on faith. By faith I mean belief in something without evidence, like the Jesus story. Even if the most miraculous and arguably most important event of the Gospels, the resurrection, can be shown to be true, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is the son of god, or god, or anything else.

Think about it. According to the books of the Bible, Jesus is the third person to get resurrected. Why is this one the one that must be the son of god? These are questions that you are allowed to ask.

Atheists Don’t Exist

To come back to the topic, my friend says that because I can’t know everything, I can’t make the positive claim that no gods exist. I will concede that I don’t have absolute knowledge. It would be foolish for me to claim to know something that cannot be known. Somehow, he is able to know that his god is the one true god, the creator of the universe. This reminds me of Josh Feuerstein’s $100K challenge. For those that don’t want to click the DoNotLink link, the video has the red-ballcapped one offering $100K to any atheist who can provide proof that god doesn’t exist. It is but one float in the endless parade of stupid social media that he is responsible for.

This challenge contains a presupposition that is glaring. You are correct in pointing out that I can’t have absolute knowledge. You fail to recognize, however, that that applies to everyone, yourself included. To say otherwise, that is, to say that you can have absolute knowledge that your god exists while atheists and every non-Christian person can’t is a case of special pleading.

Atheismwonka

You Don’t Get To Say What I Am

The thing that really irks me about my friend’s argument is that he is trying to tell me what I am. He says, “you can’t be atheist. You can be agnostic, but to be atheist is not possible.” This would be like me telling him, “you can’t be Christian. You can be Jewish, but Christianity is just an offshoot of Judaism and not its own thing.” You may really not agree with slap bass, or Korean cooking, or libertarianism, but that doesn’t mean you can tell people who identify with those musical, culinary, or political schools of thought that those things don’t exist. In many ways this apologetic is even worse than #atheismisbelief because it attempts to rob people of their identity. I am an atheist because I have not seen evidence that can only be explained by a divine creator. I am an atheist because I have seen explanations for myriad things in nature that did not require a god. I don’t believe in any gods, therefore I am an atheist. It’s not the whole of my identity, it’s not even a positive belief. They don’t need a word for people who don’t golf, but somehow we live in a world where we need to have a word for people who don’t believe in gods. Atheism is just one conclusion that I have come to after reviewing the available information and applying critical thinking to it. It can be revised if new information comes to light. People like my friend are contributing to the negative attitude people have toward atheists. Atheists are a misunderstood and maligned group and I would like to see that change. In the meantime, don’t tell me who I am.