Amorphous Intelligence

Leap of Faith: My Facebook Conversation with Jim Bennett

Posted in Rationalism, Reason, Science, Skepticism, Theology by amorphousintelligence on September 5, 2009

I was on Facebook the other day.

I happen to be “Friends” with one Jim Bennett, second son of the junior U.S. Senator from Utah, republican Bob Bennett.

(I’m also “Friends” with the senator himself. I put “Friends” in quotation marks to emphasize this is a Facebook designation, which definition seems to be broader than the traditional one. In reality, I’m merely an acquaintance with the Bennett family. I have not seen or spoken with them in person for years. Having said that, though, to be clear, I have always liked the Bennetts, and still do to this day. Years ago, members of my family were close friends with members of their family, and probably still would be if not for time, distance, and sundry responsibilities. I have no personal animosity towards the Bennetts whatsoever; nor them, as far as I know, towards me. Only fond memories.)

So I saw that Jim Bennett had posted on his Facebook wall a “Life On Gold Plates” book review of his father’s new book Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, published this year by Deseret Book. I assumed since Jim had posted the link with no further commentary, that he considered the review at least mostly favorable, if not reasonably accurate. There was, so far, only one “Friend” comment, which said: “Wow, this sounds like a book I would like to read!”

So, I clicked the link myself and read it. This is the first I had heard of this book. I knew nothing more.

I decided to make a comment on Jim’s wall as to what seemed to me a thought worthy of consideration. Believing that Jim is a believing Mormon, portions of my language were intentionally simplified based on an understanding of what I suspect him to already know. My comment went as follows:

According to this reviewer, [Senator Bob] Bennett’s [book] title, “Leap of Faith,” is based on the conclusion that there is no solid empirical evidence for or against the authenticity of the BofM [Book of Mormon]; therefore, [Senator] Bennett claims, it is just as much a leap of faith not to believe as it is to believe. But consider Bertrand Russell’s parable of the celestial teapot: There is no 100% empirical evidence to prove or deny the existence of a teapot floating in orbit around earth. [Russell presented this idea before human space travel, so perhaps it is more appropriate now to say the teapot is in orbit around the solar system.] Is it just as reasonable to believe such an object exists as it does not exist? Is the “leap of faith” a 50/50 equiprobable consideration in either direction? I think not, because in order to believe in such an object one has to reject the more probabilistic and parsimonious evidence that such an object is unlikely. While the celestial teapot’s existence is not impossible, it is, rather, improbable, making the “leap of faith” far greater for the believing side than the non.

Jim shortly thereafter responded as follows:

[Amorphous Intelligence], your analogy is deeply flawed. Unlike the celestial teapot, the Book of Mormon is here, real, and visible to all. The question is not, like the teapot, whether or not the Book of Mormon exists, but how it came into existence.

The book establishes that to believe that it did not come into existence by the means Joseph Smith claimed, you have to ignore a great deal of internal and external evidence that suggests otherwise.

I found it silly that he tried to pin me to such a ludicrous position as denying even the very existence of the Book of Mormon. If I was in his shoes and truly thought my opponent believed such an absurd delusion, I would not have even bothered to respond. I don’t think Jim really believed I thought that, though, but was more going for a laugh at my expense. (He has close to 800 Facebook “Friends” to giggle—or rage—at his joshing.) And what I don’t think he realized is his (possible) jovialness was committing the “straw man” logical fallacy, which is where one argues a much weaker—or in this case, a totally absent—position the opposition is making. (You can read more about the fallacy here, here, and here.)

Nonetheless, the format of Facebook is such that one can only convey so much information per post; i.e., the amount of characters per comment is some finite number. (I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not large.) So, in my limited response space, and rather than try to appear like I was posturing to attack Jim by pointing out his logical fallacy—as what I was really interested in here was an honest, sensible dialogue on this issue—I responded in a positive, common-ground-establishing way that I felt would be conducive to that:

Jim, I agree with you. It’s a good thing I was not arguing whether or not the Book of Mormon exists, as that would be deeply flawed indeed. (I happen to own several copies myself.) My first sentence about the “authenticity of the BofM [Book of Mormon]” was merely another (perhaps, admittedly, oversimplified) way to ask what you said, “how it came into existence,” not whether or not it does exist. I did not intend the parable of the celestial teapot to be analogous to the existence of the Book of Mormon, but [rather] to the “leap of faith” of believing in one claim of how it came to be versus another claim in the absence of solid empirical evidence either way, as the reviewer of Leap of Faith suggested why the book was given that title. Thanks for helping me to clarify.

Jim immediately responded:

I’m not sure if you did clarify, though. I’m now very confused as to your position. With the teapot, disbelieving is easy. With the Book of Mormon, if you consider it on its merits, you have to have faith in some wild coincidences to discount it.

What I had realized from his first response, but was now more convinced of from this second, is that he seemed to be arguing a position different from his father (or at least different from his father’s book, or at least different from the position the book review lead me to believe it was taking). I found this peculiar in light of the fact that as recently as the day before our back-and-forth, Jim’s Facebook status said, “Jim Bennett, according to some random commenter on the Deseret News website, is an attack dog! I’ve never been an attack dog before! You gotta admit, that’s pretty cool.” I read the Deseret News article, and the random commenter specified Jim (who is his father’s campaign chairman) as an attack dog for his father: “[Senator Bob] Bennett must be worried if he is sending out his attack dog son….” Jim’s response to this sounds like he took pride in the designation, which further lead me to surmise that he and his father share quite similar if not near identical positions on issues of this nature (i.e. politics, religion, science, etc.). But perhaps not, as heaven knows that as much as my father and I love each other and get along splendidly and will protect each other to the death, we have many differing views on politics, religion, science, etc. Regardless, my comments were not directed to any claim to any position Jim had made, but really only to the position that I derived from the book review (that Jim positively presented to all 800 of his Facebook “Friends.”) But for the second time, Jim defended a position that was not even being discussed by me; namely, whether or not there is more empirical evidence for or against Joseph Smith’s claim of the ancient and supernatural origins of the Book of Mormon.

Again, I didn’t want to sound negative or appear like I was posturing to attack, because in my mind I was not. I felt I was just amicably chit-chatting. Just considering other possibilities for anyone willing to consider. So I responded in, again, what I thought was a positive and honest tone. At the same time, without overtly saying it (partly because of space restraints, partly to not come across like a douche bag), I subtly tried to impress upon him that he was arguing a position different from what appeared to be his father’s position:

Obviously this is not the format to discuss all possible evidence for and against the [ancient and supernatural] origin of the Book of Mormon. I was merely commenting on the review of the book Leap of Faith, which says: “[Senator Bob Bennett’s] argument is that he can discover no definitive empirical evidence for that claim [of Joseph Smith’s origins of the BofM]. At the same time, he feels that no smoking gun has been discovered showing the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Thus, a decision either way requires a ‘leap of faith,’ hence the title….When [Senator Bennett] uncovers a seeming ‘draw’ he notes the need for critic and believer alike to make a ‘leap of faith.’” I was simply commenting that it seems to me that this “leap of faith” argument is not as equiprobable as this review (and possibly the actual book itself) leads us to believe. The celestial teapot was my reasoning for that. Hopefully that is clearer.

I think by quoting directly from the book review—rather than paraphrasing as I had been, which I assumed was all that was needed since I figured Jim had read it, but maybe he hadn’t, which would be a questionable tactic—Jim was more aware of the distinction between the position he was taking with me versus the position his father was allegedly making and whose position I was actually commenting on. And because I, intentionally, pointed this out as gingerly as I could think at the moment, this allowed Jim to process it better (I think) since he probably did not feel like I was attacking. And it appears he may have, at that point, realized the differences, as his final succinct response to me was:

I suppose it is, although the point of the book is to make the case for equiprobability.

I took from this that he supposed my position was clearer for him. I also took from this that by acknowledging the book’s case for equiprobability, he was—perhaps—acknowledging the distinction of arguing about faith claims versus arguing about empirical-evidence claims.

This experience strikes me as a good example of how easy it is to be misunderstood, especially if the opposition feels he/she is being attacked. I got the impression Jim felt, at first, I was attacking him or his father’s book. So rather than honestly consider what I was saying, he immediately attacked me with jokes and logical fallacies. (Admittedly, not severe attacks by any means. No harm done. No feelings hurt. No financial ruin. Bennetts and Intelligences [pseudonym, obviously] can still be friends—without quotation marks. No worries there, as far as I’m concerned.) While I did point out, what appears to me, to be a flaw with the book’s reasoning on the equiprobable nature of claims of faith, I tried hard to make that clear and I honestly think I was being clear. I think I was being misunderstood not for lack of clarity on my part, but for the initial lack of willingness to understand on Jim’s part. Such is frequently the case when one has a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. It’s human nature to dig in and unfairly argue rather than honestly discuss and understand.

At that end there, though, I think Jim finally may have understood me. If so, I give him credit for fighting beyond the initial knee-jerk reaction of the misperceived attack. I applaud him for ultimately coming to, perhaps, understanding. (I also applaud Senator Bob Bennett for writing a book that allegedly acknowledges no empirical evidence for the ancient and supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon, even if I disagree with his equiprobable faith claim. This is a rare feat of acknowledgment by most believing Mormons, in my experience. Jim Bennett’s position that there is ample scientific evidence for the ancient and supernatural claims of the Book of Mormon is much more the norm among believers, rather than his father’s claim that it should be believed based exclusively on faith since the empirical evidence is not there.) In the end, I doubt Jim agreed with me, but at least I think he finally sort of understood me. And that’s a good start, especially with such highly-charged, emotional matters as faith—or the lack thereof.

(For a more in-depth explanation of the non-equiprobable nature of faith claims, see Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, particularly chapter 2 “The God Hypothesis,” and more specifically pages 49 to 54 in hardback, 69 to 77 in paperback.)

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Prager University: Theism, Propaganda, and Misinformation

Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Evolutionism, Humanism, Logic, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Skepticism, Theology by amorphousintelligence on August 16, 2009

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.

Holy Sh*t!

Posted in Humor, Theology by amorphousintelligence on August 4, 2009

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:

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