My good buddy Brian Dunning has decided to venture out beyond his weekly Skeptoid podcast and start doing a series of short videos (about 3 minutes each) called “inFact.” Here is one in which he points out the foibles of wheatgrass juice being marketed and sold (expensively) as not only a health food, but a “super food.” In the simpler good ol’ days, this ipecac syrup could have been exposed as snake oil. So drink up…bottoms up…and to your…health?
The only quibble I have with this is at the end he suggests taking a vitamin pill to get vitamins. (It’s possible he meant if you’re deficient, as his language is a bit ambiguous here.) While that will work, the medical consensus shows that the human body metabolizes most—not all, but most—vitamins best through the foods we eat. (Brain Dunning is, of course, perfectly aware of this, as is evidenced by this excellent essay he wrote on that very topic.) If people (and this is not tough in developed countries like the U.S.) simply eat a daily diversity of grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, proteins, etc. (i.e. “a well-balanced diet”), and get enough sun light, then if they don’t have a specific medical condition, they are not likely to be vitamin deficient—and hence no need for vitamin supplements. (Your doctor can easily check for vitamin deficiency by drawing a small vile of your blood and testing it.) So save that vitamin-pill money for something more worthwhile than the toilet (if not potentially hypervitaminosis), as that’s exactly where your excess vitamins go when you urinate.
Radio personality Dennis Prager’s third and latest installment of his “Prager University” YouTube videos, entitled “God, Part 1: What Would Make You Believe in God?”, argues for belief in God. (Presumably the Judeo-Christian concept of God; I know enough about Prager to know that’s the God he believes in.) He does this in just over five minutes. See for yourselves:
That’s not much time to cover all the myriads of arguments devised over the millennia to attempt to persuade such a belief. But his goal is to keep these on-line video “lessons” short and to-the-point for as large an audience as possible. Perfectly understandable. Pithiness is a virtue.
In that vein, then, I will try to do so likewise. But unlike Prager, I will try to be more intellectually honest. By that I mean I will refrain from using speculative arguments; I will avoid casting serious questions aside with a mere figurative wave of my hand; and I will not resort to “straw man” or any other logical fallacies.
Speculative arguments? Dismissivness? Straw man logical fallacies?
By matter-of-fact stating that if God himself literally and physically appeared before every human being, this phenomenon would not convince them to His existence, Prager is being quite speculative indeed. The fact that there is no testable, verifiable evidence that the Judeo-Christian God has ever appeared to anyone—let alone everyone, repeatedly for each generation—is speculation number one. And to compound that, there is no testable, verifiable evidence of how any or all humans would react to such a visitation, being speculation number two, whilst simultaneously dismissing a serious question: How would people react? And apparently God curing everyone of, say, cancer wouldn’t be convincing enough to His existence, either, Prager continues for his third speculative argument while framing it as such an obvious fact.
How could Prager know—and unquestionably know, at that—the answers to these questions? Is it intellectually honest to give answers to claims such as these without having actually tested the claims first? What if I said your car won’t start because your battery is dead? Would you assume I didn’t just pull this claim out of thin air but had actually tested the battery somehow to know this? But what you may be thinking is, that’s a silly comparison since the kind of thing Prager is talking about is simply un-testable. And you’d be absolutely right. Which, in such cases, seriously limits us to two options: 1) we can state it as unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable, which is admittedly unsatisfying but nonetheless the intellectually honest approach; or 2) we can make the answer up out of thin air (or perpetuate an answer that someone else made up out of thin air), which for the majority is more satisfying to at least have an answer but is, notwithstanding, the intellectually dishonest approach.
Sadly, Prager chose the latter.
If I was to consider Prager’s question of “What Would Make You Believe in God?” (and I have considered this long before Prager posed it), I would say his suggestions sound very convincing, indeed. I’m not speculating, let’s be clear, as I’m speaking on my own behalf of what I strongly feel would convince me, personally. As such, it shows I at least am open-minded to being convinced. And I’m not alone. The well-known British scientist and atheist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was asked a similar question and gave a similar response. And my experience is that most rational-thinking atheists and agnostics agree.
But what if the tables were turned? What would convince Dennis Prager there is good reason to doubt God’s existence? Is he open-minded enough to accept that possibility—just the sincere possibility?
Is he willing to understand that since there is no testable evidence of the God he worships (such as God himself actually appearing before us all, and solving life’s ills, as Prager proposed as possible evidence) that that is reason enough to doubt?
