Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

The phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is a common one among atheists and skeptics. While catchy, it's unclear what "extraordinary" actually means in this context. Most often it will be applied to claimed miracles and the like. Opponents will alleged this is merely a cover for the bias the person using it holds against such things. Frequently counterclaims will be made such as that accepting this standard would require throwing out many other things which can be labeled extraordinary, such as various historical events/persons or scientific findings.

What seems clear is no one can actually agree on what "extraordinary" means in a given case. For an atheist, claiming Jesus rose from the dead may be extraordinary, since it would require a god able to do things that seem impossible. For a Christian who believes such a god exists, it would not of course. The same can go for many other issues. Many people find the idea that evolution by itself could result in our existence to be extraordinary. People who accept the theory of evolution do not. Etc. 

So is there some way to salvage this? Perhaps. If we take "extraordinary" to mean simply "out of the ordinary" that might work as a definition. However, again what would be "out of the ordinary" seems hopelessly subjective. For many, believers and nonbelievers alike, miracles are out of the ordinary. Yet some believe they happen very frequently. Besides, what would be "out of the ordinary" evidence? Presumably simply hearing someone say how they witnessed a miraculous event would not suffice. That would be pretty ordinary evidence. Yet if we lack "out of the ordinary" evidence (video recordings, perhaps?) most such claims will be unsupported. Naturally believers suspect this is the point of the concept to begin with. 

Another tack may work. Rather than to quibble over the specifics, it might help if the skeptic pressed the believer about whether they would accept similar claims on the same evidence, and point out cases when they have not. For instance, the story of the Resurrection is told in the four Gospels. Yet they are second-hand (i.e. hearsay) and contradictory regarding who actually witnessed it. Contrasting this, the Book of Mormon claims eleven eyewitnesses who swore they saw the Golden Plates from which it was transcribed (one later somewhat recanted, but the rest did not). This would seem far better evidence by far, yet most Christians do not accept Mormonism. Perhaps then we can get into people's reasons to believe or disbelieve. A catchy slogan does not suffice. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Supposed "Pro-Life" Inconsistency

Allow me to clarify briefly before delving into this. Certainly people can oppose capital punishment, war, etc. in addition to abortion. Specifically however consistent life ethics claims they should oppose these things if they oppose abortion to be consistent. I believe this is false. When the issue of abortion came into prominence with the late 1960s, early 1970s in the US, people who supported the right to have an abortion were then named "pro-choice", those against it "pro-life". These labels remain, despite how much the specific arguments have expanded and shifted over time.

In full disclosure, I am pro-choice myself. However, it does not seem at all apparent how having one view necessitates any others in this case. A person can be against abortion, but in favor of capital punishment, without being in contradiction. If they feel abortion is murder (as most do), and capital punishment the just penalty for that, that makes up a wholly consistent position. Obviously people can critique either of those views, as with any other. It does not follow, however, that because someone opposes killing in one instance they must do so universally. Situations differ.

For comparison, one could accuse pro-choice advocates of "inconsistency" for not advocating choice with every issue. The pro-choice person who is not also for school choice (which since most pro-choice people are progressives, would likely be the case) has not been inconsistent. They have two different opinions regarding the issues. I fail to see the inconsistency, and the only exception is if one says all killing is wrong, or every choice valid. Yet very few do this. Unless they do, it is not inconsistent. This does not make the pro-life position right (or wrong), but this particular argument is not valid. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Against the Association Fallacy

Much as I noted that the appeal to consequences fallacy comes up often in atheist/theist discourse (see my related post in 2013, "Against the Appeal to Consequences"), the association fallacy has as well. The very claim "atheism killed millions in the 20th century" (generally citing the Soviet Union and Maoist China) or "religion caused the crusades" (insert whatever examples in here that apply) is the association fallacy.

The Marxists responsible for these communist atrocities were indeed atheists, and the Crusades were obviously religious wars (although other factors also had a part). Yet all atheists, or people who have a religion, are hardly responsible for them. It could be argued these were a necessary result of these ideas, so even if individuals are not responsible, these ideas are.

However this too does not seem plausible. Is an atheist who's an Objectivist (a philosophy completely opposed to Marxism) responsible for the atrocities of Marxists? A religious pacifist for those of Crusaders or jihadists? To ever claim this requires painting everyone with the same brush. One must show why atheism or religion causes such misdeeds, regardless of details. To my knowledge this cannot be done. 

Claims of this kind are not only gross overgeneralizations, but a grave injustice for any person who does not share dogmatic, violence-affirming ideologies. On a practical level, these aspersions can do no more than alienate people, as they rightly find it deeply offensive, and discredit the people who make them through doing so in their minds, no matter what valid points may be offered on other topics. It's enough already, I'd say. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

On Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies are something to watch out for, obviously. If your logic is flawed, the argument you're making will be too. However these fallacies seem to be often confused with valid logic, or misattributed to others. There are also many logical fallacies, so it's easy to use them accidentally. This leads into the fallacy fallacy-the claim because a fallacy occurred, the entire argument is false. So though logical fallacies must be accounted for, and their use could be the fodder of a critique against others' arguments, they can easily be turned on the user.

When examining arguments, it can be difficult to tell if a fallacy is being used or not. For instance, it's common to see people describe at great length the negative consequences which they claim flow from some contrary position. One may strongly suspect that the arguer is using the appeal to consequences, i.e. claiming this position is false because it leads to bad outcomes. However, it is rare for a person to state this explicitly. So, the principle of charity dictates you take the view that the argument is really "X is false, and these are some bad outcomes which it leads to as well", and not the reverse. Or else you may be using a fallacy fallacy yourself.

However, in some cases I have seen fairly explicit uses of the actual fallacy, such as "I can't believe materialism is true, because that would mean our lives are meaningless" or words to that effect. Some people do not seem to realize this is invalid reasoning in the first place, perhaps. Or else they simply wish to convey the psychological fact that belief in this position would be impossible for them, in spite of any evidence for it.

This can be complicated by the fact that fallacies are sometimes similar to valid arguments. "If you want X, do Y" is valid, not an example of the appeal to consequences. The entire ethical theory of consequentialism rests on this, although of course it can be critiqued on other grounds. Or the ad hominem fallacy, in which a personal attack is claimed to be evidence that a person's argument was wrong, i.e. "You're an idiot, therefore you're wrong." In actual practice, people tend to take this literally, citing any personal attack as an ad hominem fallacy. Thus falling into the fallacy fallacy. Logical fallacies are thus quite the minefield, and should be assessed carefully.