Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Inherent Dishonesty of Creationist Debate

Ever since the 2012 Reason Rally, there have been a number of videos popping up both from Youtube atheists like Thunderf00t and AronRa as well as from the subhuman creationist black holes of infinitely dense stupidity like Ray Comfort and his ilk.  As a rule, they all tended to be about the same, where the creationist leads into a systematic circle of gaps for sensible doubt, and argue that all such gaps indisputably prove god.  Presuppositional apologetics were among the things strut out proudly as if they had any measure of validity, and a number of atheists caught in this web engaged in rather futile struggles to try and break out of the ineffable circularity of creationist thinking in order to draw a line.

Well, regardless of how easily one notices the fact that all creationists are indisputable failures at thinking, it is difficult to look at the way people with brains actually managed in those situations.  Part of it is that the way creationists operate is that anything that is too vague, anything that is unclear, is by definition the space where "God" resides.  So as long as you can be loose with your language, God exists.    The argument from ignorance is the way all things are proven.  Anything that could hypothetically be possible is necessarily true so long as your opposition doesn't deny the hypothetical possibility (on account of actually being intellectually honest).  The other thing is that by being as brainless as they are, it is particularly frustrating for people like myself who have such a low threshold for stupid.  Especially since we're necessarily dealing with a stupid which is opposed to listening.  So at some point or other, it's hard not to get annoyed to the point of just telling the creationists, "get the f**k out of my sight, you intransigent filth."

Which is pretty much what they're looking for.  It's nothing more than a game of provocation for them.  And that's because creationism is foundationally dishonest in every way.

The thing about debate is that it is just like a court of law.  The victor is never a matter of who is right or wrong, but merely whose rhetoric is more effective.  Being successful in debate is never about being the one with the facts -- it's about being tactically effective in how you work your language.

There are certain things that were tactically poor moves on the part of people like Thunderf00t, and it was much the same thing when he had to deal with Ray Comfort in private.  For instance, there are videos that creationists largely took in piecemeal and treated certain gaps in acceptance as proof that "atheism is false."  For instance, the same question appeared before many where someone like the inimitably moronic Eric Hovind asked the question "Is it impossible for God to exist?"  Note how the question is phrased -- since "impossible" is a matter of absolutes, and yet he simply asks about "God" rather than being specific about which "God" he's talking about.  Given that it's Hovind, it might be reasonable to assume that he means a literal interpretation of the Biblical Yahweh, since that is the god he believes in.  However, the way the question is phrased doesn't really allow you to make that assumption all that freely.

While you could simply say "no it's not impossible," that makes it easy for them to lead back in a circle and lead down a path of getting you to speak as if the validity of your position is open to doubt, which for a creationist means "cut the video right here, and we win."  The better approach in a case like this is to force them to define what they mean by "God."  If they refuse to step out of the vague nebulous concepts of "things that create universes", then what they call "God" is necessarily no more than a placeholder, and in that case, there's nothing there to exist or not to exist in the first place.  If they actually do get specific, then the holes start to become clear, and it becomes possible to provide a hard answer.  If someone asks me if a deist god is impossible, then I'd have to say that it's not impossible since a deist god is pretty much indistinguishable from no god.  However, the god that say, Eric Hovind or Ray Comfort believe in is provably and indisputably impossible, so that makes things a little easier.

Trying to create room for doubt is enough for these people, though, because that is where they insert their god.  There is not now, nor will there ever be even an isolated incidence in which people like Sye Ten Bruggencate or Eric Phelps will ever attempt to defend their own position.  Their goal is to prohibit a well-formed defense of the opposition and proclaim victory by default.  In the theological universe, where the truth of the Bible is taken as absolute and immutable, they approach science the same way -- if you find even one thing wrong that Darwin wrote, then the entirety of evolution has to be thrown out.  Show even one area of "atheism" to be questionable, and "atheism" has to be completely rejected...  well...  that all depends on you being as stupid as Eric Hovind.

Questions like "could there be any way in which everything you know turns out to be false?" are really plants for gotchas (akin to "have you stopped beating your wife?" type questions).  Less learned people might actually flat out say "yes, it's possible", which opens one up to serious trouble.  The most common answer that people are likely to give is to say "not quite everything."  In fact, the correct answer is that none of the knowledge we have today can ever be proven false.  This is sort of turning the rhetorical games back on the creationist, because it works on being very strict on what qualifies as "knowledge" and what "false" really means.

Knowledge implies something that has been demonstrated to be true at such a level of consistency that we can no longer consider it open to rejection.  We can essentially treat it as an immutable fact.  As such, knowledge, by definition can never be made false.  There are a number of things on the frontiers of some field of scientific development where the story keeps changing quite radically, but those aren't really areas where "knowledge" exists yet.  There are, at best, educated guesses and intensive study there, but real solid "knowledge" has yet to form. The fact is that everything we know (in the purest sense of "knowing"), and everything we might have known before is already demonstrably true.  What happens as science advances in a particular field is that prior knowledge becomes contextualized.  A common example that Ray Comfort in particular likes to use is that people believed that the Earth is flat.  The fact is that is observably true, provided your perspective on the question is sufficiently small.  If you look at an area no larger than, say, a parking lot at a shopping center or even some 500-acre square plot of farmland, you'd be very hard pressed to show that there is any degree of curvature to the planet at all.  The curvature is so small that on that scale, the Earth is so nearly flat that any indication to the contrary would fall within experimental error.  It is only by taking one's perspective to a different scale that the "roundness" is apparently true.  Such a determination doesn't make the old observations false.  It makes the old observations limited in where their truth is applicable.

I realize that this can be taken as sort of fuel for the global-warming deniers out there in that they often have arguments like "I had to shovel more snow off my driveway this year than last."  The thing is that their statement may well be true, and it could mean that they experience a cold pocket of weather for one year.  Which means that there wouldn't really be "warming" where they are...  and if those people's driveways were sufficient data, then indeed, it would appear as if global warming isn't real.  The simple problem is that their taking localized data and applying it to a global scope, when the actual factual truth of their statements is only applicable to that scale of perspective and not applicable to the entire planet.

Either way, what the creationists are trying to do here is try and get people to say, that at least something they know could be proven false, so that again, they get to claim victory by default.  Note, again, that there isn't any effort at even an isolated instant where they try to form any sort of support for their own position.  Regardless of what you want to say about false dichotomies, though, the fact is that they're generally preaching to the choir with arguments like these.  Arguments of this nature have no real shot of converting people with brains into Kirk Cameron-grade morons.  But it can at least serve to cement people's existing stupidity and serve to ensure that it carries on down the line, and that's why it's still worth shooting down even apart from its intrinsic stupidity.

A sticky point is that it's very difficult to maintain one's own sensible demeanor in the face of insane stupidity.  When someone is basically trying to elicit anger from you.  That results in stumbles, slips of the tongue, and directed anger.  That, from the creationist point of view, is more than enough to make someone look bad, and thereby come out looking as if you're on top.  It's also an underhanded tactic you'll find creationists use in just about any formal debate.  In formal debates, there are rules, time limits, and restrictions that limit how much you can actually get around to.  Hence, you have modes of attack like the "Gish Gallop" where a creationist will run through a large number of different disparate unrelated topics, which creationsts can get away with doing in rapid fire mode because they don't bother to actually offer support for their own viewpoint on it.  They just go out Bill O'Reilly style saying "Tides!  Can't explain that!"...  "Bombardier Beetle!  Can't explain that!"  Leaving the opponent with limited time to respond to a hell of a lot of stuff, most of which does not have simple answers, or may end up going outside an individual's own areas of expertise.

Other debate techniques that creationists love is to simply throw out boldfaced lies that are not that obvious to demonstrate as lies.  William Lane Craig, in particular, is a master at this.  There are zero debates he has ever engaged in in which he does not utter at least one absolute lie or falsehood.  However, he does not do so without being tactically minded on it.  When he says something which is scientifically false (e.g. his assertion about animal suffering and brain structures), it's never something that is easy to check and determine his lie on the spot.  When he rewrites the meanings of words or completely lies about what is or is not accepted in various academic communities, he puts his adversaries in a catch-22.  Either they lose time by contesting his falsehoods, or they ignore the lies, and leave Craig free to continue piling on more horseshit from there.

I know you have people like Richard Dawkins who take the position that he wouldn't debate with creationists because that might only serve to legitimize their position by putting an actual scholar in the same field with the antithesis of learning that is creationism.  However, I'd say I could not enter a formal debate with a creationist for a more simple reason.  Creationists don't engage in debate at all.  They have no intention at any point in actually trying to provide arguments as they are in stonewalling efforts from from the opposition.  They engage in pure, unfettered dishonesty, and leaving intellectually honest people with the unenviable task of having to swim through a sea of filth.  Creationism has never been built on well-thought-out modes of inquiry in the first place, and attempting to make that happen is a losing game for the believer.  That is why there is simply no such thing as a real serious debate with a creationist. You can't engage in an activity that does not exist.