What of all those people who have seen God, you ask? I would answer, just because they say they’ve seen God, does that provide compelling evidence they actually have? Lots of people say lots of things, and both common experience and scientific evidence teaches us not everyone should be a hundred percent believed in everything they say, for good reason. People can genuinely be deceived, and they themselves in turn are capable of deceiving, whether they know it or not. And since every claim to actual visitations from God—from Abraham to Moses to Mohammad to many others—is fraught with inconsistent and even contradictory descriptions and doctrines and commandments and theologies (not to mention, in these specific instances, unverifiable historical records), then there is good reason to be skeptical of these claims. They could very potentially be delusions, frauds, hoaxes, shams, and so forth. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates how extremely susceptible human beings are to these kinds of occurrences, and likewise how common they are in our everyday lives.
But this blog post is not about that. It’s about Prager’s specific arguments in this video for theistic belief. In which he concludes his “lesson” with this thought: Some have stated that if enough monkeys were plunking away at typewriters and were given enough time, at least one of the monkeys would—eventually—type out word-for-word the Shakespearean play Hamlet. “Scientists” tried this, he continues, and the results were the monkeys defecated on the keys without even getting as far as typing simple English words such as “the” or “it.”
I’m not crystal clear on what Prager thinks the connection is with this thought and theistic belief or disbelief in his Lord, as he doesn’t outright say here. But in the context of this video, the not-so-subtle implication is he thinks, or at least wants his listeners to think, there is a connection. And the implying connection he seems to be making is that those who question the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God is based, at least in part, on the grounds that literal monkeys should be able to literally type at least some words? And since the “scientists” have shown us that literal monkeys only soil literal typewriters, there’s no good reason to doubt the literal existence of God?
Prager is either naively unaware or purposefully invoking the “straw man” logical fallacy (which, briefly, is to attack a weak opposing argument rather than attacking the much stronger argument the opponent is actually making; you can read more in-depth about it here, here, and here). This “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a serious argument used by those who thoughtfully doubt the literal existence of the Biblical Almighty, or any other literal all-knowing, all-powerful deity for that matter. (And this blog post is not about those reasons, as that would take an entirely different, very lengthy post.) What’s more, this “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a theological doctrine, nor a philosophical concept, nor a political ideology, nor a scientific theory or law. Rather, it is merely a metaphorical mathematical exercise infrequently employed to illustrate enormous spans of time. It’s an analogy, if you will, to aid in visualizing massively mind-boggling amounts of numbers, usually invoked these days in reference to the “Theory of Evolution”—which is a scientific theory which requires a lot of numbers, and speaks nothing whatsoever about belief or disbelief in an Ultimate Man-Like Creator.
The intellectually honest approach to this issue of theism versus atheism (or agnosticism) would be to truly discuss the actual issues as to why some doubt and why some believe in the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God. And to do this without resorting to rampant speculation, careless dismissals, and logical fallacies. While maintaining his format of brevity, Prager could easily have summed it up as those who believe do so ultimately on faith. This is belief without evidence. And those who don’t believe do so (or don’t do so?) ultimately on lack of faith. This is skeptically withholding belief until compelling evidence is presented. Matters of faith are ultimately un-testable beliefs, and as such there is no good reason for conflict between believers and disbelievers in these matters. Disbelievers have no testable evidence to contradict faith just as believers have no testable evidence to support faith. End of argument. It’s only in the false claim that matters of faith can be tested is where conflict arises. But since Prager avoided the more intellectually honest discussion here and tried to blur his un-testable faith with so-called science, this shows me that he’s more interested in propaganda with these so-called university lessons. He doesn’t appear to be searching for real honest answers here. As such, clearly his target demographic in this is twofold: those who already believe as he does and those he wants to convince to believe as he does. For those who already believe as he does, he is reinforcing that belief with misinformation rather than opening their minds to other genuine possibilities. And for those who don’t know enough about this issue to know whether or not they believe as he does, he is persuading them to believe as he does with, once again, misinformation.
And that’s a pity.
Scientists call insignificant pattern recognition that is made out to be significant “pareidolia.” For example, seeing animals or faces in clouds, the man on the moon, the face on Mars, satanic messages when playing Beatles’ or Led Zeppelin music backwards, etc. But this pareidolia (YouTube clip below) might better be described with a more commonplace interjection, such as, I don’t know, perhaps, “holy sh*t!” See for yourselves: