Stupid Philosopher Tricks
Choose a sub-category below to see some of the silly arguments often espoused by representatives of various philosophical positions. Before you do, though, a few disclaimers:
First, in case anyone lacks a sense of humour, I am not really saying that the people who put forth these arguments are stupid. The arguments themselves are flawed; this doesn’t mean that nobody can make an honest mistake and use them anyhow. Besides which, I could always be wrong. It’s been known to happen…
Second, as some will have noticed, these documents follow the basic form of a similar work found at Unravelling Wittgenstein’s Web – A Christian Think Tank. All the content is mine, though, so I don’t think I’m breaking any copyrights.
Thirdly, in some cases, arguments I actually attack elsewhere on this site (i.e., in full-length essays) are probably going to be addressed here in point form. You can consider these “sound-bite” versions — please do still read the full-length versions for more in-depth analysis.
And finally, as you will definitely notice, none of these documents have been arranged in any particular order. Since most “stupid trick” arguments have many names, there wouldn’t be too much point in alphabetization.
Okay, still with me? Then go to it…
Stupid Atheist Tricks
I am, of course, an atheist myself of one sort or another. Still, it never ceases to bother me how many really bad arguments get bounced around by other atheists. (Not to mention the bad ones I’ve used myself!) Here’s a list of some of them.
- No Evidence = No God
- Argument: ”Theists cannot provide convincing evidence for God’s existence. Therefore, God does not exist / theists are wrong to believe in God.”
Explanation: This is sometimes called the evidential argument for atheism. Basically, it states that, in the absence of evidence for God, one ought to believe that no God exists.
Parody: ”Atheists cannot provide convincing evidence for God’s nonexistence. Therefore, God does exist / atheists are wrong to disbelieve in God.”
Rebuttal: This argument commits the formal ad ignorantiam fallacy, by assuming that the lack of proof for God’s existence equals proof against its existence. In fact, the only thing that lack of evidence does warrant is lack of belief in God, not the actual statement that God does not exist. Moreover, even if there is absolutely no good evidence for the existence of God, this does not mean that theists are stupid. Theism, for many, could be a belief so foundational that it is not even theoretically subject to proof. Criticizing belief on an evidential basis, therefore, is analogous to criticizing, say, the belief in the existence of other minds (which, too, is ultimately unprovable).
- Proof Is Easier Than Disproof
- Argument: ”It is easier to prove the existence of something than to prove its nonexistence. To prove something exists, you only need to show one case of it existing; to prove something doesn’t exist, you need to examine every part of reality. Therefore, it is always incumbent on theists to prove that God exists — and since they can’t, God doesn’t exist.”
Explanation: A way of trying to shift the burden of proof to theists, simply because it is supposedly easier (in theory) to prove theism than atheism.
Parody: ”It is easier to prove that there is only one rotten apple in this bag than it is to prove that there are more than one. So, in the absence of proof that there are more, we ought to conclude with certainty that there is only one rotten apple.”
Rebuttal: How easy it is to prove a belief has no bearing at all on the plausibiity of the belief, and certainly does not shift the burden of proof. This argument, like the “No Evidence = No God” one, is just a sneaky attempt to justify and then commit the ad ignorantiam fallacy.
- Theism is Unscientific
- Argument: ”Science rules out the existence of a God, since God cannot be empirically observed. Therefore, it is unscientific to believe in God.”
Explanation: Pretty straightforward. The belief here is that science is fundamentally atheistic, and consequently that theism must be unscientific. (Most proponents of this view would hasten to add, “and since theism is unscientific, it is just superstitious garbage.”)
Parody: ”Science rules out the question of whether any hand beats any other hand in poker. Therefore, it is unscientific to win at poker, and poker players are just superstitious idiots.”
Rebuttal: Science actually does not deny the existence of a God, anymore than it denies the rules of poker. God, like poker, is simply an area to which science is not relevant. In fact, all metaphysical questions are, by their very nature, not addressable by science. Science does not rule out that these things might exist; it simply recognizes that they are not subject to scientific inquiry. Consequently, the belief in God is not unscientific, in the sense of contrary to science.
- Theists are Bad People
- Argument: ”Belief in God has produced countless wars, inquisitions, and other kinds of torment. Therefore, belief in God ought to be rejected.”
Explanation: Your run-of-the-mill example of special pleading. Theism has led to atrocities; therefore, theism ought to be considered false.
Parody: ”Science has led to the creation of the atomic bomb, as well as countless other implements of mass destruction. These have caused great pain and suffering for people throughout history. Therefore, science ought to be rejected.”
Rebuttal: Even if it were true that theism always leads to atrocities (and it isn’t), that would have no bearing at all on whether theism was actually true.
- Where is God?
- Argument: ”God cannot be found anywhere in the universe. God has no size and no mass. Therefore, God is not a thing, and can’t exist.”
Explanation: This argument basically says that, because God is not a physical object, God can’t exist.
Parody: ”Logic cannot be found anywhere in the universe. Logic has no size and no mass. Therefore, logic cannot exist.”
Rebuttal: This argument is basically predicated on materialism, which is the metaphysical view that only physical objects exist. That in itself is all well and good — there is no a priori reason why materialism must be false. But it is a very, very naive argument against theism, since theists themselves obviously do not accept materialism as true! In order for the above to make sense, the atheist would have to actually prove that materialism is the case: an endeavour which is, essentially, impossible.
- God is Meaningless
- Argument: ”The word ‘God’ is so vague and ambiguous, that it doesn’t refer to any one thing. Ask a Hindu what a God is, and he will tell you something completely different than what a Christian would, because no two ‘Gods’ are exactly alike. Therefore, God must be ruled out, simply because it doesn’t mean anything to say he exists.”
Explanation: This is sometimes called linguistic atheism. The basic idea is that, since ‘God’ is supposedly a meaningless term, one cannot validly believe in God anymore than one can believe in, say, squarfs or turlims.
Parody: ”The idea ‘a red apple exists’ is so vague and ambiguous, that it doesn’t refer to any one thing. Ask one guy what a red apple is, and he will point to a fruit of one particular shape and one particular shade of red; whereas another guy will point to a differently shaped fruit with a different shade of red, since no two apples are exactly alike. Therefore, the existence of a red apple must be ruled out, because it doesn’t mean anything to say one exists.”
Rebuttal: It is of course true that the word ‘God’ is, if left without further definition, too vague and ambiguous to mean much of anything. But the atheistic argument above capitalizes on a subtle equivocation: it says that, because the very general term ‘God’ isn’t sufficiently meaningful, that no thing which is termed ‘God’ can really exist. In fact, however, it is entirely possible to have specific definitions of God which do have meaning. Hindus have one specific definition of ‘God’; Christians another; Jews another; and so forth. All the meaninglessness of the general term ‘God’ means is that an atheist, rather than talking about ‘any God’, must deal with specific individual conceptions of God. Those individual conceptions may certainly be meaningful, and consequently immune to the challenge of “linguistic atheism”.
Stupid Theist Tricks
As a non-theist, it’s certainly fair to say that I have a biased take on which theistic arguments are faulty. But I think I’ve had enough experience with various truly silly arguments to at least be able to hazard some guesses. (Note: the majority of these are arguments I’ve heard from various kinds of Christian, so most of them are going to be geared towards Christian theism specifically.)
- Pascal’s Wager
- Argument: ”If you believe in God, you lose nothing, and you get a chance to go to Heaven. If you disbelieve, however, you run the risk of possibly being damned to Hell. Therefore, the smartest thing to do is believe in God.”
Explanation: A very famous theistic argument, which basically says that, even if you don’t really know that God exists, it’s best to be a smart gambler and believe anyhow.
Parody: ”If you believe that magical pixies exist, you lose nothing, and you get a chance to have them shower you with pixie dust. If you disbelieve, however, you could miss out on all that. Therefore, the smartest thing to do is believe in magical pixies.”
Rebuttal: This argument fails in so many ways, it’s amazing that anyone still uses it. First, it commits the false dichotomy fallacy, in that it limits the choices to two (“God does not exist” and “God exists and sends beleivers to heaven”) when in fact a nearly infinite number of choices are possible. Second, it ignores the fact that it is unreasonable and silly to believe in things simply to “hedge your bets”. True intellectual honesty demands that all beliefs be treated based on their actual merit, not on the merit of the consequences people might suppose exist.
- Where Did the Universe Come From?
- Argument: ”If God doesn’t exist, then there is nobody to create the universe. But the universe clearly exists, and all things require a cause, so obviously God exists as well.”
Explanation: Another classic. This is usually called the first cause argument.
Parody: ”If a quantum fluctuation never occured, then there was nothing to creat the universe….”
Rebuttal: There are several senses in which this fails as an argument for theism. First, it presumes that, if the universe had a cause, that cause had to be God — which is certainly unsupported. Second, and more powerfully, it is not necessarily true that everything really must have a cause. The universe might, for example, be of infinite duration. Or, the universe — as would be consistent with current notions of time and space — might be of finite duration, but unbounded, and consequently uncaused for that reason. Basically, there are a number of logically possible alternatives to the idea that God is the first cause of all existence. (Note: this issue is sufficiently complex to deserve a full-length essay, and I’m in the middle of working on one.)
- Atheists Have Ulterior Motives
- Argument: ”The only reason why anybody accepts atheism is that they hate the idea that there might be a God, and because it means that they might have to acknowledge a power higher than themselves. Therefore, atheism is a belief whose only basis is irrational hatred and fear, while theism is rationally superior.”
Explanation: A bit of armchair psychoanalysis which attempts to conclude that atheism is just something people make up to make themselves feel better.
Parody: ”The only reason why anybody accepts theism is that they are afraid there might be no God, and that they might really be all alone in the universe.”
Rebuttal: Even if it were true that atheists were all really motivated by hatred — itself an unreasonable assumption — that would have no bearing on the actual plausibility of atheism. Motives might be theoretically relevant to explaining personal beliefs, but they can’t actually tell us anything about whether those beliefs are really true.
- Atheism = Nihilism
- Argument: ”Those who deny the existence of God deny the existence of any objective standard for morality or truth. The denial of God equals the denial of the very bases of of a consistent view of reality. Therefore, atheism is a fundamentally illogical and nihilistic belief system.”
Explanation: This argument equates atheism with a kind of extreme reductionism and nihilism, and, based on the ultimate illogic of that kind of view, concludes that atheism itself is illogical (and false).
Parody: ”Those who deny the existence of ghosts deny the possibility that anything exists beyond the physical realm. This means that they also have to deny the existence of emotions, ideas, and so forth, which cannot be consistently done. Therefore, unbelief in ghosts is irrational.”
Rebuttal: Many theists seem to believe that atheism and general nihilism go hand in hand — and often, in fact, they do. But what this argument neglects to realize is that it is not atheism which necessitates nihilism, but nihilism which necessitates atheism! It is therefore simply incorrect to suppose that all atheists are nihilists. Consequently, atheism itself does not suffer any logical problems associated with nihilism. One may be an atheist, and still believe in morality, objective truth, and even the supernatural. All atheism means is that one does not believe in one very specific sort of entity: God.
- by Mike Hardie, 1998. All Rights Reserved.