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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Word Play Part IV: Words Gone Wild

Continued from Part III.

The first two parts of this series were devoted to the idea of developing (and accepting) definitions while avoiding equivocation fallacies.  I’m going to take these ideas and cut loose. I’m going to examine a series of arguments/statements that use unusual definitions to try and hide equivocation fallacies.  I will not refute these claims in the way that philosophisters respond, by arguing that the definitions are wrong.  Instead I will refute them by accepting the proposed definitions and running with them.  I should warn you that most of the time, this running with them approach is not the best refutation, because there are often more well-known flaws in the arguments.  It’s still good fun though.

Here we go.

The Argument from First Cause
Every event has a cause.  Yet the universe is only finitely old.  Since we can’t fit an infinite causal chain in a finite period of time, it follows that there must have been some uncaused first cause.  This first cause is God.

The argument from first cause has fallen out of style, which might have something to do with all the physicists who wave their arms and shout “hello, have you never heard of a quantum fluctuation?”  And most of you will have noticed the blaring contradiction between “every event has a cause” and the conclusion that there must be some uncaused first cause.

But I’m not here to ninpick little things like false premises or blatant self-contradictions (pro tip, these errors are NOT small).  I’m here to take the conclusion and run it wild.  You point to the uncaused first cause and call it God?  Okay, let’s take a closer look at this thing you’re telling me to worship.

Where’s the agency?  Where’s the benevolence?  Where’s the omnipotence?  Sure, some theists will follow up the argument from first cause with some attempts at arguing for omnipotence.  Most of these attempts only really argue for large capability (instead of total capability), and are hand-wavy at best.  As far as I can recall, I’ve never seen the first cause argument followed by any serious attempt at demonstrating agency or benevolence.  It seems as if most theists are content to use the word God and hope the opposition doesn’t notice them sneaking in all these other key features.

And here’s another thorny question for the theist who commits to defining God as the uncaused first cause.  What if ten years from now physicists identify a cause of the big bang and also conclusively prove that this cause is both uncaused and non-sentient?  Will the theist continue worshiping this non-sentient thing, or will they backpedal?  If a theist is willing to commit to using “the uncaused first cause” as the definition of God, then hold them to it.  The moment they respond to some hypothetical scenario by implicitly retracting their definition, tell them to stop being a douche.

Good is God’s Nature
Good is simply that which complies with God’s nature.  The problem of evil is just an illusion, an artifact of our inability to comprehend God’s nature.  Everything that happens is God’s will, and is therefore in accordance with his nature.  There can be no real evil, only that which we mistakenly identify as evil.

Here the theist has responded to the problem of evil by re-defining the term “good” (and by extension “evil”).  One way to handle this response is to rephrase the problem of evil as the problem of human-suffering (or whatever you meant when you said “evil”).  But I’m not going down that road today.

Should we be good?  Most people will intuitively answer this question in the affirmative, but this answer is based by on a connotative link between “good” and “that which we should do.”  But take a look at the theist’s definition.  Nowhere in that definition does it state that good is “that which we should do.”  So ask the theist to demonstrate that his god’s nature accords with that which we should do.

Now the theist may try another word trick and attempt to tack “and which we should do” onto the end of the definition.  If this happens, be sure to clarify whether the theist means AND or OR, and point out that in the AND scenario, it is entirely possible to have something evil that accords with God’s nature (because while it accords with God’s nature, it shouldn’t be done, and thus the AND evaluates to false).  In the OR scenario, it’s entirely possible to have good things outside of God’s nature, in which case you rephrase the problem of evil as the problem of not as much good as there could be.  You might not even need to rephrase though.  The whole point of the problem of evil is to refute the combination of omnipotence and omnibenevolence.  Once you’ve found good things outside of God’s nature, you’ve killed omnibenevolence.

The only way I can see to avoid the two conclusions above is to claim that “God’s nature” and “that which we should do” are equivalent.  The standard reply to this claim is to point to some terrible action God did in the theist’s holy book and claim that action isn’t good.  The nonstandard reply is to point to some terrible action God did in the theist’s holy book, agree with the theist that this is in fact a very good thing to be doing, and then ask the theist why he isn’t doing it more often.  In fact, I plan to write an entire article that does just this to crazy beliefs.

God is The Universe
The universe is probably the most common, or that God is some kind of benign force that permeates the universe, or whatever.  It’s pretty common among people who have rejected the classical notion of an omnipotent deity, but don’t want to feel like the universe doesn’t care about them.  Whenever my mom begins a conversation with “Now you know I don’t believe in the traditional idea of God…” I know that she’s about to embark on one of these and either make some uselessly vague statement or attempt to smuggle some warm, fuzzy connotations into places they don’t belong.

How to run with this?  You could try editing the believer’s chosen holy text by crossing out “God” and writing “the universe” in its place.  Unfortunately a lot of people who make this claim don’t really have a holy text.  So if they don’t have a holy text, you’re going to have to look at what else they’re claiming.

If they’re just claiming that God is the universe and not spouting out stuff about karma or prayer or whatever, then you don’t really have anything to run on.  In this (unlikely) scenario, the person is being a douche, but not a douchebag.  They came up with a stupid and potentially confusing definition, but didn’t actually commit any fallacies with it.  I guess the best thing to do in this scenario is to tell them to stop reading new-age crap and starting learning some cosmology.

But if they say “the universe is God” and then go on to use this to derive karma or prayer or the power of positive thinking, ask them for sources.  Ask them for peer-reviewed cosmology articles demonstrating experimentally that the universe cares about right and wrong, or that thoughts can move planets.  Mention that you’re a part of the universe, and conclude that people ought to be worshiping you, or at least praying to you.  And be sure that whenever they make a claim about God, repeat that claim back to them, replacing the word “God” with “the universe.”  Let them hear what they’re actually claiming, instead of letting them ignore their own definition.

The next time someone gives you a wonky definition, take whatever followes and replace their special word with the definition they gave and repeat it back to them.  When they say “God does what’s right,” let them hear the meaning of the statement.  Say “The uncaused first cause does what’s right,” or “God does what is in his nature.”  Let them hear the actual structure of their claims.  Remove the word they’re using to hide all the connotations so that their absence becomes apparent.  It’s amazing how many profound-sounding claims can be made to sound either completely empty or utterly ridiculous just by replacing the special words with the proposed definitions.

Stay tuned for the finale.  Word Play Part V: Profoundly Vague

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